Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2016

Poem: Garden


Carry the soil
Dig the holes
Plant the seeds
Water the garden
Or just watch
And wait.
Which are you,
If you know?

Fiction: Bare Walls

White Wall

I want the walls to be bare. The way they were when I first moved in. For that, I would need a time machine. Or I could remove the framed pictures, move everything out, the desk, the bookshelves, the file cabinets. All of it could sit in other rooms and in the hallways.

The rug could stay. So could a chair, from which I could scan the room. One blinded window, two closet doors, one room door. And the white walls.

Maybe a lamp too. That depends on how natural I want it to be. Without the lamp, the walls could follow the daily cycle, lit a little or a lot, if the blinds were open or closed, if the sky was clear or cloudy. With a lamp, it wouldn’t matter. I could choose when to see the walls and when not. The same goes for the ceiling, if I got up off the chair and lay face up on the rug. Lamp or no lamp, eyes open or closed, day or night, I would know the walls were there and bare.

In the dark, it might be easier to imagine the time machine. Maybe that’s why I wanted the bare walls in the first place. To strip history bare. Not just my history, that delivered the pictures and the furniture, but all history ever. The walls would hum and thrum silently, harmonic to some time before the before, peaceful music that would only play when the walls were stripped bare.

It all seems so much work, the moving, the removing, the scanning, the imagining, eyes open and closed, blinds open and closed, the sun hiding behind clouds, coming out, going away and going to sleep. Returning tomorrow.

The walls will be here tomorrow. Ready to remain partly hidden, ready to be bared. Ready to sing.

A Zen Harvest: An Essential Zen No Zen Book for No Zen People

A Zen Harvest

While I often write about Zen and Buddhism in this blog, I have never suggested a “where to begin” book. There are a lot of reasons for this, but that’s for another time.

(For those who might be interested, a leading Buddhist publication did a survey of where its readers did get started, and the overwhelming first book was Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, pretty clearly the most popular book on Zen in English. It is also where I got started.)

A Zen Harvest: Japanese Folk Zen Sayings (1988), compiled and translated by Soiku Shigematsu, is something different and special. (His first book, A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters (1981), is sadly out of print, but you can find a PDF if you go fishing in the Web sea.)

Shigematsu does a lovely job of explaining the text in his excellent Introduction. I actually suggest you not read the Introduction, at least not at first. Robert Aitken Roshi (author of another popular introduction to Zen) offers an appreciative Foreword. You can initially skip that too.

Instead, just browse anywhere in this collection of nearly 800 poem-like sayings. Anywhere. Don’t think of these as Zen. Don’t even think of these as poems. Don’t care about who said it or wrote it.

I am not even going to offer a sample saying, because it would not do the collection justice. Just get it and read in it, a few seconds at a time. You may or may not learn or find out anything about yourself, your life, other people’s lives, the world, the universe, or Zen. Does that really matter?

Meeting of the Great Ones to Consider a Request

The great ones met to consider a request. God, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha. These were the ones who had been in his thoughts, prayers and wishes, to some degree, in recent days.

The agenda seemed simple enough, but was, as with most similar matters, far from it. A request like this had so many layers and dimensions.

There was the question of what could actually be done in answer to the request. Intervention may not be possible, and even then, the type may be limited.

Then there is availability and suitability. Maybe the circumstances indicate something should be done, maybe not. There is the size and nature of the request, the context of the request, and maybe above all, the form of the request and the faith and character of the asker.

He was unclear about all of this. He had more than one idea on form, some ideas about his faith, and a world and lifetime of questions about his character, especially as a worthy supplicant.

Intervention and decisions, his and theirs. Those already made, those from now on. Change and chance. There would be time, some time, to assess probabilities, to act and be acted upon, or for happenings to happen.

He did not address the meeting, and was not invited to. He sent formless thoughts, deep enough from heart and mind, he hoped, to make the request clear. He did not send a message, maybe except this one.

He did have one understanding that transcended the meeting, the circumstances, the request. It might be too vague, but in the moment the thought seemed as complete as any. The offer was love, the request was for love. If it went out sadly imperfectly, and came back seemingly incomplete, it had to be done. It was all that could be done. And was more than enough, and all.

Vesak: Buddha Day

Sakyamuni Buddha

Today is Vesak, the holiday also known as Buddha Day.

Around the world, especially in Buddhist Asia, Vesak combines a celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing. This year the holiday was noted by the UN, by President Obama, by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and by many others. This is part of the growing recognition that the world might benefit from even a little bit of Buddhism added to our complex, crazy and chaotic affairs.

Here is the Mangala Sutta (The Sutra on Happiness), a wise and uplifting discourse of the Buddha that is one of the best-loved and most frequently recited texts in the Southeast Asian Buddhist world.  Only twelve verses long, it is a recital of auspicious things, and along with texts such as the Metta Sutta, is believed to bring happiness and good fortune when chanted or heard.

The Sutra on Happiness

I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was living in the vicinity of Savatthi at the Anathapindika Monastery in the Jeta Grove. Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly. After paying respects to the Buddha, the deva asked him a question in the form of a verse:

“Many gods and men are eager to know
what are the greatest blessings
which bring about a peaceful and happy life.
Please, Tathagata, will you teach us?”

(This is the Buddha’s answer):

“Not to be associated with the foolish ones,
To live in the company of wise people,
Honoring those who are worth honoring—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To live in a good environment,
To have planted good seeds
And to realize that you are on the right path—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To have a chance to learn and grow,
To be skillful in your profession or craft,
Practicing the precepts and loving speech—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To be able to serve and support your parents,
To cherish your own family,
To have a vocation that brings you joy—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To live honestly, generous in giving,
To offer support to relatives and friends,
Living a life of blameless conduct—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To avoid unwholesome actions,
Not caught by alcoholism or drugs,
And to be diligent in doing good things—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To be humble and polite in manner,
To be grateful and content with a simple life,
Not missing the occasion to learn the Dharma—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To persevere and be open to change,
To have regular contact with monks and nuns,
And to fully participate in Dharma discussions—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To live diligently and attentively,
To perceive the Noble Truths,
And to realize nirvana—
This is the greatest happiness.

“To live in the world
With your heart undisturbed by the world,
With all sorrows ended, dwelling in peace—
This is the greatest happiness.

“For the one who accomplishes this
Is unvanquished wherever she goes;
Always he is safe and happy—
Happiness lives within oneself.”

Translated by Thich Nhat Hahn

Be Stupid!


You may think of yourself as clever. Or half-clever. Other people may think so too.

Be stupid!

That’s the advice from Bankei (1622-1693), a Zen master I’ve written about before.

Thousands of people came from all over Japan to hear Bankei speak. Ordinary people who came to hear really extraordinary messages from a very wise man. Such as: Be stupid!

“I tell my students and those of you coming regularly here to the temple: ‘Be stupid!’ Because you’ve got the dynamic function of the marvelously illuminating Buddha Mind, even if you get rid of discriminative understanding, you won’t be foolish. So, all of you, from here on, be stupid! Even if you’re stupid, when you’re hungry, you’ll ask for something to eat, when you’re thirsty, you’ll ask for some tea; when it gets warm, you’ll put on thin, light clothes, and when it’s cold, you’ll put on more clothes. As far as your activities of today are concerned, you’re not lacking a thing!

“With people who are clever, there are sure to be a great many shortcomings. To have transcended those clever people whom all the world holds in great esteem is what’s meant by ‘stupidity.’ There’s really nothing wrong with being a blockhead!

“When people say that someone is a clever fellow, I ask to meet him, and when I do and we have a chance to talk, it looks to me as if people in the world are praising an awful lot of foolishness. The fact is that those clever people acclaimed by the world are, from the start, deluded by their own cleverness. . .The true man’s ideal is to show kindness to those who are foolish and help those who are evil. To be recognized as a good man by the people of the world is precisely what makes being born a human being worthwhile. How can it be any good to earn yourself the reputation of a wicked person?

“So when you go back to your homes and meet your old acquaintances, you should have them wondering about you all: ‘How did Bankei teach them Buddhism, anyway? Why, they’ve come back even more stupid than before they left!’

“What I’m talking about isn’t the stupidity of stupidity and understanding. That which transcends stupidity and understanding is what I mean by stupidity!

From Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei, Peter Haskel


Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, Norman Waddell

Bruce Wayne Is Batman, Donald Trump Is John Miller/John Barron

Bruce Wayne - Batman

Millionaire Bruce Wayne never wanted it to be known that he was the crime fighter Batman because he didn’t want those close to him to be in danger.

Millionaire Donald Trump never wanted it to be known that he was publicist/executive John Miller/John Barron because…

This analysis leads to one conclusion. That Donald Trump actually wanted to be, or at least considered being, Batman. But Trump is no fool. He realized that calling up journalists and saying he was Batman, or John Batman, might not sound authentic—even if he knew intimate details of Trump’s life and loves. Which is how he ended up telling them he was John Miller or John Barron. So prosaic, so low energy, so small-handed.

But life is long. We may yet hear tapes of “John Batman” calling up reporters with the latest scoop on what Donald Trump is up to. Let’s pray for the day.

Music: Normal Person

Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire

Oh man
Do you like Rock and Roll music?
‘Cause I don’t know if I do

Arcade Fire is a great band. Wildly creative, musically and lyrically. Their fourth and latest album Reflektor (2013) was not quite as over-the-top praised as earlier ones, but it still got lots of deserved commendation and “best of” rankings. If you’ve never heard the band, take a chance and listen to them all.

Of all the songs I love on Reflektor, especially the title track, Normal Person always gets to me. First, because you can dance to it, even though it starts with the ironic epigraph above. Second, because the lyrics are awesome. Here they are, one diamond line after another. “If that’s what’s normal now/I don’t want to know.”

Is anything as strange as a normal person?
Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?
Waiting after school for you
They want to know if you
If you’re normal too
Well, are you?
Are you?

I’m so confused. Am I a normal person?
You know, I can’t tell if I’m a normal person
It’s true, I think I’m cool enough, but am I cruel enough?
Am I cruel enough for you?

And they will break you down
Till everything is normal now
I know
And they will break you down
Till everything is normal now
I know

They take their tea at two
All the normal people, they do
They burn the jungle down
While they were sleeping, it grew
You dream in English now
In proper English, look how
You’re just the same as me
It’s through

And they will break you down
Till everything is normal now
I know
And they will break you down
Till everyone is normal now
I know

If that’s what’s normal now
I don’t want to know
If that’s what’s normal now
Mama don’t make me go

When they get excited, they try to hide it
Look at those normals go
When they get excited, they try to hide it
Look at those normals go
When they get excited, they try to hide it
Look at those normals go
When they get excited, they try to hide it… No!

Maybe if you hang together
You can make the changes in our hearts
And if you hang together
You can change us, just where should you start?

I’ve never really ever met a normal person
I’ve never really ever met a normal person
I’ve never really ever met a normal person
I’ve never really ever met a normal person… like you!
How do you do?
How do you do?


Politics and People of Conscience

Conscience of Conservative

There’s talk of Barry Goldwater in the context of the current election cycle. I’ve written about him before—as it turns out, a few times, here, here, and here. It’s not that I’m a fan of conservative politics; it’s that I’m a fan of conscience.

Goldwater’s unlikely and iconoclastic nomination for President at the Republican National Convention in 1964 was predicted to be a disaster. It was, as he was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the election. On the other hand, his political philosophy lived on in the party—coming into full flower with Ronald Reagan and, more than fifty years later, is still the touchstone of conservative Republican politics.

Goldwater’s famous book was a manifesto called The Conscience of a Conservative. Focus on that word “conscience.” It means principles that are grounded in the deepest part of your beliefs, principles that are often difficult to stand by. On one side is the temptation of expedience. On the other is being criticized for standing in the way and being outcast. Or in Goldwater’s case, for leading the party into a (temporary) black hole.

In both parties right now, conscience is being tested.

Paul Ryan and others are speaking their mind about Donald Trump, even in the face of calls for unity over conscience, for party above principle. Other Republicans, seeing the same candidate, admit he is flawed in ways they have trouble abiding, but a unified party has a shot a victory, while a splintered one has none.

Among Democrats, even some Hillary Clinton supporters, in candid moments, admit that they have deep reservations about her on fundamental grounds of honesty, integrity, and transparency, but say that winning is everything, and that she is the path to victory—whatever her shortcomings.

We shouldn’t indict those who compromise their conscience, in politics or elsewhere. Each of us does it or has done it, and we live with it. Maybe sleeplessly sometimes, but we live with it. What we should do is praise those who manage to know their conscience and follow it, often at a price. This is what we try to teach our children. This is what we should suggest to our politicians.

Fiction: The Package

UPS Truck

The Package

When I placed the order online, I got an email within seconds, telling me the order was received.

I got another email telling me the order was being processed.

I got another email telling me the order was ready to be shipped and giving me the tracking number.

I checked the tracking number, but it told me that it was getting ready to be picked up by the shipping company.

After that, I tracked the package just about every time I sat down at the computer. All I had to do was click the circular arrow at the top of the browser page and updated tracking information would appear. Of course, if nothing had happened and nothing had changed, the page would look exactly the same.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the package was picked up for the first leg of its journey. I wasn’t actually awake when this happened. I was asleep, and had no plans to stay up waiting for something that might or might not happen. It was in the morning that I got the news, when I poured a cup of coffee and went right to my computer and refreshed the tracking page.

In the days that followed, I watched the package wend its way from there to here. It made a couple of stops in between, each one for a few hours, then it was on the road again.

One morning the message was “out for delivery.” There was a promise that it would be delivered by 8:00pm, but usually packages showed up earlier. This one did. Around noon, just as I was making my lunch, the doorbell rang. If I had not been home, they might have left a tag on the door. Or sometimes the delivery person leaves it at the door, without getting a signature, because he knows me. Today, I was home. He handed me the box and I signed.

I went to the computer to check. It told me the package had been delivered and it was signed for by me, my last name only.

It had been a long trip, about five hundred miles, and now it was over. I printed out the final tracking page and put it on top of the box. For later. Now it was lunchtime.