they didn’t see

If you don’t see the Way,
you don’t see it even as you walk on it.

—Identity of Relative and Absolute

Over the last 20-plus years, I’ve heard my teacher tell a lot of stories. Actually, I’ve heard him tell one or two stories a lot of times. One of them is about Maezumi Roshi visiting a psychiatric hospital.

A member of the sangha was having trouble, and she had ended up in psychiatric care. When Maezumi heard about the powerful drugs the doctors were giving her, he said, “We have to go get her.” So they went to the hospital. Maezumi was wearing his traveling robes. There were many times Maezumi wore Western clothes, so for this trip, he must have thought the robes were appropriate.

They were standing near the day room talking to the staff about a discharge. The room was full of patients. Some were visibly disturbed or aggressive. Maezumi just stood there, a funny little man in a weird get-up, and didn’t say anything. One of the patients walked up to him carrying a chair. He signaled for Maezumi to sit down in it. Maezumi sat. Then the guy pulled up a chair and sat right next to him. And so did others. Soon Maezumi was sitting in a circle of psychiatric patients. Everyone was still and quiet, like it was nothing special.

When you walk the Way it is not near, it is not far
If you are deluded you are mountains and rivers away from it.

My teacher says that none of the staff or doctors even noticed what had happened.

“They didn’t see,” he would say everytime he told the story.

I used to wonder what it was that they didn’t see, and why. For awhile I thought he was saying that the whole event was come sort of glitch in the matrix, a hidden world on the other side of the space-time continuum. Zen students can be deluded by woo-woo like that.

“Oh,” I’d repeat, “they didn’t see!” still not seeing.

Not so long ago I realized what the doctors didn’t see: what was right in front of them. Reality. What most of us don’t see even as we walk on it.

In taking a seat and wearing robes, observe it for yourself later on. — Case 32, Book of Serenity

It used to be that if I was giving a talk or leading a workshop, I would put on a sleek J. Jill outfit and use a PowerPoint. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or alarm anyone else, by doing anything Buddhist. I was an entertainer of sorts, and I was good at it. But entertainment doesn’t last. So I gave up trying to be popular and started going out in my robes to do what we do in Zen: sit. Instantly, it made everything easier. I didn’t have to make up what to say, and even strangers were consoled by it. I realized that it wasn’t me that made the difference, it was the robe.

In Zen, the teaching is said to be conveyed from teacher to student by “the robe and the bowl.”

The robe is the Dharma, or the teaching. The Dharma is as it is with nothing extra, nothing fabricated. It’s a powerful thing—what is—and it heals—when nothing is added to it—so maybe that’s why Maezumi wore his robe into the room where people were sick and suffering, their minds spinning in psychotic storms. It must have seemed like heaven to step into the quiet calm of his non-distracted presence, or samadhi. A passerby might have thought he was one more crazy person in a room of crazy people. And that would have been true too. Wherever he went, Maezumi left no trace of himself.

The robe was a signal that he was there to share the Dharma, pure presence, which shares itself when we don’t add our judgments to it.

The Great Way is not difficult;
it only avoids picking and choosing.

—Verses on the Faith Mind

I ran across a survey the other day asking “What is the greatest challenge Zen faces in the West today?” That’s a pretty common question among those who compare good versus bad, right versus wrong, past versus future. People have opinions. The truth, however, could not be clearer. The Way is not difficult. Reality is not hidden. There are no challenges to being present except the walls we erect by our judgmental mind, liking one thing and disliking another, cherishing our views of this or that.

It reminds me of Maezumi Roshi in the psychiatric ward. The doctors and nurses whizzing past, lost in their expertise, seeing only diagnoses and prognoses, cases and labels, in a room full of human beings just like them.

The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking
And there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

a book I didn’t write

My daughter gave this to me for Christmas. She said I could write in it.

I took it as a sign. Perhaps like me you go looking for signs. Not actual signs, which tell you exactly what to do, like No Parking On Wednesdays Between 12 and 3 p.m., but the kind of sign that you can read into. A sign that you should write that next book, for example. The book about how to be the mother of a teenager.

Shortly after Momma Zen was published a few people said I wish you would write about parenting a teenager!  Yeah, right. I had a six-year-old. It was like asking me to write about the moons of Pluto. You take it on faith that the frozen rocks are floating way out there, but who cares? Later on, in the thick of age 14 or so, I knew what those parents had been asking for, but I couldn’t write about it until I’d stumbled out of the wilderness and into the clearing.

The thing is, it’s a really big wilderness.

Along the way, I marked a trail. The first thing I learned was that the teenage years start long before the teenage years. Like around age 9 or 10, when the sunshine dims and shadows creep. Soon, it became obvious that the only thing I could carry with me on the trip was love, extravagant love. And by love, I mean wide open space and silence. Trouble is, I was a slow learner. Stripped of the false sense of accomplishment, humility was my steady companion. Determined not to repeat my mistakes, I aimed to be just a tiny bit useful. To find the way, I’d have to listen, and more than listen, trust. Every step was a lesson in letting go. It’s scariest when you’ve gone just about as far as you can. But right about then, the light dawns. You’re back home, but it’s somewhere else entirely.

There are five moons around Pluto. That’s one book I can’t begin to write.

your child is a boat on the ocean

boat-on-ocean

Your child is a boat on the ocean. There are clear skies and calm nights. There are storms and rain and fog. You cannot control the course. Every time you exhale, the boat is carried toward the horizon, its distant harbor and home.

You are the breeze.

I am reposting this from the forgotten past. Because it is so true, and I forget what is true.

bloom

Let all karma be wiped out and the mind-flower bloom in eternal spring!

This April I’ll be returning to the wide-open prairies of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin to observe the flow of spring amid the stillness of Zen. All levels of practitioners are invited to join this weekend of seated meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), chanting, and Dharma talks.

Holy Wisdom Monastery is less than 10 miles outside of Madison. This ecumenical center welcomes visitors with inspiring views, comfortable rooms and lovingly prepared meals. It is the perfect place to come alive again.

Spring Wind: A Zen Retreat
April 11-14, 2019
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Registration open

from every corner

Clockwise from top left:

  1. Cassini spacecraft plunges into Saturn to end its successful mission
  2. Turtle Island after 102 years in the garden
  3. NYU campus
  4. InSight mission lands on Mars in 2018
  5. Washington Square Park, New York City
  6. Valencia oranges ripening another season on Lima Street

what we do for love

A practitioner at a meditation retreat asks a question.

Q: What am I practicing here that helps me be more present and connected in my daily life?

A: Here, what you’re practicing is presence and connection, so that you can be more present and connected. Although right now you’re in a different place doing something different than usual, this really is your daily life. Yours alone. Even among all of us gathered here in one place, no one else is having the experience that you are having. Furthermore, if I were to tell you that practice is transactional, that if you sit like this you’re going to have a certain wonderful experience in your other, “normal” life someday – that would be a lie. This isn’t a transaction. Practice isn’t a product, a course of study or a life hack. There are not two things: your life and your practice. They are the same thing. You never leave your life, and the point is to never leave your practice. It’s all one thing.

We are here practicing being human beings. This is the practice of being a human being. In the old days they called Zen the practice of everyday life. You think, “This isn’t my everyday life. This is the opposite of my everyday life.” But nonetheless, this is your everyday life. Since the very beginning, and I don’t know why, human beings are not so good at everyday life. Unless they really practice everyday life.

Can I practice handling just this moment, however it is? Because when I’m out and about in my everyday life, I’m perfectly fine until someone does something that I don’t like or something happens that I don’t want. That’s where it gets tough, and it can get tough every day. It can get tough today. This environment here is very artificial and contrived. We’ve arranged ourselves in this nearly empty room, everyone in funny clothes trying to sit still and be silent. We don’t intentionally add stress here, but you experience stress here. I promise you that in your life, you experience stress. Can you sit it out? Wait it out? Breathe it out? Refrain from involving yourself in sticky situations that you don’t need to be in?

I can only speak from my own experience. At a certain point in my everyday life, I just could not handle it! I didn’t want any more of it! I tried everything I could think of to fix the problems and nothing worked. So when I finally sat down like this, it was an act of complete surrender. A sign of total failure. I’m going to have to do this on my own, I said. I’m going to have to figure out how to be a human being, with a life that has other people and things in it.

That’s what we’re here to do. And why do we do it? I think it’s why we do everything. Not because we’re high-minded or religious. This is not a religion. It’s a practice. You do not worship Buddha, and you do not worship me. Let’s see for a moment if you can stop worshipping yourself.

We’re here for love, because we have a capacity for love and we want to love and we want to be loved. That’s the connection. It’s not romantic love. It’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is pure presence.

Here we are among strangers. It’s a good idea to find love among strangers. It gets complicated after you know each other’s names and stories. When you know all that, you might find that you can’t relate to someone else. You might not even be able to tolerate them. But here you can simply have respect and gratitude for one another. Here you can just be present with everyone and everything.

It’s a beautiful practice, this practice of presence. It comes in many shapes and forms. Some people find connection on a swim team, or a cooking class, or off-road racing. And then you wonder how does that apply to life? But it does.

What we’re doing here this weekend requires a very modest amount of time, compared to how long it takes to stream a Netflix series. And it is relatively painless. So ask yourself. Why am I here?

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
March 31, 2019

Spring Wind Weekend Retreat
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison, WI
April 11-14, 2019

Photo: The Dewdrop Sangha by Rick McCleary.

This is an excerpt from an informal Q&A at one of this year’s Dewdrop Sangha meditation retreats. You can listen to the full recording here.

the orbit is elliptical

Sunday morning I was standing on the sidewalk with my dog Molly. Standing is what passes for walking when you have a dog this old and infirm. I saw my neighbor striding down the hill toward us. Straightaway he asked about my daughter.

I think about her all the time! She’s so brave. You are all so brave.

This neighbor attended the same university where my daughter is now, and has embraced her college choice and field of study with unfiltered enthusiasm.

The energy is so amazing! The people are so creative! It’s the best place in the world for her!  Then he asked about her recent visit home.

It hadn’t gone the way I’d expected. After three months away, she spent most of her time in her room or ricocheting from one friend to another, special people she just had to see, spinning in happiness and heartache. Three days later she got up at 4 a.m. without complaint to catch her return flight. It was barely noon here when she texted a valediction: Landed. I told my neighbor that I realized her life now is all about moving forward.

You know, the orbit is elliptical. It’s not circular.

He said this with the insight of an astrophysicist, which he isn’t, but I could grant him that, since he is a professor of supportive care at one of the world’s leading cancer centers. He knows all about comings and goings and the paths we travel in-between. Our children return home to refuel before they accelerate outward again.

Once indoors, I sounded out the science with the astronautical expert I live with. I vaguely remembered not listening to him tell me about the elliptical flight path of a mission to Saturn, when the spacecraft slingshotted back around two or three planets en route to its faraway destination. Why do you have to do that? I asked him.

The planet’s gravity accelerates your velocity so you can get where you’re going.

I’m schooled now on the mechanics: we pull her in so we can fling her out. Hers is a distant world.

***

The interplanetary flight path of the Cassini mission to Saturn began with launch from Earth on Oct. 15, 1997, followed by gravity-assist flybys of Venus, Earth, and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn on July 1, 2004. The flybys of the different planets were designed to increase the spacecraft’s velocity relative to the sun so it could reach Saturn. During these flybys, there is an exchange of energy between the planet and the spacecraft which accelerates the latter and changes its velocity direction relative to the Sun.

Image: How small the sun looks from Saturn.

 

caring letters

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

finding a life

You must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong. — Wendell Berry

This week, should you travel far or close, join the table as a guest or host, may you find your life in all those things to which you belong. And in a quiet hour, perhaps you’ll listen to this. I am grateful to have something to share with you. Thank you for fulfilling my life.

Karen Maezen Miller: Finding a Life podcast

scales fell

At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. — Acts 9:18

A few mornings ago I looked out the window to the garden and saw something really weird scattered over the patio. At first, it looked a little like confetti. Up close, it seemed more like press-on fingernails. I picked up a piece and it was as hard as plastic. It took me a few minutes before I knew, with resignation and sadness, what I was looking at.

In my last blog post I told you that the practice of Buddhism started when Shakyamuni realized that he would get old, get sick and die. It went sort of like this: “Here’s the baseline. You’re not going to like this. It’s going to be hard. Life’s a bitch.” That’s what we call the First Noble Truth: life is suffering.

The practice of Buddhism is to look into that suffering and see what’s there. Are we just a collection of bones, or as my teacher likes to say, a bag of shit, pus and blood?  Because if that’s all that’s sitting here, go on home and spend the rest of your life streaming Netflix. But Shakyamuni has his doubts. He wants to see for himself.

When he looks into his own nature, he arrives at the Second Noble Truth, which is that the source of suffering can be known. You can see that you suffer because things don’t go the way you want them to. Out of nowhere we get sick, and try as we might, we can’t undo the causal factors. No one can even tell you for sure what the causal factors are. We have an accident, and we can’t unwind it. Trouble comes, and we can’t get around it. Happiness shows up, then disappears. As long as we go through life saying, “This doesn’t work for me, I can’t handle this, I don’t want it, I don’t like it, and I’m not ready,” we’re in continuous discomfort, or dukkha.

And where is all of that happening? In the mind that picks and chooses, trying to plan, prevent, organize and prepare, as if you could avoid all the bad stuff and hold onto the good.

So by now you know that you suffer, and you can also see why. The next step is to stop doing that. The Third Noble Truth tells you that you don’t have to be a prisoner to your thoughts. You don’t have to live inside your head, spun about by “me, my, I” and all your likes and dislikes, desires, fears, how-comes, why-fors and the really big question: the what-comes-after.

Buddha laid out a path for liberating yourself from delusion. It’s called the Eightfold Path and the fact that it exists is called the Fourth Noble Truth. The path looks a lot like this: be where you are, as you are, take care of what appears in front of you, and don’t judge it. After all, you can’t avoid or escape it, and it will change.

As for what comes after, we have to say we don’t know. Explore that space of not knowing. Live in that house, the house where there are no walls. No before and after; no beginning and no end. Where everything happens whether you’re ready or not, and face it with the courage of your ancestors who ascended the throne of enlightenment. That’s the truth of Buddhadharma, which is the truth of your life.

***

(It was what the owner of a particular koi pond, which is visited nightly by raccoons, might see as the end.)

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

 

 

why buddha sits

Let me tell you a story about Buddha. This story is often mischaracterized as mythology or parable, because we like to approach things that way. Oh I get it, it’s a fable— rather than facing it as stark reality.

Buddha was born and his parents adored him in that misguided and dangerous way that all parents adore their children. Because daddy was king of the clan, they had the resources to raise their son with considerable advantages. At the same time they had been warned about certain dangers. They had consulted a seer, who said, “Look, your son is either going to be a great warrior king or become a spiritual freak.” So they tried to prevent him from becoming anything other than a king with power and wealth. They didn’t want any damaging influences to detour his ascent to greatness. What spiritual seekers did at that time was . . . weird. They were ascetics. They didn’t eat. They didn’t dress. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t have homes or shelter. The parents had to rule out that nonsense entirely.

Like all of us, they were very afraid that their child would suffer pain or misfortune. So they baby-proofed the house. They put a lock on the toilet lid, the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door. They set out to eliminate all hazards, because this is how much they loved their son and feared for his future. As he grew up, he was surrounded by servants to care for his every desire so he didn’t have to go anywhere. And they weren’t just servants. They were the best-looking servants: only young, fit, beautiful people bringing him the finest food, most beautiful music and freshest flowers. Nothing decayed; nothing unpleasant.

I understand a couple of things that are going on here. I understand love, and how as parents we feel the need to protect and control. But I also get what we feel as children. We grow up, and by degree, we keep peeling back the curtain. We’re hungry for the truth. We feel trapped, smothered, and fooled. We know our parents might have good intentions, but after a while all that confinement begins to feel like bad intentions.

Even though Buddha had everything he ever wanted, he wanted more. He said, “What’s the real world like?” He and his adolescent friends decided they were going do the unthinkable. They jumped over the wall and they went down to the city, that forbidden place. He was gonna have fun!

Only he didn’t have fun. That’s because the first thing he sees is an old person. And he’s like, “Whoa, what happened to him?” Because when you’re 15, you think you’re gonna be 15 forever. When you’re 20, you’re gonna be 20 forever. And then, when you slide over into 30, you think, “Well, at least I’m not 40!”

So Buddha says to his buddy, “What the hell happened there?” And his friend says, “That’s just an old person. We all get old.” That was a downer.

They go on, and pretty soon they see somebody sick on the street. You don’t have to look far to see something like that no matter where you live. Even now when you see it, do you really see it? Nowadays if you get sick, what’s the first thing you think about? Prevention. “If only I’d . . . worn a mask on the airplane . . . hadn’t eaten sushi . . . gotten a flu shot . . . taken a different elevator.” What we’re always trying to do is engineer a different outcome: perfect health, happiness, and the fountain of youth.

A whole lot of what we buy feeds into that delusion. You’re not going to get sick if you use this. You’re not going to get wrinkles. You’re not going to get gray hair. You’re not gonna get old. What’s implied in everything we buy is you’re not going to die. Because the same night Buddha sees the old guy and the sick guy, he sees a dead guy.

Old age, sickness, and death. That’s reality, not a myth.

So what does Buddha do when he comes away dazed and confused from the most shocking night of his young life? He looks around at the hordes of people – his friends, his family, the crowds milling around town, buying and selling crap — and says, “How can you live like this? If you know you’re going to get old, sick and die, why do you live as if it’s not going to happen?”

He’d been born into brocade and jewels. He’d come from a palace. And he saw what it wasn’t. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. He realized that he needed to relinquish his false identity of privilege and immunity. He needed to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, irrefutable and irreversible truth that we grow old, we get sick and we die.

Right then, he dedicated himself to resolving this dilemma: How can we live if it’s for nothing? What do we do and where do we go, if there’s no way out?

“This is where we start,” he said, and sat down to see it through.

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

***

Photo by Henley Design Studio from Pexels

fall

I had a long flight home last Monday. After landing at LAX I got a text from my husband saying there had been a bad windstorm while I was away. It had left the yard a wreck, the power out. So it goes with the Santa Ana winds, easterly gusts that whip up from the desert and mow their way to the coast. Hot and dry, Santa Anas ignite wildfires, allergies, insomnia, anxieties, anger and worse: conflagrations of the flesh and spirit.

Here, they mean days of hauling limbs and leaves from the ponds. The job, like the wind, is insistent. It must be done. And it gives gratifying results: stacks of tinder, mounds of muck. But as the surface of the water clears, it reveals the even uglier side of what’s beneath—the rot and sludge from years before. Things I never saw, work I never did.

“Isn’t it a shame that we have to go through this to see what a beautiful place this is,” a friend says while looking up. The wind has polished the sky into a perfect jewel glittering above the golden hills.

I’m not surprised by what falls to earth—it all falls—but by how much the world is made better for it.

This is the truth and a parable.

try

try to turn off the radio
take out the earbuds
save the podcasts
for another day
set your phone down
pause the music
save the lullabies
for later play
put your shoes on
leave your front door
greet your neighbor
sunshine lights your way
do something, really do something
that makes a difference
today

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