Bad Times and Words of Hope: A Zen Meditation at the End of a Year

Bad Times and Words of Hope: A Zen Meditation at the End of a Year December 30, 2022





It’s the eve of the eve of a new year.

At my age with little time to squander, nonetheless I have to say about 2022, goodbye, and good riddance. As we entered the year people wanted us all to notice that 2022 was the year the film Soylent Green took place in. As far as I know very, very few people found themselves eating people. However. For many, sadly, it was worse.

To be clear I am not particularly sanguine about how 2023 will likely shape up. I need not start up the litany of things going wrong. It’s long. It all reminds me of that curse alleged to be Chinese, but actually just a very good curse: May you live in interesting times. And. Well. Here we are…

In the spirit of all that, 106 years ago today, the 30th of December in 1916, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was murdered. It took some work, a couple of tries, but he does seem to have stayed dead ever since.

I keep the day as sort of a minor holiday.

I have a small personal connection to the mad monk. A few times since I started this blog, I’ve been able to find the opportunity to gas on about that connection. Tenuous though it may be. And here we are once again…

To retell. Many years ago I was working at the venerable and now long lost Wahrenbrock’s Book House in downtown San Diego. Along with a couple of other staff, I was offered the opportunity to meet with Maria Rasputin, daughter of the old villain.

She’d been making her living for some years writing and then rewriting and issuing anew sanitized biographies of her notorious father. As someone always interested in the more obscure byways of religion I really wanted to meet her (I think in Catholic terms this would be a second degree relic),

Sadly, I had a conflict that made it difficult to accept the offer. Today I can’t even remember what that other event was. But. I decided to pass on meeting her, knowing she had a pretty regular circuit and would be back. Not long after she died. Of course…

I’m sure there are lessons to be learned here. Although I’m not sure I have fully taken those lessons on board. I also have another small story I like to tell, about the two times I have not met the Dalai Lama. Whatever. Time passes quickly away.

And, we are well advised not to miss the opportunities as they pass…

Of course there are other thoughts. Two are sort of coming together for me. Both fall under the general rubric of the curse about living in interesting times.

First is how religions all point to end times. The Abrahamic traditions, at least Christianity and Islam, have kind of a straight line from creation to the end of the world. Dharmic religions are more into cycles. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ends. In Hinduism the fourth cycle is the Kali Yuga, the time of strife, discord, quarrels, and contention. In Buddhism there’s the Pashchimadharma, the time of degeneration, in Japanese Mappo. Hard times. One cannot even awaken on one’s own in these times.

Second, for me, is how we seem to be at a turning point in human history. Hard to be sure about such things, of course. The list of people predicting the end of something or another is long. The list of them getting it wrong, is about the same length.

But, something’s in the air. And it doesn’t smell good.

The part about that, at least the Buddhist version, or one of them, is that even if these are as bad of times as I think they are rolling toward, that Rasputin may be the avatar of, this age of corruption and failure, and who knows, maybe even portending an actual once and for all end: there is a glimmer of hope.

Two more things here. First are the legends of the Pure Land. Seeing the corruption of the worlds, and the degeneration of the Dharma, and seeing how there seemed to be no hope; the Buddha of another time and place made a great vow. If people would just call out, he would deliver them to another place, a safe place, a place where it was easy to awaken.

Amitābha, of course. Amida.

In my life I have seen that the great saving comes with many names. Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mother Mary.

And connected to it, I recall how the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh opined that when the next Buddha comes, the Buddha will be, might be, could be, collective. You know. You’re the next Buddha. I am.

It would be a heavy load if it were one of us. But that’s missing the point.

The koan tells us:

Our ancestor Fayan of Wuzu noted ‘Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. So, tell me. Who is that other?

On social media recently I read about a Buddhist writer who wanted people to know the whole goal of Buddhism was to escape, to stop, to die. A fair read. But totally not how it is understood in some corners of the great tradition. Rather liberation is found in seeing through, in living through, in being through.

Shakyamuni. Maitreya. Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mother Mary. You. Me.

Our liberation, our saving, is found in finding our connections as we live and die. It is seeing, it is breathing, it is being with. It is playing and working and walking and sitting.

It’s making a sandwich and sharing it. It’s getting mixed up in the ugly of political struggle.

Mary Oliver summed it all up rather nicely.

love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go

My less graceful way of saying this is we need to learn how to hold with open hands. Therein rests our liberation.

You know, living. Living knowing you die. Living knowing this moment passes like the last exhalation of a dying saint. Or criminal. Or. And. And…

That Buddha which is the sum and the specific. You and me and us. And of course, the grasses, and oceans, and the stars themselves. Rising and dying.

Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mother Mary.

These are hard times. And perhaps Rasputin is the prophet of this age. I personally think he might well be. He and others like him. False prophets abound.

But there are other avatars of possibility. Of hope, if of a different sort than the way we usually use the word. In this time when we cannot do it alone, there is something waiting.

Found when we look into each other’s hearts. And open ours. A sort of reckless abandon.

Found when we see we cannot do it alone. And call out. Hopeless.

And. It turns out, if we do it right, once is enough.

Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mother Mary.

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