Return to the Mother

Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.



Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

The Guest House

Traditional Thai guest house on Mae Klong in the village of Ampawa

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’re 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 whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


I chose this poem to share with the sangha after evening sitting recently at Open Meadow Zen Center, or, more appropriately, it chose me. I had signed up in advance to do a reading, but, as so often happens, I’d neglected to select anything until the day of the sitting. Shortly before leaving for the zen center, I grabbed Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p.109) and randomly opened to this page. The poem jumped out at me not only because it’s short, and a short reading is nice after a long sitting, but also because it reminded me of one of my favorite zen stories.

A hermit meditated in his mountain cave for years. Every night as he sat, a group of demons arrived outside his door, disrupting his silence with their horrifying shrieks and howls. Every night he’d run outside and shout right back at them, demanding that they leave him in peace. He’d stomp up and down and throw sticks at them until he collapsed from exhaustion, but the next night, the demons would be back at his door. One night, sensing the futility of his actions, the hermit finally gave up. When the demons showed up, he walked outside and said, “Come in. Sit by my fire and have some tea.” The next night, the demons didn’t come.

This idea of making “friends with our demons” is pretty widely regarded as being an effective way to deal with fears and neuroses, but Rumi takes the practice a step further. Beyond merely tolerating unwanted mental states, or even being hospitable to them, Rumi implores us to actually be grateful for them. To do this, I think, takes a broad mind and a big heart.

The practice of zen is a practice of continually putting aside our preferences. The teachings remind us again and again that aversion is simply the flip side of attraction; both are forms of attachment, unskillful mind states that don’t serve us on the path. If my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that I have no idea what I need, no idea what’s good for me. My practice, then, is to not reject anything that arises. The only option I’m left with is acceptance.

I’d planned on adding more to this post until my wife and I attended an evening of Rumi’s poetry and ecstatic dance put on by a local Sufi organization. This expression of Truth through music and movement renders the use of words ineffective by comparison. As a zen student, I’ve long misunderstood the Sufi paradigm of the individual as lover and the Divine as Beloved; it seemed to me a mental construct that merely reinforces the delusion of separateness. In reality, the Sufi path has little to do with concepts and everything to do with experience. What happens is that the illusion of separation is played with as a means to achieve unity. The idea of God as Beloved is the most apt metaphor with which we can approach our relationship to Totality. Have you ever loved another human being so completely, so fearlessly, so regardless of consequences that you held absolutely nothing back and cared not whether you lost yourself entirely in the process? Good for you if you have. Can you imagine taking the risk of risks and making that juicy, reckless leap of faith without the knowledge that your Beloved is even there? That’s what Sufism invites us to do. That’s the very zen spirit of 100% commitment with which Rumi dares us to leave our lights on and our doors open. It’s a tall order, but when you really stop and think about it, what do we have to lose?