Dualism

Headless Buddha in Borobudur Temple. Photo: Isabella Apriyana, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Having a Buddhist practice can be a challenge for people who have been raised in the dualistic philosophies of Western culture. If I had one wish…

Dualism

The Buddha in the bucket
of my brain knows
the Four Noble Truths
and the Eightfold Path

but

the genie in the lamp
of my body knows
all of my desires.

Sometimes, sickened
by endless craving,
he mutters “Alakazam”
and grants a random wish.

There appears to be 
no way out of the lamp.

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The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Old monk. Photo: public domain

A change from the usual–a little short fiction that arose as a prolonged daydream I had while I should have been counting my breaths as a novice meditator during my first three-day sesshin at the zen center.

The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Baka had come to the monastery as a promising young man, recommended to the abbot by his village priest, and within a few years he had progressed well along the dharma path, quickly memorizing all the daily sutras and meal chants, always showing proper respect for his elders and demonstrating compassion for the least of beings. He carefully carried spiders out of the dormitory and he kept a keen eye out for ants and bugs when sweeping the walkways. He chanted the morning service with great nen and was able to sit still for long periods in the zendo with a quiet mind. 

But as his practice developed, he began to notice the behavior of others, that they would become fidgety, that they relied on the sutra book to get through morning service, that they sometimes bunked off from work practice to look at girls. Some snuck food into the dormitory; some drank sake late at night.

It seemed to Baka that he was the best of the lot–the most sincere, the most dedicated of all his brothers. The jikijitsu never had to hit himwith a stick. Baka would return to the zendo for extra zazen after the day’s schedule was complete. He would sit sometimes for half the night alone in the hall, not moving a muscle.

Baka began to take over the heaviest jobs, digging out boulders to expand the garden plot, hauling firewood from halfway up the mountain. His brothers seemed pale and puny in comparison.

One day the tenzo came out of the kitchen as Baka was rolling yet another boulder off from the edge of the garden. Baka was happy that one as venerable and respected as the abbot’s friend, the man responsible for the community’s physical well-being, was observing the quality of his work practice. But the tenzo just smiled and shook his head, then returned to chop vegetables for dinner.

Another time, as Baka struggled under a huge load of hardwood he had cut up in the high forest, the tenzo again came out, smiled and shook his head as Baka went by.

The tenzo was old, near to ninety. He walked with a stick. He grunted when he sat down and he farted when he stood up. It was said he had a weakness for shōchū, which made him sing and then fall asleep. So, who was he to shake his head at Baka’s efforts?

Nursing his grievance, Baka’s mind wandered so much during the abbot’s teisho on the koan ” Nansen Kills the Cat,” that he failed to answer “hai” when called on by name. The tenzo, sitting on the other side of the dharma hall, smiled and shook his head.

Baka sat again late in the zendo, but found no peace. He had watched two visiting Tibetan monks once as they engaged in dharma combat, a ritual debate on the meaning and import of the sutras. Inside Baka’s mind he and the tenzo argued like that for half the night.

Finally, Baka went to the tenzo to ask him why he was so dismissive of his sincere and strenuous effort. The tenzo pointed out that a little more garden space had been needed, but Baka had dug up more land than they would ever plant. And he pointed out that the woodshed had been filled weeks ago, and that the wood Baka was cutting now would sit out in the rain and rot before it could be used. “Do just what is needed. Maybe work less, maybe do nothing sometimes,” the tenzo suggested.

Thinking of his many extra hours in the zendo, Baka considered that he might be the best at doing nothing, too. So, he challenged the tenzo to see which of them could sit zazzen the longest without getting up from the zafu. To Baka’s surprise, the tenzo accepted, and set the contest to begin the next day after morning service.

That morning they remained in the zendo while everyone else went on to breakfast, served for once by the tenzo’s assistant. They walked to facing places. The tenzo laid his walking stick by his zafu and they both turned to bow to the Buddha on the altar, then turned and bowed to their zafus, then turned again and bowed to each.

Baka dropped into a perfect half-lotus position in one smooth move onto his cushion. The tenzo grunted and slowly ratcheted himself down to his cushion, cracked his neck from side to side, rolled his shoulders, shifted his head back on his neck, went still, and then broke into a smile.

For the first hour nothing happened, same for the second, same for the third. Every now and then, a curious face would peek around the edge of the zendo doorway. The tenzo never moved, only kept up a serene smile.

In the fourth hour, Baka began to feel a little discomfort in his knees. After a while that began to fade, but in the fifth hour he began to feel some itching. He refused to scratch.

The tenzo just breathed in and out, unmoving except for that slight rise and fall, holding up his small smile like a flower. Hour by hour the day passed as the two sat and sat and sat. Baka’s bladder was complaining, but he would not listen. Little daggers of pain poked the small of his back. He could no longer feel his feet.

He kept his face stony and still as darkness fell, but his mind was jumping like a flea, responding to alarms from one part of his body or another, feeling resentment at the effortless stillness of the tenzo, feeling anger at his unbroken smile.

In the feeble flicker of the altar candle, the tenzo’s face appeared old one moment, young the next, plain as a fart one moment, an ethereal beauty the next. Baka blinked and suffered on through the endless night.

When the monks came in just before dawn, panting from running a fast kinhin around and around the outside of the zendo, they found the pair still sitting. Baka croaked that he couldn’t get up, couldn’t unbend his legs. He asked the jikijitsu to push him over onto his side to rest until feeling returned to his lower body.

The jikijitsu then pronounced that his old mentor, the tenzo, was the victor, and asked if he needed any help in rising. The tenzo’s smile was sweeter than ever, but he made no answer, having returned to the wheel of rebirth sometime in the middle of the night.

The abbot came in to pay respects to his old friend and told the monks, “Yes, I knew he was dying. He said he wouldn’t last much into spring. But he said he still had some teaching to do. He said Baka was sincere and hardworking, but that he couldn’t get out of his own way. But who knows? In 20 or 30 years, he told me, Baka might be fit to make the soup.”

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First Light in Broad Street

Cover: First Light in February, Allen Hoey. Artist: Paul Davison

Aside from writing my own books, I love to conceive, design and print other books. I’ve done this for love and for money over the years, but this is where and how I first got the bug.

First Light in Broad Street

Waking before dawn to make the coffee, I see
from the dimming stars that for once we’ll see sun.
And there it rises, a glancing hot spot on the snow
of early February, a buttery glow upon the pines.

Having worn a long-sleeve purple tie-dyed tee shirt
to bed, it’s no wonder I am reminded of you back
when we first met. Half a century ago we were very
young and were held in thrall to our many desires.

We wanted to be famous writers. We wanted to stop
the war. We wanted an epic love. We wanted to live
together with all our friends and make a little art 
and a little revolution. We wanted a sky-high life.

The bunch of us moved into a ramshackle house
at the low-rent end of a middle-class neighborhood
and shoveled out the debris left by previous tenants
who ran a crisis hotline into the ground and blew town.

Their sense of psychedelic decor took a dark turn. 
Behind the refrigerator was a mural–a set of stairs led
down to where a dark figure wielded a flaming sword. 
A black wall, when primed, bled demented acid poetry.

So we made ourselves at home. I figure we each lived 
on three dollars a day–one dollar for rent and utilities, 
one dollar for food, and one left over for everything else:
beer, dope, art supplies, toilet paper, underground comics.

Two semesters of the writing workshop had left you with
poems enough to make up a little chapbook. With freedom
of the press belonging to them that own one, we decided
to publish it ourselves under our own label, Banjo Press.

The name was taken from a Steve Martin routine where he
demonstrated on his banjo why it was that you couldn’t play 
a sad song on one. We may have been high at the time, but
the corner we turned then turned into the rest of our lives.

Paul made the illustrations: a rail line curving off into the dark, 
a drinker leaning on a pinball machine, a barroom panorama
with a pool table in use at the back, a man in a room papered 
with grinning stretcher bearers, a hungover man with coffee.

The cover we printed in-house, a multi-color silkscreen that Paul
painted on the mesh with tusche and glue. We hung clothesline
in the kitchen and took turns squeegee-ing the ink onto paper
and hanging each sheet to dry before the next color went on.

A man sits at a table with a mug, a single window behind him. 
A teapot wraps around to the back where bowls, a full ashtray
and last night’s empty bottles stand. Below the art runs title and
author, “First Light in February,” Allen Hoey. On the back, $1.50.

By February, anyone with sense has had enough of dark, short
cold days, of being mewed up inside walking the same floors.
But into this February day a little light has come, the first sun,
warm on my face as I stand at the window, remembering you.

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Ice Storm

“Everything was wrecked.” Photo: circulating, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

No set of poems about living in the North Country would be complete without an account of the Ice Storm of ’98. Or you can just say “the ice storm” and everyone will know what you mean. As a shared trauma, locally it ranks up there with 911 or the pandemic, though less lethal, thankfully. And it was also notable as a time of a thousand small kindnesses and an epidemic of open-handed generosity.

Ice Storm

By the second morning, the trees began to fall
and the power went out, and it stayed out.
Miles of phone poles went down, and then
the big transmission towers. Still the sleet came.

Sitting on the back porch I could hear the trees
crack and fall in the woods. Around the yard
every shrub lay flat, every tree was groaning.
It was too much; we got into the car and fled.

Easier said than done. The s-curve was extra curvy, 
an icy slalom run between limbs and fallen pines. 
We made it a few miles to take shelter with friends
who were in the same boat, but had a fireplace.

Most of the village wound up in the field house,
sleeping on cots and pads and eating cold rations.
Not too bad. After all, “How long could this last?”
Oohh, bad question. You really don’t want to know.

By the sixth day, the nationals were interviewing
a local radio host who was holding down the fort while
the transmitter ran off a diesel generator, and who,
between cuts, told folks where to find food and wood.

We melted snow on a Ker-o-Sun heater, which doubled 
as the cook stove. Going outside I stomped my feet 
for traction and hammered a hole in the ice to get at
snow below. With buckets of melt we flushed the john.

Power crews flooded in from across the Northeast,
the Midwest and the South, but it would be weeks before
the last homes were wired in. Everything was wrecked.
Nobody could say when the weather would finally break.

In the village, widow-makers dangled from every tree.
Roofs sagged under fallen limbs, and the air resounded
with an endless symphony of chain saws and chippers.
Blue roof tarps would flap a bit until they too froze in ice.

I guess you had to be there. Veterans of the storm still 
swap stories of making do. Anne discovered you could
wrap up coffee beans in a dish towel and beat them 
with a claw hammer if you needed a jolt bad enough.

We learned that one could last a whole week without 
changing clothes. But mostly we learned that people
really will hang together when everything goes south.
Knowing that–really knowing– is worth the ticket price. 

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Colony 7-4879

Photo: Luis La

The ringtone on my iPhone is an old-school Bell telephone ring. Sometimes I’d prefer it had a rotary dial and plugged into the wall, too. But I’m reconciled mostly to being in the 21st Century. Still, every now and then, the phone rings and 1960 is on the line.

Colony 7-4879

It was a party line, if you’re old enough to know what that is.
Bring-briinngg, pause, bring-briinngg. That was our ring.
But sometimes a neighbor would mis-hear or just be nosy
and would pick up the line, too. Conference call, old school.

No spam, no robocalls. Salesmen came door to door instead.
Usually when the man of the house was out–women were seen
as the softer touch. My dad sold Electrolux and World Book.
Only Jesus and political candidates are sold that way these days.

Dad’s 1960 set of World Book Encyclopedias is on my bookcase
and my Mom swore by her Electrolux canister vacuum cleaners.
A salesman’s gift of gab would stand Dad in good stead later
when he sold English Lit. to generations of backwoods teens.

Nobody had an answering machine then. If you missed a call,
tough. They could send a postcard, or they could just drop by. 
In the evenings, you could find most folks in squeaky gliders
on their front porch, shaded by the leaves of Dutchman’s Pipe.

I don’t recall using the phone much. I was more likely to
hop on my bike and just knock on a friend’s kitchen door.
I might listen in on the extension while the black handset
downstairs was passed around to chat with distant relatives.

When it would ring after midnight, it meant someone died.
Tucked under the phone was a list of emergency numbers
and all the fire horn codes that told volunteers where to go.
If it blew 888, it meant get to the fallout shelter. Bye-bye.

Colony seven, four eight seven nine has stuck in my brain
all these years. I gave it out to school chaperones, who could
also find the number pinned inside the lapel of my jacket.
It went with me to camp. Mom would ask me to say it back.

Reciting it now makes something ring in the attic of my brain
where all the things of childhood lie in dusty boxes. I climb
the narrow stairs and walk the joists back to that far corner, 
where what was long forgotten is found sometimes in dreams.

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Freezing Rain Satori

Photo: Austin Kirk, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

You know how it is when you are going along a road you drive every day and you top a rise just as late golden light floods the long valley ahead. Sometimes a glamor is cast over the ordinary world, and in that moment, the light shines right through you. You might cling to such a moment, if only you could.

Freezing Rain Satori

It makes no sound in the night, the freezing rain,
as it thickens on twig and needle the way you dip
a wick over and over ’til it waxes into a candle.

Then, when morning breaks clear, all the candles
are set ablaze. The lilacs that bow to the ground
shimmer; look how the bent pine boughs shine.

Such a profligate abundance of light I blink to see.
Just this yard, just the world, but all transformed,
if only for a little moment before the rain returns.

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In Deer Country

Whitetail posing for her glamor shot. Photo: Acorn Resorts, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Deer were not a common sight when I was a kid, but over the decades, second growth forest has filled in a lot of former farm land and their population has burgeoned. Derided by some as “goats by Gucci,” I still welcome their company in my neck of the woods.

In Deer Country

Looking between the icicles that dangle
from the northern eaves, I see new snow
bearing only the tracks of one lone doe
who walked between the deadfall debris
of last week’s windstorms–who crossed
the road, circled the yard, crossed back.

Nothing here to eat, since the dying apple
failed to bear this fall, and the cedars are
already cropped back high as deer can reach.
My neighbor used to leave bales of hay out
for them, but only so he could drop a buck
without ever going off of his back porch.

On my road, tucked between woods and water,
cars cull more of the herd than  hunters.
One yearling popped my airbags just down
the hill. I found a dead buck out back who
lived to take a few last leaps after being struck.
Trucks roll over in the ditch to avoid them.

Despite the downside to yard, garden and auto,
I like having deer around. Once, two bucks in rut
cracked it out in my backyard as three does watched
from the edge of the woods, waiting for the victor.
Another time a doe leaned against the apple tree,
staggering drunk from eating fermented windfalls.

I like it when I don’t notice them (galumphing ape
that I am), until they startle my heart, bounding off
from beside the trail, tails raised like middle fingers
as they slalom between pines and birches away.
They need no better excuse to be than beauty
and they make for better company than many.

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Epiphany Snow

Snow on cedars. Photo: Greg Marks, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I profess to not be a fan of winter, dreading its coming all fall. But I forget its allure, its beguiling purity and clarity until one morning it suddenly transforms everything.

Epiphany Snow

The first real snow falls on Epiphany, late,
after a dry fall and cool December. Six inches,
no big deal, but an epiphany nonetheless.

Snow boots are still in the closet, the shovel 
and salt tucked behind stuff on the back porch.
The inevitable finds me unprepared as usual.

I purged from memory the scraping of the plow,
forgot the way snow shines on sagging cedars,
how all things dull and dim can now be shining.

Out of the old year’s ending, this new beginning,
when what could be wrestles with what will be. Who
can say what may befall once the snow begins to fall?

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In Praise of Sick Days

Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

This poem is adapted from a blog post written when I was still gainfully employed, but the scene is still correct in that I am sick today and feel incompetent to engage in anything more strenuous than procrastination. I came to love sick days in grade school. Being the youngest of three kids, having the whole house to myself was bliss. Still is.

In Praise of Sick Days

I write today from the comfort of my couch.
A book rests nearby, a glass of water, tissues,
a baby blue blanket, and a wide-screen TV.

Through prolonged sleeplessness and massive
amounts of cold remedy, I have achieved
the level of serene detachment I imagine
is possessed by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day
Parade balloons looming over New York.

All work is handed over to higher power;
one has the house to oneself and can watch
what no one else likes to watch, listen to
whatever may please, or stare agog into space
with none to question one’s sanity.

Feeling an urge for grilled cheese, a creamy mug
of tomato soup, and a black & white rerun on TV,
I look about finding no one to say me nay.

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An English Major Laments the Space-time Continuum

The weight of the world distorts the space-time-continuum. Photo: Rossi pena, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

After 911, I remember a child psychologist stressing how important it was, when children were watching the Twin Towers fall over and over again in the media, to explain to them that it only happened once and was not still happening. In cyberspace, the towers are still falling and will always be falling, everywhere, and so too with every other trauma. This is what makes it such fertile ground for obsession.

An English Major Laments the Space-time Continuum

Science fiction writer Ray Cummings explained time
thus: “Time is what prevents everything from happening
at once.” Physicist John Wheeler added as a capper: 
“Space is what prevents everything from happening to me.”

This tidy structure we left behind, preferring one
where the old rules don’t apply–cyberspace. 
There, everything that ever happened happens now
and what happens anywhere, happens everywhere.

In the old world the body inhabits, this is insane,
but in the new world the mind has colonized,
this is the allure, to savor every blinking meme,
preferring pixels to food, water, love and nature.

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