Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014
When life comes into focus, you realize there’s no time to waste.
Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like a dart of lightning — emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.
Have you ever known a 28-year-old who felt as though his life was nearly over? Perhaps. How about a 58-year-old? Now you do.
In 1222, a Japanese monk named Dogen was 28 years old when he returned from a sojourn to China, a quest in search of the true Dharma. Needless to say, he found it. Dogen came home so energized and committed that he singlehandedly revitalized Japanese Zen into a form still alive today.
Upon returning after a four-year absence, he immediately wrote a short teaching. It wasn’t mystical or philosophical. It wasn’t clever or even original. He didn’t bang his own drum. Frankly, Dogen didn’t get a lot of attention in his day no matter what he did.
Just 1,000 words long, this article was what we might today call a “how-to.” He titled it “Universal Instructions for Sitting.” By “universal” he meant “for everyone.” Dogen had resolved the great matter of life and death — grasped the ultimate reality, the holy grail of a spiritual pursuit. But he didn’t waste time telling stories about it. What seized him as the most urgent thing to do was tell people how to sit in zazen, or zen meditation: still, upright, and as comfortably as possible, with the added assurance that everyone can do it.
Do not use your time in vain.
Dogen was concerned with nothing else because he had realized that anything else would use his time in vain.
He had a head start on this realization because his father died when Dogen was two and his mother when he was seven. Here he was, already 28. He would die at the age of 53. His instincts were spot on.
Concentrate your effort single-mindedly.
At some point while I was writing my last book, it hit me. It hit me like a brick because it was so obvious. I was never going to be everybody’s favorite fuzzy-headed Buddhist writer. I wasn’t in league with the really well-loved memoirists. I couldn’t pass myself off as a parenting expert, a relationship counselor, a TED talker or a psychologist. I’d topped out as a literary celebrity without ever becoming one.
All of that is just fine and right on time, because I feel the weight and length of my days. They are running out, and I no longer have time for much else. I just want to tell folks how to sit.
A quiet room is suitable. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs.
I’ve become clear on my life’s work and purpose. I know what I want to be when I grow up.
So I no longer go anywhere to do anything except sit with people who want to sit. I know that not everyone wants to sit. But everyone can.
I’ll show you.
Fukanzazengi, complete text
The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat
November 14-16, 2014 Friday-Sunday 2 nights
For all levels.
Where can you go to find peace, patience, acceptance, and joy? The straightforward teachings of Zen point directly to your enlightened nature, right here and now. This retreat combines the simple practices of the Zen tradition with loving guidance, including:
Instruction and practice in seated meditation using chairs or cushions
Dharma talks to illuminate the wisdom teachings in daily life
Discover how the power of silence, the strength of breath, and the support of a group practice uncovers your capacity to live with clarity and compassion.
This program is eligible for CE credits.
Join me. Register here.
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Berkshires, Western Massachusetts
Three hours north of New York City
“In the sun and in the weather, no one else has loved me better.”
Come to California
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Nov. 10
9 am-3 pm
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Because we need to save ourselves and start again.
This is what practice is like.
If the video doesn’t appear in your email, click here.
Our practice is like walking in a fog, Suzuki Roshi said.”In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.”
And then you see the sun.
Cultivating Stillness: A Weekend Meditation Retreat at Grailville
Friday, Mar. 15-Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013
Grailville Retreat Center
20 miles northeast of Cincinnati
Sold out for overnight attendance; day passes for Saturday participation will soon be available.
The future lays before me like a bejewelled carpet, a glistening tide.
Golden Gate: A Weekend Retreat on the Marin Headlands
Saturday, June 8 at 9 a.m. – Sunday, June 9 at noon
NatureBridge at Golden Gate
An introductory Zen meditation retreat for all levels of practitioners. Includes instruction in sitting, chanting and moving with mindfulness. One night, three meals included.
Located on the Marin Headlands just steps from the beach, NatureBridge sits amid 140,000 acres of coastal parklands with views of the Pacific Ocean, delicious meals, tide pools, hiking trails and dormitory-style lodging to the sound of the ocean. I’ll be here.
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. — Luke 22:19
The communion ritual fascinates me. I suppose for some it can seem an outright lie or ignorant superstition. Even as a girl who came to church solely for the sake of obedience, the words drew me into their mystery, and I partook. I still take communion whenever it is offered to me. I take my sustenance in the mystery.
Last week I was tenzo, or cook, at a five-day retreat, preparing three meals a day for 25 people. I have participated in countless Zen retreats, maybe a hundred, taking many more hundreds of meals, and never cooked. Let me express my deep gratitude to every cook who has ever prepared my food. I had no idea.
Having no idea is the doorway to realization. It is the essential ingredient, you might say, in the miracle.
They sat down in ranks of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. They all ate and were satisfied. — Mark 6:40-42
At first my assistant and I were inept and overwhelmed, chased by the doubtful hours and disappearing minutes. We rushed and scrambled. We erred in composition and quantity. Every bowl we set out was returned empty. The diners seemed insatiable. The food was not enough.
But sitting down in the ranks transforms everything. By the third day of sitting, appetites quieted. Minds settled. In the kitchen, we moved with silent purpose. The miracle had begun to unfold. The food became a marvel; our hands, the instruments of magic. The taste was indescribable.
The cooks made an offering of the meal; the guests made an offering of their appetites. Everything in harmony; everyone blessed. By faith alone, we were all fulfilled. read more
Shoes are the first to go, left at the door.
What if someone takes them—you’re afraid to say more.
No perfumes or unguents, no shorts or short sleeves
Be mindful of others, but I’d rather leave.
The wardrobe, the makeup, the image, the pose
like pimples concealed on the tip of your nose.
Baggage and crap hauled two flights up the stairs
A room with four walls and the walls are just bare.
Sit, someone tells you, sit and be still.
That’s all there is to it. I’m gonna be ill.
But you do it, you try it, you do it some more.
The guy next to you wobbles. Did I hear a snore?
Years pass. Was it minutes?
Time stops. Shadows cast.
Was that one breath or two? The first or the last?
You don’t know. You don’t care.
One day you consider the weight of your hair.
Like grass it’s too long, like straw it’s all dead.
Take it off, you beseech,
and what you mean is your head.
Take the nightmare, the fairytale, the Hollywood end
the someday, the one day, the hard luck, the win.
Take my mask and my shield, excuses and lies
my what-ifs and rathers, ifs, ands and whys.
Where’s your fear? Where’s your dread?
I can’t find it. It’s shed.
Now plain faced and simple, empty-handed and bare
Go put on your shoes. They’re still there.
If you want to learn how to meditate, come to the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Nov. 10, 2013 in LA.
A student comes to a teacher and asks, “What is the way?” You might wonder this yourself from time to time. What do I do? Where do I go? Is it this way or that? What next? What if? Did I miss the turn? If you don’t see the way, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
The teacher replies, “Go straight on.”
Crazed by doubts and hobbled by fear, we’re bound to end up nowhere until we stop and ask for directions. As every traveler knows, the best directions come from someone who has already made the trip.
A young Japanese fellow boarded a steamer ship and set his course for terra incognita. Like the rest of us, leaving home was his only option.
Taizan Maezumi Roshi was the product of an archaic system of patriarchy in Japan, where Zen temples operated as a kind of family enterprise. One of seven Kuroda brothers raised at a family temple in Otawara, Japan, he ordained as a priest at age eleven and studied literature and philosophy at university. This was expected. By birth order, he would not inherit the family business. This was decreed. Thereafter, he did two things uncommon for both his time and our own: he took his mother’s patronym, Maezumi, and he took the practice of Zen Buddhism seriously.
He’d lost respect for blind authority; he wanted to part with dead customs. After his institutional training, he sought teaching by radical masters, testing firsthand the truth of an ancient teaching. Beyond the fabled stories, one question seized his mind: What is the way?
At twenty-five he sailed for America, intending to spread the practice of Zen Buddhism in a country hostile to both his nation and his faith. He was posted as a priest at a small temple in Los Angeles serving a diminished and demoralized population of Japanese-Americans.
I am the heir of his American dream. Now you are too.
His reputation grew. He attracted students from all over the world. He was revered by some, dismissed by others, and misunderstood by most. He was still there, in a dinky house in a dumpy part of town, when I arrived to ask for directions.
“I’ve left home,” I told him in so many words, “and I’m lost.”
As if anyone got there any other way.
He invited me to sit down.
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, Los Angeles, Sun., Nov. 10.
This is the best video I’ve ever seen on how to meditate, and it was produced at my practice home, the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. It depicts the precise instructions given in our beginner’s class and our one-day beginner’s retreats, and reiterates the teaching carried down through all 81 generations of our Zen ancestry. Now you have everything you need to begin, and to begin again. Our next Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat is Sunday, June 10.
At the Art of Mindfulness this weekend in Houston, and all the upcoming retreats, some of us will sit like this. And others of us will pretend to sit like this. Practice is an elegant pretense, and even so, it beats all other options.
I love all the videos by Patrick Burke, starting with this one.
One week before The Art of Mindfulness Retreat in Houston
Two weeks before The Practice of Everyday Life Retreat in Colorado
Four weeks before The Plunge Retreat in Pittsburgh
Five weeks before the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat in LA
I am being cautious here, mindful of what I say and don’t say, because of how earnestly we all seek and how easily we misunderstand.
I am not telling you how to live, how to improve yourself, how to make the right decisions, or what the right decisions are. I am not suggesting you live like me, think like me, or choose what I have chosen. It is easy to elevate what appears to be the sage or guru, the expert, the coach, the one “who has it together.”
In my long career as a consultant, I came to realize, after the first years of doubt and pretense, that I didn’t have to know any answers. All I had to do to be successful was tell people what to do. I could even make it up on the spot! Because everyone – no matter what their station or status or position – wants to be told what to do. Regardless of whether we do it or not – and we usually don’t – we think there is some secret message we’re missing. But every message is the one you already carry. It’s only a secret if you haven’t yet noticed what you have in your hands. read more