Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

grief is a mother

October 24th, 2010    -    14 Comments

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions. – Heart Sutra

We are on a death watch at my house. Which is to say, we are on a life watch. Redhead, the fantail I once boasted to be the world’s oldest living goldfish, has become the world’s newest dying goldfish. To watch her transit is a powerful and fitting thing at this hour. And although I kept her alive for so long by absurdly arrogant and heroic measures (see How to Keep a Goldfish Alive in 20 Easy Steps) now I am doing what is even more heroic: letting her disappear into her own insurmountable mystery.

Death surrounds at this time of year. It surrounds at all times, but in these dwindling of days we might see it. We might see it in the surrender of the sun and the swift triumph of night. Feel it in the grip of the wind, the cataclysm of leaves, mud, dirty windshields, paw prints, rain-dank rugs and snot: the whole soggy rot of life’s residue.

Yesterday we observed Obon at the Hazy Moon, a ceremony honoring our departed loved ones. The altar was crowded with photos of more people loved and remembered than have ever stood alive before it. Such is the way, and it is always the way, and it is always sad. Grief is our mother, and when we grieve, we taste her tears. We taste eternity, the brimming fullness from which everything rises and to which everything returns.

I can see the cycle of things that have lately come near:

A mother quaking in bottomless shock after her baby died at birth.
A friend moored in friendship’s final vigil.
A granddaughter answering the clear call of goodbye.

And right here too, come unexpected calls and emails, late word of swift departures and funerals on Thursday at 3. My daughter’s third-grade teacher was stunned six months into her happy retirement by her husband’s sudden crumbling fall into a mean disease. She walked into the school assembly last week, to see and be seen by the children she last cradled, the ones who will be the last to remember her. She whispered her widowed vacancy to me, “It’s the absence, the absence!”

I know that awful yawning space, that thunderclap after a jagged bolt rends the sky. It is the infinite ache of a mother’s heart, the heart we all have whether we are men or women, mothers or not. It is the absence that contains, curiously, our own presence, the tender fearlessness to watch and weep and let angels sleep.

Edited to add: Leave a comment on this post and I’ll include the name of your departed loved one in memorial services I do this week at my backyard altar.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is you, the embodiment of infinite compassion.

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hello my name is

September 21st, 2010    -    11 Comments

There exists only the present instant, a Now which always and without end is
itself new. There is no yesterday or any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a
thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.
Meister Eckhart

My teacher Nyogen Roshi sent that quote to me in an email recently, suggesting that “you might find it useful in one of your upcoming programs.” Emailing is something we do sparingly, our relationship resting solely on the alchemy of face-to-face proximity. The rarity of his emails ensures that they are highly visible; the fact is, every email I receive is itself rare and highly visible to me, or my practice has lapsed, as Meister Eckhart observes.

On Saturday at the Mother’s Plunge in Boston, I started the way I always start – by introducing myself. “My name is Karen Maezen Miller,” I said, and go on to tell them that “Karen is the name my mother gave me, Maezen is the name my Buddhist teacher gave me, and Miller is the name Mr. Miller gave me.” I use all three names, and in that way I carry forward three streams of wisdom inextricable to every moment of my life and work. My name is not just my name. It is my teaching. When I state my name I am also stating my practice: the realization that no part of my life is more or less important. No part battles with another because there are no parts. It is all one life and all one practice.

Among the many practical aspects of Zen training is the protocol of its form: the way certain customs are prescribed and therefore serve to eradicate self-consciousness and confusion. Zen training tells us where to put our arms and legs, for instance, which is a question of considerable consternation for most of us most of the time. Practical too is the protocol of my formal practice in the dokusan room, the private interview room within which I meet and work with my teacher face-to-face. Although I have practiced with Nyogen Roshi for 10 years, every time I meet with him in dokusan, which is at least once a week (and once a day during retreats) I begin by introducing myself. read more

kindness, milk and cookies

June 11th, 2010    -    9 Comments

I wake this morning in Seattle – Tacoma, to be exact – where I am soaking up the hospitality that greets me every place I arrive for a reading, a talk or a Mother’s Plunge retreat. Tomorrow’s Mother’s Plunge with 34 women is the multiplied outcome of a single kindness. By kindness I don’t just mean the command to come, but one person’s compassionate effort and initiative to make this event happen.

This is how we save the world. This is how we save ourselves. With living kindness, the kindness that walks on your own two legs, finds a room for people to gather, hosts a tired traveler in an upstairs bedroom, brews coffee and bakes cookies and makes the world a better place.

In that spirit I offer you this simple treatise today, an excerpt from Hand Wash Cold: read more

A rose colored carpet

January 21st, 2010    -    No Comments

Flowers fall with our longing, and weeds spring up with our aversion – Dogen

I read a book this week that was really a good book, a memoir about how much a daughter loves her father, warts and all, and about how that love transcends age, sickness and time. In the story, the author recalls meeting up with a Buddhist family in Nepal during a bit of youthful wandering, and although she can’t reconcile herself to faith, she dismisses Buddhism in a single gust over that one prickly word we hold so dear: attachment. read more

The hummingbird and the fire

January 13th, 2010    -    5 Comments

A terrible forest fire broke out one day, and all the animals fled their homes. But one hummingbird zipped over to a stream, got some water in its beak, and rushed back to the raging fire. The little hummingbird tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, then back to the stream it flew to retrieve more water. The other animals watched in disbelief. They asked the hummingbird what it was doing – one tiny bird would not make a bit of difference. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”

I’m getting ready to go to Scottsdale for this weekend’s Mother’s Plunge and by getting ready I mean I’m not getting ready. I’m slouching around in my pjs, drinking coffee, resetting the clocks after last night’s power outage. Making beds, unloading the dishwasher, groaning over the shopping list that means I’ll have to go to Target before I leave.

Last night at bedtime I had a scary thought: What will I tell these women? Oh, for sure I have a general idea, but I don’t do anything based on a general idea. Those of us who gather will have never come together before and likely won’t ever again. Our once-in-a-lifetime meeting, like every moment of our lives, is the culmination of a vast and unknowable past and the seed of an infinite and unimaginable future. It’s magic, I tell you. There’s nothing general about it.

There are more women attending this Plunge on scholarship than any one before. When I asked for donors, there was such an outpouring of unselfish generosity, met by an equal torrent of unabashed need, that I stand in pure amazement. Pure amazement, I tell you. Aid comes not because any of us is lacking, but because all of us are rich. So rich in love that it pours out of us.

Prepare to be doused.

If you’re anywhere near our little fire, come for water. If you’re not, choose a bigger one to quench and do the best you can. It’s impossible to do otherwise.

***

The hummingbird and the fire is a Japanese folktale, but you might like to hear it told or read about the kind of inspiring people who believe it here.

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The mother you never knew you had

October 18th, 2009    -    3 Comments

Bring me that mother.
The one who fills up a pot
turns the flame up to hot
dials the phone for a long talk
and lets it boil over again.
It’s okay.

Bring me the one who wakes from a snore
plants his feet on the floor
grabs mismatched socks from a drawer
darts out the front door
running fast, late and stressed out again.
It’s okay.

Bring me the one who lives by herself
a chipped cup on a shelf
unaware of her wealth
power reach magic health
until she smiles at a stranger again.
It’s okay.

Bring me the one who sniffs change on the breeze
covers a sneeze
lets the air freeze
and knows the bloom will unfurl once again.
It’s okay. It’s always okay.

Bring me that mother who isn’t a mother.
Not the kind you think she would be.
Man, woman, mother or not.
It’s okay.
There’s no other mother to be.

Bring me that one.

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I hate you*

September 22nd, 2009    -    89 Comments


*and other ways to say I love you.

Today I had a: conversation/fight/tantrum/major meltdown.
The fact is, I’m having a tough time with the transition to: going back to work/daycare/no sleep/solids/no nap/the big bed/the twos/the threes/a new sibling/the layoff/the new job/kindergarten/fourth grade.
I’m just so frustrated with: naptime/potty training/bedtime/no time to myself.
I shouted/screamed/slammed the door/broke down/sobbed/made her cry.
I should have: seen it coming/stopped in my tracks/used my words/taken a break/left the room/given myself a timeout.
This is so much harder than: I thought/anyone told me/it was last year.
How can I: learn from my mistakes/do better/raise my child differently?

My friend Kris Laroche sent me a Feeleez game recently to give away on this blog. Because of all of the above, I feel happy to share it with you now.

Kris is one of the founders of Feeleez, which originated tools to teach kids what some folks call emotional intelligence.

Getting along peacefully is what we all want to do. A tool to help our children identify and talk about their feelings helps parents talk about their feelings too. Personally speaking, that has always been a more urgent need in our household, and that’s why I’m so glad to offer you this gift.

Kris was an early adopter of Momma Zen, for which I feel so grateful, and she checked in with me recently to find out how else I was feeling. Frankly, Kris, I’m feeling relieved now that I said all this, and empathize with all the moms who I know are having a rough go of it these days.

I’m giving away a beautifully crafted and packaged Feeleez Empathy Game with 25 matching pairs of Feeleez cards to help you and your children learn to recognize and express feelings in a non-confrontational way. It comes with a guide for several game ideas including memory games and charades. It’s a lovely addition to your home or classroom.

To enter, simply leave a comment telling me how you feel right now, including a way to contact you by blog or email if you win. Seriously, I feel sad when I choose a winner that I can’t contact! The giveaway ends next Monday, Sept. 28. Enter as often as you like whenever the feeling strikes.

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Just sayin

July 9th, 2009    -    9 Comments


“I often see those who are trying to study Buddhism just use their worldly intelligence to sift among the verbal teachings of the buddhas and ancestral teachers, trying to pick out especially wondrous sayings to use as conversation pieces to display their ability and understanding. This is not the correct view of the matter. You must abandon your worldly mentality and sit quietly with mind silent. Forget entangling causes and investigate with your whole being. When you are thoroughly clear then whatever you bring forth from your own inexhaustible treasure of priceless jewels is sure to be genuine and real.”

Zen Letters: Teaching of Yuanwu (1063-1135)

A practice without a practice is not a practice.

To settle the matter, settle the matter.

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True north is due north

June 7th, 2009    -    6 Comments


The Buddha Way lies outside thinking, analysis, prophesy, introspection, knowledge and wise explanation. – Dogen Zenji

I’ve just come from two events: sitting a day at the Zen center, and performing the monthly memorial service for lost children. You might think I do these things for a reason. In a way, I do. They are acts of compassion. But in truth, I do them just to do them, because they appear due on my calendar to be done, and that is what true compassion is: the absence of a qualifying rationale. The absence of self-service. They are good, but not in a way I can know or identify. Not necessarily in a way I can see. They are good because they are not tied to the expectation of an outcome.

The first book I stumbled across when I started to look beyond hope and reason for spiritual salvation was that slender remedy, The Tao te Ching. All the verses struck me, sung me, rung me, but none more than one that went slightly like this (memory serves when memory fades):

In the absence of the Tao there is goodness
In the absence of goodness there is morality
In the absence of morality there is piety

Even in my faulty recollection you can begin to see the essence of the wisdom. You can see the erring ways we layer our value judgments onto reality, to the fundamental truth of what is, and propel ourselves farther into self-righteousness and intolerance.

Beyond the superficial clouds of reason, thinking, introspection and wise explanation is the clear blue sky of wisdom and the deep ocean of compassion.

All this is a delinquent announcement of a trip north I’m taking later this month to give a free talk at the South San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, June 27 at 2 p.m. I don’t know if anyone will be there. I don’t know many people in the area. There’s no particular reason I’m going, except that they asked me. Have compassion and come! I’ll meet you due north – true north – for no good reason at all. Perhaps good will come.

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