Posts Tagged ‘Teacher’

no teacher

April 2nd, 2014    -    3 Comments

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I do not say that there is no Zen, only that there is no Zen teacher. — Obaku

People often ask me how to find a Zen teacher. As one’s practice keeps going, the path becomes clearer. But for some, the questions remain: what and who is a Zen teacher, and how do you find one?

A Zen teacher may write, but his words are not the teacher.
A Zen teacher may be a therapist, but a Zen teacher is not your therapist.
A Zen teacher may be an adviser, but don’t come to a Zen teacher just for advice.
You have all kinds of teachers, but a Zen teacher is not your mother or father, not your partner or child, not a coach or mentor, not a fairy godmother, not even your friend, not your boss, not your hero, not a saint or a sage.
A Zen teacher practices in a room that is not near and is not far.
If it seems too far you’re not near enough.
If it seems too close you’re still too far.
To find the teacher, find the room.
Go inside and sit down.
If this matters to you, you will do it in a hurry.
By hook or crook.
(If it doesn’t matter, you won’t do it, because you don’t want a teacher.)
The teacher and student practice face to face.
When a student sees a teacher and a teacher sees a student,
they see into themselves.
If you turn this into a metaphor, you will never see it even in a dream.

Minneapolis-St. Paul
Friday, May 16, 6:30 p.m.
“The Garden of Mindfulness: Family, Work & Home”
Dharma Talk with readings from Paradise in Plain Sight and Q&A
Clouds in Water Zen Center

Saturday, May 17
Zazenkai (one day meditation retreat)
Dharma Field
8:45 am–2:30 pm
Register here

Sunday, May 18, 10 am
“In Plain Sight” Dharma Talk
with readings from Paradise in Plain Sight and Q&A
Dharma Field

Washington, DC
Sat.-Sun., June 21 & 22
Lil Omm Yoga
Sat., June 21, 3-6 pm
Meditation & Dharma Talk

Sun., June 22, 1-3 pm
Yoga & Dharma Talk
Register here

Houston
Sun., June 29, 3 p.m.
Rothko Chapel
“Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden”
Register here

Photo of the Grailville zendo by Pleasance Lowengard Silicki

 

face to face

March 23rd, 2014    -    1 Comment

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The great way of Buddha ancestors is only giving and receiving face to face, receiving and giving face to face; there is nothing excessive and there is nothing lacking. You should faithfully and joyously realize when your own face meets someone who has received this transmission face to face.

— Dogen, “Face-to-Face Transmission”

I hope to see your face when I travel to these places in the coming months. Through all space and time, nothing surpasses meeting face to face.

Minneapolis-St. Paul
Friday, May 16, 6:30 p.m.
“The Garden of Mindfulness: Family, Work & Home”
Dharma Talk with readings from Paradise in Plain Sight and Q&A
Clouds in Water Zen Center

Saturday, May 17
Zazenkai (one day meditation retreat)
Dharma Field
8:45 am–2:30 pm
Register here

Sunday, May 18, 10 am
“In Plain Sight” Dharma Talk
with readings from Paradise in Plain Sight and Q&A
Dharma Field

Washington, DC
Sat.-Sun., June 21 & 22
Lil Omm Yoga
Sat., June 21, 3-6 pm
Meditation & Dharma Talk

Sun., June 22, 1-3 pm
Yoga & Dharma Talk
Register here

Houston
Sun., June 29, 3 p.m.
Rothko Chapel
“Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden”
Register here

Photo: Serving tea to my teacher, Nyogen Roshi

 

why you need a teacher

January 7th, 2014    -    9 Comments

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

mindfulness starts here

September 29th, 2013    -    61 Comments

deep+waterWhen I first began my practice, I was already lying inert at the bottom of the deep end. Life’s triple decker of despair—heartbreak, grief and depression—had sent me plummeting into the murky realms. On the way down, I tried to rouse myself with the usual prescriptions, but nothing could reach. So when I bumped into a Zen teacher who reminded me how to breathe, it saved my life. Breath gave me the buoyancy to rise to the surface where I could float, and later, find the strength to swim. Breath always does that.

Not everyone comes to practice in the same sloppy way. Not everyone is as far gone as I was, in dire need of resuscitation. Some folks are holding onto the side of the pool, knuckles whitening, but still alert and awake enough to realize, “Perhaps I should give some serious thought to taking some swimming lessons.”

There’s a new book out that is like a set of swimming lessons.

Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten have kindly packaged an eight-week mindful course into a single volume, Mindfulness Starts Here: An Eight Week Guide to Skillful Living. It includes the practices, explanations, encouragement and accountability you would find if you participated in a mindfulness course like the kind they lead at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. And here’s what I really like: it also includes the people. The authors pair their artful instructions with real-life commentary from the students in their classes—students who might as well be you, facing the fear, doubt, resistance and even overconfidence we carry with us into the water. This is what I like best about this eminently likeable work: the human voices and stories reminding us that this practice isn’t academic or intellectual. It isn’t a course of self-improvement or just a tool for a toolkit. Mindfulness is not a seasoning, a flavor or a fad. It is life—your life—and it starts here. It starts wherever you are.

I’m still in the deep end, you know. We’re all in the deep end. But this much I know: I’m breathing.

Leave a comment on this post and I’ll draw a winner for a free, brand-new copy of Mindfulness Starts Here next Sunday, Oct. 6.

And in case you think you still don’t have the time, place, or teacher to begin your practice, look right here. There is water, water, everywhere.

The Plunge One-Day Retreat in Boise Sat., Oct. 5
Yoga & Meditation Retreat, Washington DC, Sat. & Sun., Oct. 19-20
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Sun., Nov. 10

If money is what’s stopping you from starting at these or any of my programs anywhere in the country, please contact me privately for help. Even a little help can help enough. Money never gets in the way of the Dharma, and that’s how you can tell what’s true.

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best friends

April 1st, 2013    -    9 Comments

il_570xN.318379070The other morning I opened an email from a reader. I asked her if I could respond via the blog so other people could benefit. All our problems are the same; what is different is whether or not we face them in an openhearted way. When we can do that, problems resolve themselves.

I am sure you get this all the time but first off thank you so much for Momma Zen and your blog. Both have brought me to laughter and to tears.

Reaching the place of tears and laughter—the starting point of our common humanity—is my highest aspiration. When one person cries, we all cry. When one person laughs, we all laugh. Now you can see how compassion works: in our shared tears and laughter.

I started studying Buddhism when I was 18. My dad was dying and my boss had a copy of Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It took me a while to get through, but since then I have always been able to find a Buddhist book or teacher to help me.

What a coincidence. I, too, read that book early in my practice and it was a wonderful companion for me during a time of loss. The Dharma, or teaching, always works in what appears to be a mere coincidence. Whether you’re handed things you like or things you don’t; something that makes you happy or sad, laugh or cry; whether you are consoled or confused; you are always receiving the teaching. Disappointment is the greatest teacher, because it gets right to the source of our problems: our attachment to having our own way. We usually don’t finish those books or stay with the teachers who disappoint us, but life continually and directly delivers us this lesson: the moment it’s not the way we want it.

My best friend and I had a falling out two years ago. We tried to go back to normal but I feel like it hasn’t been the same since. We’ve drifted apart. I am in disbelief. I never thought I would lose this friendship.

Now we can see what a good teacher this friend has been for you. Things don’t go the way we think. People don’t act the way we expect. We cannot control the outcome of anything no matter how much we wish, hope, try or want. Right there is the turning point toward a deeper understanding of love. True love is letting go. Not trying to change someone else. Not trying to control the outcome. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do.

I try to feel compassion, and practice tonglen or a metta meditation for my friend, but what can I do for this sad, empty, hollow feeling in my chest?

My teacher Maezumi Roshi said, “There is always something we can do.” The most important thing to do is practice acceptance. Take care that you do not try to conjure a certain outward feeling or impose a manipulation of any kind. Compassion is complete acceptance of things as they are, free of a self-serving agenda.

Within that acceptance, you can practice atonement. Offer an apology. Forgive yourself as well. Do not ignite anger or resentment by assigning blame. A genuine apology always restores harmony. Take complete responsibility and offer it without expecting an outcome.

Add your friend’s name to your prayer list. Dedicate your meditation to her. Look carefully at your motivations and intentions. Have no expectations. Simply devote your practice to your mutual well-being. Express your love and care without any need for reciprocity. We do not practice to change people’s hearts; we practice to open our own.

In short, be a best friend.

If you do these things freely and for their own sake, you will have made a friend of yourself. Your heart will soon be filled with love and gratitude. And then something will happen. It always does. Nothing stays the same. The Dharma works by itself when we stop trying to make it work.

Please stay in touch and share this with a friend.

Best Friends necklace by Jewel Mango on etsy.

 

a moment of shame

March 24th, 2013    -    20 Comments

Let it be well understood: once desire for the truth arises, the desire for fame and riches will disappear in a moment.
- Dogen Zenji

I worked for a few days on a blog post. It expressed my feelings perfectly—outrage, cynicism, moral superiority—but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it up. Then I saw this quote and it corrected me instantly! I was ashamed of my bluster and threw it out.

There’s a lot of psycho/spiritual talk out there. Shame on me if I add to it. All around me are better teachers innocently delivering an instantaneous correction. Who don’t busy themselves talking mighty talk while sitting on comfy sofas or chairs. The purity of their faith and the discipline of their practice humbles me.

When it comes to authenticity and humility, I’ll throw in my lot with a Pope who rides the bus. For courage and vulnerability, I’ll take the TV host who trades fame for farming. For gratitude and compassion, look to the billionaire who gives 99 percent of his wealth to charity. For a teacher, follow anyone who actually gets down on the ground and helps sick babies and teen mothers and old people, the homeless, hopeless and unwanted—while unpaid and unseen.

As for me, I hardly help anyone at all except when I roll down my window at the stoplight and hand a dollar bill to the lost soul on the corner. That’s my master class. I can really learn from people who don’t try to teach me a thing. Who aren’t selling me a credential or an e-course.  People who have more important things to be than right or wise or popular.

Let me well understand myself. Let me be quiet. Let me do good.

 

dare small things

September 7th, 2012    -    8 Comments

Become the least grain of sand on the beach. —Maezumi Roshi

I’ve had this quote on my mind lately, because it’s so easy to be distracted by the waves.

A few years ago I spent considerable time running the streets around my neighborhood. I told myself I was training to do a great and worthwhile thing: a marathon. I didn’t yet know that the truly great thing was taking even one tiny step.

Since I ran in the mornings, I would often cross a major intersection at commuting time, and lope through the crosswalk as the cars idled beside me. I had a startlingly intimate view of the solitary drivers, which is a rare and beautiful thing. We sit behind our wheels as if cocooned in invisibility. No one looked back at me. No one noticed the small, stooped lady striding past, smiling at them.

I might have said people looked grim, but that wasn’t quite true. They had no expression. They were unaware. It was going to be a day like any other. Not a single one of them would have thought they’d achieved greatness.

But they had. They had punched the alarm and gotten out of bed. Made the coffee and turned off the pot. Packed a sack lunch. Fed the pets, scratched the sweet spot under the dog’s chin. Smeared a smudge of butter across a slab of toast. And here they were, on time or late, calm or impatient, angry or bored, feeling utterly insignificant in the scheme of things.

My heart would swell at the sight of these great people answering the noble call: to do small things, and do them everyday. That’s why I smiled, but they didn’t see.

***

My dear husband was part of a recent space landing that bore as its slogan “Dare Mighty Things,” a snippet from a stirring Teddy Roosevelt quote:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Teddy could rally soldiers to their doom.

The space project was daring, its landing sequence worked, and it brought a wave of relief and pride to a group of people whose careers are continually being foreshortened and whose intelligence, frankly, is a bit of a cultural liability. (At least in this country.) The landing of the mission, though, was not the mighty thing. I had an up-close look at this endeavor, so I know.

What was mighty is that thousands of people woke up each workday for many, many years in several countries to log onto their computers and answer emails, stand in security lines at airports, eat crackers at their desks, tell jokes and ask about each other’s kids.

We must not lose sight of this everyday greatness, or we might as well live on Mars.

***

My teacher tells the story of hearing firsthand Maezumi’s instruction, “Become the least grain of sand on the beach.” He thought at first the old guy was telling him he wouldn’t amount to much. Aim low. Give up. Settle for less. And then he realized that not amounting to much was amounting to everything.

Become the least grain of sand and you’ve become inseparable from the whole beach. Big, mighty, or great doesn’t begin to measure what you already are. All you have to do is see it, and then, keep doing the small things. The universe depends on it.

Two more little things you might want to look into:

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sept. 23 in LA.

The Art of Non-Parenting: Discovering the Wisdom of Easy, and Deeper Still: Breath & Meditation Workshop on Oct. 20-21 in Wash. DC.

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needle and thread

July 31st, 2012    -    6 Comments

Registration is now open for the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sunday, Sept. 23 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center  in Los Angeles.

***

What do you practice?

Choose your practice wisely, because we become what we practice.

Some people grow more fearful or cynical; some more arrogant or vain; some greedy, some needy; some combative or close-minded. And then there are a few who grow as solid as a mountain and as wide-open as the sky. They are strong and yet tender. Steady yet yielding. Powerful yet gentle. You will recognize them on sight because they resemble the earth you can touch and the sky you cannot contain. It’s not that they are superhuman, but that they are more completely human than most of us ever allow ourselves to be.

I met plenty of powerful people in interesting situations before I began my practice.

I met the heads of some of the world’s largest companies.

I met the founder of Enron before his titanic collapse.

I stayed too long having cocktails with the Governor of Texas and missed my flight home.

I saw a President of the United States having a club sandwich on a sun deck outside a hotel.

I met Frank Sinatra when he was still doing it his way.

I met a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the general manager of the New York Yankees.

I met three Heismann Trophy winners, including one who would be acquitted of the crime of the century.

I met a half-dozen television anchors, two big-city mayors, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

What I remember is that they were very well-dressed. (Except for the writer.)

Maezumi Roshi didn’t look like much. He was scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. His face was wrinkly and sometimes whiskered. But when you got up close, you saw that his eyes shone black as night and he moved, when he moved, like a mountain. If you think that black doesn’t shine bright, look at the night sky. And if you think a mountain doesn’t move, I’ll remind you that a mountain moves whenever it wants, which will certainly get your attention.

Unlike the world’s most illustrious people, he had nothing, yet he had something, and I would have followed him anywhere.

I guess you could say I did, although it was nowhere special.

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the last lesson

July 18th, 2012    -    5 Comments

I watched the lovely documentary about the horse trainer “Buck” again last weekend. If you haven’t watched it once or twice, I recommend it. It’s on streaming Netflix, so there’s no reason to put it off.

This time I watched it with houseguests staying for the weekend. The visit wasn’t going so well. The kids are older now and can be cranky and sullen. We couldn’t get the group to agree on what to do. We were all put out with one another. I suggested we watch the movie.

“It teaches about relationships,” I said.

You’ve probably heard about Buck Brannaman, the cowboy sage who uses a gentle touch to save horses and correct their overbearing owners. The movie has a kind of slow, sad beauty that you can lose yourself in. But there’s a part toward the end that I can hardly bear. I turned my head away in anticipation.

Buck seems like a miracle-worker until someone brings him a horse that is wild-eyed and bloodthirsty. An orphaned colt that has been untended to the point of savagery. Even as the horse charges the gates and bolts the pen, you’re thinking there’s a happy turn to come. The minds of all the riders and spectators — and this includes you — are united in hope and prayer: Save the day.

This is what we expect of our stories.

But then the horse bites a man between the eyes, and in the gush of blood and truth, the owner admits that she’s scared to death and tired of living on the brink of self-made catastrophe. She’s going to do what she has to do, no longer turning back.

There’s the last matter of loading the horse onto the trailer, and Buck stands in the ring to coax him safely out the gate. He doesn’t have a rope. The horse and man are totally untethered. His owner calls to the pony from outside. “Come on,” she coos, “Come on.” She wants to help; she wants to do one last thing right.

And then Buck speaks the last lesson, the eternal finishing stroke.

Just sit still. Don’t do anything. He says it quietly, a whisper. He stands pat, head bowed, issues no command, and gives the horse the dignity of self-propulsion.

The horse knows where he’s going, just like we all know where we’re going, because there is only one way to go. Straight on.

The only magic in life, the only miracle, is in the time and space that opens up between us, by sheer acceptance and surrender, so we can finally lead ourselves in the only direction there is to go.

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sit there

July 10th, 2012    -    9 Comments

Conventional wisdom has it that Los Angeles is sinking into the Pacific. One more quake, they say, and this silly sandcastle will be swept offshore. But they have it upside down. We’re already on the bottom of the sea. Five million years ago, seismic storms pushed the Pacific crust to the surface of the Earth. We are the children of a risen ocean. We scuff our shoes on its billowy floor.

Conventional wisdom says this ancient practice of mine no longer reaches. It does not translate. Westerners don’t get it. It’s too hard and long and fruitless (although science, medicine and common sense affirm it at every turn.) I once studied with another teacher who prodded me. Faster, faster! He wanted to see flying colors, coach a champion, build a team. I quit that place. Later, he trademarked a new way to sell enlightenment, a method sped up for the restless and distractible. We’re competing with many other pastimes, the reasoning goes. Better give people what they want when they want it, or they will . . . do what? Scatter, like so much dust.

Thinking like that is a sure way to lose ground. Where wisdom is the agenda, there is no wisdom.

“I was afraid Maezumi was just going to let you sit there,” he said. I didn’t know better at the time, but now I can answer.

My teacher was unafraid to just let me sit there.

This is my inexhaustible desire: that you will find a guide who is both patient and daring, unafraid to watch you struggle, drift, and finally settle in the tempest of your own pot. One who will keep you quiet company as you go deep and dig, until you look up and see that you are not sinking, you are not hopeless, your cause is not lost. There is no war and no enemy, no hurry and no wait. You are sitting upside up in the echoless calm of a deep, clear ocean, no wind or waves, and you are breathing, breathing, breathing.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, Los Angeles

freedom

July 4th, 2012    -    5 Comments

Every now and then I talk to groups of nervous parents. All parents are nervous. Under the surface of relative calm and confidence, we worry ourselves sick. I try to take some of the doubt and turn it into trust.

Remember when you taught your child to eat, I ask. Some people nod. Yes, yes, I remember that ordeal.

Remember when you taught them to walk? Hands shoot up. Frankly, I wasn’t sure he’d ever get the hang of it!

How about when you taught your kid to talk: to move their jaw, lift the tongue, purse the lips and push the breath past the teeth? By now, some are beginning to get the drift.

We don’t teach our children any of this. We show them. They follow. Whether they follow our lead or the impulse of their own intrinsic genius is anyone’s guess. The grass grows by itself.

Those things we don’t teach are the greatest teachings of all. I hope your children have that kind of teacher; I hope mine does, too.

True freedom is freedom from fear.

teacher

June 25th, 2012    -    10 Comments

California days seem short even when they’re not, dimmed by the sudden slant of the afternoon rays. The heat of a workday chills by four. Even in summer, our suppers were always at five.

My grandfather would open the screen door and call us kids inside. I might be kneeling under the shade arbor digging in muddy loam with a bent spoon. Might be on the side of the house corralling pill bugs into a coffee tin. Might be on the swing dragging my bare feet in the dirt. Or I might be invisibly snug under the umbrella boughs of an orange tree, sitting still and quiet. All those days in the dirt are what made the place my own.

Hearing my name rise in the air, I would come running toward the deep resonance in his voice, and in that instant, be completely accounted for. Teachers take roll, that’s what teachers do. They stand on a step and say your name. How do you respond?

Here I am!

What matters most is that you’re here. It matters most because it is the one irrefutable fact of your life. To say anything more misses the mark.

###

I am so glad that I will be here, spending two days in Washington, DC Oct. 20-21, calling your name. How will you respond?

 

ease

June 12th, 2012    -    4 Comments

And see the peaceful trees extend
their myriad leaves in leisured dance-
they bear the weight of sky and cloud
upon the fountain of their veins.

from “Envoi” by Kathleen Raine

In the Zen tradition we say of old teachers, “they planted trees.” It’s not just a metaphor. Planting trees is the activity of a buddha, an awakened being, and it makes perfect sense. For one thing, trees improve the scenery, and for another, trees guide the way.

A well-tended tree grows. My teachers, being grandfathers each in their own manner, planted trees. How noble, how worthy, how kind.

How to grow a tree is how to grow your life.

###

Inspired again by my cousin’s etegami art.

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