The continuing journey

[This is the latest post in my Wayfinding series. It’s also published in the Pages section. It’s N0. 19]

Yes. Surviving through great adversity.

That may be the thing that has kept me on this path, kept me practicing the various mindfulness techniques and meditations that have come my way through the years.

Though I suppose my life is not really filled with “great adversity” as compared with much of what people go through in life, the emotional challenges that PTSD and daily life in family, school and community relationships sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. The therapy and associated practices I mentioned previously were a great help in working through the depression and anxiety that I faced.

I found journaling to be a great tool, especially combined with meditation and done in a meditative way. I had always done some kind of journaling since my college years, so it was natural. I took a very structured approach to it for a while, setting up several tracks and trying to follow each one on a near-daily basis, and that was helpful to clarify things. Eventually, I relaxed that approach and my journaling became sort of a loose, random approach. I’d write about whatever was going on in different areas of life in different notebooks, though that’s made it hard to go back and pull up a consistent narrative!

As a practice though, it seemed helpful to just write whatever came up as a means of getting it clear in my mind at the time. I didn’t do it with any intention of using it later, just working through things.

I also was engaged in a lot of discussion with my mother during those years of therapy and after. Though it was something I didn’t think of as practice at the time, in retrospect those discussion were, in fact, a deep and helpful process.

My mother was a deep and profoundly spiritual Christian, somewhat unconventional in much of her beliefs, but I think very true to the real meaning of Christ’s teachings as I understand them. She had long been skeptical of my Buddhist practices, and she never gave up on hoping that I’d “accept Jesus”— though I had been baptized at seven — but I think she eventually came to realize that my practices were good for me and made me the better person she hoped I would be. She told a friend later in life that she and I were the closest spiritually of the family.

Talking to her about all these spiritual things made me subject my ideas and practices to careful consideration and present them in non-dogmatic ways.

A poem that she shared with me in 1997, “Drench your soul,” seems to express her best response to our discussions. (I will share that poem in a separate Page here.)

Another practice, Grofian (holotropic) breath work, was also helpful to me as I worked through the deepest years of my depression. I went to a workshop in conjunction with training for hospice volunteering, and it was a powerful, slightly scary, deep opening kind of experience.

It is not something you can do on your own, but with an experienced guide, it’s a way to get through blockages and find release for pent up negative emotional energy. I suppose its a different experience for everyone, but in my notes following the session, I wrote, “Cycling through grief, release, understanding, deep gratitude, joy, laughter, bliss, ironic laughter and tears of happiness.”

The message from it all for me was, “I’m gonna make it! I can let go!”

Another parallel and amplifying practice for me during this time was also associated with the hospice training. We had several sessions over a few years of attentional skills training with Michael Lipson, whose approach to meditation comes from non-Buddhist sources, but it is very helpful.

During this same time, we began holding sesshin one weekend a year in Statesboro. Helping to organize and conduct these was also a practice in itself. We even held a few meditation sessions in the loft of my wife’s pottery workshop. Being responsible for others’ meditative practice is instructive and helped deepen my practice.

I began the Zen group in Statesboro with a few Sundays at the Unitarian Church, and a small group grew up around the meetings. Eventually, we began meeting monthly at a friend’s house outside of Stateboro, and it was a great group experience.

Somewhere in 2001, I began to do a phone dokosan — dharma teaching/mentorship by phone — with my teacher, Miki. He’s actually Roshi Michael Elliston, head of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, but we always called him Miki. It was often profound and usually helped me get back on track when my practice would start to slide for one reason or another… I think it was most helpful in answering the questions that occasionally arose, like “Why am I doing this?” He was, and I imagine still is, very good at bringing those theoretical Zen questions to bear on the real life difficulties of maintaining a practice.

On March 28, 2001, Miki ordained me as his disciple. It was at one of the Statesboro sessions and was very emotional and inspiring for me. It was really my formal decision or declaration that I was planning to stick with this Zen path.

I showed my mother a photo of me as I bowed and Miki placed the little rakusu around my neck, and she shuddered slightly! I just laughed, and she was actually okay with it after a moment, but it showed me that she never really could accept the whole thing. It’s all just too foreign to her, I suppose.

My friend Claire and I conducted a sesshin at the Atlanta center, but I never did much more as an actual disciple. Things didn’t continue for many years at the Statesboro center. The illness of one of the people who hosted the sesshins made it difficult, so most of the formal things there ended.

Later, controversy in the Atlanta center, most of which I was not part of and don’t remember much about, caused them to split into two groups. I attended a few sesshins in North Georgia organized by Red Clay Sangha, and they have continued to expand their activities over the past several years.

Events and developments in my life have made it hard for me to attend sesshin in the past several years, but it was a very helpful element of my practice that I may at some time resume when my responsibilities at home allow it.

Another important vector in my Buddhist practice was developing what I called “School is Zen.” That’s the next chapter in this story.

18. Therapy…

[This is the beginning of the entry in the Pages section titled 18. Therapy and the Wall, about my continuing Zen practice and beginning therapy, a visit to the Vietnam Wall and writing about my Vietnam experiences.]

The long journey that led me to take vows as a Buddhist at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in 1993 had taught me a lot, but the depression at the heart of my emotional/mental state seemed pretty resistant to the meditation and the vows and anything else I was doing.


I was moody and angry, and I wasn’t easy to get along with for my wife and kids. I think the meditation helped me feel better about things, but it didn’t really seem to be helping how I interacted with my family. I think I yelled at my middle school students a lot, as well!


It somewhat seems like it should have been a no-brainer for me to figure out what was going on, considering the traumatic nature of my whole Vietnam experience, which I’ve written about extensively on my other blog, A War Journal, though I’ve only briefly mentioned it in this narrative. That experience and the recent death of my father were both still unresolved for me, but it took me awhile to realize how all that was eating away at me and making it hard for me to relate to life and other people.


I though I had packed it all away in some locked trunk in the depths of my mind.


Eventually, things just got intolerable I suppose, and my wife began to push me to do something, get therapy, take drugs — anything to make it better. We argued a lot, and I always felt that I didn’t know what it was that was wrong.
I went on anti-depressants, which I didn’t really like, and which maybe helped some, but they didn’t seem to fix things either. It was a constant struggle for all of us.


Somewhere in there, my wife’s father, Dr. Pisacano, suggested that therapy would be a good option. I’m not really sure how long it took me to act on that suggestion, given the resistance that I had to letting go of control.
But at some point, I gave in. I had my first session of therapy with Susan in October of 1997. According to my journal, which Susan recommended I resume seriously, I felt better right away, just for having made the decision to start.


It was a long and arduous path, because I had really buried a lot in the past 25-plus years. I was in therapy, at varying levels of frequency, for about five years.

[To read the entire entry, just go to the Page listed in the left-hand column as 18. Therapy and The Wall.]

My way-finding

The Pages section of this blog ( which show up as the numbered titles in the left panel) is mostly the narrative of my way-finding… the process, halting and flawed as it was, by which I came to finally find my way to acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings as the best fit for some kind of guidance for my very crazy life. This is a work in progress, and I’m about to begin work on the next chapter in the story, so I’m looking back over what I’ve written so far.

The story attempts to explain how someone with a very Baptist background – my grandfather and great grandfather were both Baptist ministers – came to be an avowed Buddhist. Along the way, I relate some of the crazier bits of my life journey and throw in some ideas about what a Buddhist meditation practice looks like.

Reading back over it I came across this section that gives something of the flavor of the narrative. I’ve been trying to be brutally honest and gain some perspective on the whole thing for myself… which I suppose is the actual reason for doing it in the first place:

I thought at the time that I was truly trying to make things work, but the perspective of the years, the experience on the cushion and in life since, have taught me the truth: I was completely consumed by, not just my passion, but by my addiction to self. I think that I must have convinced myself, – and thought I convinced others – using all the deep thinking and fancy words that I had come to rely on, that I was open and kind and compassionate and deeply concerned about deeply important things… and such bullshit on and on as I can hardly even bear to go back and read in my journal!

But the truth is, I was just very self-absorbed and ego-driven, very blind to the truths about myself, very alienated from life and other human beings, extremely ignorant about the causes of my own suffering and the degree to which I was inflicting suffering on all those around me.

In short, I was where most people are before allowing a little light in, but with an extra added dose of over-intellectualized self-righteousness!

I wish I could say that my arrival in Eugene – know locally as The Green Hole – precipitated a sea change in my attitudes and behaviors and I began a serious quest for Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it took a while longer before light began to dawn in my life.

A new site for posts…

I have recently moved the hosting for my other website, “A War Journal“, to WordPress and am trying to make it a more active site.

It has been primarily a vehicle for generating and making public my book by the same title, but I think it could also be a better place for my social/political blogging, leaving this site to what it was originally designed to be, a meditation guide. I have begun by re-posting a few essays from this site to that one, in the hopes of connecting readers of the two in some way. I’ve created a new category on the War Journal site, “Over the edge…” — which in many ways is how I feel about things these days — and I plan to post new social and political commentary there.

Some things may end up getting posted both places, at least in the beginning, as I feel out this new environment. Thanks for reading any of it! Would love to have a few comments here, and I welcome feedback on the whole process.

Another idea I am floating as a trial balloon is having multiple writers. I’m not very regular at blogging, so it might help to have others interested in writing who don’t want the hassle of managing a website join in the fun, as that seems to work well for other sites that I visit. So, if you’re interested, let me know!

My email is somewhere here I think, but I’ll repost it for simplicity: john.feden@gmail.com

Peace!

Zen Center

It was the Fall of 1994 and Claire had just returned from a visit to Atlanta where she had been reintroduced to old friends in the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and had spent a few hours meditating there over the weekend. Her description of and enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Zen Center dropped like a hot coal in my mind.
Giana and I had been living in Jesup, Georgia for some five years then, and we had been friends with Claire since she and her husband Neill had moved to Jesup about a year after we did. We had hit it off immediately and become best friends, especially as Claire became our doctor and delivered our daughter, Liana.

We shared lots of interests and values with Claire and Neill, but somehow the topic of Buddhism had never come up –we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality at all as I recall. We were all pretty much socialist and materialist in our life philosophies — one reason we hit it off so well in a small south Georgia town where to express such ideas was a sure path to social ostracism. In fact, in Jesup, the first question you’re most likely to be asked upon being introduced to someone is: Where do you go to church?

So we had become fast friends with Claire and Neill, and no one had ever noticed my half-carved Buddha statue sitting in the living room, nor had my quiet interest in Buddhism ever come up in conversation.
But when Claire told me about re-connecting with a friend from Emory University days who had for several years been leading a Zen meditation center in the Candler Park area of Atlanta, I pointed out my rude sculpture to her and told her of my early Buddhist experiences in Thailand, and my continuing interest in Zen. I think I was in the midst of reading Suzuki Roshi’s little book at the time, and was still trying to sit every now and then, so I was ready for the news that there was somewhere I could go for serious Zen.

And more than ready for someone to share it with. Claire had brought home chant sheets from Zen Center, and she and I began doing little meditation sessions in the under-construction second floor of their house, which I was helping Neill build. Of course, I didn’t journal during much of this, so the details and sequence are pretty cloudy for me now 24 years later. I did write in August of 1993: “…I know clearly that I am on the Path now. Consistent sitting (inspired by Claire’s jump into Zen and the legitimization in Giana’s eyes that Claire gives it) has made me sure of the Buddhism that I embraced those years ago when my Thai friend said, ‘Buddha say, just enough!’”

And it wasn’t long before I went with Claire to Atlanta for a weekend sesshin. That first day in the little Candler Park zendo, October 2, 1993, sitting on those black cushions facing the old granite walls of the converted gas station, is very clear in my memory. I remember the slight apprehension as I removed my shoes in the tiny, quiet foyer formed by old windows with white panes, the smell of the incense, and the black backs of the motionless meditators around the walls as I followed Claire to a vacant cushion.
Settling in to my cushion I remember a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at the opportunity to be there, actually sitting with a group of people doing Zen meditation.

For years, I had assumed that such things only happened in faraway places, and that seven years in a monastery in Japan was pretty much the only model for finding enlightenment. Now here I was in the midst of clearly serious Zen practice, only a few hours from home.
I spent most of that first day with tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat and breathed, walked and chanted. In my journal that night, I wrote: “I have wanted to do this for so long, and despaired of ever having the opportunity, so the reality is very sweet.”

I also discovered the Heart Sutra and quickly came to love it. The group chanting, and later my own chanting of it, seemed to open up meaning in the ancient words that a simple reading of it might not reveal. I had long loved the Buddhist sutras, since my introduction to them in the university class in Kansas City, but this was my first experience with how their use in meditative chanting revealed deeper meanings.

So the Heart Sutra and other chants became a part of my regular practice, one that has held up through the years since as a profound comfort through the difficult times of my life.

I think the most important effect from finding Zen Center and a zen buddy was that I began, really for the first time, consistent sitting. I began sitting on our screen porch, because there I could set up my cushion and a little altar and it wasn’t in anyone’s way — or in anyone’s face. I could pop in, sit for a few minutes, and move on with little wasted time. I was teaching school then, so I had a regular daily schedule and could work in one or two sittings each day fairly easily. I found that even a few minutes in the morning helped my school day — engaging with middle schoolers is not easy — go much more smoothly and I was much less affected by the stress of the job.

Surprisingly, my entry into open Zen practice also proved to be a very positive influence in the development of a better spiritual relationship with my mother.

As I mentioned in the chapter on Daddy and the problems we had surrounding my resistance to the Vietnam War, my mother and I had long been on a close spiritual path in many ways, and she understood my pacifism and the need to part ways with the Air Force. But she never had been able to accept my negative ideas about Christianity and my refusal through the years — despite the brief flirtation with the church in Missouri — to find an adult acceptance of “Jesus as my savior”. My mother’s personal faith was a profoundly spiritual version of Christianity, one that I deeply respected, and she was never a “hide-bound” Christian, to use a term she employed. She would have likely been run out of the southern Baptist church she attended had the folks there known the depth to which her differences with their theology extended, but her faith and love were so strong, shone out so clearly from her great, great soul, that no one ever suspected her heresies.
Because she was able to transcend what she saw as the human limitations in the Christian religion, she thought I should be able to do the same, and we had never quite seen eye-to-eye on any of it, especially as she was so acutely aware of the suffering I experienced without a truly liberating spiritual life.

My formal, open entry into Buddhism, while not what she would have preferred for me, was positive for Mother because it made me a happier and more balanced person. She could see that, and for her that was strong evidence in its favor, despite her differences with the beliefs and practices. So our relationship steadily began to improve and we began to be able to have meaningful discussion about spiritual matters.
Though I didn’t really talk about it a lot, I did “come out” as Buddhist to my family — and eventually to my students — with no negative responses. I even made it through that first Christmas with my siblings at Mom’s house smoothly, despite the fact that some of my siblings are toward the fundamentalist side of the Christian religion.

My wife, Giana, was supportive of all these changes, though she wasn’t too sure about it all, and didn’t have any interest at the time in Buddhism or in taking up the practice of meditation. She was, to my great relief, fine with my going off on weekends with our friend Claire for retreats, and fine with holding meditations in the loft of her pottery shop, even supportive of my setting up meditation areas in the bedroom when it got too cold out on the screen porch for sitting.

The next summer, I went off for a week-long retreat at Southern Dharma, this time by myself, and she was very supportive of that as well.

She was fine with most of it because she too could see that it was good for me. I was easier to get along with and less prone to the depression and anger that plagued me after beginning the regular practice.
But it didn’t fix everything.

 

(This post also appears here as a Page in the sequential section as 17.)

Continuing the story…

As part of a commitment I made to myself during a recent meditation retreat, I’m planning to continue the story of my way-finding, which was the original impetus for beginning this blog some years ago.

The story is in the section WordPress calls “Pages” and is sequential rather than most-recent-first, as the blog posts are presented. That works well, as the way-finding is a sequential story… traditionally a thing that describes how one got onto the Way of the Buddha and what it has led one to… or something like that.

I am working on the next installment, and hope to get it posted in the next day or so. The working title of this chapter is “Zen Center”. I hope I have enough distance on all that now to write about it clearly and honestly. It’s not easy to write about things so close at hand and so fraught with personal stuff… but I hope it will be helpful to those for whom the path ahead seems dark. If only by showing that usually, that’s how it is… there’s very little light on the path ahead at any point along the way, we just keep walking, looking for the openings and confirmations.

 

 

After Buddhism…

Yes, I have been waiting on this book for all my life.

Although I’m not yet halfway thru it, I’m loving Stephen Batchelor’s new book. I’m reading it slowly, as it’s pretty heady stuff, but Therese talked about the central idea of it during our retreat at Southern Dharma in April, so I had the basic sense of it already.

I will wait until I’m done reading before I try to really address it here, but the thing about it that has so captivated me is that it allows me to understand first why I was so sure, all those years ago, that Buddhism was for me, and second, why it has been hard to relate to the institutional versions of it with which I have been involved.

Basically Stephen says is that in the first 300 years or so after the Buddha died, many modifications were made to the teachings, changing them from the very practical, relative message evident in the early texts to a more ontological, absolutist kind of religion. And… that what the Buddha was saying is that awakening is not some metaphysical event that ends all desire and thus frees one from suffering, but a process of coming to an understanding of how to end – at least moderate – one’s natural reactivity so that one lives one’s life with a perspective that makes the existential condition of life tolerable and allows one to cultivate an integrated, authentic life.

Yes, that’s the Buddha I have always been looking for!

Hsin Hsin Ming

Long ago, early in my practice, I came across the line “Search not for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” It has always held much meaning for me, though I never really knew where it came from. This past weekend, my dharma mentor, Therese, sent me this old Chan poem:

Hsin Hsin Ming, or Trust in Mind

(attributed to the Third Chán Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨, from the sixth century, but scholars think the poem may be from several centuries later in the Tang)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking
And nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
That we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
Your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
You will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
Fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
And there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
But to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
There is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
We call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state; avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
Do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
Nothing in the world can offend,
And when a thing can no longer offend,
It ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thought arises the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
As when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
The mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality:
The unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
And each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
You will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
But those with limited views are fearful and irresolute:
The faster they hurry, the slower they go,
And clinging cannot be limited;
And even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way,
And there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
For everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome
Practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike
Even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment. The wise person strives to no goals
But the foolish person fetters himself.

This is one Dharma, not many;
Distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
With enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference;
They are like dreams of flowers in the air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
The ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of the One-essence
Is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this
Causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
Both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
All self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
Just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate, nothing excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
In it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
But the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference,
For definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
Because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
For in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

 

Daddy – and back to Georgia

[This is Chap. 16 in the continuing narrative on My Way-finding. Previous chapters are Pages on this site, and links can be found in the menu to the left of the main entry.]

My daddy had a powerful influence on my life.

He was one of those larger-than-life characters who made an indelible impression on everyone, and he shaped me in ways that I’ve only recently begun to understand, though I’ve now outlived him by over a year. He was a tall, handsome man with a personal warmth and a charismatic speaking style that made him the best preacher I ever heard, though he wasn’t a preacher, he was a journalist.

His father and grandfather had both been Baptist preachers, active in the Georgia Baptist Convention and Mercer University, the Baptist college, but Daddy chose a different pulpit: a small-town weekly newspaper. He was a solid Baptist his whole life, and could fill any pulpit with a wonderful sermon, and he raised all of us to be dutiful Baptists as well. I was pretty much into that role until sometime in high school, and college broke me completely out of it (as I’ve related in earlier posts), but that never really came between us at the emotional level.

For much of my young life, I wanted to be him, but Vietnam – and all of the Vietnam era radicalism that I embraced – came between us in a big way. He had been a navigator on B-24’s in World War II, flying out of England in the storied raids on Hitler’s ball-bearing factories, and I became a war resister.

Well – first I joined the Air Force and became a pilot because I knew that would make him happy. But then I encountered the reality of the petty little empire-building escapade that we called, in our ignorance and arrogance, “the Vietnam War.” I went, despite my reticence, because I thought I really didn’t know what was going on there, going on in the world, going on in the exalted realms of the U.S. political system… so I should give up my foolish notions of knowing that it was all wrong and just go, like all the other people I knew who had gone and either died or come back.

And then I got there and found out it was every bit as depraved and stupid and immoral and deceptive and wrong as I had thought… and so after about nine months of it, I bailed. At least I tried to. I told them I wasn’t that into the war and wanted to be out of the Air Force.

They said, well, yes, but… no. You haven’t really done anything bad, you’ve played by the rules, been a good boy, so there’s no reason we should let you out before your commitment is up. So then I said, okay, fine, then I won’t do anything for you anymore. By then of course, I was back in the states and supposed to be an instructor, teaching guys to go there and do what I did for a year and ten days. (I was in country an extra ten days waiting for them to decide what to do with me, since I had an “administrative action pending”.)

It’s a long story, one I’ve related in my War Journal, which is on my website hoyama.org, but the upshot is, I finally got out. In the process of this, of course, my father and I had some serious, divisive, but inconclusive, discussions. He never really understood, though my mother supported me, and even after it was all over – my discharge, the war, the social debate – we never really talked about it at the level that we should have.

And then he died.

On his 66th birthday, really in the prime of his life, while I was living in Oregon, he went into heart bypass surgery and never regained consciousness. We rushed back to Georgia when they decided he needed the surgery, but he was still on the machine when we arrived, and his heart would never resume its work on its own, so he died as I stood in the intensive care ward watching him breathe and listening to the machines beep.

….

I was totally unprepared for the loss, and it flattened me.

I was pretty much lost in grief for some time, but eventually I repressed most of it and went back to my ignorance and denial. But it dug a hole in me that began to fester. All those unsaid things began to eat away my insides, All the regret and guilt of a lifetime eventually ate away my heart and my gut and replaced them with balls of molten metal.

About a year after Daddy’s death, Giana and Luke and I moved back to Georgia to be with my mom. She had been left pretty much alone when Daddy died, and though she was a strong and independent woman in many ways, the solitary life didn’t suit her. She needed family around, so we came.

Moving back to Georgia, I figured any hope of ever finding a Buddhist group to be part of was over. It was Georgia, the heart of Baptist-land. But I brought my Buddha-rupa, my carving, and set up a low-key altar in my house. I continued to think of myself as a Buddhist and read books about Buddhism.

And those balls of hot iron continued to grow inside me. I continued to descend into depression in longer and deeper spirals. I had never figured out that I needed to meditate on a regular basis. It seemed more like an exotic delicacy to be tasted at random, when in fact it’s as necessary as daily bread. So I suffered, and I visited that suffering on all those around me.

….

And then one day, our friend Claire came home from a weekend in Atlanta and told me about this wonderful thing she had found: a Zen center.

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from Arobuddhism.org)
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”