Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

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.)

Interview with a vampire

October 30th, 2007    -    11 Comments

Did somebody say to write about control? Did somebody ask about fear? I’m afraid so. Who better to pontificate on the point than today’s guest, the phantom of fear himself, Count Effluvium Ginormus Overtopster.

May I call you ego for short?

I prefer that I forever be known as I, me, myself, the Big Kahuna, Top Dog, Numero Uno, the Commander in Chief or the Decider. I’m sure you won’t mind. In fact, you’ll come to love me as none other than yourself.

Are you big and bad?

Of course not, I simply have a neverending job to do.

Which is?

To protect you.

From?

Lions, tigers and bears.

But I don’t see any wild animals.

Boo!

Seriously, there’s nothing dangerous going on.

What’s that sound? Who’s hiding in the closet? What’s around the corner? What if? What then? What next?

Are you trying to change the subject?

All the time! See my sleights of hand? Judgment, control, planning, defense, intellect, memory. Hey! Remember that time you walked home in the dark and that stranger came close and . . . Remember when you were six and the dog barked and . . . Look before you leap! Better safe than sorry!

You’re trying to scare me.

I like to stay busy! And look at all the nifty defense mechanisms I brought with me: denial, displacement, intellectualization, fantasy, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, blah, blah, blah. I can’t wait to use one after the other. I never go anywhere unless I’m armed to the teeth.

You never go anywhere?

I prefer to stay in control right where I am. In fact, why don’t you go upstairs into that dusty attic surrounded by all those old, familiar things and I’ll lock you in where you are safe and secure.

Secure from what?

The outside, you silly! Didn’t you notice it’s getting dark? Didn’t you notice it’s getting light? Didn’t you notice all those ominous changes? The threatening signs? Didn’t you notice that those people over there are looking at you? Didn’t you notice everyone is talking about you? Better get up there and not move an inch. Entrust me with your life!

But it’s my house and there’s no one else here and you’re the only one talking.

Yes, and I wish you’d straighten up and set some standards! Fresh towels would be nice.

Why don’t you shut up?

Why don’t you try to make me?

This is my Halloween prank, but for a real scare, see what happens when ego rules the so-called free world.

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.

The stew in lieu (of a post)

October 29th, 2007    -    9 Comments

1. Wake up.
2. Realize it is Monday.
3. Realize the phone is ringing; answer it and agree to teach yoga this morning.
4. Realize that by teaching this morning I can be home this evening instead of taking a class.
5. Realize that I need to check my calendar to be sure.
6. Realize it is October 29.
7. Realize that today is my 12th wedding anniversary.
8. Realize I need to buy a card.
9. Realize I need to buy a gift.
10. Realize the gift should be something my husband really wants.
11. Realize that would be a 90-minute massage at the health club.
12. Realize I could make a nice dinner.
13. Realize it could be something my husband really likes.
14. Take daughter to and from school, walk the dog, answer email, teach yoga, pick up dog poop, go to market, get card and gift certificate, talk on phone, chop veggies, make pot roast, receive magnificent floral delivery, help daughter with homework, clear table, bring in mail, vacuum, empty dishwasher, take out trash and chill champagne.
15. Realize that I can stop pondering the imponderabilities of today’s potential profundity
16. Because whenever I wake up and realize that my life as it is is perfectly OK it answers Karen Beth’s question from yesterday about my practice.
17. And thus comprises my post as promised.

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.

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.

Why how what where when

October 26th, 2007    -    12 Comments


Why trust? And why trust me to say so?

It’s not as though I’ve never known loss, fear, anger, depression or confusion. It’s not as though my relationship works. It’s not as though I’m the world’s most wonderful mother. With the world’s most wonderful kid (even though, like all kids, she is). I’m not better than anyone else. I don’t have my shit together. No, I’m not at all trustworthy in that kind of way.

The trust I’m selling isn’t something you can get from me. You can’t get it from a book, not even the really good ones. It’s not found in inspirational quotes, although it’s nice to run across them here and there.

It’s not something you get from a TV show, not even that really uplifting and helpful TV show, because the good feeling fades as soon as you change the channel. It’s not something you get when something really good happens, or something that you lose when disaster strikes. We say we lose our trust when really bad things happen, but what we’ve lost is the false certainty, the comfortable bubble, that only good things happen to good people.

So where do you get trust? You won’t believe me, but you already have it. You have it when you surrender, if you ever do, to a night’s slumber and open your eyes to another day. Everytime you exhale your breath, and in that half-minute before you automatically inhale again. You have it when you put on your shoes, or when you don’t, and you walk across this great Earth without falling off. You have it when you look up at the moon and see that wherever you go, wherever you are, it is always over your shoulder.

It is not by accident that you came here; it is not by chance.

So I will entrust you with the only thing I can give you. A notice once again that I am teaching a one-day meditation retreat that is perfect for you a week from now on Sunday, Nov. 4. It is the best way, and the fastest way, and the everlasting way, to uncover deep trust in your life.

If you cannot heed my offer this time, then hurry to the next, when not by accident or chance we meet again.

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.


Room with a view

September 27th, 2007    -    4 Comments

Recounted in honor of the garden’s inclusion in this weekend’s California Garden and Landscape History Society tour of Japanese gardens:

I brightened in the backseat as the real estate agent detoured down Lima Street to tell the story of Italia Mia, the estate built in Sierra Madre at the century’s start by a southern heiress who fell in love with Italy but ended up here instead, a bon vivant who lavished her home with hillside gardens including this one – we stopped –now the oldest private Japanese garden in southern California. The little house came later behind this wrought iron fence bordered by a thicket of bamboo, beyond this garden gate with the kanji inscription that foretells mosses abundant as ocean waves, and farther on, inside the front door carved with bluebirds on a blossoming branch, and out back again into the open-armed garden, intact and exquisite, its ponds and rocks poised in amazing place since 1916, under the shifting shade of ancient sycamores, the water falling in the hushed company of a tea house, the pines pining and each perfect plant waiting patiently for a gardener.

The whole thing was built for Zen, the realtor added unknowingly, knowing nothing about us, knowing least of all how to judge the silence that had frozen us in place, breathless and still with the stunning arrival in a story that was suddenly ours.

P.S. All this, plus liftoff and effortless steering, too. Happy weekend, everyone. Happy everyone.

And back next week with more on this business of happiness.

Airing dirty laundry

September 25th, 2007    -    6 Comments

I once wrote a post titled “Hand wash cold.” That post generates more traffic than any snake oil in the blogosphere. It snares Googlers from Portugal to Peru, from Little Rock to Lichtenstein. These searchers come from the very places where garments that need to be hand washed cold are actually manufactured. I feel bad for these suds seekers, because they aren’t looking for anything loftier than laundering instructions. So I decided to give them what they came for. In the process, I realized that this is a zen meditation of its own kind.

1. Wipe the shaving stubble from a sink or rinse the motor oil from a pail.
2. Fill same with cold water.
3. Add a drizzle of gentle (read: expensive) laundry detergent or a spritz of dishwashing liquid to the water. Note: can also use bar soap, hand soap or no soap.
4. Slosh the water around to conjure up a few bubbles.
5. Submerge subject garment in water.
6. Let it sit.
7. Hours–or even days–later, remember.
8. Rinse it in clear, cold water. This special item is probably not the kind of thing that can survive twisting or wringing or even washing for that matter.
9. Which means that when you take it out you’ll have to hang it up over the bathtub to let the water drip out of it.
10. And that will probably cause the fabric dye to drip out of it too, creating streaks of variable density and lasting annoyance. Remember too late that the garment had some kind of warning about this too.
11. When it dries, the item will be six inches longer than when you purchased it. Or six inches shorter. Or six inches longer on one side; six inches shorter on the other.
12. You might wish that you had laid it flat to dry, which would take so long that it mildewed before you could wear it again.

All of this effort will allow you to wear the item once before you resolve to (a) never buy anything else that has to be hand washed cold, or (b) never wash it, thereby transcending all questions and eliminating all doubt.

Here’s the 25th hour of your day

September 19th, 2007    -    4 Comments

Not one thought deserves a second thought. – Dogen Zenji

What if you had one extra hour in the day to use to your heart’s content? To have fun, relax, exercise. To write, run or sleep. To start a book; to finish a book. To plant a garden; to cook. To play with the kids. To do something big. To do nothing at all.

These are the things we think we would do with extra time. But in truth, this is how we’d probably use it, because this is how we use most of our time:

It’ll never work. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it. I don’t know how. I don’t have what it takes. I’ll never finish. It’s a big mistake.

And the classic:

I don’t have time.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that you replace these self-critical thoughts with something else. I don’t peddle positive thinking. I peddle positive non-thinking. Not all thinking is a waste of time, just the non-stop negative self-judgments that occupy nearly every waking hour. Cutting back on that will open vast new frontiers of (get this) empty space and time.

Of course, learning to disengage from habitual, self-limiting thoughts takes practice. And who has time for that?!

This concludes my three-day treatise. About time.

I’m teaching a one-day Beginner’s Mind Retreat at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 4. Is it time? Find out more.

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.”

 

Dropping off

September 12th, 2007    -    4 Comments

Let go and make yourself independent and free, not being bound by things and not seeking to escape from things – Yuanwu

It’s remarkable how profoundly intense the first 90 minutes of the morning can be for a mother like me.

Gotta get up, gotta make coffee, gotta make breakfast. Gotta pack lunch, check homework, gotta get her dressed, hair combed. You’ve gotta brush your teeth! You’ve gotta change those shoes!

Oh!

Gotta feed the dog, gotta unload the dishwasher, make the beds. Gotta feed your fish!

Oooh!

Gotta jump in and out of the shower, gotta get myself dressed, gotta do something with this hair, gotta grab a hat!

We gotta go!

Gotta hurry, no time to walk, we gotta drive!

With minutes ticking toward the 7:40 a.m. school bell, the pace pounds.

Gotta find a place to park, gotta get out and walk her into the playground, gotta see her off and in line with her teacher, gotta be a good mom, gotta do it right, gotta do it all, gotta run because I’ve made us late, late again!

Then from the backseat, with the sagacious calm and steady poise of her eight years, with her serenely impeccable timing, she offers the morning’s benediction, the first sane words that have passed between my ears since I flew into action at dawn.

Mom, you can drop me off.

She turned a rosy cheek to me then, like a gift, a floral tribute. I kissed it, and that was that.

Last laugh

September 6th, 2007    -    6 Comments


When it appears in a spread, this enigmatic card heralds unexpected events and sudden inspirations. He may foretell breathtaking coincidences which have the power to upturn an ordinary life. He represents, above all, the transformational spirit of anarchy and the impersonal forces of destiny. We are foolish to believe we can totally control our own or other people’s lives, he says.

The school calendar tells me that this is the last day of summer. These ten weeks have been a riot, and not necessarily a laugh riot. But something tells me all that is about to change. I feel a take-off rumbling; I feel a buzz. This kind of a turning point calls for a little review. This was the summer that:

We traveled cross-country to witness the rocket launch that wasn’t.

The household plumbing pooped out and required emergency neurosurgery.

The new pipes caused a pressure surge that broke the washing machine.

The repairman mixed up the hot for the cold and I shrunk my new cotton cargoes.

Our new neighbor turned out to be a dastardly developer who built a menacing addition overlooking our century-old garden, then put the property on the market where it remains empty, overpriced, unkempt and unsold. (Wanted: rich new neighbors with a friendly 8-year-old girl.)

Posthaste we put in a fifty-foot stretch of exotic bamboo, a stash of cash and a fountain of tears into this old patch of dirt to vainly recapture what used to be.

Last night, in the thick of concocting a casserole for this morning’s teacher appreciation breakfast, the oven died. (I’m broken up over this one.)

And within the last 10 days I have found, on two separate and creepy occasions, a Joker card mysteriously placed under my bedroom rug by an unknown interloper. Two cards from a deck we do not own. The police have been called and precautions taken.

All of this culminates just as I have resolved to stop all my bellyaching. There are many out there who are much better at it than me (the bellyaching) and drop-dead (funny) to boot. With my next post I will go back to the basics, my own calling card, and make a practice of demystifying the enigmatic Zen teachings that eternally perplex us in plain sight, tricking us, surprising us, upturning and illuminating our deluded view of ordinary life. Who else but me can do that? Who else ever would? No, the world will never notice. And so it will ever be.

And just for the record, should something else untoward happen – should the Joker reappear for one last laugh – here’s a clue: Colonel Mustard, with the candlestick, in the Conservatory.

Me TV

August 31st, 2007    -    7 Comments

We all wait in vain for our 15 minutes. Wouldn’t you know I only got 5? Here’s a short video interview with me about Momma Zen. And the must-see part: it’s in my own backyard. Because what’s Labor Day without a telethon?

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