Spirituality * Culture * Self-Expression

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Through the Mountain

Your favorite mystic gets asked a lot of silly questions, one of which is “Are you Enlightened?”

How do you answer a question like that?

If I say Yes – you might think I’m bragging (and who would brag about a thing like that?)

If I say No – you might think I’m lying (and who would lie about a thing like that?)

The problem is that to understand the answer to that question you have to know just what Enlightenment is. And if you know what Enlightenment is, you really don’t have to ask the question.

People “think” they know what Enlightenment is, or what they want it to be, but thinking about it makes you miss the point. Enlightenment is a state of BEING not an idea. It is a natural state that anyone can experience and it is also an extreme state that can’t easily be defined.

You could compare it to something like Happiness. When you are happy, you know it without being told. And people who have experienced happiness can usually tell when other people are happy without being told. But happiness covers a wide range of experience – from a little happy to ecstatic (and I use that word deliberately because sometimes Enlightenment is equated with ecstasy). And sometimes if you are in a particular state of happiness for a very long time, you can forget that there was ever any other way of being and so you no longer know that you are happy – you’re just you.

A better question might be “how do you BECOME Enlightened?” And that poses problems of its own because a very real and legitimate answer to that question is “how are you AVOIDING being Enlightened?)

I think I will need to write a much longer treatise on this subject some day, soon.

Enlightenment is a natural state and humans seem to experience barriers to enjoying that state. Where did those barriers come from and how can you get around them are even trickier questions that require a lot of verbiage to respond to adequately.

So, to finish off this post, here’s a little story about getting through the barriers that might stir up some level of Enlightenment within you as you read it.

Imagine you are living in a dark and gloomy world. Easy to do, since that’s how many people see life. Now, as you wander about you begin to notice a large mountain in your path. Did it just appear? Was it always there? While you’re thinking about it, you move closer and see that there is a hole or cave in the side of the mountain. You move towards it. As you get closer, you notice people running out of the cave as if they are terrified or maybe in a state of shock. They ignore you or babble something incoherently as you question them, but you get the impression that something weird is in that cave.

Now as you get closer, you notice that while some people are running out of the cave, other people are creeping in to it. You decide to follow them in and find yourself traveling through a tunnel. Someone tells you there is something amazing at the end of the tunnel but they can’t explain what it is.

You go in deeper.

People pass you going out and coming in. And when you reach a point in the tunnel, you start to see people just standing or sitting around. One of them tells you they have just decided to rest for awhile. They don’t want to go back to the old world, but they just can’t bring themselves, yet, to continue to the end.

But you decide you are going all the way.

You decide you really want to see this wonderful thing at the end of the tunnel, whatever it might be.

You move along. People continue to pass you running out or running in, deeper. You also continue to see people just stopping on the way. But you no longer try to talk to anyone. You will find out for yourself what is going on.

There are scary sounds, rock slides, pits that open up before you that must be leaped over, walls that must be climbed, shadows of things you can’t understand – but you keep going deeper towards the truth.

You go deeper and then you notice a light. Maybe it was always there. Who knows? You move towards it. It is the way out of the mountain tunnel. Cautiously you step through to the other side.

Your eyes are opened. Everything is beautiful. Bright skies, clean air, pretty birds and flowers and people around you that seem so happy.

You wander around, almost ecstatic with a new found vigor. You suddenly think of the mountain you passed through and look for it. It is gone, it is no where to be seen. Perhaps it was never really there at all.


The number 666 is often associated with the Devil and evil in general – but on the 6th hour of the 6th day of the 6th month in 1944 the forces of good pushed back against the darkness and reclaimed the light.

On D-Day the Allied nations mounted a massive attack, part of operation Overlord, against the Nazi Socialist armies that had taken control of Europe. The combined English, Canadian and American forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the largest seaborne invasion in history and began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control. The invasion laid the foundations for the Allied victory on the Western Front and started the action that led to the total defeat of Hitler’s empire.

World War II is often seen as an epic/mythic confrontation between good and evil played out in the real world. The actions of Hitler’s partners could certainly be seen as Evil with a capital “E” and the results of a Nazi victory would have been disastrous for the world – a disaster from which the people of Earth might never have recovered. But the forces opposed to Hitler were not necessarily all that good – at least the leadership of the Allied forces were far from saintly. They were brilliant, competent and determined combatants and the people they served were convinced of the rightness of their cause – but they weren’t saints. This goes to show that in a war against evil, angels can accept and use help by less than perfect partners. If the Devil was orchestrating the war, his own weapons and powers were turned against him. On D-day, and throughout Operation Overlord, the Allies used deception, cunning, propaganda, brute force, the wanton sacrifice of lives (425,000 troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the battle of Normandy) and, of course, the possibly accidental use of the number 666.

On D-Day, the unstoppable armies of the Nazi regime were finally stopped. The Allies freed France, Western Europe and eventually the rest of the world held hostage by the Devil in the guise of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party. After the war, the Allies consolidated the United Nations organization tasked specifically with preventing such a war from ever happening again. Let us hope they are successful.

Rough Beast

I was set to write a post about New Year’s resolutions – but lately I’ve had this old poem running through my head so I thought I would present that to you instead. 

This is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919 – shortly after World War I – a war that devastated the planet and, arguably, changed the way humans perceive each other and the world. The poem is old but given everything that is happening today it still feels fresh and relevant.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
A little depressing to be sure. Its the kind of imagery that makes us think. This time in history – this time in our lives – is the perfect time to do one thing: Wake up! 
I say it often and it needs to be done. If we are to generate a future of peace and good will, we must commit to an awakening. 
Wake up! Wake up any way you can. Wake yourself up and then wake up everybody else. Together we can transform whatever rough beast bursts upon our consciousness into a guardian and protector of our spiritual light.

The Gates of Heaven and Hell


Here is a story about the great Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who lived between 1686 and 1768.


It expresses a mystical understanding of the way life is lived by most people in contrast to the experience of Enlightenment. A similar idea is found in the writings of John Milton who said “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” And also connects with the thoughts of C.S. Lewis who observed that to some extent “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” It is our own impulses, desires and emotions that create and maintain for us the state of heaven or hell.

One day, a soldier named Nobushige came to Master Hakuin. He asked: “Is there really a heaven and a hell?”



Hakuin immediately confronted him – “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “You call yourself a samurai! What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw out his sword.

Hakuin, unafraid, continued his insults: “So you have a little sword, do you! That piddly thing is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

Red faced with anger, Nobushige drew out his sword and held it over the teacher.




Hakuin calmly remarked: “Here you have opened the gates of hell!”

These words struck the samurai like a fist. Awakened by the shock, Nobuhige clearly perceived the situation and realized the master’s wisdom. He sheathed his sword and knelt in supplication.




“Here” said Hakuin, “you have opened the gates of heaven.”



The Heart of a Mouse

timid mouse

Here is little story illustrating the folly of making changes to one’s outward aspects (appearance, behaviour, customs) without first transforming the inner being.

There is an old Indian fable about a mouse who was constantly stressed out and agitated because of its fear of the cat. A magician took pity on the poor creature


and turned it into the very thing it feared – a big, ferocious cat.

ferocious cat

This helped the mouse for a while, but then it once again became stressed out and agitated due to its growing fear of the dog. So the magician helped it out again, this time by turning it into large, powerful dog.

big dog

Things went well for a time until the mouse again became stressed out and agitated – this time out of fear of the panther. So the magician used magic once more and turned it into a fearsome panther.


The mouse was very confident now as the mighty panther until it became aware of the hunter and thus became stressed out and agitated again.

At this point the magician gave up. He used his magic one last time and turned the timourous creature back into a mouse.



“There is nothing I can do for you,” the magician said. “No matter how I transform you, no matter how I alter your outer appearance, no matter how many new resources of strength and ability I make available to you you will always find a reason to be afraid because inside you there always remains the heart of a mouse.”

timid mouse2

Belling the Cat – a Fable



This fable is often attributed to Aesop but it actually seems to have written around the 12th century in England or France.

A large, fierce cat was brought into the big house to help control the mice population. Whenever the mice would try to go to the kitchen for a snack, the cat would sneak up on them and chase them away – or worse from the perspective of the mice.  In desperation the mice decided to hold a council meeting to find a solution to their problem. Many suggestions were put forward but none were totally acceptable to the group. Finally a young mouse stepped forward with an idea:

“The problem is that the cat sneaks up on us and we never know where she is until it’s too late. If we put a bell around her neck we’d always know where she was and we could come and go to the kitchen as we pleased.”


Everyone loved this idea and congratulated the young mouse on his brains and initiative. It was agreed he would have a great future in the mouse community. While the council celebrated a successful meeting an old mouse stepped forward and offered some of his wisdom.

“I agree,” the old mouse said, “that this is excellent idea. But, before we get too carried away by the proposal I wonder if our resourceful young mouse – or one of his friends – will be brave enough to put the plan into effect. For, you see, someone is going to have to put the bell on the cat.”

No one volunteered, the celebration subsided and the council got back to its discussion.


One moral of this story points out the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility.

From a mystical point of view we all want to see a perfect world and have a perfect life, but are we willing to do what it takes to bring it about?

A similar story is found in the Bible. A young man comes to the Master and asks how he can be perfected. The Master tells him to love God, follow all the teachings of the law, and be useful and beneficial to all those who need him. The young man asserts that he has done all this and more all his life but now he wants to be perfected. The Master says, “if you really want to be perfected, sell all you have and give the money to the poor that you might have treasures in Heaven and then come and follow me.” The young man silently turns and walks away, for he was very rich.

plans and actions

Too Materialistic – a Zen Story

zen garden

I can’t track the source of this story and I’m not even sure it’s part of authentic Zen tradition – but I like the concept and I thought I’d share my imperfectly remembered version.

Once there was a Zen master noted for his great austerity. He had only one robe that he wore summer and winter. He slept on the ground with only an old, worn-thin blanket for warmth. He allowed himself only one bowl of rice a day, but he gave half of even this meager portion away.

He was always compassionate and cheerful despite his practice of poverty, yet deep inside he was troubled. After years of rigorous effort he had still not attained full awakening.

poor meditation

One day he called to one of his disciples. The disciple was going on a journey to the city and the Master asked him to do him a favour.

“My old master lives in the city” he said. “Please visit him there and ask him why I have still not attained full awakening.”

The disciple bowed and went on his way.


The city was a wondrous place of lavish delights. The disciple was struck by the beauty of his surroundings. He asked directions to the temple where the old master lived and was even more amazed at what he saw when he got there. The temple was magnificent and held luxurious gardens with all many of exotic plants. The walls were brightly painted with exquisite art works. The monks were dressed in silken robes and wore golden chains. But when the disciple was shown to the master’s chamber he was awestruck by the opulent display of riches. The brightly polished floors were strewn with jewels, and silken pillows, the master himself dressed in saffron robes reclined on an overstuffed divan while beautiful young women fed him from tables overflowing with costly delectables.


The disciple could hardly speak but finally he composed himself and asked the question – “Why has my master not yet attained full awakening?”

The old master paused from his repast for only the briefest second and then said: “it’s simple – he is too materialistic.”

The disciple could hardly believe what he heard but bowed and left the temple. He returned to his own master and hesitantly approached.

“Well,” said the master. “What did he say?”

The disciple stammered a bit and admitted that he may not have understood the response correctly. But the master insisted on getting the message.

“He said you are too materialistic.”

“Ah, yes,” said the master. “Of course; it’s true.  I should have known this. Wonderful!”

“But Master,” said the disciple. “You are the least materialistic person I could ever imagine. You have only one robe to wear summer and winter; you sleep on the ground with only a worn-thin blanket for warmth; you allow yourself only one bowl of rice a day and then you give half of that away to the poor. How can you possibly be materialistic?”

The master sighed and closed his eyes. “At night before I go to sleep … I think about the rice I’ve given away.”

finally awake




The Dog and His Bone – a Fable

The dog and his bone


A young hound dog found a big tasty bone while out on his travels and held it tightly between his clenched teeth. He scowled and growled at anyone or anything that tried to take it away from him. Pleased with himself, he trotted off into the woods looking for a good place to bury his prize.

As he jogged along, he came to a stream, and merrily padded over a footbridge in his path. But his pleasure was short lived. Crossing the stream he happened to glance into the water below and saw his own reflection. Thinking it was another dog down there with an even bigger bone, he became envious and threatened the reflection in the water. He scowled and growled at the other dog; and the other dog seemed to scowl and growl right back at him.

Angry at the audacity of the other dog he thought “I’ll teach you to growl at me. I’ll get your bone as well, and then I will be truly satisfied.”

illusion of more

He opened his jaws, barked and made a grab for the other bone he saw in the water. Alas, as he tried to snap up the new prize, the big bone he held in his mouth fell with a splash, into the water and forever out of sight.

The moral of this Aesop’s Fable:  be satisfied with what you have because if you go running greedily after what somebody else has, you just might lose what you’ve already got.

Put in a more mystical way: when you seek fulfillment, be careful not to pursue false dreams and illusions or you might end up losing the good things you`ve already attained.

focus on what matters

No Gorillas at the Ballet



The great stand-up philosopher, Louis C.K., tells a story about a joke his 7-year old daughter told him. He’s been in the business for 25 years and knows exactly how jokes are structured, but his daughter’s joke surprised him.

Gorilla joke

Question: Who told the gorilla he couldn’t go to the ballet?

Answer: Just the people who are in charge of that decision.

Why is this joke funny? Two reasons:

1.  the answer is unexpected and

2.  it is easy to visualize.

People are lining up to see the ballet. A gorilla in a tuxedo is walking in the line, looking down at his phone, pretending to text, trying to avoid attention.

Door Keeper: Hey you. No, no, no – you’re not getting in. Yeah you – yes, the gorilla – I’m talking to you. You’re not getting in.

Gorilla: (looks up from his phone, confused) Why not?

Door Keeper: Because you’re a gorilla – I don’t even have to say anything else.

Gorilla: But don’t I get credit for talking and getting dressed up to see a ballet? Doesn’t that buy me any credibility?

Door Keeper: No. It’s a long show – it’s 3 hours – you’re not going to make it. You’re OK now but half ways through you’re going to start jumping up and down and pounding on people. That’s just the way you guys are. I ain’t gonna be burdened with that — not again. If a gorilla kills everyone at the ballet once – shame on the gorilla; but twice …

sad gorilla

OK, you can see why Louis C.K. would tell this story. But why would I include it here in a blog about meditation and spirituality?

This story makes me think about all those people who pretend to be spiritual – even pretend to be spiritual leaders. You can dress up in the robes, learn some catch phrases and prayers – maybe use a few props – but if you’re not really enlightened then you’re not getting into the big show.

The people lined up with the gorilla don’t notice he’s a gorilla – it’s up to the Door Keeper to point it out.

Who is the Door Keeper for enlightenment? Who are the people in charge of that decision?

In some traditions, the head of the particular order is in charge. The Master of the temple or school decides if the disciple has attained Enlightment or not.

In the western world, however, it is mostly a self-assessment. Just about anyone can say they are enlightened. Anyone with a little charisma and charm can gain a following and pretend to be a spiritual master. However, we find that eventually these pretend masters expose themselves as frauds.  They might not jump up and down on chairs or pound people to death – but in time they reveal their true nature and their cult group or following collapses in disgrace.

phoney guru

It’s important for each of us to evaluate the claims of self-professed spiritual masters. The Master Jesus warned us long ago to avoid the so-called teachers who do not practice what they preach. And he condemned the teachers who do everything they can to get disciples and then make them twice as fit for hell as they are themselves.  You must look past the clothes and the jargon and see into the heart of the teacher.  Anyone can claim to be a spiritual master but to prove it they must consistently act like masters. You must become the Door Keeper to your own spiritual bliss and train yourself to look past the glamour and deception of those who would seek to claim your soul.

Wake up! Wake yourself up any way you can. Wake up and then wake up everyone else.

Wake Up

Is That So? – a Zen Story


The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

One day, without any warning, a beautiful girl, whose parents owned a food store in the village, announced that she was pregnant. The parents were livid and badgered the girl to reveal the name of the father. At first she would not confess the name, but after much harassment she finally declared that Hakuin was the father.

In great anger the parents confronted the master and accused him of lechery. “Is that so?” was all Hakuin would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. “This is your responsibility,” the girl’s parent said.

“Is that so?” said Hakuin.


By this time he had lost his reputation with the community and he was shunned and often ridiculed behind his back. This did not seem to  trouble the master. He  took very good care of the child, seemingly delighted with the task of caretaker. Observing this, the neighbors soon accepted the situation and helped Hakuin obtain milk and everything else the child needed.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

is that so

The girl’s parents at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness and apologize at length. They also demanded that the child be returned to them.
“Is that so?” Hakuin said. But willingly relinquished the child.

Stories like this not only teach us about the lives of past Zen masters, they also help us develop personal enlightenment by offering our minds interesting vistas upon which to travel.

What was up with Hakuin? Why didn’t he just tell everyone he was not the father? What made him accept responsibility for the child? What did he mean when he said, “Is that so?”

Hakuin was always himself and not whatever other people thought of him. He did what was needful at the time. In life one day it rains the next day it’s sunny. Arguing with the sky doesn’t change anything. Cursing your fate doesn’t help you. Because Hakuin was truly free and his mind enlightened, material circumstances could not disturb or distress him.

As the poet Richard Lovelace wrote:

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love and in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above, enjoy such liberty.
But what do you think? What does the story say to you? How does it reveal to you the path to enlightenment?

spirit of meditation


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