Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

zen is not about zen

February 10th, 2014    -    7 Comments

thusZen is the freshest essence of mind, already gone by the time it becomes an idea. The Zen meaning of literature is impact, not ideology. ~ Thomas Cleary

I found this wonderful quote on the Facebook page of Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. I’ll be in Minneapolis and St. Paul May 16-18 for several talks and a daylong retreat launching my next book, Paradise in Plain Sight — go to their website now and sign up before you think twice.

There is one question that causes me a lot of trouble. It isn’t intended to upset me. Anyone who asks it is sincere. Other people can answer it with aplomb. It’s just that I can’t answer in the way you might expect. The question is: What are your books about?

I never know what to say, because the truth is something like this:

I don’t write books about anything. I just write what I see. I write my experience. I put myself on a page and let others wonder what it is about.

Of course, it is useful in all ways to have a book be “about” something. Books need to be categorized and coded. In the conventions of bookselling and library science, books are sorted into genres and genres are collected onto shelves (even virtual shelves) as an aid to the reader or researcher looking for a book “about” something. Most non-fiction books fit the bill: they are the product of the author’s effort to illuminate a certain area of expertise or a period of history, even if it’s their own history.

In the traditional way of selling books, which is still the only way books are sold, a category is printed on the jacket flap or back cover as the publisher’s suggestion for shelving. The distributor feared Momma Zen would be “lost” in the parenting aisle so suggested it be sold under Eastern Religions. Eastern Religions is the Outer Slobbovia of bookstores, a place only stray dogs and ideologues are likely to roam. Momma Zen was definitely not about Zen. As soon as librarians or store managers read Momma Zen, they knew it belonged in Parenting, which was the kind of impact I was aiming for all along: the impact of the obvious.

Zen is not about Zen.

When you write, don’t you formulate ideas? Don’t you think about it? Don’t you work out what you’re going to write before you write it, what you’re going to say before you say it? Uh, no. Can’t you tell? I have no idea what words will appear from my dancing fingertips. I have no idea where a book will take me. Nor do I formulate the beat of my heart or the shine of the sun. Formulation is an unnecessary vexation.

With a little bit of time and reflection, I can now say that Momma Zen is about a daughter becoming a mother, Hand Wash Cold is about a woman becoming a wife, and Paradise in Plain Sight is about a student becoming a teacher. But that’s only how I see it. What really matters is what you see.

I put my life on a page. And then, in that glorious instant when you see it fresh and unexpected, you might recognize it as your life too, the life of everything and everyone, freed from any notion of what it’s supposed to be about. A moment of realization is not about anything. It just is as it is, then it’s gone.

And that’s Zen.

 

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 Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

the hidden gift of macaroni

December 1st, 2013    -    3 Comments

893661103C39C086AE1A284E3E0C4I had begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school, a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants or gets. Remembering it, I can feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.

One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.

The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.

“Between the giver, the recipient and the gift there is no separation.” This is a Zen teaching telling us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing in-between us, nothing that divides the sides or defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for, and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.

“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.

From the January 2014 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine.

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why the hell you’re here

October 22nd, 2013    -    6 Comments

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Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you. Although it is a bittersweet experience, it is worth it. When you sit on your cushion, it is tearful and joyful put together. Pain and pleasure are one when you sit on your meditation cushion with a sense of humor. — Chogyam Trungpa
The money, I say.
The hassle, I say.
I have no zafu, I think.
I haven’t sat since March, I think.
Sitting is hard, I think.

In my mind’s eye, I see
that wall in front of me,
that damn wall after the blessed
reprieve of a meal or a break time.

I see you bow over
and over and the skies are gray
and dull and I wonder why
the hell I’m there

and then we are all speaking
with one voice even though
our tongues trip on the
unfamiliar syllables

and time is suspended
and the air feels sacred
and maybe there are tears
or maybe no tears
or a sigh
or no sigh

but there is breath
enough
and I forget to wonder
why the hell I’m there.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Nov. 10, Los Angeles
Returning to Silence: A Retreat at Grailville, March 27-30, Loveland OH

Painting “Grailville Retreat” by Melissa Eddings Mancuso
Poem by Anne Erickson

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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that jerk saved my life

September 23rd, 2013    -    16 Comments

Zazen

I am concerned that in the process of making a business out of all this your sense of compassion is going out the window. I do not see a person in tune with others’ suffering. I see a lack of humility.

This is the kind of correction that can knock you back a bit when it appears in your inbox. I suppose I don’t get much criticism, all things considered.  I’m sure it can’t compare to the uninvited trouble foisted onto the rich and famous—but even a near-miss can level you, make you stagger and tumble onto the rocks where you scuff your knees and pick the scabs for a good while after.

He thinks this is a business?

That’s when you might see that the unwelcome blow was in fact an act of compassion. Why? Because it stops you. It interrupts your monologue. It commands your attention. And if you feel unjustly injured, you can take a good look at where that injury comes from, where it resides, and what sustains it.

Only the thoughts in my head.

Anything that interferes with the flow of thoughts in your head is compassionate. Why? Because what we think isn’t real. It is delusion. More than delusion, it is death. And that’s how we live most of the time—as if dead—arguing, defending, judging and debating with ourselves, by ourselves, and then projecting our upsets onto the real world. The internet seems to make this projection easier and even painless. It’s so easy to sound smart and clever, raw and biting, in a comment box. It’s so easy to argue, attack, and rebut. But it’s hard to stop.

All this digital carrying-on while we might not even pause to say hello to a single real, live person we pass on the street today.

Real compassion requires that you go out the window.

There is a part of the message that would have been laughable if I’d been of a mind to laugh: the “business” part. This isn’t a business. I don’t ask you for money. There is no enterprise here. I’ve dressed up the joint, but behind the curtain I’m just an old, poor, woman. By old I mean I turn 57 on Thursday. By poor I mean I don’t earn any money. The amount I’m paid to write a book every four years falls beneath the one-person poverty line. I write to myself and for myself, and if you encounter it, it is free or next-to-free for the taking. And by all means, be compassionate with yourself and discard whatever I say if it doesn’t make sense to you. Suffering is voluntary. You can opt out at anytime.

Compassion is a stick.

In the Zen tradition, there is something called a “waking stick.” It is a long, flat wooden stick used during meditation periods of long retreats. A monitor walks behind the backs of meditators, stick in hand, totally alert and watching for people who place their palms together and bow slightly, which is the gesture that means, “hit me.” Ask to be hit? Would anyone ever ask to be hit? If the business at hand is waking up, and you are cramped, sleepy, bored, or in pain, yes, you might ask for the stick. The monitor wields it swiftly, delivering a jolt of energy to the soft pad of muscles between the shoulders. It hurts! But you wake up, the pain dissipates, and then you realize, “That jerk saved my life.”

The stick is called the stick of compassion. It comes only when you ask for it.

The business of a buddha.

This is not a business, but there is a business here, and it is the only business worth pursuing. Compassion is the business of a buddha. A buddha’s work is to wake up. I’m here because I have more work to do. I always have more work to do. I offer this commentary as proof of how much work I’ve yet to do.

Good advice from a good friend.

That’s what I wrote back to the guy. And it’s true. But the real correction is what comes after.

Don’t make anything more out of it.

***

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

 

come to California

August 25th, 2013    -    1 Comment

“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
Los Angeles

Because we need to save ourselves and start again.

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actual unretouched photo of bliss

June 10th, 2013    -    3 Comments

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Nothing makes me happier than sharing my practice.
Wish you were here:
Rime Buddhist Center
Beginner’s Mind Zen Retreat June 21-23
All the details here.
Take a seat beside me.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed.
Do not squander your life.

sit here

April 4th, 2013    -    5 Comments

logo

Conventional wisdom has it that California 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.)  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.

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.

Golden Gate: A Weekend Retreat on the Marin Headlands, Sat.-Sun., June 8-9, Sausalito, CA.  For everyone.

 

heroes

February 25th, 2013    -    11 Comments

imagesThe question of the hour is “Where are the heroes?” This seems like the question of every hour, every season, every year, when the mask of greatness falls and we see that our statesmen, athletes, idols and stars are not so great after all. I don’t just mean that they make mistakes, but that their hearts are hollow. They cheat, lie and hurt people. They are selfish, ignorant, undisciplined and up to no good. Real heroes are something else altogether.

Yesterday I joined a group of people—perfect strangers—who entered an empty room and sat still and quiet for the better part of a day. I am honored by the presence of people who would dare to do such a thing: use up a perfectly good (which means an astonishingly beautiful) Sunday in California to sit down and stare at a wall. At the end of it all, I told them that what they had done was heroic. To take responsibility for peace in the world is genuinely heroic. I reminded them that while practicing Zen can be difficult on your stiff body and restless mind, it does not hurt anyone. No one is harmed by your practice; indeed everyone is helped, even if it is only because you are not erupting in anger or simmering in resentment during the time you are away.

When you are still, no eyebrows are arched, no fists are clinched, no fingers tapped, no sideways glances given. When you are quiet, nothing mean, cruel or critical is said. This alone makes the day a good day for everyone in your life.

I began my practice purely for myself. I wanted to be able to get out of bed in the morning, go to sleep at night, and overcome my crippling sadness. I wanted to be able to cope. But now I practice for another reason: because I hurt people. I hurt them a lot, and in ways I never see until it is too late, until the breadth of my failure crumbles whatever notion I had of my own greatness.

I am amazed by the extraordinary power we have to do good when we have the courage to do nothing.

Then I bow to this great earth and everything in it, asking forgiveness. And shazam! It is given. Talk about superpower.

You can still join a day at my Grailville Retreat in Cincinnati on March 16, or book your space in the Marin Retreat in June by going to this page.

fog lights

January 15th, 2013    -    4 Comments

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
Loveland, OH
20 miles northeast of Cincinnati
Sold out for overnight attendance; day passes for Saturday participation will soon be available.

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I’ll be here

January 13th, 2013    -    3 Comments

NBR_Golden_Gate_no_headline_111212_kfr_0

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
Sausalito, CA

Registration open.

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.

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the appetite

January 6th, 2013    -    24 Comments

7244511-rice-on-a-blue-bowlAnd 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

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