Meetingbrook Dogen & Francis Hermitage Update,
A Reality of Compassion: Singularity
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.
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
|What do you hear
when the only sound
is your fond heart
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
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
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.
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.
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?
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
I mean this
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door
to two strangers
it soon appeared,
not men at all,
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,
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,
and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
The ledges show lines ruled
The chisel work of an enormous
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
Of being watched from forty
As if by eye pairs out
of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement
That sends light rustle
rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart
Where were they all not
twenty years ago?
They think too much of
having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted
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.
height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village
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
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
Now slowly closing like
a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but
a house in earnest.
Your destination and your
A brook that was the water
of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet
so near its source,
Too lofty and original
(We know the valley streams
that when aroused
Will leave their tatters
hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the
Of an old cedar at the
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to
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