Browsing Category "Books"
6 Oct
Posted in: Books, CDL
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What it Means to Be Free. Truly Free.

Rutherford's Travels celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Middle PassageFor me as a writer and artist (which I had almost forgotten I was until I heard this man speak about his life  — and Buddhism — as an expression of these things), the highlight of the CDL training retreat last week was a visit from Dr. Charles Johnson, the amazing writer, artist, speaker, prize winner, teacher, philosopher….listener!….who I am ashamed to say I had never even heard of before the CDL program.

To give you just a glimpse of the breath and depth of this man, let me quote from the preface of one of his twenty-two books, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing.

“From my parents and grandparents, who were born during America’s century of apartheid, from unrecorded stories I heard told by family and friends, then later from a lifetime of studying black culture, literature, and history, I came to see that if black America has a defining essence (eidos) or meaning that runs threadlike from the colonial era through the post-Civil Rights period, it must be the quest for freedom.

“This particular, eidetic sense of our collective meaning, arising out of historical conditions, and the way the Founding Fathers’ ideal of freedom was inscribed with a special meaning in the souls of black folk, has shaped almost every story, essay, novel, drawing, teleplay, and critical article I’ve composed for the last three and a half decades. No matter whether I was writing about Frederick Douglass or James Weldon Johnson, Booker T. Washington or Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Ellison or Phillis Wheatley, my sense of black life in a predominantly white, very Eurocentric society–a slave state until 1863–was that our unique destiny as a people, our duty to our predecessors who sacrificed so much and for so long, and our dreams of a life of dignity and happiness for our children were tied inextricably to a profound and lifelong meditation on what it means to be free. Truly free.

“….The number of black Dharma practitioners will, I predict, grow significantly in the twenty-first century, particularly among our scholars who want a spiritual practice not based on faith or theism and compatible with the findings of modern science; and also among the groundbreaking, innovative artists and writers whose spirit and sense of adventure cannot be contained by the traditions of the West (which, of course, they appreciate), and who hunger–as I did–to experience the world through and be enriched by as many cultural perspectives as possible. All our human inheritance; and all, like Buddhism, have something valuable we can learn.”

22 Sep
Posted in: Books, Travel
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On To The Next

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m feeling much better, so now I’m preparing to leave on Saturday for the next CDL training retreat. I return on the following Saturday, so check back for my next post on Monday, Oct 3.

In the mean time, I leave you with yet another selection from my favorite guide for travelers: Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

Trading Cities. 4.

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taunt strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form. 

19 Aug
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The Citizens are Mistaken

celestial terrestrialNote: I leave on Sunday (8/21) for a retreat at Spirit Rock and won’t get home until very late on Aug 30. It will take me awhile to get back to “normal” once I return, so I probably won’t be posting again until Monday, Sept 5. Please check back then.

As part of my getting-ready-to-travel ritual, I have selected a passage (more or less at random) from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, to accompany me as I venture out into the world.

I offer it here for your digital traveling pleasure:

Cities & The Sky.  2. 

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggest for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.

They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower town. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled bubbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.  

In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial and one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.

Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a-flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail-cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heavens long-tailed comets fly past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

15 Aug
Posted in: Books, Homework
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What It Means To Be Civilized


As part of this month’s CDL homework, I’ve been reading selections from “Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections of Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice, by Charles Johnson (pictured above, who will be a guest speaker at our next training retreat in September).

Here’s a passage that strikes me as particularly important–and timely–even though (maybe especially because) it was written more than 10 years ago:

“….At stake in the Martin Luther King, Jr. story are not only questions about American race relations but also deeper issues, older conundrums about what it means to be civilized in the political and social world, about how one confronts social evil without creating evil, division, and enmity, even questions about what Buddhists call pattica samuppada (Dependent Origination) that resonate beneath the surface of King’s remarkable and too-brief thirty-nine years of life.

“Clearly these are matters of urgency–especially the demand for civility–when in our spiritually bankrupt world awash in pop-culture vulgarity and terrorist acts…our leaders during the last presidential campaign [2004], on both the left and the right, shamelessly employed in their desire to ‘win’ such tactics as mudslinging and character assassination. (Prescient, King once stated, ‘We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect,’ and also counseled, ‘We must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle.’)

“Would that today’s arrogant, ankle-biting and so often shortsighted politicians, with their red-meat rhetoric, might remember what King told Freedom Riders in 1960: ‘Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.'”

21 Jul
Posted in: Books, Groups
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According to How We Act

future will ariseI’m still getting ready for the “Let’s Talk Dharma” discussion on Karma (which meets tonight at my house!), so I’ll just post a quick quote from Ajahn Sucitto’s really wonderful book on the topic: Kamma and the End of Kamma. (click here for free e-book)

“The past is not dead; its effects carry potential. The future will arise according to how we act on that.” 

27 May
Posted in: Books, Travel
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Traveling in Italian

1014cf74_originalI leave tomorrow for a few weeks in Italy. I’ll be staying awhile in Florence (this photo is of the room I’ll be staying in!) and then I’ll go on to a little town about an hour away, Castiglion Fiorentino, where I’ll visit with friends, take a writing workshop, and practice speaking Italian!

I won’t post again until I return, so check back sometime after June 14.

As always, before I embark on any significant journey, I consult my favorite “travel guide,” Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino:

Cities & Names 3

For a long time Pyrrha to me was a fortified city on the slopes of a bay, with high windows and towers, enclosed like a goblet, with a central square deep as a well, with a well in its center. I had never seen it. It was one of the many cities where I had never arrived, that I conjured up, through its name: Euphrasia, Odile, Margara, Getullia. Pyrrha had its place among them, different from each of them, and like each of them, unmistakable to the mind’s eye.

The day came when my travels took me to Pyrrha. As soon as I set foot there, everything I had imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had become what is Pyrrha; and I thought I had always known that the sea is invisible from the city, hidden behind a dune of the low, rolling coast; that the streets are long and straight; that the houses are clumped at intervals, not high, and they are separated by open lots with stacks of lumber and with sawmills; that the wind stirs the vanes of the water pumps. From that moment on the name Pyrrha has brought to my mind this view, this light, this buzzing, this air in which a yellowish dust flies: obviously the name means this and could mean nothing but this.

My mind goes on containing a great number of cities I have never seen and will never see, names that bear with them a figure or a fragment or glimmer of an imagined figure: Getullia, Odile, Euphrasia, Margara. The city high above the bay is also there still, with the square enclosing the well, but I can no longer call it by a name, nor remember how I could ever have given it a name that means something entirely different.


Arrivederci. Ci vediamo presto!

24 May
Posted in: Books
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Urban Pilgrim

home-NSC-cvrI am intrigued by the title of an article I ran across in the BCBS Insight Journal, “Urban Hermit: A Different Way of Being in the World.” While I love the idea of living like a modern-day Thoreau, in a sweet little cabin somewhere off in the woods, I’m pretty sure the reality of it would totally do me in…unless, of course, it was a very cushy cabin…with a nice, clean, flush toilet…and no mice, or snakes, or bugs!

Also, I would want to have access to meaningful, human interaction on a regular basis (as Thoreau did), and to books and to the world of ideas, so this cushy little cabin would have to be within walking distance of a coffee shop. And maybe a diner. And there’d have to be internet access, of course.

So it gets complicated.

I value time alone, but I don’t really want to be a hermit.

I love simplicity, but I know that everything depends on everything else…which makes life complex.

So instead of being an Urban Hermit, I think I want to be an Urban Pilgrim. I want to live in an urban environment, but I don’t want to withdraw into it. I want to live this life as an intentional journey. Looking outward as well as in. With time alone. But also with fellow travelers. And I want to travel as lightly as I can.

So…I’m going to check out a book mentioned in the article, which also has a title that intrigues me. New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest Cityby William Powers (2014). It’s an account of how he and his wife “jettisoned 80 percent of their belongings and moved from their 2,000-square-foot townhouse in Queens, across the river to a 350-square-foot micro-apartment in Greenwich Village. It chronicles their attempt to live slowly and mindfully in frantic Manhattan.”

Sounds like a great little guide book!

15 Apr
Posted in: Books, Travel
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Coming and Going

DIOMIRAMy brother and his wife are coming to St. Louis tomorrow to stay with me for a few days, and then I’m going out of town again…this time to attend another Community Dharma Leader (CDL) training retreat. I get back on April 28, but won’t be posting until May 2. Check back then. 

In the mean time, I leave you with this selection from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. It’s my favorite “travel guide,” which I always consult whenever I leave–or return–home.

Cities & Eyes: 4

When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress’ walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire.

“Happy the one who has Phyllis before their eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains,” you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis’s inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant’s tent, avoiding that certain creditor’s window. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.

Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the one who catches them by surprise. 

14 Apr
Posted in: Books, Poems
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The Opposite of That

taking-it-personalIn Buddhist psychology, equanimity is understood to be one of the “universal, beautiful factors of mind,” which always arise together in every wholesome mind state…along with confidence, mindfulness, a sense of dignity, non-greed, non-hatred, and non-rigidity.

In Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein writes, “For most of us, there is a deep conditioning in the mind to try to hold on to what is pleasant and to push away or avoid what is unpleasant. But it is precisely this conditioning that powers the rollercoaster of hope and fear….When equanimity is developed, we ride these waves with balance and ease.”

Which is exactly the opposite of what Tony Hoagland writes about here (so beautifully…and yet so painfully):

by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal–

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain–
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
belive in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I belive in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

13 Apr
Posted in: Books, Practice, Retreats
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Wanting, Getting, Not Wanting to Let Go

wanting-itIt will be my turn to lead the Sunday Sangha this weekend and I think I want to talk about wanting and getting…and not wanting to let go. And I think I want to read something of what Bhikkhu Bodhi has to say about this, from his wonderful little book: The Noble Eightfold Path. (free download)

“It is just at this point, when one tries to let go of attachment, that one encounters a powerful inner resistance. The mind does not want to relinquish its hold on the objects to which is has become attached. For such a long time it has been accustomed to gaining, grasping, and holding, that it seems impossible to break these habits by an act of will.

“One might agree to the need for renunciation, might want to leave attachment behind, but when the call is actually sounded the mind recoils and continues to move in the grip of its desires.

“So the problem arises of how to break the shackles of desire. The Buddha does not offer as a solution the method of repression–the attempt to drive desire away with a mind full of fear and loathing. This approach does not resolve the problem but only pushes it below the surface, where it continues to thrive.

The tool the Buddha holds out to free the mind from desire is understanding. Real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things still inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective on them so that they no longer bind us.

“When we understand the nature of desire, when we investigate it closely with keen attention, desire falls away by itself, without need for struggle.”