Hello and Welcome. So what is BumbleBuddhist?
Welcome to the BumbleBuddhist website. You may be thinking, what on earth does that mean…bumblebuddhist? Sounds either catchy or ridiculous, depending on how you react.
You may assume the formal definition of ‘Bumble’, which is:
- bumbled; bumbling intransitive verb
- : blunder; specifically : to speak ineptly in a stuttering and faltering manner
- proceed unsteadily : stumble
But Zen is like that (as is life, if you observe your life carefully)
Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen School, who brought Zen from China to Japan said,
20 years of practice—One continuous mistake
Another Meaning of Bumble
This website is also a multi year travelogue. I came to Thailand in 2004. As a Tibetan monk once admonished, “If you want to become Enlightened, leave your country”. So this includes a chronical of my, in the tradition of bumble bees, moving about in an apparent unplanned and unpredictable way. Yet, there is an intuitive, though subtle and invisible logic to it all.
What’s My Story?
You see, I have always had a curious disposition. Here is my story:
When I was 9 years old, I was a typical liberal (meaning not dogmatic in this context) Jewish kid in a fairly typical middle class Jewish family. All I knew was that my grandparents had come from Eastern Europe. Nobody really talked about that much. My grandmother did tell me something that was foundational for me, but more on that later.
One day, I was watching PBS public television –this is the year 1957. At the time, there was a social movement called ‘The Beatniks’. They were in opposition to the dominant US American cultural norms, were often artists, musicians, mainly jazz, not classical. And they did weird illegal things like smoke marijuana. None of which I knew about or understood at the time.
So here is some guy at a dramatization of what was apparently a beatnik party….He had a beard, which in 1957 was unthinkable and unacceptable in polite society. He wore unusual clothes, and he was smoking some kind of funny looking cigarette. And he was talking about “Zen”.
And I’m thinking…”Zen….what’s ZEN?”
So that was that, and I didn’t give it any thought beyond that.
Close Encounter with Zen
Five years went by. I was on my way back from school. I went to Boston Latin School, the oldest high school in the USA, founded 1635. It gave a very good classical education, and a good foundation in English language and usage. Plus, classical history of Roman and the ancient world. Unlike a lot of modern education, it actually taught people to think.
I wandered into the local corner store, and noted a rack of paper back books. Dime novels, cheap romance, detective and cowboy stuff. And there it was…a small paper back book. Zen Flesh Zen Bones.
Wow! There’s that Word! Gee, I wonder what this is all about.
See what I mean? Curious. How could I have even remembered that fleeting moment of 5 years earlier? Our behavior, for better or for worse, is influenced by vast causes and conditions which we are only dimly aware of. I lost my first copy but picked up this edition, a used discard from the Zen Center of San Franciso book store, for 25 cents. Notice the list price –95 Cents. You can buy a new later edition copy for about 20 bucks, or used for about $6. A bit of inflation over the past 40 years, maybe? Like 20X?
Here’s the first story:
A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
This story is so popular now, that I have seen the basic dialog in several movies since then. But it gave me an inking that ‘things aren’t what I think they are’.
Another great story was the one about the Indian monk, Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China, and the Chinese Emperor. I’ll tell the abbreviated version here.
Bodhidharma, an eminent monk, was invited to meet the Emperor of China..[Remember, not just anybody could have a personal meeting with an Emperor.]
Emperor Wu: I have establish many Buddhist temples, supported many monks. What is my merit? [One of the most important teachings in Buddhism is accumulating merit through good deeds, such as charity and donation]
Bodhidharma: No merit
The Emperor was shocked, since he expected to hear how great he was, for so much generosity.
Emperor Wu: What is the essence of Buddhism?
Bodhidharma: Vast emptiness, no holiness.
Emperor Wu was shocked again and, frankly pretty angry, since this Bodhidharma guy was challenging everything he thought. So he gave it one last try.
Emperor Wu: Who are you (to challenge me, my generosity, my ideas, and indeed my authority)
Bodhidharma: I don’t know
Anybody else but Bodhidharma, for such ‘insolence’ would have had his head chopped off….Imagine..challenging the Emperor like that. This to me was my first introduction to the idea that ‘The Emperor has no clothes.’ Or as is said in more modern times, “Question Authority”.
How My College Experience Influenced Me
I was in college during the Vietnam War. As a teenager, I was always interested in the news, and every Sunday, I read the New York Times News of the Week in Review. I noticed how different stories, or narratives or writers were treating that war. It seem to me that a small country 12,000 miles away from me did not pose a threat. So why would I be expected to kill and be killed? Made no sense. Yet, here is the ‘ever reliable’ [NOT!] New York Times giving weekly rationalizations for mass slaughter.
I’d majored in Chemistry, but in my sophomore year, had a very demanding schedule of Calculus, Chemistry, Biochemistry Lab, Physics and German. I also acted in a play called Woyzek. It was about a soldier, who was obviously being treated as expendable by his superiors. And I was asking myself, ‘Am I being trained to be a scientist making horrible weapons that kill people”? My grades fell and I was going through an existential crisis. I felt that I just could not participate in such a destructive system, and I just wanted to understand the Truth. Why did I feel so much inner turmoil, and what role did my society play in causing such vast suffering?
The Darker Side
Besides these large questions, I was coping with the aftermath of a pretty difficult childhood. My father died when I was 8, at the age of 35. My now single mom trying to raise two kids was anxious and depressed. Although she remarried when I was 16, the family was very turbulent, constant arguments and fights. I was traumatized, and that only added to my questions. How to get out of this personal and social dystopia?
My ‘Savior’ Arrives
Just before my last semester, there was a month long interim period of new age workshops that featured new psychological approaches, such as biofeedback, encounter groups, and so on. And the organizer, who’d come from California had a girlfriend named Nelda. She and I hit it off especially since she had spent time at the first Zen monastery in the USA, Tassajara. So she encouraged me to go to California and follow my dream to study Zen. About 3 years later, I was staying at Tassajara, and she showed up with a group led by a famous teacher, Charlotte Selver, who taught Sensory Awareness, which is related to Zen. Nelda left when the workshop ended, and I never saw her again….
Continuing My Journey
Years passed, I left the Zen Center after 13 years, since that was all I knew. I needed to be independent of an institution, and find different experiences to develop as a person. I got a job, studied with a few different teachers, and to this day, continue my contact (though not formal study) with Nelson Foster of the Ring of Bone Zendo in the Sierra Foothills near Nevada City, California. If you have a chance, go there.
The wars continued, meanwhile, in the USA. The political situation deteriorated with questionable elections in 1980, nuclear arms race, and questionable (that is, based on lies) wars. With the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the climate in the USA turned darker. I was in the financial service business at the time. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, a law, the ‘socalled’ (and Orwellian) PATRIOT ACT passed.
What this law said, was that I, as a fiduciary, was required to report any ‘Suspicious Activity’ by my customers or clients, and not tell them. In other words, I was hired as an unpaid spy, and I was legally responsible!
At that point, along with the defeat of the peace candidate, Dennis Kucinich in the 2004 primary, I decided that there was not much I could do to turn the country around at that point. And I still had my own not fully resolved issues to take care of.
Life in Asia
First in Thailand, I could stay in temples and meditate for days, weeks or months to fully devote myself to sorting through all the unresolved issues.
A monk approached the Buddha and asked, “Inner tangle, outer tangle, this whole generation in a tangle. Who will untangle the tangle?”
The Buddha replied, “That person, ardent and sagacious, will untangle the tangle”.
What they are talking about is not a philosophical discussion. It’s about whether we can learn to fix our own inner conflicts as well as with others. So far, the thought process hasn’t changed.
Twenty-five hundred years later, and individually, and the entire world is teetering on catastrophe. One of my personal heroes, Einstein, had this to say:
So Bumble has a dual meaning here. The great Japanese Zen Master said, “20 years of practice…one continuous mistake”. I have various faults, hence, the bumbling. Fixing them is ‘our real lifes’ work’. And its a process.
Second, bumbling can also mean, like a bumble bee, going here and there. So, I’ll admit that I am on a life long pilgrimage, just seeking truth. I am now reading a chapter of a Buddhist text, called the Gandhavuha. It is about Sudhana, a young man who seeks Enlightenment, and he is sent on pilgrimage to inquire of various worthy teachers, gods, and goddesses just how to do that.
So, unlike many who follow the ‘prescribed’ path:
- Go to school
- Get a job
- Get married
- Save for retirement (maybe, if at all possible)
This approach never seemed appealing to me. I’ve sought to ‘untangle the inner tangle’, while ‘Questioning the Authority’ which looks to me, to be come increasingly tangled. “Oh what a tangle web we weave, when we practice to deceive.”
However, Confucius said, “The beginning of Wisdom is to call things by their True Names”.
Ok, But Why China?
Even though my first contact with Buddhism was through the word, “Zen”, and the first book I read, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, starts off with Japanese Zen Buddhism, the book itself has a major section, it calls ‘The Gateless Gate.’ (Wumen Guan) That is a very important book of Chinese stories, mostly dialogues between student and master. These dialogues are referred to in Chinese as “Public Cases”, or Gung An, in Chinese, but known in the West by their Japanese pronunciation, Koan.
What Is a Koan?
Typically, these stori spresent a conundrum, often a non logical formulation, such as
- Does a Dog Have Buddha Nature?
- What Is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?
Usually, they appear in the form of a story. One of my favorite stories, goes like this:
The Chan Master, Linchi, addressed the monks by saying, “In the lump of red flesh, there is a True Man of No Stature. Those who have not witnessed this, Look! Look! A monk approached him and Linchi demanded, “Speak! Speak!”
The monk hesitated, so Linchi responded, “This True Man of No Rank, What an Asswipe he is!” and walked out. The purpose of these stories is to encourage deep inquiry into the nature of Self and Reality. So that we develop Wisdom and Compassion far beyond the bounds of mere logical thinking.
There are literally hundreds in fact over a thousand such stories collected in an number of different collections, such as The Gateless Gate, The Book of Serenity, and The Blue Cliff Record. Due to various chaotic times in China, such books were often lost, but because many Japanese monks came to China, became masters themselves and then return to create Zen in Japan, the books were preserved.
How I Shocked the Rotary Club
After I left the San Francisco Zen Center, I started a small business, and it’s very common for businesspeople to join a club for charitable and networking activities. After a Rotarian would take a vacation, they would be asked to tell a story about their vacation, or to even read a poem about it.
After a December Zen retreat with the noted Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, which consists of 8 days of rising at 3:30 AM, meditating over 8 hours a day, sitting crosslegged (for many including myself, a painful task), and listening to Aitken Roshi (Roshi is the honorific title of a Zen Master, meaning “Old Teacher”–Chinese “Lao Shi”), I was invited to come forward on my return from the retreat in Hawaii.
I recited the following:
So, what did you do in Hawaii, Eric? Did you go golfing?
Oh so you went surfing.
You went to Luaus (Hawaiian style barbeques– a very popular feast with tourists)?
So what did you do then?
I sat on a cushion, facing a wall, watching my breath, and listening to stories about Chinese guys, who’ve been dead for a thousand years.
As I recited the poem, the President of the Club went into a state of shock and horror! My experience was obviously so counter to her conventional view of a vacation. Incidentally, one of the main tasks of Buddhist study is to see the ‘Empty Nature ‘ of all phenomenon. But for common people, their idea of Emptiness is ‘to vacate’, which comes from the Latin word for ‘Empty—Vacate’
If you really want to be on a permanent vacation…find Emptiness in everything!
This experience and many other experiences I had over the course of my life, from the time graduated University, to my Zen studies in San Francisco, to my life as a businessman, led me to the conclusion, that I was simply ‘born in the wrong country’.
Thailand then China
Because Thailand is quite accessible, my idea was to go to Thailand, however after three years practising in Thai temples, I conceived the idea, that because of my devotion to Zen study, I should go to China, and actually visit those old monasteries where Chan developed into the body of practices and literature that make up what we now call, “Zen”. I felt the urge to pay respects to my Chinese ‘ancestors’, in gratitude for the contribution they gave to my life.
So I got the opportunity to visit China with an American friend who spoke a little Chinese. And in 2007, took my first trip. We flew from Chiang Mai, in North Thailand, to Kunming, a city of about 5 million people in South West China. From there, we took a trip to Dali, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Meeting Meio Guang Fashi
So there I was in Dali, and and I was ernestly searching for signs of Buddhism, and especially Zen, in China. We had heard in the USA, that the Chinese Communists had ruthlessly suppressed Buddhism. I walked the streets, chanting, “Where’s a monk?…Where’s a monk?”.
At that point a Chinese man approached me, he was standing next to a man with a shaved head and what appeared to be monk’s informal street clothes. “Can I help you, he asked?” “Yes, is that man a monk, I’d like to meet him”. So my new friend, Xiao Jun Jie, introduced me to Meio Guang Fashi.
We met at 1:00 PM in the afternoon, and talked for 8 hours straight!
We talked about Buddhism, life in China, life in America, Chinese history, and we just couldn’t stop. Finally, at 9:00 PM I suggested we stop for the day. We planned to meet the next day, and when we met the next morning, they invited me to visit Jizu Shan, a 10,000 foot mountain in South West China.
When we arrived, I was met by an ‘old friend’. You see, the famous Chinese monk Xu Yun, had rebuilt many temples in China after the Chinese empire fell. And there was a statue of him at the foot of the mountain. I had read his autobiography 30 or more years earlier, and had the deepest respect for this monk, who was both the Buddhist teacher of Zhou En Lai, Mao’s second in command and successor, as well as an acquaintance of Mao Ze Dong himself, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. While I did not get to meet Xu Yun alive, I was fortunate to have an iconic meeting with one of his main disciples, Jing Hui Da Hesheng (the great monk, JIng Hui).
Invitation to Xiamen
Following our trip to Jizu Shan, Meio Guang Fashi encouraged me to go to Xiamen and help Chinese people learn about their Buddhist culture, which has been sidetracked as China has put its energy into pulling itself out of poverty, and recovering its historic central role in world affairs for most of its 5000 year history.
Meio Guang Fashi and Xiao Jun Jie then booked tickets on a train for the three day train trip back to Xiamen.
In gratitude, I offered to edit (with Xiao Jun Jie’s help of course) Meio Guang Fashi’s poetic comments on his paintings. He is a well known painter and expert on Chinese history and culture. Such was my good fortune in meeting him.
When I suggested as a title for the set of poems, ‘How a Chance Meeting Resulted in Friendship’, he corrected me. “An Appointment Made After 1000 Years, Finally Kept”.
Thus, I’d come home to ‘my original dwelling place’ and met yet again, a fellow monk, since both of our monk’s lineage papers show that we were both disciples of that very same Chan Master, Linji!
That is how I came back to visit my ‘Original Home’, and kept my appointment with Meio Guang Fashi.
If you’d like to join me on my website as I endeavor to ‘Calm the Mind, and Discern the Real’, feel free to join me.