The Fires of Baltimore

20150428BALTIMORE-slide-0SX8-jumboBaltimore burned last night.

Ravaged neighborhoods long left for dead lie in the shadows of the award winning, highly praised, renovation of the waterfront, the jewel in Baltimore’s charm bracelet. The influx of money, people and life that filled the harbor and its adjacent neighborhoods, had faltered by the time it reached its east and west flanks.


As if to safeguard this precious revitalization, a “zero-tolerance policy” toward crime was initiated. In time, these neighborhoods of hope squandered in neglect became little more than internment camps where residents were guarded and intimidated into compliance. The blind eye of justice turned, and allowed black to kill black, as the runoff from the massive influx of heroin from the docks held families enslaved. I‘ve traveled through the neighborhood that erupted in flames last night many times. Once, I saw a police car with flashing lights stopped in the street and I turned the corner where, in plain sight, drugs were being sold only feet away. Police cars, searchlights from police helicopters, the ubiquitous “blue lights” demarking crime zones, sentries like shadows, the gangs and the kids are all common, and commonly intermingle, here. Less seen, but very much present, are the grandmothers. With their Sunday hats and lace, they the Baptist churches they attend and the clergy are the heart of these communities, reminding us that people live here. People love here. And people do their best to live the best lives they can.


The message in those churches is of non-violence, community and love. If God is love, then love is our only option. The message given by Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights movement was of assertive nonviolent engagement. Violence, whether it be the violence of the streets, violence within the home, or violence toward oneself can only destroy. But, love can communicate. Compassion understands and so creates a deeper bond than intimidation. Dr. King famously told his followers, that the bible said to LOVE your enemy. But, it didn’t say you have to LIKE your enemy. So, even with those for whom we have little trust, love is the best means to communicate. If we attack them, he warned, they will win.


From a Buddhist perspective, each of us is love itself, and each has an inalienable right to life. Yet, each of us is interconnected to everyone else. So, while we have a personal right, our life affects those around us. We are all in this together. So, when we learn to love ourselves, we learn to love others. And, we can do that, even if we fear them, or are angry. In fact, as love is the basis of empathy and understanding, it is imperative that we love that which we fear.


The funeral for Freddy Grey brought city state and federal dignitaries together in a service filled with hurt, love, faith and anger. Rep. Elijah Cummings was quoted as saying “I’ve often said our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see, but now our children are sending us to a future THEY will never see…. There is something wrong with that picture.” And, the messages became clear. It is time to stop. It is time to regard all life as sacred. It is time to respect that black lives matter, because ALL lives matter.


But, for too long, too many black lives didn’t matter enough. The “lets go get some scumbags” mentality of an understaffed, poorly-trained and ill-equipped police force fostered the dehumanization of a populace they were conscripted to protect. Often they did what they could with what they had. An impossible task, they almost had to objectify the populace as the enemy. So, who were the police protecting? Perhaps things have devolved to the point where police are, in fact, only safeguarding wealth. It seems that much of the world has adopted a corporate mentality. Corporations have no inherent conscience. Its up to the people within to add the humanity. The corporate structure itself lacks empathy. Its purpose is to provide for its shareholders. These structures are fiercely powerful, and while they may be very sophisticated in their acquisitional efforts, they are ultimately very crude. They act primarily for their own advancement or protection. They run much of our world and, in so doing, have created a world much like they are: benevolent as it serves them, but protective against danger and largely ignorant of things that don’t further their charter. Many of us stay out of their way, stepping in the shadows between their lumbering legs. We snuggle up to our flat screens and pretend the world out there is someplace else.


In this way, entire communities are ignored and locked into combustible environments that inject aggression internally. Held in place by a force that uses the crime inherent to that situation as justification for using whatever means is expedient, the point isn’t to communicate, but to control. Young men, who in another world would be rising up into the prime of their life, walk with eyes down bundling that energy within.


Unfortunately for Freddy Grey, he looked up. Unfortunately for Freddy Grey, he made eye contact.


So, it seems the seams in the machine broke open last night. The ill-fitting dissonance of the protectors and those they claim to protect, clashed and Baltimore burned. The wounds opened into the streets. And, now the Governor is here like a dad home from business to scold mom for being too lenient with national guard take control of this family. And now we all get a time out. And, there is blame, not the least between the Governor and the mayor, and there are shouts and there are schisms between haves and have nots, between while and black, between social conservatives and the socially conscious.


But, so many of us feel that this could be – perhaps MUST to be – the pivot point of change. In the churches there were calls were for “justice, not vengeance”. Vengeance is short sighted and acts to obscure reason, while justice might presage a change that enables communication and understanding. Perhaps this is that point.


But, justice is not passive. Justice CANNOT be passive.


And while we now wait, will the world slowly turn back to business as usual? The news outlets are describing a death from “mysterious circumstances” while videotapes clearly show a man severely injured, dragged and pushed unsecured into his unpadded steel battering cell. As days pass in this “thorough investigation”, we wait until the shouting dies down, until the mothers stop crying, until the state decides as it did in Ferguson, as it did in Staten Island, as it has done repeatedly in Baltimore, not to prosecute. And, the system decides, as it has many times before, not to change. The national guard will be in place more quickly then. And, good people everywhere will go on believing their lives matter. And others, whose lives matter a little less, will go back to holding eyes to the ground, holding down the rage, until it blows open again.


And there’s the rub.


Three years ago the ‘Arab Spring’ caught world leaders off-guard. The NSA, with fingers in so many pies, were unaware of the significance of the movements stirring beneath. Will we learn from this? Or instead, will we do business as usual until something blows open things to restore the balance? Until we meet the next Arab Spring in the form of a much closer, and more immediate Black Dawn?


I’m sure there are neo-cons planning to further secure our borders. The NRA claiming the need for the populace to arm themselves from the threat. But, the threat here cannot be met with violence. The threat is a lack of empathy. And, while it falls on both sides, it seems like the onus would be in those with the guns to lay down their arms. The onus is on the leaders to lead by understanding. Empathy is what makes us human. Resilience, firepower, intelligence, strength and adaptability have allowed our species to thrive. But without empathy, compassion or understanding we are standing at the top of a junk heap. Compassion is the flower of evolution. Once we understand the other and begin to see their humanity, we proclaim our own. Opening to our world in strength and dignity, and doing the work within, BEFORE we expect others to follow.


Compassion need not be weak. The time for weakness is well past. Compassion simply rests on the premise that if God is Love, then love is our only option. From a Buddhist perspective, if we are fundamentally good, and goodness is our birthright, then understanding the goodness of others is the only option. But love can be strong. It can be true. It can go right up into the danger and not flinch. It can hold itself to itself as it is stronger than hate, it is deeper than hurt, it is greater than fear. Compassion is not weakness of giving in, or relenting, or surrendering. It is standing up and proclaiming. It is saying I am alive and I matter. And you are alive and you matter. And together, we can build a work that makes a difference to ALL of us.

And, in order to do that, we have to let go of our Darwinian impulses to take only for ourselves. We have to let go of our pain and fear and be willing to see clearly, without flinching. For, the truth is NO ONE here is without blame. We have all compounded the problem with our ignorance, or greed. So, we al do the work of opening and the work of remaining open through the change. And the change will come. Oh, yes. Its up to us to wake up and guide the process toward the light, to stand with our hearts open and strong in the face of the clampdown, to open to others and learn from their struggle and to return the planet to those who matter. The people.


It is a stunningly beautiful day in Baltimore today, the day after the fires. Among the many images in the paper this morning, the most powerful for me was of the Pastors and congregation facing the police after the funeral. After leaving the church, they walked in line toward the police. Then they stopped and knelt in prayer for a moment. It was a gentle and definite assertion that love, contemplation and connection to higher principles are what is important. Yet, we know that. We know that that is what they, and many of us, believe. But, what happened next was amazing. The congregation rose without hesitation, walked up to the police and just stood there face to face. Look into my eyes. I am human. Look more closely and you won’t see the skin, you won’t see the home I live in or which school I send my children. Look closely enough and all you see is me. And we are all the same. We are all frightened, unsure, doubtful and capable of great understanding. We are human. And we matter.


This is where compassion begins.





images-4That winter was thick, frozen and bleak.  We spent long nights at the main house huddled around the woodstove, drinking sake and singing Scottish sea shanties.  The students would trade broken-hearted stories of a teacher whose passing, nine months prior, was still fresh in their hearts.  A man of outrageous warmth and brilliance, Trungpa, Rinpoche shot through their lives like a meteor; there without warning, then gone too soon.  Afraid to leave the fire, and brave the cold walk home, we’d sit till the early hours, forestalling the inevitable with deeper incursions into the heart.  When the sake finally transmuted loneliness into aloneness, and only solitude seemed appropriate, we’d wrap up and venture out past still shadowed deer, into the frozen beds of cabins silhouetted against blue-lit moonscape.

There was a picture of him holding a calligraphy brush on my dresser.  I would light a stick of incense and place it before the picture with a perfunctory wish for goodness to descend on the world. That would be followed by a more immediate yearning to meet his mind through his teaching.  Then I would have a drink of what would be ice cold sake in his honor. Cheers!


The first night I dreamt of him he appeared as a mountaineer named Phil Hillary. I came across him on a narrow Himalayan mountain ridge that descended on both sides into steep valleys.  He wore a dark green flannel Trilby hat with a feather in its band and lederhosen suspenders.  The expanse of the Himalayas opened behind him.  An off-panel personage introduced us and said, “He’ll show you the way”.  He tilted his head and looking above horn rimmed glasses, smiled.  His eyes, like the eyes in the pictures I had seen, were dark, empty and seemingly endless.


Joan was curled on her couch on twelfth street.  She let out a groan, looking up from a Village Voice.  I was cooking.  As it was a New York apartment, the stove was about three feet away from the living room. It was April fourth, 1987. “A famous Lama was just cremated in Vermont.  They can’t let the poor guy rest.  They’re complaining that he drank and slept around. What the hell do they want?  Its Buddhism.  They don’t have saints.  They have people.  Why is our culture scared of real people?”  I was intrigued.  I had been reading Dharma Bums and Chuang Tsu and wanted to meet people who dared to be real.  I wanted to travel the world and meet people no one would ever know, or have ever heard of, but lived their lives for themselves without apology.  People who knew that “finding oneself” was a noun, that seekers need not find, and that sitting still, alone on the floor, was a very good way to travel.

Throwing down the magazine, she lit a cigarette.  Dinner’s ready, I reminded her, indicating the smoke.  Ignoring me, she said, “Allen wrote a nice piece on him.  You should read it.” Allen Ginsberg, the de facto poet laureate of a generation, lived on our block.  We used to see him having brunch at Odessa with William Burrows, Iggy Pop or any number of young men looking into his great grey beard for confirmation of their burgeoning talents.  In public, Allen often spoke of his teacher.  In one such story, he mentioned that on retreat he would write lines in his notebook during meditation.  He felt sitting opened him to a new level of writing.   At one point, Trungpa had asked him to put the notebook away.  Who knows what treasures were denied world literature, but letting go of those potentially great lines opened his heart, mind and poetry to something he hadn’t seen before.  That simple sacrifice opened a new level of creativity.

My nighttime day job was cooking at a burger joint in Greenwich Village. They had a club downstairs where I managed comedy evenings a few times a week.  I was lucky to meet many up and coming would be, wanna be, used to be stars, reiterating brilliant jokes on their way to private bowling lanes in Jersey mansions.  Or, Malibu. Or, wherever. In a world where truth is suffering, I yearned for something real.


I ended up in the kitchen of a retreat center in Colorado, with the bravest, most open group of people I had ever known. It was a magical time.  A time of sadness and delight. A time of endless sorrow and great joy.  I understood, in time, that sadness and joy were not opposites, but both sides of one point.  Nowness, he called it.  In nowness, we are complete with a full range of present experience–not needing to avoid, grab or define anything.  Nowness is without occupation, other than full participation in the moment.  In this way, these moments connect us to a life beyond the limitations of judgment and speculation. It was maddening to think that a vibrant, awake and present world lay just beyond the glass ceiling of self-importance. I could see it, but not contact it.

So, I dedicated myself to the work of understanding. I learned more about this man who loved authenticity above all.  I read the books that opened my mind like the vast winter sky, inspired me like the endless summer sun and ignited my soul like forest fires that encircled the community each fall.  He was inseparable from the environment.  And, walking on the land at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, I came in contact with his presence.  He was the mountains, the steams, the sky, of this community that slowly pulled itself together in his wake.  It is said that when a great guru dies, his spirit rises and invites blessings to descend from the sky.  Blessings like sparks from bonfires rising to meet the endless stars as we’d search each other’s shadowed faces until an older student told us stores of the teacher and brought him down to life among us.  More than stories, this was transmitted experience. We were there together with this great, harrowing, exasperating and brilliant man.  They would effortlessly morph into his peculiar speech, which was part Tibetan, Indian and Oxford educated.  His voice was extremely high pitched, filtered through constrained vocal chords due to paralysis from a car accident.  The students would imitate his singing, in that shrieking improbable voice, completely off-key and unabashed.  He had no embarrassment.  So, we learned to have no embarrassment.

He was crippled, overweight, nearsighted, and unafraid. He was open to anyone, anywhere at all times of the day and would flirt with his world openly and without apology. The left half his body was paralyzed when he missed a turn and drove into a joke shop. At that point, he was wearing monk’s robes as a Lama in Scotland, but otherwise living a very secular life. His contemporary monks and colleagues urged him to see this as a wake up call and reconsider his actions. So, he did just that. He removed his robes.

I wanted to be with this man, but his time was gone. I yearned for a teacher. Even as I immersed myself in his mind mandala, all of his teachings, and indeed Tantric teachings in general, bespoke the need for a real living teacher. I had found my teacher, and he was telling me to find a teacher.  A few months later, I met Trungpa’s son, Osel Rangdrol Mukpo, then referred to as the Sawang, or Earth Lord,who had yet to change his name to Sakyong Mipham.  He had a powerful grace, humbleness and presence.  I knew he had the stillness to become a reference for my spinning. I became his student, without hesitation.


I had a dream. I was at a large table in the dining room of a well appointed home. Beyond an arch, the rest of the house sat in darkness from which here was laughter and music and people talking. I couldn’t see them. I just sat there and eventually stood up and wandered toward the arch. A man came in and asked me to sit back down and wait. It seemed I waited for ages. Just sitting there as everyone had fun in the rooms above. Then I turned and Trungpa, Rinpoche was sitting beside me, sans the mountain Trilby. He tilted toward me and looked above his glasses. “This is the transmission”, he said. And his eyes seemed to be endless pools of black, blacker than black and as deep as an ocean. I awoke and lay in darkness in my cabin.


Later that month, I got a call from the Sawang’s personal service, inviting me to cook for him on a month long retreat. I accepted, again without hesitation. Afterwards, I was amazed to find that there was only he, myself and one other guest. I was the primary attendant. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

During that time, my mind moved beyond itself, losing its nowness and looking for attainment, satisfaction, solace. I became immersed in the indignity of cleaning, washing, sweeping. I had visions of what time with the guru would be, but it turned out to be time with my own mind instead. And that mind was decidedly unhappy.  Time that might have been with the teacher was blocked by my mind. There is a great cognitive dissonance between what we think a thing will be and what it is. A teacher shows us what is.

I would feel cut off and dejected. Maybe this wasn’t my teacher, after all.  I fell inside myself, just as I had at the comedy club, thinking that truth was someplace else.

So, I had Trungpa’s books to curl up to in my cabin at night.  I was taken by the fact that his surname was a Tibetan lineage name that meant “one who serves”.  I read about him as though he were an action hero: his daring escape from Tibet, his trials coming to America and building a community.  His wife, Diana, had written that he was depressed after leaving the British Isles, because he hadn’t yet created his community. He was meant to teach and to serve.  Yet, even after he found that community and created a great world around him, that sadness remained.  There was still much to teach. There was still the world to serve.

And then I understood.  This was my opportunity to be part of that noble lineage, a lineage of those who served. And, who better to serve than this man, who had dedicated himself to shaping his father’s tremendous vision into a practical reality?

That night he called me into his room before he slept.  We sat talking about Alexander the Great.  He asked me questions, as though I was the teacher.  He wanted to know how people of my social background felt about leaders, kings and loyalty.  I told him we were skeptical.   I went on further about my theories on social needs and structures, gleaned mostly from what other people said.  I wanted to be well-regarded by him, of course. So, I was trying to impress him. At some point, I realized that he was just sitting there, in silence.  I looked up to him. He turned and looked right into me.  His eyes had that endless black depth that seemed to invite passage to the universe. I don’t know if it was a family thing, or a guru thing, but it shut me right up. I sat there and the silence seemed to ring through the room.

Then he smiled and said, “How about a big breakfast of eggs, sausage and greens tomorrow?”  Of course, I said.  And then he nodded in that way of dismissing me for the night.  I bowed deeply and left.

Back in the kitchen, I prepared his table and the things I needed for the morning.  Then, I turned to the shrine, to offer my closing chants for the day.  On the shrine was a picture of his father, looking straight out at me.  Reflexively, I stood at attention.  In that moment, I was connected to nowness, and to the lineage of those who serve.


April 4, 2015