Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Unoccupied Mind

When Brad and I and Laurence were in Rome many years ago, we went to a Mozart Requiem, performed in a non-denominational, plain church.  We sat in the balcony that had a broad walking space that ran around three quarters of the rectangular space, high above the congregation.  During a particularly sad part of the requiem, a young girl was dancing and swirling up and down the passage.  Such freedom!  Delightful!

Last week I was at Kaiser.  A young physical therapist was explaining in detail all the movements I would have to avoid after a left hip replacement.  I hadn’t given the details much thought; the descriptions of the pain and how I might dislocate the artificial joint were disturbing. 

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

 “Yes.  What is your fundamental nature?” I spontaneously asked. [I had been giving a lot of thought to this matter.]

 He paused only a second, and then he said, “To help.”

“That’s fantastic!  That’s great!”

I was impressed that he did not think my question strange (which it probably was considering the circumstances).  He had answered spontaneously from his heart.  To help!  The bodhisattva’s vow spoken without philosophical analysis.  Such freedom!  Delightful!

I wonder if I could ever answer a question about my fundamental nature now that my mind is so full of Zen words and concepts.  I am reading (of course) a book about the Zen ancestors, and they all warn against the trap of words.  Zen master Deshan Xuanjian said,

If you have no affairs in your mind, nor mind in your affairs, then you are unoccupied yet animated, empty, and wondrous.  But if you allow yourself to stray from this upright state, all words will deceive you.

Of course, the obvious irony is that all these Zen masters talk about not talking.  But I guess they have to, because we love words.  I love words.  Somehow we need words.

What is this tightrope between reading the dharma and being free of the dharma?  Free like the young girl dancing, not knowing this was a requiem.  Free like the physical therapist, who could answer what might be perceived as a difficult dharma question with just a moment’s pause.

Is it too late to be innocent?  To go back to a clean slate?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Practice

I am listening to the opening Kyrie in Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  I recommend cranking up the volume, because that first ecstatic Kyrie lifts you right out of your body, right out of your chair. 

Maybe it is the elevating nature of this music, but I feel really strong and grateful for my practice.  But what is my practice exactly? One usually thinks of specific practices like meditation, chanting, or reading the sutras.

But it is clear to me that my practice is much more than that. It is my whole self, not some separate thing that I do.  Suzuki Roshi gives the analogy of walking in the fog.  You don’t notice the fine water drops, but when you get inside, your coat is drenched.  All those years of my practice, and I feel as if my coat is drenched. 

This is really difficult to explain.  To use another analogy, I have been looking for and seeking the light for so long that the light has filled my body without my knowing.  By light I do not mean some spiritual or “holy” light from outside myself.  I don’t really think in those terms.  I mean that it is my own light, my own love, and that it has taken permanent residence.

My teacher Norman often says that practice is not a self-improvement course.  Recently he said,

"We do practice not to improve ourselves or fix ourselves.  Nothing needs to be added; nothing needs to be improved.  We practice exactly because of the appreciation for our lives, and we know that being what we ae, we want to do that.  That's our true expresseion and makes us whole."

It is almost impossible to believe that we don’t have to fix ourselves, but the spirit of his words, for me, is that practice is my expression of who I most fundamentally am.  The person I am both includes, and does not include, disease.  I feel strong and grateful for the “not disease” part.

So I am grateful for my life of practice.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Friendly Beings

Monday I took my second dose of Methotrexate, my weekly dose of poison to retard rheumatoid arthritis.  I have a new friend in the Everyday Zen sangha, Nancy Welch, who has had RA most of her life.  It is a great testament to her character that she is a very funny person.  In reference to the whole buffet of semi-toxic meds, she said, “As Dorothy Parker once said (and I recall this every time I have to try something else) ‘What fresh hell is this?’  But hey, without Zen, I'd probably be quoting Sylvia Plath--so I consider myself on the up side of pessimism, ya know?”

The day after taking this dose, I am in bed most of the day with deep fatigue.  Lying in bed doing nothing, not sleeping, is new for me.  After all, when you are in bed, aren’t you supposed to be sleeping or at least messing around?  So boredom sets in.  Finally, as a last resort, I actually decide to do some practice.  There is a line in the Metta Sutta that says, “Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one's waking hours,practice the Way with gratitude.”  So I lie there following my breath and sometimes thinking of the millions who will not ever get out of bed.

I also do a visualization from a tape that has a guided meditation for those with RA.  There is imagery of friendly beings above you, sending you love.  They drape you with a soft blanket of healing.  Now, I listened to this tape pre-RA, and I was kind of cynical, not being a person to imagine friendly beings draping things.  But now, I will take all the help I can get.  I imagine the smiles of my friends, most especially that of Chris Fortin, who smiles with her whole face.  It really is quite wonderful, and it does feel healing.

I feel the intentional sending of thoughts of well being from my teacher and sangha.  So, here, now, I wish to express my love for all the friendly beings who are practicing with me, side by side, wishing me well.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Gift of Momentary Seeing

In the last few days, there have been moments when I am seeing things differently.  I looked across the street, and the arms of the evergreens were crisscrossing and swaying to the rhythm of the song I was listening to, Chambermaid Swing.  Not just uniformly swaying in the wind, but actually dancing to the rhythm.

This morning the leaves on the trees outside the zendo were vibrating with white lights.   Near the zendo door, on the tallest stalk, was one pink rock rose facing the sun.  It was a ray of enthusiastic light leaping out to me.  It was saying, “Good morning!  Here I am!” 

This kind of seeing is almost hallucinatory.   These lights and visions are like a flash and then gone.  I don’t know why this is happening – maybe an unknown side effect of Methotrexate.  But whatever the cause, it really is grace.  It is the grace of a moment of beauty that pierces through the truly gloomy and dark experiences of being sick with active rheumatoid.

I think that these flashes of dancing in the trees, the brief piercing beauty of the rock rose, are possibly glimpses of things as they actually are – of thusness.  For me they feel as a gift, somehow, given hand-in – hand with the suffering.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gratitude to be Alive

Last night I held four, small, purple pills in my hand – my first dose of Methotrexate to treat my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  I knew I had to take them, but I was frightened, because it is a very potent drug, used only in very serious conditions like RA and cancer.  I went online – not always the best thing to do – and I saw that it can cause death, lymphoma, kidney or liver failure, and so on.  There should be a label on the drug with skulls and crossbones, which says, “For God’s sake!  Don’t take this medicine!”

Why would I do this?  It always comes down to no other choice.  One morning I woke up, and I was like a stone woman.  I could not get up or down from a chair or walk without involuntary cries of pain.  I was shocked that my right hand did not work, and I could not hold a piece of toilet paper.  My body was no longer my own.

The week before, when I could feel the RA coming on, I told my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, “I am not suicidal, but sometimes I think death wouldn’t be that bad.”  For the first time I thought that death was not a tragedy.  Such is the wonderful relationship between teacher and student, that Norman inserted a little message about gratitude for being alive in the middle of his talk on forgiveness that he gave yesterday. 

When you think about life in a dispassionate way, what a fantastic thing it is to be alive in the world!  It’s a beautiful world.  The sun shines.  All these little details that are so bright and pure and beautiful…Of course there are problems and things happen that we don’t like, but at least we are alive to feel all that.  That itself is a fantastic thing, that we could feel joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness.   This is a fantastic thing, that if any one of us thought about it, we would be celebrating every minute.

This morning in zazen I felt sick and discouraged.  As I followed my breath, I deliberately focused on how great it was to take the in-breath after the long exhalation.  When you are dead, well, there is no in-breath again.  How deeply, deeply precious it is to take the next breath.  A fantastic thing, really.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Lighter Side of Practicing with Pain

My disease, my very own disease, is rheumatoid arthritis.  I imagine a little cartoon time bomb in my genome.  Daffy Duck is in the foreground, putting his fingers in his ears (does Daffy Duck have fingers?) and waiting for the bomb to explode.  It exploded about four weeks ago.

The wonderful thing about Kaiser is that I had all the tests and x-rays and consultations on the same day.   I was sitting in the Injection Room to have a TB test. There was a cartoon showing a large heron with a semi-squished frog in its bill.  The caption was, “Hang in there.”  Although I have seen this slogan many times, I looked at it with fresh eyes – probably because I was not so sure that I wanted to hang in there.  What I hadn’t noticed was that the frog was strangling the heron with its front leg.  “Oh, it’s not so hopeless as it seems,” I said to the technician.  She replied, “It works both ways.”  Pause.  I then saw that it was at least an even match.

To my credit, I have limped to our little zendo, off the courtyard of St. Edmunds every morning.  This morning I realized it was Rosh Hashanah.  The Coastside Jewish Community uses the sanctuary and grounds for Jewish holidays. [Down with the Christian props and up with the Jewish.  Isn’t much of religious practice theatre?]  I was sitting in the zendo alone and uncomfortable.  Then I heard laughter and songs and voices rising and falling.  I thought of the sparkling water flying from the bow of a boat, rivulets of light.  I heard a man say merrily, “Make a wish, and then pass through the gate.”  There were cries of delight, over and over.  So I got up from my serious zazen and peeked out the door.  Two jugglers were making a portal with flying bowling pins through which children would run.  What a joyous occasion.

So yesterday zazen was a torture session.  Today I am delighted to hear the joy of celebration.

Coming, going, coming, going.  Ever-changing.  Suffering, delight.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Practicing with Pain ~ part one

In the last four weeks, I have had an onset of pain so debilitating that writing this is one of the few things that I can do.  Onset of rheumatoid arthritis.  An ongoing car wreck.

The only way to practice with pain is to endure it.  No frills, no expectations, nothing nice about it.  When you are in pain, sometimes that is all there is, blotting out all other thoughts.  Your world becomes contracted to the location of your pain - in my case, my entire body.

Maybe practice is my pain, but what does that mean anyway?  How can practice be anything  but our lives?  It is not some metaphysical icing added on to make our lives “spiritual” or pretty.

I have learned that the best thing you can do for your pain is practice zazen.  The worst thing you can do for your pain is practice zazen.  It is the best thing because there is the possibility of consciously entering into your pain so vividly that exploration is possible.  Maybe there is a way out, or at least some relief. But since zazen is being with your body and its sensations, pre-existing pain is torture.  There you are, right there, with no place to go.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Offering and Allowing

“You can practice these words on your cushion this week.  When you breathe in and breathe out, you can practice offering.  You can say that word to yourself, and make your sitting an offering.  Sometimes if it seems like your sitting is difficult, you can breathe in and breathe out, and just say “allow.”  Practice the word “allow” and feel what that is like in your whole body.  To allow.  To offer and allow.”  
~ From Norman’s talk Offering and Allowing.

These words of my teacher Zoketsu Roshi are deeply significant to me.  Often I will sit on my cushion, and when alone, open my arms and hands upward to offer myself – just an open-ended offering to great presence and expansiveness.

But, although I have offered myself on my cushion, I have never considered the “allow” part.
My offering is always in terms of “What can I do?”  Allowing love has had an unconscious price tag.  “If you love me, I will have to be worthy of it.”  There has not been an experience of freely allowing myself to be loved.  Freely given love – how radical!

When Norman spoke about allowing, he gave a new perspective.  He said that when we meditate, we can allow “freshness.”  To me this means dropping all expectations of what meditation should be.  Dropping all the ways in which I contextualize and frame experience.  Experience is not new or fresh if we constantly filter it through our limited minds.

Because it is easy to view sitting or meditation as something apart from our daily lives, we frame our meditation in terms of our religious tradition.  In my case, I see myself as a Buddhist and therefore do not have to deal with that uncomfortable word “God.”  So I believe that I don’t believe in God, but if I bypassed the thinking censor, I could allow a presence larger than myself to enter.

Dogen speaks of “dropping off body and mind.”  This might mean allowing a new moment of being beyond analysis.  To experience love directly as freely given.  To escape – at least for a moment – the small box of our conditioned brains.

We can offer our love to the world, and we can allow light to come in.  For one moment we might experience our simple, fundamental, and beautiful self.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Letting Go II

I am in the Everyday Zen 60 day practice period, a time in which I will intensify my practice.  For this practice period I am contemplating letting go, faith, and gratitude.

What does it mean “to let go” anyway?  I use the phrase; everybody uses the phrase as if we actually know what it means.  It cannot mean to let go, as if you were clinging to a tree branch and you just let go and dropped to the ground.  In life it is not so clear or simple, or, perhaps, even do-able.  How do you let go of life-long habits or ways of viewing yourself? How do you let go of adult children?  Not possible – and may not even be desirable – in the case of your children.

Somehow we feel if we let go, we won’t suffer.  The Buddha’s enlightenment came about when he realized that desire is the source of suffering.  So what do I desire, fundamentally, at the heart of things?  I desire for things to be not as they are.  I desire to have perfect health.  I desire to have my child do as I want him to do.  I desire that Fox News stop broadcasting lies and perverting whatever national intelligence that we have left.

I desire to hold on to what I love and avoid that which causes me pain. 

What if I could see life as a giant popcorn-maker?  “What a beautiful sunset!” Pop – it’s gone.  “What a hurtful comment.”  Pop – it’s gone.  “Wow! I just got a big tax return.” Pop – it’s gone.  Maybe it comes down to accepting each beautiful moment of your life as a gift, and then letting go.  Accepting the grief or loss in this moment, and then letting go.

Maybe the intention to live freely, spontaneously and joyfully is like the impossibility of the Bodhisattva vows that we chant:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

We know this is not only impossible but absurd.  But we vow to do it anyway.

Maybe the prescription to let go of every moment is impossible, but we are determined to do it anyway.    Or, at least, we can practice it over and over again.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Letting go

The DOW – my retirement funds – dropped 470 points amid economic gloom.  My son might become active status Marines and deploy to Afghanistan, just when we thought he was safe.
Hundreds of thousands of African children are dying of starvation.  And last, and least, I realize that I am aging, because my skin is breaking and bruising easily!

So we are anxious.  We have some kind of magical thinking that we can control these things.  “If I scoff at right wing nut cases like Rick Perry or Sarah Palin, they will go away.  If I just wait long enough, stocks will go up again.  If I hope hard enough, my son won’t deploy. If I stay out of the sun, my skin won’t age.”

I want to let go!  This is driving me crazy! 

The Serenity Prayer has a long history of being inspirational:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

But I wonder about the part, “courage to change the things I can.”  Can we actually change anything?   We see the ever-changing mountain stream, and we intuitively know that our lives are like this.  In this immense net of the world, where things are changing moment to moment, where everything is impermanent, how could we actually change any one thing? 

On the other hand, if we and nature are intimately interconnected, maybe our right action, our right words, and our compassion could change everything – all the time, even if it is on a microscopic, imperceptible basis. 

So that gets me to the “wisdom to know the difference.”  What is the difference between that which we can change and that which we cannot?  That might be what the Buddhists call Wisdom Beyond Wisdom, Mahaprajnaparamita – the wisdom that we are not separate.  That there is no one thing.

There is a prayer from the elders of the Hopi nation, which in a deep heart way, answers me:

                                               The elders say that we must let go of the shore.  
Push off into the middle of the river,
And keep our heads above water.
and I say see who is there with you
And celebrate.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Worry Gene

I recently read news about an “optimist” gene.  I clearly don’t have that gene.  In fact, I am certain that there is a “worry” gene, and I inherited it from both parents! 

Now that I am retired, it would seem that I have about the most perfect life possible.  It is like standing on a mountain peak and looking off into space: all that free time!  And yet I am anxious about finances and the stock market falling and the debt ceiling – most of which I have no control over whatsoever.

My husband is younger than me and is the wage earner now.  I call him my “retirement plan.”  My last two weeks at work he sent me the sound file of Bob Marley’s song, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing.  Every little thing is gonna be all right.”   

Every spiritual tradition says we should not worry about our material existence.  We should place our trust in Buddha or God.  Or both!  The early Buddhists walked with a begging bowl, not knowing when their next meal would be. 

So I sit every morning in the Montara Mountain zendo.  I focus on trying to let go.  Let go of financial worry, concerns about my son.  Let go of unwanted attachments. Is it even possible to “try” to do this?

I think that when we really meditate on impermanence, it might indeed be possible.   What is there to hold on to anyway?  What is under our control, when everything is changing so fast, moment to moment?

I think that in our heart of hearts, we do believe that “Every little thing is gonna be all right.”  Maybe it is the practice of gratitude and appreciation for what there already is, and renunciation of all that which hasn’t even happened yet.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blood pressure, protection, and the Buddha’s robe

Back in the late seventies, when I was travelling with Baba Muktananda, it was customary for the devotees to ask for a “spiritual name.”  Initially Baba would come up with a name on the spot as the person kneeled before him, but as the crowds got too large, he handed the person a card with a name on it.  Although the process seemed impersonal to me, I nevertheless asked for a name.  Baba read the card, said “Ahhh,” and handed it to me.  My name was Rakshā, meaning “protection.”

Within that tradition the Guru is seen as one who protects the devotee.  And “mantra” means “that which protects the mind” – which is pretty cool actually.

Now that I no longer practice that yoga, and I practice Zen, I take refuge and protection in the Buddha, the dharma [the teachings], and the sangha [the community of practitioners].  I especially like to visualize the buddha robe, the “okesa” that is worn over the shoulder of a Buddhist priest or monk, as a sacred object.  Being [probably over the top] devotional, I love to imagine bowing to my teacher’s okesa.

The last few days I have been freaked out over my blood pressure.  Every time I see the insouciant expression “meditation lowers blood pressure,” I think, “Yeah, right.”  I meditate daily, but my blood pressure is all over the map.  For the last week or so, my blood pressure readings have been really high, at around 160/115.  Are these real numbers? I had developed so much anxiety around this that I couldn’t get a real blood pressure measurement because I was so anxious.

So I sat in the nurse’s office.  She took my pressure – 155/109 – and told me to relax.  She said that she would return later and would take it again.  I don’t think you can tell someone to relax. But I imagined an okesa.  I imagined being enveloped in the protection of the okesa.  Minute after minute, I took refuge in the okesa. When she returned my blood pressure had dropped to 130/85!

There is a mystery here concerning the nature of protection, devotion, and faith.  I think that no matter what the object of devotion – the guru, the Holy Mother, or an okesa – the important thing is the devotional act of seeking refuge or protection with all your heart. 

It is open-ended prayer, devotion, and faith.  Faith in “…” with no predicate.  Praying for protection – as an act independent of the object of devotion – is that which protects.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dogen's Cypress Tree


“Why did Bodhidharma come from the west” is studied by all the buddhas,
but cannot be answered by the buddhas.

What object could ever answer my question?
What intention, what thought?
One cannot say “This is it.”

And yet old master Zhaozhou points to the cypress tree in the garden.

The monk is unsatisfied, saying “don’t show this person an object,”
but he is not admonished, because he, his question, the master,
and the cypress tree are all echoes from emptiness.

We do not make a pilgrimage to an ancestral shrine.
We bury the shrine and study this together.


“The cypress tree becomes a buddha
when space falls to the ground,
and space falls to the ground,
when the cypress tree becomes a buddha.”

This is not a matter of mutual dependence
or circular thinking.
This is not a matter of time or space
or becoming.
This is not a matter of “once it wasn’t but now it is.”

A cypress tree does not practice to become what it is.
Buddha nature is not a seed within the cypress tree
that one day will be expressed when the time is right.

And yet, old master Zhaouzhou sees the space that exceeds
a hundred thousand claps of thunder
and a time not yet measured,
where we become buddhas together.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Yanguan’s “Rhinoceros Fan”

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me the rhinoceros [buddha-nature].”
The attendant had no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word ‘rhino’ inside it.

For many, many years, whenever I heard someone say that “Everything is perfect,” it used to really piss me off.  Obviously everything is not perfect: there is suffering and starvation and molestation and war and the ongoing destruction of our planet.

So I was really interested in my negative reaction to my teacher’s commentary on this koan, in which he said that “Everything is already broken,” because it has occurred to me lately that everything – in a way – is actually perfect. 

Often meditation instructions include visualizing one’s thoughts as clouds coming and going against an infinite, blue sky.  And, actually, thoughts are like clouds.  They are instantaneous neurochemical connections.  They have no innate, substantial being.  They are events, not things.

Other than frank, physical pain, how could we find the location of “thing-ness” or suffering or brokenness? There has been, of course, suffering in each of our lives, but where is it now?  Now – in this moment – it is just an idea, insubstantial, changing, and, in a sense, unreal.

Yesterday I went to our zendo in Pacifica.  The morning was bright and full of birdsong.
I sat and composed this little verse:

On this radiantly beautiful morning,
Sitting in the cool zendo,
I simply cannot find brokenness.

So just as the attendant in the rhinoceros fan koan could not bring the broken fan, maybe we cannot “bring” our brokenness into this instant moment.

Wow!  What joy and freedom in that!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nothing Holy

In case two in the Book of Serenity, Emperor Wu asks Great Teacher Bodhidharma,
“What is the meaning of the holy truths?”
Bodhidharma said, “Empty – there is no holy.”
The emperor said, “Who are you facing me?”
Bodhidharma said, “Don’t know.”
The emperor did not understand, and Bodhidharma went to Shaolin, where he faced a wall [did zazen] for nine years.

Now that I am retired and my life has opened up spacious time, I consider what I am doing.  I want everything “to count” in some way.  I have been considering doing nothing.  What would happen if I just stopped?  If I just sat zazen or just sat in my chair all day gazing at the ocean?  I think that if I dropped all my projects and just sat, maybe something new would unfold and reveal itself to me.  So I decided to try to do this.

So far I have not been able to sit for very long, but I have my justifications: I have to floss, shop, cook, sleep, eat.  So I will put these activities in the category of “I have to do this, so it doesn’t count against my objective of doing nothing.”

Then there are some work related activities that I have to do and want to do:  study math for my upcoming tutoring classes; do work for Everyday Zen.  So that doesn’t mean I have made some kind of detour from doing nothing, because it is “important” work.

I am sitting (on and off the cushion) about three hours a day.  So that constitutes the holy.  Zazen – facing the wall on my cushion – qualifies as meaningful activity.

But my puppy reminded me that “there is no holy.”  She deposited a neat, discrete turd on top of my meditation cushion.  Thank you puppy!!

So, while some activities seem more holy, more meaningful, this may not be the case.  Maybe everything is holy, and, therefore, nothing is (separately) holy.  But still, it seems to me that I could perform all actions with the attitude that everything is holy.

Maybe this is possible.  Maybe not.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Here we are: Just this person who suffers and loves

This morning I received a call that a work colleague of twenty-five years died last night.  I have noticed that upon hearing of a death, the first reaction is shock.  “How could that happen?  How could a person just stop existing? Just disappear?” Of course, we know that everyone dies.  We know the fundamental impermanence of life. 

But I wonder if some of us don’t see spiritual practice as a way of transcending the suffering brought by loving others, by living itself.  It seems that Buddhism teaches that suffering is transcended when we let go of “grasping” – a common word in Buddhist parlance.  Grasping connotes a selfish grabbing, a wish to control another (or life) for our own personal gratification.  But no, I think, grasping means the very human, deep involvement in the lives of those we love – parents, spouses, children, and friends.  Grasping, or attachment, is good.  It is normal.  We want to ensure the well-being of those we love.  We suffer when they suffer.

We accept suffering because there is no escape.

The Buddha did speak of the suffering of witnessing the suffering of others.  We make a vow to “end all suffering,” and we know that this is not as hopeless and ridiculous as it might sound. Slowly, over years of practice, over years of sitting on our meditation cushions, our hearts open to the longing to remove suffering.  And this longing to bring happiness and end all suffering itself becomes a source of joy.

So I am not denying the beauty of opening yourself to the Great Heart of the World.  For me there is joy in offering myself, my gifts –whatever they may be – to the great loving presence.

I am just reminded over and over that love hurts.  And this is good and human and necessary.  There is no escape from this kind of suffering, and we don’t even want to escape.

Here we are: just this person who suffers and loves.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Withdrawal from Stress-as-a-Way-of-Being

Uh oh.  I am newly retired, and there is nothing specific that I have to do.  The anxiety and unsettledness creeps in.  I am becoming sleepier and sleepier and am taking two naps a day.  Oh no!  What is happening to me?  This quiet is really dis-quieting!  Fatigue and sleepiness are actually causing me to feel guilty that I have no schedule at all.

I think it is withdrawal from Stress-as-a-way-of-being. Withdrawal from being constantly revved up, hurrying to the next very important thing.  Stress DT’s.

You must all have experienced, probably daily, the driver who is impatient because you are going the speed limit.  He/she then zooms by, only to be stopped at the light ahead that you – snail that you are – reach.  You are stopped together, and you think you have been vindicated. 

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were driving on a two lane road in Taos.  A young man roared up to our bumper, and then passed, shaking with rage, and jabbing his not so friendly finger in the air.  Later we saw him stopped by the Highway Patrol.  Yes!  Justice!

This is dramatic and funny.  But not so funny the slow, long term effects on the body/mind/soul of doing exactly the same thing, but in a much more sublimated way.

When I sit in zazen – if I am alone – I open my arms and say, “Here I am.” Often there is an immediate, inner response.  Today it was:

            Be gentle to yourself.  Be kind.  Just be with what is, nothing added on.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Loving yourself?

The message in the bottle, sent by the universe, seems to say, “Love yourself first.”  Maybe this means that if you don’t love and appreciate yourself, it is a kind of distorting lens that makes it impossible to love others.

So all my life I have worried that I don’t love myself.  After all these years of spiritual work, I think that I have failed in this.

In the 1980’s I asked Baba Muktananda,

“How can I love myself?
“It’s easy!” he said, “Just as you love others.”

Easy?  I don’t think so!  And why would loving others show me how to love myself?  This has been a koan all my adult life, and I still don’t get it.

I have a friend who fell on the corner of a table, resulting in a big gash on her face, extending from her nose to her chin.  Her doctor said, “If you don’t love yourself, this will never heal.”  Then and there, she said, she began to love herself.

As I listened to her, I thought that she had learned loving from the inside out – first for herself, and then radiating out to others.  But I think I have learned loving in the opposite direction.   So many people have loved me – my husband, my family, my teachers, my sangha – that I have learned loving from the outside in.

Yesterday was my birthday.  I was sitting for a long time in our little Montara Mountain zendo.  I realized:  

Loving has no direction.  Who is on the inside?  Who is on the outside?  Who is giving love?  Who is receiving love?  Isn’t there just loving?

Just this.  Just loving.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Religious Intolerance – My Own

My Zen teacher Norman said, “The tolerant are intolerant of the intolerant, right?” 

We recognize that extremism, whether it is religious or political, is dangerous.  Brad, my husband, who grew up in Christian evangelicalism, and, in fact, at one time was an evangelical preacher, said, “There is nothing more dangerous than a true believer.”  Pre 9/11 we might have been a little confused about what this means.  Now we know exactly what it means.

Brad has told me that fundamentalist religions believe that all knowledge can be held in your hand in the form of the Bible.  The anti-intellectual, faith based systems are vocal and active and scary in American politics.  Sarah Palin supporters would re-write history – the ride of Paul Revere – to fit the beliefs of their saint.

As a science teacher, it is particularly distressing to me that religious fundamentalists would push an anti-science curriculum that teaches that evolution is false.  I think that faith is faith, and science is science, and as such, should be taught in separate classrooms.

So I was surprised and happy to witness my reaction to listening to a ten year old girl, who was sitting next to me on the plane from Albuquerque.   Her father is a pastor in a Calvary church. She was bright and articulate and enthusiastic about her very conservative beliefs.  A sparkling stream of words of orthodoxy flowed from her little mouth, as she explained that only those who had Jesus as their personal savior would be saved and go to heaven. 

“Maybe you will be a pastor like your Dad some day,” I said.
“Oh no, women can’t be pastors.”

She was starting to overreach my comfort zone.  I asked her why, and she immediately pulled her little Bible from her backpack and showed me Timothy 2:9, where it does very clearly say that women should be submissive to men and cannot teach.

But this is the thing I would like to share: For the first time I listened to fundamentalist ideas without judgment.  I loved her enthusiasm.  I appreciated her devotion.  I did not feel as if I had to “set her straight.”  I did not wince when she emphatically said that God made monkeys and people at the same time, and that people never came from monkeys.

What a wonderful thing if I could listen to adults, to anyone with an “extremist” view, without becoming agitated and judgmental. To take a step back and just listen.

Maybe this would be a giant step toward peace if all of us could do this!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Laurence & Kat's Dog and Buddha-nature

There is a famous koan about a dog and Buddha-nature.  In the Book of Serenity the story goes like this:

A monk asks Zhaozhou, "Does the dog have Buddha Nature?"
Zhaozhou says, "Yes."
The monk says, "Since it has, why is it then in this skin bag?"
Zhaozhou replies, "Although he knows better he deliberately transgresses."
Another monk comes along: "Does the dog have Buddha Nature?"
"Mu," Zhaozhou says. (The Japanese word "Mu" means " no.")
The monk says, "All beings have Buddha Nature, why not this dog?"
"Because he still has a mind," Zhaozhou answers.

My son and his fiancée are temporarily living with us.  They recently bought a tiny puppy, who now runs laps around the coffee table and then desperately tries to jump into your lap. [It is interesting that spell check on my computer wants to replace “who” with “which,” somehow denying her being-ness.]

I have never had a pet and would not have described myself as a pet lover until “puppy” entered my life.  Puppy is a two pound “teddy bear dog”.  She is a cross between a Shih Tzu, which means “The Lion Dog” in Chinese and Bichon Frise, which means a “Curly Lap Dog'” in French.  The French definitely prevailed, because it is difficult to see the lion in her.  There is a picture below, because no words could capture her essence of absolute adorableness.

So this morning I was transcribing my Zen teacher’s talk on the Dog and Buddha-nature koan, Zhaozhou’s Dog.  Although there are thousands of words that have been written about Buddha-nature, everyone agrees that no-one could possibly describe it.  [Of course, this irony is always very funny.]  It is beyond the conceptual mind.  Buddha-nature is not a separate soul, or some kind of divine consciousness, as would be found in the theistic traditions.  And yet, for me, in my sense of things, it is sacred.  It is that sacred nature of being found in people and dogs and trees and rivers.  And although we can never name it or describe it, we want to.

After I transcribed the talk, I took Puppy onto my lap.  She looked up at me with her round, shining, brown eyes. 

“Do you have Buddha-nature?” I asked her, looking deeply into her eyes.

She made a tiny yelp and looked into my eyes and said, “Of course I have Buddha-nature.  I am a little hurt that you would have to ask.”

So there you have it.  Buddha-nature is right there, seen without seeing.  Known in a flash, and then the knowledge is gone in an instant – because we have a mind, observing that we have observed Buddha-nature.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Union and the Pain of Separation

The Sufi longs for the Friend, for God, with all her heart.  She would give up everything for just one moment of union.  She turns and dances and sings just for Him.

It is now clear to me that the fire of my devotion to the teacher or the guru is really a longing to Merge.  I would line up to come before Baba Muktananda.  Every time I saw him, I would cry.

“Baba, why do I cry every time I see you?” I asked.
He looked at me with such sweetness, saying, “It is love.”

Oh, the eyes of the teacher through which comes the light of God, the awakening to the Absolute!  To look into the eyes of the teacher is to see sweet, human loving.  And also the deep darkness of infinite space and time: unfathomable, impersonal, penetrating to one’s very soul.

So I know the longing to be at one with the guru or teacher, and at the same time, the pain of separation – the seeming isolation from the Other, as we exist in separate bodies and experience.  The pain of separation and the longing for liberation are the same.  This is the play between guru and disciple, between the teacher and student, and between God and the lovers of God.

I thought that because I have always had a living teacher that somehow my husband – who is a great lover of Jesus – would have it easier.  After all, Jesus is in his heart.  It seemed to me that this was already the union of the inner and the outer.  But no, he said that he also feels this pain of separation.  I was amazed. 

“Does that pain ever go away?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, “And you do not want it to.  The pain of separation is awakening.”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Anxiety, Trust, and Problems

“Some of the worst disasters in my life have not yet happened.”  Mark Twain

I’m anxious because I am starting a new life when I retire.  My son is anxious because he is starting a new life, because he just left the Marine Corps.  His fiancée just graduated from college and is starting a new life.  She may be anxious too, but I have not specifically asked her, since it doesn’t seem cool to ask somebody about their anxiety. 

Suzuki Roshi says some pretty incredible (in the actual sense of not being entirely believable) things about problems and trust:

Whatever the problems are, they are just enough.  If these are not enough problems, Buddha is ready to give you more, just so you can appreciate your problems.  If you have nothing to cope with, your life feels empty.  So I think you should trust Buddha.   [Not Always So pg 143.] 

Trust the Buddha?  Trust God?  What does that mean?  We usually equate trust with a positive outcome: I trust the car won’t veer over and cause a head-on collision; I trust the food I am eating is not poisonous; I trust the sun will come up in the morning.  Well, there are some things you can trust – like the sun rising– but cars do veer over, and food is sometimes poisonous.  And people who have trust and faith in God do lose their children. 

I think faith is different from trust.  I have faith that life is precious.  I have faith that love is the most important thing.  My faith is more open-ended.  Not so much faith in a specific being or thing, but faith that Being is fundamentally beautiful.  Faith does not require an outcome.  Just an attitude of joy and gratitude.

I have not yet, however, made the leap of faith that whatever one’s problems are, they are just enough.  Yes, I am managing my problems pretty well, but there are a multitude of sick and oppressed people in the world for whom the problems are too much.

My Zen teacher Norman said “trusting that everything will work out as it must.” I don’t know exactly what this means and why this would be a good thing.  I will have to think about this.

But I like the following quote of Suzuki Roshi:

Before you accept the problems you have, the position you are in, you cannot accept yourself as you are.

Our problems are ourselves.  We cannot accept our life or ourselves unless we accept that problems and living are synonymous.  

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spiritual Growth and Gender

I have been thinking about the relationship between a female student and a male teacher.  Are we peers or not?

Clearly there is a hierarchy within Zen, as with any other religion, and any hierarchy implies levels of power.  The hierarchy is important in Zen in terms of  the role of priests: giving lay and priest ordination, choosing a shuso, authorization to teach, etc.  This is necessary.  The issue of gender, of course, comes into play in the historically disproportionate role of men in positions of power.  But we all know this!

What really interests me is the heart-to-heart meeting between teacher and student.  Buddha meeting Buddha. The attitude I bring to a male teacher - Norman in this case - has the most profound effect on my psyche and spiritual growth than any other practice.

Every spiritual tradition assumes that the teacher has more wisdom, and, of course, many assume that the true master is enlightened.  I find it interesting that Zen seems to disclaim enlightenment as any state a person could possess, and Dogen’s “practice-enlightenment” seems pretty Equal Opportunity to me. And yet, all the koans and the roles of the priest imply that the teacher has some advanced knowledge that the student hopes to attain.

After a lifetime of practice, I don’t think a teacher has a special state of knowledge that – if I tried hard enough – I could possess. And yet I am deeply and sincerely seeking.

I actually don’t know what goes on between teacher and student.  It seems to be immensely important, but I am not sure why.  Maybe the teacher is just a really good mirror, or as Socrates says, “A midwife to the Truth.”  Maybe a student allows an open vulnerability, a defenselessness, that somehow allows the truth within herself to emerge.

I have learned, however, that the gender attitudes I bring to a male teacher are detrimental to me and my spiritual growth.  All those conditioned attitudes: subservience, handing oneself over, sexual dynamics, and the subconscious, pathetic assumption that men actually “know best.”

All this stuff gets in the way of true spiritual maturation.  So, this is what I need to examine.