Tag Archives: Zen

The Way to Stay in Business, and Create Less Suffering, is to Extend Compassion in All Directions.

9I guess I’m not much of a blogger, for months on end I have nothing to say, but I have been thinking lately about an earlier post I wrote about Compassion. Specifically, “Extending compassion in all directions.”

Often, I see people causing problems for themselves and for others because we all tend to focus on what is in front of us, and forget what’s going on, on the sides, behind, above and below us.

When compassion is directed in one direction, for example, at your tenant, or your partner, or on yourself, you are missing a huge part of the picture.

When people who want to be Good become landlords, they tend to direct compassion towards their tenants only. Maybe they keep their rent artificially low so that the tenant will like them and be their friend. Or maybe this is what they think a good Christian or Buddhist or Muslim should do, and there is some basis for that. I think there have been rotten selfish landlords throughout human history.

There is nothing wrong with behaving this way, if it sustains all involved, and creates less suffering.

However, if doing this is going to put you out of business, even if it takes 15 years, this is not a wise manifestation of compassion. Does the landlord/lady have kids ? We need to think of them too, who’s going to pay for their college ? A spouse who needs health insurance? Your rental income can help with that. How about the lenders who helped you acquire your real estate ? They need to be on our radar too. If you screw up and can’t make your payments, that’s causing harm to whomever’s money you used to buy your rental. It’s also harmful to you. You will probably suffer a lot if you can’t make your mortgage payments !

Here’s what I found on the Huffington Post when I Googled “Idiot Compassion.” A term popularized by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa.

“…this is known as wise compassion, action that is inherently skillful, that sees the whole situation and aims to bring release from suffering; its opposite is known as blind or idiot compassion, which does not take into account the whole situation and so, while appearing compassionate, is inherently unskillful and may actually increase suffering. For instance, idiot compassion occurs when we support or condone neurosis, such as giving a slice of cake to an obese friend.” – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ed-and-deb-shapiro/wise-compassion_b_841019.html

The example I use for idiot compassion is the driver who stops hard on a busy street to let a mother and her baby cross. On the surface this sounds like a kind and generous thing to do. But I was once crossing the street with my daughter, when a nice young woman hit her brakes unexpectedly to let us cross. The car full of people behind slammed into her ! The kind driver was looking forward but not behind, just like the unwise landlord. She caused a big problem involving 6 people, and their families, and their Insurance companies, and people’s rates going up, and auto body shops, and the ripples of this crash radiated out and out and out.

My daughter and I could have waited to cross another minute, and none of this would have happened. No one would have suffered at all if the young driver had seen the entire situation, instead of just focusing on what was to the front. Wouldn’t that have been much better ? Even more compassionate ?

Image: AMAZING Buddha statue at Art Institute of Chicago

The Wonderful World of Plumbing

There are Bodhisattvas everywhere. Yesterday I walked into my local plumbing store ( the one that gives good advice ) with a few drawings and high hopes. I was replacing a leaking drain line in one of our two 100 year old houses. There I found a couple women behind the counter that I was reluctant to talk to, because neither one looked like an experienced plumber. It turned out that the younger gal, 6 months pregnant,  had actually worked as a plumber for 7 years. I was skeptical until she uttered the magic word, Oakum. No one but a real plumber would know what that weird old stuff that they once used to help seal cast iron pipe joints was called. Plumbers used it in conjunction with molten lead that they poured into a fitting.  She went on to give me some good advice on how to bond the new ABS drain line to the ancient cast iron stuff that may have been installed by a guy who rode a horse to work.

One great thing I’ve learned over the years is that people with knowledge like to share that knowledge. I’ve had plumbers teach me about plumbing, electricians teach me how to install a GFI outlet, and appliance repair man  help me repair a busted clothes dryer. I have found that a lot of this stuff is pretty easy to fix if you know how a bolt and a nut go together, and ABS plastic plumbing is just like cutting and pasting on your computer.

I think this tendency is a sign of what Chogyam Trungpa called “basic goodness.” I think everyone likes to help….

“Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience—the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.” – Chogyam Trungpa



A Landlord since 1987 – a Zen student since 1980

From playing Monopoly in the hot Detroit summers, to the first experiences of being a tenant while a student at Michigan State University, I was intrigued with the idea of collecting rent. Sure, there was an element of greed there, it seemed like a way to earn a living that would not involve a lot of work. I am not sure though if it was not my father’s life that motivated me most of all. An autoworker with an 8th grade education, he worked in Detroit’s factories for 40 years. He once described his job title to me as “Slave,” for an elementary school assignment I had to write, and often said that he was “chained to a machine” eight hours a day. Listening to him bang and curse around the kitchen, day after day, at 5am on a frozen or sweltering Michigan morning, sent the message to me, loud and clear, that he was an unhappy man. Unhappy with his very life. Even though I was just a kid, some part of me knew I had to do something differently.

Beginning in college, before graduating from MSU with a degree in Building Construction, I experienced a long period of deep personal suffering, catalyzed, in part, by the death of my father when I was 21 years old. I ended up at Tassajara Zen Monastery, near Carmel Valley, California in 1980 at the age of 25.

Tassajara was like boot camp and detox at the same time. Even though it was the “Guest Season” ( a period of less intense meditation practice ) it was unimaginably difficult for a suicidal long- haired hippie who had spent the previous 6 years self medicating with as much beer and pot as he could get his hands on. Then, after a period in San Francisco, living in an apartment with other Zen students in the era of Baker-Roshi, and his stunning expansion of the San Francisco Zen Center, I returned to Portland, Oregon, where I had lived in 1978 and 1979.

Hired by the Portland Art Museum in 1981 as a maintenance man, I met my future wife, a curator at the Museum. We bonded over shared rides to “sitting” at the Zen house that I shared with (now  Roshi ) John Tesshin Sanderson, a monk from the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Tesshin brought Charlotte Joko Beck to Portland to do a retreat ( traditionally called a sesshin) in 1983, or thereabouts, and I met the woman who would be my best friend for the next 24 years. A brilliant, frightening, all loving, mind blowing Zen teacher – Joko.

Before my wife and I were married by Joko in 1987 we decided to buy a house. My dormant desire to be a landlord re-surfaced when we found that the $55,000 price we could afford would buy us a very miserable house, or, we could incorporate potential rental income into our formula, and buy a lovely 1953 duplex ( pictured in the header) for $75k. Since it was agreed that this was “my baby,” and my wife would continue her career in Arts administration, suddenly I was a Landlord, and the question immediately arose “How to do this without harming any person or thing ?”



Today there are 7 beautiful rentals to take care of – 18 wonderful tenants who always pay their rent on time – A much depleted net worth thanks to the economic slump – and, much joy in life after 31 years of Zen meditation. I go to morning meditation at the Zen Center of Portland 5 days a week, and get good guidance from my teacher there, Dr. Larry Christensen, a Dharma heir of Charlotte Joko Beck. I also serve as a meditation instructor ( not a Zen teacher) at the center.