Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Sound of a Flower


One day the Buddha gathered his students for a talk. Instead of delivering a discourse on the dharma, he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. His students were puzzled, but Kashyapa’s face softened as his eyes met the Buddha’s. Something silent and profound moved between them. From that moment on, Kashyapa became Buddha’s principle disciple.
            For many, this is the origin story of Zen Buddhism’s central idea – that wordless transmission and direct experiential awareness are superior to conceptual, language-based understanding. The Katha Upanishad calls it “spiritual osmosis” – when embodied wisdom flows directly between teachers and students, unhindered by the fog of words and concepts.
            As a guest speaker in various New Thought communities I’ve often wondered what would happen if I showed up on a Sunday morning and instead of delivering a well-wrought sermon I simply held up a flower for twenty minutes. People would squirm. But for the Kashyapa’s in the congregation something profound might happen.           
The 5th century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma defined Zen as a wordless transmission outside the scriptures, a direct seeing into the mind, and the realization of Buddha-consciousness within. In contrast with more elaborate forms of Buddhism already present in China at the time, Bodhidharma spearheaded a stripped-down approach that would evolve into what we call Zen Buddhism today.
At the root of Zen practice is meditation because meditation is the art of breaking free from the grip of the conceptual mind and slipping into the infinite awareness beneath the waves of the thought stream. Prajna, or transcendent wisdom, is only possible when we make this shift, returning to our original nature and becoming that which we already are – illumined beings. We cannot think our way into enlightenment. In fact, it is our thinking that has kept us out.
            This deep state of stillness and concept-free awareness is known throughout Buddhism as nirvana. The contemporary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines nirvana as awareness without concepts. Nirvana is not an afterlife reward for good Buddhists, nor is it a pleasure palace for the senses. Nirvana is a state of awareness free from all concepts – no fixed self, no separate and distinct objects, no cravings, no fears. Reality is finally experienced as it is – a fluid, ordinary, miraculous, sacred, and deeply interconnected phenomenal field without beginning or end. In the wordless depth awareness of prajna, all is one.
When Jesus counsels us to not judge, and seek first the Father’s kingdom, this is what he means – abandon your concepts and come into awareness. When Jesus says “Become again as a child,” this is what he means – to see the world without the paralyzing grid of our prejudices and categories. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” this is what he means – to slip free from the conceptual chains we and the world have constructed. When we shift from the complexity of our ideological frameworks and into the simplicity of present-moment awareness, all is right with the world. Nothing but love, gratitude, service, and bliss. Nothing to cling to. Nothing to resist. Complete and utter freedom. From this stance we can now get to work, moving into the actions that will heal the world, ourselves, and each other, but without anxiety, without egotism, and without shame.  
            Who knew there could be all of this in the silent sound of a flower?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

I Believe We Will

Ammar texted me late Friday afternoon. “Can you write a campaign song for us, something I could pull out at events when people ask me to sing?”
            “Hell yes!”
            “Just something off the top of your head, about country over party, and bringing people together.”
            “I’ve been wanting to do this anyway. Let me take a shot at it.”
            I’d known Ammar Campa-Najjar for nine years, first as a student in my philosophy class at Southwestern College, and then as a friend. We’d stayed in touch through the years as he finished his double major in philosophy and psychology at San Diego State University, and as he ran the San Diego office of the Obama re-election campaign in 2012. The following spring he was working at the White House. Lori and I flew out to visit him. He spent the next few years in Washington, first at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, then at the Department of Labor, getting the education of his life in both the private and public sector. We talked often on the phone. I could hear it in his voice. He wanted to come home and find a way to serve the region that had given him everything he had. And when local congressman Duncan Hunter came up for reelection, Ammar saw an opportunity.
            It’d been a long, exhausting week. It’s hard to cook up a decent dinner on Friday night. After Ammar’s text I hopped in the car and headed over to the neighborhood taco shop. On the way over a chorus started rising up in my mind. At a stop light I grabbed my phone, opened a voice memo, and hit record. When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow, may the people lead and the leader’s follow, to that shining city on the hill, I believe we will. The beginnings of a chorus. The next morning, guitar in hand, the rest of the song spilled out. Some songs come fast like that. By 9:30 I was texting a voice memo recording of the finished song to Ammar. “I LOVE IT!” he wrote back.

I Believe We Will

America belongs to you and me
America’s a promise we can keep
If we sweep away the lies that say
That there is not enough
To make a place, full of grace for all of us

When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow
May the people lead and the leaders follow
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will

Underneath the mask we’re all the same
So no more keeping score and placing blame
Yeah I believe that we’re the ones
That we’ve been waiting for
So sail with me and we will reach the other shore

Of the shining sea and waves of grain
To the mountains high across the plains
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe

            Later that same day I reached out to Jeff Berkley, an old friend and brilliant producer. He texted me right back. “I’m in,” he said, and we huddled up on who the best players might be. I’d handle all the guitars but we needed bass, drums, and organ. Soon I was tracking down Larry Grano, Rick Nash, and Sharon Whyte, who all jumped right in. The first opening in everybody’s impossibly busy schedules was Wednesday evening. We booked it. That meant I only had four days to put the song through all the many rewrites, revisions, and refinements that usually take weeks or months to unfold in any normal songwriting process. But this wasn’t normal. The election was in three weeks and we had to move fast. I sang the song a thousand ways until every note of every line settled into its forever home. (You don’t control this part of the process – the song tells you what it wants to be). I re-jiggered the ending over and over until it finally felt right. It was done. Then Ammar’s text came in.
            “Can you add something about the 50th district or the campaign? And the phrase ‘country over party?’ Just so people can identify it with us specifically?”
            Ugh. A rewrite? Now? But I had to try. I let go of what I thought the song should be. This song wasn’t about me. It was for Ammar and his all-important efforts to bring real representation to California’s 50th congressional district. I needed to make this song into whatever the campaign needed it to be. Collaboration is hard – I’m used to writing songs by myself. But I love and trust Ammar. So I wrote another verse and chorus and put it in the middle of the song.

            Country over party every time
            We’re going door to door and changing minds
            El Cajon, San Marcos, Escondido, Temecula
            We’re digging deep, lifting up the best of us

            Duncan Hunter’s lies are hard to swallow
            When the people lead, the leaders follow
            To that shining city on the hill
            And I believe we will, I believe we will

            I didn’t want to make the song this specific – I wanted it to be more universal about the broader themes of Ammar’s campaign – but he was right and I was wrong. Now it was the fight song we were looking for – big ideas and concrete details – something his thousands of followers, hundreds of volunteers, and crackerjack staff could rally around and feel inspired by. Something Ammar, a talented singer with a beautiful voice, could sing at events. Something to keep us all fired up and ready to go. There was still a lot of work to do. Long hours, endless phone calls, unrelenting print and television interviews, thousands of doors to knock on, long hard days and long hard nights. The good people of the 50th district deserve to finally be heard and have a real voice in Washington. This is all for them. We can sleep after November 6.
No matter how this election turns out we know we changed the lives of thousands of people. Win or lose, Ammar will be fine. He’s a national figure now. Millions of people know his name and his story. He’ll be thirty years old in a few months. He’s just getting started serving this great country that gave both of us, the sons of immigrants, everything we have.
Together, we’re stronger than we are alone. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America. It is from our union that our strength comes. We will weather the darkness that sometimes sweeps across the landscape obscuring our greatness. We will gather in the clearing, and we will walk together toward that shining city on a hill. I believe we will.

Here's the song:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_iIVUMHo04

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Method of No-Method


All over the internet you’ll find articles on creativity, productivity, and how to build success in 10 easy steps. Everyone’s trying to describe the mysterious path from inception to fruition. In the chaos of conflicting advice it’s hard to find a clear way forward. Instead of reading yet another life coach blog, let’s look at an ancient Chinese source, Zhuangzi.
            Zhuangzi (370-287 B.C.E.) was the best of the Daoist writers and philosophers. Coming a few hundred years after Laozi, he far exceeded his predecessor’s reach in terms of sheer literary power. Laozi’s beloved Daodejing is still the starting point in any study of Daoism. But when you’re really ready to have your mind blown, pick up Zhuangzi.
            At issue is this: what is the best approach to accomplishing any task? Aggressive forcefulness? Aloof indifference? Something in between? Zhuangzi has an answer. And he presents it in a story. It is the story of a cook who worked for Prince Wen Hui. In Thomas Merton’s translation, it goes like this.
            Prince Wen Hui’s cook was cutting up an ox. Out went a hand, down went a shoulder, he planted a foot, he pressed with a knee, the ox fell apart with a whisper, the bright cleaver murmured like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance, like “The Mulberry Grove,” like ancient harmonies!
            “Good work!” the Prince exclaimed, “Your method is faultless!”
            “Method?” said the cook, laying aside his cleaver, “What I follow is Tao beyond all methods.
“When I first began to cut up oxen I would see before me the whole ox all in one mass. After three years I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.
“But now, I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by a natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, I chop no bone.
            “I have used this same cleaver nineteen years. It has cut up a thousand oxen. Its edge is as keen as if newly sharpened.
            “There are spaces in the joints; the blade is thin and keen: when this thinness finds that space, there is all the room you need. It goes like a breeze. Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years, as if newly sharpened.
            “True, there are sometimes tough joints. I feel them coming, I slow down, I watch closely, hold back, barely move the blade, and whump! The part falls away landing like a clod of earth.
            “Then I withdraw the blade. I stand still and let the joy of the work sink in. I clean the blade and put it away.”
            Prince Wan Hui said, “This is it! My cook has shown me how I ought to live my own life!”
            Zhuangzi’s allegory is a thick slab of wisdom ready for the grill. Whether you’re trying to write a song, navigate a relationship challenge, manage your finances, resolve a workplace conflict, plan your next career move, or cook an omelet, Zhuangzi has laid out the path as only a master teacher can. Let’s unpack the components of the parable.
             Right off the bat Prince Wen Hui gets it wrong. He mistakes the cook’s mastery as the deliberate practice of a specific technique or method. “Your method is faultless!” he says, only to be swiftly rebuked by the cook. “Method?” said the cook. “What I follow is Tao beyond all methods.”
            At the heart of Daoism is the idea of Dao (Tao), a word that literally means “way” or “path.” In Daoism Dao refers to the underlying process by which everything unfolds. All things follow the Dao, the way of nature. Dao is considered the sacred source and the harmony of all things. Unlike God in the west it is not personified or localized in a conscious being. Dao is found within all things, and guides all things to their optimal natural function. The goal of Daosim is to get our interfering egos out of the way and learn to live in accord with the Dao.
            Then the cook describes the three stages of mastery, using the example of butchering an ox. In the first stage, his inexperience and lack of discernment make it impossible for him to distinguish one part of the ox from another. It’s all a blur.
            This is where we all begin in any learning process. It’s a ball of confusion. We don’t even know what questions to ask. Or how to begin. Think back on how you learned a second language, how to play guitar, or how to cook. You didn’t know a verb from a noun, a G from a C, or sauté from sear.
            Then, after a lot of hard work and awkward flailing around we reached the second stage. “After three years,” said the cook, “I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.” Here the fog begins to lift, and we learn the nouns, verbs, tenses, and contexts. We learn all the notes, scales, and chords. We know the names of all the vegetables, herbs, cuts, prep styles, and cooking techniques.
            After years of practice at stage two, something deeper begins to emerge. We go beyond merely knowing all the details. We slip out of our intellect with its endless categories, concepts, and distinctions. We see the whole. We feel our way. Now our wisdom is an embodied wisdom, no longer housed just in the mind, but throughout the mind-body. Here’s how the cook said it: “Now, I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by the natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way.”
            Now we are following the Dao – the method of no-method.
            But as the cook points out, this doesn’t solve all of your problems. Things will go still wrong. They always do. But you have a new way of moving through problems. You slow down. You let it be easy. You trust the process. You have faith in yourself. You let the tools do the work. You feel your way toward the openings. No struggle, no strain.
            In Daoism this is called wu-wei, or creative letting-be; the art of aligning the energies within you with the energies around you into a singular confluence, with minimal interference from the busy-mind.
             In chapter 64 of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi's great teacher Laozi wrote, "Rushing into action you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe." Mastery, no matter what the project, and perhaps most especially in the most important project of all crafting a meaningful life is a curious confluence of effort and effortlessness, allowance and assertion, intuition and deliberation. The preparatory stages are crucial they cannot be skipped. But when you are ready, allow yourself to slip into the stream of excellence beyond method the method of no-method.