the myth of the missing moon

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Strength. Patience. Wisdom. Compassion. As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you are complete.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a toaster, a Sub Zero, and a Maserati, a pile of shiny objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit. She stomped her feet and kicked up dust. All of it made a mess, but nothing more. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

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

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the departure

The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on themselves — Walt Whitman

I saw a movie a few weeks ago, by myself, at a nearly empty Monday matinee. It is an acclaimed film, a coming-of-age story about a high school senior yearning to get out of a painfully outgrown home. It was funny, real, and poignant. And it was personal, because for me, the one who came of age in this story was not the impetuous high school senior who tosses herself quite literally from the nest, but her narrow-minded and critical mother, hardening herself against a future she cannot fathom and a departure she cannot prevent.

Coming of age is not so much a coming, you see, it is a going. And then it is gone.

I thought I knew what this would take, but the going only gets harder and the distance longer, the risks higher and the hurt deeper. As parents, we school ourselves on preparedness. We strive to protect. But in the end, your defenses get you nowhere, and what we really hope is that our children are headed for somewhere, somewhere, somewhere: a place without us, a place of courage and self-reliance, a life that is honest and original, not of our making, without the apron strings of approval or the aftertaste of unwelcome advice. Free.

Another Monday not long ago, I sent my daughter a text during the middle of her school day after I’d cracked open the door to her bedroom and encountered the daily mound of strewn clothes, dirty dishes, shoes, towels, textbooks, and the ungodly mess of her inner sanctum. My terse words of blame and disappointment read: “Grow up!” Mustering the restraint that so often eludes me, she did not respond. And now I see why. Because the message is for me. The message is always for me.

Time to let go.

***

Perhaps you’ll join me on this path by listening to this new podcast interview. These days I could use a little company.

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

don’t shoot


I vow to refrain from killing. — Buddhist precept

At some point in his early adulthood my father became a hunter.

I think he was trying to earn his tribal stripes, feeling adrift and afraid. Maybe he was keen for those nights away from home, sleeping on the ground, eating beans and drinking beer. In the end it seemed like one more of a broken string of hobbies, which always began with a bang and then fizzled out under layers of dust and clutter on his workbench.

The whole gambit was peripheral to my attention until I was about seven or eight and came upon a deer carcass bleeding out in the garage. What followed was a big to-do about the flesh, which was butchered into steaks, sausage and stew meat to overfill a freezer. But venison was too tough and gamey to fool us girls even under heaps of ketchup. We refused it. Perhaps he was trying to fulfill that primal need to protect and provide, being by his own unstable nature a reliable threat, at least to his family, and an unreliable provider.

Over the years we had to face down other plates of prey, like squirrel and rabbit and certain small birds. We never delivered the awe or appreciation that my father might have wanted in reward. Mom served us spaghetti on the side, Jello pudding for dessert.

He fancied bow hunting for a while. He took it on a trip and came home with a ram’s head that he mounted over the fireplace. We called it Uncle Harry, trivializing the awful shock of seeing a bighorn sheep opposite the TV in the living room.

We survived these episodes without being acculturated into guns. And by “we” I mean all of us, including my dad. He eventually decided that shooting overpopulated deer was so lopsided a bargain that it was no longer sport. He quit the NRA over its support of assault weapons, saying they were only designed to hunt people. One day, grown up and on a rare visit home, I asked him what had happened to his rifle and bow, to his trophies and his hunting trips. While I was gone they seemed to have disappeared. Instead, he’d taken up vegetable gardening until the entire backyard was subsumed in rows of beans, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and if memory serves, a valiant stab at corn.

I got tired of killing, he said.

That’s when I thought I might be able to love and even respect him one day. Turns out I do, Dad. I really do.

letter from my 16-year-old self

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Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

 

Buddha’s last 8 instructions

I hesitated before I wrote that title because there is no such thing as “last” or even “first,” but there is a short list commonly known as Buddha’s final teaching before he died, and so I am sharing it here and now.

Words attributed to Buddha are the basis of much industry, interpretation, and enterprise. Buddha’s teachings were entirely spoken and conveyed for hundreds of years by word of mouth until the first written records were made. This is just the way it is and in one sense it works just fine. Sure, words are subject to erroneous understanding by deluded people, but with a bit of practice and a flicker of clarity, you can look at a modern quotation, especially a popular one, and know instantly that Buddha never said any such thing.

And this is precisely what his instructions foretold. There’s a good chance you guys are going to get this all wrong.

“Last words” are interesting in another way. When you’re present at someone’s death, you don’t know when the final moment will come, or what the critical utterance will be. Sometime later you reflect on what happened last and then decide for yourself what it means. Before her death, my mother told me, “Be yourself and take good care of your family.” She lived for several days after I heard that, and she may have said more that I didn’t hear or recall. But the words I retained were useful for me — simple and straightforward — carrying with them a mother’s hope that I wouldn’t complicate things quite so much.

That’s the spirit with which I see Buddha’s last instructions. A human being, surrounded by devotees and dependents, with a final chance to bring peace and ease to a population crazed with fear and grief. I have simplified these from a scholarly translation, but in a nutshell, this is what Buddha tells you to do here and now:

1. Want little — Suffer less.
2. Be satisfied — Enough is enough.
3. Avoid crowds — Be alone and quiet.
4. Keep going — Don’t turn back.
5. Pay attention — Guard your mind.
6. Meditate — Or you are lost.
7. See for yourself — Cultivate wisdom.
8. Don’t talk about it — Do it.

“Now, all of you be quiet and do not speak. Time is passing and I am going to cross over. This is my last admonition to you.”

***

Based on “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings” by Dogen Zenji. From Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

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your questions about Buddhism

What drew you to Buddhism? What do you like about Buddhism? Where can you learn about Buddhism?

I didn’t do it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know.

There is the kind of “Buddhism” that people might study in college, meaning its history, geography, and impact on world events. Then there’s a kind of “Buddhism” that people choose to believe in and adhere to, like a political party. These folks think of Buddhism as a philosophy or source of inspiration. Maybe even a religion. They like it better than other alternatives. But the Buddhism that found me is first, foremost and only a practice. It is a way to do things, and not do certain other things.

Whether you’re interested in Buddhism or not, you might be interested in reading my books. Because they are about life. Buddhism is about the truth of life and not anything else.

the work of matriarchs

Georgia O’Keeffe

Making

God told me that if I painted that mountain enough I could have it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Mending

I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped repair tears in her society, to make things a little better.

Frances McDormand

Sharing

I’m not an actor because I want my picture taken. I’m an actor because I want to be part of the human exchange.

Jeong Kwan

Feeding

I am not a chef. I am a monk. I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.

Jane Goodall

Seeing

No words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.

Toni Morrison

Loving

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.

what happens on retreat

Someday, I told myself, I was going to sit a long retreat. I signed up for ten days, but by the second day I wanted out. Midway through the sleepy dawn sitting, I slunk out of the meditation hall into what I thought would be the invisibility of my dorm room. I didn’t plan to stay away long. I would just take a short break from the aching effort of staying awake. I was a beginner, you know, doing my best, and I thought I deserved a little me time. It would be a while before I began to realize that, no matter what I’m doing, it’s all me time. A few minutes into my escape, the door opened and two staff members came in and convened an impromptu meeting right next to me as I lay mortified on my foam mattress, staring up at the ceiling. That woke me up! I couldn’t wait to get out of my getting out.

At no time during the next twenty years of practice have I ever fled a sitting period, although I’ve wanted to. Of course, there are many ways to flee discomfort and difficulty, and I’ve explored just about all of them unsuccessfully. The best place to practice is a place you don’t want to be, using the time you don’t think you have.

That morning I learned that resolving the great matter of life and death starts with the little matter of showing up. I showed up to the zendo every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. I showed up to sit in one spot, upright, and watched the light rise and fall overhead. I surrendered; I settled; I entered samadhi, which means I stopped running around in my head. As much. The time that followed wasn’t fast or slow. It wasn’t long or short. It didn’t come or go. When the retreat was over, I went home happy and excited, babbling about the discovery I had made.

“I know what a day is!” I said to my roommate at the time. He suspected I’d been off chasing unicorns and rainbows. “It is daylight, followed by darkness, followed by daylight!” He looked at me funny. Maybe these retreats weren’t such a good idea. I was trying to describe what I’d seen: a day has no beginning and no end. It goes on forever. Conditions change, that’s for sure. The light shifts and the breeze moves; the temperature goes up and down; people are born and they die; the pages on a calendar flip; the second hand sweeps; toenails grow and hair falls out; but time itself stands still. There is no greater joy than seeing through time, because then you’ve touched the leaf tip of eternity, which looks exactly like your backyard right now, overgrown with time.

Where else could it be but right here now?

***

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

Photos by Rick McCleary.

for lucia, still and always

Many years ago, when I thought my life had just about ended, that my heart had died, and I would never be happy again, I wandered into a little shop and garden on Virginia Street in Houston. There, I met a woman who taught me things. She taught me that flowers are spirits and that stones are medicine; that herbs are wisdom, food is fortune, and friends are gold. She showed me that books are pictures and pictures are books; that music is alive. That the lines in your palm are your map, and the symbols on a card tell your story. Her garden was a place of hope and healing. It seemed as though just about everyone in the city had passed through her gate during a dark and halting time in their life and found a reason to believe.

She had once wanted to be a nun, or so I recall, but the cloister had been too confining. Instead, she made the world her sanctuary and gave everyone in it a home. She gave me a room above her garage to practice meditation when I was just starting to do it and needed a circle of friends to keep me going. She said it would help her to have the space filled with silence once a week on Sunday mornings, and that breath was the voice of God.

She and her husband, Michael, were master gardeners. Now I know what that means. It means she bowed to the earth and revered the fruits it bore. She knew that thyme is courage, sage is immortality, and rosemary is remembrance. I asked her to arrange herbs as flowers at my wedding banquet, a kind of secret blessing just between us.

There is not one thing that I ever did that she did not applaud. She sold my books. She sang my praise. I last saw her three years ago on a visit to speak at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. She and her husband, older and more frail than before, lingered back, not wanting to take my time, she to whom I owed every day since the first day I entered her door on Virginia Street.

She has been ill. She has been quiet. She has been still and always on my mind.

She is peace.

Lucia Ferrara Bettler
September 17, 1948 – September 22, 2017

sun and moon

One sky

blaming Steve Jobs

This afternoon I went into the backyard and noticed a patch where everything has shriveled and the ground is cracked and bare, and although it’s been hotter every year, it seems like it happened overnight. The garden is dying.

I blame Steve Jobs.

I’ve been blaming Steve Jobs for a whole mess of stuff for a long time now, for the conversations that stopped, the music that ended, the books that disappeared, the kids that went absent, the friends that drifted off and the way the world seems to have shriveled into a hot, lifeless, angry place of crazy strangers. Oh, I know it wasn’t him. It’s a cynical joke. But it was him, and the legion led by him. I saw it happen. I saw it happen with me and I saw it happen with nearly everyone else. And now there is hell to pay.

He was a god to many. But he was never my guru. I never entered that temple, not all the way. The theatrics looked cool, but they disturbed me. There was awesome power and beauty in his works, but I never trusted myself to handle that kind of artillery. It went too fast and too far. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want it. I am too cheap. I bought a laptop. It works fine. It sits on this desk. Every time I use it I have to stop, be still, and do only one thing. I do not carry it in my hands or put it in my purse, pocket or car. It is not a companion. It is not the world. It is a very small and distorted picture of the world.

I have to wake myself up every minute of every day to realize the difference.

I am probably the only person you know without a smartphone. Please don’t text me.

It seems to me that we have completely confused the world with a picture of the world. We are so adept at manipulating the false picture — with just one thumb — that we have forgotten how to occupy the real world. How to live responsibly and with accountability. How to be decent and how to be kind. How to use our hands and feet and heart. We are so fascinated with artificial intelligence that we have negated our own. We do stupid things. We say stupid things. We shout at each other in tiny digital boxes. We overuse exclamation points.

When we do things directly in the world, instead of through technology, when we speak aloud to one another, meet face-to-face and side-by-side, it is altogether a different experience. It is intimate and alive. Magic, really. You can’t program it. Totally original, one-of-a-kind, without a trademark.

Innovation produces some really neat things, but it can’t be your religion. It won’t soothe or satisfy. It destroys what is to make room for what’s next. To be sure, it’s a naturally occurring cycle, January to December, but it can be sped up to the point of wanton waste and disposability. Suppose every time you were hungry you took only one bite and then tossed the apple. (It got a little brown around the teeth marks.) The earth would be nothing but a landfill of fallen fruit, and we’d all be hungry ghosts, waiting in line all night to grab the next nibble that will once again fail to satisfy.

I know Steve Jobs isn’t to blame. But I blame Steve Jobs.

This is a lousy load to lay at the tomb of a giant and a genius. Although he was arrogant and egotistical, by all accounts Mr. Jobs made amends to estranged friends, family and rivals and was at peace before the end. It’s a given. Everyone reaches the end of ideas when they arrive at the ultimate disruption. I’m going to have to give him a break for everything that troubles me and take responsibility for what’s right here now.

I’m going to have to keep this place alive.

So I’m heading out to walk this world of mine and see what needs doing. To notice the dry spots. Fix what’s broken. Lend a hand. Spare a little more time, a little more water, and a lot more love. I know this in my bones because I preach it, and I preach it because I need it: What you pay attention to thrives, and what you do not pay attention to withers and dies.

What will you pay attention to today?

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nine eleven seventeen

In this hush
between the rising and dusk
of one minute and month
a season arriving
a circle recycling
we see sharp and know cold
that not one thing stands
or stands still
Not one thing untouched
but all carried intact
by love
deep, far and beyond.

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