BLESSING THE SEA – ISSUE 21, April 2023 “A Questioning Mind”

Sunrise in the Superstition Mountains, Arizona. © Lane Igoudin, 2014

Most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. The task of the child is to obey. In Judaism, the opposite is the case. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they grow. . . Those who are confident of their faith need to fear no question. It is only those who lack confidence, who have secret and suppressed doubts, who are afraid.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks “The Necessity of Asking Questions”

You know how sometimes you can’t get a snippet of a song out of your head? It just eats and eats away at your brain. In a similar way, some questions come up in my practice, unsettling questions that demand not logical solutions, but answers that would feel right – inside.

Why, for instance, my cravings like worry (desire to control the unknown) or food (immediate physical satiation) only get stronger with age – despite wisdom, despite practice? What do I do?

I asked this question at a recent talk given by someone who has taught me a lot about mindfulness over the last 20 years – Dr. Victor Byrd, the founder of Long Beach Meditation. Victor didn’t tell me what to do but observed:

“Age and practice bring wisdom to see through delusion. Your cravings might not have gotten strong. It’s just you can see them better now than before.”

In other words, my teacher told me to question my question. Unexpected, but true. Thank you, Victor.

Another puzzle. Visiting from Israel last weekend, Rabbi Benny Lau, a famous interpreter of Biblical texts, was speaking at the home of congregant from my synagogue, B’nai David Judea. Amidst the balmy sunshine and lush nature of a Westside LA backyard, Rav Lau recited a curious passage from the Book of Haggai (2:12-13):

If a man is carrying sacrificial flesh in a fold of his garment, and with that fold he touches bread, stew, wine, oil, or any other food, will the latter become holy?
In reply, the priests said, “No.”
Haggai went on, “If someone defiled by a corpse touches any of these, will it be defiled?”
And the priests responded, “Yes.”

The example made sense, given the Biblical standings of ritual purity/impurity, and the context – Prophet Haggai urging Jewish people to return from Babylon exile to the land of Israel.

The larger lesson, however, rings true but also perplexes me. Why does evil spread through contact, but not goodness? Why should goodness be something one has to achieve on their own?

Available interpretations of this passage seem to be of technical nature. Would you help me figure this one out? Email me what you think. I’d love to share your thoughts in the next issue of BTS.

Several weeks prior to Rav Lau’s visit, I helped to facilitate an evening of Israeli poetry also organized by B’nai David-Judea.

After presenting a particular poet and piece, I engaged the participants in a contemplative discussion, following a practice already shared here in Blessing the Seahow to meditate by reading poetry.

It’s a wonderful technique that allows you to move away from reading the text for literal and figurative meaning and open up to the awareness of your own internal reactions to the poem. It works!

Speaking of worry and defilement, the age of AI is upon us. I am yet to see any positive benefits from the anticipated flood of artificial creativity, mimicking that of humans, but since last fall, I’ve been learning plenty about its dangers to education, scholarship, literature, and so on.

I just got my first AI-generated paper in the sociolinguistics course I am teaching this semester. 99% of its content had nothing to do with the topic, but was written in florid language, citing some tangentially related sources. The student put no effort into their work, and earned 0 points for an empty paper. What’s good in that?

Then I read “Can a Chatbot Share True Dharma?” by Jiryu Rutschman-Byler of San Francisco Zen Center (where, incidentally, I first trained in Zen in the mid-1990s, face to the wall…). Jiryu developed and trained an AI bot to teach the Buddha’s teachings. His article brought up a host of questions in my mind, starting with Suzuki Roshibot, named after the founder of the Center, introducing itself:

“I am a bot that engages in conversation about zazen, compassion and other parts of Zen in the style of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I am still training, but I want to be able to guide students in a way that will encourage a warm-hearted and clear practice.”

“Warm-hearted and clear”? Or is it the monkey mind taking over?

I promise to continue to ask more questions to which I do not have a ready answer.


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