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The Zen Master

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After a three-month stint in the Bay Area, during which time I smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of beer, and sat a total of twice at San Francisco Zen Center, I returned to Koko An [1] in early October 1971 in order to participate in a seven-day sesshin, the intensive monastic-like seclusion that is presided over by a Zen master…

The sesshin was to be led by none other than “Mr. K.Y.,” the Japanese businessman whose thunder-and-lightning daigo-tettei (Great Enlightenment) account in The Three Pillars of Zen I had by now reread at least a hundred times. His initials stood for “Kyozo Yamada,” and we would come to know him as Yamada Ko’un Roshi (Ko’un being his Zen teacher name). Since he was reputed to have experienced a depth of kensho [awakening] unprecedented in modern times, a few in the Diamond Sangha, myself included, began referring to him from time to time as “the most enlightened being in the world.” I sometimes thought of him simply as “The Master.”…

Yamada Roshi had written to Bob Aitken a few months earlier, formally committing to leading this sesshin. Bob, who had come over from Maui Zendo, became noticeably excited the day he received the letter and exclaimed after evening zazen, “There are roshi and there are roshi, and we now have the best!” He then told of having met Yamada some years earlier and how he had come away greatly impressed by his bearing, personality, and almost palpable depth of enlightenment. From that point on, all of us redoubled our dedication to our practice in preparation for the retreat.

The morning Yamada Roshi arrived was one of scurrying bustle. I had no idea as to how to interact with a personage who had experienced the awesome-sounding daigo-tettei, and the butterflies in my stomach multiplied with each passing hour. Would this “best” of roshis be free of allergies and asthma attacks, unlike Bob? Would he “walk through the marketplace with arms hanging loose”? Would he have “forty undivided and very white teeth” and “eyelashes like that of a cow” or any of the other “Thirty-Two Marks of a Buddha”?

I heard him before I saw him. As he sat in the passenger seat of Bob’s car, he loudly cleared his throat, a trademark habit we would hear frequently over the coming week and beyond. He emerged from the car and moved resolutely to the trunk. From my timorous vantage point on the porch about thirty feet away I beheld a heavyset man with a wide, impassive face, about 5’5” tall, with a full head of steel-gray hair combed straight back. He was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, his gray suit jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and looking like an ordinary Japanese businessman on a hot day. Seeming to take delight in all the tropical trees that surrounded Koko An, he chuckled lightly to himself before reaching toward the trunk of the car to retrieve his luggage, but Bob tut-tutted him away and lifted the bags out himself. The small party then made their way to the tiny cottage in which Yamada Roshi would stay for the entire week of sesshin, coming out only for brief exercise walks around the block, and to deliver teisho, the formal Zen Buddhist dharma-talk given each day at 2 p.m. during the retreat.

After Yamada Roshi was settled into the cottage, Bob Aitken escorted him out onto the zendo back porch, where we had a lunch prepared. I still couldn’t muster the courage to introduce myself, so I just hung back on the fringes and tried to look as Buddha-like as possible, keeping my eyes focused on the rice, tofu, and vegetables in front of me and fixing on my face a solemn Zen Man demeanor. We all bowed to our food, and lunch proceeded with a little conversation among Aitken, Yamada Roshi, and some of the residents who were not as intimidated as I was. At one point during the meal, my brother Paul asked the Roshi if he ever ate meat. “Yes, of course,” he replied. Whereupon several hardcore vegetarians at the table choked on their tofu. He also mentioned that his tastes in music ran more to Beethoven than to anything traditionally Japanese, which he said he found too simple.

Over the previous months, an ethos of almost ascetic restraint had developed at Koko An. Thus, when Yamada Roshi reached into his pocket after lunch and extracted a silver cylindrical object, I lightheartedly imagined him awarding it to the sangha in acknowledgment of the purity of our practice: “On behalf of Zen Buddhists everywhere, I wish to thank you all so much for the example you are setting here in America. And as a token of my appreciation for your efforts, I now present to you—the Silver Buddha-Wand of Diligence.”

But instead, he unhasped the cylinder, took out a thick black stogie, and struck a match, asking of no one in particular, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?”

For months I had taken great care to wash up thoroughly after smoking a single cigarette so as not to offend overly sensitive noses, and here was our new Zen master, “the best roshi,” asking if we minded if he lit up! Someone scurried inside to retrieve a decorative clamshell that was pressed into service as an ashtray, the cigar smoke’s blue tendrils rising into the mango-scented air and a look of pure nicotine-bliss crossing the Roshi’s face. Jared Aiona (not his real name) and I, the zendo reprobates, took one look at each other and then reached into our own pockets for our packs of Kools and Marlboros, and before long the air was thick and fragrant with Sir Walter Raleigh’s revenge…

After dinner that night I finally mustered up enough courage to introduce myself. I tried to meet his eye as directly as I could, since I had read in one of my books that Zen masters always look for this kind of straightforwardness, and instead of extending my hand, I made an awkward bow, just to show him that I was savvy about at least one aspect of his culture. But he extended his own hand and said, “How do you do?” in accented but completely understandable English.

I nervously turned over in my mind the possibility that he was testing me in some way: “How do I do what?” And how should I respond if he then examined my spiritual attainment with something even more koan-like such as, “What is your original dwelling place?”

“Where are you from?” he then asked. I shuddered at my own prescience.

“New Jersey,” I replied tentatively, wondering if I should have said something more mysterious, like “The Void.”

“Ah, yes, New Jersey. My daughter is living in Hoboken.”

Over the next few days before the sesshin began, we learned more about this man who had taken several weeks out of his busy life to come lead us in our practice. He was universally recognized in Japanese Zen circles as one of the most accomplished Zen masters alive, even though he was a layman and had never spent more than a sesshin’s time in a monastery. He was also a highly successful businessman who ran the Kenbikyoin Clinic, a private hospital in Tokyo. His wife, Dr. Kazue Yamada, was one of the first female physicians in modern Japan and oversaw the medical side of things at the hospital, while Mr. K.Y. himself was its CEO. From all appearances he had completely integrated the practice of Zen with the ordinary demands of family and employment life, an integration wholly congruent with one of the major themes of his teaching—”Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.”

[1] Honolulu Zen center founded by Robert Aitken (1917-2010)

–Gregory Sheperd


Written by MattAndJojang

October 18, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Strangers No More: Catholic Monastics in Dialogue with Other Faith-Traditions

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The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men… The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… [to] recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

–Nostra Aetate, Official Document of the Catholic Church

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September 8, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Finding God on a Baseball Diamond

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Baseball as a Road to God

John Sexton, the President of NYU (New York University), teaches an unusual course on baseball and spirituality, which became the basis of a book he wrote in 2013 entitled Baseball as a Road to God.

The course started out when a student, who knew about Sexton’s love of baseball, remarked: “I understand you’re a big baseball fan. I think the sport is silly and I don’t understand why anybody would waste time on it.”

He replied: “You are among the great unwashed,” then issued a challenge to the student: “If you will read twelve books that I choose next semester, I will direct you in an independent study at the end of which you will realize that baseball is a road to God.”

The student accepted the challenge, and it didn’t take long for word to spread. Other students wanted, too, to take the course; it eventually became a seminar that Sexton has been teaching for the past ten years.

The course (and the book) is based on the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Novak, Robert N. Bellah and Johan Huizinga. At the same time, it also discusses the work of baseball novelists and writers like Robert Coover, W. P. Kinsella, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

But, more importantly, it draws on Sexton’s love for baseball and his personal experiences.

He writes:

My NYU course and this book are attempts at exploring the basic building blocks of a spiritual or religious life, finding them, perhaps surprisingly to some, in an institution associated with secular life. The nine innings of this book are an assertion—an affirmation—that there is a meaningful dimension of the human experience (whether seen in what we recognize formally as religions or in a secular pursuit called baseball) that cannot be captured in words. Francis Bacon once observed, ‘The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express.’

What he is talking about is best illustrated by an experience he relates at the start of the book.

The date: October 4, 1955. It’s Game 7 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.

In the basement of my family’s home, my friend Bobby ‘Dougie’ Douglass and I knelt and prayed with all the intensity we could muster, grasping between us in dynamic tension each end of a twelve-inch crucifix we had removed from the wall. … We prayed before a radio instead of an altar, which broadcast the sounds of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series instead of hymns. … For three innings, time had slowed; but in that moment it froze: The Brooklyn Dodgers had won the World Series! Seven decades of waiting were over! Dougie raised his arms in exultation, releasing the crucifix, whereupon the laws of physics drove the head of Christ into my mouth, chipping my front tooth. I wore that chipped tooth, unrepaired, as a visible memento for nearly fifty years.

He concludes:

October 4, 1955. For me and millions of others, a sacred day. Why? Hard to put into words. Impossible to capture completely in our limited vocabulary.

“Hard to put into words.” “Impossible to capture completely in our limited vocabulary.”

In other words, the experience can’t be fully described in words and can be summed up in one word: ineffable, a word which is often repeated in the book.

Many years ago, the psychologist, William James, uses the same word to characterize deep spiritual experiences. He describes it in the following way:

The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.

The ineffable cannot be defined; it reveals itself in moments of intense feeling in baseball as in religion.

Another word which often comes up in the book is hierophany, a concept borrowed by Sexton from the religious historian, Mircea Eliade. Simply put, the term means the manifestation of the sacred in the world. Often it is associated with sacred places, like the Stonehenge, the Kaaba, the Western Wall or St. Peter’s Basilica. But can a baseball stadium be a place of hierophany?

Sexton answers in the affirmative:

For some of us, a visit to the ballpark is a move from one state of being—the more familiar one—to another. It is a transformation, evoking a connection to something deep and meaningful. This is more than the simple, surface observation that a stadium can be a church and the bleachers can be its pews; the stadium acts as what Eliade would call axis mundi—a channeling of the intersection between our world and the transcendent world, a place “sacred above all” that connects the ordinary and the spiritual dimensions. It is not that this evocative experience occurs for everyone in every ballpark every time; but it can happen to anyone, in any ballpark, anytime. In this place, magic can happen, and the fan can be transported to a space and time beyond, to an experience we know profoundly but cannot put into words.

But what about those of us who haven’t had such experiences? At the very least, baseball can teach us to slow down, live in the moment and appreciate the beauties of life.

To borrow Sexton’s words:

Fans occasionally do experience these moments as divergent from the ordinary, as connected to another dimension. Not all fans. Not even most fans. Not all the time. But for some fans, these special moments touch the part of us where the mystics live.

It is through a collection of such experiences that I and my students have come to appreciate the jarring proposition that baseball can show us more about our world and ourselves than we might have thought. Or at the very least, it can demonstrate the benefits of living a little slower, of noticing a little more, and of embracing life’s ineffable beauties…


Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

What Makes a Good Life: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness

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What makes a good life? What truly makes us happy? Is it wealth? Is it fame?

The psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, who has an unprecedented access on data about what makes people happy, reveals that money and popularity doesn’t enter at all in the equation.

He says that what makes us truly happy and healthy is the quality of our relationships.

If you’re interested in what matters most in life,  listen to his talk.


Written by MattAndJojang

July 13, 2016 at 6:28 pm

A Long View of Time

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The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a beacon for this book, and especially in my reflections on hope. In life, he joined intellectual rigor, scientific discovery, and an adventurous, expansive view of the human spirit. “An interpretation of the universe,” he wrote, “remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter.” While he was excavating the primitive “Peking man” fossil in China, he imagined future humanity excavating the modern human psyche and spirit — and seeing it revealed as primitive. He foresaw that we would overlay the biosphere with the noosphere — the realm of human intelligence, information, and action. He predicted, that is, something like the Internet. He believed that the noosphere would drive the next stage of evolution — an evolution of spirit and consciousness. This is a grand and exciting vision for imagining the long-term stakes of what we might be fermenting now.

But Teilhard thought in slow, deep, geologic time, and so must we. A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world. We are in the adolescence of our species, not by any measure in full possession of our powers. The twenty-first-century globe resembles the understanding we now have of the teenage brain: dramatically uneven; immensely powerful and creative at times and in places, reckless and destructive in others.

In America, many features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions. This book is for people who want to take up the great questions of our time with imagination and courage, to nurture new realities in the spaces we inhabit, and to do so expectantly and with joy.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others. Desmond Tutu, whom I found impossible to doubt, says that God has a sense of humor. There is science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections and leaning into them with joy. So I hope and trust that a smile in the voice may sometimes rise from these pages. And I do bring many voices along with me here, snatches of conversation completing and informing my thoughts, as they do all the time in my life and work.

I’m not surprised by the fact that inexplicable and terrible things happen in a cosmos as complicated as ours, with sentient beings like us running the show. But I am emboldened by the fact that surprise is the only constant. We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications. I am emboldened by the puzzling, redemptive truth to which each and every one of my conversations has added nuance, that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long. I have heard endless variations on this theme — the battle with illness that saves the life that follows; the childhood pain that leads to vocation; the disability that opens into wholeness and a presence to the hidden wholeness of others. You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.

And what is true for individuals is true for peoples. Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.

–Krista Tippett, from her book “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living”

Written by MattAndJojang

June 23, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Imperfection

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Tea Bowl at the Tokyo National Museum

Tea Bowl at the Tokyo National Museum

The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your home, and your whole life.

According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground.

To this day, the Japanese revere Rikyu as one who understood to his very core a deep cultural thread known as wabi-sabi. Emerging in the 15th century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all. In Japan, the concept is now so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to explain to Westerners; no direct translation exists.

Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.

Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.

Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are—without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.

You might ignite your appreciation of wabi-sabi with a single item from the back of a closet: a chipped vase, a faded piece of cloth. Look deeply for the minute details that give it character; explore it with your hands. You don’t have to understand why you’re drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.

Rough textures, minimally processed goods, natural materials, and subtle hues are all wabi-sabi. Consider the musty-oily scene that lingers around an ancient wooden bowl, the mystery behind a tarnished goblet. This patina draws us with a power that the shine of the new doesn’t possess. Our universal longing for wisdom, for genuineness, for shared history manifests in these things.

There’s no right or wrong to creating a wabi-sabi home. It can be as simple as using an old bowl as a receptacle for the day’s mail, letting the paint on an old chair chip, or encouraging the garden to go to seed. Whatever it is, it can’t be bought. Wabi-sabi is a state of mind, a way of being. It’s the subtle art of being at peace with yourself and your surroundings.

–Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Written by MattAndJojang

May 25, 2016 at 10:09 am

Introverts Run The World — Quietly

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The theory of evolution. The theory of relativity. The Cat in the Hat. All were brought to you by introverts.

Our culture is biased against quiet and reserved people, but introverts are responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements — from Steve Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And these introverts did what they did not in spite of their temperaments — but because of them.

As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Introverts make up a third to a half the population. That’s one out of every two or three people you know.
Yet our most important institutions — our schools and our workplaces — are designed for extroverts. And we’re living with a value system that I call the New Groupthink, where we believe that all creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place.

Picture the typical classroom. When I was a kid, we sat in rows of desks, and we did most of our work autonomously. But nowadays many students sit in “pods” of desks with four or five students facing each other, and they work on countless group projects — even in subjects like math and creative writing. Kids who prefer to work by themselves don’t fit, and research by educational psychology professor Charles Meisgeier found that the majority of teachers believe the ideal student is an extrovert — even though introverts tend to get higher grades, according to psychologist Adrian Furnham.

The same thing happens at work. Many of us now work in offices without walls, with no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. And introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though the latest research by the management professor Adam Grant at Wharton shows that introverted leaders often deliver better results. They’re better at letting proactive employees run with their creative ideas, while extroverts can unwittingly put their own stamp on things and not realize that other people’s ideas aren’t being heard.

Of course, we all fall at different points along the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Even Carl Jung, who popularized these terms in the first place, said there was no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert — that “such a man would be in a lunatic asylum.” There’s also a term, ambivert, for people who fall smack in the middle of the spectrum.

But many of us recognize ourselves as one or the other. And culturally we need a better balance of yin and yang between the two types. In fact, we often seek out this balance instinctively. That’s why we see so many introvert-extrovert couples (I’m an introvert happily married to an extrovert) and the most effective work teams have been found to be a mix of the two types.

The need for balance is especially important when it comes to creativity and productivity. When psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, they almost always find a serious streak of introversion because solitude is a crucial ingredient for creativity.

Charles Darwin took long walks alone in the woods and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, dreamed up his creations in a private bell tower in the back of his house in La Jolla. Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer alone in his cubicle at Hewlett Packard.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should stop collaborating with each other — witness Wozniak teaming up with Steve Jobs to form Apple. But it does mean that solitude matters. And for some people it’s the air they breathe.

In fact, we’ve known about the transcendent power of solitude for centuries; it’s only recently that we’ve forgotten it. Our major religions all tell the story of seekers — Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha — who go off alone, to the wilderness, and bring profound revelations back to the community. No wilderness, no revelations.

This is no surprise, if you listen to the insights of contemporary psychology. It turns out that you can’t be in a group without instinctively mimicking others’ opinions — even about personal, visceral things like who you’re physically attracted to. We ape other people’s beliefs without even realizing we’re doing it.

Groups also tend to follow the most dominant person in the room even though there’s zero correlation between good ideas and being a good talker. The best talker might have the best ideas, but she might not. So it’s much better to send people off to generate ideas by themselves, freed from the distortion of group dynamics, and only then come together as a team.

I’m not saying that social skills are unimportant, or that we should abolish teamwork. The same religions that send their sages off to lonely mountaintops also teach us love and trust. And the problems we face today in fields like economics and science are more complex than ever, and need armies of people to solve them.

But I am saying that we all need alone time. And that the more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more they’ll dream up their own unique solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

–Susan Cain


Written by MattAndJojang

April 18, 2016 at 6:25 pm