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Meetingbrook Dogen & Francis Hermitage Update,
November 2000

A Reality of Compassion: Singularity & Simplicity

The world has become smaller and smaller. In spite of different traditions, different beliefs, we all have a common goal and common responsibility. That is to make a common effort to achieve peace, world peace, peace through inner peace and a meaningful life.

(Special message from His Holiness     
The XIVth Dalai Lama, in Compassion,     
Interreligious Vigil for World Peace)     

The brook tumbles with water again. It’s been a long dryness. Walking quietly and slowly in the woods this morning I listen to the early November water falling over deep-set Ragged mountain stone. A few days solitude.

Visited yesterday a new adopting mother. She is worried about the child, the possibility the birth mother will not sign the papers, loss, and, prayer itself. Left the sounds of Compassion. Later visited a man whose wife attends him in the intensive care unit of local hospital. I bring article about discovery in deep Turkish waters of 1500-year-old wooden ship perfectly preserved.

These are two places of worry. One, adopting new life as it presents itself; the other, detaching and excising what threatens life. At both places I say I’ll pray. The haiku I left with the woman and child speaks of prayer:

What do you hear
when the only sound
is your fond heart
listening                             (wfh)


Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside,
which every day we can take into our vision


In the woods this morning I sit a long while at the toboggan run. Just sitting fingering my beads, hailing woman, child, now, and death. Just watching and listening. Chipmunk jump from stone to leafy ground.  Nuthatch, chickadee, junco, and woodpecker fly from tree to tree. The movement of nature.

This movement I see and hear. I love what I see and hear. I am aware, also, that all of this is quite impermanent. But something else engages my attention, unseen, unheard. In the solitary and scurrying community of the mountain I am taken by the nature of life, love, and death as a singularity. To encounter one is to encounter the other. Is this what prayer longs to engage?

What is the reality of compassion? Is it, perhaps, engaging the reality of the singularity and attending it prayerfully? With open mind, open heart, open hands? Perhaps the reality of compassion is to enter the silence of the other with engaged attention, empty expectation, and thankful peace.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.                 (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

“I can’t pray,” she says. “Nothing comes.”
I ask her, “Do you want me to tell you what prayer is?”
She says, “Yes,” and leans forward, looking at me.
For what seems a long minute she watches and waits for me to say something as we sit in silence.
There is a pause, a hiatus, an extension of spaciousness that inserts itself between and through my offer, her request, our silence, Silence Itself.

Finally I say, “That’s prayer!”
She continues to look.

I go on to say that prayer is watching longingly and listening expectantly, not knowing what is coming next as response or reality. I tell her that she is praying. It might not feel like it to her, it is not what she thinks of as prayer, but the open trust involved in asking for help, the open waiting, watching, and listening that follows, is prayer.  

We are unfamiliar with God’s silence. We figure that if we are speaking, God is listening. If we are listening, God is speaking. So many schools of prayer emphasize the dialogic technique of praying. The contemplative approach to prayer offers an alternative. Our presence, silent and open, evokes God’s presence, silent and open. 

Perhaps we think we don’t know how to pray because we, as yet, haven’t really had to pray. When confusion, disappointment, and suffering wrench us from the everyday distractions of our life and plunge us into the ultimate questioning reality of our existence, we pray. Joyful or sorrowing, alone or with others – the beckoning singularity hidden deep and silent calls our name.  


                 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 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.

                                                               (by Mary Oliver)

So, we pray. What do we pray? And why? Perhaps we pray to call out our location, saying, “Here we are!” Perhaps we pray that the reality we find ourselves in be not too much for us. Or maybe we long to enter exactly where we are without illusions. Perhaps we wish to penetrate the hidden, silent and secret reality of compassion that gives itself to those seek, ask, and knock. Like some Zen koan we ask, “What is reality?” And the answer comes… “Yes, exactly!”

“What is” and “God” are two ways of wording a reality we cannot understand. The words “What is reality” contain both the question and the answer.

When the woman asked me how I pictured God I paused a while. I looked around the kitchen at the baby in his carry-seat, her in a chair, two dogs on the floor pawing and mouthing each other, the half moon over the pines out the back window, the blue-gray dusk enclosing the yard. “This,” I told her, “here.” She asked “But, what about something beyond, not here?” I answered, “Yes, that too.”

With thumb and fore-finger I stretch then close the gap until they touch. “There, here, at this juncture, this is the singularity.”

“What does that mean?” she asked. I tell her it means that at this moment in her and the child’s life God is the compassion she struggles to embody, the love she longs to embrace, and the reality she prays will permeate this dwelling. And her prayer is her wordless longing for compassion.

 The singularity of this longing silence includes her, the baby, the biological mother, all beings waiting expectantly for wholeness. It is the singularity of life and loss, death and gain, compassion and surrender, brokenness and healing, love and the ordinary, nothingness and wholeness. 

This is the very uniqueness of this child and woman, and later of the wife attending her husband hooked up to tubes and monitors, and of each of us in our singularity. It is the very possibility of loss and death in the midst of loving life that is the gift giving singularity.


            The dictionary says that gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” It also says “a notable capacity.” Zen teachers suggest that the miracle isn’t to be able to walk on air or water. Rather, the miracle is to simply walk on the earth. How often we overlook what is directly underfoot by trying to see what is out of view and considered by some to be higher or greater! Our everyday situation is the gift we are given. Are we able to hold it gently, thankfully, and peacefully? Even if our everyday situation doesn’t look like what we think it should look like?


This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

                 (by Mary Oliver)

I am reading Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death. Derrida writes:

But the mysterium tremendum announces, in a manner of speaking, another death; it announces another way of giving death or of granting oneself death. This time the word “gift” is uttered. This other way of apprehending death, and of acceding to responsibility, comes from a gift received from the other, from the one who, in absolute transcendence, sees me without my seeing, holds me in his hands while remaining inaccessible. The Christian “reversal” that converts the Platonic conversion in turn, involves the entrance upon the scene of a gift. An event gives the gift that transforms the Good into a Goodness that is forgetful of itself, into a love that renounces itself.

The responsible life is itself conceived as the gift of something that, in the final analysis, while having the characteristics of the Good [that is, retaining, at the heart of the gift, the Platonic agathon], also shows traits of something inaccessible to which one must permanently submit – traits of a mystery that has the last word.      (Quoting from Jan Patocka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History)

What is given – and this would also represent a kind of death – is not something, but goodness itself, a giving goodness, the act of giving or the donation of the gift. A goodness that must not only forget itself but whose source remains inaccessible to the donee.                 (Pp 40-41  The Gift of Death)

Derrida continues a few lines later, saying:

In order to understand in what way this gift of the law means not only the emergence of a new figure of responsibility but also of another kind of death, one has to take into account the uniqueness and irreplaceable singularity of the self as the means by which – and it is here that it comes close to death – existence excludes every possible substitution. Now to have the experience of responsibility on the basis of the law that is given, that is, to have the experience of one’s absolute singularity and apprehend one’s own death, amounts to the same thing. Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place. My irreplaceability is therefore conferred, delivered, “given,” one can say, by death. It is the same gift, the same source, one could say the same goodness and the same law. It is from the site of death as the place of my irreplaceability, that is, of my singularity, that I feel called to responsibility. In this sense only a mortal can be responsible.                                                                                    (P. 41)    

In his chapter on “Basic Needs” in Human Excellence And An Ecological Conception of the Psyche, John H. Riker lists among the ten, “Sacredness.”

By the need for sacredness I mean the need to experience or be in the presence of the ultimate, of something that is not exchangeable for any other good and that is not experienced as a ground for other existences, while nothing further grounds it. In contrast, the secular is the marketplace where everything has its price and exchange value. The market is centered on the individual’s desires and his or her exchange of goods and services to satisfy them. The sacred is focused on the ultimate, not the self, and there is no bargaining or exchange.                                                       (pp.97-98)


Walking the mountain out behind the hermitage -- I walk solitary. Just walking. Early on I note sites for solitude cabins back beyond the brook where someone or other might stay for a while in silence and simplicity. (If we ever have funds we’ll build them.) So, too, the waters are guests enroute elsewhere. This is what this life is – greeting in passing – allowing the other a resting place for time to change hands. Perhaps simplicity is divesting, or, being divested of our illusions. Or, as the homeopathic doctor in the shop said, citing either Eckhart Tolle or Ramesh Balsekar, “Giving up doer-ship.”

It is a curious consideration: Are we what is being done? Or, Are we doing what is to be done?

Perhaps the answer is “Yes” to both questions.

Do the waters simply fall through the brook enroute Hosmer pond and ultimately empty out four miles away into Rockport harbor and Penobscot bay? Or do the waters calculate every turn and length of their journey, plotting time and distance, diversion and destination, until their appointed arrival alongside the old limekiln, brackishly incorporating into the tidal outflow past Indian Island light?  

What command is at work? Psalm 18 says, “The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes.” Someone recently told me that when we are in the right place at the right time we receive instruction.

Robert Frost speaks of this in his poem:


Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion. .

                   When “reality” seems too much for us, when we grow confused and disoriented and we want to “Back out of all this too much for us,” we are invited to be still, simply look around, listen, immerse ourselves in silence, and rest a while in the reality given us, given with compassion, given anew in the directive of the final two lines…

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Brown oak leaves --- a spray of luminescent morning company for my eyes as I stop half down the far path up from the toboggan shoot --- they hold thin strands of spider film between young branches. The acorns underfoot and under fallen leaves have made my slow descent even slower until I stop by the muted glow of the lingering leaves at eye level.


Keiji Nishitani in his Religion and Nothingness writes:

As for the self forever becoming itself, this is not merely a matter of the “will” of the self alone. It has to do rather with the “natural” mode of the self in its emergence into its nature from the non-self, a matter of Dasein [i.e., “there-being” or a “human-being” (wfh)] being at bottom and essentially a task unto itself.

When Dogen says that the dropping off of body-and-mind is the practice of Zen, he seems to be suggesting the same thing. To practice or “observe” the Way of the Buddha is nothing other than the Dasein of the self on the field of emptiness. Here “doing” takes on the character of such a religious observance. Here being oneself is no different from becoming oneself or from making a self of oneself. For the vocational, tasklike character of our Dasein to be the shouldering of a debt without debt means that existence as such is religious observance. On the field of emptiness, the dynamic nexus of being-doing-becoming essentially implies that one is a task to oneself.

Although we speak of “practicing” Zen and “observing” the Way of the Buddha, this is not to suggest that showing the original countenance of existence in observance is a matter for Buddhism alone. It is implied in all true religious life. There are different interpretations of religious observance just as there are different ways of understanding karma, for example by the Self-power teaching (the so-called “Path of the Saints” exemplified by Zen), and the Other-power teaching (found in Pure Land Buddhist schools). Here, however, no firm stance is taken on any particular religious or philosophic view. My aim is rather to inquire into the original form of reality, and of man who is part of that reality, including as well the antireligious and antiphilosophical standpoints of which the nihilism of Nietzsche and the scientism found in secularization are examples.                 (Pp. 260-261)

November begins in the Christian calendar with the contiguous feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Prayer in this context is communion and compassion. By participating-dwelling-allowing (three hallmarks of communion-compassion) we remember our original home. Our original home is “belonging.” At origin we belong to each other. To belong does not mean to be owned, or to be involved in an exclusive club. To belong means to participate, dwell, allow what is whole to awaken us within itself. To pray in this regard is to wake up. To pray is to open our heart and open our mind to include and embody each and all. This prayer forgets the illusion of separateness of the one praying. It is in this opening to wholeness that the individual is no longer divided from himself, no longer separated from herself, no longer other than Itself. Perhaps this is love. Paul said nothing could separate us from the love of God.

Nishitani, later in his book, continues:                       

When St. Paul called himself an “instrument of God,” he may not have been speaking metaphorically. His words express a mode of being that is, at ground, free of the merely human. It is the same mode of being that I have spoken of as the standpoint of the substratum (subjectum or hypokeimenon) underlying all things. When, in the old metaphysics, this was called “matter,” this conception of matter was not the same as what we find in modern science. Yet they may have in common the character of being shapeless even as they constitute the foundations of things that have space. Thus, matter is what things with shape return to upon dissolution or death. It can be called the outer limit of an existence seen as oriented to the death of things.

The  hypokeimenon I have been speaking of in connection with religious Love, however, has a meaning altogether different from that employed in metaphysics. It is the field where the self is brought to utter “nothingness” in a religious sense, the field of the absolute negation or Great Death of the self. Here, where “we become dead men while living,” is the field of absolute hypokeimenon. If we take matter or materiality, in either a metaphysical or scientific sense, merely as the end point of an existence oriented to the death of things, then the field of the religious hypokeimenon is a transcending of existence in an orientation to the Great Death of the self. Here the self, with body, consciousness, personality, and so on, intact, takes its place as a thing or as matter with the function of tool or instrument. In other words, without ceasing to be a human being, the self comes to a mode of being where it gets rid of the human. And that mode is none other than Existenz as non-ego, the Existenz of the “non-duality of self and other.” (p.280)    

On the far trail I look to see the distant cross that stands out across the snow bowl and on Megunticook ridge on the other side of the lake. I have to get free of the obstacle of Bald Mountain. There are loud repeats of gunshot bouncing from Bald. Hunting season. Someone sighting his or her gun or firing at quarry. The cross on Maidenhead cliff is barely visible in the distance. Walking over footbridge connecting parking lot to soccer field I see the boat builder loading scrap onto his trailer in front of the double barns.

It is dangerous to speak of God. When we do we are tempted to allow the limitations of speech and grammar to limit God within their rules. Or within our human rules. I recall the calligraphy given us by then classical music announcer stating “God Spoken Here.” It hangs from a beam in the shop. Perhaps “Here” is the origin of God. “There” is only “here” with a cross (“T”) on it.  Are we back at origin after the cross?

Nishitani goes on: 

Granted that love of neighbor does come about on such a field, that field itself is not limited to the love of neighbor alone. The self is here at the home-ground of all things. It is itself a home-ground where every thing becomes manifest as what it is, where all things are assembled together into a “world.” This must be a standpoint where one sees one’s own self in all things, in living things, in hills and rivers, towns and hamlets, tiles and stones, and loves all these things “as oneself.” And then, it hardly needs mentioning, the self is a self absolutely made into a nothingness.

Someone may object that it is not possible to love something other than a human being as oneself, since love in its original sense cannot obtain toward beings lower than man. And this is particularly so for religious Love, which is possible only between “persons” – an I and a Thou. The idea of loving all things “as oneself” might well be construed as a kind of pantheism.

In Buddhism, however, the religious Compassion extending to all living things is not merely a feeling of philanthropy or “universal brotherhood.” It issues from the very essence of the standpoint of Buddhism as a religion. In the history of Christianity, we see something similar, for example, in St, Francis of Assisi who, it is well known, referred not only to his fellow men but to all things as his kin. When St. Francis addressed the sun, the moon, water, fire, and wind as his brothers and sisters in his famous Canticle to the Sun, he was not merely adopting a poetic figure of speech. That is how he in fact encountered them. I should think that for him every single thing actually was a brother or sister, since each one had been created, together with himself, by God. A field opened up where everything could be so encountered, because he had radicalized the standpoint where he spoke of “the little ones” (minores) so that he himself stood “smaller than anything,” beneath them all. This standpoint opened up at the extreme point of his self-denial and self-dedication to God. Surely this is not a pantheism. The case of St. Francis may be rather exceptional in Christianity, but it serves us with at least one example of religious Love overstepping the boundaries of the human to reach out to all things.                                (pp280-1)

Are we back at origin with the sign of the cross? The Zen Buddhist philosopher Nishitani concludes with:

(H)ow does it come that the sign of the cross takes on the significance of a blessing in the first place? What essential relation does it have to the fact that, with Jesus, death on the cross took on the significance of a love expiating for sin in the stead of mankind? If I may be allowed to hazard my own view on the matter: Could it not be that the sign of the cross made over the relationship between oneself and others signals the opening up of a field where self and others are bound together in divine agape, where both are made into a nothingness and “emptied out,” and that this is where the encounter with others takes place? Does not the sign of the cross take on the significance of a blessing because in loving others “as oneself” in Christ, all men become one’s brothers and sisters?                                                                                                           (pp283-4)

In his final words of the book Nishitani writes:

Only on the field of emptiness does all of this become possible. Unless the thoughts and deeds of man one and all be located on such a field, the sorts of problems that beset humanity have no chance of ever really being solved.                     (P.285)

 We ask, “What is a saint?” We ask, “Where are the souls of the dead?”

Some eyes turn to images on walls, or words on paper, or retrieving memory. Some minds and eyes look out over the fallen but not yet brittle leaves, hear the scurrying of small animals, the sounds of children over generations tossing and turning in the color of changing time. What has been lost still echoes in a hearing that transcends this time and this place. What is to be found calls faintly from its hidden secret home, looking longingly to reveal itself here and now. The sound is True Name. The look is Whole Sight.

Again, in The Gift of Death:

The organ of sight begins by being a source of light. The eye is a lamp. It doesn’t receive light, it gives it. It is not that which receives or regards the Good on the outside as solar source or visibility, it gives light from the inside. It is therefore the Good become goodness, the becoming-good of the Good, since it lights from the interior, from inside the body, namely, the soul. However, although it is internal in its source, this light doesn’t belong to this world or this earth. It can seem obscure, somber, nocturnal, secret, invisible to eyes of flesh, to corrupted eyes, and that is why “seeing in secret” becomes necessary. In this way God the Father reestablishes an economy that was interrupted by the dividing of earth and heaven. (Derrida, p.99)

The cross from Vienna with circles expanding from center hangs in the large front window of the hermitage framing behind it the empty field of Barnestown road, wetland brush, Bald Mountain, and open sky. Everything that is still, everything that passes behind or before it receives a blessing. The circles ripple out from center and reverberate in ever-expanding diameter enroute the farthest extension to the edge of the limits of circumference and then beyond to where light and dark have encircled each other and recognize their purchase.

Genuine compassion is irrespective of
others’ attitude towards you…
but so long as others are also just like myself
and want happiness, do not want suffering,
on that basis, you develop some kind of sense of concern…
that is genuine compassion,
now unbiased, even towards your enemy,
so long as that enemy is also a human being
or other form of sentient being.
They also have the right to overcome suffering.
So on that basis, there is your sense of concern.
This is compassion.

(His Holiness The Dalai Lama     
The Gethsemani Encounter. Compassion).     

The final words belong to Thomas Merton. He spoke them at The Bangkok Conference on December 10, 1968, the day of his death:

It’s obvious that we have to plan the future. The essential in life is not embedded in buildings, it’s not embedded in clothing, it’s not embedded necessarily in a rule, but it is somewhere along the lines of something deeper than a role. It is somewhere concerned with this business of total inner transformation, and all other things serve that end.

If you once penetrate, by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of one’s ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, which nobody can affect; this kind of freedom and transcendence are somehow attainable.

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings which are all part of one another and all involved in one another…

The whole purpose of life is to live by love.                               (In Compassion)


The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes.

(Psalm 18)




October 2000 Update
September 2000 Update
August 2000 Update
July 2000 Update
June 2000 Update
May 2000 Update
April 2000 Update
March 2000 Update
February 2000 Update
January 2000 Update
December 99 Update 
November Update

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