On Spiritual Friendship

I recently came across a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi about his understanding of the message of Pope Francis.  In particular, he focuses on what he calls a shift in Church doctrine, under Francis, from an emphasis on truth, to an emphasis on compassion and simple friendship:

On April 11, 2015, Francis released his Misericordiae Vultus to inaugurate a Holy Year of Mercy, and the document is an explicit redefinition of the relation between truth and compassion, insisting upon the superiority of compassion over truth.1 We may replace the word “compassion” with the word“empathy,” and also with the word “solidarity.

In Christian parlance, without faith, hope is impossible. And faith seems to be over, since communism, democracy, and progressive dialectics crumbled at the end of the last century. Only capitalism survives. But faith in capitalism has collapsed as well, during the years of financial arrogance and precarious work.  So faith is over.

I’m not a believer; I trust in no god and no ideology, so I don’t think that the end of faith is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think that when we are freed from faith we can grasp the real tendency of the time, and we can seize the most interesting opportunities that the tendency brings about.

But in order to seize the possible and to actualize it, we need friendship, solidarity, happiness, and pleasure in the relations among bodies. This is what we lack today. Not hope, not faith, but friendship is lacking. This is why mankind is teetering on the abyss of war and suicide.

Consequently, we must abandon hope: the world machine is ungovernable, and human will is impotent. Only friendship is left. This is how I understand Francis’s words.

As I do not expect redemption in my afterlife, I think that despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time. But I also think that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, as despair is the mood of the intellectual mind, while joy is the mood of the embodied mind. Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.

What a rich essay, and I think quite relevant for our practice.  When Buddhism first came to America, it was usually associated with charismatic Asian (and then American) teachers, and young American students were only too eager to put these teachers onto a pedestal and see in them some expression of the Absolute.  We wanted a spiritual Mommy or Daddy, someone in whom we could have absolute faith, absolute trust.  And of course, it’s good to have teachers, it’s good to have someone we trust.  But we found, all too often, that these charismatic teachers had feet of clay, and that they were sometimes downright sociopathic.

In a sense, this was the fall of Truth for us in the American Buddhist sangha.  While in society at large, we lost faith in political and economic systems – communism, or democracy, or socialism, capitalism – in the sangha, we lost faith in the ideal of the Perfect Teacher, which was maybe just another example of our basic tendency to want something that just works, without our having to work with it, something that we can just trust in absolutely and give ourselves over to.

But, that’s not how it works, apparently.  And I think in American Buddhism this has been a good thing.  Certainly in our Suzuki-Roshi lineage, we have, to a great extent, dropped our fantasy of a perfect teacher and have placed more trust in our spiritual friendships.  In spiritual friendships, we come together to practice, as best as we understand it, and to talk to each other as honestly and truthfully as we can about what’s going on for us.  There are still vertical relationships, but we hold them rather lightly now.  We know that our teachers are just normal people, not really different from us.

We want to connect, we want to have real conversation that goes beyond sports or politics.  We want to talk about what’s important to us, and that’s what we are doing here, and I think that’s what Berardi is talking about.

Berardi’s last paragraph is so rich, let’s spend some time closely reading it:  “Despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time”.  This certainly resonates for me – when we look around and read the news, we see so much occasion for despair.  Climate change alone is enough to induce despair.  But when you think about it, this despair arises primarily from the intellect; it’s based on ideas, not usually on a direct physical experience.  So as Berardi says, despair is the mood of the intellectual mind.

That would be sort of sad if this was the whole story, but it’s not.  Berardi goes on to say, “Joy is the mood of the embodied mind.”  This is a remarkable statement, and it’s one I’ve heard, in different forms, from teachers over the years.  Even when we are twirling around in our minds, ruminating, worrying, our bodies are at ease and bliss.  In our Soto Zen practice, we realize this through the practice of zazen.  As Dogen Zenji wrote in the Fukanzazengi – “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”

In other words, zazen is not an intellectual activity.  It is an activity of the body-mind, or as Berardi would call it, the embodied mind.

Berardi says, in a beautiful non-dual expression, that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, and that we reconcile them through our friendships, for “Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.”  I think we know this generally, but in our Zen practice, this is referring to our sangha relations.  Practicing with sangha is the total expression of our way.  Ours is a communal way, the way of the sangha jewel.

In his fascicle, “The point of zazen”, Dogen writes, “What has been passed on, person-to-person, is the essential teaching of zazen alone.”  We can take this meaning in two different ways.  First, this statement emphasizes the interpersonal aspect of our practice.  We are not solitary Buddhas.  We come together as good friends to share our practice, share our lives, and to teach each other.  Dogen always emphasized the relational aspect of practice, and our wonderful Zen stories from the koans are nearly always about relationships, between teachers and students, between students.  Regardless of the content of these koans, they are, at a fundamental level, showing how the dharma is transmitted through our spiritual friendships.  We learn about zazen from our relationships, warm hand to warm hand, not from a book.

Another way to understand this statement from Dogen is that the feeling we get from our friends, when we share real connection, real conversation, when we practice together, that experience of spiritual friendship is in itself the essential teaching of zazen alone.  In other words, it’s not that zazen is some body of knowledge that we pass on to each other, like how a master baker passes on her knowledge of baking to an apprentice.  That’s not what zazen is.  It’s not a field of study.  Instead, the essential teaching of zazen is precisely that which is passed on in our person-to-person relations.  The dharma arises precisely in our friendships.

And as Berardi says, this is through these relations that we realize our embodied joy.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


Picking Up the Pieces With Joy


We’re here to pick up the pieces

Here to pick up the pieces

Let the place be good, my brothers

Let the place keep clean, my sisters

Come along, my brother

Come along, my sister

Come along, come along

Hurry up, hurry up

I recently was struck listening to this lyric from the song The Youth by the Jamaican Reggae legend Burning Spear (Live in Paris,1989). I saw Burning Spear once, in Queens I think, around 1995. I should say that while I was indeed in the hall, and not even that far from the stage, I mainly just listened to Burning Spear due to this thick haze of mysterious, strongly fragrant herbal incense pretty well obscuring any actual view. The place was full of what appeared to be the entire Rasta community of greater New York; I remember towering piles of dreadlocks stuffed under hats and long locks trailing to the floor, and very few if any other white people. It did all seem quite ceremonial, very religious, though I understandably felt a little alien and outside of it. No matter the contact high, or basic enjoyment of the music; it seemed appropriate to respectfully appreciate, but have no pretense to being “inside” (unlike this guy.)

I have read a bit about Rasta history and theology over the years (and listened to my share of the music, well beyond Bob.) It’s really fascinating stuff, and moving. It is no doubt a genuine spiritual revelation, and it appears to be a real yogic path of awakening and practice for many people truly called to it. Fundamentally, the Rastas see a world corrupted by greed, anger, and confusion. They recognize that people of color have long born a disproportionate brunt of this corruption. And they are guided to each personally heed an inner call to check aggression, and seek a spiritually-rooted response to all problems: physical, mental, social, and political. Samsara could be called Babylon; there are inner teachings and outer teachings, non-mandatory rituals, and simple, flexible directives toward a holistic response to life, not unlike the Noble Eightfold Path, including preferring organic, locally sourced vegetarian food, abstinence from alcohol, simple dress, right livelihood, etc. Good stuff. There is the shadow stuff too, but every human road has that.

It might seem a polar opposite religion to Soto Zen, and on the face of it, that might be true. But as with any path that is truly a path, I think that there is a place where the hearts meet. This lyric for me touches on that place. It seems like excellent Zen teaching in certain respects.

We’re here to pick up the pieces.

Suzuki roshi would say (echoing Dogen,) “life is one continous mistake.” My first Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, used to say “being born was your first mistake.” He had a kong-an or koan that I feel addresses this. It goes, “the mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean?” For me, it speaks to a fundamental brokenness and upsidedownness that we inevitably encounter during our journey in this life. If we didn’t know it, we certainly wouldn’t ever turn toward the “higher power” of zazen (or Jah, for that matter.)

Sitting zazen is picking up the pieces. Work as zazen is picking up the pieces. Sleeping as zazen is picking up the pieces. Engaging in political activism as zazen is picking up the pieces. I love the story about Shunryu Suzuki’s wife, Mitsu, breaking a prized cooking dish. A student watched her break it, be sad for a moment, then with closed eyes, sweetly press a shard to her cheek in farewell – and throw it all away. That is literally and figuratively picking up the pieces.

We have a human job to do in response to the gift of this human life. This is picking up the pieces.

Let the place be good, my brothers

Let the place keep clean, my sisters

I love this. He doesn’t say “you broke it; you buy it. Now clean up the damn pieces!” In this lilting, chill-out way he says to his fellow human beings (whom he knows to be and addresses as his own flesh and blood,) let it be good. It’s already good. Let that shine forth. Reveal it, to yourself and others. Let it be clean; it’s originally clean and bright.

This makes me think of living in Zen training temples; there quite naturally grows this sense of joy to just maintain things. Some people are angry at first to be guided how to mind things at all; this can even swing to the other extreme. One can become the dreaded… “Form Nazi!” Sooner or later you see through that hang-up, too. You stop thinking, “those shoes should be neat!” and begin to feel, “the shoes are just so happy when they are next to each other, taking care of each other.” You learn good wholesome routines of collective existence and care for things, and you feel good. And clean – with no need to be compulsively germ-free or anything.

Come along, my brother

Come along, my sister

First I notice that he is an elder presumably from the title addressing younger members of the community. He addresses them (and us) as peers, not patronizing anyone as unruly children, or bad people. Second, this can be heard as a Bodhisattva call for people to join in. It’s good to feel good, especially about taking care of things simply and uprightly. We love this, and it spreads outward; so we hope, and pray.

Come along, come along

Hurry up, hurry up

There is a little urgency here. We shouldn’t be freaking out. But we can have a little sense of hustle in our bustle. Like our chanting. Our chanting can suffer from people expecting others to carry the load, or folks not digging it so they sort of drag behind. We’ve been giving a little coaching, and its getting much better. And the main instruction is to just give it full attention and energy. You can hear it, and the whole room feels it. It’s got that bounce, that gentle energy swelling through it. It has purpose. Purposeless purpose. Our zazen can feel like this too, have this direction. Settled but lively. 

We feel the urgency of our times, and our own personal call to awaken. Burning Spear says to hurry up, but notice how he is saying it: patiently, smoothly, without giddiness, as if there is all the time in the world.


Emptiness v. Suchness Teachings (with a little Soundgarden…)

This very mind is Buddha;

Practice is hard, expounding is easy.

No mind, no Buddha;

Expounding is hard, practice is easy.

One could say that this poem by Dogen encapsulates the entire essence of Zen.

ma tsuThe first and third phrases here come from stories about Ma-tsu, or Mazu: “the Horse Master,” so-called because he was supposedly big as a horse, and with charisma, skill, and wisdom in scale to his physical size. I sort of picture a sterner version of the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, if you know who that is.

Anyway, the story goes that for many years, Ma-tsu’s answer to nearly any Dharma question was some version of “this very mind is Buddha,” or “Mind is Buddha.” One of his senior disciples, Damei (which means “Ripe Plum,”) got transmission and went off, still practicing with ‘this mind is Buddha’ for many, many years. Later, Ma-tsu emphasized “no mind, no Buddha.” When this got back to Damei and he was asked if he would change his practice, he replied “this very mind is Buddha.” Upon hearing a report of this, Ma-tsu said of his former student, “the plum is ripe.”

Such a great story, and a lot to discuss; but I only want today to underscore Dogen’s poem and a couple of its possible themes. Our guiding teacher Taigen is about to return, and he will be concentrating on some stories from his new book about the great ancestor Dongshan (who lived in the century following Ma-tse.) This book is called “Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness.”

We could say that Zen has two basic possible emphases. One teaching, two aspects: emptiness teachings, and suchness teachings. Emptiness teaching is the Heart Sutra (form is emptiness, etc.) It is also “no mind, no Buddha.” It is not hard to imagine how sometimes, that is an extremely liberating thing to realize. Maybe we experience a great loss, and right in the middle of that we find grace, serenity, and wisdom. However, if we get too attached to this teaching, maybe we end up like the Nihilists in the Big Lebowski. “Nothing matters, Lebowski! Give us the money!” and we are generally a real bummer to hang around. It happens. It’s ok.

We could also just call this breathing out. 

So then we might encounter medicinal suchness teachings, like “your very own mind right now just as it is without any separation in time, space, set, or setting, just as it is, experiencing and co-creating reality, is a perfect expression of the wisdom of the highest principle of awakeness possible.” A great teaching, obviously. We all would like to live in some sense of this I think.

Breathing in, we are “inspired.”

However, we live in an insanely positivist society, with paradigmatic dysfunctions that go back thousands of years, that are encoded in and as our body/minds. I was thinking recently about that (pretty disturbing) Soundgarden video for Black Hole Sun, where these nice modern, suburban people have these big plastic smiles that just keep growing until they become monstrous and terrifying. A concise visualization of how even our interest in spiritual practice can get twisted by some kind of attachment to outcomes, to just being “shiny happy people” or “accomplished spiritual people,” without maybe having felt our way through our questions, our grief, our difficulties, our personal faults, and our social, even planetary responsibilities. We might even consider this video a sort of emptiness teaching (I am a “Gen X’er” and I would say that the so-called Grunge and Riot Grrl movements, and our generation generally, were colored by the need to express generational anger, with its underlying grief, at the poverty of the (patriarchal) positivist/materialist vision being expressed by the mainstream society of the time.)

Dogen even helps us by pointing out how our practice might show us where we are on this spectrum of teachings. Sometimes, sitting is hard, but talking about the ideas flows naturally. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Other times, we practice with joy and ease, and have no desire to utter one word. It can be like that. If we translate this into our daily life, perhaps sometimes we feel very plugged-in with work, for instance, and we don’t need to analyze it too much. Other times, we have to step back, talk with trusted advisers, not do, and wait. We can play with this idea and each come up with other examples I’m sure.

I personally feel that for our time right now, we are in deep need of some grounded, affirming suchness teachings. This is why I am so happy that Taigen was inspired to publish his new book now. I think we can all get a lot out of it, if we are open and keep our wits about us.