Friday, May 28, 2010


For several weeks, I have been photographing the courtship rituals of the bluebirds in my backyard.  It's an invasion of their privacy, I suppose, but I can't resist the temptation of watching these beautiful creatures through my telephoto lens.  To be honest, I'm beginning to feel a bit like the photographer in Hitchcock's Rear Window who constantly spies on his neighbors while convalescing from an injury.

For the most part, the bluebirds have been tolerant of my intrusive behavior.  A few days ago, however, I began to sense a slight shift in the dynamics of our relationship. After taking a few photos with the camera mounted on a tripod, I sat down in a patio chair for a moment, only to discover seconds later that the bluebird I had been photographing was now perched on top of my camera about six feet away.  My first thought, of course, was that my camera's resistance to bird droppings was about to be tested.  As the bird stared at me intently, however, I realized that his rather intimate visit was for the limited purpose of giving me a polite warning. He seemed to appreciate the nice accommodations that my wife and I have provided, but appeared concerned that my photo-taking frenzy each evening was complicating his courtship advances.

Thus cautioned, I decided to give the bluebirds a break for a few days.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, so it was only a day or so later that a very aggressive young fellow -- presumably the guy who commandeered my camera earlier -- began flying with great abandon into the rear window of my sun room. Unfortunately, these reckless missions have not abated for the past four or five days.  Indeed, the assaults are coming with such regularity that I am beginning to think less about Rear Window and more about another Hitchcock classic, The Birds.

Preparing for Another Assault 

Concerned about the bluebird's physical welfare, my wife taped various objects on the window pane in the hopes of discouraging the incessant head-banging. Nothing was successful, however, so I decided this morning to place my camera on a tripod inside the house and aim it through the window in the direction of the bluebird.  He would either be discouraged by the camera, I reasoned, or I would get some good shots. Stubborn little guy that he is, he decided upon the latter course, continuing to fly into the window pane until dizziness sent him back to the nearby limb for a brief respite before the next assault.  

After taking the photos shown in this posting, I put the camera away and continued to search for a solution to the bluebird's problem, short of opening the window and letting him apply for adoption.  Within moments, however, the problem was resolved by none other than a delicate female who perched on a garden structure nearby and stared at the male in the same disbelief that I had been feeling for days.  Prompted by the sheer pulchritude of Her Loveliness, the male withdrew from his insane head-banging activities and returned to what he should have been doing in the first place.   

Hopefully, the little male bluebird has come to his senses and will stop these kamikaze missions.  One thing is for sure, however:  he is still keeping an eye on me!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig's memorable philosophical inquiry into values, the narrator is often perplexed by the obstinate refusal of people to see what is right before their eyes: 
The truth knocks on your door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away.  Puzzling.
The problem, I believe, is that the truth itself of often puzzling.  It offers the promise of something we seek -- for example, living in harmony with the universe -- but it then recommends a path that usually makes no sense, at least at first glance, to our logic-oriented brains. Suggest to someone that the greatest among us should be a servant or slave to others, as Jesus recommended, and you will likely encounter a stare of disbelief.

As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, "the words of truth are always paradoxical."  We may be attracted to a noble idea of the truth, but our egos usually reject what the truth calls upon us to do.  Many people, for example, profess to be Christians -- but how many are willing to act in accordance with the paradoxical teachings of Jesus?  Who is willing to lose his or her life in order to find it? Who is willing to love the enemy, pray for those who spitefully use us, turn the other cheek when assaulted, and rejoice when others revile or persecute us?  And what would the elite of our society think if the first really became last and the last became first?

Many profess to be followers of the Tao, but who is willing to act in accordance with the teachings of Lao Tzu (left) in the Tao Te Ching? Who is willing to yield to force, rather than respond in kind?  Is anyone willing to empty himself or herself in order to become full?  Willing to give up everything in order to gain everything?  Willing to allow the death of one's self in order to be born again into a higher consciousness? 

And what about the noble truths of Buddhism?  How many followers or admirers of Buddhism are willing to relinquish the cravings and desires that underpin all suffering?  How many are willing to abstain from harmful conduct, including gossip and other harmful speech?  How many are willing to resist any act, including war, that involves the taking of a life?

My point here is not to take a moral, political, or religious position on what we should or should not be doing with our lives.  It is understood, I hope, that such positions are off limits in this online journal.  What I do want to emphasize, however, is that spiritual truths are seldom comfortable, because they usually call upon us to do something that is counter-intuitive, at least initially.  Indeed, the truth to which we are drawn often seems inherently contradictory, and therein, of course, lies the paradox.

Many withdraw from the truth at the first hint of paradox. For thousands of years, however, the great teachers of wisdom have repeatedly told us that the things we most desire -- love, peace, happiness, and true security -- can only be discovered by actions that, paradoxically, seem inconsistent with those objectives. The question that always remains, however, is whether we have the courage to press through the walls of fear that surround our lives.

My decision to post something on the relationship between truth and paradox was precipitated several days ago by the rediscovery of a passage from T.S. Eliot's great poem, The Four Quartets.  That passage is set forth below, together with some other relevant observations by Anthony De Mello, Lao Tzu, Mother Teresa, Carl Rogers, C.K. Chesterton, Jack London, and Madeleine D'Engle.  Read and enjoy.

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
  You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
  You must go by the way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
  You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
  You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

                           T.S. Eliot
                           The Four Quartets

All mystics . . . no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion -- are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well.  Though everything is a mess, all is well.  Strange paradox, to be sure.  But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.  They are having a nightmare.

                       Anthony De Mello

           If you want to become full,
           let yourself be empty.
           If you want to be reborn,
           let yourself die.
           If you want to be given everything,
           give everything up.

                      Lao Tzu
                      Tao Te Ching

I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
                        Mother Teresa

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
                        Carl Rogers

The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.
                         C.K. Chesterton

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise.  And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive . . .

                          Jack London
                          The Call of the Wild

The world of science lives fairly comfortably with paradox.  We know that light is a wave, and also that light is a particle.  The discoveries made in the infinitely small world of particle physics indicate randomness and chance, and I do not find it any more difficult to live with the paradox of a universe of randomness and chance and a universe of pattern and purpose than I do with light as a wave and light as a particle.  Living with contradiction is nothing new to the human being.
                          Madeleine D'Engle
                          Two-Part Invention

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Great Blue Heron Feasting on Recently Plucked Morsel

This photo of a Great Blue Heron feeding in still water was taken this morning at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in the county just south of the one in which I live.  Established in 1933, Blackwater is a nature preserve of 25,000 acres that encompass tidal marshlands, freshwater ponds, and extensive forests.  

The refuge is a major wintering area for approximately 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks that migrate here in the fall and return to their northern habitats in the early spring.  During the summer months, the refuge is inhabited primarily by herons, egrets, ospreys, mallards, small water birds, and various songbirds.  It is also a sanctuary for several troubled species, including the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

Set forth below are some of the other photos taken at Blackwater this morning, as well as a couple that were taken there a few weeks ago.

Great Blue Heron Seeking to Hide Behind Marsh Grass

Young Deer Hiding in Marsh Grass

 Bald Eagles



Turtles Basking in the Sun

Great Egret

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron Perched on Pine Bough

Monday, May 17, 2010


"The bluebird carries the sky on his back."


On almost any summer evening, usually after the sun falls behind the trees, the dance of the bluebirds begins in my backyard.  The seven photos in this posting were taken at the dance just two days ago.  

It was a lovely little courting scene.  The male was the first to arrive at the finial of a garden structure. Moments later, the female joined him, but made it clear that she was looking for something more than just a social visit.  A nice dinner, maybe?  At that point, the male left for a few minutes and returned with a fresh spider.  The very sight of the offering drove the female into a state of ecstasy, but the male was not prepared to deliver until things calmed down a bit. After a moment of reflection, however, he turned and dropped spider into the expectant beak of the female.  As soon as the tasty morsel was devoured, the female flitted off to some other destination, presumably checking out other suitors, while the male, now appearing somewhat desolate, found solitude in a nearby willow.  Things will work out, of course; they do every spring.

"If there is not response in you to the awakening of nature -- if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you -- know that the morning and spring of your life are past.  Thus may you feel your pulse."

". . . over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and than never happen, of things that are not and that should be."

Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying: An Observation

And so remember this, 
Life is no abyss,
Somewhere there's a bluebird 
of happiness.
Life is sweet, tender and complete,
When you find the bluebird
of happiness.

Bluebird of Happiness, lyrics by Edward
Heyman and Harry Parr Davies

Blue skies Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds Singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds All day long.

Irving Berlin, Blue Skies 

"Full of innocent vivacity, warbling its ever pleasing notes, and familiar as any bird can be in its natural freedom, it is one of the most agreeable of our feathered favorites.  The pure azure of its mantel, and the glow of its breast, render it conspicuous, as it flits through the orchards and gardens, crosses the fields or meadows, or hops along the roadside."
John James Audubon

Friday, May 14, 2010


Stanley Kunitz
American Poet

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Stanley Kunitz, one of our finest American poets. Kunitz graced us with his presence for more than one hundred years, and we who love poetry are much the better for it.

With a writing career that spanned eight decades, Kunitz was awarded nearly every honor that a poet can receive in this country. Among other things, he received the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, a National Medal of of the Arts from President Clinton, and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.  He also served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States.

While Kunitz is remembered primarily as a poet, he also had a great passion for gardening.  In fact, when one reads both Kunitz's poetry and his meditations on gardening, it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins.  In The Wild Braid, Kunitz strongly suggests that the two disciplines were interwoven in his life.  "I think of gardening," he wrote, "as an extension of one's being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem."  A similar note is found on the frontispiece of the book:
I associate the garden with the whole experience of being alive, and so, there is nothing in the range of human experience that is separate from what the garden can signify in its eagerness and its insistence, and in its driving energy to live -- to grow, to bear fruit.

Whether writing poetry or tending his garden, Kunitz spent his life focused on the ramifications of change, particularly those that occur within the human heart. In one of my favorite poems, The Layers, he spoke movingly about the painful losses in his own life and his struggle to move forward, as we all must.

                     THE LAYERS

     I have walked through many lives,
     some of them my own,
     and I am not who I was,
     though some principle of being
     abides, from which I struggle
     not to stray.
     When I look behind,
     as I am compelled to look
     before I can gather strength
     to proceed on my journey,
     I see the milestones dwindling
     toward the horizon
     and the slow fires trailing
     from the abandoned camp sites,
     over which scavenger angels
     wheel on heavy wings.
     Oh, I have made myself a tribe
     out of my true affections,
     and my tribe is scattered!
     How shall the heart be reconciled
     to its feast of losses?
     In a rising wind
     the manic dust of my friends,
     those who fell along the way,
     bitterly stings my face.
     Yet I turn, I turn,
     exulting somewhat,
     with my will intact to go
     wherever I need to go.
     and every stone on the road
     precious to me.
     In my darkest night,
     when the moon was covered
     and I roamed through wreckage,
     a nimbus-clouded voice
     directed me:
     "Live in the layers,
     not in the litter."
     Though I lack the art
     to decipher it,
     no doubt the next chapter
     in my book of transformations
     is already written.
     I am not done with my changes.

I sense that Kunitz is still not done with his changes.  At the very least, he continues to change us with the heart-wrenching insights of his poetry.  To the question he raises in The Layers -- "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? -- Kunitz offers no simplistic answers.  He suggests, however, that his own answers were lessons that can be learned from any garden -- a grateful acceptance of the complex layers of life, a commitment to go where one needs to go, and a spirit that is always open to the possibility of transformation.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Yesterday, I reached my goal of hiking 1,000 miles before embarking upon my coast-to-coast trek across England in June.  "An accomplishment," some have already said, but that's not how I really feel about the experience.  I simply feel blessed -- and grateful, of course, that I have have been given an opportunity to spend  a little time dancing with the natural rhythms of the universe, if only for a brief interlude.  Every step was a step of joy, an opportunity to see something new and exciting, a chance to listen to my life and get some sense of my place in the larger scheme of things.

In the region of the south where I spent my youth, shop owners would sometimes offer customers lagniappe after a purchase.  Lagniappe, as I learned from my parents at an early age, is an unearned or undeserved gift that is offered as a kind of bonus or goodwill measure.  Nature, I find, offers lagniappe to walkers.  We go out looking for one thing and we return having received so much more.  As Rebecca Solnit has written in Wanderlust, her fabulous book on the history of walking:
The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don't know you are looking for, and you don't know a place until it surprises you.  Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.
Walking offers myriad benefits and pleasures, including health, clear thinking, creativity, and spiritual renewal. I am tempted, of course, to write about each of these benefits.  For the moment, however, I simply invite my readers to enjoy what others have said about the joys of walking.

Walking and health --

     Walking is man's best medicine.


     A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good
     for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than
     all the medicine and psychology in the world.

     Paul Dudley White
     Renowned Cardiologist

     Above all, do not lose your desire to walk.
     Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being
     and walk away from illness.

     Soren Kierkegaard

     When you have worn out your shoes,
     the strength of the shoe leather has passed
     into the fiber of your body.  I measure your health
     by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you
     have worn out.

     Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking and thought --

     All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.

     Frederick Nietzsche

     I can only meditate when I am walking.  When I
     stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with
     my legs.

     Jean Jacques Rousseau

Walking and creativity --

     If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking.
    Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.

     Raymond Inmon

     Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.

     J.K. Rowling

Walking and spiritual matters --

     My father considered a walk among the mountains
     as the equivalent of churchgoing.

     Aldous Huxley

     My God is the God of Walkers.  If you walk
     hard enough, you probably don't need any
     other god.

     Bruce Chatwin

Walking and truth --

     Perhaps the truth depends on a walk
     around the lake.

     Wallace Stevens, "It Must be Abstract"

     If you look for the truth outside yourself,
     It gets farther and farther away.
     Today walking alone, I meet it everywhere I step.
     It is the same as me, yet I am not it.
     Only if you understand it in this way
     Will you merge with the way things are.


Walking and final notes --

     I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
     Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
     And there I found myself more truly and
     more strange.

     Wallace Stevens, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"

     The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy;
     walk and be healthy.  The best way to lengthen out
     our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.

     Charles Dickens

Saturday, May 8, 2010


"Every man has his own destiny," wrote Henry Miller, "the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him."  Wise counsel, for sure, but it is seldom followed.  Many people, perhaps most people, are so conditioned by family, culture, and experience that they never discover their own destiny, and if they do, they usually lack the courage to follow it. More often than not, they end up leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation."

Consider the pathetic narrator of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, the powerful poem by T.S. Eliot (left) on the horrors of the inauthentic life. Prufrock is a man who always needs "to prepare a face to meet the faces" that he meets; who always thinks he has "time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions;" who desperately wants to "disturb the universe," but, sadly, cannot muster the courage to do so.  He is a man who has measured out his life with coffee spoons; who feels that he is "pinned and wriggling on the wall;" who doesn't know how to "spit out all the butt-ends" of his days and ways.  

Dare to eat of peach?  Dare to part your hair from behind?  Dare "to force the moment to a crisis?"  Not Prufrock.  He can do none of these things, for he lost his authenticity long ago, and now thinks it might have been better if he had been "a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas."  His destiny unfulfilled, Prufrock is left with nothing but a sad admission:

 I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

If Eliot's Lovesong tells us about the tragedy of an inauthentic life, other poems point us to the joy that awaits those who have the courage to recapture their personal authenticity.  Two of my favorite poems in this regard are "The Journey," by the wonderful American poet, Mary Oliver, and "Love After Love," by the Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. When I begin to feel the slightest deviation from my own authenticity, I return to these two poems and always find inspiration.

Mary Oliver

The Journey

              One day you finally knew
              what you had to do, and began,
              though the voices around you
              kept shouting
              their bad advice --
              though the whole house
              began to tremble
              and you felt the old tug
              at your ankles.
              "Mend my life!"
              each voice cried.
              But you didn't stop.
              You knew what you had to do,
              though the wind pried
              with its stiff fingers
              at the very foundations,
              though their melancholy
              was terrible.
              It was already late
              enough, and the wild night,
              and the road full of fallen
              branches and stones.
              But little by little,
              as you left their voices behind,
              the stars began to burn
              through the sheets of clouds,
              and there was a new voice
              which you slowly
              recognized as your own,
              that kept you company
              as you strode deeper and deeper
              into the world,
              determined to do
              the only thing you could do --
              determined to save 
              the only life you could save.

Derek Walcott

                             Love After Love

    The time will come
    when, with elation
    you will greet yourself arriving
    at your own door, in your own mirror
    and each will smile at the other's welcome,

    and say, sit here.  Eat.
    You will love again the stranger who was your self.
    Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart
    to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

    all your life, whom you ignored
    for another, who knows you by heart.
    Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

    the photographs, the desperate notes,
    peel your own image from the mirror.
    Sit.  Feast on your life.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Photo by Brian Downing

In 1972, Alfred Wainwright, a renowned fell-walker and author of numerous guidebooks about the Lake District, finally completed a project that he had wrestled with for many years -- the establishment of a coast-to-coast walking path across England, from St. Bees on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea.  Since its creation, the path has enjoyed immense popularity and is now commonly referred to as "Wainwright's Coast to Coast Walk."  The term "walk," however, can be misleading for Americans, who generally use the term to describe a leisurely stroll of a few miles, at most, across relatively flat or slightly undulating terrain.  As Henry Stedman notes, however, in his excellent book, Coast to Coast Path, "let us be clear: the Coast to Coast is a lengthy and in many places tough trek."  

According to Wainwright, the official distance of the trek is 191.5 miles; more recent surveys, however, have declared that it is closer to 220 miles. From the departure point of St. Bees, the path proceeds northwards along the edge of coastal cliffs for a short distance and then moves westerly, eventually crossing three national parks: The Lake District National Park, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and the North York Moors National Park.  According to Wainwright, "the countryside traversed is beautiful almost everywhere, yet extremely varied in character, with mountains and hills, valleys and rivers, heather moors and sea cliffs combining in a pageant of colorful scenery."  Who can resist that? I certainly can't.

Photo by Brian Downing

I first read about the coast-to-coast walk -- called the "C2C" by aficionados -- several years ago.  I made a copy of the article and placed it in a file, where it remained until last August, at which time I retrieved it, looked at my watch, and discovered to my amazement that I was considerably older than I had imagined.  At sixty-six (now a year older), I knew that the trek was not going to get any easier in the future, and, therefore, the time had come to seize the proverbial bull by the horns.  In any event, I needed a new challenge to placate my pesky old companion, Goethe, who slumbers in my brain each night, mumbling his now-famous dictum:  

    Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. 
    Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Pressed into action, I made my reservations and committed myself to hike at least 1,000 miles before beginning the C2C.  As of today, I have completed 975 miles of that goal  and will complete the remaining miles within the next few days.  A good start, I believe, but it remains to be seen whether there will be "a slip between cup and lip." I have prepared well; I have purchased reliable gear; I have a strong commitment to completing the trek; and, thus far, I have resisted the advice of those who suggest that it might be more prudent to take a short walk through Burgundy, punctuated, of course, by frequent stops at patisseries, bistros, and vineyards that offer free wine samplings. This is a tempting recommendation, without question, but a walk through France will have to wait for another day.  I love walking, I love the prospect of challenging terrain, and I plan to press on from St. Bees to Robin Hood's Bay, come hell or high water. As for those recalcitrant volcanoes in Iceland, we will just wait and hope for the best.

Photo by Brian Downing

So, here's the plan.  I will be leaving in early June for Manchester, England, from which I will take a train to St. Bees, a small coastal village to the north.  On June 5, after the traditional dipping of a toe into the Irish Sea, I will head up the coastal cliffs above St. Bees and veer westerly toward the Lake District.  Assuming that all goes according to plan, I should reach my destination of Robin Hood's Bay thirteen days later.  At that point, I will dip my toe into the North Sea -- also in keeping with tradition -- and promptly report to a convivial pub to join my fellow trekkers in lifting a few pints.

Wainwright's Hand-drawn Map of Coast-to-Coast Walk

When I return, I will be posting several blogs to cover my experiences on the trek.  I will also be posting some photos that, hopefully, will encourage others to embark upon the C2C or some other long-distance trail.  The world is waiting for us, and Goethe is right: Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Since I have yet to make the trek, I have illustrated this posting with photos taken by Brian Downing, who, accompanied by his wife, Gail, completed Wainwright's coast-to-coast walk in 2005.  For those who wish to see the beauty of the trek in all of its daily detail, I suggest that you go to Brian and Gail Downing Photo Diary, Brian and Gail have done a great service for all who wish to walk the C2C, either literally or vicariously.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


When I grow weary with the world, I find myself going to the bookshelf that holds my volumes of Alan Watts, Henry Miller, and Thomas Merton, three seekers who would have surely enjoyed each other's company. I find comfort in the mere titles of their books, e.g., Behold the Spirit and Still the Mind by Watts; The Wisdom of the Heart and Stand Still Like a Hummingbird by Miller; Seeds of Contemplation and Mystics and Zen Masters by Merton.  When I pull down any one of these volumes and open its covers, I find myself at peace instantly, knowing that I will soon be transported back to my center, the still place that is my ground of being.

Recently, I returned to Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a fascinating book that explores the author's study of Zen and its relationship with various structural systems, especially religion.  The title itself raises a variety of questions.  What does Merton have in mind when he refers to "Zen," a word that is extremely difficult to define and is often misused?  Who are the "birds of appetite"?  And what do the birds of appetite have to do with the world with Zen?  These questions are answered by Merton, of course, but the reader must first spend a few moments reflecting on the author's brief opening note, from which the title of the book is drawn:  
Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend.  Life and death are  two.  The living attack the dead, to their own profit.  The dead lose nothing by it.  They gain too, by being disposed of.  Or they seem so, if you must  think in terms of gain and loss.  Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation.  But it is, nevertheless, a serious question.  Where there is a lot of fuss about "spirituality," "enlightenment" or just "turning on," it is often because there are buzzards hovering around the corpse.  This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen -- even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts.  And they enrich the birds of appetite.
     Zen enriches no one.  There is no body to be found.  The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be.  But they soon go elsewhere.  When they are gone, the "nothing," the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen.  It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey. 
  At first glance, this opening note always appears cryptic and vexing. Reading it slowly, however, I begin to see where Merton is going with this. He is essentially stating that most of us are "birds of appetite," who are circling the skies constantly in search of a visible form that appears to offer the spiritual nutrition we require. Sometimes it's a  religion or some other belief system; sometimes it's a defined philosophy; sometimes it's a new kind of spirituality or a new "ism."  In almost every case, however, we appear to be seeking sustenance from something that has form and structure -- something that can be easily understood, measured, defined, and labeled by the analytical machinery of our conditioned minds.  And whatever that something is, our egos expect to be enriched by it, to gain something from it, just like the birds of prey that hover around the corpse of a dead animal.

Merton is not calling upon us to abandon all forms and structures; he recognizes that words, rituals, traditions, and other cultural systems are appropriate in certain contexts.  He fears, however, that our increasing obsession with forms is blinding us to the ultimate reality that lies beyond those forms -- the mystical experience of life itself, the formless, nameless, mysterious wonder that underpins everything.

This is where Zen can be useful.  In its purest sense, Zen is simply a heightened state of consciousness that is not dependent upon any kind of form or structure -- religious, cultural, or otherwise.  Since it is neither a form, a structure, nor a system, it does not stand  in opposition to any form, structure, or system.  It is not contrary to any religious or cultural traditions; nor is it contrary to the forms through which those traditions are practiced.  As Merton says, it is "trans-religious, trans-cultural, and trans-formed."  In short, Zen permits one to see and experience the ultimate reality that lies beyond the forms and structures.

If this sounds esoteric -- and I think that it does -- it is probably because Zen, by it very nature, does not lend itself to either systematic thinking or verbal expression. It can only be experienced, personally and directly. Paradoxically, one must be both mindful and mindless -- mindful in the sense of paying attention to what is actually happening in the present moment, and mindless in the sense of not judging and labeling what is happening.  As an old Zen saying goes, "better to see the face than to hear the name."

Zen can be practiced anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. "Everyday Zen," say the masters, is the best.  At a minimum, Zen returns us to a place where the ultimate reality of life, in all of its complexity, can be fully experienced and accepted, with neither judgment nor resistance. Under the best of circumstances, one might even experience  occasional moments of transcendence.  "To attain this experience," writes Merton, " is to penetrate the reality of all that is, to grasp the meaning of one's own existence, to find one's true place in the scheme of things, to relate perfectly to all that is in a relation of identity and love."