Dieing well in America – Part I

I’m not a theist, as those of you who know me, or who’ve read a bit here, are aware, but things keep happening… things that make me wonder… well, that make me think that somehow ‘the universe’ … at least our little bit of the energy spectrum we like to think of as the universe … is involved. Is that a cautious enough description?

I know you skeptics dismiss all this as just pure coincidence, and there’s no arguing with that, it well could be, but sometimes it just seems… it just bloody seems that there’s some intention out there, some unexplained connections that wend things round to fall in our laps in ways that just don’t quite – compute.

But, here it is: Since I finished Die Wise earlier this week I’d been trying to sort out my reactions and understandings to the point I could blog a bit about it, as it has had a tremendous, powerful, upheaving kind of effect on me, and I did introduce it a bit in the last blog post on this thread, with my story of the death of Ma-mama, hoping to work into a little more discussion of the book itself in the next few days, but not knowing really how to take it on, as it’s so large in scope and really covers so many more things about our lives than just the idea of how we die, tho that is central to everything.

And then, in The Sun magazine which just came this week is an interview with the author, Stephen Jenkinson. An interview in which he succinctly explains many of the things that are woven into the complex narrative form of the book, and will make it much easier for me to get a handle on what he’s actually saying here. An interview which is profoundly powerful and moving itself.

So, of course, the interview and the writing of the article and it’s printing etc. were clearly all done long before I began to want to try to write about it… but, it is just so interesting that all this concatenation occurs … and it just makes me wonder. Because I don’t think that it was my wanting it or needing it that made it appear, that’s too facile. What I think is that all of this is of a piece and is all part of some fabric, some whole cloth in which I am a single thread.

I weave. I write, I love the coincidence that makes me part of this life.

I will be transcribing from the article here, as The Sun is not online. (In fact, its Reader’s Write feature just began this month accepting digital entries!) For those of you who bother to read this but take exception to Jenkinson’s perspective, please realize that this is all deeply complex and to understand it requires immersion in the depth of it, which any simple format makes difficult. The book is heavily dependent on story, and the full grasp of much of what he says builds through the experiential power of those stories. Don’t dismiss this. It is a message of profound meaning for our world today, and deserves full consideration.

So. What does he say? He says first of all that he is primarily a farmer. Though I’m not a farmer, this resonates with me deeply, as I come from farmer folk, and some of my dearest friends are farmers. I know this will be understood at least by them.

When the interviewer asks if he has a ‘daily practice’ this is his reply:

Daily practice isn’t a term I use, so my first answer would be no. What I do principally is farm. The farm is everything. We have quite a few animals, and they all have to be tended. When you enter into that contract of disarray called the ‘domestication of animals,’ you might not know what you’re signing up for, but you soon find out. Your job is to compensate the animals for what you’re asking of them: that they not run away; that they reproduce on your doorstep; and that they more or less submit to the knife or the bullet when the time comes. That’s the story of domestication. And your job as a farmer is to make it close to a fair deal.

If I have a practice, that would be it: to try to hold up my end of that bargain. And I do the same with the plants on my farm. Crops can be just as easily enslaved and abused as animals – and typically are.

We have our daily rounds on the farm. Whatever general mayhem arises, you’ve got to respond to it. Right now we’re in a season of heavy change. At night it can be very cold, and there’s no forage in the fields or in the pasture. If you’re asking animals to reproduce, you’ve got to make sure they’re well fed.

I think this is what you might mean by ‘spiritual”: the willingness to be cognizant of these situations and to carry the thread of grief that’s stitched into them. Domestication darkens the doorstep of all involved. Leaning to farm means never escaping from that grief. Just because you’ve figured out what these animals need in order to procreate doesn’t mean you’re the boss. It means you’re pleading with them to do so. And feeding them well is part of your end of it. It’s a subtle exchange. I believe the animals know at some level what’s going on, but they know it from an animal’s perspective, not from a human’s perspective. There’s a kind of uneasy statement of intent that flows back and forth. On a farm the connection between death and life is clear, but in most of the culture a deep understanding of death doesn’t enter into people’s choices of their manner of life or how they educate their kids or what they say yes or no to.

North Americans need a great awakening. What we thought was so isn’t so; what we once believed to be true isn’t true and never was. Here are some of the lies we’re told: ‘There’s enough for everybody; we’ve just got a distribution problem. As long as we pay the sticker price for something, we’re entitled to have it. We get a vote in anything of real significance or importance. Dying is a rupture in the natural order of things.’

With any luck at all, before you’re thirty-five or forty, you wake up and realize that none of this is so. It never was.

Daily devotional

In my efforts to establish, maintain, reestablish and re-maintain a meditation practice – a life practice based on meditation, really – I have found that the daily devotional is helpful and adds a dimension of delight to the process.

Though it has little in common with our culture’s general idea of a “devotional,” the Buddhist version of this practice does much to create an atmosphere of calm, focused attention that is supportive both of the meditation time on the cushion and of the efforts to bring this state of mind to bear during the process of daily life activities.

For someone trying to start a practice without much experience in a temple or meditation center, it may be helpful to outline how this “devotional” works for me. Of course, this is my adaptation and reflects my personal experiences, so it’s just one model to help in developing a practice that suits your temperament and experiences.

An altar is a good place to begin. My altar is a simple bamboo table with a few items that mean something to me arranged on it. The traditional Zen altar has a Buddha-rupa (a statue of the Buddha usually), a small container of rice, a candle, an incense holder, a bell, a vase of flowers, and perhaps a relic, a piece of wood, or some other esthetically pleasing natural element. Any other elements that connect you with the notion of larger spiritual practice are appropriate.

I light my candle and incense to begin, and offer an incense chant borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh, which contains the same elements as the traditional offering but with expanded content that makes them more meaningful for us: (the / represents sounding the bell)

In gratitude we offer this incense to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time;/

May it be as fragrant as Earth herself, reflecting our careful efforts, our wholehearted awareness, and fruit of understanding slowly ripening;/

May we and all beings be companions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas;/

May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize our true home./

This I follow with the traditional verse on karma: (each of the rest are repeated three times)

All my ancient twisted karma,/ from beginning-less greed, anger, and delusion,/

Born of body, speech and mind,/ I now fully avow (or atone)./

Then a verse from a friend which seems to catch up the idea of social karma for me:

Now I will feel the old/ Force of forests held/ In each remaining tree./

The next is some lines based on Chogyam Trungpa’s recommendations for personal vows, but really reflects the things that I need to remind myself of in my vows. I usually mentally remind myself not to take the dualism in these statements literally:

I vow to pursue Bodhichitta and develop a sense of gentleness;/

I promise not to blame others but to take their pain on myself;/

I promise always to put others before self./

I end with the Soto version of the three great vows, in Japanese:

Shu jo mu hen sai gan do;/

Bon no mu gen sai gan dan;/

Ho mon murrio san gan gakku;/

Butsu do/ mu gen sai gan jo./

[As I don’t seem to have these written down, I’m relying on memory for the spelling – it’s 12th Century Japanese, so don’t try to translate! In English, it’s rendered as “Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them; Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them; Dharma teachings are immeasureable, I vow to master them; the Buddha’s Way is endless, I vow to follow it to the end.”]

Then bows to the Three Treasures: (Buddha)/ (Dharma)/ (Sangha)/.

After sitting I usually recite some version of the dedication of merit and do the three treasure bows again.

In English, the Soto dedication of merit is: “We pray that this merit universally pervade all existence and that we and all / sentient beings achieve this understanding. We pay homage to all / Buddhas of the past present and future, the /World-Honored One, /Great Bodhisattvas, /Great /Heart of Wisdom.”

“The thread of all sorrows…

I had stopped reading articles about the Charleston shooting and the flag, but my friend Janisse recommended this article highly, as do I. It was written by Holly Haworth for “On Being” with Krista Tippett.

It is a sensitive, poignant piece that catches up the issues’ significant points and brings a true and deep perspective to which I think most of us in the caring community can relate. The mood of the South today, she says, is characterized by “…a sour loss turned inward, a self-hatred that festers, proud.”

And as Janisse said, it gives me words to express my sorrow that I had not found on my own:

I say that I am grieving to tell you that I am crying, and the tears and the sun are a combination of heat and sting that don’t serve to make me, the white Southerner, feel anything close to the hot sting felt by black slaves and their descendants, but that I am trying to know that grief that is leaking out all around me, and that my tears tell me that somehow I am a part of it, that it is in me too.



A fine way to die

When I was about six years old, my maternal grandmother died.

I remember the ride from Valdosta, Georgia to Dixie, Georgia for the funeral, with my mother crying and my father quiet and serious. I remember that we passed a cemetery as we were leaving town, and I realized that the two things were connected, though I wasn’t sure just how.

I’m pretty sure my parents explained to me that Ma-mama had died, though how they explained that I don’t remember. She was not very old, in her early 60’s I think, she was not sick, and her death was unexpected. She went out to get a bucket of coal for the coal grate one night and never came back into the house.

She was very dear to me, a kind, sweet woman with long silver braids that she usually wore coiled on her head. I only remember seeing her with her hair down once, standing in front of her mirror brushing it out before bed. I think I remember it so clearly because she turned and looked at me, smiling as I watched her brush her hair, a smile full of the warmth and love that defines her in my mind.

I don’t remember what she said to me, but I remember well the soft voice speaking my name, ‘Johnny!’

I also remember very clearly Ma-mama in her casket. It is one of the transcendent experiences of my life, perhaps a seminal experience in my emotional development.

In the way of things in those saner times, Ma-mama lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse where she had lived most of her life, the house my mother and all her five siblings were born in, and all her family and friends were there together. When we arrived, my parents I suppose were swept into the crowd there, leaving me standing there alone looking up at the casket. The casket was surrounded by a brilliant white light from the white-curtained windows behind it, a light that in my young mind was the light of very God himself shining down on my grandmother.

I had always, as a child, thought that the striated rays of sunlight shining through broken clouds – the phenomena many of the old folks called Jacob’s Ladder – was God. I’m not sure what parts of my religious experience in the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Church had created that notion in my young mind, nor am I sure when it was dispelled, but it was an a priori belief for me.

So clearly, the light around my grandmother was God. That seemed quite natural and proper to me, as she was probably the most Godly, saintly, Christian – in all the truest senses of those terms – that I knew. And somehow, because of that light I was able to accept my grandmother’s death, despite being surrounded by the sadness and sense of tragic loss that filled the room.

Though the memory is not so clear, I know that my parents lifted me up and let me gaze into the casket, into the gray and lifeless face that even in death was as sweet as any I’ve seen, and that also helped me understand what was going on there. Helped me understand that, as my young son said when his great-grandmother died, “She can’t talk anymore.”

I have just today finished reading a powerful and life-changing book, Die Wise by Steven Jenkinson, and all through the reading I have had this growing sense that somehow, my upbringing, my experiences, had given me a wider perspective on death than seems to be common, at least based on his characterizations of how our culture views death.

As I’ve mulled over that, the clear sweet memories of my grandmother and her dying came to me, and I realized that from that early age, I was allowed to be in the presence of death, allowed to look at it straight on, rather than shielded from it and protected from the knowledge of its universality. Though my parents surely ascribed to the “better place” mythology their religion taught them, they never let that become denial of the reality that the person who dies is gone, never resorted to the total euphemisms that seem to be prevalent in our society.

When someone died, they said so, and I understood what that meant from earliest consciousness. I think that has stood me in good stead through the many deaths that I have seen in my life, and I hope that it will continue to help me walk into the ever closer deaths that advancing age brings my way.

I hope that it helps me learn to live, for the remainder of my years, in a way that will allow me to die wise.

Finding the cushion

This has been a bad week for finding the cushion!

My wife left for her vacation to Scotland on Thursday, so Wednesday night and Thursday got fouled up for sitting, then Friday I got involved with my door project and did music night at the local coffee house with my musician friends, so the cushion got lost in the shuffle.

Though today was busy with the project again, I did make it to the cushion in the evening.

And of course, the dogs wouldn’t leave me alone to sit, plus a security company left a message on my machine that a burglar alarm in a house down the street went off and if I had concerns I could call them… well, I didn’t have any concerns until I heard their disturbing message! Then I had to get up and check, thinking maybe that’s why the dogs were so restless.

Of course, there was nothing.

I got back to the cushion and back into the meditation fairly easily despite all this disturbance.

But I am realizing that I just need to get up early, sit and then get on with the day and its disturbances. Waiting until 10:00 seemed a good idea, but there are too many things that just come up.

We’ll see how it goes tomorrow!

Real practice

I missed two days of sitting last week, and there were good, reasonable excuses for it each time, excuses not worth going into.

Because the real reason I don’t sit, when I don’t, goes deeper than these perfectly reasonable circumstantial issues. The real reason I don’t sit is because sitting can be hard. Not in the physical sense really, or even the boredom of which people sometimes complain.

Sitting can be hard because it reveals truth about me that I don’t always want to see.


That’s why a real meditation practice requires more than a cushion, schedules and good intentions. Real practice requires moral courage and unflinching dedication to knowing those truths about oneself that are unflattering, difficult, even painful.


Of course, that is the point. Unlike “McMindfulness” – as David Loy has called superficial practices – a real life practice is not undertaken to make one more productive at work or reduce anxiety in social situations (which it certainly will do), it is part of the heart’s commitment to living one’s life in an authentic way, aligned with the highest aspirations that we humans can generate: to be compassionate to everyone, to contribute to making life meaningful and happy for all, to being all those things we mean when we say “a good person.”

It’s not an easy commitment to make, and it’s not easy to remember that this is why one practices. That’s why daily vows are a good idea, because they keep that promise fresh in our minds.

And it’s not easy to stick with it day after day, because on the cushion we see clearly all those points of deviation from the path over the past day – and in our life in general. We see clearly all those things we’d rather ignore in our relationships, our work, our living.

So if there’s an excuse not to sit, we take it.


Those days we don’t sit, though, do also show us the value of it, even in ways beyond the increased levels of stress and anxiety we may experience. Because if we get back to the cushion soon enough after the missed session, we may see what it was we were really avoiding.

And that’s real practice.


Related Links

My post on McMindfullness.


David Loy of BPF on McMindfullness.


My post on solutions that work for everyone.

Maia on Charleston…

My friend and Zen teacher Maia Duerr has written what may be the best analysis of the whole Charleston tragedy and the racist milieu that gave rise to it.

Using the context of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, Maia breaks it down in ways that offer deep insight into the social and individual aspects of this national problem. Though it is Buddhist to the heart, it transcends that, and so is easily understandable and meaningful for all, Buddhist or not. Maia includes some wonderful quotes from Dr. King and Wendell Berry, as well as the Buddha and others, that elucidate her message beautifully.

These understandings are what we as a society must embrace if we hope to come out of this misery of racist lostness.

Dreams of Freedom.

“I believe it is essential for us to call this for what it is. This was not simply the act of one very disturbed young man. It has its roots in racial violence and distortions and inequities that have been part of the fabric of our country since its inception.