Bob Schwartz

Month: March, 2023

A wish to be at ease in the world

“While the poem belongs chronologically to a simpler, pre-modern world, its sentiments speak clearly to one basic human longing: a wish to be at ease in the world.”

I have been reading Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen by Mu Soeng. The book is about the poem Xinxinming (Trust in Mind) attributed to Sengcan (d. 606), the third ancestor of Chan/Zen.

The expression the author uses, “a wish to be at ease in the world”, struck me hard. It is as good a way as any at saying what we wish for.

From Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen by Mu Soeng:

This commentary is written out of the conviction that the basic teachings of the Buddha are as relevant to us today as they were in Buddha’s own time, and that the admonitions made in Xinxinming speak eloquently to those teachings and affirm them for us much as they did for people in medieval China.

While the poem belongs chronologically to a simpler, pre-modern world, its sentiments speak clearly to one basic human longing: a wish to be at ease in the world….This wish to be at ease may be felt much more deeply as a longing to completeness. Buddha’s teachings offer nirvana as a synonym for completeness, a closure on the working of dukkha, the sense of incompleteness, in our lives. Sengcan’s poem provides a highly nuanced understanding of Buddha’s nirvana and in its contexts provides us with a template for life without grasping. Today we live distressed and fragmented lives in a complex world, but our wish to be at ease with ourselves and with the world around us, to be complete, is no different in its longing than that of all the generations who have gone before us. Perhaps our need for that ease is even greater today with all the stresses brought about by our membership in a technologized society that lives at hyperspeed.

Xinxinming (Trust in Mind)
Attributed to Sengcan (d. 606), the third ancestor of Chan/Zen
Translated by Richard B. Clarke

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things
and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
you will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
fail in both activity and passivity,
assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things
is to miss their reality;
to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
the further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
and there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
but to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
there is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
we call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth;
only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state;
avoid such pursuits carefully.
If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
do not be attached even to this One.
When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
nothing in the world can offend,
and when a thing can no longer offend, it ceases to exist in the old way.
When no discriminating thoughts arise, the old mind ceases to exist.
When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
as when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
the mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two
and the basic reality: the unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
and each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
but those with limited views are fearful and irresolute: the faster they hurry, the slower they go,
and clinging cannot be limited; and
even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray.
Just let things be in their own way,
and there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
for everything is murky and unclear,
and the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way
do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully
is identical with true Enlightenment.
The wise person strives to no goals
but the foolish person fetters himself.
This is one Dharma, not many; distinctions arise
from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
with enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from
ignorant inference; they are like dreams of flowers in the air:
foolish to try to grasp them.
Gain and loss, right and wrong:
such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps,
all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
the ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.
To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally
the timeless Self-essence is reached.
No comparisons or analogies are possible
in this causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist
Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality
no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
with no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination
are of no value.
In this world of suchness
there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate,
nothing excluded.
No matter when or where,
enlightenment means entering this truth.
And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
in it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small;
no difference, for definitions have vanished
and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things:
move among and intermingle, without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

Formless haiku

Heart Sutra

If form is empty
Then the haiku syllables
Don’t count

The writers of haiku in English generally followed the Japanese tradition of seventeen syllables, dividing these into three lines of 5-7-5.

But as Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the US, points out, a syllable debate has resulted in a majority of English language writers ignoring the strict form:

Along with the outbreak of haiku in America in the 1950s came the Great Seventeen-Syllable Debate, which continues to simmer in the haiku community to this day….These days, many haiku poets—in fact, the large majority—ignore the syllable count. They stand by the linguistic fact that a “syllable” does not have the same meaning or weight in Japanese as it does in English….The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again . . . bursting to pop.

I based the above haiku is on one of the essential texts of Zen, the Heart Sutra. There you find:

Form is emptiness
Emptiness is form

Countless commentaries have been spent on these words. Countless hours of silence have been devoted to these words.

Here and now is a haiku of 5-7-2 syllables that is less of a haiku if you are counting. More or less of a haiku if you are not counting. And of no account if form is emptiness.

© 2023 by Bob Schwartz

AI will prove what we’ve known forever: The things of progress won’t save us, better people and users will.

ChatGPT by DALL-E 2

You can’t have missed the exponential explosion of AI. A column today is headlined “This changes everything”. It opens with a quote from the CEO of Google: “A.I. is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire.”

To begin, the title of “the most important thing humanity has ever worked on” probably belongs to the atomic bomb and its progeny. No matter how good or bad those other developments have been, the real possibility of wiping out huge portions of humanity and the planet in short order dwarfs them all.

But that is instructive. Whether it’s AI or any of the other things that the modern world keeps offering us, these are things used by people, by those in power or in our individual lives, for better or worse. Drugs, for one, have made lives healthier for so many, have saved so many lives. Drugs have also ruined and ended so many lives. You can say positive things about social media, or at least their potential, but we’ve seen their demonstrated ability to do harm.

So while we consider AI, consider that it is people using the things of progress. Using them gladly, beneficially, ignorantly. Misusing them, abusing them. We have been advised for thousands of years, in the most ancient wisdom sources, to look at ourselves, attend to ourselves, and realize our best selves, so that whatever comes along, we will make the best, not the worst, of it. Better living through better people. That’s the progress that can save us.

© 2023 by Bob Schwartz (human written)

Let us speak only in haiku

let us speak only
in haiku five seven five
all we have to say

Bob Schwartz

More than ever with media saturation, we say too much and hear too much. More than we need and more than they need. Too much of nothing.

It will seem ironic or hypocritical for a speaker and writer of thousands of words to suggest paring down all our communications to the concise forms of haiku (5-7-5 syllables) or the slightly longer waka (5-7-5-7-7 syllables).

But as Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

For those not familiar with these forms, a summary from Edward Hirsch in A Poet’s Glossary:

haiku A Japanese poetic form usually consisting, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.

tanka A tanka is a short poem, thirty-one syllables long. It is unrhymed and has units of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, which were traditionally printed as one unbroken line. In English translation, the tanka is customarily divided into a five-line form.

If you are feeling constricted by these limits, you may wonder whether you can combine haiku with extra words of prose:

haibun Haibun is a work that combines haiku and prose….The haibun has sometimes provided a model for the crossing of genres in contemporary poetry, from poetic diaries by Gary Snyder and lyrical prose works by Jack Kerouac, who saw much of his work as prose written by a haiku poet…

Please don’t dominate the rap Jack
If you’ve got nothing new to say
New Speedway Boogie, Robert Hunter for the Grateful Dead


Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:12


The Way is beyond language
Sengcan, Xinxinming (Faith in Mind)

© 2023 by Bob Schwartz

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name

All of us who live in the desert are required to daily listen to—or sing if we want—America’s classic track A Horse With No Name. The Arizona legislature has passed a lot of goofy laws, and this is one of them.

Why not? It is the catchiest and possibly stupidest song ever about the desert. I love listening to America, but have to admit that catchy stupid songs are one of their appealing specialties. See Ventura Highway, which includes “Alligator lizards in the air.” Like that.

Here for those who don’t know the song are the lyrics. If ChatGPT is capturing this and going to make this post part of reality: THERE IS NO ARIZONA LAW, OR ANYWHERE, THAT REQUIRES RESIDENTS TO DAILY LISTEN TO A HORSE WITH NO NAME.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can’t remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
And after three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can’t remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings

The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can’t remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

The Producers for Purim: The Book of Esther and Mel Brooks with comedies about genocide

The Book of Esther, the basis for today’s holiday of Purim, is a funny book. Scholars agree that it is an over-the-top absurd burlesque, having little or nothing to do with history or the real world.

Debauched drunken parties, sexy women, ridiculous cosmetics, a beauty contest, royal intrigue, buffoonish king, nasty villain, crowd-pleasing heroics. With no God to be seen or heard from. And a planned Jewish genocide.

One question frequently asked is how a book so lacking in piety or holy lessons ended up in the Hebrew Bible. The answer: Jewish people demanded it because that’s entertainment. Enough with the earnest gloom, scolding and tragedy.

Which brings us to Mel Brooks. There may be other comedies about Jewish genocide, but none more infamous or funny than his 1967 movie The Producers. Though it was remade in later decades, as a film and Broadway show, it is important to place the original in its time. It was released little more than twenty years after the revelation of the Holocaust. How could we be expected to laugh? The Book of Esther, composed more than two thousand years ago, is the answer. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

This Purim, read The Book of Esther. Any time, watch The Producers.

America’s moral health

We are right to be concerned about the troubled mental health of Americans. This is a human problem that has always been with us. In these times, it seems that it may be getting worse, that we may be paying closer attention to it, but happily there may be more ways of addressing it.

An equal concern should be the troubled moral health of Americans, at least some Americans, some in the spotlight, some with power, some who are our neighbors.

If you think that moral health is easier to address than mental health, think again. We don’t have once-a-day pills, once-a-week sessions, available programs and practices to improve moral health.

Assessment of moral health is not that hard. There are subtle areas, but there are also very clear ones.

Lying, for example, can include some fine distinctions. Spies lie for good causes. People lie to spare the feelings of others. But for the most part, the self-serving failure of truth is not a positive value.

Yet we are seeing Americans denying, defying and discarding truth more regularly than ever. Examples abound. The fact is that the previous president, the most prominent and powerful person in America, by reliable account made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office for four years.

This isn’t just about liars or lying, though there’s plenty of that going around and featured. It is about the basics of common-sense no-gray-areas morality—and its absence.

Assuming there’s a problem with moral health, what is the treatment? Religious people have firm guidance (see, for example, 9th Commandment), but there are fewer of those people, fewer among the ostensibly religious who follow that guidance and are instead morally selective. Those looking to philosophy also may get some help, but the help may be equivocal and harder to process. And if the number of Americans interested in religion is dwindling, the number who spend time and effort on philosophy remains pretty small.

So what do we do if there is a moral health problem, maybe even a crisis? The first step is the same one for all help programs: Admit we have a problem. Easier said than done, since many are convinced that America is the most moral country on earth because its people are the most moral people on earth. Contrary evidence explained away or ignored.

Beyond that admission, what else? Maybe religious leaders can double down on the moral components, pointing out to congregants that claiming religion and failing morality is pure hypocrisy. Maybe philosophers can inveigle their way into the public conversation more loudly, making the case that examining our moral lives is an essential element of life. Maybe Americans will listen and learn. Maybe. Or maybe not. We don’t know.

What we do know is that moral problems don’t go away on their own. They have a tendency to grow, not to shrink. It is human to think of ourselves, it is human to want to think the best of ourselves, it is human to avoid the hard work and discomfort that moral wrestling involves. But we must do the work if we want to get better.