Everfresh in the Changing

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Patience and Seeing

I intended today to write about regret; but in the early afternoon, I gathered my materials together and I painted. At first the process felt a little mechanical, but very soon I found myself absorbed.

Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalyptus stems in the painting. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, enlivening the whole canvas. I was now engaged, and seeing colours that were mysterious – like the blues which I invited into the black in the setting.

After I’ve painted, I find I’m sensitive to colours everywhere I go. Suddenly the rock-faces hereabouts turn up colours which I don’t usually see. The forests are showing a myriad of subtle greens, and tender reds in those same greens. The way the sunlight plays on the sandstone cliffs at sunset is fresh to me.

As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the unfathomable being of the world, something rose up in me: a felt sense without words.

Going inside the house, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to invite that sense, to ‘say hello’ to, that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt meanings, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was ‘nothing,’ or at least unpromising. It could easily be dismissed by someone not familiar with what Eugene Gendlin calls ‘a felt sense.’ Or, if such a one could at least respect it, they might be satisfied with calling it ‘mysterious’ or ‘ineffable,’ and enquire no further.

However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, in the way that I’ve learnt and practised over several decades, more could come there. Like a shy fawn, it could only peek out at first, but then come into view. The poet Ted Hughes has a piece called The Thought Fox that suggests the cautious, even wary, way a felt meaning emerges.

That’s why Gendlin called his practice Focusing – because when we give it the right kind of attention, this vague ‘something’ in the middle of the body goes from murky to clear (as when in the old SLR cameras the frosty circle of the centre of the lens went from blurry to clear when you got the correct focus.)

So, now, what came clear was an understanding which I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, painting, was an introduction to the radiance of being as it exists in my own body. It was revealed through the art of seeing. And, then I recalled that the artist Brett Whitely had once said that the only reason to paint is to learn to see.

I now had the words for the experience which occurred immediately after the painting session. “Radiance.” As I had come away from the studio, the radiance everywhere was intense. In one sense it dissolved all differences, revealing a deeper unity through the very ordinary miracle of seeing.

On the other hand, the radiance shone – from the inside out – in every leaf, every grass-blade, and even in the buildings about me. The pittosporum as I passed it; the concrete path where I walked; the tangled jasmine in the corner, the rough steps into the house were luminous.

I had intended to write something about ‘regret’: about the harmful things I’ve done, the hurts I’ve caused which I regret the most. Instead, I find myself back at the easel, marvelling at the black with phthalo blue, painted over a green-black underlay — at how the purples peek through, in the afternoon light. And, those tiny, yellow spots in the eucalyptus leaves. The red line around that edge, there.

Seeing is for developing the heart. It would also be strong, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life without having learnt to sense the wonder of the ordinary. All my learnèd philosophy would have been just empty naming, if I hadn’t embodied it, thus to see the world afresh.

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!

– Basho, trans. D.T. Suzuki (Japanese ‘nazuna’ could be translated ‘shepherd’s purse.’)

Clear as the Sky

“Fully knowing the arising and fading of the five sentient processes,
one finds happiness and joy. For those who are discerning, this is the deathless
– The Dhammapda, verse 374. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

The usual understanding of death and rebirth misses the point, so grossly. Rebirth theory is related to the experience of a constructed ‘self’ (atta) and, hence, to intentions (karma). Both of these are concepts for which we can find experience-near meanings. If we can be mindful and directly experience how karma moves, then we can understand the issues of death and rebirth at a more everyday, realistic level.

I wrote about the ‘pause’ as a part of the mindfulness attitude; the slowing down of experience, so that we can sense more of what is actually going on in and around us.  The more we appreciate the present, then the more it responds by revealing its intricacy.

One afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda of my home, in a reverie of appreciation for the textures of the forest – mostly of the eucalypts and the ti-tree. And, there was a currawong sitting on a branch, close by. I wasn’t exactly watching the bird. I gazed, I suppose; which is a mode of vision that includes much more, by not naming.

This pause in the default human mode of ‘mind’ led to including in my ‘gaze’ (or awareness) my sensations, my thoughts, and the felt presence of my whole situation. Including all of these in what I was aware of, at that moment, without losing my relationship to the currawong, gave rise to holistic sense of space – a kind of space that is throughout the field of experience, not just outside the skin.

It’s a fact that by including the observer in the observing, one loosens the hold and even dissolves the sense of separation to all things.  So, the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘world,’ in that state, were distinctions not needed at that moment. The still, silent quality of knowing didn’t support the kind of space where I would create any ‘thing’ (a ‘me’) to be separate, or to be separate from.

“The mind is always thinking of things in the past and of what it is going to do in the future. It rarely settles in the moment. If it did, it would become quiet. When you settle into the moment, you realize that there is not much happening—a few things here and there. The primary awareness is of the immediacy of the moment. This is because presence—being in the now—is characterized by beingness, simply being here now. In contrast, our familiar self is based on doing, going, making things happen.” The Unfolding Now, p. 160

The bird and I were together in every particle of being. To reflect on language, here: if I was to say ‘currawong,’ in that situation, I would be to point (with this linguistic gesture) to this living, dynamic relationship; a relationship which far exceeds, in its implicit intricacy, what the word ‘currawong’ can say. The public or dictionary meaning of that word is nothing. It’s certainly laughable in that moment to think that ‘currawong’ means a ‘something’ – an isolated, permanent, independent object in space-time. Poetry says it best:

Snow in withered field, nothing to touch.
’s head clear as sky
– From the poem ‘Sparrow in Withered Field.’ In Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. (Translated by Lucien Stryk).

Granted, this is not a perception readily accessible to some people, because we are mostly unfamiliar with experiential space and the ungraspability of the ground reality. But, familiarity grows with the practice of mindfulness. Then, it is possible to name a ‘groundless ground’; which the Nikāya Buddha indicates by referring to the ‘un-’ nature: unborn, undying, unailing; and ‘unmanifest consciousness,’ for instance. The odd thing is that moments like this occur all day, but we don’t notice them, until mindfulness reveals them. My spiritual grandfather Buddhadasa called them ‘little nirvanas.’

In default, trance mode of consciousness, if we notice such an empty moment – empty of ‘thing’-ing and constructing – we are afraid of its silence, its formlessness, and the unnameable quality of everything. Why do we fear? Primarily because our constructed ‘me’ has dropped away. There’s now no locatable someone behind the eyes doing the knowing. Yet, right there is the end of birth and death; and, ironically, right here is freedom and independence as individuals.

Until we train ourselves to pause, slow down, and stay for such moments of ‘empty contact’ –through the contemplative disciplines – then, we don’t appreciate the luminous wonder of the world and other people. We are in a pure land with radiant beings, and don’t see it.

the night’s downpour;
in this alley,
this half-eaten peach.

– Christopher Ash.


Vows Supporting Mindfulness

When talk gets too philosophical I vow together with all beings
to recall the challenge of the Buddha: ‘What is life? What is death? What is this?’
– Robert Aitken Roshi.

There are several outcomes of saying a gatha such as this one from Robert Aitken Roshi’s The Dragon Who Never Sleeps: Firstly, it is a mindfulness practice, and so it ensures that one directs one’s heart to present-moment recollection. Abandoning greed, hatred and ignorance endlessly, so as to be present for the great matters of life, is nothing but mindfulness. Secondly, such gathas remind us of the depth and universality of the purpose of this practice. Furthermore, they invoke interdependence.

I have been thinking how important in my own life vows have been. Since about 1975 I have made a making a practice of the Bodhisattva vows, and the thought of the welfare of all others has been a source of strength, kindness, and inspiration. From time to time in my groups, I do a little kinesiology-derived muscle test to demonstrate that a person has more strength when they do their inner work for all beings than if they do it for themselves alone.


The four Bodhisattva vows themselves are reminders that the universe is not logical. They are aspirations of that Flesh which exceeds the flesh. In Zen they are:

The many beings are numberless – I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly – I vow to abandon them.
Dharma gates are countless – I vow to wake to them.
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassed – I vow to combody it fully.

Thinking about this last one, I am grateful to Akira Ikemi for his concept of combodiment. It directly says the truth of everything in everything timelessly – that is, of interdependence. The Buddha’s way and our very human body are not two.
Due to this lack of separation – or, if you like, interaction first – to directly realise interdependence is to save all beings. And, taking a conventional view of relationship at the same time, I vow also to give my energy to the collective 2000-year project of bringing peace to our planet.

There is no event anywhere that is not reflecting the sacred dance. The smallest flea on my friend’s carpet is a Dharma gate. This illness, today, is a Dharma gate. One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma. (Majjhima Nikāya 28) The NIkāya Buddha says:
“He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”
Vakkali Sutta. Translated by Maurice O’Connell Walshe,

The wonderful thing about the Bodhisattva vows is that they catapult one deeper than logic and into intimate connection with the measureless beauty and peace of life as it actually is.
When people talk about war, I vow with all beings to raise my voice in the chorus and speak of original piece.
– Robert Aitken, The Dragon Who Never Sleeps: Verses For Zen Buddhist Practice.

On the Wings of a Dragon-Fly

I’m in a kind of mood to pull the wings off a butterfly. It happens when I resist the world, the way it is.

My body, with its ompaired immune system reacts quite badly to sudden drops in barometric pressure. One’s body and the world are not-two, are one, from one important angle. So, today’s weather is tough; that is, if I’m wanting it to be some other way. I get grumpy.

How about I make it a ‘dragonfly,’ not a ‘butterfly’? When I was a boy in these mountains, dragonflies fascinated me, with their dancing colours. I’d like to paint one.

There’s a story about haiku master Baasho and his student Kikaku. He must have seen a red dragonfly. He imagined it like a pepper with wings, so he wrote this poem, and presented it to Basho:

pulling the wings off
a dragon-fly:
red pepper.

Basho, gentle as ever, wrote back:

adding wings
to the red pepper:
a dragon-fly.

They both see the dragon-fly.  But Basho’s reminder  helps me. Now, I say, “Come, let’s paint today, World!”

Currawong’s Head, Empty as the Sky

“Name has conquered everything,
There is nothing greater than name,
All have gone under the sway
Of this one thing called name.”
Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda. Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled

Read a newspaper and you’ll note many articles about people doing cruel and insane things to others. All these people do their evil based on beliefs. And, the beliefs are based on ‘naming.’ Obviously, naming is useful. I’m naming now, aren’t I? Can I do so with the right lightness of touch? Can naming be helpful in nurturing healthy lives, and not become a problem? Of course, with understanding how it works.

Notice the saying, ‘gone under sway.’ If we are seduced by unskilful use of language – and by that I mean, language-use not in accord with the fundamental matrix of experiencing – then, we misuse our gift. Conceiving of things, in the way we do when influenced by craving, conceit and views, changes the objects of our conceiving.

Even more radically, however you think a thing, by that very thinking it becomes otherwise than it is. (Though to show how that is would take more time than I have available. However, this has been well-demonstrated by Eugene T. Gendlin in his A Process Model.)

The task as the Nikāya Buddha present it, is to disconnect our naming practices from a belief in the inherent existence of ‘things.’ It is neither the case that ‘things’ have a prior existence, and are there already to be named; nor that the naming creates them.

“Beings are conscious of what can be named,
They are established on the nameable,
By not comprehending the nameable things,
They come under the yoke of death.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled.

So, I’m asking you to consider that the designation process might be a gestural ‘strategy’ – a gesture which is intended as a way for working with experience. When we take up this way of using language, then we find it is a gesture which increases the power of self-reflexive experiencing, but doesn’t establish things, and therefore doesn’t put us under the yoke of death. Language is an evolutionary gesture that needs its next step.

I think the aspect of ‘space’ might be important – especially the concept of experiential space. This is named, too, in the wrong way; and, hence, becomes solidified into ‘mine’ and ‘not-mine’; where ‘this’ and ‘here’ is distinguished from the experience of ‘that’ ‘there.’

“A currawong,” it is said. “A currawong.” How is this a currawong?”

This experiential space could increase our power of experiencing, but instead it becomes – via mistaking naming for existing – a ‘thinging’ of space. If you make ‘mind’ mean a personal space, it has to have limit, and a centre. We name that limit ‘contact,’ as though ‘contact’ ultimately exists independent of our perception and naming. And, the centre, we say, is the perceiver; and beyond the limit is the ‘something contacted.’

But, look for it! If you find or grant space in the limit itself, then see where the experience goes. This afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda of my home, in a reverie of appreciation for the textures of the forest – mostly of the eucalypts and the ti-tree. And, there was a currawong sitting on a branch. I wasn’t exactly watching the bird. I gazed, I suppose; which is a mode of vision that includes much more, by not naming.

This led to including in my ‘gaze’ (or awareness) my sensations, my thoughts, my felt presence. I included them in what I was aware of at that moment, without losing my relationship to the currawong. A holistic sense of space arose. It’s an irony that by including the observer in the observing, one dissolves the separation. And ‘self and world’ in that state was not a needed distinction.

The still, silent quality of knowing then doesn’t create any ‘thing.’ Now, when I say ‘currawong,’ I am pointing to the dynamic relationship, which far exceeds, in its implicit intricacy (Gendlin’s term), the dictionary meaning of the word ‘currawong.’ It far exceed perception and name. It’s certainly laughable in that moment to think that ‘currawong’ means a ‘something’ – an isolated, permanent, independent object in space-time.

Snow in withered field, nothing to touch.
Sparrow’s head clear as sky

– From the poem ‘Sparrow in Withered Field.‘ In Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. (Translated by Lucien Stryk).

Granted, this is not a perception readily accessible to some people, because of unfamiliarity with space and groundlessness. But, familiarity grows with practice. Here, it is possible to name a groundless ground; which the Nikāya Buddha called ‘unmanifest consciousness.’

The odd thing is that moments like this occur all day, but we don’t notice them.
Normally, if we notice such empty moment – empty of constructing – we are afraid, because there appears to be no inner ‘me’ behind the eyes doing the seeing. But, right there is the end of birth and death.

Until we train ourselves to stay for such moments of ’empty contact’ – for instance, through the contemplative discipline of haiku-writing – then, we don’t appreciate the luminous wonder of the world and other people. We are in a pure land with radiant beings, and don’t see it.

the night’s downpour;
in this alley,
a half-eaten peach.

“If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to find a footing, or get established in, name-and-form, would there be an arising or origin of birth, decay, death and suffering in the future?” “No indeed, Lord.”
-Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled

Mindfulness Transcends Death

My approach to the subject of the Nikāyas is mostly: “What is of benefit, here, in respect of human understanding of the big questions?” For me, the big questions have been: the matter of identity, the meaning of life, and of the awakening of full human potential. Are we really this “busy monster, manunkind”? (e.e.cummings)

The development of positive human qualities has been my concern for forty-five years – not always nurtured skilfully, I admit. A broad Buddhayana (a path which includes almost all schools) is my way, but the Nikāya texts are my main interest.

As I have developed since a young man, I’ve come to understand what a dramatic part fear of death plays in human life – largely unconsciously. It has been there for me since I was a small child, but now I see what a prominent role it plays in all human life. So, I took up the way of the mindfulness of death, because death is a part of life. This acceptance probably began as a haiku writer when I was twenty.

oh, snail –
after rain,
life is short!

Then, when this blog began. last year – in part, as a way to keep myself on track with awareness of death – my focus shifted from a more Tibetan-influenced approach to death and dying, to an enquiry as to how dying and the preparation for it was treated by Nikāya Buddha. Of course, mindfulness (resting in the nature of the openness of mind) continued to be present, but now I asked myself, “What is the Nikāya Buddha’s focus, when he speaks of dying?”

And, I think we have two answers, each according to the development of the people to whom he was speaking. If people were ready for it, or asking for it, he went straight to the core matter – nibbāna. Otherwise, he advised them to develop in virtue, because that will give them an opportune rebirth.

I am interested in the first motivation, because that is, to me, the real deal, for a planet in such peril.

The Nikāya Buddha primarily ties relating to death to developing mindfulness. To be mindful, to live wakefully, is to be free from death. Mindfulness culminates in knowing what he called ‘the deathless element.’

Awareness is the place of the deathless;
Unawareness is the place of death.
The aware do not die;
The unaware are as though dead already.

Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Valerie Roebuck.

This takes a fierce commitment. In the Anguttara Nikaya there are two suttas together, each called the Mindfulness of Death Sutta (Maranassatisutta 1 and 2), which reflect the spirit of this fierceness. In the first one, the Nikāya Buddha
powerfully says:
“(W)hoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food… for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’ — they are said to dwell heedfully. They develop mindfulness of death acutely for the sake of ending the effluents.” (Thanissaro).

For the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in“: the requisite attention is that finely attuned. Awareness can be present in the most infinitesimal gap. (The gap between the breaths is a powerful, still point.) “That I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions” is code for: the practice aimed at realisation of the unborn, the un-ailing, the undying, the deathless.

If I can be awake in the world as it is, I would have accomplished a great deal in this life. If I can develop mindfulness in each breathing instant, I am dwelling in the world with heed for what matters. When a person fully awakens in the Nikāyas there is usually a line which says, “And she (or he) had done what had to be done.” A life fulfilled.

In the other Anguttara Nikāya Mindfulness of Death sutta he says:
“Further, there is the case where a monk, as night departs and day returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’” (Thanissaro)

In this sutta, the he suggests that a practitioner should have a single-mindedness about liberation: “Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness…

Mindfulness (supported by the other six qualities of the awakening mind – joy, grounded enquiry, perseverance, calm, contemplative presence, and equanimity) makes it possible to feel and accept our greatest fear: voidness.

If we meet voidness in developed mindfulness, confidence follows; confidence in groundlessness, because we don’t interpret voidness, conceive of it, or project onto it. We experience it directly, and when the mist of ignorance falls dissolves, this very voidness is the source of all true values.

Fantastic Tricks of Mind

I have of late been in awe of the power of thought to go awry – and I am frightened for the planet, for its creatures, and for humans. We don’t seem to credit thought with its actual power to go astray (unless we meet such error in extreme forms).

When, due to lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension, in the midst of some interaction we are not able to distinguish the precise flavour of the way we are organised in that moment, and we are therefore in a sub-personality mode of awareness – that is, identified with a sub-personality – then, we are making errors in respect of our own identity, and sending a puppet to stand for us on the world’s stage. Many an error is born from such dimmed awareness. Almost every war is born of such strutting.

In the Shurangama Sutra, a Chinese text, the Shurangama Buddha says, “If your mind is not clear, you will mistake a thief for your own son. That’s what happens, when we mistake a construct for our self and rob ourselves.

I love the following poem by Spanish poet Anthony Machado (1875-1939). The way I see it, it’s a painful irony that the voice that says “marvellous error” is trusted more than the dreaming heart.

Last night as I was sleeping – Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

The long and deep sutta called Greater Discourse of the Destruction of Craving (MN 38) is based on the premise that a practitioner named Sāti makes such an error. He falls for the error that: “it is just this consciousness that runs and wanders on [from birth to birth], not another.” (Trans: Thanissaro) It appears he has the conviction that there is an inborn, self-existent consciousness.

He perches on that idea of a fixed consciousness; a position fuelled by his clinging. Sāti is in a trance, and unable to discern the way he is organised at that time, organised to identify with a sub-personality. The whole teaching in this sutta, about dependent arising, comes from that mistaken view.

Just as the waking voice in Machado’s poem, the one who knows the dream is in error, he is so sure of himself. Can you hear how convinced the waking self is? No room for: ‘Am I sure?” This one is sure it’s as he sees it, on the flimsy foundation of an unexamined voice.

Dark Sea Moon

One summer long, walking a friend’s three-year-old,

with her stroller and self along the mountainside,

in our hush we discovered it, she and I. Here,

navigating treetops in a dark sea sky: this lucid moon.


It was so ours. Stretching her whole body forward,

her own light flexed upward, she cries, “Moon!

Want it! Want it” Her fingers extend and close,

extend and close. Extend and close. Yet it slips through.


My adult heart poised in one breath, the night was still,

trees sipping silence and moon-sap. And, she, separated

by a barrier of air, becomes quiet. I feel, thirty years long with

wax and wane, across ills we’re heir to, the echoing sea.


– Christopher J. Ash


I planned to say something, but whenever I read it, I’m silenced by this aching poem by Jack Gilbert:




For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to where she was going.

My Cock-Eyed Life

Death is the final act of relinquishment, of [giving], in this life.” – Robert Aitken Roshi, The Practice of Perfection*

It’s quite creative to see Death as the the last opportunity for giving, and for generosity. To give ourselves wholly to death, means not having any shadow on the heart. I can see why forgiveness becomes important. Forgiveness is another of the invisibles – the immeasurable presences of our real life. It means to abandon resentment, to forego the grudge. I’ve noticed that if I refuse to let go of a grudge, then I am holding myself in thrall, in captivity.

I am thinking of someone, now, who was cruel to me at one stage in my life. These days, if I meet that person, I am at peace in the freedom of present moment awareness. However, sometimes I notice a tiny catch in my flow, a resistance to releasing my hold on the grudge. And, that’s a great spot for the study of samsara; that is, the realm of birth and death. I am being born right there as a person with a hole in my very fabric. If I sit next to that stuck spot, that hole, I can see that I’m resisting abandoning my ego’s desire for justice.

(I do have to remind my reader that this doesn’t preclude strong action, strong stances against injustice; and, that the relinquishment of which I speak here, in fact, ensures more effective action against injustice. So, these comments are addressed to a false stand toward justice – the ego’s version of justice.)

There are several ways of working with this, but I do have a preferred way to step out of the trap. Because I’m entrapped inside the subject-object cave, I approach it in that way. Nobody keeps me captive but myself, and – despite the seeming payoffs, it is not a pleasant abiding in that cave. The key has a giving quality. Am I willing to give myself (and the other person) the gift of truth? The gift of inquiry? The gift of compassion?

I used to sit down, when I was indignant about that person’s behaviour, and I would ask the classic Buddhist question: “Who is the ‘I’ who is hurt, here?” It didn’t take much investigation to admit that finding the ‘I’ isn’t easy. And, as I searched through all the elements of my anger, not finding anything I could call my real self, then I inevitably calmed down, and sigh. Have you noticed that your humour is not released until you have forgiven?

Nowadays, if I am triggered by someone I do something similar, except that I approach it the other way. I say: “Who is that person (the one I am not forgiving)? Can I find them?” I look closer, and closer, and ultimately all I can find is my experiences. I find my perceptions of that person, and I find my reactivity. Who is that person, independent of the way I have him in my inner TV? I can’t find him. That tends to bring a calming in me, and, immediately, I’m out of the prison of duality. What a relief! We need to protect ourselves against the violence of others, but we also need to protect our precious luminous, boundless heart-mind against the distortions produced by our untamed ego-system.

So, that’s another way that giving life to life, prepares us for death. I don’t want to be holding myself to ransom in my last breath, demanding false justice from myself and others. Let it go, now. May I have the presence of mind, to say at death’s door: May no-one be punished on account of my ill-will. (Wasn’t that the most powerful of Jesus’ acts, that at the last, he said, in the spirit of his Jewish practice, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”)

This applies, too, to self-recrimination; not just to recriminations against others. Perhaps it’s even harder to forgive ourselves. I read these lines from a poem, At the Corner Store by Alison Luterman, and I could feel their force in me: “my whole cock-eyed life/  – what a beautiful failure!” One of my biggest lessons in the last decade is this: There is no faultless person, anywhere, and there never has been. If you look at the lives of the saints, it’s clear that their ‘stuff’ doesn’t end with their enlightenment. Humans are messy. We’re art-works in progress. What is it that Leonard Cohen sings? “There’s a crack, a crack in everything.”

If we’re not hijacked by the inner judge, we can accept our messy lives, and move forward in our growth (and our growth into death) with some grace. This takes study, of course. We need to study the part of the ego-system called the ‘superego,’ or the ‘inner judge,’ or the ‘inner critic.’ Once you learn its ways, then its easier to say with Alison Luterman, “What a beautiful failure,” and then, to find ways to disengage from its attacks on you. The judge doesn’t want us to celebrate our cock-eyed lives. The judge is a controlling voice, which is empowered by our wrong relationship with it.

There’s a story in the Buddhist Samyutta Nikaya (in the Sakka Samyutta), where an anger-eating demon takes over the throne of Sakka, the deva-king. The more that king’s men treat the demon badly, getting angry with him, finding fault with him, the more healthy and handsome he becomes. So, Sakka approaches and treats him royally. The demon can’t take it, and he disappears right there.

My inner critic says, “You’re a loser.”  I pause, come to my belly-breathing, and I say, “Oh, that’s so true. So true – a beautiful loser. The more I lose, the more real I am. And, Dad, I want to thank you, for bringing that to my notice.” Then I check in, to see what the result is, of that skilful means. Lately, he’s just silent. The inner judge doesn’t outlast humour. Because it thrives on bad vibes, because it takes itself too seriously, it can’t comprehend good-humoured responses.


* The word Aitken Roshi used here as ‘Dana.’ It’s often translated as ‘generosity,’ but ‘giving’ is a better translation.

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