hair, teeth, and nails

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. — Dogen

I once heard about a man who spent four hours a day for 25 years writing down what happened every five minutes of every day. “You might say I’m a nut,” he said, although it’s the kind of nut we all are, by degree. By that I mean we make monuments out of minutia, keepsakes from what we cannot keep. Maybe that’s why we do it: as proof that we have no proof.

7.30-7.35: “We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.”

This fellow typed a diary of 37.5 million words that eventually filled 91 cartons. It was a world record. If we dug through all the detritus we could learn his body temperature at different times of day, blood pressure, medications, and everything he ate, read and did, including descriptions of his urinations and bowel movements. He recorded his dreams, but slept only two hours at a time so he wouldn’t forget them before he wrote them down. He taped a piece of his nose hair to a page.

8.45: “I shaved twice with the Gillette Sensor blade and shaved my neck behind both ears, and crossways of my cheeks, too.”

A few months into the pandemic there was much made of hair, because it grows out. And then, what grows in doesn’t look like the old you, but rather the old you, which is altogether a different thing. Whenever I ask, my daughter rakes a cordless clipper across my scalp. When the inch or so of snipped hair falls to the patio where we do this, I imagine a bird building a nest from it. It’s a nice thought, but I won’t have proof of that either. Not the hair, the bird, the nest or the thought.

7.00: “I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”

Back in April I was surprised to learn that oral surgeons were essential workers. This was after my daughter complained about pain from her wisdom teeth. I made one call and in a couple days she had all four teeth extracted. Afterwards, the doctor handed her a little plastic bag with the four big teeth inside. “I grewww theeese,” she said, drawing out the words in dazed astonishment. That might have been the anesthetic talking. I don’t know where the bag ended up.

3.20-3.25: “Humidity: fifty-one and a half percent. Porch temperature: fifty-six degrees. Porch floor temperature: fifty-one degrees. Door jamb temperature: seventy-four degrees.”

This year has put us in touch with what is untouchable. Namely, time. Days flowing upon days, dissolving indistinguishably without measure or mark, nothing left over and nothing left out, no falling behind, no getting ahead, and so on, and so on.

12.20 -12.25: “I stripped to my thermals.”

“It would be like turning off my life,” the diarist said in 1994, when asked what would happen if he quit. That wasn’t the case. The diary ends in 1997 when a stroke disabled him. Was that pain or paradise, to be released from his obsession? He died ten years later. His name was Robert Shields. You might say he reached a state of timelessness.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Photo by jim gade on Unsplash

through the door

The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method? — Confucius

Yesterday I was doing morning yoga but I was thinking about what I would make for dinner. The problem was, I didn’t have all the ingredients. Not fresh thyme, not pecorino, not shallots, not the pound and a half of beefsteak tomatoes. How many was that, anyway — one, two, four? Come to think of it, I didn’t have a single one of the ingredients! It was hot and getting hotter, so why was I trying so hard to make tomato soup from nothing? I’d twisted myself into a sweaty heap before the answer floated down from heaven. I’ll just make something out of what I already have.

I’d spent nearly ninety minutes mentally freefalling through deep space when all the while I was planted on mother earth with spinach in the fridge.

One hundred and ten days of going nowhere can feel like falling through a black hole, as if anyone could tell you what that feels like. And that’s what it feels like too, not knowing how it feels. At the beginning we actually thought we could see an end, we thought we could go back, we thought it would turn out. We carried a sane, logical, and highly orthodox expectation that it would all be okay. But now I wonder: had I ever even been mildly inconvenienced  before this happened? Thrown for a loop? Knocked back on my heels?

“My life has been destroyed,” my daughter would say about the piecemeal disassembly of her world. “You can’t understand because you’ve already had a life.” That much was true. She clung to the hope, the absolute necessity, that she’d return to school, pick up where she left off, and resume her steady progress toward the glittery future she’d imagined.

There have been many dark days, spiraling into darker days, dark beyond dark.

Last week she sat on the sofa and read a list of protocols that had just been handed down for the fall semester in her drama studio: no more than six people per class, no fewer than six feet apart, no removing of masks, no uncovered mouths, no noses, no faces, no people, no performances.

I held my breath.

Perhaps she had already expended all her disappointment and despair, because something amazing happened instead. She said, “I don’t have to do it. I can do something else.” And so she will take other courses, happily, gratefully, with interest and enthusiasm. She worked it all out within a day, saying it was what she wanted to do all along.

Here we are entombed by walls that turn out to be doors, and we walk through. We just walk through.

***

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

wildness comes

Helicopters were buzzing the hills around our town again this morning. That usually means a bear sighting. Or maybe a mountain lion. Last month our neighbors called to tell us they’d seen a baby bear tottering along the fence leading into our backyard. We just missed seeing it but they’d taken a photo as proof. At dawn one morning I walked into the kitchen and saw a coyote just outside the picture window. It was so well-fed that I couldn’t identify it at first. I’d never seen such a powerful thing at home and unafraid. Then it turned my way and I saw the furry prey in its jaws, a cat, maybe even the gray stray that had been lounging in the yard not long ago, the one we loved.

The goats have taken back Wales, the deer are stalking Pennsylvania, the ducks are parading in Paris, but the coyote snatching breakfast on my patio was what did me in. What made us think we were in charge of this Eden, huddling in our collapsible boxes, barricaded by rose bushes, fortified by wobbly fences and broken gates?

The wildness stalks at night and takes its revenge. No, not anymore. The wildness comes by day and shows us our place in a living world: not apart, not above, and not immune. A kingdom untaxed by forethought of grief, in balance and at peace: this is our forgotten domain.

It is a kind of justice, a restoration, that comforts me in the falling days.

###

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

the world enters us

Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart
and at the same time the power and clarity of the Great Eastern Sun.
Then you can make a proper cup of tea. —
Chogyam Trungpa

As long as you think that all the trouble and turmoil in the world is outside of you, beyond you, separate from you, then you support the world of samsara, the world of greed, anger and ignorance. Now this is not to blame you, this is to encourage you. It is vital that, since you have been led to the Dharma, you truly commit yourself to your practice, because only through this practice can we see that this world — which appears to be beyond us and outside of us and against us — is not separate. It is the world of oneness.

Right now there is momentum to make a better the world a better place, a noble aim. But I’m here to tell you what my teacher once told me: you can’t do that. You, that separate you, that ego that you carry around, is not the agent of change. As long as you carry that separate self forward, driven by your own beliefs, ambitions, and expectations, you don’t change the world.

I remember years ago when I was first asked to give talks, I told my teacher (because this is the voice of someone who’s quite full of themselves) “I just want to help people.” I thought that was the thing we were supposed to say and supposed to do. And he said, “Maezen, you can’t help anyone.” This was a shock to me, because I had testimonials! I had perfect strangers writing to me and saying “You helped me so much.” But what he was telling me was this: “Maezen, you, with what you think you can do, with your idea of help, striving for purpose and to make a difference, which is all ego, you can’t help anyone.”

But this is not the end of the story. Is it impossible for the world to change? No. It is impossible that it won’t change. What matters is how we move forward and what we share.

An excerpt from the last in a series of talks given during this, the first wave of the pandemic.
The World Enters Us dharma talk
Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

freedom dreams

The dreams go like this: I board an airplane and soon after we take off there is a loud boom like a shotgun blast from behind me. We are going down. Or I’m on some kind of a boat that I need to get off of but my baggage is below deck. I run through dark corridors to find my things but they are lost and we are sinking. Or my plane is in the air but I look down and see that we are flying impossibly low over roads and trees, just a few hundred feet off the ground, veering around buildings that tower above us, and I know I won’t survive.

I wake and wonder if I’m having these dreams because I need to get out of the house after three months of confinement. That it’s the virus, the president, the police, the social upheaval, the chaos that haunts these futile efforts to flee.

But then I realize the share of humanity whose dreams are not like mine at all. Their nightmares are lived in broad daylight, their faith and solace shattered every moment by the failed promise of freedom, safety, and belonging.

I’m only beginning to wake up.

***

Friends helped put together this list of Fiction to Change Minds, a selection of powerful novels that help us see the truth beyond our own. Whether you are a reader or a writer, a student or a teacher, it’s a way and a place to start.

Photo by Yulia Agnis on Unsplash

the treasure

We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather living and breathing as one.

Nowadays I wake up even earlier than usual to check the news. It’s an obsession but it feels like a duty; I’m a sentry in a war zone, scanning the horizon for smoke and fire. Threats multiply every day. The world seems locked in a death spiral. I feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, complicit. What have I done to alter the course of human ignorance, greed, and hatred? Clearly not enough.

Then I go sit.

As Buddhist practitioners, indeed, as citizens of planet Earth, we might wonder if there’s a better use of our time than sitting still in silence. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight? There are people to help and causes to champion, protests to organize and injustices to correct. Turning our backs and facing a wall sure looks like escaping reality and avoiding responsibility.

Formal practice—in a meditation hall, surrounded by a sangha—has long been criticized as socially disengaged, morally indifferent, and even selfish. Besides, as far as meditation goes, there are apps for that.

Whenever we’re confused about the point of our practice, it’s time to question our judgments and beliefs. We are taught to take refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, and many of us make vows to do so. But is there true refuge in our refuge, or are we just reciting words? Is practice our living reality or just an intellectual pastime? We must continually answer these questions for ourselves, or the buddhadharma dies.

Do I really believe in Buddha, the awakened mind that frees sentient beings from the suffering of samsara?

Do I really believe in Dharma, the path of practice that leads us out of egocentric delusion and into lives of clarity and compassion?

Do I really believe in Sangha, the harmony of oneness that underlies all things?

As taught in the Eightfold Path, the right view changes everything, because when we know that our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences, we live differently. Practice is the place where we can begin to see the truth of this, and each glimpse subtly transforms our lives and the world.

Changing the world is not likely to be our first intention in coming to a practice center. We might want to change a niggling little aspect of ourselves—be more productive, less distracted, less angry, or less anxious, for example. But a funny thing happens while we sit silently struggling with our runaway thoughts and emotions. What keeps us in place is the person sitting next to us. We don’t move because they don’t move. If we weren’t sitting in a group, we would probably walk out. The same is true for everyone else. We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather sitting, breathing, and living as one.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we chant, we broadcast the benefits of our practice throughout the universe. We know it works, because our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences. Little by little, our view widens beyond our own desires. What starts as a self-help project thus becomes the work of a bodhisattva: taking on the suffering of the world. That means we respond to the needs that appear in front of us. It doesn’t matter if our actions seem big or small, enough or not enough. We shouldn’t be fooled by what we think.

Practice is a marvelous vehicle—it goes everywhere and includes everything. It donates time and money, signs petitions, and joins marches. It visits the lonely and sits with the dying; it listens, smiles, laughs, and cries. It votes. Far from disengaged, a living practice is intimately engaged because it is you.

The never-ending greed and hate of samsara make the need for practice clear. Without you there is no Sangha, no Dharma, and no Buddha. As the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi said, our personal responsibility is so great that “naturally we sit down for a while.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

Your True Self is Selfless a new dharma talk

the urgent work of crying in the night

The Urgent Work of Crying in the Night dharma talk

finding heart

Through the process of sitting still and following your breath, you are connecting with your heart.

Luckily, one day I read this line in a book. It changed my life forever.

It was from a passage in Chögyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. At the time I found it, it was an odd and unlikely thing for me to read. I wasn’t religious; I possessed no spiritual inclinations and had no curiosity about deep things. I didn’t feel like a warrior and had no path. The book had simply fallen into my hands during a desperate time, the contours of which are not too different from today. My world had fallen apart, leaving my mind tormented and my spirit broken. Lonely, depressed, and despairing of fulfillment in either work or relationships, I was looking for something to keep me moving forward into the long shadows of uncertainty. I needed a reason to live.

Without knowing it, the thing I was looking for was my own heart. And here was a stranger telling me how to find it: be still and listen.

The sitting practice of meditation is the means to rediscover basic goodness, and beyond that, it is the means to awaken this genuine heart within yourself.

For all our self-involvement, most of us remain wholly unfamiliar with who and what we really are. Sure, we know well our stories of shame and inadequacy; self-pity, grievance and grudge; desire and attachment. We know our faults and failures. But we may remain blind to the pure marvel of our being, the mystery of breath, and the miracle of our bodies. We may not notice the constancy of the earth and sky that sustain this life, or the sun, water and food that nourish us. Indifferent to the basic goodness of what we already have, it’s not surprising that we feel the aching absence of what cannot be found or filled from outside. How can we see this for ourselves?

By simply letting yourself be, as you are, you develop genuine sympathy toward yourself.

People quibble about the various methods and benefits of meditation, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is the power of the posture itself. Sitting upright, anchored on the ground and supported by the spine, we embody dignity, self-discipline and personal responsibility. At the same time, we are soft, open and vulnerable. With face forward and chest open, we present a self that is undiminished and undefended, completely engaged with reality. We no longer feel the need to hide what we are or pose as something we aren’t. We accept ourselves. Amid worry and sadness, loss and pain, we awaken our own heart of compassion. Now we have something to live for: doing good.

You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.

It is a difficult time to believe in the promise of this ancient practice. Many of us confront circumstances more dire than at any other time in our lives: an entirely unknowable world. Expectations are fruitless. Hope may be pointless. A future once so blithely envisioned will never be. And yet, there is nothing more vital to humankind at this hour than human connection. It is a time for genuine fearlessness and the compassion that rises from it. This is the path of a bodhisattva, opening our eyes to a world in need, and seeing the infinite, ordinary ways we can care for others. This alone will heal us. This alone will last. And we can begin to do it today.

Photo by Sarah Ball on Unsplash

a grand view

One afternoon last week I went for a walk along Grand View Avenue. You can see the name spelled Grandview in some spots around here, but I think that’s just the careless fault of a human hand. Or maybe someone second-guessed the waste of an empty space and shoved the words together. I’m almost sure the intended name was Grand View because of its once-splendid view from the northernmost tip of our town near the top of the San Gabriel foothills.

These days, with the sky clean and bright, you can appreciate what the name promised a hundred and twenty years ago. If your homestead had been perched high enough, you could see over trees and rooftops to the vast stretch of flatlands to the south, then beyond a rim of short hills, and on a good day, all the way to the coast and the dark blue forever.

This day on Grand View was sunny and hot and I wasn’t alone on the street, although I felt invisible. People passed, some in close groups, none wearing a mask. Cars, once extinct, raced by. An SUV slowed its roll as it came to the intersection I was crossing, then whipped into a right-hand turn before I came too close to halt its motion. I get it: it’s killing us to stay home this long and like death to keep still. Aren’t we over all this? How much time can we lose?

I came across a dead squirrel on the sidewalk. I got the feeling I was the first to see it, stiffened not ten steps from someone’s front door. It was sad to come face-to-face with what we miss in our careless haste, what we overlook in our mad escape. I said a chant, which was all I could do for the lifeless squirrel and this restless world, stopped for a moment in the empty space on Grand View.

“All in a Good Day” a new dharma talk

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

majestic

“What is it like to live in a painting?” a guest once enthused about the view from my kitchen sink.

It’s not a painting. It’s life, and being life, it’s equal parts death.

So I recognize the shape that is too fleet to be seen, the finality that is too grim to grasp. It’s the heron! One of the reapers that cull our fish on flights north, then south again, two seasons a year.

Up close, herons are exquisitely beautiful. An audience with a heron can freeze you in the shock of good fortune. Only these visitors don’t come for a swim, and the good fortune doesn’t extend to the fish. Even for a Buddhist, it’s difficult to take this sort of outcome sitting down.

These days the heron is observing a stay-at-home order. May is typically two months past the migration north, but his stony gray stillness is perched over the pond in the early morning and late afternoons. I suppose there’s no reason for him to go anywhere, no hurry, with food stocked, and all the time in the world. The rules and routines are broken. For all of us.

People are awed by herons. They call them majestic. True. But they come here for only one reason.

So too the hawk I saw swoop across the yard last week. I heard a frenzy of songbirds before he made his elegant approach. Then no songbirds.

It’s hard to appreciate a predator’s appetite, his relentless power and precision killing.

But this is how it is. This is how it is.

Photo by Caroline Cameron on Unsplash

after the before

My mother’s first round of chemotherapy was successful, or so it seemed to us. She revived. Her hair sprouted. Her vigor returned and she went searching for something, anything that could restore what she could no longer conjure up: feeling like she did before. Before chemo? Before surgery? Before the c-word? Before carcinogens, cyclamates, hormone replacement therapy or second-hand smoke? Before the first cell made its disastrous detour toward mutation? She tried acupuncture, herbs, juices, vitamins, music, laughter, meditation and some of the internet remedies and rumors sent her way. I didn’t tell her there was no “before;” no place, no time, no single fixed point of certain health, certain safety or certain anything. I didn’t tell her because I, too, wanted her to find it.

When I went to Los Angeles to meditate with Maezumi Roshi for the first time it was, by coincidence, the weekend of my thirty-seventh birthday. I told him the occasion, but otherwise I was covering up a lot that weekend, or so I thought— my heartache, my loneliness, my endless longing and my fear at moving beyond. He gave me a handmade gift: a freshly inked calligraphy of the kanji Chinese characters for “spring” and “fall.”

“Would you like to see my inspiration,” he offered, and he pointed to a line of delicate print in a leatherbound volume:

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

— from Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood

***

This seems ever-more appropriate now, when we are so far beyond the beginning, and infinitely before the after. And so we wait in faith and pray.

“Faith, Prayer and Song” a new dharma talk.

Photo by Stella Tran on Unsplash

serve literally everyone

This is the door to the hospital. The ER is what faces the community. I grew up seeing that there was a need, and I wanted to be in the part of the hospital that serves literally everyone. — Dr. Yvette Calderon, chair of emergency medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, in The New Yorker

Each day I am inspired by the kindness that comes my way, and awed by the selfless service in places I hope to never be. So here I am, keeping the door open and sharing what I can: two new dharma talks on responding to this world of suffering.

An Abundance of Compassion, April 26
Time to Give, May 3

a way of life

Last night my daughter came in the front door carrying a foil-covered pan with a note taped to the top. It was from a neighbor. “Thank you for the lemons!” the note read, “Enjoy.” And we did. The lemon muffins were something else.

For a couple of days last week my husband placed a box of lemons from our tree on the sidewalk with an invitation: “Take some! Untouched by human hands.” I never saw anyone take one, but folks sure did, and when the box emptied, he’d fill it again.

I can’t remember the last time I borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbor, if you know what I mean. I can’t even remember the last time I knocked on a neighbor’s door. There’s a field army of delivery people who know all the names and addresses on every street in this country, but I’ve never met the family two doors down. The quarantine has awakened a spirit of neighborliness that had all but died around here. Before that, we were all so busy and bothered, lacking nothing, having plenty of everything on hand, and a Trader Joe’s right down the street, what did we need neighbors for? What was their name again? And are their kids grown up and gone already?

Some politicians are rationalizing the lifting of restrictions right now, saying it’s not just about saving lives but saving “the American way of life.” I don’t know what that way of life is, well, I do, but as I recall it wasn’t exactly alive. The American way was becoming ever-more mean, self-absorbed and greedy, not awake or aware, not humane or even human. It didn’t knock, it didn’t speak, it didn’t care, and it certainly didn’t go out of its way to trade a lowly lemon for a batch of the world’s best lemon muffins.

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

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