Editor’s Desk: Beginner’s Mind by Michael Toms

POSTED September 10, 2023 IN

A letter written to a friend ten years ago following a Buddhist Retreat . . . .

Recently, my six-and-a-half-year old grandson, Jeremy, asked me, “Pop-Pop, why do you like Buddhism?” Realizing in the moment that I was being challenged to transform my usual intellectual and well-reasoned reply to such a question into a few words of clarity and simplicity for the benefit of my current spiritual teacher, namely him, I answered after an appropriate pause (needed to quiet my panic), “Because it makes me feel good.”

Jeremy ruminated briefly over my response with a few thoughtful “hmmmms,” and then asked, “Pop-Pop, are you a Buddhist?” In that instant I felt like I was sitting across from a 5th century Zen patriarch who was probing my spiritual depths to find out what progress I had made after five decades of haphazard effort. It was a knee knocking experience. All my “knowledge” became as cotton candy in my mouth, sweet but useless. It was then I realized I was neither a Buddhist nor a Christian nor any other –ism or -ology I might admire. This was a split-second flash of insight that leveled the usual shields and flags I carry to put forth my spiritual beliefs. The mind was sent reeling and suddenly there was just no-thing. In the few seconds it took to recover my senses, as if I needed to, I mumbled something to Jeremy like, “I guess I would say Buddhist-Christian or Christian-Buddhist, but it’s really something beyond either of them.”

This whole episode has given me lots to work with and it has served especially to remind me of the Buddha, the Christ, who live inside, and for which all these religions were established in the first place-to help remind us from whence we come and how to bring those origins into our human lives. I find myself content to follow my grandson’s questioning wisdom as the path most appropriate for me now. I feel the connection to all my teachers (I have been especially dense, so have been blessed with many). Through the years the work I do has been my teacher. I’m learning to accept that IT IS ALL CONNECTED, meaning there is my daily practice of meditation, the practice of being in nature, especially with the birds. My cat is my teacher, my partner Justine is my teacher, all the people I work with and all the people I interview are my teachers. All these contacts are woven into the multi-colored cloth of my spiritual unfoldment.

While this was unfolding I went and saw the film, Little Buddha. The cinematography was superb and the famed filmmaker, Bernard Bertolucci, put some spectacular scenes together. The point of bringing this up was to share the lightning bolt of clarity that shook my bones after seeing the film. I guess it was the power of the visual images on the giant screen that revealed a reality to me I had always known but never really saw clearly. The roots of Buddhism, at its core, is based on the story of a prince who chooses to leave his pregnant wife and unborn child to go off seeking enlightenment. Does he ever reconcile with her or his child?

Robert Aitken Roshi wrote so eloquently in his book of dialogues with Brother David Steindl-Rast, “The historical Buddha seems to have considered it impossible for a householder to attain the highest and the best. Indeed, a synonym for monk in the Buddha’s time-and even today, in some Asian languages-is the term home-leaver.” He goes on to point out that this concept probably pre-dated Buddhism and simply was incorporated and still predominates in North Asia with the Mahayana and Vajrayana as well as in the southern tradition of the Theravada. He maintains the principle is fundamentally incorrect and goes on to say, “I tell my students that our duty is to find the way to leave home without leaving home-in other words, to find the way of practice with our households.” No wonder us householders have such problems. I’ve been staying home, creating retreats in other ways and not feeling guilty about it, although I once did. The book referred to by the way is The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice Buddhist and Christian.

So much for my pebbles in the pond at the moment. I look forward to feedback. Maybe I’ve gone off the deep end and need rescuing or perhaps saving would be a better metaphor?

Fast forward eleven years or so, and it has become clear that it is all practice, every moment, and it is all connected. As well as being mirrors for one another, the inner teacher is where we find what is true.


-Michael Toms

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