just give yourself

On a walk around town yesterday, I passed a house with glitter-painted rocks lined up along the sidewalk. It looked like a cute way to jazz up a yard, but then I saw the hand-lettered sign taped to a nearby telephone pole.

Adopt a Rock!
(I promise they’ve been Lysoled)

On the way back home, I passed the house again. It didn’t look like any rocks had been taken, despite the invitation. I intended to take one, but then I took two because I couldn’t choose. Plus, I didn’t want to be stingy with the adoption. I have the room to foster a lot of rocks! After I finish jotting this down I’ll take them outside for a photo so you can appreciate them. Like the rest of us, rocks want to be seen, touched, and heard. They want to belong.

We’re all trying to reach out these days even though we can’t really reach out. The Italians set the bar with their sunset serenades across deserted streets. Every evening in Madrid, people throw open their windows and give a round of applause for healthcare workers. Musicians share mini iPhone concerts. A neighbor down the street gives away painted rocks, and me, I do this thing with words.

I’ve been writing quite a bit, in case you’ve noticed. A few years ago I lost interest in it. Writing about kids, or about Zen, or about trees, pets or plants just seemed like a blabbering conceit. I couldn’t stand the sound of myself anymore. After suffering enough pain and penury from publishing I told my Zen teacher I was going to stop writing. He chuckled.

What are you going to do then, he asked. Write?

He had me there. Writing isn’t a matter of what you write about, or who you write it for, and certainly not about praise or profit. Writing is just writing, like a rock is just a rock, and it’s a fine offering, a simple medicine that restores our common humanity while jazzing up the yard.

If you’re sitting at home like I am, wondering what you are supposed to give to a world ravaged by pain and terror, just give yourself. That’s the most beautiful thing.

all is calm

The blue jays call. The squirrels chitter. Otherwise, nothing and no one stirs.

My daughter is behind a door with a handmade sign reading “In Class.” My husband is in the office staring at a screen. I am in the living room pecking on this keyboard, with only my thoughts to disrupt.

We can hardly keep from napping in the afternoon, retiring without turning on the TV. The hush that has pervaded this place seems other-worldly. But it isn’t another world. It is the sound of a world that always sounds this way. So peaceful, so natural; so ordered, so right. What a shock to realize that human beings make all the noise, cause all the crush, summon the haste and fury.

To be instantly free from ourselves, ah, that is the gift of letting go.

This morning walking by the kitchen window I saw the garden shimmering in its everyday light and I recalled the words of a hymn we all know, a song that praises the silence before waking, the stillness before breaking, the dark that beckons the saving grace of a new day.

All is calm, all is bright.

May we each remember a peace long forgotten, a noble way of being with all beings, beginning in our own backyards.

letter from home

I’m writing these words on a blank sheet of paper in longhand, which is a forgotten word, although it used to be the only way anything could be written. Longhand is the way I write all the letters I send. What makes this relevant, I’m not quite sure, except that I spent the morning writing letters, which is something I can still do, and after that I walked to the post office, which is another thing I can still do, even though the governor of California has decreed that all 40 million of us Californians must hereafter stay home with only a few essential exceptions, like taking a walk or standing six feet apart in line to get into a grocery store where they probably don’t have what you’re looking for anyway.

Writing letters is thus much favored as a daily event, as is walking to the mailbox, the post office, or even farther. Many stay-at-homers were walking the streets this morning with me, some with dogs, others with their babies. Walking outside on a morning like this was a thrilling way to see that the world is still outrageously beautiful and alive, the fruits ripe to bursting and spring flowers flush, the bleeding red hearts of the bougainvillea spilling everywhere. Strangers waved from across empty streets. Suddenly, we have so much in common.

Along the way I realized the benevolence, the genius and, yes, the pure common sense of the governor’s decree. I’ve been thinking of this virus as an invading force, an outside threat, and praying for the threat to pass. But there is no threat from outside. I am the threat, and I have to contain it. This is my responsibility, my duty as a human being among human beings. I alone can either spread it or stop it. The answer is in my hands.

I can do this, how about you?

Photo by Natalia Łyczko on Unsplash

 

reality dawns

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

Many years ago, more than I can entirely recall, I went to one of my first meditation retreats in the mountains. It was to be the longest retreat I’d ever sat, more than a week. I was riding the edge of newness and enthusiasm about this thing I was doing, making myself well and happy. I half-hoped something would happen to me while I was there, some kind of wonderful thing. I’d spent a long time waiting for something wonderful, maybe my whole life.

The conditions were tough. It was winter, cold and dark. Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes the wind blew all day and night. My meditation seat was near a window, and I could see out of it. All day long, from the dark of early morning, to the bright of midday, to the shadows of the evening, in my still, silent spot by the window, I could see.

Somehow, seeing what was in front of me, hour after hour, day after day, I wasn’t afraid of the mountain or the deep winter or the sharp cold. I wasn’t confused about what to do. When the retreat was over, a friend asked about it. Did anything happen while I was there? Yes, something had happened.

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

These are hard times. I won’t compare this to any other time, or any other source of fear and uncertainty, or any other kind of pain, sickness, loss, or trauma. Comparing is pointless. I haven’t read the news today, so I don’t know how bad it is today. Bad is bad enough. Hard is hard enough.

Last Friday, as this new reality dawned, I heard from people. One was a stranger. She had read a book, and would I be willing to talk to her about it? Sure. We set a date in April.

April now seems like the dark side of the moon. It’s full of things once imagined that will never see the light.

A few minutes later, she contacted me again. Could we talk on Monday instead?

Her name is Kristen Manieri. She asked very good questions, and recorded our conversation for her podcast, 60 Mindful Minutes. I hope you listen, because if I had an hour to spend with you today, this might be how our conversation would go. It helped me to connect, share, listen, laugh and breathe. I hope it helps you.

You can listen wherever you listen to podcasts, if you do, like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or iHeart Radio. Listen right here, in the middle of eternity, as unknowable as it is, on this great earth and under the vast dancing light of the everchanging sky.

Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

through the cracks

Last night I was dreaming when my mother spoke. I heard her calling my name in the way only your mother says it, the way you’ll never forget, and I woke from a menacing darkness to that single unmistakable sound, “Karen.” It’s been so long. I was so relieved.

At that very instant I heard the mechanical voice on my phone saying, “Message from Georgia Miller.”

I’ve taken to leaving my creaky old cell phone on the nightstand the last couple of weeks, when the first hairline cracks appeared in this thing we call the world. She might need me in the middle of the night, was my thinking, or first thing in the morning. Perhaps I knew what was coming. Not even two weeks ago my daughter was auditioning for the chance to spend next semester studying Shakespeare in London. Oh, I know how lucky she’s been. I know how favored. It was a lark, a dream. It was yesterday. But today it is nearly impossible to conceive of a next semester, or spending three months in London, or London, for that matter. She called that day to say she loved her life and that she was so fulfilled. Really, she said “fulfilled,” and hearing it, so was I. On Monday her college announced the temporary end of in-person classes, today they told her they wouldn’t resume for weeks or maybe months. She is coming home for how long we don’t know. Who, on this day, could say they know a thing?

My whole life is falling apart, she says. I don’t argue.

I console her tears and shock by saying this is a time like nothing else and never before, except perhaps a world war, which most of us who think we know it all only know from a book. I am so sorry for her and her generation, which could be another generation of lost time and lost chances, made great by their shared trauma, extolled for their resilience. I’m sorry for everyone, because every one of us will lose something or someone dear, a loss incalculable and irreversible.

It is not nothing, you know, this disaster. It is not an accident. It is a call, a bell, a beacon, and yes, a wake-up from the arrogance and ignorance of thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. We have been sleeping for a long time.

Packing up to come home for what used to be the blink of a spring week—a frolic, a folly—she told me she would need to bring the big suitcase to hold all her books and sadly, all her shoes. It’s the shoes that make it real, that bring it home.

What will be, will be. It will be hard. It will get worse. And one day there will be a call that shatters the dark, and you will wake as if from a dream, so relieved that the night has passed and that you are loved.

Dear friends, I’m glad you are here.

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

everything is viral

Sometimes people ask me whether or not Buddhists pray. I can tell you that I often break into prayer when I wake in fear or worry at night, or all those times I wash my hands during the day. The prayer might begin Dear Lord or Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo or Our Father Who Art In Heaven or Sho Sai Myo. To me, the words don’t matter. What matters is the intention, the elicitation of aid beyond my limited means, which is to say, beyond my ability to accomplish or understand. I do this because all things are viral, not just bad things. All thoughts, words and actions spread, so I don’t want to be stingy with the good stuff right now. It’s never a good time to be stingy with encouragement, a hopeful wish, or what in better times might have actually been your own hand, freely given.

I have a faint memory of sitting in the hallway of a county health building many years ago. My mom and sisters were with me, and we were waiting to get shots. A little googling this morning makes me think it might have been during a measles epidemic in LA County in 1966, when 50,000 doses were given to kids through age 10. It’s hard to imagine, but there hadn’t even been a measles vaccine until a few years before that. We waited a long time in a long line snaking through that hall, maybe most of the day. Everyone did. I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel lonely or isolated during those days. Everyone seemed to do pretty much everything together. We shared libraries, pools, parks, sidewalks and schools; fire, earthquake and bomb drills. There were fears, sure, met with trust and belonging. I suppose you’d call it community.

I have a nearly invisible scar on my upper left arm from a smallpox vaccination. Every one of us had it growing up. Once a year in school we’d be called into the cafeteria where nurses from the health department would administer a tuberculosis test using a kind of gun (yes, they called it a gun) that would leave us with a circle of six tiny holes on the inside of our wrist. These were the early, miraculous days of vaccines and disease eradication. Things are done differently now.

Absent dire threats or emergencies, we don’t seem to behave in the same way, that is, with common purpose and concern. Instead, we choose sides, face off, criticize and demonize. Communities have become small, self-chosen, and more than likely, nonexistent except for ideological affinities maintained online. But that can change, and it will, if we see this virus as a gift to reconnect with the real lives we share.

Which reminds me: I saw a wonderful story in the newspaper yesterday about a man who loved a certain homemade soup so much that he took it to work for lunch everyday for 17 years. The story came with a recipe that has probably already gone viral. I’m making it tonight. Perhaps you’ll join me?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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

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