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Cup Stealers and the IRS

Having run up the hill 1000 feet and down the hill to the ocean and up the hill to reservoir, I jumped in and swam. I left when all the naked women showed up. I wasn't naked and I wasn't even swimming- just kicking around and looking at newts suspended in our farm's life blood.  I said hello and goodbye and honored the woman's hour. Boundaries. If it were Mom's ball in New Orleans, I never would have thought twice about getting naked- but half of the women had only seen me in my black robes or my farm gear.

Sitting on the table was a note from my wife. I could still taste the salt from my run. It was on an envelope from the IRS- it read, "Baby duck, I think this is for real."

They want 3,400 dollars for a retirement fund I cashed out when Lauren and I left New Orleans in 2011. I laughed and looked for our tax return. Turns out we didn't report it. I guess we thought since we lost 20% right off the bat, maybe that included tax? Turns out, no.

All this in an hour! The ocean of life is a big place and the waves come in many shapes. What makes one devastating? What makes one fun to ride?

Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

As I sat there just feeling light and happy, I thought, what nonsense! Last week so heavy and unhappy. How does this work?

There is this yogacara teaching of the 8 consciousnesses and the waves of karma, how all that works. I don't want to think about that today or maybe ever again. There is something about noticing and unnoticing  that helps when you're riding the waves of samsara.

In response to the bill from the IRS, I thought, there's no way I'm leaving Green Gulch. They'll be very disappointed with my tea bowls, robes, and books when they bust into room 14 of cloud hall to seize my assets. They'll also be disappointed to collect my monthly stipend of 280 dollars (which actually feels enormous for my needs- do you know how many cheeseburgers that is?).

We could probably not pay them. We probably qualify for the noncollectable status. But that's not so easy to carry. Interest accrues. Could double or triple. In ten years, it's forgiven. But if we leave the temple in 9 years? And who wants to create a situation you can't get out of? Not us.

So we love Green Gulch and love our life. My father-in-law recently visited for a week and said, with what I saw as misty eyes, "I don't think I can go back to the real world." He expressed how much his work crew bonded and how refreshing it was to be with people of like mind. I'm not sure how people go back. I know sometimes they have to. Someday I may have to. But not today!

So, we forfeit our stipends. It will take 6 months to pay off the IRS (or the IRA as I have been joking). I'll look for some weekend work.

But I will not leave my seat.

Pema Chodron talks about what Mel Brooks said. The big catastrophes wake us up in this practice. It's the little things that catch us off guard. I'm having that moment. I feel no stress about this debt. Our universe provides us with this stipend and there it goes to fill a gap and allow us to practice.

But let me catch a guest student with my Writer's Almanac mug and the dragon roars and I'm ready to leave this temple of...cup stealers!


  1. You cashed out the retirement fund. It was earning interest on money you hadn't paid taxes on, I take it - "deferred comp." You took the money and ran. The money is gone. And you have no retirement fund.
    Sigh. Kids.

    1. It's way worse than that! I decided to divest from anything capitalistic. Never felt more free. Don't worry about me, I know how to grow potatoes.

    2. From what I have been told by former residents, there are a bunch of people living at Green Gulch that did things like this 30 years ago (opted out of capitalistic economy) that are now wondering how they'll survive being elderly. This is something worth thinking about.

    3. Hi Al,

      Thanks for stopping by. Which Al are you? I know some Als that come around here.

      I wonder if you could say more about "survive"; as long as they have been here at least 20 years and they have reached age 70, they receive: a decent pay out, room, board, medicare, and if they can't pay the co-pay, Zen center will cover the cost on a case by case basis. They also collect social security, which more than most of our senior staff stipends. This is what's on paper, as handed to me just 2 months ago. I'm also surprised because I just ate breakfast with at least 3 elders who seem to be surviving.

      Something else that is in the works is our elder care center. More on that as things become more tangible. However, it will have rooms for elder monks and elder householders. It will be both a retirement home for our elders and also a new way of supporting ourselves by providing elder care in a senior living facility model. Again, nothing concrete about that; My interest in that project is wanting to be a apart of the garden/small farm they intend to start there.

      I should also say clearly that Zen center people have it pretty good from my limited point of view. It's our work, our donors, our guest programing(ZMC), but ultimately it's our three treasures that sustain us. I'm not worried at all; I'm worried I might change my mind and leave say, around age 50, and be in a real tight spot.

      But what can you do when you feel like your hair is on fire now?

      Palms together,
      Farm staff and Anja, GGF

  2. You don't care about my cup, do you.

  3. Let them have the Cups...don't worry there are more where they came from!!! But you will need more than potatoes in your old age which comes up on you quick when you are having fun. I sit here and wonder give what happened to the last 40 years - they went by in a blink. Six months will pass quickly give Caesar his due and be happy in your chosen life. So many of us have lived a life chosen for us..not by us....

    1. Dogen says, "Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone?"

      Yes, you can fight the man and waste your life with the dust of the world or just give him what wants, what he thinks he needs, say, "Is that so?" and go on. Not a big fight here. We really don't "need" money.

      And to put peoples minds at rest, Zen Center has it's own retirement plan for its senior monks. Of course, it's an all or nothing, similar to the military- except it's not years of service as much as when you turn 70 (with at least 20 years in- but it's not like I can retire at 50...I'll just becoming into my prime at 50!) you don't have to work anymore.

      Ironically, most of our senior monks who are in their 70s choose to work, from teaching dharma to tea ceremony, to cutting lettuce everyday with the young farm apprentices. Healthier than horses.

  4. This is an interesting conversation. Like Kogen, I spent my tiny retirement IRA last year, and am currently struggling financially. One thing I notice in this conversation, and others I've been involved in, is what I'd call a generation gap. Things are simply not the same for us younger folks (I'm 37), and clearly the capitalist engine that drove a decent level of support for Boomers, and the generation before them, is now crumbling under the weight of it's own, greedy internal logic. I did all the "right" things under the old model. Lifetime (or decades long) jobs with pensions and great health benefits are almost entirely history. The days of having a nearly guaranteed steadily increasing IRA or 401k are probably history as well. People with decent jobs are going bankrupt everyday because of health costs or housing costs. You can do all the right things, and end up screwed in the end anyway. And that's so much more common now. It's not just about "poor" or "naive" decisions.

    Those of us in Generation X and younger have serious questions about even having Social Security to rely on in our old age. More and more, the infrastructure built during the heyday of unionization is being gutted.

    In one sense, it's kind of dire. In another sense, it's a window of opportunity to put stake right through the corrupt heart of the economy and it's attendant, suffering producing structures. To build something more just and humane. Organize ourselves differently.

    Zen center's developing approach is one such effort. But there are plenty of others occurring, secular and spiritual/religious in nature. Risks in trusting community, collective spirit must be taken, and are being taken. In part because the old structures are being ripped away, or allowed to crumble. When banks are only offering a few dollars interest a month on 15 grand in a savings account. When employers aim to hire everyone or nearly every on contract, and/or readily attempt to drive out those with tenure/seniority to hire "cheaper" labor. When in order to get a few measly hundred dollars from the state welfare agency, you have to open your life up to almost daily scrutiny - well, you start to really take seriously the line in one of Dogen's commentaries on the precepts of their being "not even a single square inch of earth upon which to stand."

    When it comes to money, I'm not sure what's "wise" anymore these days. I, personally, don't intend to join a monastic community anytime soon, so I have to find another way. Even so, I think what San Fran Zen Center and others are doing is a great model of practice. Perhaps in the coming years, they can also figure out a way to better support those who choose to stay for some period of years, and then "re-enter" the marketplace as well.

    We are being called to get much, much more creative about money and material resources. Even if the old, capitalist ways linger beyond my lifetime, I don't see them as having much lasting power in any meaningful ways. This era is a tiny blip in human history, totally unsustainable.

    1. Dear Nathan,

      Despite my long reasurring response, I have a lot of faith in potatoes. 1 potato makes 10-15 potatoes!

      Thank you for your post! You should re-post as a blog, or I should have guest featured your comment!

  5. Knowing that there just isn't much for them to take and I still have food and shelter has felt surprisingly ok. If Zen Center can do me that much I'd say they're off to a great start. I am feeling deeply appreciative these days.

  6. Ooops that was me up there commenting while accidently logged in as you, I stole your identity for just a moment, so sorry!


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