book giveaway: guide to meditation

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I’m giving away the brand-new book, A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers, edited by my friend Rod Meade Sperry and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. How marvelous to offer something useful for a change. To give yourself a chance, leave a comment on this post by this Sunday, Feb. 23 and then sit quietly.

Note: The randomly drawn winner is commenter #15. Thank you, everyone.

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zen is not about zen

thusZen is the freshest essence of mind, already gone by the time it becomes an idea. The Zen meaning of literature is impact, not ideology. ~ Thomas Cleary

I found this wonderful quote on the Facebook page of Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. I’ll be in Minneapolis and St. Paul May 16-18 for several talks and a daylong retreat launching my next book, Paradise in Plain Sight — go to their website now and sign up before you think twice.

There is one question that causes me a lot of trouble. It isn’t intended to upset me. Anyone who asks it is sincere. Other people can answer it with aplomb. It’s just that I can’t answer in the way you might expect. The question is: What are your books about?

I never know what to say, because the truth is something like this:

I don’t write books about anything. I just write what I see. I write my experience. I put myself on a page and let others wonder what it is about.

Of course, it is useful in all ways to have a book be “about” something. Books need to be categorized and coded. In the conventions of bookselling and library science, books are sorted into genres and genres are collected onto shelves (even virtual shelves) as an aid to the reader or researcher looking for a book “about” something. Most non-fiction books fit the bill: they are the product of the author’s effort to illuminate a certain area of expertise or a period of history, even if it’s their own history.

In the traditional way of selling books, which is still the only way books are sold, a category is printed on the jacket flap or back cover as the publisher’s suggestion for shelving. The distributor feared Momma Zen would be “lost” in the parenting aisle so suggested it be sold under Eastern Religions. Eastern Religions is the Outer Slobbovia of bookstores, a place only stray dogs and ideologues are likely to roam. Momma Zen was definitely not about Zen. As soon as librarians or store managers read Momma Zen, they knew it belonged in Parenting, which was the kind of impact I was aiming for all along: the impact of the obvious.

Zen is not about Zen.

When you write, don’t you formulate ideas? Don’t you think about it? Don’t you work out what you’re going to write before you write it, what you’re going to say before you say it? Uh, no. Can’t you tell? I have no idea what words will appear from my dancing fingertips. I have no idea where a book will take me. Nor do I formulate the beat of my heart or the shine of the sun. Formulation is an unnecessary vexation.

With a little bit of time and reflection, I can now say that Momma Zen is about a daughter becoming a mother, Hand Wash Cold is about a woman becoming a wife, and Paradise in Plain Sight is about a student becoming a teacher. But that’s only how I see it. What really matters is what you see.

I put my life on a page. And then, in that glorious instant when you see it fresh and unexpected, you might recognize it as your life too, the life of everything and everyone, freed from any notion of what it’s supposed to be about. A moment of realization is not about anything. It just is as it is, then it’s gone.

And that’s Zen.

 

no comment

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It’s kind of weird that I should toss up such a long post on the subject of silence, but that’s how it is. I just haven’t wanted to say anything for awhile. That’s not true, I’ve wanted to say a lot, but I haven’t said what didn’t need to be said.

The world seems awfully noisy these days. When I manage to quiet the first impulse to talk back, I find that nothing needs to be said. There’s a thought: maybe nothing at all ever needs to be said! Should I ever confirm that for myself I won’t be talking about it, so I encourage you to investigate silence for yourself.

Everywhere there’s an argument, a cause, a rumble. An upset in the paper, a battle on Twitter, an outrage on Facebook, a side for, and another side in stark raving opposition. Perhaps this is what happens this time of year, in the fearsome dark and slogging cold (or alarming heat) of winter. We go stir-crazy. We pick fights, name names, make enemies, slam doors, close our ears and pound out open, clever, biting letters, as though our point of view is an urgent and necessary correction to the world’s spin.

Anytime I feel like my opinion is a matter of life and death I’m overlooking life and death.

Dogo and Zengen came to a house to express condolences. Zengen tapped on the coffin and said, “Is this life or death?” Dogo said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Dogo said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

On the way back Zengen said, “Master, please say it to me right away. If you don’t, I shall hit you.” Dogo said, “If you want to hit me, you can hit me. But I will never say.” Thereupon Zengen hit him.

Some time later Dogo passed away. Zengen went to Sekiso and told him what had happened. Sekiso said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Sekiso said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” With these words, Zengen came suddenly to an insight.

This is a koan, a Zen teaching story from a long time ago. I encountered it myself a while back and now I’m realizing how deeply it impacted me.  I first came upon it around the time my mother was dying, and I thought at first that it might settle some of my distress surrounding death, and how to prepare, what I should know, how it would be, and if there was a Zen answer that I could enlighten her with. It does give the answer, completely, just not in words. read more

a bite or a banquet

Pindapata – ALMS Companion from Edward A. Burger on Vimeo.

In a certain sense, you could say that Buddha was homeless. He made a home wherever he went. He and his disciples were itinerants, each possessing nothing but a robe and a bowl to beg for meals along the way. In some Buddhist countries today, this practice has been ritualized into a monastic tradition. Monks pass through the monastery gates each morning and into the “real” world where strangers fill their bowls with offerings. The lesson is not one of poverty or humility. The purpose is not to instill charity or even gratitude. Buddhist rituals have no secret or special meaning, except to point directly to the true nature of our minds.

Each of us walks along a path with no sign of where we’ve been, and no knowledge of where we’ll end up. The earth rises to meet the soles of our feet, and out of nowhere comes a gift to support and sustain our awareness, which is our life. Some days the gift is a bite, and some days it’s a banquet. Either way, it’s enough.

Meet me for a weekend of practice in Loveland, Ohio March 27-30.

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

why you need a teacher

I stayed home in my pajamas this morning filling out forms. My daughter has decided to apply to private high schools and I’m only now realizing what that entails. Rather a lot of forms and questions and tests and interviews, many benefactors, and a slate of events rich with expectation and anxiety.

I support her in this effort unreservedly. After nine years as a precocious public school student, she makes her case convincingly.

“I need a teacher,” she says.

And it is true that since those sweet years in the lower grades when she positioned herself wide-eyed and smiling at the front of a room of darling children, she has been squashed and lost in a class of 41 high-testing kids on whom the burden of excellence is placed without concomitant resources: without time or attention; absent relationship; void of eye contact; empty of personal encouragement; and even shy of enough books, tables and chairs. Not every student appreciates a teacher in the same way, but my daughter says she does and so I stayed home in my pajamas today.

A teacher is important. A teacher is the most important thing of all. Go as far as you need to go to find a teacher. There is a teacher waiting for you.

******

It was near the end of his time at home, and my father-in-law was deep in dementia.

He would sit alone for hours in an empty room, and if you should enter quietly, he would make the kindest conversation.

“You look pretty today,” he said. He said this to all women.

“Did you come with that fellow?” he asked about the son whom he no longer recognized.

“Where did you find that girl?” he asked about his granddaughter. I answered simply, because I wasn’t here to remind him of anything. “She’s my daughter.”

“She looks very pretty today.”

He was quiet, then up from the vacancy came one last thing.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had many teachers,” he said, giving me another.

*******

Granted, he didn’t look like much—a scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. You might suppose it is some grand philosophy that draws us to the spirit — a theory of the cosmos — but it is the feet, the hands, the eyes, this miserable scrap of human life. Luckily for those of us with a wayward sense of direction, a Zen retreat consists largely of following in the footsteps of the person who stands in front of you. I was mesmerized by Maezumi’s sure, elegant footfall. He moved, when he moved, like Kilimanjaro. I would have followed him anywhere. I guess you could say I did, although it led no farther than my own home. Once you realize you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home. — Paradise in Plain Sight, May 2014

taizen maezumi roshi

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

everything is perfect

cupidIn yesterday’s mail there was an envelope from my sister. Inside a drawer of old Christmas cards she’d found a note that I sent to my mom after Christmas 1993.

Mom & Dad –

Thank you for an extra special Christmas that was full of quiet, listening, and generous giving. I have so much to appreciate. Thank you for celebrating it with me.

As always, everything was perfect.

Your Karen

I can’t remember the Christmas or the card. I know that 1993 was the hardest year of my life, but I had pulled myself back from an abyss and begun my practice. I can imagine how tenderly aware and grateful I must have been for the first time.

I wasn’t in the practice of writing such notes to my folks. We don’t know how it came to be with my sister, or why my mother might have saved or shared it. Perhaps because she had been waiting for it for so long.

As always, everything is perfect.

 

a new day on the old place

It’s a new day
on the old place.
With every good wish for peace and plenty
and a very
Happy New Year!
From our home to yours,
The Millers

On the left: The garden circa 1916
On the right: December 2013

wonderful life

wonderfullife-stewart-snow-bridge-tsr

There is a meme going around the teen social media sites (something you will only learn in a dark and fearful hour). If you had to live the rest of your life in a movie which one would you pick? It’s one of the least troubling things you’ll see your kids talking about, although the movies they mention might scare the beejesus out of you.

Someone answered It’s a Wonderful Life.

What a great movie. But it’s not a movie about a wonderful life. George Bailey has a terrible life, remember? And it keeps getting worse. First off, he is not the favored son. He’s denied his dreams, stuck in a dead-end job in a no-count town, left behind to take care of his needy neighbors and crazy relatives. He’s mortgaged up to his eyeballs living in a drafty old house with a passel of noisy kids. He’s dead broke, out of his mind with fear and rage, and probably going to jail if he doesn’t jump off a bridge first. And he’s not exactly father of the year.

Janie, will you stop playing that lousy piano?!$#@&%

Yesterday afternoon after I dropped my daughter off at the tutoring place I stepped into the Starbucks next door for a cup of tea and noticed the guy standing in line behind me. It was the tutor, grabbing a quick cup before the start of the session. Telling you the second story in a week about math tutoring might lead you to conclude that my daughter is either less fortunate or more fortunate than you thought. Either way, this year at school hasn’t been easy. There is a passage that befalls young people: the journey to discover who they are reveals by process of elimination who they aren’t.

I’m not the smartest girl in the class, Mom. I’m not that girl anymore.
I’m not a nerd, I’m not a geek, I’m not a math whiz.
I’m not like that. I don’t want that. I don’t care.
I hate my life. Get out of my room.

It’s not what you would call wonderful.

The tutor didn’t recognize me until I told him who my daughter was, and then the first thing he said was this:

Your daughter is wonderful.

The worry that lifted from me at that moment—the fear, doubt, brittle aching raging pain that departed my heart at the Starbucks on Rosemead at Del Mar on Monday at 4:21 p.m. was so divinely lifesaving that I have to repeat it.

Your child is wonderful. Yes, yours.

We all have to repeat it, every day, over and over, because it’s probably true and we’ve probably forgotten.

It’s not until the last six minutes of the movie that George Bailey’s life turns into any kind of wonderful, because that’s when he wakes up and realizes that it was wonderful all along.

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if you want, give

51wgzXg3BgL._SY300_If you want time, give away your preoccupations.
If you want faith, give away your reasons.
If you want peace, give away your ideas.
If you want love, give away your fear.
If you want rest, give away your worry.
If you want a better future, give away your past.
If you want a home, give away your walls.
If you want fame, give away your contentment.
If you want money, give away your happiness.
If you want more, give yourself less.
If you want fulfillment, give everything away. (You’ll never run out.)

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the hidden gift of macaroni

893661103C39C086AE1A284E3E0C4I had begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school, a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants or gets. Remembering it, I can feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.

One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.

The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.

“Between the giver, the recipient and the gift there is no separation.” This is a Zen teaching telling us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing in-between us, nothing that divides the sides or defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for, and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.

“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.

From the January 2014 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine.

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all I see is suffering

fresh-modern-thanksgiving-table-setting-lYears ago when I was doing one of my first internet interviews the host said something that caught me off guard. She said, “Isn’t it hard for you to live in a place like that?”

I couldn’t fathom her meaning. It’s not hard to live in Los Angeles — a beautiful place with nearly perfect year-round weather, where you can go outside any day under a blue sky and climb a mountain, see the ocean, and gather fruit from the trees in your own yard.

But she didn’t mean that. What she wondered was whether it was hard for someone like me to live in a place with people who weren’t like me. A place known for its vanity and pretense, empty dreams and false promises, shallowness, selfishness, fear, lies, and addictions.

In other words, a place like everywhere with people like everyone.

“All I see is suffering,” I answered.

I’m remembering that conversation because Thursday is the day we adorn the table and feel blessed, fed, loved, warm and secure — or at least pretend that we are — among the people who might be the hardest to live with: our own families.

What will you see at your table? And more to the point, whom will you serve?

Happy Thanksgiving.

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write the letter

mary-cassatt-letterA few months ago I received a packet of letters in the mail. They were the last letters sent by my mother to a friend who, cleaning out her drawers 14 years later, decided to send them to me. They trace the first months of my daughter’s life, which were also the last months of my mother’s life, for she had just begun a course of treatment for advanced cancer. Reading the letters, I saw what she had written about me and her new grandbaby, the commonplace detail that had given her something uplifting to share. I could see what we have lost in the abandoned art and ritual of correspondence; how by our modest connections we extend our life and love. These remnants of my mother’s simple, selfless friendship remind me to do what I urge you here: write the letter. Write the letter today.

 Aug. 16, 1999

I’m feeling stronger today. I guess time is the best healer. It was so nice of you to take the time and the effort to encourage me and show me your love and friendship.

Karen went home last night from the hospital. Little Georgia will stay on. It will be decided on a day to day basis how long she stays.

Aug. 28, 1999

Georgia now weighs 4 lbs. and 10 oz. The baby came home from the hospital last Tuesday afternoon. We talked to Ed & Karen today. They both sound tired.

Sept. 5, 1999

I talked to Karen this morning. Georgia now weighs 5 lbs. 4 oz. Tricia was with Karen & Ed from Tuesday night to Friday evening. She was a big help. Karen seemed to feel so much better.

I went to a Cancer Support meeting last Wednesday. Met so many nice people with lots of helpful hints & advice. Got a free wig also. It’s got some gray in it, so I’ll finally have more gray hair.

Sept. 12, 1999

Talked to Karen yesterday. Georgia goes for a check-up on Monday. Her dad told me she might weight 6 lbs. She eats all the time. Some friends of mine are going to give me a Grandma shower on Sept. 25th. It’ll be a brunch. Isn’t that nice of them!

My hair is falling out daily.

Sept. 19, 1999

Right now, I have a strange hair-do. I usually wear a hat when I go outside. Don’t want to shock an unsuspecting person.

Sept. 27, 1999

Georgia weighs about 7 lbs. now. She’s had either colic or some stomach distress lately. Karen calls me every week, sometimes 2 or 3 times. She is still very stressed out & worries about everything.

Sept. 29, 1999

Karen sent me directions how to meditate while sitting in a chair. I do it twice a day. Each time about 10 minutes. I hope I’m doing it correctly.

Oct. 14, 1999

We are not going to Calif. this weekend. I had a hard time making up my mind. Karen said since I couldn’t decide, let outside influences determine. The nurse called to tell me about my blood test. My white cells were down. Then on Monday Dr. Bell, the internist, put on a 24 hr. heart monitor on me to see if anything unusual showed up. That’s when I decided home was the best place for me. read more

tacloban is calling

Surivor in Tacloban walks among the debris after Typhoon Haiyan

This message is not for the people of Tacloban. The people of Tacloban do not need any messages from me. They are completely engulfed in a reality that eclipses the linguistic coding of sentiment or solidarity. Send money if you can. No, this message isn’t for, but rather from the people of Tacloban, because in their horrific struggle for survival and security, they have sent a message to you. It is a message you don’t want, and that none of us is ready for.

Some people have a sudden glimpse of reality, a stroke of insight, an aha moment. They might strive for it a long time – travel the world, trek mountains, study the wisdom of sages. But that’s not the glimpse of reality that matters. The glimpse that can change your life is the sight of rubble and ruin – the truth that things fall apart. We see the evidence every day, but still, it’s a hard thing to wake up to.

There was that cloudless morning in early September when most of us – roused by the radio, a phone call, or a shuddering impulse – turned on our televisions and saw the impossible.  We saw a building buckle, and then, after a breathless half-second, a rushing crush of dust as one and then another tower disappeared in front of us – a Niagara of concrete, steel, desks, and doorknobs, everyday lives conjoined irretrievably in death, a plume of ash simultaneously rising and falling and haunting the gaping emptiness we could not turn away from.

One day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean stood to reach a resplendent sky and then tumbled forward into a bottomless blackness, swallowing the earth in one gulp, stealing the doomed from their innocent idylls and the sleepy ease of paradise – paradise! A whole population was snatched from the sheltering palms of a holiday while the rest of us still celebrated ours.

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