Posts Tagged ‘Dharma’

Nothing left over

November 24th, 2007    -    7 Comments


Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen replied, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
“Shall I try to seek after it?” asked Joshu. “If you try to seek after it, you will become separated from it.” “How will I know the Way unless I try for it?” Joshu persisted. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have truly reached the Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How you can explain it by yes or no?”

Making the effort, in these unusual days of unusual events with unusual company in unusual circumstances, to leave no trace of myself. In Zen we call this the effort of no effort. It is the hardest effort of all, but it sure tastes good.

Hundred flowers in Spring, the moon in Autumn,
The cool wind in Summer and Winter’s snow.

If your mind is not clouded with things,
You have the happiest days of your life.

The risk of life

November 20th, 2007    -    12 Comments

When I realize I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I realize I am everything, that is love. And between these points I live my life.

In this big, wide world that fits on the head of a pin, in this universe of infinite possibilities and yet identical experiences, I often find my voice in the words of readers or find my readers in mine. Such was the case today when this post prompted a drip and then the outpouring you find in the puddle right here.

This is what I have been longing to say.

Living involves an incalculable level of risk. It is the riskiest thing we do. And not because it could be fatal. There is a 100 percent risk of fatality, and that cannot be called a risk, but rather a guarantee. No matter what false comfort we take in our age, our habits, our attitude, or our genetics, none of that changes the bottom line. We all die. In spite of that irrefutable end, living with our whole heart, our whole mind and both feet is a risk that few of us are willing to take.

Few of us are willing to take on the risk of being alive. By that I mean being fearless and free, spontaneous, creative, generous, expansive, trusting, truthful and satisfied. To risk accepting ourselves and our lives as they are. To risk forgiveness. To risk not knowing. To risk messing up and starting over. To risk life’s inevitable cycles and sequences. To risk something new. To let hurts heal. To let bygones be gone. To face the fact that the narrow, familiar, comfortable idea we have of our self is just that – an idea – and to let that idea go. And not to be replaced by any other newer, better idea of who we are. To realize every name, every definition, every label, every story, every boundary, every fear, every feeling, every diagnosis, every conclusion, everything we claim to know about ourselves, is just an idea. And to let every bit of that go too.

The truth is, we know nothing about life. It can’t be known. But it can be observed. This is what we can see.

Life wants to live. Watch a friend or family member face death, or have a health scare yourself, and see how much life wants to live.

Life wants to grow. Plan a family, or struggle with infertility, and see how much life wants to grow.

Life is not hard to live. It is effortless. Life lives by itself. It is what we think and feel about life that is so very difficult to endure.

Life has a way of going. Why it goes, we can’t answer. Where it goes, we don’t know. But how? That’s entirely up to us. How can you risk losing another year to fear, anger or anxiety? Another month? Another day? Another moment? How can you risk being anything but whole-heartedly alive right now?

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, look into the free teleconference I’m hosting on “The Mind-Body Connection to Conception” next week. I don’t know what I will say, but I promise to do no harm.

Coming home to the place you never left

November 18th, 2007    -    12 Comments


We pulled to a stop at the light on the way to the dentist, of all places.

Mom, there’s a man holding a sign that says homeless.

We do this nearly every time, handing a very small bill to this very same man in the very same spot. I roll down the window with my offering. He blesses us and the light turns green.

That’s going to take him a whole year, she says as I pummel the accelerator.

A whole year for what, I ask with imperceptible interest.

To save enough for a home.

And the curtain rises to reveal the innocence of a child, seeing the hidden dignity in the humbled, the obvious depth of the need, the unbiased purity of the gift. And I hope that in this one exchange, this folded paper passed between a crack of glass, this man has indeed palmed a full dollar’s worth of peace and comfort, a home sweet home, as he is and where he is.

He is not, of course, saving up for a home. But the rest of us are. We force and finagle. We fret, scrimp and plan. We set our sights on an impossible someday, when things are finally set, the ship comes in and the planets align. When the grass is cut and the pie crust is perfect. At last, or so we envision, we arrive at a life of ease and fulfillment. Until then we scramble like mad to recast a life with a different beginning in urgent anticipation of a life with a different ending. We go looking for home.

In this week when tradition calls us home, can we find it? Can we set aside the expectations and standards, the wishes and dreams, the old resentments, the tired conversations, the grudges, the comparisons and judgments? Can we avoid the build-up and the letdown? Can we accept, forgive, forget, make peace and pass the mashed potatoes? If we can do that, really do that, then we might find home – our true home – in the very spot we sit, and we might for once – I don’t mind if I do – just eat.

A detail from the woodcarving on our front door.

In celebration of our home’s inclusion in the remarkable new book, At Home: Pasadena.

Nice haircut

November 8th, 2007    -    18 Comments

I guess the last post was too much to swallow in one gulp, when all we’re really talking about is how to know for sure that we’re teaching our kids to do the right thing.

Buddha left us a nifty eight-step program for that called The Eightfold Path that tells us how to live an enlightened life. It tells us eight ways to do the right thing: eight ways that cover just about the entire scope of human activity. It goes: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

That’s a lot of right. But this right doesn’t mean from wrong. This right means without a perception of a self.

Whaaaat?

Specifically, when it comes to speaking, it means that honesty is not always the best policy if someone has just gotten a bad haircut.

It means that in my interaction with my child, if I am motivated by: my shame, my anger, my fear, my worry, my desire to have my way, my pride, my fervent hope that I can teach her to be smarter, more charming, more clever, more grown up, more successful, more like me, less like me or more or less of anything or any way that constitutes my personal agenda, that’s not right. And I will inevitably cause her harm.

It means that in my interaction with anyone else, if I am motivated by: my shame, my anger, my fear, my worry, my pride, my desire to have my way, my need to be understood, my need for you to hear me out, my need for you to validate, concur, accept or agree to my point of view or do anything else that accords solely with my personal agenda, that’s not right. And I will inevitably cause you harm.

How can we put this into practice? Each time you get ready to speak, take a look at what you’re carrying. If you’ve got a pair of scissors in your hand, ready to cut, snip, shape or otherwise improve someone else’s head to your liking, set the scissors down!

Turns out not very much needs to be said. And in the event that you slip, hair grows back in no time at all. That’s the truth!

Chopping away at the truth

November 7th, 2007    -    5 Comments


All well and good, you say. Who wouldn’t agree that children tell a charming version of the truth? But what about when a lie is really a lie? What about right from wrong? How do I teach my children to know that? Isn’t that the task before us? To raise good children to do good things?

Yes, it is our task and it is deceptively difficult. Not because of them, but because of us.

It is not as easy as counting to 10. Not just about hewing closely to a list of things to do, or a list of things to not do. Don’t hit your brother! Don’t cheat! Don’t lie! There is a place for those kinds of lists, they appear in all religious traditions, and they can be useful, especially as a starting point. But they do not really get to the pit of the cherry, so to speak, because human beings are quite clever with themselves. We nibble around the edges. We lie all the time, especially when we say we don’t. Rare are the offenders who can’t completely convince themselves of innocence. Or at least of extenuating circumstances!

In Buddhism, we have what we call the precepts. Formalizing your commitment to a Buddhist practice involves “taking the precepts,” which is a public promise to do what you say you will. The precepts sound like this: “Refrain from killing. Refrain from stealing. Refrain from lying.” They sound deceptively like another list of prohibitions with which most of us are familiar. And in that way, sometimes Buddhists seem to be replacing one set of ethical prohibitions with another. That’s as far as some folks get: still mired in a moralistic view of good and bad, right and wrong, believing sincerely that they are on the righter side of right, and on the gooder side of good. I’ve written before about how anytime we are judging either/or, right/wrong, good/bad, using our egocentric picking and choosing mind, we are hanging ourselves from a very strong and enduring tree, but hanging ourselves nonetheless.

(With lip-smacking self- satisfaction, I assure you that I’m better than those other half-baked Buddhists!)

No, just thinking you are doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing at all. To get it really right, you have to chop down the tree. You have to chop away at self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, self-interest, self-absorption and self-service. You have to chop down your precious self – all its menacing branches and creeping vines. You have to forget yourself altogether. Then you really cannot tell a lie. But you can still eat the cherries or make a heckuva pie.

I’m off to destroy the incriminating evidence. Less of everything but truth tomorrow. (Or something that tastes a lot like it.)

Putting out the fire

October 28th, 2007    -    7 Comments


Practice the Way as though saving your head from fire. –Nagarjuna

We ended the week by quite nearly putting out the fires. We also ended the week by quite nearly coming around to practice. Are they one or are they two?

Here in Southern California, each round of wildfires reminds us of the last, only worse. It can appear to others that we are ignorantly dismissive or resigned. People rail against the shortage of plans and preventions, the inadequacy of resources, the greed of land developers and the (mostly) wealthy homeowners who build and buy in the fire zone. All of those are reasonable questions. But at this time of year, this long into the eternal drought, this far into Earth’s desperate disequilibrium, none of those questions puts out the fire. When the scorching desert wind blows from the East and starts or spreads the fire, there is nothing that can stop it. As long as the gusts are blowing from the Mojave furnace, the fire always wins. There is no fighting it. There is only the ravaging wait.

When conditions change, the fire always goes out. When the wind changes directions and the moist, cool air once again flows inland from the Pacific, the fires die back, and the fighters prevail.

So it is with practice. So it is with meditation, mindfulness and Zen. Only the fire is on your head. More precisely, it is in your head. It is your chattering, egocentric, picking and choosing mind that is aflame with fear, anxiety, worry, doubt, agitation, or just plain restlessness. None of those things is a problem unless it causes you a problem, unless the flames are too close for comfort. Maybe you can’t sleep. Maybe you can’t smile. Maybe none of the tried-and-true fixes will fix you up again. And that is the siren call for practice.

Just as with the other kind of fire control, we practice by changing the conditions. We settle our bodies into one spot, we minimize sensory distractions, we bring the full force of our mental powers away from the conflagration in our mind and toward the breath – the wind – to squelch the flames and cool the inferno.

Honestly, a life of practice isn’t the life we go looking for. It isn’t easy. It isn’t familiar. It isn’t a mansion in the hills. It is a life that starts out hard and ends up sweet; starts out hot and ends up cool. But it’s the only kind of sweet that ever satisfies. It’s the only kind of cool you urgently want and need. When it’s time, you know it, and you know what to do.

In a variation on trick-or-treat, this is Grab Bag week at Cheerio Road. I’ll let your comments ignite the topic I take up each day. If there isn’t a gust from you – a question, a comment, a change in direction – we’ll just have to sit through the wait. At the end of the week, there’ll be a goodie at the bottom of the bag.

Tea and terribles

October 23rd, 2007    -    15 Comments

“Invite him to tea.”

This was my teacher Maezumi Roshi talking, after he learned that I had a certain relationship of a certain kind with a certain guy.

And so this guy motored down to the Zen Center in Los Angeles for tea with me and Roshi on New Year’s Eve 1993. When he arrived, my guy took off his shoes, according to the custom, stepped into the tiny kitchen and we made awkward half-bows all around.

“I hear you’ve been living in Sierra Madre,” Roshi says to the guy.

“Yes, I’ve lived there for 15 years,” the guy responds, relieved perhaps at an opening question he can answer.

“What are you doing living in that dinky little town?” Roshi’s face crinkled up in a tease.

I stepped in-between to buffer the unexpected turn in this august encounter. “Roshi, do you know Sierra Madre?”

“I was a gardener there when I first came to America.”

My friend never found his shoes again that night. It was terrible. He drove home in his socks stewing about some terrible Buddhist that stole his Reeboks. But after the terrible shock of Roshi’s death the next year and after the guy and I said I-do some time after that, after a terrible year married and living terribly apart – me home in Texas and he staying put – after another terrible year married and living terribly together – he moving in and me staying put – after a terrible time deciding what to do about it, after a terrible day looking at pretty terrible places to rent for a not-too-terrible price and for not too-terribly long, because we weren’t so terribly sure we would stay, we found ourselves in a certain garden, in fact the very garden, in Sierra Madre, breathless and still with the stunning arrival in a story that was suddenly ours.

Can you believe it? Can you believe it about your own life?

Trust your life as it unfolds.

Everything everywhere

October 22nd, 2007    -    15 Comments


I found love in the parking lot of Sunny’s food store after a late night dash for a Hershey’s.

Me, after 12 hours in my hotshot job, racking up the hits and wins, taking down the bucks and hauling home a briefcase of very important things. I was a powerhouse, all right. But when the lights went out, I was a wobbly, weepy, lonely heart in search of a sweet, and my bedtime routine often started with a quick trip to the candy aisle at the corner convenience store. No one ever saw me.

He spoke as I darted out of the store with my secret.

“Ma’am,” he said. Polite.

I turned from inside the armor of my opened, driver-side door. He was skinny behind a bulging bag of aluminum cans, young but toothlessly aged, shiny in the swelter of summer’s all-night oven.

“Can you?” he asked.

“I can’t,” I shot back, rehearsed in my refusal. And yet I looked at him fully, and as I crouched into the seat I saw the face of my own lie.

He was so used to getting nothing, so certain of his worthlessness, that he still granted grace as I held out a flimsy, lone dollar.

“Please no, not if you can’t,” he comforted me, his face folded in tears for me.

“But I can,” I said, never trusting it before.

Then the love washed over, around, and in-between the fear we’d both carried for so long, the shame we’d worn into every unforgiving day and night, into the blinding glare and paralyzing darkness of our lives entwined.

I put it in reverse and blew him a kiss. He caught it like a butterfly and turned it loose.

We waved our brave goodbyes.

Trust your teacher, and that everything everywhere is your teacher.

Tidying up

October 19th, 2007    -    16 Comments


Leaves have a way of falling. Scars have a way of healing. Babies have a way of sleeping, eventually. Fridays have a way of rolling around. All by themselves.

This week we started on a low note, were roused into an angry fright, and got entangled in a world of pure junk. What does any of this have to do with the other? Here on the Cheerio, how is Sunday related to Monday related to Thursday? By the courage to keep going, my friends, and by the power of truth, nobly told.

Everything we talked about this week illustrates Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Of course, everything everywhere illustrates the Four Noble Truths. How life involves suffering, how suffering stems from attachment – to things, feelings and ideas – and how attachment can be overcome by ending our desperate clinging to things, feelings and ideas. Including, most importantly, the idea of who we are. These Four Truths are the one storage system, the one container, that truly simplifies your life. It organizes all there is to know and all there is to do. This is the way to true freedom, and it’s absolutely free. This weekend, if you have a chance, read the link. But don’t just read it, consume it. So that there’s only one thing left behind: trust.

And now that it’s appeared, all by itself, let’s make trust our topic for the week to come. I trust you’ll have something to say about it. I trust I will too.

The Zen bookshelf

October 12th, 2007    -    14 Comments

“I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.” – Zen koan

Awhile ago I tumbled onto a blogger’s review of Momma Zen. I say “tumbled” because the writer didn’t share my elevated view of my work, and I fell down hard. She found the book a wee bit lacking and lamented that she didn’t learn anything new, finally confessing that she viewed mothers like me with half-pity, half-scorn.

The thing is, she was right about everything, even the pity part, because I bet even you pity me now.

Most people approach Buddhism the way they approach everything else: venturing only so far. They want to investigate, read, discuss and cogitate. They want to “wrap their minds around it.” This is precisely why I don’t play tennis. This is precisely why we don’t do most things.

But Zen isn’t like that, and reading a Zen book, a real Zen book, isn’t going to teach you anything new. It is going to reveal what you already know, the wisdom that you instantly recognize but have long since forgotten. When you read it, you won’t feel like you acquired anything at all, but rather like you dropped a lot of unnecessary stuff. Your breathing will relax and your tensions, ease. A good Zen book does all this by being about nothing at all.

So this weekend I want to leave you with a nice, empty bookshelf: a selection of contemporary and classic readings that I recommend. I do this as a gift to you and as recompense for the blind faith repeatedly misplaced in me by my publisher.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is like a song; it’s like a whisper. The edited transcriptions of Suzuki Roshi’s talks are effortless and spare. Zen hors d’oeuvres they are, and yet somehow a complete meal.

Writing Down the Bones. Show me a writer without this on the shelf. Now show me the writer who truly appreciates how Natalie Goldberg applies the inscrutable words of her Zen teacher to her life and art. You be the one.

Letters to a Young Poet. This slim classic bears re-reading, especially if you find yourself still chasing the idea of a perfect life. Rilke is haunting as he speaks of true love as the mutual gift of solitude. It is startling to hear this from a die-hard romantic, and this makes him a must-read in the pantheon of inadvertent Zen masters.

Appreciate Your Life. My first teacher Maezumi Roshi never wrote a book. He never felt ready to add anything to the titanic body of Zen commentary. He was that wise. Before he died he cautioned me that his teachings were being editorially intellectualized, but this book offers the only way to hear the depth and nuance of his voice.

Tao te Ching. There are nearly 50 translations of the Tao te Ching out there to choose from. You can look or you can find. This ancient Chinese verse will help you locate your hara, the center of your being, because when you read it, the words will fall all the way down to your gut and echo back up again. Taoism is Zen’s cousin, inextricably akin, hence the striking family resemblance.

Finally, I am happy to reveal the winner of this week’s random drawing of commenters, as chosen by my able, honest and blind-folded assistant, Georgia. Marta will be receiving one of the first copies of The Best Buddhist Writing of 2007 as soon as I get one and I can inscribe it inscrutably. That will easily make her one of the best-read non-Buddhists on the block, which is naturally worth nothing at all.

Thank you all for a week of eloquence and honesty. Your attention is love, and I return it in full.


The last word on happiness

October 4th, 2007    -    9 Comments

Buddha held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

– Zen koan

Get it?!

I’ll spell it out for you: 🙂

If you’re out of practice, this could help.

Having the time of your life

September 17th, 2007    -    3 Comments


I often tell people they have all the time in the world. They look up from their frantic scramblings, their scattered minds, feeling overwhelmed and bogged down, and they think, to put it nicely, She’s insane.

So let’s say a word about time. But let’s not say what everyone else says. Let’s not say, for instance, that time flies, or time runs out, or that time waits for no man.

Time itself is being, and all being is time.

Time isn’t something we think we have. We think it escapes us. We think it flees. We think it sneaks up behind us and delivers a sucker punch. Time’s up! Time, it seems, always has the upper hand.

We see this front and center in our lives as parents. Even though our children change every day, we don’t always notice it. We don’t notice it until we clear out the baby clothes, then – snap – how did all that time disappear? What seemed like forever is now forever ago. And all of those special times we intended to have! All those precious moments we were counting on! We use most of our time feeling displaced and distraught, or even depressed.

Time is not separate from you, and as you are present, time does not go away.

We think of time as being separate from us, an entity – no, an adversary – unto itself. A grandfather, robed and bearded, keeping score and exacting a toll; a swift second hand; a relentless march. What looks like time passing is actually evidence of the profound, true nature of life: impermanence. Everything changes. But time doesn’t change. It’s always the same time. It’s always now.

Life, we think, could be so much more, if only we had more time. When real life seems to detour us from happiness, it can seem like we’re held prisoner by time. We feel as though we’re held in place, only marking time, only serving time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another.

These days, I can see too clearly what time it is. The broad canopy of my giant sycamores turns faintly yellow, and the leaves sail down. This would be a poetic image except that they fall into my ponds where they temporarily float and eventually sink until I hoist a net over my shoulder and scoop out the mucky yuck of wet leaves that would otherwise displace the pond itself. Someone has to do it. (Someone being me.) A part of every day from now until December finds me fretting and fuming at the simple sight of falling leaves. Then, I get on with it.

Tell me, while I’m scooping and hauling leaves ’til kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that other life of what-ifs and how-comes: the life I wish and dream of.

I will be unable to accept my MacArthur Genius Award at the present moment because I am scooping leaves from the pond.
I missed the call from Oprah’s producer but at least the ponds are clean.

A sudden gust kept me from writing an international bestseller.


At the moment I’m in the muck, at the moment I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.

We look for time the way we look for meaning, purpose and happiness. We never find it because it is already in the palm of our hands.

I am time. You are time. But this is getting long, and I don’t want to unduly occupy you. Come back tomorrow, same place, same time, for more timeless, wide-open secrets to mastering time.

You can spare the wait, because you have all the time in the world. And every moment is nothing but the time of your life.

All the quotes herein (other than those of the neurotic voice in my head) are from “Time-Being,” a teaching by the 13th century Zen master, Dogen Zenji. Please don’t confuse one for the other.

wash your bowl

September 13th, 2007    -    4 Comments

blue-bowlA monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.” “Have you eaten your breakfast?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have,” replied the monk. “Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

Two days ago I had a letter in my mailbox from Seattle. I let it sit a bit before I opened it, while I percolated to ripe fullness with its fragrant possibilities: the gushing thanks, the unexpected accolade, the irresistible offer that it contained.

I live this way a lot, squinting around the curve, anticipating what I’m about to get. Don’t we keep expecting to get something? In particular, to get “it”? To figure “it” out? To reach a culminating resolution, reward, complete understanding, wisdom, clarity, closure, the right answer, the holy grail? That very expectation fills us up and weighs us down.

The letter was nothing I dreamed of. It was a note from a long-lost cousin lately relocated from Japan here to the States. She has adopted a daughter, a Japanese girl, and wouldn’t it be lovely for our sisterless girls to each gain a cousin?

I cried at the long circumference of the circle.

She told me that she had a woodblock print of a fountain at the inimitable Ryoanji Zen temple in Kyoto. The print reads, “I am content with what I have,” she wrote. No, not quite, she corrected herself, capturing the subtle depth of the teaching, “I am content with what I lack.”

 

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