2 days 4 hours from now
2 days 13 hours from now
4 days 14 hours from now
6 days 13 hours from now
1 week 2 days from now
108 Zen Books
It’s finally a sort of Spring here. I mean “sort of” in the sense that there is no clear delineation between the end of Winter and the start of Spring in the very best of years and it’s more than apparent this year. It would be nice to claim that this is some sort of growth in my awareness and hence degree of enlightenment. But it’s not. Spring just seems to saunter up the laneway and turn the corner to the rose garden, looking for all intent and purpose as if it had simply stepped out for a moment to fetch a pail or a trowel. And then looking shocked at the rampant growth of weeds and frost-withered daffodils.
Lady Spring not being the kind to hang around for the hard labour, Frank headed out into the swarm of mosquitoes and black flies to stave off the advances of the dandelions and their ilk. Two hours later I was summoned to check on his work; the greenery had become more undifferentiated in being flora or possible compost. I was astonished. The roses stood out in solitary splendour, the alium sat happily in their tangle mess of leaves and stems, the Buddha wore a half-necklace of chive – and all seemed perfectly right with the world.
There are moments like that these days. It wasn’t always so. I was deeply moved to read Justin Whitaker’s recent blog post on his journey through darkness. Justin writes about his dance with depression and it’s a worthy read for all of us who have taken long walks with the Black Dog. (Side note: if you Google “black dog of depression”, there are a number of fascinating hits.) Many of us know the pain, despair and devastation that can accompany depression and its cohorts of anxiety, phobias and self-harm. We have gone on voyages and pilgrimages to find cures, salves and resolutions to our pain. Some of us enter the path of Buddhism. Some of us meander, picking and choosing in the exact way that reinforces the clutches of helplessness and hopelessness because nothing can ever be a certainty or give assurance that the clouds will lift forever.
And some of us live in a strange oblivion, unaware of that beast dogging our heels or curled snugly against our chest as we lie in bed wishing the dawn away. Perhaps we notice a regret that we made it through the night and have to face another day of masked frailty. Perhaps we take deep breaths just before an exertion, mental or emotional. Perhaps we turn to Buddhism because it promises an end to suffering despite our insistence that we really cannot be suffering in this mud sty of materialist delight.
I don’t recall if I came to Psychology because I suffered or if I came to Buddhism because it was the best articulation of the psychology of mind and behaviour… and because I suffered from those tangles of mind and behaviour. There are so many memories of sitting in the library stacks researching schizophrenia because that could be the only explanation for the impossible reality I experienced. There was this moment of heart-rending insight when I learned that there was a name for what I experienced. It was called “impermanence.” Of course, there were a few nuances to that.
At a gathering of Burmese refugees, I was asked when I left Burma. 1965, I said. He looked at me perplexed. “1965? What was happening then?” In a single sentence, 35 years of exile were wiped away. I could appeal to no war, massacre, slaughter for having left with my parents who themselves bore witness to a range of subtle and overt forms of torture and torment. But it was there. Deep in my memories lay stories I overheard of people being taken away and returned broken in bone and spirit, visits to families left destitute because of changing loyalties and rampant paranoia. But it was 1965 and nothing was happening so I could not have been suffering.
The story could go on for a long while yet but it is little different from what Justin or others have shared. We twist and turn at the end of our perceptions of what it means to feel helpless and hopeless. In the end, however, we exhaust ourselves and become still – in body if not in mind.
What I really want to put out here in black-and-grey is that we tend to dismiss our birthright to suffering. We seek external validation for it and by doing so we fail to see the simple truth that we suffer. Never mind if there is a diagnosis (I’m not big on diagnoses). Never mind if there’s a label that makes it more communicable to health care providers and insurance providers. There’s a place for all that but all that has no place in turning around and sitting in front of that loyal black dog who is simply trying to do its job.
The practice of Buddhism in the face of mental health issues is to teach us to turn around and sit down. Wait for that experience to show up. Meet it with all the equanimity, fear, reservation and curiosity we can muster. It’s a tough scary call to practice but it is an irrevocable responsibility given the moment we first wailed.
And some days then, we hear with profound clarity the burbling of the spring behind the house. We see the green in the banks of the brook. We smell the ploughed earth and the mown hay in the back field. We feel the soft fur of the animal at our feet, our own “soft animal body that loves what it loves.”¹ We taste the wild strawberry tucked under the lavender bush. And our mind flashes with realization, this is it. Just this.
We throw the ball and the black dog delights in playing fetch.
¹”“Wild Geese” from Dream Work, copyright © 1986 by Mary Oliver.
Filed under: reflections Tagged: depression, mental health, practice
A long time ago, a robin’s egg fell to the deck, looking for all its worth like a piece of the sky had drifted down to rest on the cedar boards. It sat in a dish on the altar for a few years and later became the resting support for incense sticks, itself resting in sand brought home from a North Carolina beach. The blue faded and the shell took on the imprint of burn from an incense stick. It sat faithfully for a decade or more just doing what it was never intended to do yet doing it wholeheartedly.
Then one day it met a puppy and the shell cracked, cracked some more when it was being carried to safety – although once broken could there be any safety. And there in a plate used for sumi-e ink, it met a kitten who in its joyousness opened it totally to reveal all that it had been, all that it possibly could have been and profoundly exactly what it was in that very moment.
There is so much that we are intended for, so much that is intended for us. It begins however with one and only one intentional possibility: to become what we are. Bird, fish, human. Only after that is fulfilled can we speak of the nuances and ephemeral things-to-become.
And sometimes, we do not, cannot become for so many reasons beyond our ken and control. In those times, we may be given some other role, some other possibility which will do, will have to do for this lifetime. How to do that wholeheartedly? How to rest in that pocket of sand and support the burnt offerings of something beyond our perception?
How to sit without the hope that some intense curiousity or vibrant joy will infiltrate, breaking our shell, opening us. If only to see that what we were intended for is no longer possible. And yet, what we are is immense in its possibilities.
Filed under: 108 thoughts, reflections Tagged: zen
The sight of five vultures waiting at the end of the driveway can be a good thing. What is the good and what thing they point to is, of course, unknowable in the immediate. And yet. That single view is enough to send me wandering on time travels to worlds of worry, regret and wondering what if.
Vultures waiting are a powerful icon for time lost, frittered away. The body/mind unbinding with nothing left but the shell of a vessel poorly treated and meagerly used. I stepped out of the car quietly not wanting to set them on flight; that would have truly signalled the end. So I watched them as they watched something off in the northeast field, unmoving yet intimately related.
Dogen¹ writes exquisitely of time as inseparable from being, time-being or more succinctly being-which-is-time. Uji. It takes a moment to drop into what that feels like because the cascade of moments seems external, impenetrable and inexorably outside our control. Our perception insists that time moves relentlessly and mercilessly as we are dragged along in its wake. No wonder I quail at the sight of an icon of endings.
Katagari² describes “The Pivot of Nothingness” as this present moment – which doesn’t exist because past is vanishing and future has yet to unfold leaving a void, a turning point, a pivot into the next unfolding. For ease of communication, we tend to position ourselves through language. “Here I am.” But the terminology fractures when we drop into the “here” “I” and “am.” Each is a construction of something from the past and a reaching into the future.
In this “here” is a train station into which pulls all manner of locomotives taking me “there.” The room where this or that happened which lead to that or the other not happening. The city where choices ended and others failed to manifest. The bus, the subway where I choose this direction and not that, where one meeting lead to another but a different route missed the intersection of time and another being.
In this “I” are a hundred thousand variations that appear to be a seamless evolution from a past point and into a hopeful future. The aspiring astronaut, the acolyte of science, the lost and wandering characters who make up this play of fools. Examined closely, the appearance of an unbroken tapestry is so heart-rendingly false. More a wildly designed quilt with each patch having emerged from an unknowable confluence of causes, conditions and other beings-of-time.
As I “am” is not enough. There is always something taunting from the future that was planted by a promise from the past. Always something that is insufficient, undeveloped and wantonly wasting time. This am-ness is a counterpoint to what philosopher Evan Thompson³ calls “selfing.” It is an accreted stuckness that takes a wake up slam of vast proportions to dislodge it from the delusion of permanence.
In this pivot of nothingness which contains all that is necessary and sufficient is what Dogen says is the complete moment. Like the firewood and ash¹, it “fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.” To paraphrase, we cannot call here the beginning of there, I the end of you, or am the end of was.
When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the content of your life. Katagiri, p.78
¹Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed), The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Vol 1. Shambhala 2010
²Katagari, Dainin (Edited by Andrea Martin), Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Shambhala 2008
³Thompson, Evan, Mind in Life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010
Filed under: 108 thoughts Tagged: Dogen, Evan Thompson, impermanence, Katagiri, Kaz Tanahashi, time, time-being, uji, zen
There’s a new energy in the house. Not just the wild exuberance of the pups who have so far managed to survive my every threat of sending them to the Great Beyond. Not just the brighter light of Spring or the receding snow line on the fields. Not just the thick glaze of ice crust on the trails from the day melt and night freeze. Not just anything in particular but all things in their eternal uniqueness that come together effortlessly. Yet that asks so much of us – to simply wait with deep faith that change requires little of us but presence.
After watching Espe Brown’s movie “How to Cook Your Life,” I had an urge to bake bread. This was a somewhat safer urge to indulge than the one I tend to have after watching superhero dog survivor movies. But bread making requires effort akin to the great effort of Zen; and yet Espe Brown made it look and sound like the ultimate in cultivated laziness. Now I get all the be one with the carrot and the spinach rap of Zen. I do. Really. I even get the drink your tea even if it’s just a riff on the sentiment because I’m doing so while pounding out the next blogpost. And I know about bread baking too having spent many a year baking two, three, many loaves each weekend.
The dharma of bread making is that there are no guarantees. It thrives on doubt. Great Doubt. It is fickle in its liturgy. Empty yet demanding of form. Demanding of protocol yet unyielding in promises of outcome. It is not for the rigid of mind or acolyte of scrupulosity. And that makes me the worst person on earth for this practice.
However, great effort is often codependent with great blindness and sometimes the delusion of possibilities pays off. In one of his teaching moments, Espe Brown said, “Let things come to your heart.” And when I do, it’s clear that bread making is not about bread or making. It is about distress tolerance.
At each stage, from the way in which yeast feasts on the sugars to that tender balance between elasticity and collapse of the dough, creating the loaf-to-be is only about trusting the invisible bodhisattvas of gluten and fermentation more than the demons of fear and desire. It is about letting things go into the dark and do just what they are meant to do without the interference that arises from our desperation to have it done. Letting go, yes. Not clinging, definitely.
And yet. We are not given to truly know the essence of these transitions. The first round of bread making resulted in a stunted, thick loaf that only Frank, in his endearing love of all things carbohydrate, would relish. Heavy chunks of glutinous wheat with a savoury buckwheat bite make his morning (and I don’t doubt he dips it in his high-octane coffee). It may have been the temperature, the thundering hooves of two playful puppies, the arch of my eyebrow, the waves of panic energy that seeped from my palms into the dough as I kneaded it. Not knowing is the most intimate, Dizang said. I wonder if he baked bread too.
The second loaf was more generous in its response. Then again, I adjusted the parameters. A different recipe from a different book, a few breaths reminding me of my capabilities, more wood in the wood stove, and taking the pups for a 1 hour walk so I didn’t keep checking the proofing of life in the dough. We can put all the ingredients together when cooking our life. We can stir, beat, fold, and knead them into some shape. We can read each expansion and contraction for portents of praise or blame. We can entrust the clusters of our life to the dark and the light. We can hold them in boxed forms or freeform. We can blast them in furnaces or freeze them for some future date.
But we can never really know until we break them open and let them penetrate deep into our heart.
Filed under: reflections, Western Teachers Tagged: bread, death&life, Edward Espe Brown, How to Cook Your Life, spring
When I posted a picture of the puppies, a friend of mine commented that she liked the “calligraphy of the leashes.” Earlier that day in sangha, we had entertained questions about the necessity of having a formal teacher. I’m not sure I de-mystified any aspect of the questions yet somehow the elegance of my friend’s comment seems to be the perfect answer.
As the intense relationship of being a puppy parent unfolds, I’m learning that there is as deep a mystery about leashes as there is about calligraphy. Similar to “bone” which connotes a strong connection in a calligraphic line, the leash has a dynamic power that expresses the relationship between two endpoints.
The teacher-student relationship is no different. In practice, all dharmas are our teacher however we risk using that to justify meandering from this person to that, this sangha to the other. It’s easy to reject a flesh-and-blood teacher and claim that as an enlightened practice, not being caught in form or transcending the need for any Buddhas we meet on the road. I don’t doubt that there are some practitioners who are blessed with the capacity to live such a life free of the teacher-form. I do doubt that there are many who can. (In fact, when we reject the value of a teacher-student relationship from this fear base, we become more vulnerable to the tricksters and charlatans who feed our neediness and desire to be elevated.)
The question of whether it’s necessary to commit to a teacher in some formal way is a trick. It’s many tricks. It’s a way of asking for approval to continue an illusion of freedom. It’s a way of asking for validation to avoid a necessary mirror of practice. It’s a way of expressing our fear that we would be found unworthy, unwanted and undeveloped. While there are ways of being that are unworthy of our true nature and unwanted aspects of who we can be, it’s a good start into the koan of relationships to see that we are undeveloped. But not undevelop-able.
Hence the leash – that inexpressible mirror of the relationship between a steady solid point and an irrepressible desire for everything that passes by.
The real question then is not about the necessity of a teacher but the need for a commitment to a relationship that might flow in a variety of calligraphic lines. This is where our fears surge; entering relationship is in our ego-driven minds akin to being restricted, limited. And yet. What is there that is not relational? When are we not one end of a line? Sometimes those lines are taut and heavy, sometimes they flow with ease and elegance. At all times the line is an expression of the quality of mind, of a connection that can grow in disciplined progression to liberation from that fear of being held back.
Filed under: 108 thoughts, reflections Tagged: Kazuo, relationships, teachers
Zen training is without beginning and without end. Some days, when the petty ego takes over and the arbitrary lines are drawn between past and future or gain and failure, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. On those days, it’s helpful to have a guide that takes the sting out of whatever thought may drift by about gaining and failing.
Katsuki Sekida, author of Zen Training and Two Zen Classics, a translation of the Mumokan and Blue Cliff Records, was a teacher of English and trained in monasteries in Japan. Editor of this condensation of Sekida’s earlier work, Marc Allen was one of his students at the Maui Zendo and has distilled Sekida’s teachings in a compact, helpful book for beginner and more advanced students of Zen.
Sekida starts with practice. Acknowledging that Zen is “concerned with the problem of the nature of mind,” he makes it clear from the outset that the workings of mind (speculation and reason) are not separate from personal practice which arise from our body and mind. Unlike most books on Zen practice which give slight service to posture and breathing, Sekida begins with two chapters detailing posture and breath work. It’s not just about sitting and different poses; he digs deep into the experience of the breath and unravels the questions we have about the relationship between sitting immobile and the nature of mind. More than any other book I’ve read, he digs deeply into the physiology of breath and there are some useful practices that surface from this part of the book.
I particularly liked the chapter on Samadhi,
the cleansing of consciousness,
and when consciousness is purified,
emancipation is, in fact, already accomplished.
Complicated words. Sekida slowly and deliciously unpacks them through his definitions of absolute and positive samadhi and the phases of each. Using Linji’s categorization of the conditions of mind, Sekida describes the permutations and combinations of inner and outer focus (concerns) in clear and easily comprehensible terms. He also makes an important point of self-mastery as the difference between true samadhi and false samadhi. This, of course, is my hobby-horse – that litmus test between mindfulness based in ethics and mindfulness as a utilitarian strategy for the petty ego.
Sekida also clarifies the experience of kensho in one simple sentence (underlined below):
It may be, therefore, that the sound of a stone striking a bamboo trunk, or the sight of blossoms, makes a vivid impression, and you experience the wonderful moment of realization we call kensho. In this moment, you seem to see and hear beautiful things, but the truth is that you yourself have become beautiful and exalted. Kensho is the recognition of your own purified mind.
It doesn’t get more transparent than that.
The book ends with a chapter on the Ox Herding Series. I found it lovely but too much of a shift away from the dropping deep process of practice and realization of mind that marked the previous chapters. Nevertheless, Sekida does offer some interesting links of his concepts of the physiology of practice and the spiritual metaphor of herding the Ox as steps in cultivating samadhi. At times it seems prescriptive or predictive of what might happen as practice progresses. At times it is reassuring that even on the journey of finding and mastering the Ox, there are ebbs and flows of gaining and failing. I appreciated this the most in Sekida’s teaching: the Ox Herder is not simply a master of the capture and taming but truly the Everyman, vulnerable yet full of potential.
Finally, kudos to Marc Allen for putting together a very portable book packed full of generous teachings. It’s one I will certainly stick in my pack and pull out often.
Filed under: Eastern Teachers Tagged: book review, Katsuki Seida, practice, zen
Two new Zen Masters came to town last Saturday. They are Kazuo and Yuki of Imminent Death School of Canine Zen.
Along with their three siblings, Kaz and Yuki (originally named Riggs and Riley) were slated for being gassed to death at a kill shelter north of Montreal. I can’t quite get my head around the oxymoron of putting the words kill and shelter side by side but there you have it. With 24 hours to extermination, Friendly Giants Dog Rescue managed to “pull” them from the shelter by convincing the shelter the pups would be picked up 48 hrs past their expiration date. FGDR is a non-profit community of people who care deeply about the abandonment, neglect and rate of kill in shelters where pets or progeny of unexpected encounters between non-neutered/spayed dogs are frequently abandoned.
I don’t know how they do it. I can’t even watch Hollywood-whitewashed movies about animals without dissolving into a blubbering mess. And the Japanese original version of the story of Hachiko? Let’s just say I refused to re-name Riggs as Hachiko or even Hachiro because I’d end up sobbing if anyone asked me what it meant. So I designed a psychological hardening program that had me lurking on various dog rescue facebook sites. For a while it all showed up on my new stream but that was too much like flooding myself into empathy overload. So I made a vow each morning to check in on each site and just bear witness for a few months.
There is something about the vulnerable sentients that should pierce into each of our hearts. It should activate and energize stepping into this cycle of life and death. But there are so many and Frank tries to reassure me that not all can be saved. To which I counter, why not? And the deeper question is how? How can we save all beings without frying our empathy circuits and frazzling our compassion networks?
Bernie Glassman is fond of pointing out that unless we take the time to bear witness and sit with not knowing, compassionate action is not possible. It will not arise; instead what arises is ego-ladened and more likely to do harm than good.
And so it happened, one day, quietly, without fanfare. I sent an email asking about Riggs. The adoption form seemed to fill itself and the background check (yes they are that thorough) didn’t reveal that I once had to have rabies shots. (Not to worry; no one I’ve ever bitten has hung around to complain.) We made all the arrangements and the boys arrived last Saturday.
Yes. The Boys. Plural. I have no excuse other than to say the idea of being alone, without companionship, pierces more than the idea of physical death.
Meet Kazuo: And Yuki:
It’s quite the challenge to take on two 12-week old puppies of uncertain lineage – other than Large or Giant. And apparently, our home is not quite puppy-proof; at least the boot rack and boots aren’t. However, we seem to have fallen into a sesshin-like schedule and there is something powerful that arises when our focus is beyond our self-weighted needs.
These little guys have taught me a lot in the last seven days of Puppy Sesshin: Entering the heart of equanimity and harmony. I’ll do my best to transcribe their talks (played on souped-up woofers) and pass them along for your enlightenment.
In the meantime, enjoy the fur creatures in your life. Oh and… get over to the various dog/cat/rat/all beings large and small rescues to help, donate, offer your professional services. Whatever you have. It all counts. And it all matters.
Filed under: Western Teachers Tagged: Bodhisattva vows, Dog Rescue, Kazuo, sentient beings, Yuki, Zen Puppies
Every Sunday my family began the day with an early morning Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Latin Mass. The rafters resounded with the Credo in Unum Deum and Kyrie Eleison thankfully absorbing my screechy accompaniment. I lived for those moments of transcendence which set into all of my ten years a deep yearning for total devotion to prayer. Unlike my peers I needed no bribery for surviving the never-ending chants or the choking scent of the incense censer (interestingly called a “thurible” and for a stunning display of one version check out the last scenes of the movie “The Way” which is about a father’s journey along El Camino de Santiago). Besotted little Love Dog of the Teachings, I was only too eager to be there front and center absorbing the ceremony and answering back whole-heartedly.
In the afternoons my parents would have their poker parties. Don’t get me wrong; they were every bit as devout as a good Catholic couple would have been in the wild 50′s of post-war Burma. But they also knew to feed their attachments to good liquor and cards. The house would transform into a speak-easy of beautiful men and stunning women navigating around tables of cards, dice and other games I can’t recall. In the background the strains of Dorsey, Miller, Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters erased all trace of the resonant Latin chants.
That was when my grandmother stepped in. My father’s mother, a cheroot-smoking, shoe-throwing devotee of the Buddha, was not impressed by the exposure I was getting to the three poisons. Though I doubt she actually thought of it that way. Perhaps it was more an issue of trying to neutralize the Latin Mass. In order to marry my grandfather (who was Catholic), she had to agree that her children would be raised Catholic. So my father, although his devotion to the mystery of being expressed its way in both forms of worship, lived his life a staunch Catholic with a worldview shot through by a quiet Buddhist thread. And I, swept off to the Botataung Pagoda each Sunday, lived out both their hopes of the Buddhist lineage.
But I didn’t know that at the time. Sundays were simply, complicatedly, a day of Latin chants followed by the shedding of frilly dresses for the tomboy pants and a walk along the railway tracks that lead me and my grandmother to the pagoda’s turtle pond. There she bought large compressed balls of popped corn which I fed the turtles, watching them wait semi-submerged and then rise lazily to break off a piece of the chunk I threw into the broad lotus leaves. I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking “turtle food.” These interwoven rituals became my practice roots. Not grandiosity of the Mass, the priests or monastics, the genuflections or prostrations , the soaring Kyrie or monotonic memorized recitations of the suttas that floated in the background of the pagoda grounds. These were the forms of religion, vaguely activating in the heart but not captivating enough for devotion.
The turtle pond, however, was a different bright boundless field. At its edge I learned the early lessons of transcending sights and sounds, of leaving no trace and reflecting mirror-sharp reality. This became and continues as the center of my circle of devotion.
The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions…. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations…. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.
The Bright, Boundless Field. In Cultivating the Empty Field: The silent illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu
Filed under: Eastern Teachers, Lineage Teachers Tagged: Botataung Pagoda, Burma, family, Hongzhi, practice, zen