Sunday, October 13, 2019

THE ART DEALER'S LEG

I dreamt I cut off an art dealer's leg. I won't name him, but I know who he is. He was with a couple of women, and seemed unconcerned when I cut it off. I had heard somehow from his doctor that there was gangrene or some other problem with the leg, so I started to cut it off. There seemed to be no blood or pain. When I finished, the stub looked as pink and bloodless as a baked ham. It was only then he seemed to realize what I had done. "You'd think," he said calmly, "if my leg was to be amputated I would have been consulted." That was all.

Then I realized the seriousness of what I had done. In a panic, realizing my responsibility, I started to apologize wildly, protesting--which was a lie--that I had tried everything to consult with his doctor first, to have his doctor inform him of the need for the amputation. I was crying while I was trying to convince him.

Then the dream ended. I have no explanation for it. Or... Could it be because I'm no longer very much involved in the art world? Perhaps it was my own leg I was cutting off... And replacing it with a baked ham. That must be it.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

KIND OF A BOOK REVIEW: "Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen," by Brad Warner

(A book review in epistolary form...)

Dear Brad Warner,

I have a few thoughts about your new book, “Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen.” (They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I hope you’ll forgive this clumsy appropriation of your letter-writing style!) The dead friend of the title and the one you write to, Marky, is---well, was—a punk rocker like yourself, a black musician who died of cancer at much too young an age. Your
letters build an endearing portrait of the man—and not incidentally of yourself, the letter writer, Soto Zen teacher at the Angel City Zen Center in Los Angeles, filmmaker and bass guitarist as well as an itinerant guest lecturer—and suggest a loving bond between you, an intimacy that it’s nice to be let in on.

Given this relationship, it’s natural that you’d write to him with the slangy familiarity of a couple of musician pals. It’s not my language, so I honestly found it quite difficult to adjust to; I worried, from the start, that it would prove just too hip, even a bit condescending, at least for this reader. But don’t worry. I got over it.

And I found plenty of good stuff. (I hate that word, and wish you wouldn’t use it as much as you do. But then, I use it too, so I’m hardly in a position to complain.) Anyway, I’d like to thank you for a solid introduction to Zen—a branch of the Buddhist tree that has attracted me from afar, but with which I have little familiarity. I did spend a week sitting zazen on Mt. Baldy in the early days of my own Buddhist education, but that was long ago. I branched off elsewhere.

What I like particularly is that you do not make it easy. There are a zillion books out there that make Buddhism in all its forms sound like an easy answer to life’s many problems—and we have enough of them, in this contemporary world! Meditation and mindfulness are all the rage, and there’s no shortage of people—including those in the book-publishing business—who are all too happy to cash in on it. You make no such promises. On the contrary, you stress constantly that the practice of Zen is a long, hard road, and one that requires dedication, determination, and years of hard work. I like that you revert frequently to the example of your own life and admit freely to your failings along the way as well as your successes. Buddhism is no sinecure.

I share your distrust of easy answers, and of teachers who offer them. I share your skepticism when it comes to religions and putative gods of all kinds. Your practical, no-nonsense approach to the conundrums with which life and death confront us appeals to my own learned sense of what I hope is healthy pragmatism. When it comes to the unanswerable questions, you honor the beliefs of others with the proper respect, but test them out with astute critical analysis.

I like that you are unafraid to tackle the unanswerable questions, however, and that you do not make light of the sometimes difficult and confusing concepts that Buddhism requires us to address. You do so forthrightly, and with both humility and clarity. Humility when it comes to not claiming to possess the right, or the only answers; clarity in being able to write about those concepts so that we can understand them. Most of us have a hard time with the Heart Sutra, for example: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” A conundrum, if ever there was one, not unlike other widely misunderstood or easily diluted concepts like no-self.. Rather than offering explanations, your clarity seems to offer us a way to get in on the secret, helping us to be comfortable with paradox and contradiction, to be open to meaning even when it’s hard to come to a rational understanding.

I like that you are knowledgeable about other branches of the Buddhist tree than Zen, and that you are able to bring that knowledge to bare sparingly, and appropriately. That you can refer us without pretension to literary sources and other fields of thought, providing us with historical, religious and philosophical context. I like that you share your obvious familiarity with many of the colorful characters who have followed in the Buddha’s path, and that you write about them with humorous affection for their foibles. That you make them come as alive for us as they seem to be for you.

I feel obliged to add that there’s some iffy stuff (that word again!) The big one is the reveal that comes at the end of your book, where your very last sentence reads, “And I apologize for lying to you.” Yes. You lied. I won’t be more specific because that would be a spoiler and I want other people to read your book. But I have to say that your last letter, this one addressed not to Marky but to your “Dear Readers,” felt like a slap in the face. You wrote eloquently about the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, one element of which is Right Speech; and about the precepts common to all branches of Buddhism, one of the most basic of which is the injunction: “Don’t lie.” So when I read that you’d been lying to me all along, I was pretty much outraged. Having been taken in by it all I quite honestly felt betrayed…

But then my outrage made me think again. Perhaps I should think of this slap-in-the-face as a kind of Zen wake-up call. Do they still use the keisaku in the zendo, that rod they smack across your shoulders in zazen when you get sloppy or sleepy? Or do contemporary Western sensibilities forbid that kind of physical correction? Anyway, that’s how it felt. So maybe I should read your whole book as a kind of Zen koan, one of those stories you also write about, the kind that often ends with the teacher rewarding the student with a nasty jab—or a kick in the pants—as the inscrutable answer to some absurd, unanswerable question. To jolt him past the quagmire of doubts and questions into enlightenment. Perhaps I needed this reminder, at the end of your book, of the Buddha’s injunction not to take anything for granted, to distrust even teachers, to distrust even his great wisdom, and return to the evidence of my own eyes, my own tested experience. Perhaps I needed that shock to remind me that it all comes back to the present moment.

Which is after all why we learn to just sit. So, okay, thanks, Brad. I enjoyed your sometimes perilous travels in Europe too. And your book is a good read, a good reminder. So, ta-ta for now. Be well. Your friend, Peter

Saturday, September 28, 2019

A DREAM TO LEARN FROM...


I dreamt that Ellie and I had rented or borrowed this house to host a party/conference of some kind, a big place, with lots of polished wood—columns, walls, floors and stairways—something like one of those posh old ships. The conference concluded with a celebratory feast, and the participants had cleaned up only superficially, leaving a lot of work yet to be done. And Ellie and I still had our things to pack before leaving, with some kind of deadline ahead.

We started work on the completion of the clean-up. I was annoyed to have been left so much to be done. Outside, I found quite a number of the others continuing their conversations, sitting at two tables in a kind of bower. At the head of one of them was a man I’d known as a leader of the men’s work I was once heavily involved in. He greeted me as I arrived, wanting to enlist some help.

I tried to quiet the company and tell them there was still work to be done inside. I would appreciate some help. But they pretty much ignored me, went on with their conversations, laughed at my attempts to quiet them. Instead of shouting out a firm “Listen up! Here’s what I need,” I shrugged at their unwillingness to help and marched back in to get the job finished with Ellie.

I was starting to clear one the tables of debris when I woke, still overwhelmed with a feeling of dread at all the work that needed to be done. Then a hearty sense of relief when I realized it had been a dream. No clean-up!

I began to expand on the apparent metaphor suggested by the dream—the political mess we’re in, the degradation of the environment, my own overburdened sense of responsibility for it all. But then I focused on a more personal issue: the reticence I learned as a child, the “me last” ethic I have carried with me all these years, the difficulty I have always had in saying plainly and forthrightly what I need; and the resentment that I feel when put-upon by others.

A rich dream, then. Much to reflect upon…

Monday, September 9, 2019

THE EXAMINED LIFE

We are back in Los Angeles after a lengthy summer stay at our Laguna Beach cottage. It is 10 degrees hotter here--I think in terms of ambient energy as well as air temperature. I feel the difference, and recognize the need to also make adjustments to the inner life  to adapt. It takes a while.

Meanwhile, I have been reflecting on the writing that I'm working on--a sequel to "What a Good Boy Am I," the story of my childhood growing up in England during the Second World War and the post-war period. I'm looking now at the years of my young manhood, from ages 18 to 25, a time of great confusion and insecurity as to my identity as a man and the direction that my life would take.

Given the mistakes I made, my obsession with myself and my own needs, my casual misuse of others for my benefit, I find myself wondering what there is to like about this young man. I conclude that it is his vulnerability, and the suffering that makes him no different than any other human being. When I ask myself what it is that impels me to write so much about myself--as a child, as a young man--the principle reason I can find is nicely expressed in the familiar precept attributed to Sophocles, that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

The other reason that I tell myself is this: there is value not only to myself but potentially to others in sharing the sometimes dark, sometimes even shameful depths of my human experience. The more I'm able to be get to the heart of my own being in the world, the closer I come to every other human being with whom I share this planet; the more painfully personal, the closer to the experience of all humankind.

So I persist.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A LOVE STORY

I have a story to tell. It's a lovely, human story and this is a time when we can all use lovely, human stories to remind us that we are not the lowest of all species on the planet Earth.

The story starts many years ago, in the 1950s, when an undergraduate student (that was me) fell in love with another undergraduate student--who did not fall in love with him. Instead, she fell in love with another undergraduate student, a ridiculously handsome, charming man from India, who also fell in love with her. This was a time when interracial relationships, let alone marriages, were "not on." Ancient and powerful social conventions militated against the couple, as did her family. Perhaps his family, too.

It was after we all left Cambridge and went out on our (initially) separate ways that I met up again with this young woman in London. I still loved her, and engaged her in a brief, rather stormy and, on my side, sadly immature relationship. Even after we broke up, even after years of wandering, marriage, settling down, having family and eventually growing old I never forgot this first real love of my life. She remained always in some quiet corner of my mind. It was humbling to discover, many years later, when I actually found her on the internet and we had a friendly exchange of emails, that she scarcely remembered me at all!

Which is not the end of the story. That exchange of emails took place ten years ago. (There was hope in the air; Obama was elected president!) It was a short while ago that I began to think about those youthful days again and decided to say hello. I wrote an email. It bounced back. I wrote to her old college, which is how I had found her in the first place. They had no updated information. I went back through our emails for possible clues. Looked up a friend or two she had mentioned. One had died, another was untraceable. Remembered she had a daughter with the same name as my daughter and searched for her.

I had almost given up on finding her when I recalled the name of her Indian friend at Cambridge and googled him. Found his name quite readily and noted that he'd had a distinguished career in the field of education. Discovered that he had a Facebook page. Facebook! Ridiculous! I went there, only to ascertain that his wall had gone unused for the past two years. Still, I messaged him, without much hope that he would ever receive my message and reply. Besides, he had more than likely lost contact with her after all these years. We are all now in our 80s...

To say I was surprised to receive a response from him only a couple of hours later is a wild understatement. And not only had I managed, against all odds, to find him, I had found him, to my absolutely amazement, with her! At that moment! In Australia, where I knew she had been living for many years. Both of them now widowed, they had reconnected several years ago and have been seeing each other regularly since then.

Kind of a fairy-tale ending for them, then. I hope they both had long and happy marriages. I hope they each had, still have, wonderful children and grandchildren. But--perhaps this is nothing more than romantic fantasy on my part!--the thought of a couple reunited after so long a separation, one caused by nothing more than long-discredited social racial prejudice brings hope and joy to this old, not quite yet jaded heart.

So that's my story for the day. I don't know how much I have invented, how much misremembered. But I'm sticking to it.