Tag: Zen

Great Expectations

Baby baby, she's just a baby
Baby baby, she’s just a baby

In her book Everyday Zen Charlotte Joko Beck talks about having great expectations and searching for paradise. “It seems to us that paradise is lost,” she says. She goes on to say: “We have, if not great expectations, some hope that sometime paradise is going to appear to us.”

She concludes that “There is no paradise lost, none to be found. You cannot avoid paradise you can only avoid seeing it.” OK great, chop wood, read about enlightenment, and take photos of flowers.

Despite knowing that this baby sunflower is perfect as it is (thank you Miss Beck), I have great expectations for her. I expect her to become trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful…oh wait a minute that’s something else.

To roughly paraphrase Charles Dickens from his book Great Expectations: “I expect her to know the delights of freedom.” I’ll be back to take her photo in about a week, when the wind is as calm as clam shells and the light is as warm and fuzzy as my brain on Valium and Vodka.

Note: those conditions do not happen every morning.

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate?
The Gateless Gate?

The Gateless Gate is a collection of 48 Zen koans compiled in the 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Mumon Ekai. Pausha Foley, an amazing artist and self described strange creature that doesn’t exist, explains the gateless gate in a way that even a child like me of 58 can understand:

“The gate is a creation of the human mind. As long as one believes oneself to be one’s mind, the gate is as solid and real as the mind is. As soon as one cases to identify with one’s mind however, the mind and all its creations reveal themselves as what they are: a bunch of ideas, devoid of any substance. So, from within the mind the gate exists, from outside of the mind it does not.”

If this isn’t crystal clear by now I give you koan 7, Joshu Washes the Bowl:

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl”, said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

Of course one very important point must be made; if you don’t rinse your bowl before putting it in the dishwasher, it will not get completely clean and you will not be enlightened. The cleaning lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute says otherwise, but they also say that pre-rinsing is a needless time suck. Obviously they’ve never heard of the theory of relativity.

Contentment and Catnaps

Zen cat
Zen cat

The dictionary defines contentment as the state of being mentally or emotionally satisfied with things as they are.

Socrates said: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Yes, but I want more…

I was in a greenhouse yesterday looking at seeds and starter plants, it was really a beautiful place to be, and for almost three minutes I was content. A cat calmly strolled in and completely ignored me, or so I thought.

I remember Eckhart Tolle saying something about cats as Zen masters, so I asked this cat to teach me about contentment. Again he ignored me, but I watched him.

He walked carefully between the rows of flowers and herbs, and I wondered if he was telling me to take time to smell the flowers. Then he began eating them, and I wasn’t sure if this was a sign to eat healthier or to do whatever makes you happy.

After he finished destroying a basil plant he hopped off the table and headed to his favorite place, which was literally the best seat in the house. He lay down on some warm boards in front of a sunny window, and looked at me as if to say: take a picture it’ll last longer, and then went to sleep.

If he was trying to tell me something I missed it, and on the way home I thought about new motorcycles, mansions and yachts, just a few of the things I feel I need to be content.

But I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted, I had enough money for lunch, and I had a picture of a Zen cat.

Charles M. Schulz said: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, look to tomorrow, rest this afternoon.”

Maybe that was his message; maybe I simply needed a catnap. So I went home and took a nap in my warm bed in front of a sunny window, and it was good. Now all I need is to move into this greenhouse and start eating plants.

There’s a great shade tree to park my bike under, my yacht will be moored of course, and as Elmer J. Fudd taught us, nobody really needs a mansion.

The Razor’s Edge

Razorblade Suitcase
Razorblade Suitcase

The Razor’s Edge is a book by W. Somerset Maugham and its inscription reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”

Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen wrote: “When we walk the razor’s edge we’re not important; we’re no-self, embedded in life. This we fear-even though life as no-self is pure joy. Our fear drives us to stay over here in our lonely self-righteousness. The paradox: only in walking the razor’s edge, in experiencing the fear directly, can we know what it is to have no fear.”

“Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the time we want nothing to do with that edge; we want to stay separate. We want the sterile satisfaction of wallowing in “I am right.” That’s a poor satisfaction, of course, but still we will usually settle for a diminished life rather than experience life as it is when that seems painful and distasteful.”

Put another way by Eckhart Tolle: “The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor’s edge of Now – to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now.”

So you gotta ask yourself one question, how soon is now?

Right Concentration on the Path

The Path
The Path

Sometimes the path is a soft cushion of grass on a warm sunny day, with birds landing on your shoulder and baby deer leading the way. And sometimes the path is a slippery downhill slope, covered with ice and snow on a cold winter morning. In both situations it’s important to concentrate.

Eve Adamson and/or Gary R. McClain, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living said: “Concentration means working on achieving a one-pointed mind. If you are doing something, concentrate wholly on what you are doing.”

Now I’ve known many idiots but few were complete idiots, and fewer still were complete idiots interested in Zen living. So maybe a more practical quote might be easier to understand.

Serena Williams once said: “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.” I wonder if she’s the one that said you only live once, but you get to serve twice.

The Best Horse

The Best Horse
The Best Horse

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes: “In our scripture it is said that there are four kinds of horses. The best horse will run before it sees the shadow of the whip. That is the best one.

The second one will run just before the whip reaches his skin. The third one will run when it feels pain on his body. The fourth one will run after the pain penetrates into the marrow of his bone. That is the worst one.

When we hear this story, perhaps everyone wants to be a good horse-the best horse. Those who find a great difficulty in practice of Zen will find more meaning of Zen. So sometimes I think the best horse is the worst horse and the worst horse is the best one.”

In this case, the best horse took a break from eating his lunch to let me take his photo.

Beginner’s Mind

Simple pleasures
Simple pleasures

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What he calls beginner’s mind refers to doing something without thinking about achieving anything, which could be recognition, likes on a Facebook page, or a tweet by the President and a free room for life in one of his hotels.

Last night I spent two frustrating hours taking photos of colored pencils for a piece I wanted to write called selective focus. It was to be about the way we get caught up in our own bullshit by the way we think, and what we think about. So of course the photo had to be tack sharp, it had to be perfect.

Finally I decided the whole thing was pointless and gave up, putting the pencils in an old cigar box along with some crayons I had for another project on color. I looked over and saw something that was random and perfect and nothing special (also the title of a fantastic book by Charlotte Joko Beck).

I took six photos for the simple reason that I thought it was cool. Yes, I shot RAW and JPEG in manual on a tripod, but people don’t change overnight. And it was absolutely perfect in its own way! It’s a simple photo of crayons in an old cigar box given to me by my father 20 years ago.

So at 2 am last night I had an epiphany and it was free, there is true joy in doing something just because its fun. I can’t wait to tell this to my therapist next week when I pay my bill. She might tell me that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I have a feeling she’ll read more into this than there really is.

Something You See Everyday

Amish farmer
Amish farmer

Back when Vanna White was in school learning prepositional phrases, there was a game show on TV with a duck that dropped down holding a secret word for a chance to win $100. It was a common ordinary word, something you see everyday.

Living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I see the Amish every day. I see them riding in buggies, working on the farm, stepping into shoes and dipping in the pocket of their raincoats. This may be as close as you can get to the chop wood, carry water way of life.

I shot this photo of a young Amish man working on his farm that is right behind a group of kitschy restaurants and tourists attractions. Places with names like Dutch Haven, Amish stuff, and the quintessential Grandma Jack’s Gourmet Popcorn. The people that see scenes like this must think about their own lives, the choices they made and the games that they play.

There was a time when I went to meetings with many steps and bad coffee, where we compared miseries and complained. Sooner or later, someone would inevitably say that you have to play the hand you’re dealt, meaning to accept the things that you can’t change. But what about the second part of their favorite slogan, to change the things that you can?

The real question might be, if life is a game, can you try for a better hand, or at least draw a few new cards? And what about the stakes, how much should you bet? Knowing that it’s the only game in town, you have to go all in and ignore the odds; you have to bet your life.