Turning Words

a Zen blog

The Answer January 13, 2015

Filed under: Dharma Everywhere — Jeff @ 3:34 am

This weekend I was sitting near the fire in the main base lodge at Mt. Snow, contemplating life.

Looking up, I noticed for the first time the circular object in the lower right hand corner of this photo, with its “What is it?” inscription.

Then I noticed the word above it and to the left.

This is it.



The Five Remembrances May 14, 2014

Filed under: Dharma Talks,Practice — Jeff @ 2:11 am

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 30, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



I am of the nature to grow old;

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health;

There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die;

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change;

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions;

I am the beneficiary of my deeds;

My deeds are the ground on which I stand.


— The Five Remembrances



Tonight I’ll continue exploring features of our liturgy by talking about The Five Remembrances.


This short verse from the Pali Canon is as spare, and non-metaphysical, and direct – even “in your face” — as anything one encounters in religion. It tells it like it is, and does so succinctly.


It doesn’t make any speculative truth claims.


It doesn’t draw lines between chosen and un-chosen, saved and un-saved.


It doesn’t make any promises.


It doesn’t idealize.


At first blush, this verse may not seem to offer any comfort in light of the stark realities of this life that it describes – and, let’s be clear: comfort is what we seek.


This verse spoke to me deeply the first time I heard it, and it continues to speak to me deeply today. For me, personally, it is our most important text; at the core of what we do, and of what Buddhism is as a religion.


If we want to live fully and skillfully, we must eventually see and accept things as they are. Buddhism offers so much to help us live fully and skillfully, but accepting the inescapable facts of this-worldly life is an essential part of the equation. It is the essential part, really. Unskippable.


We won’t live as fully and skillfully as we can unless and until these seeming barriers become gates for us.


And this acceptance must occur moment after moment after moment. Much of our default programming points us in another direction.


The Five Remembrances are aptly named. Many of us need to be reminded constantly of these facts of life, either because we try to avoid them, or because we anxiously obsess about them and need to meet them in a new way.


Life manifests as change everywhere and always. It can’t help but do otherwise. This is obvious enough.


It’s the balanced accepting part that’s hard for us; so often, some form of avoiding becomes our refuge. Repeating The Five Remembrances each time we gather makes it harder and harder to hide. More and more evident that our efforts to escape are futile, and counter-productive.


The first four of The Five Rembrances remind us that we are “of the nature of change,” offering us no escape from that fact:


  • We grow old, if we’re lucky.


  • We become ill along the way. Some of us are born with serious ailments, and spend our whole lives coping with them.


  • Ultimately, we die.


  • Those we love are “of this nature,” as well. No one, nothing, is immune. Partings are unavoidable.


Do any of us really doubt this?


But do we really accept it – and not just casually and conceptually?


So much psychic and physical energy is exerted, so much social, political and economic activity is generated, to try to evade these inescapable realities.


That’s not all bad, of course. Quietism and defeatism aren’t noble responses to the facts of existence. By all means, let’s cure diseases. Extend life, if we can make the time worth living. Our urge to avoid old age, sickness and death propels much valuable social, political and technological effort and innovation.


And it also breeds much avoidable anxiety, conflict, misuse of resources, and misdirected energy and missed opportunity. So many forms of escapism – substance abuse, consumerism, and the like all can be that.


As we truly accept the basic facts of our existence, we tend to cherish life more. Live and love more fully and intimately.


The final remembrance is equal parts prescription and description. In this realm of constant change, the only solid ground – indeed, our very being, is what we do (and say) right here, right now.


Our actions and speech are rubber and road, and here-now is where they meet.


This is it, so far as we know and seemingly can know. This is conditioned by our own and others’ deeds in past moments. This is conditioning future moments, just as past moments have conditioned the present.


Each of us is the beneficiary of our deeds in this moment. We lie in the beds we make, so we should make our beds with care.


The present is our opportunity to shape the future. What preceded this moment conditions the present, but now is our opportunity to address what we’ve left undone in the past, or know we’ve done poorly.


Meditation and our other practices may tend to increase our capacity to conduct ourselves skillfully, to show up as the precepts encourage us to show up. If and as we do, that can have ripple effects, seen and unseen.


This past weekend I was home alone organizing things in our basement – creating a craft table area for the kids, an exercise space for my wife and me, a storage area. My family came home, and our eight-year old son made a big fuss about how I was encroaching on his indoor soccer space.


I had little patience for this at the moment. I told him to calm down. He didn’t, so I told him to go upstairs and leave me alone. I had a project to finish, and I couldn’t deal with the whining. He went upstairs in a huff.


Not skillful.


I got my bearings, went upstairs, and asked him if he’d come back down to help me make decisions about the layout of the space, including an area for him to play with his soccer ball.


We talked it through, and came up with a sensible plan that satisfied everyone. He was great. So cooperative when I was truly listening to him and demonstrating concern for his concerns.


Such a small moment, but such a chance to strengthen a bond and to model behavior that I hope will help my son resolve conflict constructively with others.


I don’t want to idealize about this mundane encounter, make predictions from it or make other big claims based upon it. I can’t.


But I will say that the tension, and my initial response to it, were a gate, not a barrier. Past conduct conditions the present, but the main thing that imposes constraints in the present is our narratives about the past, and what’s possible now.


We don’t get a chance to rewrite past moments. They stand.


We do have the opportunity to meet this moment in an intentional way.


The Five Remembrances may strike us as bad news initially, but they’re really the good news. Embracing these facts of our existence, not raging against them, is liberation.


The good news is that everything is of the nature of change.


As a witty theist once said, God created time so everything wouldn’t happen all at once.


And, as the Germans say, machs gute. Let’s make it good.



Gatha of Atonement April 17, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeff @ 12:03 pm

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 16, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

born of my body, mouth and thought,

now I atone for it all.


– Gatha of Atonement


I began a series of talks about elements of our liturgy a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night. I spoke about the sound of the bell with which our liturgy begins and ends in that talk. Tonight I’ll talk about the Gatha of Atonement, the first verse we chant together.


It’s hard for a lapsed Catholic like me not to chant this verse solely as an act of contrition: as a reminder and admission of how bad I’ve been personally, how big the cosmic hole I’ve dug for myself is, and how endlessly I need to work to try to get myself out of it.


This is a caricature of the Christian notion of sin and repentance, of course, and it’s also a caricature of this gatha from our Zen Buddhist perspective. It is right, and it is vitally important to achievement of personal and collective wholeness, that we acknowledge and try to make amends for the ways in which we have caused harm. To be sure, from one angle this verse is about recognizing my own failures to treat others and all that exists (including myself) with dignity, and about vocalizing my intention to do better.


Yet there is more going on in this verse, I think. The this life, individual accountability, relative dimension of this gatha that may be the primary lens through which some of us view it is complemented and counterbalanced by an atemporal, interwoven, absolute dimension.


Each operative word and phrase in this brief verse is rich with layered meaning from this perspective. Each is worthy of its own talk – of multiple talks. I can only focus on a few phrases, and a few meanings I sense, tonight.


Evil karma


It’s hard to think of two more loaded, contested words in contemporary Buddhist discourse. The classical idea of karma is closely associated with reincarnation, a word that is equally loaded and contested.


I’m going to skirt the reincarnation debate – I’m not very interested in these sorts of dogmatic arguments and metaphysical speculations, anyway – to focus on karma in another accepted, and more prosaic, sense of the word: causes and conditions.


A key insight of Buddhism is that this moment as we find it is the product of causes and conditions that precede it, that have conspired to produce it. Though we can’t always trace and weight the relative contributions of these causes and conditions with mathematical precision, the idea arguably is more in the realm of physics than metaphysics. It’s a pretty simple notion, and increasingly uncontested, even among some theistic religious thinkers, who also see the hand of a God-figure at work.


For tonight’s purposes, I’ll keep the idea of evil karma equally simple, and un-cosmic: among the causes and conditions that conspire to create this moment are causes and conditions that can produce various forms of harm and injustice, some of them extreme. The next line of the verse asserts that these causes and conditions can be traced to the three poisons: greed, anger and ignorance. To be specific, “my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance.”


Beginningless greed, anger and ignorance


This notion of greed, anger and ignorance without beginning is a pointer to the absolute dimension of the gatha. We’re prompted to consider the possibility that these poisons might be in the nature of things; of who I am as a human being; of who we are. Rather than seeing my selfish impulses, anger (expressed or unexpressed), and blindness and false certainties solely as personal failings for which I feel guilty and punish myself, this phrase seems to be an invitation to consider our own and others’ base instincts and impulses, habitual reactions, and present limitations, with curiosity and compassion.


What is it about our circumstances and our programming that inclines us, in some moments at least, toward selfish, angry or biased behavior?


Born of my body, mouth and thought


The next line of the gatha reminds us that we are creatures. We are embodied. And that we seem to be unusual creatures, possessing the capacity for complex thought and communication. And we’re told that evil karma is “born of” these facts.


In this realm of the 10,000 dharmas, of diversity, of seemingly finite resources, and of human and non-human creatures, arriving at this moment on the wave of celecstial and terestial evolutionary history, each of us, like the beings that begat us, must forge a path. This realm often seems, and is, confusing and contingent. I’m inclined to think that greed, anger and ignorance are over-amplifications of tendencies that generally serve us well, individually and collectively, as we make our way:


  • Greed as an over-amplification of our legitimate imperative to satisfy basic physical and psychological needs.


  • Anger as an (often misdirected) over-amplification of our legitimate impulse to protect our fragile bodies, and psyches that are fragile as they develop.


  • Ignorance (aka false certainty) as an over-amplification of the limitations of our senses and cognitive processing powers, and of our need, for many legitimate purposes, to reduce complexity, to filter out some sensory data.


And so we sometimes act (body), speak (mouth), and perceive and process information and experiences (thought) in ways that tend to produce harm and injustice, insomuch as our actions, speech and thought “over serve” legitimate needs and impulses, to others’ detriment.


Now I atone for it all


Right here, right now.


Yes, I express regret for my actions, speech and thought that has hurt others, and I renew my commitment to do my best to live up to my highest ideals – to the precepts. I atone in the sense of acknowledging when I have fallen short of those ideals, and I constantly do, and of being penitent.


But atone has another meaning: to reconcile.  To stop fighting.


I reconcile myself to the nature of things. To my own and others’ creatureliness. To our evolutionary heritage. To the needs and impulses that can incline us toward greed, anger and ignorance when they are over-amplified.


Realizing this, not idealizing about our condition, accepting it, not flogging ourselves and others for our supposed failures to be the perfect angels we tend to think we and others should be – ever pure of heart, in thought and in deed – is an important step toward actually developing the capacity to show up as we intend, and helping others cultivate and sustain their intention and efforts to do the same.


This take on the Gatha of Atonement may be more the very long view from a relative perspective than a view from the absolute. As I said, I’m not very inclined toward metaphysics, and the relative and absolute are one, in any event, as we say. It is a take on this gatha, anyway. It is a useful take for me, and I hope it also is useful for some of you.




The Sound of the Bell April 6, 2014

Filed under: Practice — Jeff @ 11:33 am


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 25, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



[Ring Inkan bell, which sounds something like this: ding.]


I recently committed to giving four talks – five, if we count the one each BoWZ teacher gave at the Temple during the Ango – in March and April. I have three to go, and this seemed like an opportunity to organize several talks around a theme. I’ve spoken before about features of our liturgy, and I’d like to use these next few talks to touch on aspects of our liturgical forms that I’ve wanted to speak about for some time.


[Ring Inkan]


Our liturgy practice begins with this bell, one of several we hear throughout the service.


It could end here, too.


In fact, it does begin and end here.


[Ring Inkan]


Here’s a koan from the Miscellaneous Koan set in our Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum:


Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.


[Ring Inkan]


From The Gateless Gate koan collection:


Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”


[Ring Inkan]


A koan from the Book of Serenity:


Yakusan had not ascended the rostrum for a long time.

The steward said, “All the assembly has been wishing for instruction for a long time. Please, Master, give your assembly a sermon.”


Yakusan had the bell rung. The assembly gathered. Yakusan ascended the rostrum and sat there for a while. Then he descended and returned to his room.


The temple steward followed him and asked, “You said a while ago that you would give the assembly a sermon. Why didn’t you speak even a word?” Yakusan said, “For sutras, there are sutra specialists; for sastras, there are sastra specialists. Why do you have doubts about this old monk?”


[Rink Inkan]


I’ll end this little carol of bells with a poem by the famous British Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that I’ve always loved:


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.


I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


[Ring Inkan]


This bell with which we begin our service – and each bow, each tone chanted, each drumbeat, each waft of incense, and each breath and footstep that follows – presents itself.


We present ourselves.


All presenting together.


Now. And now. And now.


And so our liturgy begins.


And ends.


And so we carry on.


Right here, now.



The Emperor has clothes, after all March 7, 2014

Filed under: Beyond Belief,Dharma Talks,Koans — Jeff @ 1:07 pm


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 6, 2014 at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the Boundless Way Zen meta-sangha’s three-week Ango retreat.  Audio recordings of this talk and others given by BoWZ teachers are posted here.


Emperor Wu of Liang invited Mahasattva Fu to lecture on the Diamond Sutra.  On the rostrum, Mhasattva Fu struck the lectern once with his stick and immediately climbed down.  The emperor was astounded.


Master Zhi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”


“No, I do not.”


“Mahasattva Fu has finished the lecture.”


(Blue Cliff Record, Case 67)


I began looking for a koan to use as the launchpad for this talk about a week ago.


I poked around the koan territory I’ve been wandering in recently.  Not finding much inspiration there, I went back to the earliest koans in the miscellaneous collection and worked my way forward to where I’ve been wandering lately.  Still nothing, so I even peeked ahead of the koan I’ll next bring to dokusan.


No single koan lept out during this exercise, declaring, “Pick me.”  Hmm.


What did leap out, however, were two themes that seem to me to run through our whole koan curriculum, so I thought I’d make them the subject of my talk tonight.  I mainly want to talk about the second of these themes, but I need to touch on the first to set up the second.  I’ll come back to Mahasattva Fu’s lecture on the Diamond Sutra when I get there.


The first theme . . .


Surveying the koan curriculum brought home to me more than ever how it — and the Zen project writ large, I suppose — is, in part, about exploring our relationship with real and perceived constraints.


Many of our early koans seem to challenge one’s current perceptions of what’s possible, and so challenge us to take a closer look at what we experience as constraints.


Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.


Count the number of stars in the heavens.


Say something without moving your lips or tongue.


Some koans even use metaphors of physical entrapment.


You are at the bottom of a 200-foot dry well.  What do you do?


Many of us, perhaps most of us, come to Zen feeling trapped somehow.


Some part of me cut off from another part of myself.


A mind or spirit trapped in a body.


A solitary being cut off from the world I inhabit.


One being among many inhabiting a realm that can’t be all there is.


Some type of dualism.  Some version of heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.


We’re sure there is someplace else we must get, something more to know.  There must be a secret passageway to a place beyond, and we sense that Zen might offer us a map to find it and the key to open the door once we get there.


The early part of the koan curriculum seems to meet us where we’re at in this regard, even as it begins to challenge us to see that the “something more” we’re looking for is just this.  The “someplace else” we’re seeking is right here, right now.


The heat is turned up progressively, of course, as we’re challenged in increasingly direct ways.  Like this zinger (from the Blue Cliff Record), for example:


A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.


“This perishes,” said Dasui.


“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other.”


“It follows the other,” said Dasui.





And so it goes, until we come to the end of the curriculum, where, among other things, we encounter the precepts as koans.  Perhaps by then koan practice, and sitting practice, and everyday life practice have helped us let go of some perceived constraints and helped us see constraints we must accept in a new light.


The open secret, of course, is that the freedom we seek is found in the realm of constraints, not someplace else.


There is a “through the looking glass” quality to grasping this open secret, to be sure.  As we desperately strain to peer through the glass, what’s on the other side appears faint and blurry.  Passing through, I find myself.


Same old me.


Relatively speaking, there seems to be something to get.  Absolutely, not so much.


And this brings me to the second theme that seems to run through the koans. . .


Perhaps it’s more of a conceit, or a device, than a theme.


Like the koan I ultimately chose for this talk, the set up for many koans is an exchange between a wise teacher and a seemingly less wise student.


Often there also is a supporting character who is in the know, like Master Zhi in today’s koan.  Or Mahakasyapa, the student — and the only person, we’re told — who broke into a smile in the sermon where the Buddha simply twirled a flower.


We might more or less consciously identify with Master Zhi or Mahakasyapa as we pass through one of these koans.  We, too, get it.


But I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about the seeming stooges.  The characters who are portrayed as hapless.  The characters who just don’t seem to get it.


Sometimes that student is a prominent person, like Emperor Wu of Liang, who also appears in a handful of other koans.  These prominent folk tend to fare especially poorly, at least on first blush.


As I surveyed our koan curriculum looking for inspiration for this talk, I found myself really appreciating these characters, the supposed stooges.  Even inspired by them.


Here I was, wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight . . . and I find it in other people wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight.


This is where much of the action is in these koans — much of the insight, the invitation and potential for us — I think.


“Not knowing is most intimate,” we like to say.  “Only don’t know.”


But is there still a hint of special knowledge in our not knowing?


As long as we’re identifying mainly with Mahasattva Fu or Master Zhi, perhaps there is.


As long as we think we get something Emperor Wu doesn’t, perhaps there is.


We can settle into our not knowing, and this, importantly, may make us a bit less anxious in our approach to life; perhaps relatively free of certain questions with which Emperor Wu is wrestling.  Perhaps we’ve come to feel just a bit more at home with ourselves; a bit more at home in this vast universe.


Mahasattva Fu, Master Zhi and, yes, Emperor Wu — each of them, and all of them together, are presenting themselves with integrity.  And each is an aspect of who we ultimately are.


I really appreciate how Emperor Wu, or that seemingly clueless student in so many other koans, helps us see how easy it is slip into a frame of mind in which there’s something more to get, something special, and, by god, perhaps we’ve got it.


That frame of mind from which we may overlook our own haplessness and ignorance, and the opportunities presented by those features of life we experience as constraints, as barriers.


If, on the other hand, you happen to be someone who identifies with poor, picked upon Emperor Wu all too easily — well, good for you.


“Emperor Wu was astounded.”  What a wonderful response to this.


Not knowing is most intimate.





Dancing with Elephants February 28, 2014

Filed under: Dharma Talks,Zen Ethics — Jeff @ 2:17 am


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on February 27, 2014 at the Greater Boston Zen Center.  It’s a reflection on a passage written by Barry Magid about the Bodhisattva precepts in the Zen tradition that we’ve chosen to focus on in our mini, nonresidential version of an Ango retreat.


I’ve tracked the work of a very creative social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt for nearly 20 years.  His work strongly influenced my own when I was in graduate school and, later, teaching about transformation of conflicts involving identity dynamics and deeply-held values.


Much of Haidt’s early work was on moral psychology.  He’s since contributed to the research and literature on happiness and so-called “positive psychology.”


In one strand of Haidt’s research on the psychology of human morals, he created a series of hypotheticals like this.  Fasten your seat-belts:


Julie and Mark are brother and sister.  They are traveling together in France one summer vacation from college.  One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love.  At very least it would be a new experience for each of them.  Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe.  They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again.  They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them fell closer to each other. 


After study participants read this hypothetical, Haidt asks them to respond to two questions:


Is this wrong?


If so, why?


Almost all study participants feel the conduct is wrong.  When asked why, they first say things like:


The siblings might conceive, and the child might even have birth defects. 


One might pass an STD to the other.


Their parents might learn what they’ve done, and they would be crushed.


They are too young.


There is some element of coercion.


This will contort their relationship, altering it for the worse.


As you can see, however, Haidt’s hypotheticals are carefully crafted to negate all possible negative consequences.  When Haidt points out to respondents that the consequences they fear cannot occur, many respond in exasperation, “I don’t know why it’s wrong; it just is.”


Haidt concludes from this line of his research and others that our morals, and so our perspectives and conduct, are strongly influenced by pre-cognitive reactions – here, disgust – and that we often construct rationales to justify these primary – and primal – reactions after-the-fact.  Our “lower” (or ancient) brain functions decide what is right and wrong, and then our “higher” (newer) brain functions, which enable functions like rational thought and language, “pretty up” the decisions, making them presentable to ourselves and other rational minds.


To be sure, Haidt is not trying to justify incest (nor am I), but he is exposing something about how our minds work, and the unseen problems that can flow from this (like discrimination against people who are different than us based upon pre-cognitive reactions).  The problem is that, for many of us, much of the time, our rational minds don’t quite grasp how things are working.


Haidt likens the situation to a rider on an elephant.  The elephant lumbers along, going where it will at its own pace, while the rider tugs busily on the reins, believing he is in control.  The rider is a bit like R2D2, constantly jabbering away as his CPU churns, having little influence on what’s happening.


Haidt grants that the rider does have an influence, but he believes the default balance of power between elephant and rider is roughly 90% elephant and 10% rider.


Haidt’s work on happiness and advice about how to find it draws upon his research on moral psychology and centers around two themes:  recognizing that there is an elephant; and helping rider and elephant get along and work well together.


Haidt maintains that the rider can increase its influence appreciably, to the mutual benefit of both rider and elephant.  Much of the trick here is helping the rider understand the elephant.


Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and rider reminds me of the koan about an ox trying to pass through an open window (Case 38 in The Gateless Gate):


Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window.  Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”


What is this tail that can’t pass through?  What are we to make of and do with this stuckness?


Interestingly, Haidt – who, so far as I know, is not a Buddhist – sees meditation as one of the most valuable ways to improve the relationship between rider and elephant.


Our lovely Ango reading from Barry Magid draws our attention to the fact that we are both rider and elephant.  We tend to experience our elephant-ness and rider-ness as oppositional forces.  Rider and elephant engaged in a constant wrestling match.  The rider trying desperately to bring the elephant down, to subdue it.  The better angels of our nature fighting the good fight against our demons.


There is something to be said for that perspective on the human condition, and human moral evolution.  I believe there is an arc of human progress – that, despite the atrocities, big and small, that still are occurring everywhere, humanity is more or less continually evolving the capacity to be kinder and gentler, and the world is being transformed for the better as we do.  (Read Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for 1,000 pages of insightful commentary on an elephantine body of quantitative data that supports this viewpoint.)  I believe that is ultimately what our Zen project is about.


Some of this progress no doubt has been achieved by wrestling a few elephants to the ground and restraining them there.  And, yet, we need to honor and thank the elephant for helping us survive to the point that it can be ridden, and for all it contributes to our lives today.


Star Trek’s Dr. Spock is all rider, no elephant.  Is that the life we desire?


Most of all, we need to see and understand the elephant as best we can.  There is wisdom in our elephant-ness.  The elephant can look clueless and heartless from the rider’s perspective, but that is not the whole story.  As riders, we must straddle our elephants securely as we reach for the stars.


The ride can be most gratifying for this elephant-rider duo, this elephant-and-rider one-o, when there is mutual respect between them.


Barry Magid shines a light on our elephant-ness and reminds us that true wholeness, that true wisdom, requires an appreciation of how our own and others’ elephant-ness is woven into the fabric of our individual and collective experience.   And how the deepest understanding and fullest, truest embodiment of the precepts demands this appreciation.


This definitely comports with my experience in every realm of life: relationships, work, even – and perhaps especially – religion/practice.


“We must come to terms with both sides of who we are,” he says.  “Practice will not lead us into a state of harmony by eliminating some aspect of who we are.”


If and as we seek peace with our elephants, we just might find that our elephants become more receptive and responsive to our wizened riders – though I would note, as I’m sure Barry Magid himself would, that practice won’t necessarily lead us into a constant state of harmony even if we embrace all aspects of who we are – or, rather, it may eventually awaken us to the harmony that’s always been there, but it won’t necessarily always feel pacific.


I’ll close with the lovely Mary Oliver poem titled Wild Geese:


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Remembering Mandela December 8, 2013

Filed under: Dharma Everywhere,Practice — Jeff @ 2:00 pm

I never met Nelson Mandela, which I regret, because that probably would have been possible even just a few years ago. Mandela was one of the five Nobel Peace Laureates who gave the Peace Appeal Foundation its original mandate. That was late-1999/early-2000.

I became involved in late-2000, when Hannes Siebert, who served in the South African Peace Secretariat under Mandela, and was the driving force behind formation of the Peace Appeal, walked into our office at Groove Networks to request help tuning the product to his needs as the new external advisor to stakeholders in the peace process in Sri Lanka. After we sold Groove to Microsoft in 2005, I joined the Peace Appeal’s board.

We could have traveled to South Africa years earlier, when Mandela was in better health. It wasn’t possible to see him when we were there this March. He was too frail.

The Peace Appeal Foundation is a small part of Mandela’s legacy. He has certainly touched and influenced my life by helping launch it. I have heard Hannes say that he has devoted his life to Mandela and his legacy by committing himself completely to conflict resolution work (at considerable personal cost, in his case, I would add).

We sent a reflection on Mandela’s life to our supporters via email (copied below) and devoted our homepage to him.

The Power of Forgiveness:
Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela

By Shirley Moulder and Derek Brown

A generation from now when parents, teachers, politicians and others seek to describe moral courage and distinguished leadership, there will be one person from their lifetimes whose name will rise to their lips: Nelson Mandela. There are very few true global heroes; Mandela was one.

Though millions across the globe have been awed and inspired by a man who chose reconciliation over revenge, moral leadership over personal gain, and justice over tyranny, Mandela was first and foremost a South African, whose dedication to his country has only been matched by his countrymen’s reverence and dedication to him.

In 1990, upon his release after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela gave a speech in Cape Town demonstrating the qualities that would cement his reputation. He concluded his speech with the same words which he spoke at his own trial in 1964:

“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela thankfully lived, leading his country in one of the 20th century’s most profound political transformations. In the process he has become an icon to much of the world for his statesmanship, his dignity, his tolerance and ability to forgive, and his commitment to non-violent political change.

His status as a global hero is all the more remarkable in our media obsessed age, where leaders are subject to intense scrutiny of their personal lives, not just their political careers. No statesman or woman today has enjoyed the near uniformity of approval which was bestowed on Mandela.

Despite this seemingly heavy burden of respect, Mandela wore the label of hero lightly. He took the limelight when it was necessary, but was happiest when stepping back to let others take the lead. He often described himself as just “a country boy.” Those who worked with him spoke of his ability to identify what was needed and to pursue it with single minded determination. In his post-presidential years, he was a tireless advocate for children’s education, devoting much of his time to raising funds for new schools and education programs throughout South Africa and the world.

The most important legacy of Nelson Mandela, in his life as well as in his death, may well be his remarkable ability to bring parties of all persuasions together, ultimately transcending the deepest divisions, suspicions and even hatred – a skill which only grows in importance in our world.

His cohort of political activists, many of whom were defendants with him at the time of the Rivonia Trial in 1964, represented a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious panoply of South Africa; black, white, Asian, Xhosa, Zulu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Following his release from jail, this cohort was transformed into a remarkable coalition that included representatives of the government which imprisoned him – a coalition that brought a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa into being.

Mandela’s ability to work across political divides in South Africa would have warranted him a special place in history by itself. Yet it was his extraordinary ability to inspire and connect with people that vaulted him into the rarest pantheon of global statesmen and women. One of his many acts of political genius and moral leadership was portrayed in the movie “Invictus.” When racial divisions still threatened the dream of a united South Africa, Mandela donned the captain’s jersey of the South Africa’s newly minted world champion Springboks rugby team, and walked onto the field post-game – amidst thousands of white fans, many waving the nationalist flag of 1928 – to present the trophy to the team. With this simple act, he managed to win over millions of skeptical white South Africans to the cause of a new, multi-racial and democratic South Africa.

Even in these past months of his declining health, he brought unity amid diversity in his nation. Across South Africa, from the Johannesburg to Mandela’s ancestral home community of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, people have publicly honored the man many call “Madiba” (his ancestral clan name), or simply “Tata” or father. In the all-white Afrikaner community of Orania in South Africa’s Northern Cape province (home until her death of Betsie Verwoed, widow the former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed who was architect of the apartheid system), the community began praying for Mandela daily this past summer.

The collective reverence that has gripped most of South Africa these past months, and indeed much of the world, comes at a time when tremendous political divisions threaten to divide the country. (Less than 12 months ago, the cover of the Economist magazine featured South Africa with the cautionary heading “Cry, the beloved country” raising questions about South Africa’s political and economic leadership). These challenges serve as a reminder that the South African national journey will be an ongoing project as it seeks to fulfill the vision that Mandela so tirelessly pursued.

The highest honor we can pay this extraordinary man, whether we are citizens of South Africa, the United States or elsewhere in our world, is to renew a commitment to his vision of democratic and free societies in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. Let Mandela’s dream live on.

The authors, based in Johannesburg and Charlottesville, Virginia, are board members of the Peace Appeal Foundation, founded in 1999 with the support of five Nobel Peace Laureates, including Nelson Mandela,
F.W. de Klerk and Desmond Tutu.



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