Monthly Archives: January 2015

Judge not…?

Yesterday I wrote an essay on Schadenfreude that was occasioned by the front page of a grocery line newspaper trumpeting the difficulties in the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin.  I was shocked by what I judged as a cynical intrusion into the pain of other human beings, and I excoriated the paper and those who fed on its patent sensationalism. I went so far as to condemn the paper for exploiting “pain to titillate ungenerous hearts” and that this seemed “unkind to the point of viciousness.”  After unloading my own pain at what I had judged as the uncaring and selfish behavior of other people, I did my best to turn toward compassion, quoting a wonderful talk given by George Saunders in a graduation talk at Syracuse University. His theme was kindness, and the fact that the beauty in every heart can become covered over by self-centeredness and a lack of empathy.

My post prompted this caring and insightful comment by Michael who writes a lovely blog called Embracing Forever.   Michael managed to dolly back to a point of broad perspective that tempered my negativity far more effectively than I had.  Here are his words:

“Great post, John. Reading this, I realize I need to watch Saunders’ speech all over again…! In reflecting on this concept of schadenfreude, and your thoughts on reading the tabloids in the supermarket aisle, it struck me that perhaps not everyone who buys that magazine is doing so out of schadenfreude. Perhaps there are others whose “life dial” is turned down to pretty low volume, and that through reading about and vicariously connecting with these “larger than life” idols and pop stars, they experience or touch something that may be felt to be missing in their own lives.

There may, for instance, be a whole segment of the market who purchases those tabloids who are crying with George and Amal, who are not happy at all, but feel as though they, too, have lost something. The fairy tale has ended. It’s just a bit of a projection on my part– a leap. But it does come back also to what you describe, nonetheless, to pain that we feel. To some fear or sense of inadequacy that suggests others are in better position to live and express the meaning of life than we are, others who have more to offer, more gifts or talents, more potency of what matters. And what could be farther from the truth?

It is sad, as you wrote: “The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.” It is sad that so many, whether in schadenfreude or lack of esteem or self-worth– for whatever reason– have come to rely on vicarious projection as the generator of life experience, as the generator of emotional fodder.

There is so much within that is missed in these projections, but also… perhaps it is merely kept safe until we are ready to truly go there…”

I find Michael’s words beautifully wise and kind, and although I am sure he did not intend this result, his thoughts encouraged me to reflect upon my own (hopefully brief) foray into the land of negative judgments.  I would like to share three ideas:

1.  There is a thin line between “judgment” and “discernment.”   Surely the world is not ideal.  Michael and I meet in the sadness we feel at the pain in the hearts of so many people that sometimes leads to unconscious and unkind words and deeds.  But it is not only wiser, but more effective, to greet the less-than-ideal with understanding and compassion.  Harsh negative judgments only drive the unconsciousness more deeply into the psyche.  “Only love turns away anger” says the Buddha, and the same is true of all pain, including that expressed as schadenfreude.

2.  I have always found St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:1  both enlightening and a shade poignant:  “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”  This is more than the beam of wood in your own eye while judging the mote of dust in another’s.  For I not only occasionally do the things that I judge, but it seems to me that in the very act of judging, I am doing what I condemn.  While I am railing at another’s unkindness, I am being unkind.  When I condemn another for lacking compassion, my words lack compassion.  And when I judge other people for seeming to enjoy the pain of another, I am finding relief in my own supposed “superiority.”   I am afraid St. Paul has a point: in judging others, I judge myself.  In fact, what do I really know about another person?  Whatever i say about another says far more about me: my degree of wisdom and compassion, my array of values.

3.  Finally, i want to remember to view my own negativity with compassion.  That tabloid cover really jolted me, and I felt great empathy for Mr. Clooney and Ms. Alamuddin.  Having gone through some of that pain myself, I felt a great investment in treating their travails with kindness and respect.  As I noted in another post, even Jesus had his moments of impatience and harsh  judgments.  I think we can use those moments when we miss the mark to increase our understanding and our self-knowledge.     As Rumi teaches, every movement of our minds and hearts–whether saintly or selfish– is a gift:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

SCHADENFREUDE

In the line at the grocery store yesterday, It was impossible to avoid the bold headlines of one of America’s more popular rags.  It trumpeted that after four months of marriage George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin are headed for a 200 million dollar divorce after countless screaming fights.  Seeing this “news” placed so unavoidably in the checkout line made me sick to my stomach.

First, it could well be sensationalistic speculation, a distorted spin that feeds people’s schadenfreude: the joy and pleasure felt at other people’s misfortunes.  But even if it is true, it means that two human beings are in a world of pain right now, and to exploit that pain to sell papers and to titillate ungenerous hearts seems unkind to the point of viciousness.

Schadenfreude is countered by the Buddhist virtue of joy, or “mudita” in Sanskrit.  This is not a Snoopy-at-supper-time giddy dance, but simply rejoicing in the happiness of other beings.  It seems obvious that a loving heart embodies compassion and empathy for the fact that we are all fighting a very hard battle, as the popular quote has it.  A great example of schadenfreude is the Grinch, whose “heart was two sizes too small.”  He was ticked off at the joy of Christmas, and did all he could to ruin it.  In the case of Clooney/Alamuddin, the vicarious hit of a glamorous marriage quickly gave way to envy in hearts too small.

I realize that tiny hearts are in pain themselves, and perhaps rejoicing in other’s misfortunes eases that pain a bit.  I know from experience that when I have acted with negativity or judgment or anger, it has always been from a place of pain in myself, and not from a place of open, confident love.  It simply strikes me as terribly sad that millions of people have Grinch-like hearts, at least enough of the time that papers can make so much money pandering to the need to feed on another’s pain.

I also find comfort in the knowledge that millions of people long to be kind, as George Saunders said at Syracuse University:  “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”   Saunders is encouraging, however, in his reassurance that kindness, while difficult, is a deeply natural part of human growth:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.  Again, Saunders put this powerfully:

“That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

Carpe Diem Tan Renga

More-rain-430wikimedia

On carpe diem haiku kai, the challenge for today is to complete a tan renga.  This is a collaborative creation of two people, the first supplying a traditional haiku, and the second completing it with two lines of 7 syllables each.  Our host, Chèvrefeuille, wrote the first three lines, and I offer the final two:

sweet perfume

mingles with the sound of rain–

a dog barks

senses blend–harsh and lovely

early morning languid doze

ON RITUAL: A Sip of Tea

The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Chado
In an earlier post I wrote about how rituals could easily lose their juice on the one hand, or be gateways to an incarnate beauty on the other. I spoke of the Catholic Mass and its climax in the Consecration. Today, I would like to reflect upon the Japanese Tea Ceremony since I think that the analogy between the Tea Ceremony and the Catholic Mass is particularly apt. Truth to tell, most Americans and many Japanese find the tea ceremony a crashing bore. One finds oneself kneeling uncomfortably while watching an unsmiling and perhaps nervous young woman whisk tea into a bilious froth. Being asked to eat an over-the-top sweet while feeling large and clumsy in one’s ignorance of the proper ritual can be a nerve-racking experience. “What’s all the fuss about?” is a perfectly good question.

Imagine how partial and mechanical it would be to isolate the five minutes of the consecration from its context within the Catholic Mass. Even more profoundly, it would be a jarring dislocation to view the consecration outside of the encompassing rich spirituality of its tradition and of the masters of that tradition. The same is true of the Tea Ceremony. What most of us witness is a small slice cut from the rich texture of the complete ceremony and its ancient tradition.

Before outlining a few of the values inherent in the Tea Ceremony, I’d like to share a couple of my experiences in Kyoto, where I lived for many years. I was once invited to participate in a formal Tea Ceremony at one of the venerable villas in the Higashiyama district, close to the Silver Pavilion. There were 7 guests, six of whom were Tea Masters from various parts of Japan. I was clearly the odd man out. The ceremony itself was offered by two famous Masters from the Urasenke School founded by Sen No Rikyu (about whom I will speak later). I had to memorize four pages of movements and formulas so as not to embarrass my host. The Ceremony lasted for four hours!

The guests first gathered in the garden while we had a chance to get to know each other. We then had formal tea (thick tea) in the main tea room, while the Masters explained the origin and history of the cup from which we drank. This was one of the most important elements of the ceremony. The cup was crafted by a famous potter over four hundred years ago, and had graced many famous tea ceremonies. The feeling of an amazing history living today in this very cup was inexpressible. We next adjourned to a porch overlooking a beautiful Zen garden framed by the borrowed landscape of the Eastern Hills. Here we were served an elaborately simple kaiseki meal of exquisite quality. Finally, we moved to a more simple tea room for an informal tea gathering (thin tea), and shared the recognition that we had been blessed with a rare experience.

On another occasion, my elder son and I spent an afternoon visiting the Daitoku-ji Zen temple on the North side of Kyoto. This was the temple at which Sen no Rikyu lived for most of his life. We wandered into a sub-temple and found the Zen Master giving a lecture laced with great humor to a group of high school students. Luckily my son’s Japanese is much better than mine, so he was able to tell me what was going on. After the students had left, we struck up a conversation with the Sensei, and told him that we were both practitioners of meditation. He got very excited, and brought us into the meditation hall of the monastery where we spent a fascinating hour learning rather esoteric breathing techniques. The man’s enthusiasm was contagious. As we were leaving, he asked us to stop by in the morning for more conversation and some tea. We of course agreed. The next morning he brought us into his study, and we sat on the tatami floor while he chatted away. He picked up a brush and wrote in flowering calligraphy “Cool stream flows over green moss.” He handed it to me with a wink, and said in English, “Japanese air conditioning.” He then continued chatting and joking as he prepared a cup of tea, and he was well into the preparation before I realized that he was perfectly performing the formal motions of the tea ceremony. I have never seen anything like it. D.T. Suzuki says in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, “Tea is Tea only when Tea is No-tea.” Even more than at the formal ceremony described above, I learned that morning what all the fuss was about.

Like the rituals found in every culture, the tea ceremony is a dance of prescribed grace. Each gesture is practiced over and over so that its precision has the flow of nature. Second, the tea ceremony is a form of worship, not of transcendental gods but of the sheer wonder of existence in the here and now. In his Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo puts it this way: “Tea…is a religion of the art of life. It is a worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane (1956, 9. 33). It was a time set apart when like minded souls would “meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation.” Finally, chanoyu, the tea ceremony itself, can be understood and appreciated only within the broader context of Chado, the Way of Tea, and this more broadly still within the context of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Chazen ichimi: Tea and Zen are One
The Japanese monk Eisai visited China in the late twelfth century of the common era. He returned home in 1191 with two imports of profound significance for Japanese culture: Zen Buddhism and the green tea that Chinese monks drank as an aid to meditation. (Even today, the green tea drunk in Japan carries a terrific wallop of caffeine.) Over the years, the drinking of tea ranged from monastic ritual to opulent tea-tasting competitions in great villas. It was, however, the great Tea Master Sen No Rikyu (1521-1591) who established the art of Tea as a celebration and an embodiment of the Taoist and Buddhist values that lie at the heart of Zen. Under Rikyu’s guidance, wabi-sabi, the feeling of rustic and elegant simplicity, became the soul of tea. And from this ground of wabi-sabi, Sen No Rikyu taught, spring the great flowers of the Tea Ceremony: Harmony, or gentleness of spirit (wa), Reverence (kei), Purity (sei), and Tranquility (jaku). These characteristics are the essence of Chado, and they are the essence of Zen.

Zen and the Tao
Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese Ch’an, which in turn is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit Dhyana, or meditation. When Buddhism made its way into China from India, it took root in the fertile soil of Taoism. In many of his books, Alan Watts says that Zen is as much–or more–Taoism than Buddhism, and there is some truth in this assertion. I hesitate to write about the Tao, since Lao Tzu, the most famous voice of Taoism, states at the beginning of his book that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”   The minute one begins to talk about the Tao, the Tao is lost.  There is a central insight of Taoism, however, that relates directly to our discussion of ritual. This is the notion of “wu-wei,” not-doing, or non-action. In verse 43 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says:

The softest thing in the universe (water)
overcomes the hardest thing in the universe (rock).
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words, and work without doing
are understood by very few.

A Sip of Tea
Dhyana-Ch’an-Zen Buddhism is redolent with the spirit of wu-wei.  It is this spirit that flows through, and is embodied by, the great Zen arts, each of which is manifested within a particular ritual. To become a student of these arts–tea, poetry, ikebana (living flowers), or sumi-e painting–is to devote oneself to a path that leads to an awakened mind, a peaceful spirit, and a compassionate heart. At their best, they embody the Taoist ideal of Wu Wei, as did the Sensei at Daitoku-ji. In the act of painting, or poetry, or the pouring of tea, the ego falls away, and the one pouring is the pouring. In that instant, time and eternity, the subject and the object, the pourer and the pouring, merge into non-dualistic unity.

Thus, the very same ritual can be a shoddy, empty waste of time, or the sacred embodiment of egoless love. It depends upon the intention, attention, and the attainment of the practitioner. Simply going through the motions because they are the “right” thing to do is dehumanizing. But to bring loving dedication to one’s practice is to approach the tranquil realms of the Tao. Okakura Kakuzo captures this with eloquent simplicity: “…Let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

Lost in the Mist Haiku

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

This is a picture of the main gate to Honen-in, a temple of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. It is found in the Northeast corner of Kyoto, just off the Path of Philosophy.  Its precincts are relatively small, but a precious, tranquil oasis.

cropped-cropped-cropped-misty-entrance11.jpg

pure land gateless gate

Nirvana on either side

hiding in the mist

Sacred Arrow Haiku

byudo center Kyoto City Budo Center

Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.

Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968.  I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture.  For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism.  None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.

Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:

kyudo kneeling

Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:

girls kyudo

On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art.  It was truly a marvelous dance.  I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:

target

One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time.  It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart.  When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation.  He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.”  He smiled.  “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).”   I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:

grace smoothly flowing

his back straight as an arrow

old man disappears

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

First Market Haiku

 

100_0034

The dramatic statue holding sway over the campo dei fiori (field of flowers) in Rome is that of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). He was an Italian Dominican monk who fell afoul of the inquisition about 15 years before Galileo did. Bruno held that the stars were suns like our own, that there could be many habitable worlds, and that the universe was infinite with no one body at its center. He also questioned transubstantiation, Mary’s virginity, and the divinity of Jesus, which really got him into trouble. He was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in the year 1600. Today the plaza is a thriving market, and one of my favorite places (I took this photo about three years ago). The statue is still a matter of controversy, as some conservatives object to honoring a heretic in this way. He is, however, a hero to progressives.

Giordano Bruno

brooding over first market

tasting bitter fruit

linked to carpe diem haiku kai