Category Archives: Love

Japanese Images of the Virtues

Tenryuji pondThis is the temple pond of Tenru-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.  The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character “Kokoro,” which means heart, mind, or spirit.

The images below are in no way “official.”  They are simply paintings or statues that I came to love during the years I spent in Japan.  For me, they embody the Buddhist ideals called the four Bramaviharas.  This word refers to the “sublime attitudes”–loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity– that open the door to the “dwelling (vihara)” of the “Divine (Brama).”  They are sometimes referred to as “the four immeasurables ” since their attainment is without end.

These four are also called the “Buddhist virtues.”  As I have suggested in other posts, the idea of “virtue” has become etiolated in the modern world, perhaps as a result of a Puritanical focus on sexual propriety.  The notion of virtue, however, has a rich heritage that carries across many cultures:  Toku in Japanese (as In the great Shogun Tokugawa: the River of Virtue); Te in Chinese (this is the Te of the Tao Te Ching);  Arete in Greek, referring to the excellence of things from crafts to character; and Virtus in Latin, deriving from the word Vir (man, or more generally human).  In all of these traditions, I believe, Virtue points to a maturely developed human character–or more simply, a grownup.

The cardinal Western virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are all complimentary facets of the jewel of character.  They exist together or not at all.  For example, one cannot be courageous, temperate, and just unless she does so wisely.  Thus all the virtues infuse and empower each other. They include perspective and focus of mind, a generous and open heart, integrity or centered and present wholeness, and a sense of fairness to all.  Aristotle said that Happiness (eudaimonia, or human flouishing) consists in activity in accord with virtue.  I believe this is a philosophical way of saying that a flourishing life is one lived from the very best in ourselves.  That, to me, is a noble aspiration.

The Eastern Virtues are likewise complementary.  It seems to me, however, that there is a shift of emphasis from the Western tradition of Wisdom as the lynchpin of the Virtues, to Loving Kindness as the leaven of the virtues.  Thus, the Western list of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice, becomes Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in the Buddhist tradition.  Here are some of my favorite images:

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Aunt Alice

Alice

My father’s sister was born in a small town in New Hampshire to recent Irish immigrants. The year was 1896. With no more than an 8th grade education, barely able to read and write, this remarkable woman lived a life of clarity, integrity, and grit–all laced with a large dose of humor. Decades before the feminist movement, she embodied the ideal of a strong, intelligent, and independent  woman. I want to share a couple of her outstanding traits with you, traits that I am still trying to emulate.

Alice was 9 when my Father was born, in 1905, and shortly after that their father disappeared from the picture. I never did get that complete story, but Alice became a surrogate parent, quitting school at age 14 to begin work in the local shoe factory, and ultimately sending my Father to university.  In her early and middle years she found solace in the formulas of the Catholic church, and this, combined with her direct and unadorned communication, put her at odds with my Mother, who was a proper midwestern Protestant.   Neither woman was “wrong,” but boy, were they different.  Out of loyalty to my Mother, this tension led me to pull away from Alice for many years, but the graceful turnings of life reunited us in bonds of love during her later years.  She worked at the local high school on the lunch counter until she was 91, and died in 1991, just shy of her 95th birthday.  She lived independently almost until the end.

Here are two stories that demonstrate her direct approach and stunning emotional honesty.  Since we lived 200 miles apart, Carolyn and I could only visit her about once a month.  We would sit for hours at the dining room table drinking tea, while Alice regaled us with stories about her girlhood and the history of our family.  One day, Carolyn nonchalantly reached into her bag and continued to knit a sweater she was working on.  Silence descended, as Alice fixed her eye on the clicking needles.  Then, in her heavy new England accent, she said “Deah, did you come heah to knit, or to visit me?”  The needles disappeared, and the conversation continued without a trace of ill feeling.

The absence of emotional residue is what I find inspiring and humbling.  Eckhart Tolle tells of the ducks who, when they “get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flaps its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.”  Alice was so good at this, she didn’t even have to flap her wings!

Here is another example:

A lovely young couple lived next door to Alice and they took wonderful care of her in our absence.  They often did her shopping, and made sure she was feeling well.  One evening, they asked Carolyn and me to stop by their house to discuss Alice’s situation.  We had a lovely chat for about an hour, but on returning to Alice’s house, we found all the lights off, and Alice nowhere to be seen.  Concerned, we began a search, and finally found my aunt in her bed, lying quietly in the dark.  “Alice,” I asked, “are you OK?”  She lit into me with considerable heat:  “I know you have been down the street talking to my neighbors about me–Behind My Back! I won’t have it!  I am not a little girl, and I will not be treated so disrespectfully.”  I felt a gale of emotion whistling past my ears, that both scared me and filled me with tremendous admiration for her self-awareness, and for the honesty with which she was able to express her feelings.

Thankfully, grace allowed admiration to win over fear, and I responded, “I understand exactly what you are saying, and I think you are 100% correct.  It was wrong to talk about you behind your back, and I give you my solemn word it will never happen again.”  Without missing a beat, Alice gave me the warmest loving smile, hopped out of bed like a teenager, and said, “All right, then, let’s go downstairs and have some tea.”   And we did that.

To this day, telling this story warms my heart.  This lovely, stalwart human being, my Aunt Alice, was a living embodiment of the Zen teaching that the feelings we cling to are simply clouds floating past the moon.  I have no need to wish that she rest in peace.   In spite of, or perhaps because of, her occasional storms of emotion, she had the most peaceful center of anyone I have ever known.

 

 

Making Friends with Life: The Coefficient of Adversity

Hokusai

Yikes! Look out for that wave!

Those folks in Hokusai’s boats are about to experience unavoidably the reality of the phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre borrowed from Gaston Bachelard: the Coefficient of Adversity.   That rather ponderous elocution (he says ponderously) carries within it a powerful clue to a recurring theme on this blog: making friends with life.  Things from lousy weather to an unkind word to a traffic accident can catapult us into victimhood, and enroll us in the “bitch and moan club.”  Eric Berne’s Games People Play featured the game “Ain’t it Awful,”  and it seems that often the conversations one hears are simply strings of complaints.   I sometimes imagine that if some people did not have their list of complaints, they would be absolutely mute.

So how does recognizing the inevitability of a coefficient of adversity temper one’s adversarial stance toward life?  I can think of three avenues of reflection.

First, it is a fundamental tenet in the philosophy of Plato that this material world is one of imperfection.  Whether one wants to follow him out of the cave into the light of perfection is a question for another essay. It does, however, seem clear, as he says in Book V of the Republic, that there is nothing in this world so perfectly beautiful that we can find no element of ugliness; nothing is so good that we can find no negative vantage point.  Combine this with John Stuart Mill’s insight that a part of happiness is “not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing,” and it yields a healing perspective.  “How good does life get?’ leads to “How good do I expect life to get?’ and then “How good do I expect myself to be?” Realizing that a coefficient of adversity is built into the very fabric of life trims the sails of my expectations, and lets me see more clearly the wondrous miracle of what is.  As Wittgenstein said, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Seeing that it is, as it is, can help to liberate us from the illusion of perfection, and to embrace life with its many textures.

Sartre offers a second insight that brings the discussion to a deeper level.  He sees (in Being and Nothingness, Bk 4, Ch 2) that every adversarial element in my life is created by my own perspectives, values, and intentions (in his words, my “self-project”).    For example, I am stuck in a traffic jam.  He calls this a “brute fact,” neither good nor bad.  But if I am on my way to collect a lottery prize, and that is important to me, then the delay can be unbearable.  If, on the other hand, I am on my way to be executed, then the traffic jam becomes a god-send.  Clearly, my life so far has not been filled with lotteries or executions, but even on the mundane level, we can see that a shift of values or perspective can alter the coefficient of adversity in any given situation.  I might find myself seething in a traffic jam, and realize that the ten minutes I lose are not worth a roiling stomach.  My project then shifts from being on time to creating peace of mind, and the coefficient of adversity eases.

This leads to the third reflection: even if I cannot ease the present resistance, Sartre urges us to accept the fact that every coefficient of adversity in our lives is self-created, and thus freely chosen.  The living of life is a package deal, and the art of living consists in weighing the costs and benefits of any given situation.  If the costs are too heavy, we can do our best to change them, or failing that, to leave.  If we do not leave, then our attachment to the benefits is more valuable than the pains, and the only mature option is to buy the whole package with its mixture of sunshine and shadow, blessings and a coefficient of adversity.  This is why Sartre says,  “it is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”   Complaining doesn’t change a thing, but claiming responsibility for one’s life opens a luminous path beyond victimhood to a powerful freedom that expresses itself in an unwavering gratitude for life as it is; for life as we are creating it.  As Rumi says, “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

Jesus Wept—For a Friend

Jesus wept.  There are many erudite and inspiring interpretations of this, the shortest verse in the St. James Bible (John, 11:35).  While giving due respect to exegetical scholars, I find it helpful to reflect on the human side of Rabbi Jesus.  As I noted in my essay Jesus and the Fig Tree , the episodes that display Jesus in a fit of pique (the fig tree), or anger (the money changers), or frustration (often with his disciples), or grief (for Lazarus or Jerusalem), give me comforting reassurance that even the most highly evolved among us share our human vulnerabilities.  I find it instructive to take these stories at face value, and use them as a springboard for thinking about the wonders and the mysteries of ordinary life.  One of the greatest of these wonders is friendship.

I find it very beautiful that Jesus would weep at the death of a friend.  Ralph Waldo Emerson observed,  “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”  C.S. Lewis, however, offers a cautionary note:  “to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”   My experience leads me to shy away from this last sentence.   I can honestly say that my  life’s journey would have have been very different without loving friends to weep with me through the darkness, to laugh with me through crepuscular awakenings, and to dance with me through the light.

Perhaps, however, Lewis is partly correct.  During the busiest times of our lives, it seems we only have room for “socializing,” and not for deep friendships.  Dinner parties or watching football with some buddies and some beers temper the stresses of modern life, but the respect, comfort, and trust that blossom into the love of friendship calls for discovery and creation, care and nurture.  These friends are as rare as they are precious.  They are bound to us with hoops of steel,  and being with them is an essential part of life.

Still, it seems to me that our friendships, our loves, surround us in concentric circles.  My wife and children and grandchildren live in the innermost circle, surrounded by the sisterhood and brotherhood of intimate friends.  The next circle is enriched by those souls that we recognize and love for a lifetime.  So many men and women from my past, so many students,  have taken up permanent residence in a warm place in my heart. I was recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years.  As our eyes met, my heart melted into joyful, trusting love.   I could see the same was happening with him.  It was a wonder not only to love each other, but to be aware of that love and to rest in its embrace. There are so many people, hundreds perhaps, with whom I share this love in varying degrees. Further still from the center, we can find human solidarity with a waitress or a service person or a person we pass on the street.   Martin Buber said that if we listen, we can even hear the call of I/Thou in the voice of a railway conductor.

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A MATTER OF LOVE AND DEATH

Death tears the fabric of our lives. The wrenching loss of beloved, vital people seems an impossible affront. I know St. Paul said that faith would rob death of its sting, but that just doesn’t feel right. The loss of a beloved presence in our lives leaves an emptiness that will never fill–nor should it. It seems to me that grief is the sword in the heart of love. It is love’s burden, and love’s gift. For while faith might not rob death of its sting, the death of a beloved person can indeed bring many gifts. If we allow it, the finitude of life can come crashing into our awareness and bring with it a lasting perspective. Our broken hearts can break open to a love that cracks the shell of ego, so that grief is no longer the pain of self-centered victimization (Why did this loss happen to Me?), but a deep recognition of the interplay of life’s precious beauty and heartfelt sadness. I find consolation in the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. It is a powerful mythic rendering of the transience and the mystery of life.

These reflections are not purely theoretical. Our 30 year old daughter died a few years ago, and it was then that the above perspectives began to grow.

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Appreciation of the Self #2: Calculating Mind and Generous Heart

raspberry
I have written about the practice that Carolyn and I enjoy every morning of reading aloud together. We have recently come upon a book we find stimulating and inspirational: The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. Roz is a successful therapist and leadership coach in the Boston area, and Ben is a world renowned symphony conductor.

They have a refreshing and clarifying way of dealing with the ego/self relationship that I have been exploring in a number of essays. Rather than speak of ego with its sometimes confusing and always negative connotations, they use the term “calculating self.” They refer to the generative and compassionate part of ourselves as the “central self.”
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Jazz is love made manifest

I believe that all art is Love made manifest, but since the jazz piano has been one of my best friends throughout my life, I will use this genre to reflect on the lessons that the fine arts offer to the art of living.

Let me start with a couple of stories:

Many years ago, I was playing the 5-7 slot at a good hotel in Burlington, Vermont. After a couple of months, the management hired another piano player to play the later hours, and since I did not know him, I stayed behind to hear what he could do. His technique was amazing! A friend leaned over to me and said “Cat’s got chops!” I nearly ran out of the building in a panic, thinking my career was over. But I heard a glimmer of something off. For all his talent and hard work over the years, it was clear that HE was the point of his playing. He knew he was good, and he not only wanted, but needed, everyone to know it. This need of his ego, however, leached the soul from his music. I decided I could continue playing.
shadow
A second story: I had the privilege of working for many years with a magnificent sax player named Larry McCrorey. We had played nightclubs, hotels, and weddings for over twenty years, and we were very close. For all this time, however, we had never played a concert–until one fateful night in the Spring of 1983. We strolled onto the stage with our sidemen with hardly a thought and proceeded to play tunes with which we were very familiar. We quickly knew, however, that something was very wrong. We never missed a beat nor did either of us play a wrong note. We played every song correctly–but none of it was very Good. Larry and I were both lost and sick at heart, wondering what had happened, and the more we tried to fix it the worse it got. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but we both knew it had been flat, heartless, without soul. And we had no idea why.
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Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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The Colors of Translation

 

 

colores

Translation is a tricky thing that calls upon the sensitivities and experience of the translator.   It is clearly a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem while remaining somewhat faithful to the original.  In my opinion, Stephen Mitchel is a master of the interpretative rendering of foreign texts.  His offerings of the Tao Te Ching, the poems and letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Bhagavad Gita all provoke my mind and touch my heart.

The translation of Haiku poetry is a great example.  The most famous poem of Basho reads in Japanese:  “Furu ike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no oto.”   Literally, furu (old) ike (pond) ya (a filler), kawazu (an old word for frog; the modern word is kaeru), tobikomu (tobi=jump, komu=enter), mizu (water), no (possessive particle),  oto (sound).   So: “Old pond, frog jumps in, sound of water,” which is exactly the translation given by  Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who was one of the first Westerners to live deeply into Japanese culture.   Alan Watts was more poetic, reaching for the sound of water without naming it:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

Or this rendering by a Japanese poet that attempts to convey a richer meaning:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Nobuyuki Yuasa

And so I would like to offer this rendition of a favorite song whose melody is as beautiful as its words.  It was sung often by Joan Baez, and became the unofficial theme song of the United Farm Workers movement.  It seems to me that “Los Grandes Amores (the great loves)” of the chorus hint at the idea that we not only love the colors, but we love the Love that colors our world.

De colores,
de colores se visten los campos en la primavera.
De colores,
de colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera.
De colores,
de colores es el arco iris que vemos lucir.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores
me gustan a mi.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores
me gustan a mi.

Oh the love, that clothes the fields of Spring with colors.

Oh the love, that colors the little birds that come from afar.

Oh the love, that colors the rainbow that we see light up the sky.

And for all this, I love the Great Loves that brighten our world with so many colors.

And for all this, I love the Great Loves that brighten our world with so many colors.

The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

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