Marking my Seventy-fourth Birthday, a brief sketch of what happened and how I ended up in the pickle I’m in

Marking my Seventy-fourth Birthday, a brief sketch of what happened and how I ended up in the pickle I’m in July 17, 2022

 

 

 

Today, the 17th of July, in the year of our Lord, 1948, I was born in the city of “no there there,” in the land named for the island home of a tribe of Amazon warriors and their queen.

The 17th of July in 1948 was a Saturday. It was a mild day, the temperature never rose above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The moon was waxing gibbous under the waning sign of Cancer. It appears it was a clear day, although my google searches were in fact inconclusive in that regard.

A great and terrible war had just concluded, which left the American nation the leader in another global struggle between countries advancing different socio-economic views. While I believe we were on the less evil side, the truth was that one side mainly was about the rich oppressing the poor while the other was largely about the poor being oppressed by the rich. Each preferred different words for rich and poor, and both liked the word democracy. Although one thought the word meant more about one person, one vote. At least in theory.

I learned duck and cover. And that the world had a good chance of ending in a nuclear storm.

I cannot say if the age of Aquarius had actually dawned, was about to actually dawn, or that we were in fact living under a very different star. But I’m thinking that different star was more likely. Its name is the Anthropocene, which many scientists believe began three years and a day before my birth.

I was born poor. My father was probably illegitimate and mostly raised himself on New York’s streets. He had a complicated relationship with reality, spent some time in jail, and mostly worked as a bartender. My mother was mostly afraid of life. But they both read, as did my mother’s sister who was my junior mother. I had a brother, a year younger, what they called in my circles “an Irish twin.” Not exactly a homage to my father’s Catholic upbringing and fervent Irish nationalist identity. Thank goodness for books. Lots of books around wherever we lived for the brief times we lived there. My grandmother was the moral anchor, she walked with spirits and was a prayer warrior. My paternal grandfather rounded out “the family,” the people I was raised with, what passed for stability in the whirlwind of constantly moving. He wasn’t a lot different than my father, although in the years I knew him he was more sullen than sad, and quiet.

Because of my grandmother we were fundamentalist Christians. Of the sort where women and children went to church. The men sat in cars and smoked. The men in my life also drank and laughed at gods and those who believed in them.

Looking at those formative years, I see how my prospects weren’t good. My father attempted suicide several times, my brother succeeded, as did my son. Me, I was lucky, and inherited some brains, had a pleasant and inoffensive personality, and generally with a more positive attitude about things than not. While a high school dropout, I read. A lot.

I was driven by a spiritual quest shaped at first by the question is there a god and then what is god. After a disastrous and brief military career I entered a Zen Buddhist monastery. There I found another koan similar to what is god. What is awakening. I wasn’t clear if there was a difference in the questions, at least after peeling away some layers. Leaving the monastery and looking for anything else, eventually I found the right teacher for me who reordered my koans along the conventions of Hakuin’s curriculum as revisioned by Daiun Sogaku Harada. It provided the contours of my subsequent spiritual life. Endless bows.

Two brief marriages before getting lucky and finding a lifetime partner. Marked forty years a few weeks ago. Minor evidence of good karma from previous lifetimes.

After making a living working in used bookstores for too long while my spouse Jan worked a dying trade as a typesetter, we began a march to professional lives. After about five years we had two bachelor’s degrees and three master’s between us. Jan became a librarian, and I a Unitarian Universalist minister.

I truly loved being a parish minister, even if everyone’s theology in UU world, including mine, was up for grabs. We attended to the important things of life together. Births. Life transitions. Deaths. Trying to make our communities more homelike. And reaching for a little justice in our society.

The prospects for the world at large continue to be poor. Our hearts’ various tribalisms, purity codes turned into crusades against any and every kind of other, a worm in every human being’s heart. In our time, this time, there’s also a tension between the cosmopolitan and liberal on one side, and the narrow and hateful and suspicious on the other. I would not want to make a wager as to what prevails. Meanwhile, a constant current in human lives, there seems always to be those who look to how they can turn a profit out of other people’s hurt.

And while atomic holocaust is not off the table, and will not be; the end that more likely looms comes from the filth we throw into the oceans and air. A not very gentle reminder that all things fall apart. And how everything happens for a reason, although often the reason is we’re stupid and make bad choices.

But the main thing for me in this one and wonderful and terrible life always was the matter of clarification. What is god. What is awakening.

Intimations. More than intimations. Growing into my bones. Watching lines disappear. Witnessing new worlds form. Allowing the things to come to me and tell me their names. Sometimes whispers. Sometimes roars.

Zazen. Koan. Rising and falling.

Clarification.

Along the way, actually a lot of years ago, probably around when I started seminary I stumbled upon that lovely anecdote about Desiderius Erasmus, who while a Catholic priest detested eating fish on Friday and once famously declared “my stomach is Lutheran.” I realized I had my own “physiology of faith.” For me that was and has remained so ever since, my “Buddhist brain, Christian heart, and rationalist stomach.”

Me. As it turns out all foolishness all the way.

Apparently the oldest known attestation to the saying “There’s no fool like an old fool”  is found in “The Proverbs of John Heywood,” which was published by the author in 1546 and numerous times by others since. I have little doubt the saying or a close wording is quite a bit older.

My little brand of foolishness, what has informed and corrected and on occasion redirected me for the bulk of these seventy-four years is founded upon four assertions of the Mahayana Buddhist way, the four seals, the two truths, and the three bodies. My practices and my life have confirmed these as axioms for my life, and I believe taken broadly, as descriptions of how humans encounter the cosmos. Certainly, certainly what I find.

And, I am bone and marrow raised Christian. As a matter straight on, I cannot and do not accept the raw dualism of the main narrative and its cruel claims of immortal souls, the large majority of whom were created to be damned, with a small circle of blessings in the midst of an eternity of hurt.

But… In Rabbi Alan Lew’s memoir One God Clapping, Lew describes attending synagogue prayers with the birth-right Jew and American Soto Zen Buddhist master, Norman Fischer. Even though they’d been friends for fifteen years, they’d never attended prayers together. The rabbi was impressed how easily his friend, a recognized Zen master, fell into the rhythms of the Jewish service.

Lew wrote, “After the service was over, there was a radiance on his face I had never seen before, not even after a sesshin at Tassajara. ‘Now that I’ve done Zen meditation,’ (Fischer) said, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life and it would be enough. I wouldn’t have to do anything more. But if I’d never done Zen meditation, I wouldn’t even know what this is…”

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Emily is right. Although even that blind is something dazzling.

Even the terrible story at the heart of normative Christianity is true of cosmic sacrifice and choices. If , that is, one has the eyes and the heart to see it. If one can find the slant. If one can discover the blindness. And, Zen gave me those tools. There are parts of the tradition that are true to my heart. Communion is one. My dreamscape is inescapably peopled by Moses and Miriam, Jesus and the Marys, and a surreal Near East of my heart.

And it is all dreamscape.

All of it true as true can be for me and Christianity. When seen through those Zen eyes.

And. Then there’s that third part of who I am. That rationalist disposition. What that means is I have an inescapable bend toward the rational and this world. While my dreamscape is wild and the world itself is not given to easy and hard boundaries, there is no natural here and some supernatural somewhere else.

One thing. Although “one thing” isn’t precisely it, either.

Casting about the literature I stumbled upon the phrase religious naturalism. It describes me.

I am not it. But in truth it is me.

Different aspects of this conglomeration, this physiology, have captured me along the way. Right now, I’m visiting with an old colleague in the UU ministry who is in hospice, and for complicated reasons we’re reading the Psalms together. In the moment I’m doing a deep dive into Christian prayer. Like for Norman, it all makes sense these days. Even the nasty parts.

Thank you zazen. Thank you koans. Thank you the dance of form and emptiness.

And what have I found? What was revealed within those intimations and more? What can be found in this dying world?

Not one.

Not two.

But this isn’t math. It’s more like biology.

Me. A loose configuration of causes and conditions. Bound for a moment, touching, loving, hurting, living. As it sings to us in the Diamond Sutra:

So you should view this fleeting world–
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

A dream. But such a dream. And the stuff of dreams. Thinking of metaphor and the thing metaphor points to with face averted, with that slant. Buddha. Jesus. God. Each a finger crooked and gesturing. Inviting.

So, with all that, my report:

Last year, a foolish monk
This year, no change.

Just like old Ryokan. An old fool. Me and the dream. Love and loss. Holding to my bones and knowing how to let go. Not one. Not two.

Seventy-four on the count down.

I am not it. But, in truth, it is me…

And grateful for it all…

 

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