sharing everything this Christmas

unwrapping-gift-croppedIt was close to 7 p.m., pitch dark and cold by California standards, and I was stopped at a red light on the way to pick up my daughter from math tutoring. The light was long and I let my gaze drift to my left, across the street, where I watched two men waiting for the bus. One wore shorts, the other jeans, both in dark hoodies. I knew they were strangers because they stood apart and ignored each other. In the same moment, each raised a cigarette to their lips, an orchestrated pair invisibly attuned. And then the traffic moved.

Earlier that evening my daughter asked me how we used to Christmas shop. “When you were little did you order from magazines?” she asked, stretching her imagination to conceive of a life without computers. For Hanukkah she was given money and the same day spent most of it on Christmas gifts for friends. The spree had made her happy and it had made me happy too, being much more fun than my grumpy sermons on generosity. She ordered everything online (with my help) and the UPS man delivered the first box today. She went to the front gate and took it from him. I think that was a first, too.

I told her about my grandparents, who seemed crazy rich to us but crazy poor to everyone else. There was a book in those days called the wish book that was really the Sears catalogue. Since my grandparents lived far away from a department store they waited for the wish book to come every year. Then they handed it by turns to three little granddaughters and told us to make a mark by anything we wanted. I’m serious. That’s what they said, and then they went in the other room. It was a big book and a tall order for us little girls, but knowing that I could have it all made me less greedy. I remember pausing my pen over a page, empowered with a Midas touch, thinking of my grandparents, and not wanting quite so much as I thought I did.

Last weekend we saw A Christmas Carol at a local theatre.  My daughter was in four such productions since the age of 8, so I have seen and heard Mr. Dickens’ tale brought to life dozens of times. On Saturday I saw it and cried again. I cried because you cannot receive that story and not have it tenderize your heart. There can’t be one of us who isn’t afflicted by anger, frustration, cynicism or a shitty mood around the holidays. There isn’t one of us who isn’t sometimes blind to goodness or stingy with sentiment; who isn’t isolated or afraid. To see a human being transformed by joy, generosity, and belonging — and to feel it for myself — I don’t want anything else just now.

When people say they like the work I am sharing, I look around for the work. This doesn’t feel like work. It feels like life, which is inseparably shared by all of us. If you’re not sure you have anything to share, I will understand. I feel like that sometimes, too. Then I see differently, and my heart is bared. I have to give more. I have to give all of it.

Doctor Fights Ebola Nearly to Death
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rules for a mindful garden

rules for a mindful garden

Available as a print by visiting here.

come together in grace

knives forks and spoons in cup of dry food dishes“From an early age I knew that I was different.”

Last weekend I went to a place far away that I’d never been before and sat in silence for two days in a small room with people I’d never met. All of us who find ourselves in that kind of predicament — even if we’ve done it a hundred times — are a bit uncomfortable at the outset. First, we don’t know the people we are sitting with, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know what we are doing, and we aren’t able to talk about what is bothering us.

So when it was over, we went around the room and said our names and gave a parting word or two. What I said was that, no matter what we presumed about the strangers sitting next to us, everyone in the room had been sitting in a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

No matter what, we hurt. We have trouble in our lives. We have pain. We have pain even when there’s no pain because the things we cherish won’t last. This universal suffering, this eternal ache, is our greatest blessing, in a way, because through it we realize that we are not different, we are not better or worse, we are not special or chosen, we are just alike, and this recognition allows us to get over ourselves and care deeply for one another. Very few realize it, and so we live at war, wars big and small, public and private, and they go on forever. Our world is a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

There is a kind of standard-issue biography among spiritual entrepreneurs that goes something like this: “From an early age I knew that I was different. Teachers recognized that I was spiritually gifted. I possessed a profound awareness that I was meant to do something special. I decided to go out into the world and share what I was born to do.”

From an early age, know that you are not different.

Being different has not been a transformative experience for me. Neither was it the experience of Buddha, who from an early age knew that he was not different. His spiritual awakening began when he left the phony shelter of his delusions and realized that he would get old, get sick, and die. Like the rest of us, he had no special gift, no deferment, no way out or around reality. This stone-cold clarity is the root of wisdom and the source of compassion.

I offer this up today so that we can be a bit less uncomfortable in the days ahead. So that we can experience things in a new way. We can be tolerant of one another. We can be generous. We can be forgiving. We can be at ease in a crowded airport, house or kitchen. We can clasp hands around the table, giving thanks not only for life’s abundance, but for its scarcity, its brevity, and its painful guarantee of impermanence. Until we realize that we are not different, we can never, even for one moment, come together in grace.

Amen.

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7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

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Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. That ancient teaching inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

a tiny bit useful

IMG_0728_2“I’m so over that cup!” my daughter said as I was about to pour a drink for her to take on the morning drive to school.

The cup was a spill-proof plastic cup with a hole in the lid for a straw. When she objected, I realized it was a child’s souvenir cup from an amusement park. The kind of park where you take your little ones for their first coin-operated horsey rides, first bumper cars, first roller coaster, and the first of dozens of cheap, ugly, oversized stuffed animals that will litter their rooms for years. It was still a perfectly usable cup, one you graduate to after you outgrow the sippy cup, but the drink I was pouring for her was coffee, and the commute was to high school.

My days are like this now.

This week I sold a good number of her once-very-special American Girl dolls, taking a baby step toward her urgent desire for a teenager’s room, Mom, a teenager’s room like everyone else. For a day and a half, my office was a doll salon, where I cleaned their faces, eyelashes and hair with baby wipes and coaxed the tangles from their ratty curls. I sorted a trunkload of doll clothing, hats, coats, socks, shoes and underwear. In short, I had a blast. Deep in the mound I found this teeny tiny duct tape purse. This craftwork dated from an age when my daughter was obsessed with enterprise. First came the dog training, dog washing, and dog walking schemes, then the yarn potholders and duct-tape wallets and purses. She was forever wondering how she could offer something people would want and use. Her ambition crested around age 12 with the YMCA babysitting classes and personal business cards, a campaign producing the pitiful yield of one actual babysitting job. Then she gave up childish things.

I kept the duct tape purse, because I remembered a little girl’s attempt to be a tiny bit useful in this big world. Usefulness gives us dignity. It gives us life. Everyone and everything wants to be useful, until their usefulness is used up.

I pitched the cup and a few more like it. I shipped the dolls. Now I pound this into my laptop waiting for the text that will tell me it’s time to pick up a girl who needs a ride home in the cold and dark from school. My tiny bit of usefulness is not yet used up, and for that I am completely grateful.

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I really want you to come

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Sunday Morning

By Bobby Byrd

Two old guys walk single file
Slowly and wordlessly around a room.
A white curtain filters the sunshine.
Outside is the hot desert sun.

The two men are shoeless. The smaller,
the guy in front, is limping because
40 years ago in Vietnam a kid in black pajamas
shot him in the head and almost killed him.

The other guy dodged that war,
lived in the mountains, lived in the city,
wife and three kids, drank a lot,
wrote some poems. A candle flickers,

incense burns. The floor is clean
because these two men cleaned it.
Three others were here but they left.
The man in front slaps two wooden

clappers together. The sound startles
the man behind. He takes a deep breath.
The men stop walking. The first man
lights a stick of incense and places it

in front of a statue of the Buddha.
They bow to their cushions on the floor.
They sit down cross-legged and stare
at the wall. Their legs ache. It’s been

three days now. Not much longer.
One of them is the teacher
one of them the student. It doesn’t
make much difference which is which.

***

I’ve been traveling some lately. I’ve been traveling enough that when I sit down in my own living room, I feel like a piece of cheap, soft-sided luggage tumbling out of the baggage claim shoot on Carrousel 4.

When I go someplace, I never know who’s going to show up. A fair number of the people I expect to show up are nowhere in sight, but the empty spots are always taken by the otherwise ordinary folks who walk through the door.

I was about to head over to Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month when my host asked me if I could spend a part of the visit sitting with Bobby Kankin Byrd and his sangha in El Paso. “He really wants you to come,” she said, telling me that Bobby Byrd was the “Dalai Lama of El Paso.” Meeting him, I could see why. If His Holiness is the embodiment of the great monastic lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, then Bobby Byrd is his counterpart in El Paso. He’s a rumpled guy with a head of gray stubble and a giant smile, a fellow who cares a lot about many important things but who is never more than half-serious about himself. He’s a poet, a publisher and a Zen priest, which must be the holy trinity of lost causes, especially when you do them in El Paso. He and his wife Lee are the founders of Cinco Puntos Press, a small and very independent publisher of artfully rendered and lovingly cultivated books. They treat their books like you would your children if you adored your children every minute of the day. He sits with a group of die-hards every Sunday morning in a zendo about the size of a toolshed, a magnificent toolshed I should say, in a blooming backyard. I came because he asked me to and I liked it there an awful lot. I liked the people very much.

Bobby gave me the latest book of his poems, Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary. This poem came from it. It tells you exactly why I will haul myself off to the next who-knows-where to sit with who-knows-who happens to be in the room that day. One will be the teacher and one the student. It doesn’t make much difference which is which. What matters is that we come anyway.

***

Poem excerpted from Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary ©2014 by Bobby Byrd. Printed with permission of Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso.

 

practice no harm

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Paradise in the Easy: An Introduction to Zen Meditation, Sat., Oct. 25 in New Orleans
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Sun., Nov. 9 in Los Angeles
The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat, Kripalu in Western Massachusetts, Fri., Nov. 14-Sun., Nov. 16

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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10 steps to start meditating

gobelet-forme-basse-verre-a-whisky-24-cl-strauss-luigi-bormioli1. Make the room quiet. As if no one were inside.
2. Eat and drink moderately. Empty before you fill.
3. Set aside all involvements. Do not invite disturbances.
4. At your sitting place, spread a thick mat. To cushion your knees.
5. Put your cushion on the mat. To elevate your spine.
6. Sit upright. Like a mountain.
7. Align your head. Ears over shoulders; nose over navel.
8. Keep your eyes open. Always.
9. Give up. Thoughts, ideas, and judgments.
10. Breathe and be still. You can.

Adapted from Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi.

For a day of personal instruction in zazen, attend the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat on Nov. 9 in Los Angeles.

###

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zen bucket list*

I scooped up the moon

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in my water bucket . . . and

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spilled it on the grass — Ryuho

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Photos from my visit to Las Cruces and Mesilla, NM last weekend

Haiku by Ryuho (1599-1669)

*I have no use for bucket lists, but a bucket comes in handy.

To encourage you in your life and practice, visit the Media page to listen and Videos page to see.

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58 years a mountain

butterfly_on_rock_posters-r8a57b5d2bea84c47a456fcc8f0f91324_zqj_8byvr_324_2

There is a mountain sixteen miles high.
Every hundred years a butterfly brushes its wings across the granite face.
When the mountain is ground to dust, that’s how long time is.
Multiplied by ten billion.

An hour after midnight on the twenty-sixth
a crown of light
a blear of tears
my father climbed a fire escape
to the third floor rear
no, wait
that wasn’t me
years have smeared
the muddy lines of memory
my mother wept
our bodies two
one snip and from the roof I flew
down the Santa Monica Mountains
into the valley dim
not really, really
thus, pitched from the rim
unseated from the peak
I made slow time across a billion-year cheek
Now stopped in place
an eon nigh
the invisible kiss
of a butterfly.

On the anniversary of my birth.

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how do you become a Zen priest?

scan0034This question has been posed to me a lot lately, in radio interviews and podcasts you can listen to all day long on this page of my website, and in personal conversations. It seems to me that when I answer it, the listener is at least mildly disappointed.

They might expect me to say that I spent five years in theological study. That I’d heard a voice or seen a vision. That as a small child playing with a stick in the dirt outside my family’s mud hut, three strangers approached and told me I was a reincarnated monk. Or that I’d always known deep in my heart that I had been placed on Earth to save the souls of sinners.

The question is laden with expectation, but the answer is not. Because that’s not how you become a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen is entirely one’s own doing, motivated by one’s own aspiration, deepened by one’s own practice of zazen. Ordaining as a priest is simply an expression of personal commitment. In my lineage at least, there are no prerequisites to accomplish and no prescribed pastoral, professional, or organizational tasks to perform. No tests or credentials. I don’t write sermons every week, and I have no congregation. My calendar isn’t booked with couples counseling, parochial education, baptisms, weddings or funerals.

“That sounds kind of laid back,” said the interviewer in one conversation.

“So it isn’t a job,” said another.

“There must be a story behind that,” many have said, and there is. Just not the story you think.

This is the story of how I became a Zen priest. One day I sat down in a place I’d never been before and recognized the scent of something I’d never smelled before: sandalwood incense, burning on an altar. How do you recognize what you’ve never smelled before? Heck if I know. I liked the place, and I stuck around.

Everything came after that: subtle shifts and colossal changes. Denial and avoidance. False certainty. Sudden leaps and setbacks. Vanity, fear, doubt, surrender, and finally, love and devotion. One day I knew what I would do. I would take the vows that would commit myself to the selfless service of others forever.

Is it laid back? It is a matter of life and death.

Is it a job? Never-ending.

Is there a congregation? Everyone and everything I meet.

Is there a story behind it? Not anymore.

Read more about Tokudo, priest ordination, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.

Watch this short video, “Vows” about monastic discipline in Chinese Buddhism.

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my spectacular failure

This week I’ll be going into a recording studio to tape the audiobook of Momma Zen. This is a welcome and unexpected chance to put my speaking voice to my writer’s “voice.” The occasion reminds me of this passage in the book about the eternal power of voice:

“In the cozy darkness, tucking in my three-year-old, I ask her what she loves best. ‘Your voice,’ she says, dreamily. She is halfway dreaming, when answers are undefiled. I am reassured. It will change a bit, weaken and grow old. And then she will hear it in herself: a song without words, a lyric beyond language, a smile, a laugh, a moment’s silent consolation. It will always come back because it never leaves. I know that voice.” — Momma Zen

I’ll be sure and let you know when the Audible book is ready so you can hear my voice in my own voice and share it with those inclined to listen.

In my work and practice, I’m continually exploring the intuitive voice within us, the voice that speaks a truth we know before we know it. Earlier this year I had a videochat with my friend, artist and writer Christine Mason Miller about the mysteries of voice, the peculiar humiliations of a writer’s life, the organic uncertainty of the creative process, and redefining professional success (which in my case looks like spectacular failure). If you wish to write or try to write — or if you harbor any artistic or professional aspirations for that matter — our conversation might be helpful. What I say applies to any expectation or ideal we cherish and it might just be something you need to hear today.

The video was included in a comprehensive e-course Christine put together for aspiring authors called “The Conscious Booksmith.” The six-week course will be offered again in January, and if you’d like to get more information about it, sign up here. It’s worth it.

In the meantime, you can watch us talk about success and failure right here and now. (If you’re reading this post in your email and don’t see the video, click on the headline and you’ll be taken to the blog.)

 

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buy this book

82522I used to sell signed copies of my books from this website, but before my most recent book was published, I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore. What was I thinking?

It’s not as though it costs me money. I always sell books at the price I pay for them. It’s not as though it takes my time. I slip them into a priority mail flat rate envelope and take them to the post office in my little town, where I don’t much mind the long, slow lines, because the people inside the post office are my neighbors, and the service they offer me is sincere. On the days I do business at the post office, the worker there might be the only person I speak to in real life between the hours of eight and four o’clock.

No, it was never too much trouble, but I talked myself into thinking it wasn’t my job. My job is to write books, I told myself after years of laboring over the page. It’s someone else’s job to sell them.

After Paradise in Plain Sight was published, I realized I was wrong. I was wrong in a very familiar and often-forgotten way. I’m wrong whenever I expect someone else to do something for me. I’m wrong whenever I elevate myself above responsibilities that are mundane and unwanted. I’m wrong whenever I forget why I write, which is to be read. It’s not the writing alone that gratifies me; it’s sharing the work that matters.

So buy this book.

Here is an offering to buy two copies of Paradise in Plain Sight, signed with my name. Two so that you can share one with a friend or neighbor, which will bring you much pleasure. Shipped in a priority mail flat rate envelope to a single domestic address. For $28 total, the best offer on the planet, because no one sells my book better than me.




Two copies of Paradise in Plain Sight
Signed by author
Shipped priority mail to a single US address

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