Fu-Kiau

I had been told that he was a  holy man, though not a representative of any particular religion. He was called a “Beyonder”. I gathered that meant he was beyond the conceptual limitations of any one particular faith. He had been invited to New Mexico to give a series of teachings on the mysteries of life. I had come to hear him teach and to hopefully have the opportunity to ask a single question, a question that I deeply longed for an answer to.

He sat in a straight back wooden chair and we gathered around him, sitting on the various cushions that were about the floor. He introduced himself. “I am Fu-Kiau,” he said simply. His voice was friendly and welcoming, laced with a deep Central African accent.  He began speaking on a very lofty topic, the underlying power out of which the universe is manifest. He said it was a power that infuses all of life and spoke of the importance of recognizing and embracing that power within ourselves. Despite the deep and complex nature of the topic, he made understanding very accessible. His words were inspiring and it felt like he was speaking from a place of authentic wisdom.

After about two hours he finished his talk and was willing to take questions. A few immediately raised their hands. I didn’t hear what their questions were nor his answers. I was busy trying to clarify in my mind the one question I had come to ask. I decided direct and simple was the best way to go. It was time. I raised my hand.

Fu-Kiau noticed my raised hand. “Yes?” he said, looking and listening deeply.

“Fu-kiau,” I began, “I was hoping you could share with me what you believe the most important spiritual practice is.” In retrospect I see the naive quality of the question. But at the time I felt that I required the teaching of some authority figure to see me through. I desired, more than anything else, for someone to give me that magic formula that would diminish the struggle and resistance that I was experiencing in my movement through life and help me get to the next spiritual level, whatever that meant.

Fu-Kiau gave the question the space of quiet consideration for a moment. Then he answered. “I would have to say that the most important spiritual practice is gratitude.” He broke his gaze with me and chose another person with a question. That was the only answer I was going to get to the one question that I had so dearly wanted answered. Gratitude. I was hoping for more; the most potent prayer or meditation, the most powerful ritual or sacred rite that would smooth over all the rough patches. In all honesty, I was very disappointed.

***

That was over twenty years ago. Fu-Kiau has recently died and I was extremely saddened to hear of his passing. The world has lost a very deep well of Beyonder wisdom. But authentic teaching is not that easily extinguished. Over the last twenty years Fu-Kiau’s answer to my question, which had been so disappointing at first,  has become like a many layered onion.  As I have evolved  I have been moving through the layers, getting closer and closer to the core of his most potent answer.

Lately I have been spontaneously experiencing the deepest feelings of gratitude in the most mundane of places; the grocery story, standing in front of the mail machine at work, places that I am very familiar with and barely gave a second thought to. The one thing these experiences share is an inner silence, a quiet mind. The gratitude is of a deeper nature, a pleasant and at the same time powerful feeling that transcends the usual level of consciousness that I’m familiar with. It is not gratitude expressed in words or thoughts. It is a silent, spacious, fully present feeling of gratitude for every aspect of life as it is, even those aspects that I might otherwise label as painful or negative. It is a full submersion into the “Now”.  I have discovered that gratitude can only be completely experienced where life can only be found, within the present moment. I have discovered that gratitude is actually a type if energetic stance beyond thought, a key to fully inhabiting the present moment, usually obstructed by my constant fascination and identification with stories of life as it was in the past or life as it will be in the future. Gratitude has become a natural result of consciously quieting my mind and inhabiting the “Now”. For me, twenty years later, gratitude has indeed become the most important spiritual practice.

Thank you Fu-Kiau.

Time To Pop

Ernest was very skillful in cultivating the ideal look that would induce a person to “pop”. Of course the timing had to be perfect, the person popping had to be open to it.  But if the look wasn’t just right, more important than the words spoken, the moment would be missed, the popping would not occur. He had been doing this work for more years than most could count, and he was good at it. His look, words and timing were impeccable.

The Guidance was clear that the woman called Sara would stop at the corner of Canal Street and Broadway for a red light in just under a minute. And Ernest made sure he was there in plenty of time for this cosmic turning of the traffic signal. The nights darkness was thwarted by city lights, bathing the corner in artificial contrasts of luminance and shadow. Standing there, Ernest looked like just another down on his luck hard ass, seeking refuge from life’s lack of mercy.

The light changed from green to yellow to red just as the small Kia hatchback approached. Ernest knew that this was Sara. And he knew that Sara’s window would be rolled down. All the pieces, set into motion at the beginning of time, were in place. The Kia stopped at the light and Ernest ran up to the driver, Sara.

 ***

 Sara stopped at the red light. Her mind was preoccupied, mired in thoughts about the meeting she had with her supervisor earlier that day. She had left the meeting worried about making the deadline for the upcoming Nautilus project. She didn’t notice the rough looking man running up to her window until he was two steps away. Panic shot throughout her mind and body, silencing the work related mental ramblings of the previous moment. She froze as he leaned into her car, inches away from her face, looking deeply into her eyes. His look was vacant, a face left numb by the world’s cruelties.  And at the same time his look demonstrated a fullness born from lifetimes of experiences, a look that held a wisdom older than time, a complete acceptance beyond the complexities of life or the mysteries of death. It threatened everything she thought she knew.

“Nighttime sky opens. Infinity cascades down. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it!”  The rough looking man said in the forceful manner of one speaking with total authority. Then he turned and ran down a nearby alley, disappearing.

Sara’s mind was shocked clean of any debris of identity, of any knowings of work, love, or the meaning of life, like a newborn. Sara popped. She struggled to take a breath, the first since the rough looking man appeared out of nowhere. As she breathed in she realized that she was breathing in the greatest understanding that the universe had to offer. As she let the breath slowly out she smiled like the Buddha, sitting in the shade of the Bodhi tree.

Cutting Cloth

In the spirit worlds, sorcery, magic and celestial power dictate the rules. But the drama in those alternate dimensions is not that different from ours in the more mundane dimensions of shopping malls, Honey Boo Boo and corporate takeovers. Pain and struggle seem to find their way into most situations eventually, whether they’re of an etherial, cosmic nature or something more pedestrian. Vicktor, whose powerful sorcery was greatly feared by most, found this out in a most difficult way. His was a typical play for power not earned. Deafening desire, and desire’s inverted twin, aversion, which are really at the crux of a heart’s experience of pain and struggle, drove him.  He would have the Pendant of Essence worn by the elder known simply as The Brotherly One. That pendant was key to the elder’s power. And it could be Vicktor’s if he got his hands on it. And the desire for that power, and the aversion to life without it, was inciting Vicktor’s every move.

 Through multi-layered Machiavellian machinations Vicktor was able to trap The Brotherly One on an isolated mountain top.

 “You didn’t think I had it in me, did you Bro?” Vicktor snickered. “Is it okay if I call you Bro? Just seems easier.” He inflected every syllable with the tone and timbre of a fearless vanquisher.

 “Just do what you’re here to do. Steal what you’re here to steal. Don’t waist my time with your jibber-jabber,” The Brotherly One returned.

 “As you wish.” Vicktor reached out to grab the simple yet commanding moonstone pendant hanging from The Brotherly One’s neck.

 “Too many plans driven by desire and aversion make you stupid,” The Brotherly One said in a surprisingly compassionate way.

 What Vicktor could only describe as a swirling electrical vortex engulfed his outstretched hand, “What is this?” he cried out in shock.

 “The motion of cause and effect,” The Brotherly One said.

 The vortex of energy moved up Vicktor’s arm, around his shoulder and over his head, finally swallowing him whole, smashing his chest with a crushing weight and throwing him far from the mountain top.  It was a turn of events that have become a mythological cliche over the millennia: Man tries to steal celestial power in the form of some magical object, man becomes consumed by some retributive, dynamic force, man is banished to some godawful backwater of the cosmos for all eternity. In this case, the backwater was the planet Earth. More specifically, Saul’s Fabrics  on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

 Vicktor regained consciousness, still feeling the crushing pressure on top of his chest. With great effort he was able to open his eyes. He was no longer on the mountain top. The Brotherly One was gone. And a bolt of weighty linen was laying across his chest, pinning him down. Vicktor knew that he had been defeated, The Brotherly One’s power had been too great. All was lost.

“Vicktor! Quit screwing around!” Saul yelled, deeply irritated. “I need you to cut those linen pieces for Jacqueline right away. She’ll be here in an hour!” Saul wondered for the thousandth time why he had hired this sad sack.

 ***

Since he unexpectedly found himself on a beautiful mountain top, The Brotherly One took the opportunity to enjoy a fabulous view.

To Beat A Chicken

Leo had never been able to beat that chicken at tic-tac-toe. But every Friday after work he would stop by the Chinese arcade and try. It was an actual live chicken behind a piece of glass. There was a panel that the chicken could peck at, to make it’s selection of either an X or O, which displayed on a lit up grid. Leo, of course, would make his selections from outside the piece glass as the game progressed. If he won, his prize was a bag of fortune cookies. Seemed an easy thing, beating a chicken at a simple child’s game. But the chicken always won. Though Leo had a feeling that his luck was going to change.

It wasn’t about the bag of fortune cookies, not any more. It was the principle. That damn chicken had done more harm to Leo’s fragile self-esteem in the last six months than all the failed relationships of his entire life combined. Gluttons for punishment always fine the perfect set-up, and this chicken was Leo’s. But he was sure, tonight would be different.

Leo dropped the quarters in the coin box and the chicken went first. House rules, the chicken always got to go first. The chicken pecked an O in the center square. Leo punched in an X above it. The chicken pecked out another O to the left of the first and Leo paused to study the board. That’s when he first saw her reflection shining on the glass.

She wasn’t a traditional beauty by any measure, but there was something… an exquisite authenticity. It sparkled with it’s own form of loveliness that trapped Leo.  He forgot about the chicken and studied her shimmering mirror image. His suddenly shallow breath and pounding heart announced to his brain that he was smitten. He knew that he could be with the woman standing behind him. And somehow he knew that she could be with him. Her reflection was that clear. For the first time in memory a ray of hope found its way inside the burlap sack of loneliness that he had been carrying around, like a bundle of last weeks potatoes.

Just as he was about to turn around and say something, her reflected face changed. What was a simple countenance of curiosity suddenly became one of disgust, turning into extreme compassion. He could see that she only had eyes for the suffering of the chicken, forced to live in a glass box and play tic-tac-toe with assholes all day. In that instant he understood that all was lost. He watched as her reflection vanished. And although he knew it was a mistake, he turned towards the door, watching her wondrous backside exit the premises. It really might have been.

Leo’s heart wasn’t in the game anymore. But he kept playing out of habit. He picked, the chicken pecked, and when the game was through, Leo, for the first time, had won. But it didn’t matter. For months he had been trying to beat that chicken, but tonight it didn’t matter at all. A surly young clerk at the arcade gave him his prize, the bag of fortune cookies. Then Leo left.

Leo opened the bag of fortune cookies and picked one at random. He read the fortune as he munched the stale treat. “You will die alone and poorly dressed,” it read.

“Goddamn chicken,” Leo said to himself.

Bad Poetry

Moth’s eternal star lit flight

through shafts of piercing lunar light.

Midnight donut missing a bite.

Sugary sprinkles ,  glazed delight.

And then to sleep, good night,

good night.

Gina was an incredibly bad poet. Funny thing was…she knew it. Gina had been writing bad poetry  since a child, a good three and a half decades now…all of it crap. She understood it was crap. But for her it was the most joyous crap.  The creative act that gave birth to her bad poems was a succulent and enlivening energy to abide in. It was her church, her meditation, her path, her life.

***

Gina was married once, for a few years. And she loved her husband with a passion that rivaled the sun’s for the planets.  Of course the potent love she carried inspired pages and pages of awful verse. One example:

Bricks austere stacking,

sticks wind whipped cracking,

sea worn sailboats tacking,

and I kiss your lips a smacking.

Yes she truly loved that man, expressing that love every day with paper and pen. And he loved her back, as best he could. But, like dismissing a slice of her soul, he disregarded her poetry as too much time spent on a simple hobby with no real value. He was a silly man who didn’t understand…didn’t realize that he was blind. And his failure to truly see his wife finally cost him one of the most profoundly beautiful women gracing this old watery rock. He could not see her nor could he mold her into his image. In bitter frustration, he eventually left her, completely missing out on what is.

After he left Gina wrote this:

Crusty old Sumac

riddled with age.

Fodder for the fireplace,

I chop it with rage.

What her husband failed to behold was that Gina’s poetry was not a hobby at all, nor anything else so mundane. Gina’s poetry was more like a garden hose. And what she sprayed out upon the earth was nothing less than the potent vivacity of Creation itself! But her husband just couldn’t see it…couldn’t go there. He was caught up in the surface of words, completely unaware of the inspiration that underlined them. And that was truly his tragic loss.

Of course it wasn’t the bad poems in and of themselves that held power, but the energy spawned by the act of writing…Gina’s courting of the muse…that was the heavenly stream splashing from her depths. Gina had the keys, she had passed through the gate and neared the many mansions of the multi-faceted mystery of what is…simply because she trusted that which made her heart sing without reservation and took great care to ensure its aliveness. Her courage and commitment to keep writing bad poetry over the years was enough to make even the driest desert stones get all misty.

The shadowed light of  Being,

crumbly brown leaf once green,

my face remains unseen,

though my reflection lingers.

Really crap. And a lesson for us all. Good on ya’ Gina girl!

Rituals

…whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.        – Tao Te Ching

My neighbor’s death was sudden and unexpected. Aaron was younger and seemed in much better health than me. I often saw him in the hall wearing gym  shorts,returning from a workout. So when his heart gave up the ghost as he was walking up the single flight of stairs to our row of apartments, carrying only two small bags of groceries, I freaked out a little…maybe more than a little. His dying actually shook me pretty deep, a forceful reminder that death was the certain end game and it could tap me at anytime.

Aaron was barely an acquaintance, someone I passed in the hallway with a simple nod or a brief “How’s it going?”. But I became wrapped up in the trauma of his unforeseen demise in a selfish kind of way…it could have just as easily been me on that flight of stairs, my groceries dropped and scattered about like so much trash.

It wasn’t the knowledge of my inevitable death so much, but more the fact that I hadn’t truly begun living yet. I hadn’t neared the potential for life that I thought I had in me. That was the irritation itching at my insides that his death brought on, like visceral vermin tickling my bones.

***

Two nights after Aaron’s passing I tossed about in bed, unable to find the comfort of sleep within the internal round-about of death thoughts. After an eternity of wrestling with pillows and blankets, light from the rising sun crept into my room. I surrendered. I figured a walk around the neighborhood might be the thing to take my mind off my own mortality. After getting dressed and dealing with the morning hygiene routines I left the apartment. It was very quiet in the hallway that time of morning. And within the stillness I could sense my beating heart as I stepped onto the stairs where Aaron had taken his last breath. I wondered if it would still be beating by the time I reached the bottom step. As it turned out, it was…but for how long? With this morbid line of thinking filling up all my head space, I exited the building.

Even at this early hour the pedestrian commute was well underway with numerous souls walking to the bus stop or subway station two blocks up. Among the charcoal gray business suits and New York beige casual attire a flash of maroon and gold emerged, catching my attention. A teenager with a shaven scalp, wearing the colorful robes of a Buddhist monk passed without acknowledging my gaze and continued down the block. I kept staring at the back of his shiny head. On a whim, or perhaps following some internal nudge, I found myself shadowing the young monk.

The monk’s stride was a study in even paced symmetry and I matched his rhythm from fifteen yards back. After eight blocks or so, the monk entered an unassuming brownstone, closing the door behind him. I paused in front of the building and noticed a small, dark wooden plaque near the front door. “Skillful Mind Dharma Center” it read. There is something about having thoughts of your own mortality that engenders a courage that may not normally be present. So, as unusual as it was for me, I walked up the three concrete steps and peeked through the window. There were a number of people inside milling about, chatting, not looking like monks at all. Rather it seemed like a gathering of lunch hour patrons at a busy natural foods cafe. Still following some undefined inner urge, I tried the door, found it open and walked in.

***

No one challenged me as I entered the foyer. People even smiled as our eyes met. I did my best to smile back. From a back room a gong or deep chime sounded. It seemed to be a prompt and people began moving in the direction of the reverberating tone. I followed the crowd and discovered the room they were entering outfitted with a number of round cushions about the floor, some chairs lining a back wall and a long table in the front of the room with a golden Buddha statue centered on it. There was also a row of what looked like overturned silver bowls lining the front edge of the table.

Most folks secured a cushion, sitting cross-legged on the floor while a few sat in the chairs. I joined the chair group, finding an empty one close to exit. Why was I doing this?…No clear answer was forthcoming. But I was up anyway, so what the hell.

A monk, much older than the one I had followed, but fully decked in the same maroon and gold, entered the room and took a seat in a chair next to the long table. I looked around, wanting to see if the young monk that had led me to this place had made it in. There was no sign of him. The older monk cleared his throat and any talking amongst the gathered stopped. The monk gestured to a middle-aged woman in the front row. She was sporting a paralegal-type business suit and styled curly hair. “Janet, would you please attend to the altar?” the monk asked.

The middle-aged woman rose, bowed to the Buddha statue a few times and picked up a small pitcher as she knelt in front of the lined up silver bowls. She turned over one of the bowls and began pouring water into it while whispering something that sounded like a chant or prayer.

“Your starting from the wrong end,” a younger woman sitting on one of the cushions said. “It’s disrespectful and inauspicious to start from that end.”

There was a tinge of know-it-all superiority in the young woman’s voice that instantly put me off.

The middle-aged woman hesitated, obviously becoming uncomfortable. She and the younger woman both looked towards the old monk. He did nothing to acknowledge either of them. His eyes remained focused straight ahead at some spot on the back wall. After a pause, seeing that the monk wasn’t going to say anything, the young woman continued. “You need to start with the one on the right. Otherwise your creating bad karma.”

The young woman’s insistence really irritated me. I had no idea that Buddhists could be so particular and tight-assed. I didn’t know that much about Buddhism, but I always figured Buddhists were above the usual ridiculousness somehow. What the hell did it really matter which bowl you filled up first? It was time to go. There was obviously nothing for me in that place, though it did take my mind off of death for a few minutes. I thought maybe I could catch a couple hours sleep before having to go to work. So I got up and moved back towards the foyer.

“Why are you leaving?” the seated monk suddenly inquired, catching me off guard. I just gave a half wave and continued towards the exit. “Is it because they have trapped themselves in the sticky drama of a Buddhist altar?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I answered in a voice barely above a whisper. “Seems, silly.”

Even with the soft tone, the monk heard me and began laughing. I thought he was laughing at me and I quickened my pace. “Please wait for just a moment,” the monk requested. “You see, I believe that you have provided the teaching today!” the monk said, still laughing. “You have expertly pointed out to everyone the…silliness, of becoming trapped in the form of a ritual while forgetting the content of your heart. I could not have provided a better teaching and I hope the group will take this as a precious gift that you have given. Thank you so much.”

I was still unclear whether the monk was making fun of me or not so I simply said, “You’re welcome,” then quickly left.

Once I was back in my apartment I was able to sleep for a couple of hours and woke up feeling pretty good. Any thoughts of death seemed to have receded into the background of my mind for the moment.

***

The following morning I found myself awake at first light again, only to discover that inner urge, wanting to follow the young monk back to the brownstone had returned. I ventured down to the sidewalk and only discovered the usual bland colors…no flashes of maroon and gold. Following the urge anyway, I retraced my steps of the morning before and found myself outside the brownstone, looking at the plaque near the door. “Skillful Mind Dharma Center”.

As I pondered the name of the place the old monk opened the front door and smiled out at me.

“Where is the other monk…the young one?” I asked.

The older monk began laughing. “I’m the only monk here. There are no others…I was young once, but that was a long time ago.” He laughed some more.

I decided not to pursue that line of questioning. The older monk still seemed to be making fun. So instead I asked, “So what’s a skillful mind anyway?”

The monk’s laughter became a wide grin. He stepped to the side of the doorway, offering me an invitation to enter.

Franklin

SkipJack took great pride in his art. To say that he just grew marijuana would be like saying that Italo Calvino just wrote stories. SkipJack cultivated his plants so that they would bud into a specific sought after mood, subtly capturing the best enhancements of human psychology, providing his customers with an array of expanded emotional settings to choose from. Walking into SkipJacks Manhattan loft was like walking into a humid delight factory, packed with sprouting greens, purples and ochres. But very few ever beheld SkipJacks luscious workspace. He liked his privacy. He did the bulk of his business on a corner in front of a restaurant that served the best homemade cinnamon rolls in all the five boroughs. Most nights it was a lively corner busy with customers.

***

SkipJack’s least favorite type of customer was one who never explored the grand diversity of his herbal palette, who only wanted one type of weed each time they scored. Franklin was that type of customer, every week buying an eighth of an ounce of Midnight Sanctuary, a mild sativa cultivated to elicit ultra-marine moods of creative ease. That was the head space that Franklin appreciated most, forsaking any of SkipJacks other master works.

***

The evening was barely cool, though Franklin felt the muted chill a little deeper than folks younger than his seventy-five years. He was walking the six blocks from SkipJacks corner to his small apartment just off West Broadway in SoHo, fingering the small zip-locked baggie in his coat pocket. The nip in the air quickened his pace, his old style shoes clicking briskly down the sidewalk, sounding like ice cubes popping in club soda.

Franklin was an artist himself, though he would never claim the label. And there was no one to bestow him with it anyway. Franklin had no friends or family and never shared his art, at least not in the conventional sense. The only witnesses to his creative endeavors were a few wandering tenement spirits that were able to sneak a peek in from behind his locked door. And that was okay with Franklin. People tended to create drama and he loved nothing better than enjoying some Midnight Sanctuary in solitude, drama free. Then he would sit down with a pad of paper and a simple Bic pen to write poetry. Haikus to be specific.

Franklin lived in a fifth floor walk-up and he figured navigating the stairs on a daily basis was what kept him healthy and able to keep up with the pace of the city. He made it up the stairs and into his small studio apartment with hardly a hard breath and was soon sitting at his rickety card table, filing his small corncob pipe with a couple delicate pinches.

The Midnight Sanctuary never disappointed and Franklin was soon cruising in the spacious tranquility that was the rich ground for inspired words to blossom. But Franklin was a man of disciplined routine and before courting the muse with pen and paper he filled a bowl of Rice Krispies, something he always did before writing to stave off the inevitable munchies that Midnight Sanctuary engendered. He poured the milk and listened for the  snapping, crackling and popping. The comforting steamroller on gravel sound filled his consciousness. Then he honed his focus of awareness, listening for the silent gaps between the snapping, crackling and popping. There are not many walking the planet with the developed concentration that can accomplish this feat of mystical adroitness.

After finishing his cereal Franklin cleaned his bowl and spoon. He could not abide any mess in his micro-kitchen area. Then he put one of his vinyls on the turntable, a Miles Davis record, In A Silent Way. In no time at all the analgesic trumpet chased away the days turbulence and Franklin sat down to write.

Writing for Franklin did not involve a lot of actual pen to paper motion. Most of his time writing was spent doing nothing more than sitting and twirling the pen around in his fingers. So Franklin twirled while Miles painted the room in shamanic cool blues and deep reds, invoking mysterious energies, usually found below the internal monologue surface of consciousness. That’s where one can tickle the muse into awakening. Franklin had discovered this for himself and, having a comfortable relationship with the muse, he was able to rouse her with minimal teasing.

Sitting motionless, except for the twirling, Franklin gazed at the blank sheet of paper, riding currents of infinite possibility. After a timeless number of minutes Franklin stopped his twirling and put pen to paper, quickly writing down some lines. Then he stopped. Reading what he had just wrote, a knowing smile formed. This is what Franklin had written:

 A bee’s face sweating.

Is it anxious or just warm?

Are flowers enough?

 Franklin took a deep and easy breath, put his pen down, then ripped the page from the pad and crumpled it into a tight ball. He placed the ball in his ashtray, lit a match and set the crumpled paper ball on fire, watching until only ashes remained. He opened the one window in his tiny apartment and threw the ashes into the evening breezes. The molecules of the haiku’s remains mingled with the molecules of breath from those who shared his neighborhood . They breathed in the remnants of Franklin’s haiku, which, having been authentically inspired, acted like a healing balm, easing their minds and softening their hearts in a perceptible way. It was the only gift that Franklin knew how to give.