Archive for May, 2005


Zen Part 3

May 31, 2005

Rev. [name omitted]:

Thank you so much for your reply. Although I sense a subtle rebuke for my “un-belief belief,” for the most part I am reassured by your words, especially your descriptions of karma and reincarnation. Having a preliminary answer to the question of whether Zen practice would be antithetical to my naturalistic worldview (apparently it needn’t be), I now have to answer a few other questions for myself. First of all, do I need what such practice offers? I guess I have to think some about suffering and its alleviation; do I need a remedy here? Probably so. But a harder question is this: does adherence to a traditional religious practice give my tacit approval to teachings which I might take to be detrimental? I could, for example, be a Catholic Christian and simply choose to use birth control in spite of papal instructions to the contrary. But in joining such an organization I would be supporting its teaching of these things to others. I would not want that. Similarly, I would not want to be a naturalistic-minded Zen Buddhist if by participating in such a community I would be supporting the teaching of supernatural conception of karma and reincarnation to others.

Probably such musings seem silly to you. At the very least I hope you do not find them insulting. I do not mean to disparage your tradition, only to feel out whether I could undertake such practices wholeheartedly given my current set of beliefs. Speaking of which, your advice to beware of such set beliefs seems wise. On the other hand, my beliefs, such as they are, are hard-won and I would be reluctant to cast them aside. Ultimately they are tenative, it’s true. But at the same time they are not random or arbitrary. I’m sure you understand.

I also wanted to mention to you that I have been to [name of meditation place omitted] before. Some fifteen years ago, when I was but 19 years old, I visited at least two or three times. [Name of other priest omitted] instructed me in zazen meditation and, as I recall, I participated in a few sittings including the “oryoki” breakfast. I have changed a lot since those days. The concerns I had about undertaking Zen practice back then are gone and replaced with new ones. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.

FInally, I want to thank you again for your helpful reply. If you have any thoughts on the above matters, I would certainly welcome your input. I by no means, however, want to take up your valuable time ministering to some inquisitive person via email when you no doubt have people standing direclty in front of you who could also benefit from your attention. I also confess that engaging in wordy intellectual discussions about Zen seem silly, even to me. My albeit limited understanding of Zen would indicate that such things are inherently non-productive. In any case, you have been very helpful already. Thanks again.



The Zen Priest Responds

May 30, 2005

I had sent an email to a local Zen priest asking whether that tradition could be a good fit for me in light of my atheism and my complete rejection of any other supernatural beliefs. I will try to paraphrase her response, as I am to chickenshit to ask her permission to publish our correspondence in its entirety.

First, regarding the things I profess not to believe in, she opined that I had simply chosen to believe in the non-existence of certain things and that this, too, is a belief of sorts. She suggested that I be wary of adopting any set beliefs, including these. She went on to say that Zen may be a good fit for me because its emphasis is “on the direct experience of reality, not its intellectual conceptualization.”

Regarding the doctrine of karma, she informed me that many Buddhists like herself do not regard it as a supernatural phenomenon at all. Rather, they see it as “the alteration of our own being caused by the actions we intentionally carry out.” An alteration, she said, which “will eventually have its own consequences.” Regarding reincarnation she told me that we are being reborn every moment. Of the period before our actual birth and the period after we die we can know nothing, so it is of no importance.

Finally she wrote that the Buddha wanted everyone to find their own way and that no theory or other person can do it for us. She felt that his teachings had become “encrusted” with all manner of beliefs, including supernatural ones, over the centuries since his life. His basic teachings, however, are still there to be found, urging us to see clearly past our own conceptions and to perceive reality as it truly is.

I found her response intriguing and reassuring at the same time. Naturally I wrote back.

To be continued…



May 29, 2005

“Every man knows he’s a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.” – Bono

I was rummaging around in my room the other day when I came across something I hadn’t seen in years: a bracelet my dad had given me. I don’t know why he gave it to me. He just took it off his wrist one day and handed it to me. It’s 14-karat gold, braided and beautiful.

power braceletMy dad and I don’t have a typical relationship. I went to live with my aunt and uncle when I was about 13 and dad and I really didn’t talk much again until I was in my 20s. Today we have a pretty good relationship, though. He comes out to visit every year or two and I really like that. I’ve been saying I’ll come out to California to visit him, too. Soon, I hope.

The odd thing I keep thinking about is that even though I’m a grown man my dad still seems larger-than-life in some ways. Maybe all dads seem that way to their sons. Here I am, black belt in taekwondo, younger, fitter, taller, stronger, more educated…and he still seems like such a formidable person. Not in a threatening way, mind you. But occasionally I still feel like a kid when he’s around.

So I put on the bracelet. I like it. I’ve been wearing it for a couple of days now. But I need to have it resized. Wouldn’t you know it? Somehow it’s too big.


Magic Trick

May 29, 2005

Once I did a magic trick. Everyone was amazed. This was eight years ago or so when I worked at the mental health hospital. I had learned the trick–how to make something disappear–some months before. I honestly can’t recall where I learned it. Perhaps I’d read about it or seen it on tv. Though I practiced the trick a few times, I had never actually attempted to trick someone with it. Then one night at the hospital I pulled second-shift duty for the acute adolescent unit–my favorite job. I was eating dinner with six or eight troubled kids when the subject of magic came up. “I know a trick,” I said. “Just one.” Naturally everyone demanded to see it, including my coworkers from nearby tables in the dining hall.

“Okay, whose got a quarter?” Everyone leaned in over the table to watch. I did the trick step-by-step, just the way I’d learned it. When the moment of vanishing came everyone at the table was amazed, including myself! I didn’t realize how easy it would be to pull off. I thought for sure at least one person would see how I had performed the illusion, but no one did. Though they were staring intently, not one of the people watching picked up on it. Everyone howled with delight and wanted me to do it again. I politely refused.

I don’t think I have never performed the trick since then. Why should I? It was an experience that would be hard to improve upon.


A Man Finding His Own Way By Himself

May 27, 2005

Speaking of Zen, I’ve been hanging onto several emails I exchanged with a Zen priest last year. I want to publish them here very badly, but I’m not sure it would be okay to do that, even with names omitted. But I guess there’s no harm in publishing my own part of the conversation. Maybe I’ll post more of it if anyone’s interested. It started like this:

Reverend (name omitted):

I am an atheist, and furthermore, I am a bright: one who rejects the supernatural in favor of a totally naturalistic worldview. I do not believe in God, gods, heaven, hell, magic, ghosts, souls, afterlives, angels, demons, or anything supernatural. As you can imagine, most religious practices don’t suit me.

Yet I am attracted to Zen Buddhism above all. I do not pretend to have great understanding of Zen, but I like the fact that it seems very focused on doing rather than believing. It also seems to me that some sects of Buddhism – Zen in particular – are relatively free from supernatural beliefs. Is this so?

I have read of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. If I understand correctly, these things seem very sensible, actionable, and more to the point, not supernatural. But I have also read about things like karma and the doctrine of rebirth. These things I could not accept. Still, I wonder if Zen Buddhism could be for me. I would rather be just a man finding his own way by himself, however, than be a bad Buddhist. What do you think?

Thank you for your time.



Zen Master of the Pick’n Save

May 27, 2005

I like grocery shopping. I think I’ve mentioned that before. My family teases me about it, but to me it’s like a meditative experience or a Japanese tea ceremony: very peaceful and centering. Everything about it has a purpose. I park in the One True Spot, backing up right in front of the doors by the bakery section. Just inside there’s complimentary* coffee. I usually get a cup to take with me as I shop.

I walk all the aisles of the store, taking exactly the same route every time. I pack my cart in a certain way: vegetables tucked under the pop-out shelf, cans and boxes on the bottom in the middle, meats up front (with frozen items on top), milk and soda and large items on the bottom rack. I let other carts go first at intersections. I use “thank you” and “excuse me” a lot. I smile at the other shoppers.

I don’t much care for packing the groceries, but if I don’t get bagging help (and I haven’t brought any with me) I do okay. I exit the store and walk right up the the back of the Pathfinder and load everything. Then I return the cart to the exact spot where I got it from inside the store. Full circle.

There are two things I want you to take away from this entry. First, that I am the Zen master of grocery shopping. Second, that I am not nearly as obsessive/compulsive as it makes me sound. Really.

* It’s not complimentary. It costs money. But Angela and I still laugh about the fact that when they first installed the coffee urn we thought it was free and drank it regularly without paying for it. To this day we always refer to it as complimentary.


Friday’s Feast

May 27, 2005

Friday’s Feast

Appetizer: What job would you definitely not want to have?
Personal assistant to Scott D. Feldstein

Soup: Oprah calls and wants you to appear on her show. What would that day’s show be about?
Television: Evil or just really bad for you?

Salad: Name 3 vegetables that you eat on a regular basis.
Spinach, zucchini, carrots.

Main Course: If you were commissioned to rename your hometown, what would you call it?

Dessert: If you had a personal assistant, what kind of tasks would you have them to do?
My laundry. My personal calendar. Computer backups. Making coffee in the morning.