November 28, 2023

Zen and Ken

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D

Zen Man

When I was in my late thirties, I decided to get serious about my spiritual life. I had already been strongly drawn to Zen Buddhism and, generally, to Japanese aesthetics. I was fascinated by Japanese cultural practices and had become intrigued with Zen, which had for so long been an integral part of Japanese spiritual life. I loved gazing at Japanese rock gardens (and had visited one twice in Dallas). Although it took many years before I actually was able to travel to Japan, and, still later, to discover the films of the masterly Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu, I already felt the pull of Zen, which likewise had exercised an immediate appeal to me.

So, being a young professor at the time, I started reading books about Zen. But I quickly realized that reading books, though informative, was not Zen. After all, as the old saying goes, if you want to know what food tastes like, it will do you no good to spend your time looking at menus. Zen is a practice, not a religion.

To do Zen, one had to meditate doing a form of meditation called zazen.

So I got myself a little Seiza bench that enabled me to sit on my butt with my knees on the floor (I could never even come close to assuming the lotus posture), and tried to meditate, with indifferent success.  It was not long before I knew if I were to pursue this seriously, I would have to take myself to Zen centers and receive instruction there. 

And so I did. I travelled to Rochester where there was a well-known Zen center with a famous teacher, Philip Kapleau; I also went to a Zen center in Providence. But I finally lucked out when I found there was actually a Zen master who conducted zazen sessions in a home not ten miles from the university where I taught. I soon learned that he had a small but devoted following and was himself an exceptionally gifted man – not only a Zen master, but a poet, translator and psychotherapist (I later sought him out for therapy). I came to have enormous respect for this man and learned a lot from being with him.

Nevertheless, I found sitting (i.e., zazen) difficult.  It was very hard on my knees and physically taxing.  Still, I persevered.  I knew Zen would not be an easy path to walk.  But I enjoyed the atmosphere at that house and had already been drawn to the quietude of the Zen centers I had previously visited when sitting with other Zen aspirants.  I really did feel “at home” in such settings, even if my knees did not. 

In Zen, there are special intensive Zen sessions lasting several days called sesshins. My first one lasted three days, and, frankly, it was a bitch, though I found it worthwhile. I finally decided I needed to undergo a longer one, so I signed up for a weeklong sesshin in Massachusetts. 

I had a paradoxical reaction to it. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life and its effects lasted for days afterward. My mind was calm and serene, absent its usual chatter. A sense of stillness pervaded my consciousness and I experienced the world in a different way, which was beautiful. 

At the same time, it left me with no desire to go through another ordeal like that. Regretfully, I found that despite Zen’s appeal for me, I did not have what it took to become a dedicated practitioner of Zen.  I could definitely see its value; I just wasn’t prepared to pay its price.

So I had to admit that I had flunked Zen 101. Besides, by then my work on NDEs was taking up more and more of my time, and that was where the excitement was for me.  And it didn’t require sitting!

Nevertheless, I never lost my interest in Zen or in Buddhism generally. I still “hung out” in those circles and at conferences. I even danced one memorable night with a well-known Zen teacher in San Francisco, and for a time I became very friendly with a Tibetan lama. I met him once at his home in England where we drank sak√© together.  And another time, when we were both speakers at a conference in California, he actually gave me a backrub when my back was ailing, and it really helped, too! He was very jolly and had a great sense of humor, but I never studied with him – I just enjoyed his company. 

Finally, I should mention that the woman I had lived with during my “Zen years” had also been practicing Zen with me, but unlike me, she stuck with it and became a Zen teacher herself. We have remained loving friends ever since we separated as lovers, and I’ve spent a lot of time hearing about her Zen-based life and listening to some of her recorded teishos (a sort of discourse on Zen practice).

So much for my abortive life as a Zen practitioner, but just recently I finally learned “the secret of Zen,” and before long, I will reveal it to you.

Huston Smith

Someone who truly did practice Zen in a serious way is the famous scholar of religion, Huston Smith. He is best known for his bestselling book on religion, originally called The Religions of Man and, later revised and expanded, it was renamed The World’s Religions.  It has now sold millions of copies, and it is a wonderful introduction to the religions of the world. Smith also authored about a dozen other books, and though I haven’t read any of them, I have read several articles by him. In any event, he was a renowned and eminent scholar and lived to a great age, dying a few years ago at 97.

I knew Huston, but was never really friends with him. We just had a nodding acquaintanceship when we would encounter each other at conferences or, once, at Esalen. That is, we would just nod at each other and sometimes exchange a few pleasantries.  I know he was familiar with my work on NDEs, and of course I had read his book on religion, but we were never really drawn to each other. He had actually grown up in China, the son of Methodist missionaries, and wherever I looked at him he really did seem to have the visage and bearing of an old Chinese sage. Huston was widely beloved, both venerable and venerated, and, frankly, I was somewhat in awe of him. He had an august and serene presence of the sort that only a spiritual adept could evince.

Oddly enough, the only time I actually had a conversation with him was years later when I met him in an eye doctor’s waiting room.  I had taken my mother there so she could be examined for her glaucoma, which had developed when she was in her early eighties.  (I’ve had glaucoma since I was sixty, but my mother was a late bloomer.)  But this was not an upscale office. It was full of down-and-out people like my mother, who by then was indigent and on Medicaid. I was shocked to see Huston there, and he seemed to be embarrassed when he saw me. Still, he was pleasant and kindly and we had a warm exchange. It proved to be the last time I was to see him.   

The Secret of Zen

I spent Thanksgiving this year quietly by myself, mostly reading during the day and taking care of my ailing body. I was still recovering from some very nasty oral surgery a few days ago whose details I will spare you apart from saying it was the worst and most painful experience I had ever had in a dentist’s chair.  Extracting in infected molar, which took over two hours, was like giving birth.  There were times when I wasn’t altogether convinced I would survive or even wanted to.  I’m better now, but the healing is slow and I won’t be able to get my sutures out for another week or so. Meanwhile, I can only eat “soft” foods in little itty-bitty bites, which will explain why I could not participate in any elaborate turkey festivities this year and just had to settle for some of Amy’s ravioli for dinner.  

Nevertheless, that evening, I received a delightful surprise, courtesy of a dear friend, now in England, who was kind enough to forward me something she had received from an American colleague.

You will now see why I was tickled all shades of pink to receive it.  Here’s what my friend sent to me:

At the end of Huston Smith’s extremely arduous month-long practice period in a Japanese Zen monastery (the last week without sleep for most of the monks; though as a sybaritic Westerner, Huston was allowed 3 hours nightly), Huston went to pay his respects to the teacher, Goto Roshi (from whom, he says, “a Marine sergeant could have learned a few things”). 

Goto Roshi then proceeded to knock Zen off its pedestal.

Koans can be a useful exercise, he said, but they are not Zen.

And sitting in meditation, he went on -- that is not Zen.

Then why had I been torturing myself with koans and body aerobatics, I wondered, and what the hell, then, was Zen?

 "You will be flying home tomorrow," he said.

"Don't overlook how many people will help you get home -- ticketing agents, pilots, cabin attendants, those who prepare your meals."

He bowed and placed his palms together, demonstrating gassho, the gesture of gratitude….Then he did a gassho to me.

"Make your whole life unceasing gratitude," he said. 

"What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple.
Infinite gratitude toward all things past;
infinite service to all things present;
infinite responsibility to all things future.
Have a safe journey home."
And he gave me a wonderful smile. "I am glad you came." 

Huston Smith. (2009). Tales of Wonder. HarperCollins 

Huston’s autobiography published on his 90th birthday.

*********************

There you have it, friends – the secret of Zen. It is one of Zen’s many paradoxes that you are still required to sit until your balls ache and your knees start to scream.  That, at least, is not so simple, but I still prefer Goto Roshi’s version of Zen.

And now for a final word from our sponsor….

On My Last Legs

My mother died at the age of 88. In her last years, living in a nursing home in Berkeley, she was unable to walk. When I inquired as to the reasons, I remember being told that my mother was suffering from “contractures.” I had no idea what that meant.  I don’t think I pursued the matter. The fact was that my mother could no longer walk. And that was that. From then on, she would be confined to a wheelchair.

In those days, when I would visit her, I would take her out for a spin, so to speak, pushing her chair around the level streets in her neighborhood, chatting away while my mother, for the most part, remained silent, stoical and forbearing. She once told me that I talked too much.

She never did walk again, of course. She mostly lay in her bed, quiet and uncomplaining, waiting for death to come.

In a few weeks, I will turn 88. In the last year, my legs, already weakened by years of spinal stenosis, have become even more unsteady and fragile. For various reasons, I have not been able to exercise since the beginning of the year, but I used to be able to walk down and back on my street. No more. I can’t even walk to the end of my little court without stopping a number of times, so I no longer even try.  My daughter, Kathryn, gave me some leg strengthening exercises in hopes that they would help me, but when I try them, they just strain my back and put it out of alignment.  At least I am spared from having to do any more zazen!

I have to be very careful now when I walk, very mindful, which is the only form of Zen practice I can still manage. I must avoid making any sudden changes in direction.  When I get up from my chair from which I watch my TV, I do so very gingerly. I hold onto surfaces as much as possible, lest I fall.  I do stumble a lot as I shuffle about, but so far I have managed to avoid falling. Since I live by myself, falling could not only be serious, it could be a calamity.  I’m not sure I could get up again.

Right now, I am writing this while sitting in my computer chair, which I have rigged up to ease the pressure on my back. Since it has wheels, I’m thinking I might have to begin using it as my non-motorized vehicle to scoot around the house. Fortunately, my house is small and all on one level.  I might have to locomote that way if my legs finally give out like my mother’s did.

I am my mother’s son, all right, and I seem to be following her course toward immobility.

Of course, I have no intention of winding up like she did. Sure, like everyone who has ever lived, one day I will die. But how and under what circumstances, that is the question I am pondering. I’m definitely not going to end up in a nursing home like she did. No way! I want to remain in my house until I croak, even if I have to crawl around the floor. But no, before it comes to that, I will have to find a way either to live with some dignity or to do myself in.

I have long joked that my body has expired before I have, and that’s true. But I have been lucky – knock on Formica – that as of now I am not suffering from any great pain, just the tedium of crippling infirmity in my small-compass life as a shut-in.  For the most part, it’s not really that bad, and there are many days (I will elide the rest) when I feel tolerably well and can enjoy my life.

But as I grow weaker and more unsteady on these last legs of mine, which formerly and for many years had been so sturdy and reliable, I can see that the end is in sight. Whether it is in the distance or, figuratively speaking, around the corner, who can say?  All I know is that I’d better watch my step.  In any case, I’m determined to live on my own terms until the good Lord relieves me of the burden of my life.

November 15, 2023

Why I Am No Longer a Jew

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

[Dear Friends.  I had inadvertently omitted a passage toward the end of my blog about Israel yesterday.  So here is the complete version.  If you already read the blog, all you have to do is scroll down to the last few paragraphs to see the addition. If you haven’t read the blog, it is now complete, so you can read it straight through to the end. My apologies for my oversight.]

I am Jewish and according to what I have been told, am descended from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis.  However, in my family, my mother and all her siblings rejected Judaism, and some of them were outright atheists.  One of these was my Uncle Bill, and it was from him that I received my first lessons and indoctrination into the world of freethinkers and radical politics.  So I never had any religious training, never had a bar mitzvah, and, indeed, hardly knew any Jews outside my own family until I got to graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

Still, although I had an aversion to Jewish orthodoxy and was completely secular in my approach to Judaism, I was always proud to be a Jew.  I loved Jewish comics growing up, Woody Allen films, lox and bagels, and always felt comfortable with Jews.  They were, after all, “my people.”  Indeed, several of my wives were Jewish.  I even spent a couple of years in my late sixties reading a great deal of Jewish history. That deep immersion into Jewish history, which of course included many accounts of the Holocaust, just served to reinforce my sense of Jewish identity.  

Nevertheless, some years ago, when I was in my early seventies, quite by chance, I became aware of how badly Israeli Jews were treating Palestinians.  Actually, I had been aware of this, but had never felt drawn to learn more. Once I did, I determined to travel to Israel and the West Bank to see things for myself.  Doing so changed my life and my feelings about being Jewish, as I will recount in what follows.

Those of you who read my recently reposted blog about Israel I wrote last year will know I have become very critical of Israel, particularly in regard to its treatment of Palestinians.  Here, I want to tell you what has led me, within the past few days, to make a radical rupture in my life.  I now mean to disavow my Jewish heritage and identity.  Here’s why.

In 2008, I traveled with then girlfriend, Anna, with a peace delegation to Israel and the West Bank. We were there for two weeks.  For a good part of our time there, Anna and I traveled throughout the West Bank and were able to stay with or otherwise talk to many Palestinians.

Although we had seen any number of documentaries about life in Palestine and read several books on the occupation before leaving on our trip, nothing could have prepared us for what we were able to witness with our own eyes and learn from talking to Palestinians.

We saw mounds of rubble and destruction everywhere.  We saw many signs saying, in both English and Arabic (as we were told), “Death to the Arabs.” We saw how they were treated roughly and humiliated by young Israeli solders manning the innumerable checkpoints, as we walked through the tunnels and turnstiles with them.  We saw the conditions under which they were living, their lack of water and other necessities, the roads they were forced to take, the roads they were forbidden to use. 

We saw many things that opened our eyes to the myriad ways in which Israel was determined to make life as miserable as possible for Palestinians and to encourage or compel them to leave the country.  Israeli soldiers and vicious, hateful “settlers,” illegally occupying Palestinian lands, would routinely cut down their olive trees, harass or beat Palestinians, and confiscate their lands.

Anna and I were shocked, dismayed, disheartened and appalled.  We kept asking ourselves, “How could Jews, of all people, act like this?”

In Israel and the West Bank, we met any number of “good” Israelis – peace activists who were also strongly opposed to the horrors or the occupation, and who were doing their best to curb the worst of its egregious abuses. 

We learned so much from them.  But Anna and I were also struck by the kindness and generosity of the Palestinians we met who opened their houses and hearts to us, who treated us with such courtesy and warmth, when they had so little to spare (including their precious water). Yet, they could not have made us feel more welcomed. We learned a lot from hearing their stories, too.

We visited them in some of the main towns in the West Bank to see how they processed their olive oils, we visited their theaters and cafes, we saw how they lived and also the deprivations under which they suffered.  Here’s a photo of me talking to a couple of Palestinian kids (that’s Anna to my right) in Jenin.

While we were there, we also met with a number of Palestinian professional people, including journalists and writers.  I became fast friends with one of them, Ghassan Abdullah, and after I got back home, we collaborated on a book about the lives of contemporary Palestinians, some of whom I had met on our travels.  The book, which we called Letters from Palestine, was published in 2010.  Afterward, Anna, especially, became an ardent activist for Palestinian rights, and together we sponsored and helped to support a deaf Gazan girl.  (Many Palestinian children in Gaza have suffered extreme hearing loss or deafness because of the constant noise from drones and jets flying overhead, day after day, even when Gaza isn’t being attacked.)

We were not allowed into Gaza while we were there, though I came to know many Gazans through the email messages they were able to send to me in connection with the book I co-edited with Ghassan.  Most of these Gazans, mainly young people, were soon to suffer grievously when Israel launched one of its periodic assaults on Gaza.  The school of one very bright Gazan engineering student was destroyed, preventing him from completing his education.  Others suffered the destruction of their homes.  Some, I’m afraid, were killed since I never heard from them again.  Many of their stories, written while they were being attacked, are featured in the last portion of our book.

Which brings me, finally, to the unconscionable obscenity of what Israel is now doing to the long-suffering inhabitants of Gaza, who continue to be penned into their tiny enclave where they live, if they manage to survive this heinous onslaught, like prisoners in an open-air prison, with nowhere to go and no sense of what kind of future they will have.  The lucky ones will be killed.  Those who survive, whether wounded or not, will be traumatized for life.

You’ve seen the photos and videos. You’ve seen what has been happening at the hospitals. The lack of food, water, fuel and shelter, and so on.  The relentless bombing day after day.

As terrible as what Hamas did to the citizens of Israel (and I hate Hamas, too), who have also suffered horribly and who still wait, with fear in their hearts, for the release of their hostages, hoping they are somehow still alive, nothing can justify the continuing barbaric assault on Gaza, effectively making the innocent Gazans, most of whom do NOT support Hamas, the victims of collective punishment, which is itself a war crime.

As a result of Israel’s actions, there has been a steep rise in anti-Semitism throughout much of the Western world.  And in the United States, as of the other day, there had been close to a 400% increase in anti-Semitism since Oct 7th.  It is the action of Israel that is making the lives of Jews throughout the world at risk now.  It has never been safe to be a Jew, the perennial, often despised, outsider. Now, they are less safe and secure than they have been for many years.  Who knows how much worse their situation will become in the years to come.

I personally am not afraid, but given all that I’ve written and all that I have witnessed, I am now – because of Israel – ashamed to be a Jew. 

Do you remember when, a few years ago, the great scandal of the modern Catholic Church erupted with the disclosure that so many Catholic priests had actually been pedophiles, and that the Church hierarchy had done all it could to conceal this terrible, devastating discovery? At that time, many Catholics, appalled by what they had learned, left the Church in disgust.

The same thing has been true for me because of Israel’s reprehensible and heartless slaughter of so many innocents in Gaza.  So I feel compelled, as an act of protest, to renounce my heritage and identity as a Jew.  There are many Jews I still love, of course, and always will.  But I no longer wish to be one.