It is what it is

Yesterday I visited a prison where a small sangha gathers once a week. It’s been going on for over a decade, but I’ve only been attending for a year and a half.

I often bring little cards with a poem or saying printed on them that’s related to the topic of the day which, yesterday, was the second grave precept, not stealing. The poem was from Basho:

I’m wealthy-
going into the new year
with 20 pounds of old rice

The poem captures the idea that “non-stealing is contentment with what is” or “non-stealing is a resting mind.” There’s no need to steal when the mind is at peace.

It’s often an interesting conversation in the prison, and sometimes quite profound words are spoken. Some of the men have been able to use their time as if they were monastics which, of course, they are in a way. Others simply find the weekly meetings a calming reprieve from the noise and clamber of a thousand testosterone-filled men. Some use the practice of mindfulness and meditation as a tool in coping with the stressors of prison life. Others are simply curious.

I realize that going into a prison is a marginal activity.  Few people do it. Entering a prison is to step into the sphere of what John Kabat-Zinn calls a magnet of suffering. Guards and staff do it as their livelihood, much like nursing assistants go into nursing homes, doctors and nurses into hospitals and clinics, social workers and counselors into homeless shelters. Families and loved ones go into prisons for obvious – or not so obvious – reasons. Clergy and 12-step folks go in as well. I know of a troupe of actors and musicians who go in. They have, perhaps, the most unusual motivation. In general, however, people go into these magnets of suffering out of rational compassion for fellow human beings.

Yesterday a couple of the regulars were not in attendance because they were in the hole.  They had gotten into a fight that resulted in some serious injuries. Based on the fact that there was a lot of blood and one of the combatants had to be carried away in a wheel chair, speculation was that these buddhists were going to be in isolation for a long, long time. And buddhists they were: some of them had taken the 16 bodhisattva precepts a couple of years ago.

This is a level 4 facility, 5 being the highest security level. I am always escorted to and from the chapel and there is always a guard present during the gathering. On the walk into the bowels of the building yesterday, which is where the chapel is located, a couple of guards were discussing the new, more lax policy on putting offenders into segregation. “There are a lot more guys walking around with black-and-blue eyes,” one of them offered to start the conversation. The guards seemed to think the new policy was not good for security or for the safety of prisoners, but they were resigned to it.

That’s one thing about prisons: resignation. Everyone feels that they have little control over the rules and think decisions are often fickle. In that way, it reminds me of China. The bureaucracy rolls along, rules change without apparent logic and there is no any appeal. Some people fight the sense of powerlessness. Others accept it. It wonder if it’s the same way in monasteries.

Bill Porter wrote that the one thing that confounds Westerners the most about the Chinese is their acceptance of whatever happens. Here’s a poem by Wei Ying-wu that recommends “acceptance” to a fellow bureaucrat who is taking a leave from his career in order to go home to care for his aging parents:

Seeing Off Censor Chang of the Palace Library Leaving
for Chiangtso to Care for His Parents

Don’t sigh about the road beyond the city gate
or that you won’t be coming back in a carriage
your brocade robes are there in your trunk
along with your books from rue-scented halls
with red rice grown in a well-watered land
and whitefish fresh from the Yangtze
your breakfasts can also be offerings
what good is longing for fortune and fame

A phrase used a lot in yesterday’s discussion was, It is what it is. Somebody got trashed. It is what it is. Somebody is going to spend 60 days in seg. It is what it is. The prison’s budget for three meals a day is $3.69. It is what it is. The chaplain is here one day and gone the next with no explanation. It is what it is. Some higher-ups instituted a new policy that will result in more people being hurt.  It is what it is.

Of course, many of the guys have opinions, and It is what it is can be be said in many ways and convey a multitude of emotions and attitudes. Some men don’t understand why other prisoners continue the violence that landed them in prison in the first place. Some are confused. Humor is often used to diffuse the pain.

Anger is not an uncommon emotion, however. Some of the guys seethe with it. Some of the guys employ humor as a release valve for it. Anxiety is commonly expressed, especially as guys get close to release. It’s a strange world out there.

“It is what it is” can mean many different things
In the midst of suffering
in hospitals and prisons
homeless shelters and ghettos
AA meetings and lands ruled by despots
it is what it is has many guises
and can be uttered with many meanings
with a throat constricted in anger
with a cynical sneer of the lips
with a shrug of the shoulders
with teeth clenched in hatred
with a closed heart
a sad heart
a broken heart
uneasily with a nervous giggle
with a shake of the head in disgust dismay
or in fearful anticipation

In the midst of suffering
it is what it is
is seldom said with glee or celebration
joy or laughter

in these places
I have also heard it spoken
like a temple bell ringing

Winter Observations

First Snow
On the porch the laughing buddha is blanketed by snow
pocketed and out of sight
like a ruffed grouse
diving into downy covers for the night

Ice crystals hang in the air at dawn
sundogs shimmer around the rising sun
it is a good day
as the seasons rise and fall


Chickadees go about their business on a cold winter morning
There is a brightness to winter
even on an overcast morning like this
snow amplifies the sunlight
challenging the memory of summer’s plentitude

I step out to fill the bird feeder
the cold air fires into my face
sunflower seeds rattling and tapping
as they tumble into the plastic cylinder

It occurs to me then
after all these years of study and meditation
I am not a buddhist and never have been
the chickadees seem unfazed


A grandmother sits on a blanket in the autumn woods
in the middle of a circle of all her relations
she welcomes her ancestors back to this place
the bdote where many of them were born
and in a twisted turn of genocidal cruelty
the concentration camp where many of them died

The contents of the sacred bundle are spread next to her
the people are talking singing drumming and praying
she sits calmly and quietly
taking in the autumn sun


28.xi.16, 8:40a
Mississippi River Gorge
waning crescent moon, cloudy, 50 degrees

It is coming up to rohatsu, bodhi day, the annual celebration of Siddhartha Guatama’s enlightenment and his realization of the interconnectedness of all reality and the path to end suffering. In the zen tradition there is a week-long silent meditation retreat that leads up to the day, and often practioners will sit in meditation through the last night.

For many years I sat rohatsu at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center on the shore of Lake Bde Maka Ska, meaning White Earth Lake in Dakota and formerly known as Lake Calhoun. The lake usually iced up at some point during the week. To be in silence daily for an entire week observing the continual shifts of color, texture, movement and emotion was a rare gift in my hyperactive urban life. There was a sense of gentle, non-grasping anticipation in watching a mundane, and yet miraculous, event.

It is clear that this year the lake will not freeze during rohatsu. It takes weeks of temperatures below freezing before the surface becomes solid, and this year we have had very few of those days. One year a trend does not make; nevertheless, it is an ominous sign. The earth and air are warming, driven by an ever exploding population of Homo sapiens and an ever higher standard of living for a growing number of individuals of our species. Added to that are ever advancing technologies that allow for greater population and resource exploitation, e.g., the “green revolution” and hydraulic fracturing.

I sometimes wonder, too, if there is a dark side to alternative energy technologies, like wind and solar, in that they relieve pressure on the growth of population and consumption. Perhaps our faith in them is just another delusion that with the right technology our resources are endless and we can “have it all.”

I am not anti-technology, certainly not against rapid adoption of alternative energy sources. However, we face an extremely complex situation and there are no simple fixes. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of time to make the fixes. We need to proceed calmly and thoughtfully and as if our hair was on fire.

Which is why I will be sitting rohatsu, though not on the shore of Lake Bde Mka Ska.

It may seem counter-intuitive to sit in silent meditation while the world is burning up and species are dropping like flies. But in buddhist texts this burning world is referred to as the saha world, the world of endurance, the world of suffering, and it is considered a great and rare opportunity to be born into it. It is only in this world that we are called upon to address suffering. From a buddhist perspective, that starts with a deep understanding, beyond mere human intellect and conceptualization, of the interconnectedness of all life. That is what the Buddha discovered during his night of meditation.

Like him, we must get up and carry that profound, unshakeable wisdom and understanding into the world with a sacred vow to honor and protect all beings and to end all suffering.