The Invisible Man

You looked through me;
that’s what threw me.
It’s like I wasn’t there.
Don’t you care that I’m on fire?
A giant, flaming pyre of diseases of the mind?
I think you’ll find, upon inspection,
a singular infection: I exist.
What a twist! So unexpected!
I’m more than just figment
of your inner fascination. Not a
bump to stub your toe on; not a beach
to ebb and flow on: I have tides
all of my own. Not a stone to be hurled
at an unsuspecting world

I am not

the moral of your story.

Find, and You Shall Seek

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When ignorance is overturned, it transmutes into enlightenment. It is like melting ice into water; it is not something apart and does not come from elsewhere. All is contained in a single moment of mind.

– Chih-i

I seek a single moment of mind. And I find it, every single time, right where I left it. Right here. With me, in me, behind me, ahead of me, beckoning, waiting, answering and asking at once.

A single moment of mind, leading to single moments of mind, pointing to single moments of mind. Moments of mind that, collectively, constitute my self, intermingled with your self, and scattered amongst the infinity of Self itself.

The third of the Four Great Vows of the bodhisattva says: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.” Or, as Thomas Cleary interprets it, it is the vow “to study all truths” (Cleary, Glossary to Stopping & Seeing, 1997). Of the four, this is the one that most clearly resonates with me: the search for Truth within all truth, the quest to ask all the answers through learning all the questions. My questions, your questions, their questions, today, tomorrow, and yesterday. The questions go on, they are continuous; how can the answers be other than the questions through which they are sought?

Chih-i also wrote: “Temporary expedients do not contain the true; it is the true that contains temporary expedients.” In other words, whereas we often envision answers as endpoints, in reality they are mere waystations in an ongoing journey. Today’s answer, properly understood, becomes tomorrow’s question. And so on. Infinitely. We always find, so we never arrive. And this is life. And life is enlightenment.

Another quote, from Stargate SG-1: “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked long ago.” To assume I have the answers is to miss the point of the questions asked: it is to choose a solution before hearing the problem; it is to decide my fate before knowing who I am. It is to abandon the journey before it ever begins.

The path to Truth is not linear, although we often believe it so. The path to Truth is not even really a path. We stand simultaneously at the beginning and the end; the beginning is the end. The path to Truth is not a path. Truth is the path, and the path is truth: no more and no less. It is not ahead; it is not behind; it is not outside of us. Truth is not a destination, it is a realization.

We are never really there, because we are already here. We never really arrive, because, in truth, we never really left.

And the award for Most Disturbing Photo goes to…

So, my folks are moving to a new house they just built. In the process, they have been rummaging through old boxes, the contents of some of which haven’t seen the light of day since before we went to Argentina in 1987. The other day, I went over to their rental to help clear out the garage, and when I walked into the living room, this is what I found on the floor.

(Note: No arranging involved.)

Dollpic

Listen

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You must perceive world sound. You must perceive the sound of your voice. 

– Seung Sahn

Meditation, I think, is different for everyone who does it. It’s one of those things that suffer under too many rules, over-definition, because at its heart, it involves just…being.

For me, meditation is about listening. To everything. Being still and listening, being quiet and listening, being and listening.

The world speaks with many, many voices:

Bird choruses, high above, rebounding from one end of awareness to the other, species after species calling out in natural harmony–from the throaty shrill of the grackle to the metallic chirp of the cardinal. It is fauna gone stereo; it is everywhere at once.

The crescendoed buzzing of a mosquito in my ear. It is after me, but it is after me because it is alive, and I share with it in that life. We are, literally, blood brothers.

The insistent rapping of a red-headed woodpecker at the top of a nearby telephone pole: knock, and the worm shall be offered up to you.

Whispers of wind chasing one another around my head, and the feathery rustle of leaves sashaying in its wake. Memories ride on the breeze, tossing me back through time and space to the family farm and another breeze, identical yet different. I am reminded that all space and all time is hopelessly and inextricably interrelated; miles away, a world away, someone else listens with me, before me, after me, to the same different wind as I.

Suddenly, I’m hearing sounds that aren’t even there, sounds that I’ve heard before but long ago left behind: Vance Woods, this is your life!

The special crunch of gravel beneath my feet, sounding as it did only on that road, in that place, lost in the past, alive in the present. Voices of loved ones, some stilled by distance, others in death. The ricochet of bike tires off ramshackle cobbled streets: sounds today, aches and pains tomorrow. The past is the present writ large, and it too speaks in a multitude of dialects. Me llamo Eduardo–repeated over and over in decreasingly hesitant tones, back at the beginning of my adventure, back when I had just started to become.

Then, I begin to listen beyond, behind, underneath, and through. I begin to hear the pulse of existence, breathing, beating, just beyond the threshold of sound: the perpetual motion of being. Inhalation, exhalation. Life.

The world speaks, and I speak with it. It speaks to me, in me, and through me, in tones I often do not recognize, but, oh, when I do…Imagine my surprise!

What’s the old saying? I love listening to the sound of my own voice?

Here, at the heart of the world, the two, my own individual voice and the voice of the whole, are one and the same.

Eternity in an Instant

328px-ClessidraEternity dwells in the instant between Out and In. All that came before, all that comes after–this is but a shadow on the face of Now.

The past lives in me, but I cannot live in the past; the future waits for me, but I cannot wait upon the future. History weighs me down as the clock-face drags me forward. I must cut ties with either, lest I lose my Self to both.

Out. In. Life and death, promise and doubt, intermixed in a multitude of single moments.

As I breathe, I am eternal.
I need no farther horizon
.
There is no grander view.

Articles of Faith

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We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”

With or Without You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

– Emily Dickinson

They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?

It’s not you, God; it’s me.

It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”

This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.

Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.

But God? Zilch.

In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.

As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.

At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.

Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.

You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.

I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.

Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.

It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.

I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.

If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.

So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.

Fathers and Sons

245Father, sometimes you and I
are like a three-legged horse
who can’t get across the finish line
no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries

– Jim Boyd

I am my father, and my father was me.

A little over two years ago, I sat down with my parents in the living room of their Lacy Lakeview rental house, and told them about my journey away from the Christian faith so dear to them. Former Southern Baptist missionaries to Argentina, their first response, understandably, was self-recrimination: where did we go wrong? Why was I abandoning a worldview to which they had dedicated so much of their own lives, and which they had tried so hard to instill in mine?

Was this their doing?

Well, in a way, yes–but not in the way they feared. Theirs was no failure, at least not as I see it; theirs was a resounding success.

The photo above was taken in 1989. My dad and I had just finished climbing Cerro Uritorco, Córdoba Province, for the first time. It was my birthday; I was 12 years old. My dad was the same age then that I am now. This was a big moment for us, the start of an annual tradition: every year, on or around my birthday, we would climb that mountain together.

As with all fathers and sons, my relationship with my father has had its ups and downs. We have been climbing mountains, of one sort or another, my whole life. Both of us possess a quick and violent temper, and as a teenager I learned to push his buttons, and he mine. Both of us are by nature stubborn, and fairly convinced of the superiority of our own processes, which have rarely ever been the same, which fact also caused a decent amount of conflict back in the day. And then there’s the old “man-child” dilemma: in his eyes (and to a certain extent, in my own), I will forever be the young’un, in need of guidance and correction, with ideas in formation but not yet fully formed. This makes adult communication difficult. We have bridged this divide a bit in the last few years, but I suspect it is one that is never quite overcome between fathers and their sons.

I inherited many negative characteristics from my father. We all do. In the past I have, to my discredit, tended to focus on those. Ironically, it wasn’t until I turned from his dearly held beliefs that I truly began to appreciate the gifts this Christian man had given me. This is, by the way, why I take so personally the generalizing negative comments about Christian folk when I come across them on the blogs: I no longer embrace my father’s worldview, but this does not blind me to the fact that he is a good man, not in spite of his faith but because of it. And, although I no longer share that faith, I am who I am in large measure because of it, as well.

Whatever love I have for my fellow human beings, I have because my parents taught me that the needs and pain of others are always more important than my own. They lived that out, giving up their own plans to go to a foreign place and work for others. I may not agree with how they did it, but I have to honor why they did it.

My father gave me my sense of humor, and that sense of humor has gotten me through any number of tough situations. He taught me that no monster can kill you when you can tickle its belly and make it laugh.

My love of reading comes from him. He gave me Dickens, and Twain, and Dumas: I loved them well before the age when high school students learn to hate them. And with a love of reading comes a love of words, and of ideas. My father taught me the importance of using words correctly and well, and of respecting the ideas of others without letting them get in the way of forming my own.

As a child, he took me out of my comfort zone and, by doing so, literally gave me the world. If my perspective is broad, it is because of the places he took me, and if I have been many places, it is because he encouraged me to go.

Above all else, like ol’ Polonius, he taught me to be true to myself, and he taught me to love truth. And here I am. I may not have chosen his truth, but I would not have arrived (and be arriving) at my own truth if not for his. If not for the Christian man who taught me to stand for what I believe, whatever that may be. Without him, the Toad would never have been born. If I am a good man, it is because it takes one to make one.

One might argue that, in all this, I went out the back door to get to the front yard. This is most definitely not what either one of us expected when we stood together on that mountaintop 26 years ago. We could see a long way from up there, but we couldn’t see forever. But this is what counts: no matter how many mountains I summit in my life, no matter how many different paths I take, I’ll never be alone. We’ll be standing there, together, and I’ll be the stronger for it.

So, yes, Dad. You did this. And for that I am eternally grateful.