Thursday, December 12, 2013

When Dear Friends Pass

A few days ago, I lost a dear friend to liver cancer. We’ve known it was coming for only about a month, and I spent some quality time with him a week ago, but it’s still painful.

What hurts is not so much that Ken is dead—he lived a long and fulfilling life—what hurts is that his husband of thirty-five years will now have to go through the grieving process, as well as everyone who knew and loved Ken.

I fell into a tailspin for a few hours, but then pulled out by telling myself Ken was no longer in pain. I'm feeling much better and am back to writing. We march on until our own time comes, appreciating our adventures and our friends and our loved ones as we go. What else can we do?

I wish I had some brilliant words or ideas to expound on the nature of death, but I don’t. It is, to me at least, a mystery. But there are two things I can say about it: It is absolutely certain that each of us will die, and it is uncertain when or how that will happen. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which is what makes our time of living so precious. I realize that is a worn-out cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

My Buddhist teaching tells me that the life of a person is like a wave in the sea. Seen in one way, it seems to have a distinct identity, a visible form, an end and a beginning, a birth and a death. Seen in another way, the wave itself doesn’t really exist, but is just the behavior of a large body of water, empty of any separate identity but full of water. So life is something made temporarily possible when the life force we all share is formed by temporary circumstances, then it collapses back into the sea of that life force. That makes the idea of death less fearful and sad, yet it does little for the people who must still grieve the absence of a loved one.

"So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good." - Helen Keller

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Was Einstein a Buddhist?

Albert Einstein said:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

This idea of freeing ourselves from our limited self-point-of-view and embracing the whole of nature is the cornerstone of Buddhism, at least as I understand it.

Buddhism teaches that if we observe the law of karma and awaken in ourselves the good heart of love and compassion for all things living, if we purify our mindstream and gradually awaken the wisdom of the nature of our mind through this compassion, then we can become a truly human being which is connected to all that is, and ultimately become enlightened.

Thank you for your insights, Albert.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Desiderata by Max Erhmann

These words have given me great inner strength and peace since the first time I read them. Now, more than thirty years later, they still resonate with me for their simple meaning yet profound message which they deliver.

 Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Dharma of Writing

This cartoon may not seem all that funny, but it is a lesson I need to keep reminding myself of, so I keep in on my desktop.

You see, when I started writing, it was all about me. I wanted to be a good writer. Then I became really egocentric and wanted to be a great writer. It took a few years before my Buddhist training kicked in and I understood my error.

Writing stories is not about me becoming anything! It is about crafting the best stories possible. The focus is on the stories, the characters, and the craft of writing. The focus is on the day-to-day process of creating, which becomes a form of meditation.

That process, that meditation, is not about becoming a better, wiser, holier person. It’s not about becoming anything. It is all about the joy in experiencing the process.

So every once in a while I need a little nudge to help me focus on simply writing stories, without worrying about how good I am.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Volume vs. Quality

Several days ago I exchanged emails with a writer I both like and admire. He talked about a fellow writer who he claims told him, “I’m not interesting in improving my craft. I’m only interested in churning out stories.”

This statement has stuck in my head, nagging me to the point of being annoying. I’ve read three novels from the writer who made that statement, and I feel there is ample room for improvement, even if he doesn’t. I felt after finishing each of his stories that they were creative and engaging, yet somewhat disappointing. I felt that had the author spent another four or five months refining the plot and the story structure, and polishing the prose, they would have been awesome reads, rather than being merely entertaining ones.

Please don’t mistake my meaning; I’m not suggesting that I am a better writer. I have my own issues I struggle with. And I’m sure that he sells many more books than I do. What I’m suggesting is that writing, for me, is a craft where one is always striving for perfection, always experimenting and learning more, delving deeper into the human experience and finding fresh ways to express ideas. Writing, for me, is like tennis. Even the top players spend more time on the practice courts than they do playing opponents. They never stop trying to improve.

Admittedly, this philosophy of striving for purity rather than merely for more carries into every aspect of my life. It’s an attitude I’ve learned through thirty years of practicing Buddhism. I am constantly trying to refine whatever I’m doing, and I find great pleasure in that. I look at life as art that is never finished, never perfect.

It’s often a downer never quite being satisfied with one’s work. It is enough compensation, however, when I look at the body of my work, and realize that I’m slowly improving my craft. That, to me, is the most important goal.