Wednesday, May 8, 2019

You Must Not Be Any Good

I phoned my painting teacher after receiving three rejections in one day. I wanted him to say they were stupid imbeciles. Instead, he said, “you must not be any good.”

I had read the Rilke letters a couple of years earlier, but I certainly didn’t get it then how risky it was to have my ego rely on the opinion of others. More than dangerous, it is a no-win proposition. If people like what you do, you could quickly abandon your internal compass and just rely on them. And if they rejected what you do, you could either give up or change your work to try to please them. Why didn’t I follow the sage advice from my writing professor, “listen to everyone and believe no one."

I once asked Peter Saul who was visiting our college if he’d change his direction if none of his paintings were selling. Instantly, he answered. I was dismayed. I felt gratitude a few years later when I had teaching jobs, and my livelihood didn’t depend on someone else’s tastebuds.

I was struck in the last year when someone asked what you were about from the vantage point of a distant observer. The person who says they want to do this or that, but isn’t working toward that end is a fraud of sorts. If they really want something, why aren’t they working toward that? Is it because they don’t have the time.

My teacher who so rudely answered me used to teach at several schools across a state. After 12 hours of driving and teaching, he’d find time to paint. Sartre was most productive writing each day after 12 hours of being a journalist. Anyone watching him from the sky wouldn’t doubt his commitment.

My wife is either teaching pottery, teaching tea ceremony, or learning about one or the other. Someone watching her might get pretty bored, but they wouldn’t doubt her commitment. That seems to be what Rilke was talking about.

As to my commitment, which is what I should have written about from the start, I have no idea. That’s for another time after I talk to the person watching me. What does she see? What will she say?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Way Seeking Mind Talk at Appamada, Austin, Texas, 4/28/19


I sent this talk to three spiritual friends who weren’t able to come. One made a comment about why Hillel spoke in the negative, standing on one foot, summarizing the Torah, saying, What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it! The distinction of positive and negative commandments are essential to Judaism, but I’m going to leave that out of this talk. I do have a theory about this, but you’ll have to ask me about that another time.

The second gave me several issues that were confusing to him, one of which was that I wasn’t defining my practice edge. That’s critical to the way, and I added that to my talk. And then I realized that I had a small mind practice edge that I could work on, and a big mind practice edge that would have to work on itself. I’ll get into that.

The third person said what I didn’t want to hear, that I should cut out 1/2 my talk, say less about others and more about myself. I readily dismissed that, having already rewritten this so many times. Peg talked about giving feedback this morning based on a workshop she just led at the San Francisco Zen Center. I said something about how I had received this abusive feedback, and she agreed with my too honest friend. I realized I was using the stories about others as a shield from exposing myself. So I eliminated 1/3 of the talk and added more about my own spiritual growth. I hope you’ll ask questions after this now shortened speech to prod me into the further investigation of “what makes Kim run”?

I love the story about Ananda, Buddha’s sidekick and also the big beautiful dog at Dharma Rain in Portland. Ananda, the man, said to Buddha, “I think I’ve got it. Spiritual friendship is 50% of Buddhism.” “No,” said Buddha, “It is all of Buddhism.” 

My modus operandi has been never to fulfill an assignment. I felt an affinity with Moses when he was told by God to speak to the rock to get water out of it. And so to suggest to God that we weren’t obedient servants, he hit the rock as he had done before. Water gushed from the rock, but he so infuriated God for not following his instructions that he was never allowed to finish his 40-year journey. I had no idea why one of the college custodians called me Moses. Now I know.

So this won’t be a way-seeking mind talk, but rather a way seeking mind talk, without a hyphen. The way found me. I plead innocent. And I hope I don’t get to finish the journey. It is too much fun trying, and I hope others can have that aspiration.

Zen for me is a combination of a sitting practice, an ethical practice, a spiritual practice, and a philosophical practice. I know there is a book, The Three Pillars of Zen. I might have read it years ago but can’t remember. If these aren’t the pillars, they should be. 

Sitting is most important because it allows me to see clearer, like cleaning my glasses which my wife says I don’t do often enough. Stories become old, and I’m left with me. Just me. Me facing a wall. There is the zen story of the teacher who keeps filling his student’s teacup to the point it spills over. The teacher asks me, “How can I take anything new in my mind if it is already filled?

Part of this ethical practice has been my study of the precepts. I did this study at AZC once, and twice at Appamada. For me, the way of the precepts have taught me to look at the effect I’m having on others. Sitting provides room for my ability to foresee the impact of my actions. It also helps me notice how differently I feel when I squish a bug with my foot or carefully transport her to the garden. I realize more and more how I’m not a unique individual that has a world revolving around me, but rather a little part of an amazingly complex and beautiful cosmos. 

My spiritual practice has been an exploration of the non-material world. I grew up believing that there were only physical entities. Yet love and art did not seem to be material. As a photographer, I realized that there was a vast difference between the silver halide particles that sat on a paper support, and a photographic image, that possibly only existed in my consciousness. Love, too, was not material. What caused me to be attracted and/or care for another? What caused the way to make me a slave? The way itself is non-material. If I combed the universe with a fine tooth comb, I would not find love, or beauty, or the way. Does that mean they don’t exist? Some of the celebrated atheists, starting with Bertrand Russell, seemed to use that as part of their argument. Not material for them meant doesn’t exist. Or, they believe, if art, love, and spirituality can be explained as a physiological process then they aren’t real. I’ve come to realize that the material stuff that exists if it exists at all is pretty uninteresting. We think we are alive. But when we die, all that is material is a bag of bones. Nothing leaves the bag of bones. Were we anything but spirit?

Last is the philosophical practice. This is exceedingly important to me. I believe we all have philosophies that lead us through our lives. I don’t see a difference between philosophy and religion. Both deal with how we see the world. They answer questions about why are we here and what are we supposed to be doing. Questions like why do bad things happen to good people and vise versa. These questions are unanswerable. Yet they are essential to ask. In Buddhism, we speak of “Beginner’s mind,” that is really a great starting point for all these inquiries. It is really accepting that the answer to all these questions is “I don’t know.” It takes a lot of practice to get to “I don’t know.”

So how did I get here, or how did the way get me?

For the first five years of my life, we lived in an apartment in Chicago. My mom told those in the building to give me appliances and machines that were broken. One of the happiest memories I have is sitting on the stairs going up to our apartment and taking apart a clock to see how it worked. I couldn’t even wait to go back to our apartment to perform the dissection.

A classmate, Bruce, asked me to go to church with him when I was 12 or so. My mother said no that I couldn’t go, I was too impressionable. She was part of the conspiracy, using reverse psychology, to get me addicted. The next Sunday was Easter, and, I think I went to six churches. BTW, reverse psychology is also called “paradoxical marketing.” We do a lot of that here.

My grandpa told me he’d give me a Jaguar if I married a Jewish girl. When he went broke, I bought my own Jaguar at the model shop. Actually, my mom bought it. It was about 8 inches long, made of plastic. I painted it black and then put red dots on it that contrasted nicely with my dark green bookshelf.

I had everything I needed as a kid. My parents differentiated between wanting and needing. My dad would take us to the Museum of Science and Industry near our home in Chicago. We’d go to the museum store there, and the game was to convince him that we needed to buy this or that. I think it was his way of teaching us persuasive speaking. My sisters and my parents were exceptionally verbal. It was hard for me to get in a word edgewise, as the expression goes. And my mom couldn’t hear very well. I couldn’t pronounce words correctly, so I was mostly left out of conversations. Yesterday I was at the doctor’s office with a mom and three kids… a little boy and his two older sisters. That was me, that little boy. I can’t imagine how my mom dealt with all of us. 

All I wanted to do was to take things apart. I loved math as well, but the rest of school was challenging, especially since all my schooling through high school was at the Univ. of Chicago laboratory schools. What saved my life was finding a photo teacher there, Robert Erickson. Erickson was part of the Way conspiracy as well, teaching me to speak without speaking through my photography and drawing. That was when I was 12, and instantly I was a photographer. He was a fantastic teacher never telling me what to do. Or so I thought. Years later, when I was teaching, and he was speaking to me about how I needed to give students choices, I said to him that he never told us what to do. “You don’t know how much I told you what to do,” he said, laughing.

Too many good things were happening in my life to believe this is a probabilistic universe. I used to read a book of miracles at night at the U of C library where I went to do my homework. I so wanted to observe a miracle. Then I realized a few years ago that we have nothing but miracles in this life of ours. The wonder of us all being here, on Earth, at Appamada, caring for one another is a much bigger miracle than in that old book about people who saw the image of Christ on an old piece of cloth. 

Down the street from us was our neighborhood Catholic Church. It had a brick wall around it with no openings on the side of the street that I was allowed to be on. We were confined, as kids, to a 25-block area around the Univ. of Chicago. But we also were allowed to wander around downtown Chicago alone, so I wasn’t completely sheltered. I figured out that the brick wall surrounded the center of the earth. I guess it was Hell, but I didn’t want to go near it to see. Finally, years later I went to the church and saw that the deep hole to hell was now a lawn of grass. I did love the mass in Latin. It was so eerie and foreign.

How could I reconcile the contrast of my parents who thought that we no longer needed religion to my grandpa’s view that I should marry a Jewish girl? In fact, my father believed that the survival of humans on Earth depended on intermarriage.

In the summers I went to a poor little town in Oregon called Cannon Beach that since has become a vibrant big town. I worked at the horse stables, still there in some form run by Terry, the son of my boss, driving a stagecoach, running a burro ring, and taking people riding on the beach and in the woods. It was quite a growing up experience bossing around grown men, telling them not to run their horses. I was such a little guy that my friends called me “Mouse.” The Burro ring was the most fun because the local girls would come and talk with me. My grandpa would come from Portland every weekend, and we’d work together gathering firewood, fishing, and working around the yard. He would always let me do as much as I could. Years later, I worked quite a bit with Linda’s dad, Delmar Burgin, who is now 100 and going strong. He knew everything about home building and repair and would let me do it all. His job was often to just grunt when I was doing the wrong thing. I’m so grateful to the two of them for what they gave me both in terms of confidence and skills.

My father gave me (and many others) a way of looking at the world. Weekly, most of my adult life, I’d call him and complain about something. He’d somehow shift the complaint somewhere else, and we’d have an interesting conversation. Once he told me that you can never move too slowly. I worked with my students on this one for a week, then called my dad back. Dad, I proudly said, we figured it out. What, he said. What you said last week, that you can never move too slowly. “What,” he said, “I’ve never heard anything so stupid.” That was my dad.

I was neither part of a Jewish community or a Christian community. 

My dad rarely spoke about Judaism, overtly, that is. He was convinced that his family’s best option was assimilation. He even insisted that my sister Gail joined the local church when she moved to Louisiana. 

When my mother’s uncle, the rabbi Lewis Browne,  decided that all religions were mainly the same and gave up being rabbi, the whole family followed and left most of their religious practice behind. Leaving Jewish spiritual practice behind became the norm for many not only in the United States but also in Israel.

My two sisters, Gail and Sandy, were my guides to growing up. In fact, they would often say in unison, “Grow up a little, will ya.” Gail understood me. She’d always be available to talk, especially about my frequent questions about girls. She even taught me to dance, which I never learned to do very well—partly because she mistakenly taught me the steps in reverse from what the guy should do. When a girlfriend invited me to be on Chicago Bandstand, I knew it was time to end that relationship.

I want to get back to this Way that sought me. I joined a very liberal Baptist Youth Group in Chicago, went in the spring to a Baptist camp to whitewash the cabins, and ended up getting a job as a dishwasher there. During the breaks, I’d question the kids on their unsinkable faith. After one week I was told, “You really don’t want to be here, do you?” 

In college, I was exposed to Kerouac, saw Ginsburg, read Alan Watts, and was in love with Buddhist thought. Then I took a course which included William Blake. His view of Christ as a tyger rather than the lamb we made him into was quite appealing. I had several Catholic friends and was jealous of their devotion. But I couldn’t have it for myself because it seemed so intellectually dishonest. I had my art, and I had my family. But I wanted more.

In 2007 I retired from teaching over 35 years and then being a dean of Liberal Arts for 3 1/2 years. It was a good move, even though my dad made me promise on his death bed that I would neither retire nor be a dean. I summoned my mom, who’d been dead for 5 years, and she said, “Shut up Edmond.” My dad, being fatherless and lacking the proper psychological training, wasn’t allowed to give us advice.

I now had the perfect setup for retirement. I had a pension close to my salary, a house and a large studio on an acre and 1/2. But the only life I knew was as a student or a teacher. I was 61. I’m not sure how the Way did it, but I decided I would learn about Judaism or Buddhism. 

My mom had a little meditation instruction from a yoga teacher. She said to me, why don’t you meditate? She had me sit on the carpet and put together my thumbs and forefingers. Maybe I was supposed to do something with my eyes. I think I sat for about 5 seconds.  In college, a psychologist told me I was my own best expert. I told him, no, you don’t know my mom.

I met a rabbi who had a little congregation in a room in a basement. He gave me an exhibit of my artwork, and I started to attend his services and a discussion group. I couldn’t sing, and I had no background in Judaism, and I was utterly lost. At about the same time, I went with my wife who has always been fascinated with Japanese arts, to a brush painting class. There I met a couple, Will and Carol, who invited me to their sitting group. I started going every week and soon went to a retreat with their teacher, Carl Jerome. He had me sitting every day, counting my breath. Whenever I’d see him, he’d ask, “how’s your sitting?” I used to love that and also would have no idea what to say. He later left Zen to a Chan temple, and I started going there on Sundays. 

So how’s my sitting?

Carl, I’m beginning to think that my sitting is beginning. Before I was just there, on the zafu which shows us how to sit by sitting 24/7 on the zabaton, but now, after 12 years, I’m not just looking like I’m sitting but actually doing that. I’m finding more and more that I’m returning to relaxing or maybe returning to returning. Returning to relaxing my slouch, sitting upright. And returning to relaxing my mind, which means to let my thoughts in and out, imagining they are a river flowing through me. Before I was just letting them in and pretending. Pretending wore out, I guess.

After moving to Austin, I started up at AZC. I made some great spiritual friends there. That was especially important because they were so patient with me, such a rank beginner.  And I was new in town, hardly knowing anyone. AZC was good to me at first with Barbara and then with Kosho. And in my usual manner, I said yes to everything and was doing a dozen or more tasks there. Early on I took a day-long something with Flint, though I actually don’t remember it very well. I think it was sufficiently different from the rest of AZC that it didn’t quite register. And I wondered what love and psychology have to do with Zen. 

Finally, too many straws broke my camel’s back, and I started going to Appamada. For a while, I was just going on Sundays, Wednesday nights, Inquiry and Depth in Practice. At some point, for a practice period, I stupidly said that I would come every morning. I was just going to do so for the practice period. But I never figured out how to not come and sit. Flint has challenged me to see if I can stay away. Perhaps that is more of the Way's paradoxical marketing, asking me not to practice. It reminds me of Rilke’s question to the young poet that he should ask himself in the middle of the night if he must write poetry. Maybe if he doesn’t have that need, he should drop the entire idea and try something else.

If meditation was easy… if I could understand any of this, I’d quit doing it immediately. I’m a glutton for punishment, and I love challenges.

Here’s why my teachers, Peg and Flint, have been so valuable. Over and over again they tell me I’m wrong. I appreciate that so much. Last week I presented to Peg my latest before the latest sitting theory. She pointed out the errors in my thinking. She thinks my dog was not in a state of open awareness by the woodpile but was concentrating on the mice and the baby rabbits. And even with what I just said, she’ll probably disagree as she so often does. I appreciate endlessly how each of my teachers has been saying yes, but… all my life. 

I also appreciate Appamada. Henry Kissinger said something like the only place politics is worse than Washington is in colleges. Appamada is fantastic in that it does work. People are treated well. They are allowed to learn and perform to the extent of their ability. There is mutual respect for one another that I have not experienced anywhere else. One regret I have is that I didn’t come to any of my administrative jobs with this experience. I started to write, I might have tried harder. But Linda, Melissa, and Gary will tell you that wasn’t my failing. My failing was I should have relaxed.

In fact, I did a piece for St. Louis public television. I asked my family “what do I need?” and one of my kids answered, “to relax.” Another said, “to worry less about your kids.” I took a picture of them saying this, then mounted them on blocks of wood that were put into a canvas shopping bag that I had painted.

I had thought when I retired I would work for the rest of my life to prepare myself for my next lifetime. It wasn’t that I was a great believer that I’m a phoenix that will be reborn, but more that this seemed like a good practice. Also, I thought Judaism and Buddhism would be a reasonable inquiry about death, as was my sisters’ passing in the last few years. Then one day I realized that there is so much that I’m doing, and so much more than I could be doing that I’d forego that idea of preparation and just do things. I think the shift occurred when I was asked to be on an Appamada council, and also when I was “elected” to be on our Buddhist Action Now Council, even if I voted against me. These all seem like opportunities to make a little difference in the world. 

Two more things. I love the Torah and the Talmud. Especially the Talmud. It reminds me of all the conversations I had with my father. In Judaism, I found so much of my parents. Even the prayer we thought my mom made up and I altered. It was from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5), “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” My mom would say this to us and to the grandkids, “I love you with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might.” I added that she should ask my name because I wanted to be sure she was saying the prayer to me. So that’s become part of our family prayer, depersonifying God. It was curious to learn many things from Judaism, for example, that “might” meant “riches” rather than “strength.”

I started to work toward a Bar Mitzvah, doing a drawing and writing every day on the Torah. I only finished about 150 days. Early on, I discovered the Bar Mitzvah was not originally an elaborate ceremony like it is today, but was automatic when a boy turned 13.

And my family has been so much a part of this Way. Part of me regrets I had nothing much to do with religion growing up. But part of me reacts, like my mom, with the heebie-jeebies when I hear people talking about God as a being. That seems so dishonest.

And both of my kids are getting some religion, my son, Josh, from his Jewish wife, Sarah Zwerling, who loves Jewish holidays, my daughter, who is head of the board for the school at Congregation Beth Israel, and my grandkids, who argue about God when I drive them to Sunday school. In the latest episode, I asked my 4-year old Nate where was God. At school, he said. When Nate came to our house that evening, I asked him if God was there today. No, he said.

Second. I love Koans. We study koans on the fourth Wednesday night of the month. Literally, they mean “public case.” Two monks are usually having a conversation. It starts out mundane, coming from the little mind, and suddenly becomes earth-shattering, coming from the big mind. Often, in the process, someone is enlightened. 

It isn’t a meal in Judaism if you don’t talk about the Torah. So maybe in Buddhism, it isn’t a dharma talk if you don’t discuss a koan.

Here’s one I wrote for this talk:

What is my way?


Where did I go?


Then how can I return?

I can’t.

At that, I wasn’t enlightened. 

My way is returning. This stuff I do isn’t entirely about relaxing, as I suggested. It is about returning over and over again to the job at hand. So I am washing my bowl. Am I wondering what I’ll have for dinner? That’s wondering what I’m having for dinner. So I return to washing my bowl.

Thursday I was timekeeper. I hit the bells to begin and end the zazen and the chants. I missed one of many bells in the middle of a chant. It wasn’t a critical bell, and I’m not sure if even Peg noticed. But I was lucky. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the time. I somehow looked up enough that I didn’t miss when our sessions began or stopped. But this job was too critical to rely on luck. My practice edge—that which is between me and the practice I’d like to have—is paying attention. It is returning more and more frequently to the task at hand. Waking up, as we say. Note: I spoke with Vaughn about this Friday in our peer-to-peer practice. I realized then that my real practice edge was something I had mentioned to him a year or two ago, about how, in a dream, I came to a steel wall and couldn’t find a door, and was trying to get to the other side. I guess that’s my big mind practice edge. Paying attention is my small practice edge. Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen, “So let’s just sit with what may seem like confusion. Just feel it, be it, appreciate it.“ The absence of a door isn’t something I can do anything about. I just have to sit and wait until the door appears. Then I can go through it.

Next is the question, where did you go? The photographer, Harry Callahan, used to say that people would go on vacation and forget to take themselves with them. He meant, superficially at least, that their pictures were entirely about the place and not about the person making the picture. People think they’ve stepped off the boat, but really, mentally, they haven’t left home. You are here, wherever that might be. Always. And when you aren’t, you return. To your center. To who you are.

Next is more manageable, and maybe breaks a little with the koan form. “How can I return?” I merely said you can’t. So the way is nothing but returning over and over again to relaxing body and mind, just where I was in the first place.

I sent this version of the talk to a friend who also is not able to be here. She’s a therapist, and also loves to dance, sing, and play the cymbals for a band. She asked me how did I express my spirituality. It seemed what I was describing was mental to her. This is an excellent illustration of how friends can be so helpful. It reminded me of Reb Anderson’s essay on “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen” that Michael Sporer and I poured over for a month. Reb Anderson wrote, “Conventionally speaking, Zen students say, ‘Now I am going to the meditation hall to do zazen.’ However, the formal actions which you or I perform in assuming the traditional bodily posture of sitting medita­tion are not actually the zazen of buddha ancestors. Their zazen has nothing to do with sitting or lying down. These ritual forms which we humans practice are a ceremony by which we express and celebrate our devotion to the actual reality of zazen.” So zazen is an embodied practice, rather than solely a mental practice. 

In an earlier version of this talk, I spoke about walking through Central Market as being the practice. I told that to Peg once, and she said, “oh, a self-improvement program.” I was noticing that I wasn’t being very thoughtful about others and they were saying, “excuse me.” Really I should have been the one saying excuse me. Now I’m thinking of Central Market differently. It is a practice to return over and over again to the task at hand. Wheel the cart, avoid obstacles, get the groceries. Then comes the challenge. You were told to get pineapple, and they are out of pineapples. To add insult to injury, you go to the service counter to complain, and everyone is working on spreadsheets, and they won’t look up. Your choice is to get angry or to return to relaxing body and mind, and have gratitude that they are giving you time to do a little three breath meditation.

So here’s how I can do it, the next time I am frustrated and thinking of going postal. And if you don’t think I’m ever there, talk to my wife, Linda. Or even ask all my imaginary animals in our house.

Here’s how I’ll return. Let’s all do it. It just takes 10 or 20 seconds. First, I take a very deep breath. I let air into my lungs, making sure I bathe all the recesses of my lungs with oxygen. I hold it there for a second, and then slowly release it as if I’m saying goodbye to a beloved guest. Then I repeat this two more times, and I’m home free, realizing that they have other food at Central Market besides pineapple.


Joshua, 1980