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Four Questions from Thomas Moore Evaded by DC

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Four Questions from Thomas Moore Evaded

Thomas Moore wrote me the following note in December 22, 2012:

I just re-read Thank You and OK and enjoyed it thoroughly. A great way to learn about Zen and about life.  I think we share a certain kind of irreverence and wit that isn't too popular these days, if it ever is.  Sort of, the Wife of Bath goes to a Zen monastery.  I liked, "My practice is avoidance." I relate to that. 

I re-read your book because I'm writing one now called "A Religion of One's Own." I'm using Thoreau as my main model, but I don't want to over-use him. He's been made into a saint that I think he never wanted to be or was, if you believe Emerson.  But I see his experience at Walden as a religious one in a secular sort of way. In that regard, I wonder if you'd be willing to answer three or four questions on my theme based on your travels of various kinds. Via email or some other way?  

I'll write them out now, in case you're interested. I just need a sentence or two for each.

DC: So of course I said I'd be happy to do this and asked when would he want it by and he said by the end of January so I sent him the answers below on January 31st.

1. You present yourself as a Plan B person (Zen failure) but on a meaningful path. I've always been drawn to an ordinary life that has a window looking out—therefore my own religious travels. I don't care much for either formal religion or secularism. How would you describe your way?

DC: For me the way is found as I step into it. But really I don’t find anything. I just say that. If there’s a way, I lose it as I step along and it’s always evolving along with everything. I think of practice as what leads to not being enslaved to the thought stream and storyline.

There’s a Vietnamese Theravadan temple on the East side of Fort Worth. Went with a friend there for the Friday evening service. Loved the chanting, different, musical. There was meditation and a talk in Vietnamese which was translated by the fellow sitting next to us. It was to me Sunday school level eight fold path. I remember, “place your mind in your body.” I like to take random teachings and find a way to interpret that works for me. I take this to mean focus on the body to ease the grip of thoughts, memories, emotings. This attention can be extended to looking at the moon from my mother’s backyard. I point at the moon and look at my finger.

Mother’s in hospice care now at a nursing home. Good place. It’s near her home. I walk here –  between 2000 and 2500 steps depending on the route. I say, “Who am I” on the inhalation and “Thank you” on the exhalation. Sometimes I look around and say, “Who are we?” Focusing on the body can be following the breath or breathing the following: mountain air or smog. The reward is in forgetting myself, that devil may care guy, at least for a nano, concepts in their holsters, drama on its stage waiting patiently for the curtain to open, not insisting. I’ve heard “belief is the first door.” OK, I’ll give it that. But drop that robe before entering the next door which is still early in the strip tease. We inherently know the way to go and each step is habit forming. Respect for the power of habits we want and don't, the deeper each time a groove is cut, confidence in the ability to escape the room with no doors by walking through the wall. Letting epiphanies go and when there’s pride in not knowing, not that too. In short, my way is endless confusion.

2. My point in the book is that whether a person is in a formal religion or not, they could develop their own religion. Nothing formal. Just something personal that is beyond plain secularism or unconsciousness. Would you say that you have a religion of your own?

DC: See above but below too there’s more of mysterious origin that I claim. It’s all mine but things come in and stick to it and parts fall off. No matter. I’m not only like him who said you too can be like me, I’m not a part of god because that which has no name can’t be divided or excluded. It’s a good thing to do research but I don’t need to look up the etymology of a holy word to see what a scribe had in mind. The meaning is tattooed on me. I preach to the gods – and then I look up the spelling. I’m an ordained Soto Zen priest or monk but I just did that because it was something to do with that teacher Shunryu San as he’s called back home. I build a mountain out of what he left behind but don’t think about it or him. Not devotion, just compulsion I told the German questioner. Do you really want me to translate that? Definitely. I do now recall him saying though that rather than worshiping some deity we worship what’s at hand – something like that.

I still ascribe to the teachings of my long gone father who said matter doesn’t exist, the only good business deal is one where both parties profit, all wars are started by munitions manufacturers, thought is god, and you don’t know how lucky you are not to have been taught to believe in god. From mother it was psychics, acceptance, non judgement, open mindedness, and reincarnation – there – I just did that again. See – she was right.

Two years ago spent a few months by the Ramana Ashram in Tiruvanamalai where Who am I? is supreme and told Hindu priests to their liking I saw Buddhism as a sect of Hinduism. Hitchhiking in 64 often asked if I took Jesus Christ as my lord and savior answered as I still do Yes, but we might have different interpretations of what that means. Asked what church I went to few times tried, The Quadrangle Church.  What’s that? There’s the Trinity plus the Bible itself. That was popular. Had a friend who converted to Mormon because of a beautiful woman. In the days before I was drunk on sobriety he’d come over and we’d get high, play music and he’d have conflicted feelings. I told him no need – become an Immediate Mormon like me. What’s that? That all those teachings are not to be taken literally but to heart – that we find their living meaning in the moment – right here. I want to be an Immediate Mormon! he cried. Later his wife called and said, “Peter’s been very bad.” Dear departed Niels made me a BuVu priest – a religion he created joining Buddhism and Voodoo. He even went to Haiti and registered it with the only US government agency that recognizes religions – the IRS. I like Vonnegut’s Bokononism, a religion of harmless lies. “A thousand monks, a thousand monasteries,” the sign over the entrance gate read. I walk into a new monastery all the time but stick to one hunch not to dabble in this and that. My standard answer to what sort of Buddhist are you is a Joe Gould Buddhist, he the bum Bohemian who penned, "In the winter I'm a Buddhist. In the summer I'm a nudist."

One last bundle of thoughts on this - I don't like to see the individual sacrificed to the group, but we can't get away from institutions and we need each other. It's one of those "Can't live with them, can't live without them" things. There are all sorts of things we must be free from that we also can't do without, at least early on when structure strengthens, at some point or stage or in balance or just around the corner. We start off as a snake in a bamboo tube (Shunryu used that line) and end up a tiger on the mountain.

3. The Zen that I know of appeals to me because it doesn't tolerate idols of any kind: personalities, teachings,  language.  Yet you describe a quite formal Zen monastic life in Japan.  My wife and stepson were just in a monastery in Kyoto for a visit and loved what they saw. The abbot was great with them and may have convinced my 24 year-old to spend some extended time there. But I get confused by the formal monastic practice along with the idea of Zen as a quality of living rather than a tradition.  I once lived for 13 years in a Catholic monastery. We saw it as an opportunity to put ideals into practice.

DC: Finding a satisfying practice in Japan is difficult. Maybe like trying to study Christianity in Italy. But surely it’s hard everywhere. Depends on the seeker and what they run into of course. People everywhere worship idols. Ms Zen has none but she is ideal. The priests do their best and dust the statues. The head of a major Baptist group scolded the pious who wanted the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn saying they worship a graven image that says don’t worship graven images. Asians are not free from such unforced errors. Many to most I’ve met think their teams are hypocrites and that Christians are sincere and care about people. Most Japanese Buddhism is a memorial and funeral business. Priests dine and count money. I could make a living there helping them out once a week. A great deal of the practice there is about learning priest craft and being a proper Japanese or even in koan practice, learning to say what they expect. As much Confusious as Lao Tsu, regimented, forms followed. Freedom is left to the mind.

As far as finding a teacher, they have the concept of En – chemistry, karmic ties, etc. They don’t put down a teacher they decided not to study with. En was lacking between us might be said. It’s a long shot – maybe like bumping into Meister Eckhart way back then. There’s a lot to be learned from the average person and the crowd in Japan I’m interested in returning soon, finding some niche in the Kyoto area, maybe some temple to relate to, and working on the Suzuki archives and some fun writing for a few months and unpacking the rusty lingua franca.

I would like to know what temple your stepson went to. Not sure what’s available there. Have friends who know though. I wouldn’t want to practice in a Japanese temple again. I agree with Richard Baker that the people who’ve gone there for the Zen and been the most satisfied have not lived in temples but near them, had a relationship with a teacher, and had other studies and pursuits. They don’t have a concept of personal space etc. You have to learn how to pretend in order to get by. But the whole experience of being in another so ancient and wonderful culture and trying to do something so impossible is most educational.

4. As I see it, America has a lot of religious belief but not much of a religious sensibility that would saturate the culture and American life. It seems happy with a split between belief and secular living. I don't want to be a holier than thou or a missionary, but I feel like putting my two cents into the situation. Do you?

DC: Sure. With care not to overdose the ingredient of trying to help people which you expressed most eloquently in Petaluma back in 2002 or so – at a reading after we had dinner. That was in an answer to a woman painfully wishing to do all she could to save us all. You said you didn't have helping others in mind when you wrote. Somewhere between the crusader and the cynic I circle. But I’ll never approach the heights of your “I’m against health,” in response to another question.

There are a lot of silly media driven dichotomies going on like between faith and science. I see a moderator say that as if faith meant grabbing hold of something with eyes shut. I’ve always sympathized with the atheists though. The modern rational atheists and skeptics to me are like guardians at the temple gate ridiculing the idiotic away while themselves unaware of what lies within. I find it humorous how many of these matter worshiping fundamentalists seem to have old fashioned ideas of what science is.

More than once I’ve heard wise old masters reply it all comes down to do as little harm as possible. As for my contribution, I can’t help but do it. Love the Internet. Plenty of contact there and I’m not referring to social media. Should do another book but money, however little, is the main motivator there. How about this for a title: Mind Only – and Some of What’s in Between.

I throw out the chaff and save the wheat then throw out the wheat and save the chaff then keep them both then throw them both out, then dance and laugh and sing and shout!

Thanks for the questions.

Take care.


Tom replied on 2-17-13: I enjoyed your responses to my four questions.  Maybe one day I can include it in a collection of conversations. For now, I'll just use a few lines. It's exactly the spirit I was hoping for.  By the way, I got some info from my wife about where they stayed in Kyoto:  "called Zuiho-in - it's a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. The abbot we had tea with was a master of the Omotesenke Tea School."  "  I don't know if that means anything to you.  

DC response: Sure I know Daitokuji - it's a big Rinzai temple complex. And Shunryu Suzuki's wife MItsu is an Omotesenke teacher. That's the front door school. Urasenke is the back door. A tea house at Green Gulch for an Urasenke teacher was funded by Laurance Rockefeller. I showed him around Green Gulch once including a look into that expensive traditional beautiful building. I was an interim director and had answered the phone by the kitchen and it was him at the airport. He said he'd always wanted to see Green Gulch but didn't feel comfortable about going there since the breakup with Richard Baker whom he was close to. I said oh yes isn't it terrible, it's like having your parents get divorced. That put him at ease and he said he'd come right out. He brought with him a woman whose name slips me now who was part of the Miriam Webster family and had a magazine called Creativity or something like that that she gave me.  I got George Wheelright to come - he'd given/sold us Green Gulch, was the co-inventor of the Polaroid Land camera. He and Rockefeller talked about WWII and their involvement with it in weapons development. At one point Rockefeller expressed concern about nuclear war destroying the human race and I said, "Oh well, if that happens we'll all just be reborn on another planet and continue where we left off." He turned to me with a startled look and said, "That's exactly how I see it!" Later that day I hear he had some sort of coming to terms with his daughter Marion Weber who lived on an organic farm in nearby Bolinas. That was 1985. In 1991 I spent a few days showing Laurance's nephew, David Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Diana Rowan around Kyoto and we visited the headquarters of the Omotesenke school and had tea. That's what came to mind when I thought about Omotesenke.

Mother is fading magnificently.

Take care.