Sunday, July 18, 2021

Recent Titles from MindOfJoe

If you're only following here, you're missing out. Here are the most recent posts from the MindOfJoe Blog:

All previous Sword Mountain posts have been replicated there.

Know where the sun will set and where the sun will rise.

Friday, July 16, 2021

When You Think You Know

Return to your Center
Just Breathe
Only This
Just Breathe


Then Remember
Kiai is rarely “Kiai!”
but it is the Word Itself

[Originally published as "When You Think You Know" on MindOfJoe's Blog. See the sidebar for details regarding future posts.]

Walking the Dog

"I think it’s the first koan in the Mumonkan, the story of Joshu’s Dog. The student asks the teacher, “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” Master Joshu replies, “Mu!” … or, “Muuuuu….”, or whatever ~ I don’t know ~ I wasn’t there. Still, maybe a more interesting question would have been, “Would a dog be aware of its own Buddha nature if it had it?” Who knows? I’ve heard dogs know how to be dogs ~ they know their job; it’s humans who get confused. Dogs make great zen masters ~ teach us a lot about ourselves. Now as for folks who bring cats into their house instead? :-p Hopefully your house is back in order soon enough."

From some late night correspondence regarding a skunk attack. How would your dog reply?

[Originally posted as "Walking the Dog" at MindOfJoe's Blog. Check notes in the sidebar for additional information regarding where new posts are appearing.]

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Expert Opinion

[Originally posted as "Expert Opinion" at the MindOfJoe Blog on 9 July 2021.]

In yesterday’s background noise I heard two YouTube personalities speaking on zen and koans. Both fellows have a bias toward demystifying zen, often giving concrete “this is what it means”-type explanations. One fellow will giggle, grin, and play along if he senses a challenge; the other is surly, rolling his eyes and decrying use of patterned zen-like language from other teachers whom he says just don’t get it.

Honestly, I couldn’t have been more amused. I’d kind of like to see the pair from different lineages in the same room, then sit back with a big bowl of popcorn, tossing in a question here and there to fuel the debate between the two different views of oneness.

At dinner the other night, we mused over the notion that each formal religion seems to have an esoteric subset. We speculated that the “mystics” of those subsets could find themselves in the same room and get along just fine. After all, they start with a shared understanding of something in particular and can explain how it is manifested in their religion’s different practices. Take any others and, more likely than not, they will gravitate toward the differences even if they do seek common ground.

So, who’s right? Once, it’s said, after a protraced, academic debate on the merits of this approach or that, a student asked directly:

Once a student came to the Venerable Ch’an Master Pa-Lung and asked, ‘Are patriarchal teachings and doctrinal teachings the same or different?’ The Ch’an Master Pa-Lung answered, ‘When a chicken is cold, it climbs to the top of the tree; when a duck is cold, it goes under the water.’ (From the ‘Dialogue on the Doctrinal and the Patriarchal Teachings’ Koan)

What does it mean? Who knows. As for me, I can tell you this: It’s a fun topic for everyone, asking your invited guests to share their different thoughts somewhere between dinner and desert.


Friday, June 18, 2021

Return to the Garden

So engrossed with my company, it would be wrong to say that the rest of the world faded away ~ or that it ever existed at all. Yet there we were, in plain view, neither seeking to be seen nor offering performance, yet center stage in an exhibition of any passerby's own making.

It is not wrong to say that there is bliss found in surrender, but this "bliss" may take many forms including pain, suffering, disgrace, debasement, or humiliation. These forms are only experienced, however, when we fall from the state of complete surrender and its accompanying grace.

To what do you surrender that frees you from yourself?

Where were you before you realized you were naked in the garden and suddenly felt shame?
Alas, you cannot return to the garden ~ the path only takes you further away ~ nor can you never have left in the first place.

Only surrender and know what it is to be neither clothed nor naked.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Read it Again, and Act Accordingly

No matter what you read, you will know what it means and you will act accordingly.

No matter what you hear, you will know what it means and you will act accordingly.

No matter what you see, you will know what it means and you will act accordingly.




And someday, you may revisit all of what you read, what you heard, what you saw, ..., 

... and you will know what it really meant

... and you will act accordingly.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Action & Response, Decisive & Spontaneous

6 a.m., two weeks prior to the summer solstice. The sky has been bright for 20 minutes already, the the cicada are in an ambient roar.

On the patio, I hear a rattling buzz ~ a lone cicada's "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" It's on its back beneath the patio table ~ legs twitching, wings rattling ~ and I wonder: Does the bug need help in righting itself, or maybe this is the the struggle before it frees itself from its carapace? Maybe these were its death throes, or maybe it's the moment before a hungry bluejay or cardinal makes it so? Who knows?

A moment before I would rise from my chair, it righted itself and awkwardly fluttered away.

Now, tell me what you see?

Is the question an invitation to open your senses and to share what you experience? Or perhaps it's a zen exercise ~ a trap! if it was anyone but me asking ~ or if you read the words on some other blog ~ would the question be easier to answer? How about If I extend my hand? Do you see pleasantries? An offer of friendship? Do you see the hakama and the mats and hear "Grab my wrist..."? Do you see what is in my hand being offered? Or do you see it is empty, open to accept?

The foxglove is cascading downward by the fence line ~ the joe-pye on the mound is tall but not yet ready to flower. The sun, a few degrees higher, burns through the trees, while under the table another cicada tumbles to a landing.

Happy Sunday. Time for coffee.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Coffee Quarterly

The universe is the way it is because you are the way you are. So, how will the universe change if you change?

It's a harsh assertion, no? And taken to heart, it can weigh heavily. Just read the news. What does it mean to say that what you see is your own making?

A few years ago, I bumped into an old friend in the coffee shop. We'd lost touch probably a few years before. She was there with another friend, so we agreed we should meet and catch up soon. 

And we did. Catching up was amazing ~ sharing about ourselves, our kids, our spouses, our work, ... A few hours in that same coffee shop later, we departed with the agreement to meet again ~ maybe in a few months.

And we did. It became a quarterly thing, more or less. Sometimes is was six months or more, but the rhythm was generally a coffee quarterly ~ a few hours in the shop chatting before continuing with the day.

And with all finely ingrained habits, however long the rhythm, one's body and mind knows: "I've been thinking about you!" "Me too! Is it that time?" "I'm free next Tuesday. Same place & time?"

And it occurred to me, subtly, that though she was always happy to see me, wasn't it I who always initiated contact? I wondered, what would happen if I didn't...

And I didn't consciously not make contact... but I didn't. And no one contacted me. That time passed, and then a pandemic did as well.

And occasionally I wonder: Is the universe the way it is because I am the way that I am... because we all are the way we are?

The universe is happy to meet us where we are, to answer any question we may have ~ but the answer? That's inside us too. Where is the separation? What is the difference? Do we recognize what we see?

So wherever and whenever I sit with a cup of coffee, I sit there with the universe however it appears. If I have a question, I'm sure the answer is there ~ I may just have to squint my eyes and tilt my head a bit to recognize it, but it's there. And if I have no question? Who knows ~ I may unwittingly be a part of someone else's answer.

Speaking of which, the body is reminding me: It's time for coffee.

The Tibetan Book of the Living Dead

Spotted elsewhere and worth a view: Here’s a Comic Book Guide to the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist Afterlife.

Imagine that in your final moments and in those moments that followed, your brother monks sat beside you chanting prayers and instruction to help guide you in your transition. Imagine that your circumstances were so fortunate that you've devoted years and years of your life to living among them, studying these teachings, and preparing your mind to successfully navigate the afterlife's trials. All of the time spent in deep meditation, considering the attractions, the temptations, the deceptions, the terrors, ... hearing again and again that rebirth into your next life is largely determined by your own perception of your own experience... hearing again and again that, although the challenges may grow more difficult in each subsequent bardo, there is still freedom available from this karmic wheel of life and death with just the realization...

... and imagine that, in your final moments, in spite of your own efforts and the efforts of your teachers, it was all lost. You didn't recognize the clear light. Instead, you were drawn to the shiny things or you pursued by the terrors. You met god, or maybe you met the devil. You failed to see the disguise, or maybe you saw a disguise where there was none. In those moments, you never perceive the escape from any of these circumstances, even if you do somehow remember that one is always available. Instead, you were thrashed about or maybe found bliss until you settled into your next life ~ maybe with the hope that it is a better one, or at least one that will present the ideal circumstances for you to find enlightenment and end this cycle ~ but always with the guarantee that, if you don't find that realization, there will be another... and another... and another...

On the Buddha's enlightenment, he remembered all of his past lives. The Prodigal Son returned to a feast in his father's home while his brothers pouted. Two criminals beside Jesus on the cross engaged him in different ways, with one blaspheming with a challenge reminiscent of the the devil's challenges in the desert, the other contrite ~ the later given a promise of a different outcome.

What teaching from any faith ~ or from parents, teachers, peers, or from anyone else ~ is not a teaching about the bardo? What teaching about the bardo is not simply an invitation into the bardo that emanated from the bardo? Maybe they are invitations into a new life that is more favorable to encounter the dharma, a guru, a sangha, your teachers, ... ~ who knows? Still, I suspect that there is something more to those teachings that can be understood just outside the teaching ~ don't you?

Your rebirth is imminent ~ you'll see soon enough. Good luck and godspeed, traveler...

Friday, May 28, 2021

They are Not Your Friends

Must See TV. That's what NBC called their Thursday night line-up. Seinfeld. Mad About You. Friends. ... It wasn't all that long after the Army. Our days were filled with university classes, and Tuesday & Thursday nights were filled with Aikido practice ~ and on Thursday nights, folks were quite intent on class ending on schedule so they could get back to their TVs in time.

It was entertaining, sure ~ all of the comedy of a certain flavor and era. It wasn't necessarily worth missing a few extra minutes on the mats, but with everyone else rushing to get back, ... well, Aikido practice isn't quite the same when performed strictly as shadow boxing.

Somehow it was a cultural phenomenon, and ~ no ~ cultural phenomenons and I have never quite gotten along ~ mutual misunderstanding or irreconcilable differences, I suppose. I'd be quite alright missing the Friday morning water cooler chatter, thanks.

Fast forward abit through the VHS tapes and on to digital recording on to on-demand streaming. With the new cellphone plan came "HBO Max," and with HBO Max came the "Friends Reunion Special." Hell, why not? A little nostalgia for my wife and me over dinner. I hit play...

The regret built solidly over the next 90-minutes or so. I knew nothing about it ~ figured it was a one-off comedy with story and throw-backs as these things tend to be. I was mistaken. This was bringing back the six main characters to have them revisit the set, read key scenes, and be entertained by cameos some 20 years later.

And somehow, Lady Gaga singing "Smelly Cat" was not the worst of it. At one point, to highlight the reach and impact of the television series, there were snippets of people from around the world saying how much the show meant to them ~ each somehow identifying with the characters or even voicing the sentiment that these Friends were somehow their friends too.

I held the deep hope that this past year's pandemic would have been the opportunity for society to reconsider certain habits and reset certain perspectives. Instead, there's an apparent rush to return to "normalcy," to fire up those well-tread economic engines backed by the proven models. Who knows? Maybe shifting the Public's attention back to new Hollywood "content" will replace identification with those Must See Characters and their Stories of Social Media that we've come to love, hate, or identify with around the clock.

Not mentioned anywhere in the evening's show? From a CNBC story: "It’s estimated that each actor was paid $2.5 million for participating in the special." 

 * * *

In other news, the 17-year cycle has the Brood X cicadas in full swing. As the sun warms the day, each individual male insect is climbing a tree and humming for a mate. Collectively, the noise is outrageous and amazing.

... well, not every male. Some woke too early. Others will wake too late. Who knows? Maybe others simply won't understand. Or maybe they do.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Carthusian's Cell. The Buddha's Mind.


As a Catholic school graduate, I was well-versed with different religious orders, but I have to admit that it was a recluse trying to leave a dark past behind, that introduced me to the Carthusians.

Drew MacLane was compelling to me, as was his description of the Carthusian life: priests living largely as a community of hermits ~ living individually in spartan "cells," each with a place to sleep, a place to pray, a place to study or work, and an individual garden inside high walls. Three times per day they gather together for common prayer; otherwise, they are alone, holding individually to a common schedule and tended to by a second order of brothers who deliver the meals to their cells and so forth.

And it was David Morrell who introduced me to Drew MacLane in his novel, "The Fraternity of the Stone." David Morrell was a prolific writer, probably best known for "First Blood" and a few others introducing the character, Rambo. I raced through this paperback and many others while in the military maybe five or so years after its release ~ keeping my mind occupied in some idle, alone time in the pre-Internet Era. While there's little I remember about any of this novel in particular ~ let alone any of the larger collection I left to the unit's day room on my departure from the unit ~ the character and the Carthusians stuck with me.


Arguably, there was a thread in my father's life that was unfinished, and arguably that thread repeated itself in my own ~ though we branched in different directions. My father was studying in the seminary to become a priest when he injured his back. In pre-Vatican Council II days, that injury was sufficient to disqualify him from selection and ordination, and he diverted to a life married with children instead. Similarly, while in college, I considered turning toward the life of monastic priesthood ~ contacting different orders by ordinary mail, including an order of orthodox eremitics living in a desert hermitage, but when my father died my own life detoured, first to the military where my own back injury diverted me once again, this time toward a life married with children.

On the advent of social media, I used to use the tagline "failed hermit," but the words didn't quite convey what I sensed entirely accurately: I wasn't a failed hermit for having a family anymore than I was a failed father or husband for sensing a draw toward spiritual or solitary life. If I was one, I'd failed at the other; so, how could I reconcile these thoughts of who I am and maintain some semblance of sanity?

It seems kind of silly, no? Thinking of how best to explain, a cool breeze blows through the screen door; which one of me zips up the the sweatshirt?

Maybe it's enough to leave it at that. Most of the time it's sufficient. I mean, if a karate student asks what the proper aikido response is to an attack, I might just kiai ~ or maybe laugh? Maybe whack him with my jo staff... Maybe hold out my hand? Bow? Who knows... There are so many ways to point to that one point...

... but is showing that one point the actual answer in that moment?

Where is that cool breeze when you need one?

What state can you not be moved from? What state do you always return to? What life will hunt you down while you seek refuge here? When you're free to be anyone, who are you? And when you see who you are, will you accept it?

Experiencing one point? That is one way... So tell me, have you experienced all of the ways?

While I sat in a building on a mountainside facing a blackboard contemplating a theorem, half a world away in a temple a shaved head faced the wall and held a koan, and elsewhere a parent traded in the marketplace to ensure a child had food. No matter how large one's consciousness or how rich his reality, mind has little more than a place to sleep, a place to pray, a place to study or work, and a garden to tend.

How do you experience it? As the one who is none of these things? As the one who is one or the other? Or as the one who is all of these things?

For now, I'll set aside my staff, laugh, bow, and extend my hand ~ after my 4am tea and prayer outside by the garden. After all, the breeze is calling.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Parent's Koan

I have a very strong bias against cellphones ~ so very strong. I'm against them on just about every level. And when money is tight, that monthly bill is the clockwork reminder of the corner we've backed ourselves into -- a reminder like I used to give my grandmother who was still "renting" the rotary phone from the Big Bells when we could just buy a push-button phone for her to own.

At one point, I'd found a way to tunnel my way out: With sufficient technical knowledge to get it done, over time I set up an office phone system in the house. Desktop and wireless phones here and there ~ everyone with their own lines and extensions for pennies. There was certainly no escape from internet service at the time, so the phone system's minuscule bandwidth requirements were negligible. Moreover, inside the house ~ and even between houses for anyone who wanted to participate ~ there was no problem calling one another freely and securely.

And really, how clever was it that my handicapped son ~ who's somewhat of a recluse by nature ~ could reach us around the house by dialing an extension? And if anyone was away from the system, well, his call could forward on to their cellphones. I even did the work to write some software so he could send and receive text messages from his tablet or computer, ensuring he'd have every opportunity to communicate with his friends.

At some new clocks started ticking. My own cellphone was dying for months. A replacement wasn't a priority during the pandemic, but there was an inevitable sense that that expense was going to come due. And somehow that triggered a process in my son, who's relentless hint-dropping escalated toward nagging ~ and as we know, we call it "nagging" when we hear the complaints at precisely the wrong time.

We fought ~ and not for the first time. "Why do you even want a cellphone?!? You don't go anywhere. You don't talk to anyone. I've done all of these things to make sure you could communicate with anyone at anytime ~ what more can you possibly need?!? Why do we need another monthly bill for another toy?!?"

The wrong time ~ beside my own dying phone? My daughter is also on my plan, and I had just received notice that she blew through 32GB of the family-shared 30GB data in one month. The teachers were recalled back to school event to teach the remote students, but the bandwidth wasn't ready ~ so she tethered to her phone and got her job done...

But my son? His muscles are progressively weakened and his tablet ~ as aged and slow as it is ~ is getting too heavy for him to handle. The text messaging system I set up? He doesn't use it much, so I don't make uptime a priority ~ but he's afraid he'll miss that one message. And lastly, of course, is that everyone has one but him ~ we must look down on him as a lesser person to reject the request.

The "solution?" There is no solution. I can tell you how it played out, though: I made the call to check new plans and lower my bill ~ four lines with more data for less than three lines and shared data before. I turned off a wireless hotspot I used to use a lot on business that's declined in pandemic. I found myself a ~$100 phone to replace my years-old $600 phone, and -- satisfied -- I duplicated that purchase for my son.

These "practical koans" really don't have solutions. It doesn't matter how strongly I'm against the mobile technology, how it's payed for and how it's used ~ I didn't escape it nor did I move anyone to think like me. I didn't convince my son to stop thinking of "things" as a measure of anything. I didn't convince my daughter to be mindful of her family when exhausting the data. If anything, I've only bought a little time, kicking the can down the road a bit until the next problem arises ~ like the two calls already with the phone company for screwing up the bills.

There were infinitely many choices to handle the situation, but really only one was going to happen ~ and I'll make peace with that.

There is something about the reflective practice though: It was seeing my own biases and anger, and seeing my own failures and regret ~ but also seeing the resourcefulness in one's approach as well as the deeper concerns beneath another's words. There's seeing my own thread in shaping this situation over 20+ years as well as seeing how it will all continue until circumstances change. And there's acceptance ~ finding how I will tell this story that will uncover some meaning or wisdom, and maybe preserve some measure of my own dignity through these "first-world problems."

No need to dwell... warm jasmine tea and the cool breeze rustling through the trees. Soon we'll all be sending photos of the cicadas to everyone we know.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Way of The Way

 I look into the stream and see the people asserting:

This is Success.
That is Failure.
This is the Way.
That is Not.

For them, maybe it's kintsugi. But when they show you what they believe is gold, you fill in the story of the crack around it.

Instead, maybe for us it's wabi-sabi. No gold. No cracks. Between when the cup was formed in the forge and when it will be returned to the earth, a polite nod, a warm smile, and just the taste of the tea.
Trust the ash from the pipe will someday rest in the Golden Buddha's hands.

Friday, April 23, 2021

On Being Heard

Forever, it seems, I've been involved with communications technologies. Over the years, the focus widened to include concerns with privacy, security, and ultimately control over communications channels. Finally (maybe), focus moved to how we know ourselves through communication.

Late last night, I found some joy in getting a "matrix-synapse" server running. What's that? It's an instant messaging service -- IRC on steroids, slightly weaker than Discord or Slack, more focused on the distributed operations (resembling email delivery) and security between the users (end-to-end encrypted messages). In some circles, the most important aspect is that it is "free and open-source software:" talented people contribute their effort to make sure that the software is available freely to everyone.

The rest of the house asleep, I set my reading glasses aside, stretched my fingers and wrists, and sat with a cup of tea. It wasn't long before my thoughts came to join me: "On your network alone, you are running your own self-hosted:

  • blog server,
  • email server,
  • IRC channels for chat (old-school chat rooms),
  • pleroma server (think "federated twitter," "mastodon"),
  • FreePBX (think "office phone system"),
  • Synapse (think discord / slack),

and others. Hell, you even have ham radio transceivers on your desk with digital, voice, and Morse code keys, and antenna wires running out your window. You have every way to communicate -- some of them even bridged -- but who do you even talk to? Who talks to you?"

I have to admit, my thoughts do occasionally raise good questions... After some more thought, I am forced to admit: Most of the time I talk to no one; moreover, most of the time, there is so little "signal" that everything appears as "noise" and the technical mind drifts to find technical ways to suppress it. "If that phone rings at all, it's undoubtedly a scammer." "If that email account receives anything at all, someone scraped or sold the address and now I'm receiving spam." "If a post receives a 'like,' there's something odd about the 'person' (bot?) who took notice; let's write a program to do some analysis..."

Eventually I finished my tea and went to bed.

This morning, my thoughts found me sitting with my coffee, asking me to consider the inverse correlation between an person's "social clout" and numbers of communication paths available to reach that person. Think back to when there were first more than one social media services. Have you ever been the person with an account on each, spending time on each to stay connected with friends, family, business folks, and others, here and there? Wanting to be on one but afraid of losing contact with the others? Have you gone down the technical paths of trying to see all of the activity on one dashboard? Finding the plugins to cross-post all of your activity everywhere?

Or maybe you're one of the people with some popularity or celebrity who everyone is trying to reach? Maybe in your situation you are so in demand that you cut off all social media ties, or delegate "dealing with the public" to others.

Which do you suppose is better: to want to be heard and have no audience, or to want quiet while everyone clamors to hear what you have to say? In your own situation, can you look past your habits and come to know something about yourself?

In my own case, whatever "karma" drives me, I've learned to build communications paths. For me, maybe the value isn't in having my voice heard but in knowing how to build those paths for others.

Then my thoughts asked me what I've learned about prayer...

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ichi-go, Ichi-e

"[...] But if thou thyself hast a will to listen, let them bind thee in the swift ship hand and foot upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself, that with delight thou mayest listen to the voice of the two Sirens. And if thou shalt implore and bid thy comrades to loose thee, then let them bind thee with yet more bonds."

Circe to Odysseus, from The Odyssey, Book 12 

I recently passed through another gate of purging social media accounts, including some well-aged accounts on Twitter. If I were to ask myself why, the reasons would be twofold. 

  1. The business model of commercial social media is net-detrimental to society's overall well-being.
  2. Once you are see the first point, how do you justify continuing?

I once sat with a zen group.  The people, each there for his or her own reasons, were as ordinary or as broken as those in any other collection. The net dynamic, however, felt far from beneficial -- or at least misaligned with the preached mission. In the end, I didn't stay. 

Then again, I didn't leave either.

So, the social media accounts: Suppose I never asked myself that question, "why?" What then? Are the accounts not still deleted? I assure you they still exist and are as real as the zen group and its members. I can sit on the patio and post the question; and I can ask each of the fire pit, the flowers, the crows and the hawk, and find truth or fault in all of the responses. 

 If you know your mind is visible everywhere, then what is the value in continuing to stare?

Strap yourself to the mast or don't ~ it's up to you ~ but ichi-go, ichi-e either way, with whatever rule you bind yourself or with whatever question you hold.