sitting enough

 

Nowadays I wake up even earlier than usual to check the news. It’s an obsession but it feels like a duty; I’m a sentry in a war zone, scanning the horizon for smoke and fire. Threats multiply every day. Environmentally, socially, politically, and technologically, the world seems locked in a death spiral. I feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, complicit. What have I done to alter the tides of human ignorance, greed, and hatred? Clearly not enough.

Then I go sit.

As Buddhist practitioners, indeed, as citizens of planet Earth, we might wonder if there’s a better use of our time than sitting still in silence. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight? There are people to help and causes to champion, protests to organize and injustices to correct. Turning our backs and facing a wall sure looks like escaping reality and avoiding responsibility.

Formal practice—in a meditation hall, surrounded by a sangha—has long been criticized as socially disengaged, morally indifferent, and even selfish. Besides, as far as meditation goes, there are apps for that.

Whenever we’re confused about the point of our practice, it’s time to question our judgments and beliefs. We are taught to take refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, and many of us make vows to do so. But is there true refuge in our refuge, or are we just reciting words? Is practice our living reality or just an intellectual pastime? We must continually answer these questions for ourselves, or the buddhadharma dies.

Do I really believe in buddha, the awakened mind that frees sentient beings from the suffering of samsara?

Do I really believe in dharma, the path of practice that leads us out of egocentric delusion and into lives of clarity and compassion?

Do I really believe in sangha, the harmony of oneness that underlies all things?

As taught in the Eightfold Path, the right view changes everything, because when we know that our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences, we live differently. Practice is the place where we can begin to see the truth of this, and each glimpse subtly transforms our lives and the world.

Changing the world is not likely to be our first intention in coming to a practice center. We might want to change a niggling little aspect of ourselves—be more productive, less distracted, less angry, or less anxious, for example. But a funny thing happens while we sit silently struggling with our runaway thoughts and emotions. What keeps us in place is the person sitting next to us. We don’t move because they don’t move. If we weren’t sitting in a group, we would probably walk out. The same is true for everyone else. We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather sitting, breathing, and living as one.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we chant, we broadcast the benefits of our practice throughout the universe. We know it works, because our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences. Little by little, our view widens beyond our own desires. What starts as a self-help project thus becomes the work of a bodhisattva: taking on the suffering of the world. That means we respond to the needs that appear in front of us. It doesn’t matter if our actions seem big or small, enough or not enough. We shouldn’t be fooled by what we think.

Practice is a marvelous vehicle—it goes everywhere and includes everything. It donates clothing and food, signs petitions, and joins marches. It visits the lonely and sits with the dying; it listens, smiles, laughs, and cries. It gives money and time. It votes. Far from disengaged, a living practice is intimately engaged because it is you.

The never-ending greed and hate in our world make the need for practice clear. Without you there is no sangha, no dharma, and no buddha. As the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi said, our personal responsibility is so great that “naturally we sit down for a while.”

***
Compassionate Heart: A Zen Retreat near Toledo June 25-28

Essay originally printed as “True Practice is Never Disengaged,” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2020. Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten.

after the winds

Last Sunday evening the wind picked up until it rose into a roaring gale of flying limbs and leaves and it didn’t stop for two days. These are the Santa Ana winds, downslope desert gusts that can rage any time of year, a hated harbinger of force and flame. When the calm finally descended I was sunk as low as yard waste. There would be days of work ahead, hard work, yet knowing that the labor would somehow save me, I went out back and started dragging broken branches into mounds. I’d already quit when I heard a blower out front but I didn’t think it could be in my yard because our gardener Tomas wasn’t due for another two days. But lo, it was him, breezing through heaps of fallen leaves and needles as if parting a sea.

Tomas once told me that he’d worked here since he was 15, and somehow we figured out we were the same age. I’m a late beginner to this life’s work, but he abides my interference. No matter what you think of the racket, those blowers can tidy up a mess, so when Tomas left after an hour, my mind was lighter. A little later I brought a folded slip of paper in from the mailbox:

Dear Customer,

I will be going out of town for a family emergency. I will be out for a week. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thank you for understanding.

It was from Tomas. He’d be driving to Mexico and back, and he’d delayed the emergency to swing by, leave this note, and do what he could to ease my way. I marveled at his goodness. Then I realized that even after 48 years, he’d be afraid his job could disappear in a sudden gust.

It was a hard week all over, or so I heard from folks. Kids are sick or sad; the old and young are dying; the world, so dark and doomed that we are afraid to look ahead. I can’t do much for those in trouble, but I try to ease the way.

Around here now, the paths are swept, the ponds are clear, and all the things that fell or broke are stacked in piles four feet high. We go on, you see. We get through. The way forward is hardly ever what we want to do or where we want to go, but it brings us back.

Thank you for understanding. Understanding each other goes a long way.

***

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

the jewelry box

The Tiffany Building, New York

When you die can I have your jewelry?

My daughter must have been 7 or 8 years old when she said this. It was one of those bugle calls our children regularly give us without guile or guilt. You are old and going to die! At other times, she asked for certain fancy dresses and pointy shoes post-mortem. I took it as a thief’s form of approval.

When I was in my twenties, my apartment was burglarized. A pair of professionals had watched me leave for work. I didn’t think I owned anything that was worth stealing, but was nonetheless relieved of an old television, spare change, a modest stock of jewelry and all the prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. When the police came I noticed that two silk flower arrangements were missing. Silk flowers were a thing in the early ’80s, but I didn’t believe anyone could fetch a dime for a handful of fake flowers. The policeman set me straight.

Those are for their wives.

I was being crafty when I handed my daughter a trash bag one morning last week, saying if you throw out your old makeup, bath, and hair stuff I will give you my jewelry. I wanted a clean bathroom, you see, and it worked. When she reported back, the duty done, I took a step ladder to the closet shelves and brought a dozen or more little boxes down from the farther reaches where they’d been forgotten. We opened them one by one.

There were iconic robin’s egg blue boxes, dainty ring boxes and long black bracelet boxes, a Baccarat crystal necklace, a box each from Barney’s New York and the Met, and a collection of treasures from a certain antique jewelry purveyor on East 57th. I told my daughter I once had a wealthy admirer who shopped for me whenever he was in the very city which is now her city. Shown the evidence, her eyes widened in appreciation.

Victorian Period
Fifteen Karat Gold Brooch
Made in England
Circa 1880

There were a few souvenirs from my first marriage during a decade when the size of my hair, shoulder pads, shoes and rings coalesced in New Jersey mobster chic. I took out a dusty Rolex watch, a rope of black pearls, and a chunky choker in blazing gold. My daughter demurred.

Some things are too fabulous even for me.

She made an exception for the watch.

After all that, I opened the little wooden jewelry box that I’d kept my wearables in, cheap jewelry chosen by me and not someone adorning me. Most of the clasps were broken. These really were valuables. I’d worn out the stuff. There was one last bracelet rimmed with miniature charms: a statue, a building, a bridge, all the landmarks of Manhattan. I’d once loved it for holding the promise of a new life, a world yet unseen. My daughter claimed it.

I wish I’d known you then.

She said, as if there was ever a single moment separating us.

***

“You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives.” – Dogen Zenji

Photo by Benjamin Jopen on Unsplash

where mothers go

A few months ago I called our tree guy Danny to come over and dispose of the dead. It used to be that I could go years and years without even thinking of death or disposal, but nowadays we see all around us the fallout of our bald-faced climate catastrophe. This time it was a couple of towering English yews, evergreen columns that were planted a hundred years ago along the formal pathways to the garden. An arborist once told me that English yews weren’t even supposed to grow here, but ours were a scrappy bunch, soldiering through a century of summers until the last five months of sunlight just incinerated them. Poof! Gone. Danny made quick work of the old bones, hauled them to the curb and pulverized them, and that’s when I saw what had been going on out of sight all the while.

It must have been just after I moved here in 1997 that my mom sent me a housewarming gift — a potted plant. In the 1990s, flower arrangements hadn’t yet become posh or exotic. They were pretty standard-issue, and to a thrifty consumer like my mom (and me), a waste of good money. In those days there was an industry devoted to houseplants, or rather, keeping houseplants alive, with books and fertilizers and misters and music and such, until we all found out we could kill a heck of a lot of houseplants either way and swung back to sending flowers, only a lot fancier, with pansies and ranunculus and artisanal grasses.

Anyway, my mom sent me a houseplant that was actually two little plants fitted into a blue ceramic pot, and it grew indoors by a sunny window for a while before it turned mildewed and yellow and I put it outside. I didn’t forget about it, not ever, but I didn’t look at it or fuss with it or even care about it except if I should catch a glance of it in the shade, under the yews, in the damp by a leaky spigot, I would think about Mom, gone now since 2001.

Because, you see, one way or the other you’re going to think about your Mom or Dad, and come to know in that bracing way that hits you after they die that life goes on and so you do too, and it doesn’t in any way diminish who they were or weren’t. You get over, is what I’m saying, and go on about your life.

And so Danny lifts up the bower of dead yew by the spigot, and says lookee here at the pittosporum that has busted through its blue ceramic pot into three branches as thick as your wrist, ranging 18 total feet in length, nursed by the fertile rot and drip drip drip of your unconcern, left on its own to go on and on and never die and never leave. Your mother, that is. Her life is yours.

Photo by Alex Wing on Unsplash

 

advice for those who seek

 

Recently someone asked me about the student-teacher relationship in Zen.

It’s not so different from the way any teaching occurs—that is, the way true teaching takes place and not the rote learning of formulaic answers or information. It occurs in presence. It occurs in seeing and following. It occurs in the mutuality of time and space.

Even in finding a teacher, something has already occurred: an attraction, you might say, that is not the outcome of discriminating thought or evaluation. A true teacher-student relationship is something that neither party has a hand in choosing. We call it Dharma.

When I met my first teacher, I didn’t know who I was meeting. I was drawn to the way he walked and talked. It seemed so natural and genuine, even though it was utterly unfamiliar.

The relationship is thus borne of an inexplicable encounter. We can’t know the infinite causes that lead to the sequence of coincidences culminating in a first meeting.

The relationship always carries fear as well as trust. What we are afraid of is stepping forward beyond our self-consciousness and being seen as we are. But that’s what all teaching requires. Teachers stand in front of you and call you to step out of your fear and self-imposed limitations. Come this way, they say, step free. If we trust, we follow.

So a Zen teacher shows the way. We meet and practice zazen in person as often as possible, and when not, we communicate with mutual interest and intent. In the same way that a face-to-face encounter is intimate and honest (whether we realize it or not), what passes between us is the living truth as we experience it. In Zen, the student-teacher relationship is both silent, as in sitting zazen together, and spoken, as in a private conversation. A teacher is necessary because otherwise we get stuck in our egocentric thinking and fear, repeating the same old mental and emotional patterns that cause us a lifetime of suffering.

My teacher likes to say it this way: the student is in a dark room and can’t see the way out. The teacher understands because they were once in a dark room too. There are many windows and doors leading out of the room, but the student is blind. So the teacher says, “Walk three steps in front and then two steps to the right.” Then, boom! Into the daylight!

That’s how it has worked for me, and that’s what I have to share. But a student has to take all the steps. It’s entirely voluntary. There are no contracts. There is no formal curriculum. You simply have to show up and sit down. And whenever you show up, I’ll be right there with you.

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

advice for those who stay

Please don’t look for anything or feel the need to fabricate a feeling. A long illness takes us through every stage of denial, anger and loss well before death occurs. The fact that feelings come and go, that all things come and go, means that we are intimately acquainted with death already, in every moment. There is nothing more to be made of it.

When my mother died, I felt so small in the face of a power, an event, that had no meaning, and over which I had no control. We ourselves give false meaning and false control to everything that comes before. So this could be the most real thing you’ve ever seen. We have nothing to do with it, and nothing to add. I wouldn’t call that being useless. I would call it being.

You will sense the liberation when it comes, the cessation of struggle and suffering. There is no way to receive that as anything but a blessing. In my case, as in yours, it is a blessing for all. Unscripted, as it is.

I wasn’t present for my mother’s death, but when her last call came, I told her I loved her. That’s it, from beginning to end.

When my father died, it was the end of a life lived in pain and anger. He died on his terms, and it happened fast. I told him something that was inconceivable at any other point in my life or his. I told him that I was proud of him, and I meant it.

Now you will meet and console others in their fatigue and grief. You will do what needs doing. It is all quite matter-of-fact. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be.

Hold these things in your heart and let yourself be led into the quiet stillness of the hour. Stay there.

Photo by Douglas Bagg on Unsplash

 

a gift

Sometimes after I give talks I hand whatever notes I used to someone there, because I don’t need them anymore. I treat that little piece of paper as a gift of Dharma. I don’t expect a thank you. It’s always interesting to see what others might do with it. They might think, “Oh, I’ll put it in the trash for her.” But it’s really a treasure. Not because I think it’s valuable, but because it’s given to you with nothing attached to it.

The physical act of giving creates a relationship that transcends all time. And in truth, everywhere we go and everything we do in life is actually relationship. Can we treat those relationships as having causal power that transcends all time? We don’t see how important any act of non-greed, or selfless service, really is!

During the brief time that I knew Maezumi Roshi, he gave me many things. I didn’t even understand what he was saying when he gave them to me. One of the reasons he had things to give is that people gave him lots of gifts. And what do you do when you have lots of gifts? You give them. He gave me a little silver egg somebody had given to him, and he laughed and said, “Let’s see what comes out of it!” Of course I gave away the egg, but now I think, “Well, Rosh, something came out of it.”

This is an excerpt from a recent talk on “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance” available in full here.

Photo by Tim Chow on Unsplash

what’s next

Scenes from the recent Clear Waters Zen Retreat in Batavia, NY.

All photos by Rick McCleary.

making a wish

Today is bulky trash day at our house, the day that a special garbage truck comes to take items too big for your bins. Bulky trash day comes around once every twenty years or so when you clean out part of your garage. Cleaning a garage is the painful process of recalling the usefulness you once expected to get from otherwise useless stuff. The items we stacked on the curb for pickup by the sanitation service looked like a pile of thingamabobs from broken-down whatchamacallits, their original function long ago lost to age and decay. Even before the trash truck could come some of the stuff was scavenged, which is a hopeful thing. Who knows? Our bulky trash might have years of obsolesence yet to give, idling in the forgotten corner of someone else’s garage.

It’s been a month of clearing out. Last week I called the veterans’ group to pick up more sacks of clothes; after that I swept through bathroom drawers and shelves, where some of the medicines were—get this—pediatric. A close inspection of your medicine cabinet can tell you what you don’t want to know about yourself. Like why in the world are you keeping this 10-year-old earwax softener and two packages of wart-removers, not to mention the eight boxes of Band-Aids accumulated during the age of boo-boos?

At a certain time of year, as with a certain season of life, thoughts naturally turn to what you no longer need and what you no longer have.

Lately I’ve been nursing the visible and invisible wounds of a minor fall. Not an old-lady fall, but an old-lady fall from a bicycle on the boardwalk at the beach. You might not even know you are an old lady until you fall from a bicycle at the beach. The scrapes on my left knee and elbow were deep and bloody; I cried. But later on I realized I’d torn up the insides of my shoulder too. I’m due for physical therapy, which right now sounds to me like “assisted living.” This is no big deal, but still, I’m shocked at the loss of what I never appreciated: an arm and a leg.

The climb is long, they say, but in the end, it’s bulky trash day.

I’ve been thinking about how old my mom was when she died, only 67, and about how young she was when I was born, 63 years ago today, and that calls for a wish.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

Photo by Ritu Arya on Unsplash

a glimpse into the cosmos

A couple of weeks ago my phone died. I didn’t even know it was dying because I don’t use my phone for much. One day, I noticed that I got a text about eight hours after it was sent. A day or so later I figured out the phone wasn’t holding a charge, and soon after, it wouldn’t turn on.

I was on vacation with the only people I typically hear from via text, so I wasn’t too bummed. Hopefully we could revert to spoken word for an awkward interim, despite the time-suck of talking face to face.

When we got home, my husband went to the phone store to get my little friend replaced. He came back saying that the LG Cosmos is not in stock at the Verizon store and I might have to upgrade. We both knew this reckoning would come. To those few who know me in real life, I’ve been a cellphone embarrassment for 13 years, a creaking relic of the telephonic past. Nevertheless, I persist.

By now you probably know my peculiar aversion to smartphones and everything they cost us personally, socially, intellectually, spiritually, financially blah blah blah here she goes again. Now some influencers in Silicon Valley, admittedly just a few very rich outliers, are saying this too.

There’s a movement underway called “ethical tech,” which may not be a movement per se, but just a digital detox workshop. At any rate, some people who have scored megabucks as part of Big Tech are realizing that their fancy ideas didn’t make the world a better place. This happens whenever they look up from their phones and see a whole universe of people looking into theirs, subsumed, addicted and inert. They call this outcome “human downgrading” and they feel bad about it.

My husband went on Amazon and found a new battery for the phone and when I switched it out, the phone worked again. It cost $8.88 with free shipping. I didn’t have to upgrade after all and I felt hugely good about it.

I was afraid to see the dozens of messages I’d missed during my days without the Cosmos, but there was only one. It was a text my husband had sent a week earlier from the grocery store. The sight of it made me wonder: in the unforeseeable world beyond ours, would intelligent beings puzzle over the content of advanced communication in the digital age, the way we study hieroglyphics and cave paintings?

Ralph’s is out of roasted chicken so I’m going to Whole Foods.

***

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

the serious business of simple

Back in May it was time to clean the rain gutters. I knew it was time because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it. When your house sits under giant bamboo on one side and redwoods on the other, the gutters clog up like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve made it my job to muck them out every year, which might easily turn into every other year or longer if I lose track, and I’ve been losing track. I told myself that at my age I could fall off a ladder and break a leg, so I tried to hire someone else to do it.

In what I now think of as “the old days” there seemed to be more people you could hire for handiwork. A neighbor might give you the name of a reliable fellow who made a decent life that way. These aren’t the old days so I went on Yelp. I found a guy who advertised himself for cleaning windows and gutters and I phoned him.

He asked me to text him since he only communicated by text. When he showed up the next day to give me a bid he walked around looking up at the roof and said one hundred and twenty-five dollars. It sounded like a fair price to keep from breaking a leg, so I agreed. He said it would only take an hour or two, which struck me as peculiar. As I knew it, the job took two days if I was ambitious and two or more years if I wasn’t.

A week later he texted that he was on the way over to do the job. He got on the roof with a leaf blower, which surprised me, since my approach was more basic. Pretty quickly he came down and knocked on my door. The gutters were full of mud, he said, and he didn’t want to blow it all over the sides of my house. The job would have to wait a week or two until things dried out. He wouldn’t charge me for what he’d done so far. I appreciated that. After he left, I walked around the house and saw the mud that had splattered all over the sides and would end up sticking there.

I never heard from that individual again, which was pretty good news.

The other day I hauled out the ladder, climbed up and started in using just my hands. It was good work, and it felt good. I quit after half a day and picked it up again the next. By then I’d had a major breakthrough. My legs are not broken. My hands are not helpless. My thinking was crooked, but two days at the top of a ladder can straighten that out. Nothing is as complicated as we make it out to be.

Here’s a new talk on the practice of Zen, or the serious business of keeping life simple. If you’re facing something you think you can’t do, it might be time to listen.

Photo by Xin on Unsplash

gone

Today my daughter turned 20.

It was not a birthday that she was keen to reach. It means the end of the countdown. Rather, it means the end of the count-up. The end of the forward lean, the chase of ages and stages, the climb over the wall and into a thing called real life.

She spent the day with friends and I didn’t hear anything from her after she left the house. Last weekend I was away at a retreat and I sent her three texts without response. This is a new phase in our relationship, a reversal. I imagined that she looked at those three texts and said each time, It’s just my mother. My texts must all sound the same, like a baby’s wa wa to be fed. She’s not supposed to feed me. I stopped sending them. A day late, but I stopped.

It’s not hard to let go of what’s already gone. It’s hard to hold on.

To bring it home, here’s a brand new talk on letting go.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

 

a prayer for the last responders

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.—George Orwell

We now recognize it. It is the quiet of the dead after the gunshots stop. It is the horror of what we have become, the silent scream of disbelief, and worse, belief. We really can believe this happened again. Of course it happened again. It is allowed and yes, even encouraged, to happen over and over again.

The words we say have all become clichés. Active shooter. Thoughts and prayers. Victims and families. First responders. Their very utterance is our condemnation. We are so damn well rehearsed in the theatre of it, the pathetic script of it, the hollow sounds that hide the heinous horror of life in America.

These are the words that feign concern for those for whom there is utterly no concern: the actual people who are now and forever gone. People who did something completely unheroic and unremarkable, like wake up on a Saturday morning or go out on a Saturday night. Get groceries, see a friend, buy school supplies, go to church, go to a garlic festival for god’s sake, pray in a synagogue, dance, drink, flirt, listen to music, go to school, go to work, be a teenager, be a first-grader, be alive. And they did this as though they were free! We all do. We live as though we are free when all the while there is a target on our backs. We are not free. We are imprisoned by blind greed and exalted self-righteousness. It is callous and cruel to the point of bleak comedy.

It is the self-interest of wicked profiteers. The petty pretense of certain clueless or crassly cynical daughters. The lame defense of ex-governors or future ex-governors, the piteous pantomime of senators, the fakery of the fakest fake who ever pretended to give a shit. And then of course, it is us, some of us, who fall back on the Charlton Heston version of misanthropic rage that equates the loss of a single, beloved firearm with death itself. Pry it from my cold dead hands, the battle cry goes. But haven’t we seen enough real death by now? We have, and yet, we haven’t.

We the people are the last responders.

So I heed the calls for thoughts and prayers, but my prayers are for the last responders. I pray that we will see and cease from evil, and that America will once again be a safe place to buy pencils.

***

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

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