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Allan Lokos

Allan Lokos

In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.

I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover.

Yet recover he did, thanks in part to his meditative practice. Allan Lokos is the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City. In telling his story, he gratefully acknowledges the roles of his supportive wife, his generous friends, and his compassionate surgeons in his recovery. He recalls the encouraging words of Dr. Tan Bien Keem of Singapore, who told Lokos that when he cut into his patient’s body he felt “an energy–a life-force–that was too powerful to die at that time.” But most of all, Lokos attributes his survival, his relatively swift recovery, and his present equanimity to the Buddhist teachings he had absorbed and practiced for many years prior to his trauma.

Prominent among those teachings is the principle of “dependent origination,” which holds that every event is the natural consequence of causes and conditions. “This is, because that is,” the teachings tell us. “This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.” Applying this principle to his own experience, Lokos describes it in this way:

A pilot brought a plane down short of a runway. The plane, flying low, cut through electrical wires and sparked a fire that engulfed the plane. The plane crashed. I tried to jump from the plane but my foot got caught on something and I was seriously burned before I could free myself. My mind/body immediately went into survival mode and I did survive.

Void of hyperbole, Lokos’s prose plainly states what happened. As he acknowledges, and as his book vividly demonstrates, his experience entailed “a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional pain,”and at times during his recovery, the insight of dependent origination was “not enough to fill the emotional emptiness.” But by focusing, as best he could, on the actual causes and conditions of the crash, rather than speculate on what might have been, he freed himself from the “infinite number of story lines, projections, and perceptions we can attach to such an event.” By eschewing “regrets, accusations, or blame,” and by refraining from asking unanswerable questions (“Why me?”), he allowed “the road to recovery to be unencumbered.” Primarily for that reason, he believes, he has healed more smoothly and rapidly than anyone had expected.

Standard interpretations of the Parable of the Burning House view the burning mansion as samsara–the realm of suffering, driven by greed, anger, and a fundamental ignorance of reality. The rescuing father is the Buddha, who guides resistant humanity toward wisdom and liberation. And the jeweled carriages represent the “vehicle,” the teachings and practices that convey the practitioner from suffering to happiness. In Allan Lokos’s case, those teachings and practices were already in place, and they allowed him “to stay grounded not only in the chaos and urgency of the crash but also in the dark days that followed.” Lokos believes that with patience and determination, “complete healing is possible, even when a cure is not.” And though his narrative is graphically detailed and often unsettling, it is also deeply inspiring. “Doctors said I would not live,” he recalls. “They meant well, but they were wrong. I am healing. You can too.”

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The Parable of the Burning House appears in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. See The Lotus Sutra, tr. Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1993), 62-69.

Allan Lokos, Through the Flames: Overcoming Disaster through Compassion, Patience, and Determination, Penguin, 2015.

 Photo: Allan Lokos

Listen to Allan Lokos speak about patience at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIIm_bDAZ1E

Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. Continue Reading »

156. The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. Continue Reading »

155. O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. Continue Reading »

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Continue Reading »

153. Not two, not one

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: Continue Reading »

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention Continue Reading »

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