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Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Norman’s Woe is a coastal reef in Gloucester Massachusetts immortalized by the tragic poem ” The wreck of the Hesperus” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of the captain of a ship, the Hesperus, who met a fierce storm off the Eastern coast of New England. His daughter was onboard. Other senior crewman offered their good counsel but the captain was filled with hubris and refused to hear it.

In trying to save his daughter from the ravaging seas, he had her strapped to the mast to avoid the threat of seeing her swept overboard by the tall and ferocious waves crashing on deck. Horribly, all perished, including the girl, who drowned as the ship capsized and, having been tied to the mast, was unable to free herself and possibly survive the calamity.

The tale of an innocent’s death and that of all crewman on the reef is a cautionary fable loosely based on a devastating blizzard that in fact did occur off the coast of New England in 1839. The story rings in my ears as I read the wonderful just published book, Breakfast with Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith.

In this breezy and very accessible retelling of the legacy of philosophy, Smith places each of many of the great philosophers in the midst of our everyday experiences, and we get an opportunity to briefly “dine with them” and imagine conversation on the questions with which we struggle as we navigate the mysteries, triumphs, and travails of our lives. All of this got me to thinking about the enormous treasure trove that is the classics.

Each of the great books, treasures that have withstood the test of time, offer enlightened and ever fresh commentary on our condition. Each of the voices from the ancient choir of the lovers of wisdom offer free counsel to anyone with the courage and mental fortitude to embrace it. Yet, the overwhelming lack of interest, generally speaking, in the classical library remains an undeniable reality.

The cry for relevance, practical plug-and-play utility, and small-minded self-help prescriptions is deafening. It is as if two meals are served: One a banquet of culinary genius, gourmet foods and great wines, and all for free, and it is rejected; while the other,  a grease-stained bag of fast food burgers costing far more than it’s worth, offering unwholesome calories, and containing excessive undisclosed filler materials and meat shot full of antibiotics and hormones, is the one hastily chosen and enthusiastically consumed.

It is time to go back, all of us, regardless of how well versed we are in the classics in general and the writings of the great philosophers in particular, and set up a renewed daily diet of wholesome calories. Furthermore, here’s the irony, like the free gourmet meal, the classics can be downloaded for free.

It is time to learn the lesson of the Hesperus and listen to the counsel of elder sages who speak to us from the deep recesses of recorded history. We can still save the young girl,  the archetypal Sophia, who is the the very soul of Wisdom. We can still rescue her from drowning in the turbulent and vicious seas of postmodernity and 21st century egoism and spiritual consumerism. We can resuscitate her and so revel in the sweetness of her voice, the alertness of her sight, and youthful embrace of the real.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

Excerpted from the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Giovanni Battista Pittoni, Italy (Venice) 1687-1767 oil on canvas, late 1730s "Anthony of Padua was born in Portugal in 1195 and taught and preached in France and Italy. He was canonized in 1232, only one year after his death. His name is invoked to aid in the finding of lost objects. He is the patron saint of the poor and his attributes are the lily and the infant Jesus." San Diego Museum of Art, California

Ah, the pressure of owning things. I work to stay non-attached but the seductions are great. We grow fond of the appliances, paraphernalia, clothing and accessories that form a self-concept package. We can pretend that we are not attached to such things and know the importance of doing so intellectually but that holding back from lustful living is often itself a clever camouflage for its opposite – unbridled identification with our invented identity and its symbols. The true test is how we respond in the face of the loss or theft of something upon which we have come to rely.

This past December, I was given the gift of anew iPhone. Many of my business colleagues had made the shift and I confess being quite pleased in receiving it. The functionality of it has proven quite impressive. Ease of typing, surprisingly, was better than I expected. The touch screen feature is very efficient, the capacity to combine Ipod and phone, GPS navigation, internet access, document reading and editing, Skype calling abroad, and a seemingly endless supply of useful, if not simply entertaining, applications are striking features. Suffice it to say that, in just two months, I’ve become a true fan.

Last week, while traveling on business, I lost the phone. I simply cannot reconstruct, as so often happens, the steps I took, and how I came to get separated from it, but it is gone. Was it stolen when I was inattentive (perhaps when I stopped to check in with a car rental office and left it in the car on the seat), or did I unwittingly drop it in the snow? Whatever happened to it, the device that I had come to rely on was surely missing.

What was interesting was the way I felt. I was angry and I felt, if it was stolen, somewhat violated. In any event, I found myself very down, self-critical         (deservedly), and acted as if I had lost an old friend. After all, it is just a device, an expensive one, but a device nonetheless. This prompted a series of meditations on the meaning of lost articles to the psyche. Our sphere of personal space expands to include the devices and possessions with which we either adorn ourselves or our environments. We breath meaning and personal value into that which we draw close, whether machine or not. We cultivate strong bonds of dependence to what we label as ours.

While I am certainly disappointed in losing the phone, I am also amused at the two days spent continuing the search and, most especially, the dark feelings that the loss engendered in me. Though the lesson is an expensive one, it is still a lesson. We are creatures who naturally become attached. We cling.

We are reassured by what we come to own. It extends our reach into the world. There is unquestionably narcissism in it for we see our reflection in these things. After all, we populate these devices with favorite applications. We name the device. We give it character through selected wallpaper and personal screen savers. We imbue it with reflections of our values and our interests.

Losses like these are reminders and they are corrective. This is not to say that we should never own such things and make good use of them and enjoy them. It simply makes compelling the speed with which we move our sense of meaning into them. It is right and good to stand naked regularly and look at ourselves, at who and what we really are.

It is good to remember that the unadorned, or beginner’s mind, is the true and primordial state, and the only place in which truth resides. All the rest is fantasy and represents a form of from low to high states of play.

Let us celebrate our inventiveness, our cleverness, our technological marvels, and our sciences. Let us thoroughly enjoy the things that give us pleasure, while always remembering, returning to this central truth each day, that it is all an invitation to a higher play: an infinite play of being the vessels through which divinity flows.

Standing alone with nothing at all, we are still the perpetual focus of the Beloved who forever and unconditionally sees our naked grandeur.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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His name is Nicholas: a man who was known in his times for having given his own wealth to those in need, and to be a tenacious protector of children. Under Diocletian, Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith and then served as an attendee at the Council of Nicaea after his release. Legends swirl around Nicholas as a kindly and generous man with a fervent and unyielding faith. Many of these legends speak of miracles performed both before and after his death ( e.g., raising young murdered adolescents back to life, and restoring a kidnapped child to his parents).

In time, Nicholas would become almost synonymous with the mythic Santa Claus ( Father Christmas, the Nordic Tomte or Nisse, Pere Noel, Sinterklass, Pere Fouettard, and Kris Kringle). What is the basis for this enduring image that has been so emblematic of the Season? The good and kindly St.Nicholas represents the best of humanity. He had a large heart, placed others first, and sacrificed for the needs of a greater good based in faith and principles. Often rendered as corpulent, I am reminded of Budai, the laughing Buddha.

The Fat Buddha, as he is known in the West, or the Buddha Maitreya and Phra Sanghachai in Thailand, carries a cloth sack and, though poor, is totally content. He is revered as the enlightened embodiment of true contentment, wisdom, a generous and open heart, and the very meaning of Zen. In Zen Buddhism, Budai is himself a Koan: Asked, “what is the meaning of Zen?” Budai put down his bag. When then asked,”How does one realize it?” He picked it up again.

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Budai set the imagination ablaze with wonder at enduring simple truths that are, as always is the case, harder to reliably demonstrate than to extol, sing praises about, and capture in verse, story, and Seasonal trappings:

  1. All that we need to become we already are.
  2. The laughter of a kind heart heals deep wounds.
  3. One’s bag is full when it is empty.
  4. Openness to all means no stereotyping, no intolerance, all loving and spacious regard for all sentient beings.
  5. A smile is a salve for injury, pain, and disappointment.
  6. The child’s imagination is our first and truest state of being – the state of amazement.
  7. Heaven is now. If not now, most definitely not later. Make it so.
  8. Give of yourself. All else is a proxy for that.

It is said that if you rub the Budai’s belly, it brings good luck. His girth is large not from over-eating, but as a result of taking into himself the poison and darkness and evil all around, and he laughs them into oblivion. So, our greatest act of engaged spirituality is to be the inverse of the three monkeys – i.e., see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Instead, we are called to see it and dissolve it in compassion, hear it and make music where there is only rude, discordant noise, and speak of it so that the evil is named and can then be “called out.”

The Spirit of Nicholas/ Sinterklaas and Budai are celebrated with special vigor in these next 12 days. The archetype of the Healer will certainly be in my mind throughout the season.

May you and yours know deep and enduring peace, true contentment, laughter that ends suffering, and the full measure of being close to those who are richer for the fact that you have shared yourself with them.

Merry ( & Happy) Christmas!

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Poet William Longfellow wrote: ” Listening is the rarest of events among human beings”. When he wrote that life was nowhere near as frenetic as it is today.

With distractions mounting daily, it’s a wonder we listen at all. Add to this the qualitatively different forms of  listening and we at once begin to see both the clear and more subtle shifts in our modes of  listening. As in all things, a closer look at phenomena brings into sharper relief the variations that at a molar level may go unnoticed.

For example, how many forms of snow can we name?

Just bringing our attention to the question reveals the considerable variety that we experience, each different in how we relate to it.  There is the light fluffy stuff, and the heavier, large flakes, good packing snow, and the states of slush, fine powder, sleet, drifting, flurry, blizzard, ground blizzard or blowing snow, snow pellets, and hoar-frost. In a similar vein, I considered the varieties of silence in an earlier post.

Listening also varies across an intriguing spectrum of quality, mood, texture, depth and focus.

For starters, eight come to mind today along with a poetic allusion to their texture and color:

Split-screen listening [tile, gray]:

This is another kind of multi-tasking during which we appear to be listening, good eye contact and head-nodding, while actually mulling over unrelated issues or performing other tasks. The listener experiences this as an intermittent reception keeping comments general enough  to not betray his or her loss of the thread, and to reassure the speaker. It is often seen by the speaker as half-presence and disingenuity.

Anxious listening [knotted, dark blue with red accents]:

At times, we listen with nervous energy, tempted as the other speaks to interrupt with questions, deflect the conversation another way. Inner tensions revolving around some negative expectation or worry distract us. As a result, we may also, be bleeding a great deal of energy away from being present as we anticipate what to say next.

Fearful listening [ torn thick knitting, black]:

Very similar to anxious listening, the fearful mode is distinguished by a readiness to defend, counter-punch, argue, or dodge critique or personally challenging commentary.

Romantic/ devotional  listening [ satin, American Rose] :

This form of listening is the opposite of anxious. It is highly focused and undistracted. All concentration is on one’s beloved. We become entranced with listening to his/her voice, mannerisms, physical features, eyes, and expressions. All else in the surrounding landscape is out of focus and trivial by comparison.

Critical/argumentative listening [metallic, rosewood]:

Like romantic listening, this mode of attention is very focused, but instead of being watchful for that which attracts and enchants, the focus is on finding the blemishes, the omissions, errors of reasoning, and points about which we disagree.  It often combines with anxious or fearful type listening.

Appreciative listening [ wicker, red violet]:

This is a close cousin of romantic  listening, but is less passionate and emotional. It is typified by high order of vigilance with priority given to things being said that delight us, with which we agree or about which we offer encouragement, positive regard, and celebration.

Expectant listening [glossy, smooth, phthalo green]:

In listening expectantly, we are listening not in the here and now, but instead are anticipating and predicting where the speaker is going with his/her commentary. It is projective listening and tends to be marked by frequent declarative statements from the listener who attempts to leap ahead to the presumed end point of the speakers narrative.

Political listening [ canvas, camouflage green]:

In listening with a political ear, we orient toward retro-fitting the speaker’s comments, as we hear them, to set the stage for a redirection to a set of talking points that we are intent to communicate. This is the “staying on message” directive of political operatives.

In discursive private and communal prayer, we aren’t listening at all. We are  asking, telling and/or praising, and one wonders how the Spirit can “get a word in edgewise”. Mindful, then, of the various textures and modes of listening, it is a useful practice for me to tune into the changing face of my listening ( i.e., to ” listen to my listening”) and assess its character, breadth, depth, focus and intent.

What are the variances in your own listening, and how do you experience them as distinct ways of being with another?

The meditation that accompanies this practice focuses on the question:

Who is it that is listening when I turn my gaze toward doing so, to whom am I listening, and for what?

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Several posts back, I presented a Sanzen moment around a Western Koan-like teaching from the Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said: Be Passers-By.”

“How do you show this?”

I received two thoughtful replies and I am returning to it this morning having meditated on it myself, since posing it, with the following results:

One commentary interprets this as counsel to be an itinerant, peripatetic pastor, a wandering bishop offering the message and then moving on to the next place and time: a Johnny Appleseed of the “Good News.” Within the context of the times and the expectation that end times were not far off, abandoning all to the mission at hand seems a reasonable basis for the teaching. But, there is so much more to it as it continues to instruct and reach into my psyche in November, 2009.

What is my first immediate gut reaction to the question: How do you show what it means to be a passer-by?

Next question?!

The Teacher of Righteousness speaks to our need to dwell, ruminate, hyper-masticate, and confabulate. We are masters of tall towers, majestic edifices to the powers of imagination. His aim is to cultivate the free-flowing fountain of direct and spontaneous, unfettered, whole bodied and disinhibited intuition as a balance for the gifts of intellect and emotion. What flows into mind as I say this is the separate admonition to “be again as little children.” Surely, this isn’t a call to whining, pouting, tantrums, food fights, truculence, biting, soiling, or breaking perfectly good toys. The Divine Child, the Platonic Form, the pristine image of the puer, is one of vital instantaneity, playful movement from one thing to the next without too great a residue that might interfere with the next big wonder.

My grandmother, an unschooled peasant from Southern Italy, was the wisest person I’ve met. She had no reluctance to pick up a crayon and draw with the children. She did so not to entertain us and keep us company but because she found it pleasurable. She would laugh hard when things were funny and cry hard when things were bad. She found joy in the simplest things and loved company, eating, singing, drinking a good red table wine, and then on to tomorrow. We found her, after her passing, in bed with a smile on her face.

Being a passer-by is to set the neurotic preoccupations aside by annihilating time. The only way to annihilate time is to dwell in an experience so completely that time itself stops. We have all experienced just this when we become so engrossed that when next we step out of the elan vital we are surprised at how far the clock on the wall has moved.

The beauty of a koan is that there is always more in it, more fruit to taste, more depth to hear, and so I pose it once more as I step into my day:

What is it to “be a passer-by,” and am I living this counsel?

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Rinzai differs from Soto Zen in that the former places emphasis on the use of koans: riddles designed by the roshi to befuddle the mind of the seeker and cultivate clear sight beyond ideas and dualism. The practice demands real effort and  energy in working on these riddles to experience the poverty of intellectual understanding in ultimately unravelling them.

These koans take the form of interrogative exchanges in the encounters with zen teachers called “dharma combat” with challenges such as:

  • What was your face before your mother was born?
  • How do you manifest a butterfly without wings?
  • How do you manifest a sailboat without wind?

The goal is direct and full experience of the real: the unadorned, raw experience of the moment without intellectualization; no allusions, illusions or the delusions we often mistake for real knowing. Coupled with zazen ( sitting meditation) and kin hin ( walking meditation), the practice is a tripartite teaching framework for revelation, spiritual discovery, or so-called “enlightenment.”

Many assume that Koan practice is unique to the Rinzai Zen tradition, but it is not. Western Christianity of the first century saw sects of spiritual seekers that focused primarily on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The “Thomas Christians,” those following in the school of the Apostle Thomas, practiced a process that placed less emphasis on belief, and more on the  “Knowledge of the Heart”. Adepts of Thomas Christianity facilitated the direct experience of  the “Father” through an intuitive and immediate understanding accomplished by much the same process as the Koan Practice of Rinzai Zen masters.

A source document for this practice is the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas,” one of the principal texts of the Nag Hammadi Library ( scrolls discovered concealed in earthenware jars in the desert at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt in 1945). While the Library consists of over fifty texts in thirty codices, this Gospel is notable in that it is completely made up of a series of Logia (or sayings) without reference to stories of the birth or death of Jesus, the mythic detailing of  events or the miracles described  in the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Focusing on any one of these logia serves the same purpose as the koan practice of Rinzai Zen. To show the parallels, here is an especially challenging logion:

“The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us how our end shall be.

Jesus said: Have you then discovered the beginning, that you seek after the end?

For where the beginning is, there shall the end be.

Blessed is he who shall stand in the beginning,

and he shall know the end and shall not taste of death.”

Have you discovered the beginning?

Meditation on the Logia of the Gospel of Thomas is a wonderful practice, one made richer through a dharma combat relationship with a teacher. The entire Nag Hammadi Library offers a plethora of texts that offer the same kind of rich stimulus material for spiritual paradigm shifts. Other extraordinary texts serving a similar purpose are The Hymn of the Pearl and Thunder Perfect Mind.

I strongly recommend the texts and the practice.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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