Hope for the Holidays


During the holidays, it’s inspiring to remember our lineage forebears. One of my favorite stories features a moment between the meditation masters Chögyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi, two of my heroes. When this encounter begins,  Trungpa is drunk and Roshi is angry. They loved each other.

Their story isn’t a holiday story, but it could be. It gives me hope. I suppose you could take it another way.

As a WASP, angry is binary, it’s a switch. For my people, you’re “fine,” “fine,” “fine,” and then, after a few glasses of fine Bordeaux, “Your mother and I have decided to leave you out of our estate planning.” By this time your cat may already be poisoned and buried in the basement.

Speaking of angry, these days I’m moody. Why? Perhaps the holidays. Maybe because I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion not even intensely, but regularly. Things are coming up. Sorry if you are new to meditation and no one warned you about a dark side. We’ve got stuff in the basement. It keeps trying to make it to the light of day. I was trained not to let it.

In my family,“what happens at dinner stays at dinner” is our motto. What happens at dinner? Someone you love steers you to a seat near a corner of the table. They sit next to you. They wait until the food is served. When they speak, they will be looking away from the Turkey. In short, they separate you from the pack. Then they let you have it. Word choice is considered. This where their graduate education really pays off. They speak quietly, like they’re reading from an op-ed piece or a movie review by Anthony Lane. Their controlled tone signals you that they have officially lost their mind and are ready to take it to next level.

The next level is a raised voice. You both know this will never happen, but the threat is key. WASPs are cold blooded, so no histrionics. In, France, my wife’s country, what they call a “discussion” would register chez moi as a nuclear event. An unspoken rule for the civilized WASPs: no collateral damage. Those people could still be useful. How do I know all this? It’s learned. Are there ways to avoid getting taken out? You have to read the signs.

The time my late Aunt tried on the nightgown was a sign. She was living alone at the time. She had traveled a long way to my cousin’s house for Christmas Dinner. There was wine. I had given her a nightgown for winter. It was warm, but in retrospect, a bit simple. She tried it on in my cousin’s living room just before the meal. No, not like that. She just pulled it on over her sweater and everything else. Still, that was a sign. I missed it. Before I knew it, she had cornered me near the end of a festive holiday table.

My Aunt, an otherwise wonderful, artful, thoughtful woman, had a switch. The WASP switch. “Don’t do what again Aunty?” I leaned in, trying to strike a brave note. Her tone was quiet. Her eyes were glowing. The smell of turkey was replaced by the smell of death. Dinner was just getting started. I was doomed.

“Don’t you EVER give me a present like that again! Even my cleaning lady gives me better presents than the junk you give me. Why do you even BOTHER?! Why?!” In my defense, my Aunt’s cleaning lady Jessica was a Jehovah’s Witness and a candidate for sainthood.  The holidays are about gratitude. Between grapplings with her wine glass, my Aunt elaborated on the gift from Jessica. One thing became clear, she was grateful for her cleaning lady.

Bolting from the table was my only option for escape. That would have created a scene. The rule against collateral damage applies to the victim as well as the perpetrator. Witnesses? Only my cousin, a perceptive soul who happened to be sitting across from us, noticed what was going down. Her face registered horror and fascination. Like someone watching a documentary on baby seals. It gave me solace.

When I look back now, I realize the stress my Aunt was under and I appreciate why she did what she did. My lack of insight into her situation was part of the reason. For a while, I couldn’t forgive her. Why? Because I couldn’t understand her. Because I didn’t understand myself. In the basement, it takes time for your eyes to adjust.

Trungpa and Roshi? The story ends with Trungpa teaching Roshi’s Zen students in a talk entitled “The Open Way” and Roshi calling Trungpa a bodhisattva.

Like I said, these days I’ve been moody, even angry. My temper comes suddenly. “Out of nowhere!” as my wife puts it. As if a switch had been thrown, or a basement door had swung open. I guess it’s a lineage thing. It’s hard way to begin a moment, but it’s real. Being real, it has the potential to end well.  In a strange way, it gives me hope. Hope for the holidays.

5 Responses to “Hope for the Holidays”

  1. Leonora Forslund Says:

    Hi, Michael

    You’re not the only one who’s moody at this time of year. One of my history professors once told me that people get depressed and angry at this time of year because our culture communicates a vision of the holidays that is almost impossible to actually experience – family, gifts, everybody loves everybody, and so on. I always wonder why it can’t be this way all year long.

    I’ve taken many trips to the abyss during this time of year, but these days I try to live one day at a time, one experience at a time, and spend a lot of time outside with my dogs. I think of it as creating my own universe, even if it is just an illusion.

    And then there’s the upcoming solstice – when we can celebrate the slow return of the light….

    Cheers,

    Leonora

  2. Margaret Ervin Says:

    Hi Michael,

    I really love this post. It is humorous and real and rings a bell. I thought I’d share my own WASPish holiday season musings.

    What I have pasted in below is probably too long, especially since it includes John Donne’s original text at the end.

    I too consider the dilemma of the conflict between my lineage ancestors and my family, and their lineage ancestors.

    Margaret

    ***

    For Whom the Bell Tolls

    In my imagination, American Buddhists are like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, lugging behind them the clanking chains of Christianity or Judaism or Secular Humanism or some mish mash of all of them. Even if you were raised as a Buddhist, you went to school in America. If we are going to refer to American neurosis in our Shambhala training, we might as well be precise and understand at more than a superficial level the philosophies that underlie our neuroses.

    The following is an effort to do that for myself. It is also written out of appreciation and respect for my mother, with her three master’s degrees in Episcopal theology, who is sleeping upstairs in my house right now, post Bordeaux.

    To say “people are basically bad” is what “original sin” means is too simplistic. There are a lot of readings of the doctrine of original sin. One is simply an attempt to explain suffering. Clearly, we suffer. Even Christians get that. Why do we suffer? Christians answer that we suffer because we are separated from God. Suffering is sin. It is how we know there is a God. It is a memento mori. It is what prompts us to “be good.” The Christian I grew up in sees the resolution of suffering as reattachment and reunification with God at death.

    When I was a bad girl, my mother would send me up to my room and tell me to think about what I had done. So I would go to my room and think about God and being good. And I remember one night I became very scared and couldn’t sleep, thinking, “What if I do not have just the ordinary responsibility to be good, what if I have the weight of the whole world on me like Christ and just do not know it yet? And how will I know if I do? And who will ever tell me where my responsibility ends? What if it is infinite?”

    Later in therapy, I learned that this kind of psychological self-torture was a natural sort of thing for a child of narcisstic parents. So Freud introduced a replacement way for me to seek completion, through the healing of narcisstic wounds.

    Clank. Add another set of chains.

    But back to original sin, I think one oversimplifies the idea at one’s peril. If a person who was raised as a Christian says they have an innate understanding of basic goodness, there is a strong chance they are confusing basic goodness with with being good, or that they are seeking glimpses of basic goodness in the times they were good or felt good. And then when they find out that what they may designate as “sin,” in the sense of “being bad” or what we are ashamed of, is actually part of basic goodness, watch out. It might not be pretty.

    When I first started taking classes at the Shambhala Center, I thought I had an understanding of basic goodness, but upon closer examination, I realized I was pretty far off the mark, or dot.

    There are things we (humans) long for, connection, for instance, which are very much front and center in Christianity. Maybe the answer is wrong, but it is expressed quite simply: “We are all one in God.” How comforting, except that you have to battle through your life being good and doing good until the reunion. The fact that burning martyrs at the stake is no longer in fashion is small consolation.

    Another strand of the chains I lug around was attached to me in the beautiful words of the English writers I read to achieve the status of being educated as an American. The list of required books changes over time, but it’s hard for me to imagine a person over the age of 30 who does not recognize the line “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island.” Even if they do not know where the lines come from. They come from John Donne, and he is making a theological argument.

    The theology of “original sin” in the sect of Christianity I grew up with is “we are all one.” In my church it was not emphasized that something was missing because the “good news” was that Christ had fixed that. (Though it was always a good idea to go to your room occasionally to think about it.)

    I know there are sects of Christianity that emphasize that some are saved and others are damned. That version of original sin isn’t emphasized in the Episcopal Church, which as a fortunate consequence, now has gay priests and blesses same-sex marriage. The Episcopal church also contains my mother who is devout, but not bothered by my “conversion” to Buddhism because it’s all one, and she had me baptized, so I’m covered under her insurance policy.

    What was emphasized instead was a bottomless responsibility to others and requirement to forgive. We never talked about “the devil,” which is why people make fun of Episcopalians as being “Catholic lite.” Episcopalians like this meditation by John Donne. In church we sang, “No man is an island, no man stands alone…”

    I think it is worthwhile to read the original. You can’t see how the chains are attached unless you really look at them.

    ***

    John Donne, Meditation XVII:

    PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

    There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

  3. Michael Greenleaf Says:

    Dear Margaret:

    Thank you for your comments and for sharing Mr. Donne’s meditation.

    I too have been contemplating the extent to which we might pursue meditation in an unexamined inherited context. This is something Sakyong Mipham has been teaching on lately and it has caught my interest. Enlightened Society and the Bodhisattva ideal also speak, like Mr. Donne, to our interconnectedness. Maybe I just abhor confrontation, but sometimes I confess to trouble puzzling my way to clear differences in the drivers behind western and eastern thought.

    According to Donne, we are united in a redemptive suffering as well as in our solitary opportunity for salvation–the latter only being addressed by a personal “recourse” to God. Certainly there are parallels to Buddhism here, though I would leave it to scholars to enumerate them.

    With an instinct for upliftedness in our “desire for connection” as you put it–say in Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision of “enlightened society”–are we in fact merely embracing a “skillful means” that, while it might address endemic nihilism, isn’t any great departure from our western heritage? Is it just a matter of how you look at it?

    After all, suffering CAN bring tenderness and in tenderness we are all connected, whether we have recourse to God or not.

  4. Frank Anderton Says:

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you for the teaching about the bodhisattvas at your family Christmas dinner. It reminds me somewhat of my own family. One of the good things about holidays is that, like catastrophes, they draw us together. Who hasn’t been cornered by someone (especially at family functions) and ambushed, in living color and sound, with all the attendant horror and inevitability of a torpedoed ship on its way to the bottom. Your story has the redeeming quality of good humor, no matter how angry you were at the time. As Nietzsche said, “That which does not destroy me, pisses me off!” (speaking for myself; and if Nietzsche didn’t say that he should have)

    I was a student of Suzuki-roshi’s at SFZC and Tassajara in the ’60s and very early ’70s, and later a student of Katagiri-roshi’s, Dick Baker, Reb Anderson, and Mel Weitsman at Berkeley Zen Center. I didn’t know Trungpa-rinpoche but heard him speak a few times, which always blew my mind. I don’t know the story you refer to and would like to hear the entire story. I am hoping that you can refer me to someplace on the Web, or elsewhere, where I can hear the entire tale. And I would love to hear it all in your own words. Is that possible?

    Thank you and gassho.

    As I’m sure you know, Santa Claus is a bodhisattva. Merry Christmas!

    Frank Anderton

  5. Michael Greenleaf Says:

    Dear Frank:

    Thank you for your note. I was of course upset about being ambushed, as you say. Being unaware seems to be key to provoking the fear-driven habits that lurk below. The story of Trungpa and Roshi that framed my own is linked on the word “story” toward the end of the blog. This is (to my ear) a wonderful rambling oral history and doesn’t need any retelling.

    I add the link here (technology permitting)

    Warmly, M.

    ps: I never met Suzuki Roshi, but he continues to be a root inspiration for me. Stories of Roshi and Trungpa in the same place at the same time invariably move me to tears. As a student of his, YOU could share a story.

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