Saturday, March 03, 2007

Face to face

March 2, 2007

A few times a year, I enjoy returning to Philadelphia, which was my home for a decade.
In the 12 years since I lived there, nearly everyone I know has moved on. The few friends and acquaintances who remain form the core of the karate dojo where I trained.
The instructor now, as then, is Gerald Evans, whom everyone knows as "Ski." He is my mentor and my closest friend -- like a father, really -- and the subject of blog entries in the past.

I regard my visits to Philadelphia as homecomings. Friday's visit, though, had a much different vibe. There was an undercurrent of agitation and unease brought about by recent developments in my medical situation.
In a previous life, I must have been an actor or filmmaker or at least someone with a deep appreciation for those crafts. I can see the potential for drama and pathos in any situation. And so, running through the back of my mind during this visit was the thought, "Will I be coming this way again?"
Fade to black ...

Ski has offered me wisdom and inspiration over the 14 years we've known each other. A dozen years ago, I was working in the latest in a succession of dead-end, woefully unsatisfying jobs and I was about to be fired. A fellow dojo student told me of an opportunity to live and work in Japan. Ski helped me to decide whether to give up my career (such as it was), abandon my comfort zone and take this chance. We approached it from every angle, carefully weighing the many risks and benefits.
I took the chance, and it changed my life in fundamental ways that are still revealing themselves.

And now I find myself at another critical juncture in my life, when the deepest questions about existence haunt even my most enjoyable moments. And again, I turn to Ski.
We talked about my cancer, as we've done during the five years since my diagnosis.
I told him that I think I need a diversion, an adventure to offset reality for a while.
"An adventure?" he said, laughing. "An adventure? You're on an adventure now, only you can't see it or refuse to see it.
"You're a worrier. Your worries create chemical changes within you. Then you try to shake yourself of those worries and you have to undo all those changes you've caused."

Ski has a way of discovering a person's demons and parading them before the person's eyes. He is a mirror.
I told him that the combination of the effects of the cancer and the possible side effects of the drug I received Tuesday were making me extremely irritible, impatient and anxious with myself and those around me -- tendencies I have anyway, but not to this degree.
"Maybe the disease and the medication are showing you glimpses of your true nature you'd rather not see," Ski said.
He's right, and meeting with this stark truth is painful.
Of course, there are other aspects of my nature that this illness has brought to the surface for which I'm thankful. But the good and the bad are different sides of the same coin. It's just too easy to say that the disease is always to blame, or the medication, or whatever.

Ski isn't suggesting that I deny the reality of what's happening to me. He is urging me to do my utmost to accept it.
Before major chest surgery two years ago, I discussed my fears with Ski, especially the fear of possibly dying during the procedure. "If it succeeds," he said at the time, "you've got nothing to worry about. And if you die, you've got nothing to worry about.
"So what are you worried about?"

Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century theologian who brought Soto Zen from China to Japan, said much the same thing: "If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it?"


Matt Kohai said...

Ski's a wise fellow, indeed. I'm lucky to have a similarly wise instructor, one whom I'm grateful to call my friend as well. His lessons nearly as often often carry over into life outside the dojo and the art.

east village idiot said...

That is a post I'll probably read a thousand times. I'm not even sure where to begin to respond to it. You're dealing with an illness that removes the illusion that we have a good degree of control over our lives. None of us do. I too have always been a worrier -

The one thing that has sustained me is the power of love - even times when I was very much on my own. I'm not sure how love fits into zen philosophy because I'm not that familiar with it.

I best understand the idea of love as being a pitcher of milk and honey that soothes and satisfies our tired souls When I pray for your health I pore that pitcher right on top of whats hurting you and pray for your healing and happiness.

I sure hope you aren't lactose intolerant!

p.s. Those new pictures are just phenomenal.

Michael said...


Thanks so much for the very beautiful thoughts. I really appreciate it!
Right now, I feel confronted by truth, and there's absolutely no place to run to try to hide from it. I think that once I can accept certain realities a little better, I can then embrace them. That's how it'll have to be.

Thanks also for your kind words about my photos. One of these weekends, perhaps we can all get together, you and your Avenue A crew and me.

Mike Cross said...

Hi Michael,

Who taught you that Dogen Zenji was a theologian who brought back Soto Zen?

I bet it wasn't Ski.

What Zen Master Dogen brought back, as far as I understand it, was just the practice of sitting-meditation. In short, just sitting. No such thing as Soto Zen. No need to be a theologian. Just the life-and-death matter of sitting upright here and now.

Master Dogen wrote that when there is buddha in life and death, there is no life and death. I won't pretend to know what he meant. But those are his words, which, even if I haven’t understood them yet, still seem to me to have some truth in them that is worth broadcasting.


Literally: "If/because in life and death there is buddha, there is no life and death.”

The Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly was famous for saying: “Football is not a matter of life and death. It is more serious than that.”

I don’t know, but maybe what Master Dogen was saying was along the same lines.

To hell with me if I would dare to try to preach to you over the internet anything about life and death at this stage of your career. But these are Master Dogen’s literal words as recorded at the very beginning of Shobogenzo chap. 93, Shoji, Life and Death.

Struggle with them for me and I promise that I will struggle with them for you:

“When in life and death there is buddha, there is no life and death.”

Good luck, brave friend.

Michael said...

Thank you, Mike. Points well taken about "Soto" and "theologian." I often forget how loaded, culturally and otherwise, some times are.

I find great strength in the quote from Dogen that you point out. I thank you for pointing it out, and for being a friend.

Lone Wolf said...

I enjoyed what Ski said before your surgery.

Shantideva who wrote "The Guide To the Boddhisattva Way" said almost the exact same thing, something like, "If you can do something about it, why worry about it. If you can't do something about it, why worry about it."

I like how it ties in with Master Dogen's comment.

As the hillbillies around me in Ohio say, Keep on a Truckin' Michael.

Michael said...

Thanks. Everything ties in with everything.

Mike Cross said...

Michael, my friend, I think you missed the point. It's not about terms like "theological" being loaded. That's just intellectual verbage. It's about how real Master Dogen's teaching really is. Not in the flipping 13th century. NOW! Right here and now in your present situation, and mine too.

My point is to recommend you to make the connection between Ski's teaching and Master Dogen's teaching. The two teachers are, to my understanding, saying exactly the same thing. Don't think that just because you can smell Master Ski's cigarette smoke in your nostrils whereas Dogen's stink has been sterilized by 750 years, that the two teachings are originally any different. Don't defer to Dogen as if he were just an old icon on a crumbling church wall.

Master Dogen is no more concerned about God or no-God, heaven and hell, than Ski is. Their teaching is just: Don't worry. Dare to be yourself. Just act.

If you call Master Dogen a theologian but don't call Ski a theologian, or call Master Ski a theologian and don’t call Dogen a theologian, you not only insult Dogen but also insult Ski.

You told me before that you are worrying about hell. But if you truly practice what you preach, just putting one foot in front of the other, where is there time for you to worry about hell?

Michael said...

Oh, Mike, I've always seen that Ski and Dogen are saying the identical thing. The "who" isn't important to me, but the message is. I've been lucky to have this message repeated to me over and over as many times as it has.

"But if you truly practice what you preach, just putting one foot in front of the other, where is there time for you to worry about hell?"

Point well taken. And goddamn if I'm not on my way to finding out.

Zen said...

Having been born and raised for the most part in Philly I never had great feeling for it. Your post, about Ski Sensei reminds me that a lotus can grow in dirty water. Thanks for sharing.

Michael said...

Very well said, Zen.

Mike Cross said...

On your way to finding out about what? About hell? About putting one foot in front of the other? About where there is time other than this moment?

Probably Master Dogen is your man for the third question, and Master Ski is your man for the second. But when it comes to knowing hell, I could be your man -- I've been there for more than 25 years, since I betrayed (serially) my then partner.

I don't know if it is any reassurance to you, but I can honestly report that, even here in hell, it remains possible to put one foot in front of the other. And the good thing about really being down here (as long as it truly is rock bottom and not just intellectual "rock bottom") is that the only way is up.

Michael said...

Hi Mike,

What I'm referring to is my own belief in what is. And my belief in myself. These will either pass the fire test, or they won't.

Mike Cross said...

Please forgive my stubborn persistence, Michael. What I am writing is primarily to another Michael, using you as a mirror.

What is is what is. Who gives a damn whether your belief in it passes the fire test or not? Only an inveterate intellectual worrier like you are, and like I am, would waste valuable time discussing such a thing.

What you call yourself is a fleeting obstruction to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and if you want to investigate that most fundamental law of the Universe, hell might be an excellent spot to do so.

On the basis of the 2nd law, what is the chance that this phenomenon that you call “belief in myself” is going to pass the fire test? The words snowball and hell spring to mind.

Bad and good karma might be a kind of ladder down and up to and from hell. Seeing that, beings on the Buddhist path are liable to scramble for the ladder, hoping to climb it, with a head full of compassion and a mouth full of gasshos, salutations of peace and good wishes, et cetera... “Have a nice day, Michael, and get well soon. You are in my prayers....” In short, “May we all soon climb the ladder together, heavenward, and live happily ever after, in eternity.”

Maybe that is a kind of Buddhism. But in the view of Gudo Nishijima, I have become a non-Buddhist. If that is true, I can effortlessly and spontaenously express the non-Buddhist attitude, like this:

Non-buddha’s attitude to being hell is to be in it, and just to sit. Not to sit in hell, but to sit in lotus, one foot on top of the other. And to hell with hell.

I came down here by the ladder of bad karma, and there it is. I betrayed others; subsequently others have betrayed me. Voila. So now I leave the ladder where it is. Staying where I truly belong, rock bottom, the place without any false pretence, I sit.

Non-buddha’s attitude to WHAT IS, is to wake up to it, to accept it.

Yes, that seems to be Ski’s message, and you say you understand that it is Dogen’s message too. But if you understood, I think you would not say that a 13th century theologian brought back from China to Japan something called “Soto Zen.” Because Soto Zen is definitely not what Dogen woke up to in his sitting-meditation, definitely not what Dogen accepted in his sitting-meditation, and definitely not the point that Dogen recommended others to get in their sitting-meditation.

Soto Zen existed in your brain while you were writing this blog post. But in reality there is no such thing as Soto Zen.

When I drew your mistake to your attention you fobbed me off with some tosh about culturally loaded terms -- as if there was no lack of understanding on your part, but just a problem of words. But that is the essence of the gap that Dogen cautioned us against at the very beginning of his rules of sitting-meditation.

Finally then, Michael, looking into the mirror of Michael, what Michael sees is this: My intellect fools me into thinking that I know what is, when in fact I do not know what is, I am not awake to what is, and I do not accept what is.

Michael said...

"My intellect fools me into thinking that I know what is, when in fact I do not know what is, I am not awake to what is, and I do not accept what is."

No arguments here, and I don't say this just to get you to shut up. In all sincerity, no argument.

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Michael. I will shut up for a while.