Shiso, Serendipity, and Synchronicity

It is scientific fact that there’s more going on within us and around us in any given moment than we can possibly pay attention to. And while we do have some control over where we choose to place our attention, our experience of being in the world is not unlike that of walking through a cave with a flashlight. We can only really be aware of a small portion of it at any one time.

But are “we” always in charge of where we shine the light of our attention? Do “we” decide to become aware of a certain leaf on the ground, sensation in our body, or memory percolating up from our unconscious mind? The answer is yes only if our definition of “we” includes all the unconscious processes within the totality of our organism. For us to notice a certain leaf, something about it has to register within our unconscious mind and determine it worthy of elevation into consciousness. Is it a different color or shape than all the others? Does it bring forth other associations? Is that sensation telling us to do something for the sake of comfort or safety? Does that memory constitute a warning, something to savor, or something to resolve for our overall wellbeing?

Those of you who are familiar with me and my musings know that I often ponder whether two contemporaneous occurrences have manifested in some synchronistic way, or whether my attention to them both is merely serendipitous in nature. I think of myself as a fairly rational being, but I also have a pretty broad mystical streak. I also choose not to make pronouncements about metaphysical reality. I say this in order to introduce a couple of synchronistic, or at least serendipitous, events that I experienced recently.

Shiso, or beefsteak plant
Green shiso

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I, and my brother and sister-in-law from West Virginia, enjoyed a week of hiking and rafting in and around the New River Gorge. To my delight, the first thing I noticed upon our arrival at their home was a gorgeous cluster of purple shiso growing right beside their driveway. Shiso, also known as beefsteak plant, is a mint-like annual sometimes used in Japanese cooking. I’d not seen it since I was last attending a Zen temple that I used to frequent many years ago. It was quite prolific there all around the back garden. By the way, it is considered an invasive species in many areas, so please check into recommendations for your area before cultivating it.

Now, discovering shiso again after all these years is neither synchronistic nor particularly serendipitous. However, on my first run down into the river valley after returning home, I passed a long patch of shiso growing alongside the road that I’d somehow overlooked during the dozens and dozens of times I’d run past it! Why was my attention drawn to it this time? Did my experience complimenting my brother and sister-in-law on what lovely shiso they had prime me to then, quite serendipitously, notice the shiso that I’d heretofore overlooked just down the way, or are the two incidents synchronistically linked somehow? Could it be that the sudden reappearance of shiso in my life is indicative of something the universe is trying to tell me?

On a couple of occasions while hiking the New River Gorge, I happened upon puffball mushrooms off to the side of the trail. Though they vary in size, all puffballs live up to their name as spore-filled balls that burst when the time is right to release an almost smoke-like cloud of spores upon the breeze. I don’t really know how rare puffballs are, but I don’t recall ever seeing one throughout the entirety of my adult life. In fact, the only other puffball I remember seeing was when I was a child crawling amongst the bushes out in the woods behind our house. For this reason alone I was filled with wonder once again to see them with my very own eyes.

Puffball mushroom
Puffball mushroom

But such a rare sighting is neither synchronistic nor even particularly serendipitous. That came a little bit later. Within a week of returning home, I was walking across the lawn to retrieve the newly emptied trashcan when I spied something interesting in the grass right in front of me. Yes, it was a puffball! An interesting occurrence, to be sure. But what do such observations mean?

As we go about our lives we store up memories, and we draw connections between them. We notice patterns, and we conceptualize cause and effect. We form a worldview, and it, in turn, informs how we live our lives going forward, and how we think about it in retrospect. Our karma, at least in part, is simply the unfolding of this process.

There is shiso, and there are puffballs. When and where we see them is a function of habitat, time of year, and our level of attentiveness, in general. But our previous experiences of shiso and puffballs, in particular, also play a role in what rises up into our consciousness. Everything else may simply be happenstance and coincidence. And yet there are some occurrences that are so coincidental that they rise to the level of some theorized greater meaning. Their coincidence may be telling us something. Their coincidence may result from some dynamic process that we can only guess at.

So, I can pass off these observances of shiso and puffballs as rather random, coincidental occurrences; and part of me is inclined to do just that. But I can also reflect upon what shiso and puffballs mean to me, and why they might be appearing to me now. I associate shiso with Zen practice, for obvious reasons. I associate puffballs with my wonder-filled childhood exploration of the natural world. Are these two related? Is “the world” trying to tell me something in the here and now? Is my “true self” trying to tell me something about where my future attention should be directed? Are these even questions that I should be attending to? What do you think?

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

The Teachings of Cucumbers

I’ve not tended a vegetable garden in quite some time, so perhaps my enthusiasm had me filling my newly built raised beds with a few too many plantings for optimal yield. Combine that with an abundance of rain early on in the season and I had a veritable jungle on my hands in no time. The zucchini infringed on the cucumbers so quickly that all I could do was throw up my hands. The grape tomatoes crowded out the beans with such haste that all I could harvest was a couple of handfuls before they were swallowed up completely. At least the opportunistic groundhog was able to snack on the collard greens and Brussels sprouts before they too disappeared!

Notwithstanding these “difficulties,” we’ve enjoy quite a bit of natural bounty, and learned and relearned some valuable lessons that will hold us in good stead for years to come. One such lesson came in the form of a pleasant surprise the other day. Vegetable gardeners know well such surprises, I’m sure, like when that first pepper suddenly appears big and firm, as if overnight, or when you watch a certain fruit develop gradually that you’ve only previously seen fully formed in a supermarket. In this case I was looking for zucchini amongst the vines that had spilled over the lawn with such gusto that I’ve had to stop mowing that area. Well, here’s one! But it looks kind of strange. I plucked it from its grassy nest as if I were picking up a baby rabbit. It was a cucumber!

That cucumber plant that I’d thought was long gone was actually quietly doing its important cucumber work all summer long: reaching out from behind that monolithic zucchini plant, vining through the unmown grass alongside the raised bed, blossoming in the sunlight all the way over on the other side, and producing a piece of fruit that brought us joy, a nice cucumber salad, and this blog post. It reminded me of a quote printed on a bookmark that I’d picked up at Sanshin Zen Temple many years ago, one that has been nestled between some pages on my bookshelf ever since:

“When we see emptiness, we realize there’s no hindrance, no obstacles to block our life force. It is soft and flexible, like a plant that tries to go around a big rock and continues to grow. There is always some other way to live, to grow.” Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Shohaku Okumura, Roshi

Okumura is speaking of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, sunyata in Sanskrit. All things are empty of independent and enduring selfhood. The cucumber plant entertained no fixed ideas about growing right where it was planted, or shame for yielding its space to that “bully” of a zucchini plant, or prideful attachment to manifesting its best cucumber self by producing a nice bush of its own with much fruit to show off. Because the cucumber plant had no fixed ideas about the nature of its selfhood it was free to be whatever it needed to be to go on living in the best way it could.

This so-called emptiness of all things is good to keep in mind, perhaps especially in this day and age where world events are unfolding contrary to how we think they should unfold. We (and the world) might be well-served by considering emptiness whenever we’re feeling stuck, confined, diminished, overshadowed, frustrated, or otherwise thwarted from being what we think we should be. Perhaps there is another way to be. Or perhaps we’re already being in that other way, just as that cucumber came to be in another way, but we simply haven’t grown to accept it just yet. It’s good to have goals, plans, and standards by which to live. But let’s be open to being in other ways as well. Perhaps another way is the way that will be most beneficial to us (and the world) after all!

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

My Doorway Between Ordinary and Deep Time

We measure ordinary time in ordinary ways, without the need of any clock. Our breath ticks off our seconds. Time spent lost in thought becomes our minutes. A walk or a meal becomes an hour. And what else can an ordinary day be but the time spent between waking and sleeping. Our bodies measure ordinary time, and our minds, arising from our bodies as they do, follow along. A twinge of remorse, the duration of a laugh, the time it takes to have a conversation – these are the ordinary ways we measure ordinary time.

Five years’ worth of ordinary time has elapsed in between my planting a vegetable garden this past spring and when I last planted one at the house where I used to reside. Five years’ worth of seasons transitioning one into another has gone by. Five years spent breathing, working, and sleeping have elapsed. Five years of love, joy, grief, upheaval, and calm have tumbled past. For five years I’ve prepared meals and eaten them. For five years I’ve collected the scraps in a three gallon bucket stowed away beneath the sink, and emptied it onto the backyard compost pile when it got full.

For five years I pondered the best place to plant a garden. I watched the sun move across the sky, past the trees, over the house, and beyond the horizon. Which spot got the most sun? Which spot had the best soil? Which spot could be readily served by a garden hose? Which spot would be out of the way of some future backyard game of some sort? And all throughout those five years the compost pile grew larger, supplemented from time to time with layers of yard clippings and finely mowed leaves.

Raised garden beds
Raised garden beds

Ordinary time inexorably accumulates into deep time. But whereas ordinary time is lived by all who’ve ever lived, deep time is lived only by the universe itself – or by God, if you are so inclined to think in such terms. Deep time is the measure of the universe, planet formation, the accumulation of rain into oceans, and the rising up of mountain ranges from the collision of tectonic plates. Deep time, for us ordinary beings, is usually only experienced as a backdrop against which our ordinary time is lived. More poignantly, though, for those who allow themselves to become so attuned, is that deep time can be felt as the ground of being itself.

Any discussion of deep time prompts me to recall a solitary cross-country bike trip that I took some years ago on which I meandered back home to the Midwest after starting out on the West Coast. I was fairly seasoned by the time I made it to Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon, having weathered the Coastal Range, the Cascades, and the Blue Mountains of Oregon, the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, and, of course, the Rocky Mountains. Such trials open up the traveler to seeing things perhaps otherwise overlooked.

Triassic mudstone beds outside of Thermopolis, Wyoming

The Wind River Canyon is about fifteen miles long and a half mile deep in spots. Picture, if you will, the many layers of the earth’s crust deposited over millions of years. Now picture those layers tilted at a relatively steep angle as one end is lifted up by forces deep inside the earth. Finally, picture a river – a recent arrival on the scene – flowing down this sloping landscape and slicing through its layers. Since the Wind River flows at a shallower angle than the layers of deposition, a journey upriver through the canyon is like a journey back in time. Whereas the mouth of the canyon opens up onto the relatively recent red mudstone beds of the Triassic period, ending some 200 million years ago, it begins higher up by cutting through Pre-Cambrian granite that is nearly a billion years old.

As I made my way up the canyon – through the grayish-beige of the Permian Period, the yellow, peach, and creamy rust of the Pennsylvanian Period, the creamy buff of the Ordovician Period, and the gray-brown of the Cambrian – I became more keenly aware that my very existence is supported by and the result of all life that came before. From the single-celled life forms to the first flowering plants, from the invertebrates to the lunged fish to the stem reptiles – if each and every one of these beings had not strived to its fullest, doing its part to fill in the web of life as completely as it could be filled, would we even be here today?

This realization becomes even more profound when one considers the fact that the Triassic Period marked a brand new blossoming of life after some catastrophic event caused the vast majority of those aforementioned life forms to become extinct. On one hand, we might wonder what those now-extinct lives amounted to – evolutionary dead ends that they are. On the other hand, we might ponder how the genetic codes capable of surviving such a catastrophe could have been assembled if each and every life form had not lived out its ordinary time as fully and completely as it did.

I contemplate deep time whenever I turn the compost pile out back, feeling as though my activity is akin to that which took place on the primeval forest floor over the course of eons and eons. Dead vegetation accumulated and decayed there, to be mixed and churned by the forces within and upon the ever-changing earth. Volcanic ash and that of forest fires was added to it. Mineral silt from flood and glacial activity was thrown in for good measure. I can’t help but marvel at the nature of deep time whenever I reflect upon the fact that, after five years of ordinary time, I have a couple of raised garden beds containing about a cubic yard and a half of rich soil giving rise to a wonderfully crowded mess of edible plants. Compare that with an entire continent covered with life-giving soil!

And so it is that my vegetable garden, and the compost pile from which it has sprung, provide entrée into deep time. It connects my lived existence – my ordinary time spent conditioning the soil, as well as growing, harvesting, and eating its fresh food – with those geological actions that allow for the very existence of life of any kind on this planet. I again can watch the food that becomes me arise from and return to the soil that I helped make. I again can see my own life in a similar context: arising, living as fully possible, receiving sustenance from and, in turn, providing sustenance for a world yet to come. My ordinary life, my ordinary time, is but a fleeting instant in the expanse of deep time. It is humbling and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

Parts of this post were first published in 2010 as Doing What We Can, and then again in 2011 as Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can.

All images are the property of the author.

Copyright 2010, 2011, 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

Brood X and the Mystery of Human Transformation

After seventeen years of life spent underground, the Brood X cicada nymphs have begun their ascent toward the heavens. First they climb up whatever tree trunk, stalk, or wall they might encounter. Then they crack out of their suddenly very confining shells. And then, once their wings have sufficiently dried, they fly up into the tree canopy to either sing their song of love or be sung to, as the case may be. In another month or so, with their mating duties presumably complete, they’ll pass into the great beyond – leaving behind the eggs that will start the process all over again nestled within grooves made in the tree branches. In the meantime, though, there will be singing. Oh, my, there will be singing!

Brood X cicada and the shell of its former self

I’ve been fascinated by cicadas ever since I was a child. So many times I’ve been mesmerized by their song. The pulsing drone of their collective “voice” gradually builds to a scratching crescendo, then to be taken up by a chorus from another cluster of trees some distance away. And so the song proceeds, long into the warm summer nights. What fascinates me most, though, from my adult perspective, is their transformation. Can you imagine what it would be like to spend your life almost entirely underground, only to live your final few weeks up in the tree tops, in the sun and the rain, singing as the sun fades with so many others just like you – kin that you barely knew even existed all the other days of your life? What a transformation that must be!

Transformation, from the human perspective, is often thought to be the result of spiritual practice. Perhaps we’re transformed from a state of suffering to one of liberation, from attachment to a small-minded notion of our self to the realization of transcendent possibility, or from a state of being lost to one of being saved. On the other hand, we Soto Zen practitioners eschew (or attempt to, anyway) all conceptualization regarding transformation for the sake of merely practicing for the sake of practice. After all, thoughts of transformation are all too often tainted with desire and even greed – for attainment or status, to be something other than what we are, etc. But becoming free of all thoughts of attainment requires quite a transformation in and of itself! How do we maintain a spiritual practice even as we maintain that we’re not really doing anything? That there is, in fact, nothing to be gained? It’s something of a koan, isn’t it?

Notwithstanding what we Soto Zen folks might think, transformation is usually thought of as an expansion of consciousness, or movement to a higher level of awareness, if you will. We can see such transformation in our own lives in many ways. Surely we’ve noticed that our childish ways of thinking have become much more mature. Perhaps even into adulthood we’re moving from a more tribal way of looking at self and other to a more expansive view of all humankind. Maybe we’ve become less self-centered and more inclined to think of ourselves as part of, or inextricably woven into, a web of all living and non-living things. We might have stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of the various roles we play in life and begun to see ourselves more deeply connected to something thought of as divine. Perhaps we’ve begun feeling in our heart truths of greater depth than those most often spoken of on a daily basis. While such transformation may proceed in fits and starts it is largely a one-way process. It’s difficult to duck back into our shell after glimpsing a more expansive world outside. What a type of death that would be!

I watched a cicada nymph climb slowly up a tree trunk out in our front yard. Oh, I would have a chance to watch its transformation! Not knowing how long the process would take, I checked on it periodically. Its exoskeleton cracked open. It began to bulge out of the confines of its “skin.” But then it stopped. Somehow it lacked the strength to totally break free of its former being, but neither could it return. And so it died.

We can’t simply choose to stay in one place. The cicada nymph, whether from a sense of contentment or one of great fear, can’t choose to remain underground. Neither can we humans refrain from the process of transformation, despite how much we might like our consciousness (our self) to remain as it’s always been. To stay in one place is a type of death in and of itself. At the same time, though, attempting to transform our consciousness through some force of will seems a bit like furiously yanking at our bootstraps trying to pull ourselves up into the air.

So perhaps the answer to the koan spoken of above is simply to be with what is in every moment of our life. If we must live seventeen years of our life underground, then let us embrace our time in the earth – without regret, and without longing for a day when we might sing to the heavens.  And as we crawl up into the light, let us neither denigrate our earthly roots nor our kin that still remain there. And if we should happen to lose our strength at some point along the way, let us simply be with the strength that we have – either in rest, or in our transition toward death. And as we open up our wings, let’s not be prideful of attainment. For opening our wings is simply that which is. And as we sing with all that exists, let’s lose all conceit regarding the separateness of our voice or our attainment of its quality. In doing so all notions of transformation will become moot.

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

The Moon in the Window

It had been a stressful day, and it was getting late. I knew I should try to get some sleep, but I had that sort of tired-but-wired feeling that stressful days sometimes bring on. Should I close the drapes? No. Privacy be damned; it might be nice to gaze out into that meter-square patch of rich, dark emptiness – should I ending up lying awake, that is. And maybe I’ll see the moon pass by! That would be nice.

Waning crescent moon

It was still Sunday. Just a few days prior I’d felt an uncharacteristic anxiety wash over me, prompting me to reach for my wife’s blood pressure monitor. Yes, it was high enough to be concerning. I’ll call for an appointment on Monday, I thought. In the meantime, I would dial way back on the caffeine, eat healthy food, and stay away from any salt. It worked, for a time. The next couple of days saw my numbers move solidly in the right direction. Then came Sunday morning, Easter Sunday, when my first reading of the day fell into “Get thee to an emergency room now!” range. So that’s where my wife and I went.

Darla stayed with me all afternoon as the doctors and nurses swirled around me – checking me for a stroke, asking questions, drawing blood, and wheeling me away for x-rays and scans. But then I was alone, save for the nurses who randomly popped in to check on me. It was then that it began to dawn on me that I’d entered a sort of bardo realm – that place in between death and rebirth spoken of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I had been a healthy person. But what was I now? I’d been an athlete. But what was I now? I’d enjoyed my sense of physical agency. But would I again? Would they be able to stabilize my blood pressure? How long would that take? Might there be some more dire underlying cause that tests had not yet revealed? And what if I ended up having a stroke even now?

There were ruminations and reevaluations of the past as well. Apparently that malaise that I’d been feeling, which I’d thought must be what everyone was feeling after being stuck in a bardo realm of pandemic stress, was actually the onset of this hypertensive state. Those mild headaches were probably not dehydration after all. And apparently that increased need for sleep was not simply due to fatigue from the increased level of concentration required of remote work.

I was strangely calm, though, as these questions and thoughts just kind of meandered through my consciousness. Even the possibility of death seemed rather ordinary. Yes, this could be exactly what it looks like. Why would I think it should happen with so much fanfare? And so the minutes of the clock hanging right in front of my face clicked past. I slept a bit. I greeted the nurses who came in to check on me, trying to remember to put on my mask when they did. I made small talk. It was all even more ordinary for them.

Around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I watched the moon peek over the roofline across the way. Its waning crescent floated slowly up into my meter-square window, and on up into the sky. I was reminded of Ryokan’s famous poem, inspired after discovering that a thief had ransacked his meager hermitage:

The thief left it behind –

the moon

At the window.

Everything can be taken from us – our possessions, our loved ones, our way of life, our health. As long as we’re alive, though, we can still know wonder, beauty, love, and gratitude. And as we say our last goodbyes, that too will be ordinary – as ordinary as the moon rising up past the window of our room.

Postcript: Please take care of yourselves. Please see a doctor if you are privileged, as I am, to be able to do so. Please don’t think yourself too strong and robust to be harboring a potential time bomb of a health issue. Please take care of your loved ones. And please enjoy every ordinary moment. Enjoy every sandwich, as Warren Zevon said. So much of life is so very ordinary. And death is ordinary too.

Credits:

Translation of Ryokan poem by John Stevens as it appears in One Road, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan

Photo of waning crescent moon courtesy of Jérôme Salez via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lune_du_19_12_2011.jpg

Copyright 2021 by Mark Robert Frank

The Blossom That Can Be Named

Spring unfolds in different ways depending on your clime. Or it unfolds in a similar way at a different time. And so the crocuses that are suddenly here today perhaps appeared in your yard yesterday, or perhaps they will tomorrow. Such is the beauty of spring – appearing in her own time, much like last year, but always new.

A friend posted on social media that the Siberian Squill was blooming in his yard, and then he enquired as to what was coming up in ours. I’m glad he included a photograph, because otherwise I’d not have known what he was talking about. Yes, I’ve seen it before, and it is coming up in our neighborhood. It’s lush and grassy, with delicate blue blossoms. It seems to grow up in the middle of people’s lawns, so I suspect it gets mowed over as soon as it’s time for that to happen. But by then the deed is done as far as nature is concerned. The seed is sown, the bulb nourished, and life will begin anew to signal the arrival of a spring beyond this one.

IMG_7663
Siberian Squill beginning to bounce back from a strong spring downpour

 

I secretly envy those who can name an abundance of the plants with which they live. It speaks to me of a familiarity with the natural world that I admire. When one knows the name of a plant, one often knows a great deal more: when and where they are likely to be found, how they propagate, what fauna they attract, and what they might be useful for – whether it be a side dish or as a medicinal.

Older women seem to be especially good at this, but nature writers elevate it to an art form. Good nature writing weaves plant names into and throughout a seemingly effortless narrative encompassing attribute and taxonomy, life cycle and symbiosis, the manner in which the plant has changed the human landscape, and the manner in which the human changes the landscape of the plant.

But as much as I value all that names have to offer, I understand the danger they pose as well. Names convey the illusion that something is known, when in fact our knowledge, no matter how deep and wide it might appear, barely scratches the surface of ultimate reality. Names can also stand in the way of truer knowledge by separating and demarcating one “thing” from another “thing” when the two are in reality inextricable one from the other.

“The Tao that cam be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching.

“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” So begins one translation of the Tao Te Ching. And from that first sentence on we understand the provisional nature of the truth contained within its pages. The Tao Te Ching invites us to use its words as bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up to a better vantage point, or to lower ourselves deeper and deeper into more Truthful understanding. But don’t believe for even one moment that because you understand the words contained therein that you somehow know all that can be known. For words are merely fingers pointing at the moon.

Siberian Squill is not really Siberian at all. Native to parts of Russia and Turkey, it was brought to this continent as an ornamental, later to be deemed an invasive species. Different understandings of a larger reality yield different understandings of particularity. A name turns into knowledge which spawns a judgement and precipitates an action. And so a plant that was “just” a beautiful spring blossom to me yesterday – unnamed but not entirely unknown – becomes today a being with a history straddling continents and spanning epochs. And where once it was spring itself, with seamless belonging and natural existence, now it is a visitor that perhaps has overstayed its welcome and perhaps become a bit too comfortable. Siberian Squill, shall I call you by your name? Will that help me better live? And how about you? Or perhaps I should forget that your name ever dribbled from my lips. Perhaps I should forevermore consider you just another beautiful spring blossom. How best shall you be known?

 

Copyright 2020 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

A Mindful March

February is the longest month, regardless of the number of days it might contain. By February, winter has gone on long enough, darkness has held sway long enough, and our forced hiatus from so much of what we love has lasted long enough. Oh sure, winter has its share of boisterous holidays, gorgeous snowfalls, and welcome solitude. By February, though, I’m more than ready for a change.

SnowyDogwood_square

By February, many of the good dietary habits that were so much easier to maintain in warmer months have fallen by the wayside. My recurring “winter hunger” took hold of me sometime in mid-January, and within a couple of ravenous weeks the likelihood that I’d choose the healthy option had almost become nil. Yes, and the cumulative effect of daylight savings time having robbed me of my evening run has begun to feel oppressive. My energy level has plummeted, and a certain inertia has set in. It’s become so much easier to let a stack of clothing build up atop the dresser, or a pile of papers on the desk, or a list of undone tasks within the mind.

Rather than being failure, awareness of our distraction is very much a success.

Perhaps a perfect practitioner of mindfulness can roll with this contraction of daylight, this subsidence of energy levels, and this darkening mood to just as consistently find joy within these cold gray days as any other. After all, happiness is really just a matter of keeping our desires and expectations in accord with what reality allows. I have to admit, though, that all too often I have early autumn expectations for these dreary winter days. It’s high time, then, that I embrace a mindful March!

Mindfulness involves the intention to be fully present for what is. It involves giving full attention to every moment of our lives. But if full attention is our goal, it would seem that the failure of distraction would be lurking around every corner! Rather than being failure, though, awareness of our distraction is very much a success. Paradoxically, when we become aware of our struggle with the circumstances of life – when we see clearly that our expectations are not in accord with what is in this present moment – then we’re better positioned to accept the reality that exists. And when we simply accept the reality of this moment it becomes easier to see the beauty that is always here to be experienced – in the most ordinary of circumstances, and in the most difficult ones as well.

So, I hereby declare these next thirty-one days to be Mindful March! In recognition that my mindfulness practice is imperfect and in need of rejuvenation, I will take this month to increase my awareness of how my own unskillful thought processes keep me from fully appreciating every moment that I’m alive. Instead of bringing a September frame of mind to a February reality, I’ll bring a March frame of mind to a March reality. I’ll bring a this-moment frame of mind to a this-moment reality. Certainly I won’t do it perfectly. I’ll surely falter along the way. And when I do I’ll make awareness of that very imperfection part of the perfection of what is.

 

Copyright 2020 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Our Cut Bank Overlook

One of the many streams near our home flows swiftly out of the hills to then meander in tight arcs across the bottomlands, bordered on one side by a broad cornfield, and on the other by a series of smallish hillocks. There’s one spot in particular that I like to frequent where the surging water makes a sweeping turn to the right to plow straight into one of those hillocks before sweeping left again. Perhaps it’s the drama of the place that attracts me – the rushing water…, the way it carves into the hillside…, the tangle of logs and debris that come to rest at the base of the cut bank.

Watchful Trees

A couple of young trees have begun a slow motion fall down that cut bank – held up by what roots still remain in firm earth. When first I saw them I wondered what it would have been like for them if they’d had the awareness of their perilous predicament that a human being would have had. They’d have grown up rooted in that place, all the while knowing what the future had in store. One companion after another would have been lost over the edge as season after season the precipice crept closer. What would that have been like? How would they have found the strength to go on?

[W]hile the tree, by its nature, yields only the sweetest of earth, we, through our life’s work, can make it bitter or sweet.

Ah, but then I realized that we all do as much. Who in this world is blessed so to live in a time without wars or rumors thereof? Perhaps for you it was a World War, or a Cold War; for me it was Vietnam. Now we have climate catastrophe breathing hot down our necks even as one random shooting after another brings the precipice closer.

So how shall we live in this maw of annihilation? I think those trees teach us how. Live with leaves as green and fleshy as your roots allow. Continue reaching for the sun even in the midst of your fall. Our lives of today become the soil of new lives tomorrow. And while the tree, by its nature, yields only the sweetest of earth, we, through our life’s work, can make it bitter or sweet.

For Buddhists, each moment encompasses both beginning and end. Suffering arises when we refuse to let go of that which can no longer be. The Dhammapada says: “Mindfulness is the way to deathlessness; unmindfulness is the way to death. Those who are mindful do not die; those who are not mindful are as if already dead.”

And so I vow to calmly watch as those young trees watch – never losing sight of the sun, and never ceasing to provide comfort and nourishment to those in my midst. Surely storms will rage and put this vow of mindfulness to the test, but for as long as the sun rises and rivers flow to the sea, I will watch.

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

That Which is Form is Emptiness

I was navigating the backroads home one evening when I happened upon a committee of turkey vultures closing in on the carcass of a possum lying there amidst the stubble of cornfield. They were waddling and hopping and gliding toward it until I interrupted them by rolling to a stop not too far away. I watched them for a bit, marveling at their bald heads and their interesting combination of awkwardness and grace. Soon, though, I began to feel guilty for keeping them from their dinner, so I moved on.

Vultures

We often think of vultures as ugly birds, hideous and disgusting even, simply for being what they are. I’ve come to view them much more compassionately, however, for reasons that will become clear. I even had my heartstrings tugged by one who’d made the mistake of feeding on the crumpled body of a deer too close to the roadside, only to end up flattened beneath the tires of a fast-moving vehicle. Even scavengers are sometimes denied the simple pleasure of a putrid meal in this cruel world!

We humans often think of ourselves as beings of such refinement, don’t we? Unlike the vultures, we dine in places both comfortable to the body and pleasing to the eye. We delight in flavors both subtle and bold, intriguing and familiar. We wield our cutlery with delicate precision, and dab at the corners of our mouths whenever our lips become too moist. We celebrate dishes of elegant simplicity and creative complexity alike, crafted by artisans toiling in their kitchens to elevate to the highest levels the offerings of farmers, butchers, fishermen, and so forth. This dining experience is not simply for survival’s sake. We would do this for the sheer enjoyment of it regardless of the nature of our existence. At least that’s what we like to pretend. We dare not think of ourselves as hunters and gatherers with blood and mud matted in our hair and caked underneath our fingernails. No, that was a previous lifetime, one from which we’ve evolved so far we can scarcely imagine it any longer.

Perhaps that’s why turkey vultures disgust some of us so. We catch glimpses of them riding the air currents, ever-vigilant for the scent of decay, and we’re reminded of what we’d just as soon forget – that death lies in wait just over our horizon, or even in our midst. As much as we’d like to keep it at arm’s length with rituals of refinement, one day it will come for us and there’ll be nothing we can say or do about it. But whereas we might like to run and hide from death, the turkey vulture seeks it out and embraces it. Death is life to them. They thrust their bald heads into its fetid piles and commence to ripping and tearing it with gusto. They fill their bellies with its rotting mess and fly away, to feed their young and then return for more.

When we develop insight into the true nature of emptiness, rather than thoughts of nihilism consuming us, a deep sense of compassion for all beings begins to arise

Is truth big enough to encompass these starkly different realities, and countless more for that matter? Well, off course it is. It is what is, after all. But what kind of truth transcends the reality of turkey vultures and human beings alike? For Buddhists, it is the Heart Sutra. For it is the Heart Sutra which has Avalokitesvara delivering Buddhism’s most transcendent teaching to the disciple, Sariputra, in terms such as the following:

 

Listen, Sariputra, form is emptiness (sunyata).

Emptiness is form.

Form does not differ from emptiness.

Emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness.

That which is emptiness is form.

The very same applies to feeling, idea, mental formations and consciousness.

Hear, Sariputra, all dharmas (everything that exists) are marked by emptiness.

They are neither created nor destroyed,

Neither defiled nor undefiled,

Neither increasing nor decreasing….

 

We arise from myriad causes and conditions to do that which we humans do. We are this form for a brief span of time, but this form is absent any absolute and permanent identity that we might call “our own.” Likewise, the turkey vultures, and all of life, and everything. We’re simply matter and energy changing form. That which disgusts one of us is life-giving to the other. That which provides one of us comfort prompts the other to flee for his life.

Vultures play a sacred role in Tibetan culture. So-called sky burials are common there. The body of the deceased is allowed to be eaten by vultures until (hopefully) nothing remains. Vultures, to the Tibetan people, are honored beings. Indeed, when we begin to see reality in terms of the emptiness that the Heart Sutra describes, we see all things as precious, sacred, and worthy of honor. As such, compassion can’t help but arise within us. We see more clearly our connectedness and commonality. Perhaps that’s why Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was chosen to deliver this ultimate teaching on the true nature of reality – emptiness. When we develop insight into the true nature of emptiness, rather than thoughts of nihilism consuming us, a deep sense of compassion for all beings begins to arise – even for the vultures in our midst.

 

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

Winter Poems

 

 

 

aa 1 bamboo fence snow

Poetry is a practice that I thoroughly enjoy, but one that I engage in far too infrequently. Similarly haphazard has been my collection of the “finished” pieces. They’ve wound up here, there, and everywhere. I guess I never thought of myself as having a deep enough trove to seriously consider their publication. Some have been offered up to various email groups over the years. Others have become buried in the deep scrolls of social media. A few have enjoyed publication in one blog post or another. Many others, however, exist only in handwritten form, stashed away in drawers and filing cabinets. Perhaps it’s some sense of mortality that has me gathering them all together at this point in time. At any rate, it’s winter, and an obvious theme has come to mind at this time for at least a small collection.

Embracing Winter

I wonder at my readiness for winter
As I step into darkness
Filled with the creaking of unseen branches overhead
And crunching ice beneath my feet.

Coldness caresses coldness…

When first light breaks,
I see yesterday’s snow
Nestled in the furrows
Of a cornfield that has taken leave.

Coldness nestles within coldness…

Here,
A black pond gazes up at the gray sky,
As if calmly recognizing an old friend.

There,
A broken barn door hangs open,
Welcoming the sunless morning.

Coldness welcomes coldness…

And I, too, feel myself begin to open
To the possibility
Of welcoming another winter,
And warming up
To coldness being coldness,
And being a sun for the world
On an otherwise sunless day.

 

wintercreek

Where Does Mind Reside?

I wonder if geese discuss their coming flight
to warmer climes —
Clucking amongst themselves
as they bed down,
Before concluding:
“Yes, tomorrow at dawn we rise.”
Or is it a surprise even to them,
When as one suddenly they lift up
And keep on going?

Where does mind reside?
Is it in our heads,
Or do we billions hold it
In the basket of our interwoven lives?
Or is even that too small?
Perhaps nothing less than the universe itself
Could be the dwelling place
Of even the faintest glimmer of mind…

And so the geese depart,
And my mind follows,
Growing bigger and bigger
As they circle the lake,
And finally disappear,
Leaving me gazing into emptiness.

 

geese on a lake at dusk c

Mind Is Held By Everything, and Holds All Things In Turn

Earth holds the gathered rain
That holds the ice upon its surface.
Ice holds the brightening sky,
And corn stubble ‘round its ragged edge.
Sky holds the rising sun,
And clouds that wander ‘neath its gaze.
Eye holds it all within its empty cup
From which the mind drinks in 10,000 things.

Crows In Two Dimensions

Black limbs of a lone, dead tree
Lose dimension against the flat gray wash of winter,
As do the wary crows perched upon them,
Looking left, then looking right.
Only their stark cries belie their apparent lack of worldly form.

Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow

I step outside and watch the snow fall
From darkness into light.
The others have already gone
For dinner in the mess hall,
But the cold feels too good on my face
To not linger for awhile.

It felt good this morning, also,
After we’d rousted ourselves from slumber at 3:40
To sit straight-backed,
With palms together –
Facing our respective walls
By the time the teacher made his rounds at 4:05.
And after two hours of absolute and utter stillness
Overlaid with daydreams,
And sleepdreams,
And stomach-growling yearning for the bell,
And wondering if I’d make it through the day,
And wondering why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing,
I stumbled out into the pre-dawn blackness
To see a shining silver sickle of a moon,
And Jupiter,
And the black sky –
As black as anything can be.

Ah, but that was light years ago…
That was this morning.
And anything that is not right now might as well be light years away.
Oh, sure, I’ve glimpsed that absolute and utter stillness
A number of times throughout the day,
But this is why I do this:
So that I can step outside and see the world
With brand new eyes –
Eyes without a “me” to tell me what I’m seeing.

So I hobble though the snow
On my zazen-weary legs,
Leaving thousand year-old footprints in the snow.
And as far as what all this amounts to
Once these bones are in the ground,
And how the hell my sitting facing a wall
For over eleven hours a day
Can possibly make the world a better place…
Well, I kind of like to think of all of this
Zazen after zazen after zazen
As stitching together the pieces of a robe
To someday be worn
By my great-great-great-great
Granddaughter in the Dharma
As she steps outside into the night
To watch the snow fall
From darkness into light
Before gliding like a shadow to the mess hall
Leaving thousand year old footsteps in the snow.

 

snowy footsteps

Walking In The Snow

Walking in the snow is a meditation
That unfolds of its own accord.
If one must speak in terms of beginnings,
Then it begins with the closing of the door behind us.
And it ends when…, well…,
Who can say when it ends?

A closing door,
A garden fencerow –
A walk in the snow quickly leaves such things behind.
And what remains are memories
Of what we want,
And what we need.

A path to walk,
A place to sit –
These will not be as they once were.
But as the snowy walk continues
The nature that is us
Becomes the nature of that which is,
And new paths,
And new places for the mind to rest
Appear.

Snow-laden bamboo
Bends to earth,
And we receive its cool embrace.
A darkened hollow beneath a rock
Invites us in,
And mind accepts.

For mind is a deer
Walking nimbly.
And mind is a rabbit
Waiting in stillness.
And mind is a tree
Rooted in the heavens.
And mind is a bird
Peering into the circle of all the world.

The pine bough bends
Beneath the weight of so much snow.
It is our teacher.
Revealing to us how we can be –
Bending without breaking
Beneath the weight of all that is.

Such teachings abound during a snowy walk:
Revealing how to subtly color all the world
With precisely the required hue,
Showing how we might stand with all beings
With the entire measure of this Life force that is “ours”,
And whispering to us that in death is Life –
What a gloriously resounding whisper to be heard!

 

aa 7 pine bough snow

 

Embracing Winter © 2018 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page.

Where Does Mind Reside? © 2018 & 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared untitled on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page. I also added the last line before publishing it here.

Mind Is Held By Everything, and Holds All Things In Turn © 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one first appeared on the Heartland Contemplative Facebook page.

Crows In Two Dimensions © 1985 & 2019 by Mark Robert Frank. This one has been sitting in my vault unpublished for over thirty years!

Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow © 2011 by Mark Robert Frank. This one bounced around in personal correspondence for a bit before appearing in my first blog, Crossing Nebraska, where you can find it here. Shortly thereafter, it appeared in Just This, a publication of the Austin Zen Center.

Walking In The Snow © 2014 by Mark Robert Frank. This one also appeared first in Crossing Nebraska, where you can find it here. It also appeared on the Sanshin Zen Community Facebook page.

 

Copyright 2019 by Mark Robert Frank
(except as noted)

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.