the ministry of presence

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

It can be unnerving to come across this verse, which is routinely chanted in Zen ceremonies when we take precepts, or vows, and as part of the monthly ritual of atonement called Fusatsu. Gone are the sweetness and light, the fairy dust and moonbeams that might first attract us to Buddhism. Things suddenly take a serious turn. Evil? But I’m a nice person. Karma? It wasn’t my fault! Ignorant? Who are you calling ignorant?

The verse is not a confession of sin or an admission of wrongdoing. It is a statement of responsibility. I can make my life whole, and only I can do it. In performing atonement, we acknowledge the suffering caused by our own ignorant view of ourselves as separate from the world we inhabit. Our ignorance of the truth gives rise to greed and anger. The verse serves the same purpose as all Zen chants, which is to transport us beyond the self-centered view that judges, blames, sets boundaries, destroys peace, and splinters the world into opposing sides — our egocentric mind. It affirms the aspect of ourselves that is eternally present, selfless, generous, patient, and compassionate — our Buddha mind.

The voice that speaks these words has the power to stop suffering in its tracks. It has the ability to instantly restore harmony simply by invoking it now. It is an awesome responsibility, but it only takes an instant.

New dharma talk: Love Without Ending
If you listen to the talk, you might also be interested in:
Richard Powers, novelist  
Julian of Norwich
Benedictine hospitality
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

moving on

 

All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction. A pivot toward one thing and away from another: the particulars in any situation don’t matter, because when the time comes we know the right way. Out of the darkness of anger and fear and into the light of day.

A new podcast: Trusting Your Journey and Embracing the Pivot

Photo by Tobias Hüske on Unsplash

 

the hidden power of helplessness

When we accept our own suffering, we accept all suffering. And when we accept all suffering, it is our own suffering. We allow ourselves to feel the pain, the fear, the horror, and yes, the helplessness.

Right now we can’t help but face what is happening in our world, and it’s not a world we recognize. It’s not the world we thought we were living in. How do we respond? What is our practice? And how does it help?

Simply enough, it starts here: a new dharma talk about the hidden power of helplessness.

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

how free is your free

There are two freedoms: the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; and the true, where he is free to do what he ought. — Charles Kingsley, 19th century Anglican priest

The other day I read about the guy who refused a life-saving kidney transplant because doctors told him he would have to get a COVID vaccine. You probably heard about this too. The vaccination requirement is not surprising, since transplant recipients have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives, making them acutely vulnerable to infections. Days before that, another man was taken off the list for a heart transplant because he wouldn’t take the vaccine.

These are stories you can hardly believe. But then again, they make perfect sense if you believe freedom means not doing what you don’t want to do.

The patient with failing kidneys explained his refusal, saying “I was born free, I’ll die free,” a little like the words of a war hero. But I would ask what he means by free. Even as he stakes his life on freedom from a certain vaccine, he likely already had them for the other 18 dangerous or deadly diseases Americans are routinely vaccinated for. He’s also undergone numerous heart surgeries, had both legs amputated and is hooked up to a dialysis machine three times weekly. On top of that, he’s already had COVID twice. So how free is his free?

That kind of freedom is not actual freedom, it’s just the idea of freedom. We are all free to think what we think, but acting on our our own ideas can be fatal—and not just to ourselves, as pandemics prove. Fiercely held ideas are what imprison you. Until you die. In a prison of your own making.

I do not want him to die, nor do I wish him ill. Still, his story makes a powerful point for the rest of us.

We should all take a long look at how we cherish our own ideas and opinions, not just about pandemics, politics, and people, but everything, because beliefs distort our reality. And that’s a problem.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. – George Bernard Shaw

In the first week of December, individuals who were unvaccinated were 97 times more likely to die from COVID than those who were vaccinated and boosted, according to data from 25 U.S. cities, states and territories.

I know someone who won’t get vaccinated, and when presented with the inconvenient truth that vaccines save lives, dismisses it smugly, saying “I’ve heard the talking points.”

But facts aren’t talking points, and neither is math. Talking points are what you hear from lying governors, anti-vax crackpots, rabid talk show hosts, pigheaded podcasters, and Fox News.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Last week someone asked me “What is the COVID vibe in California?”

I’m not sure I would recognize a vibe even if it hit me upside of the head. So I answered, “First off, this is California,” which is to say, by and large we don’t have a problem. But then, I only have my own experience to go by.

When they told us to stay home I stayed home and, all things considered, it wasn’t a problem. When they told us to wash our hands I (pretty much) washed my hands and it wasn’t a problem. When they told us we didn’t have to wear masks it wasn’t a problem; and when they later realized we did have to wear masks it was even less of a problem. Then when they told us to go outside without a mask but to wear a mask inside, I did! It wasn’t a problem. It’s still not a problem. And when the first vaccines came out, that sure as hell wasn’t a problem. Or the second. Or the third. Not a problem at all. Wear a mask in Walmart? Home Depot? On an airplane? You betcha. Show proof of vaccination? Happy to. Freedom is instantaneous the moment we accept things as they are, and not cling to how we wish them to be.

May all beings live free and save their dying for later.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

 

still here

Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison WI
April 28-May 1, 2022
Registration Open

Spring brings us back to the blooming prairies of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison WI with renewed gratitude for life. All levels of practitioners are welcome to a weekend of seated meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), chanting, Dharma talks and the opportunity to work privately with a teacher.  More information and registration here.

Photo by Amy Clark

something about the hair

I was in the waiting room at the dentist’s when the woman sitting across from me said, “I love your hair.”

This happens quite often. Of course, people who think otherwise aren’t likely to say so.

A few years ago a woman called to me from across the parking lot at Whole Foods. “I love your hair,” she shouted, and then she walked over to me to inspect it.

“I could never do that because I don’t have the right-shaped head,” she said.

That happens quite often too. In fact, I don’t think that anyone has ever said that they like my hair and hasn’t immediately followed with, “But I could never wear it that way.” Their head is too flat or their cheeks too round or their ears too long or some other disqualifier that is always held at the ready, like all our reasons why not.

I say thank you, although I don’t have much to do with my hair or how it got this way.

Still, I wonder what prompts the outburst. Is it out of kindness, shock or maybe pity? Compassion, curiosity, or discomfort? No, I don’t think so. I think it springs from a deeply held wish, a wish that I have too, a wish that unites us. The wish to be free from ourselves and all our reasons why not.

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

 

the accident that ended my life

Not long ago my husband and I watched the season finale of a British detective show. The chief detective is driving home from work late at night. She is exhausted, and on top of that, distracted about a disagreement she’s had with her aging father. As she is driving, she picks up her phone and calls him for the umpteenth time, but he is not answering her calls. She leaves a voicemail apologizing for the anguish she has caused.

Then she hangs up, runs a red light, gets hit and dies.

I turned to my husband and said, “That happened to me once.”

It was in the old days, in my old life, when I was driving back from a client meeting that had gone on way too long. I can’t remember what the meeting was about, but it was irritating. This was a good client, and by that I mean a big-name, well-paying client, but I had begun to see the lies and larceny in everything they did. It’s a sickening feeling to realize that you’ve devoted a good part of your life to a truly dastardly cause — your own greed.

This was before mobile phones, or at least what we think of as phones now. So when I was stopped at a red light, I picked up my “car phone,” a contraption the size of a shoebox and as heavy as a barbell, and called my office to say I was twenty minutes away from the appointment that I was already thirty minutes late for. I would never catch up. But then again, that was how I felt every day: behind.

I hung up the phone, and then, out of an unconscious impulse, pushed the accelerator, ripped through the red light, and plowed straight into an oncoming van.

No one died, no, not really. My BMW was totaled, and the beat-up van I hit was probably never driven again. Three guys got out and waved their arms at me as I sat numbly behind the wheel of the wreckage. They looked like they might be housepainters, construction workers, or odd-jobbers, like the van was uninsured, and that I’d just destroyed their everything. I probably did.

The police came, then a tow truck, and someone drove me home. The insurance company did its job, but things were never quite put back together again.

After that, my first marriage ended and I left my home with just the things I needed. I quit my job, went back and then quit it for good. I never again drove a BMW. I drove a Camry, then a Corolla. I was done with cars as status or accessory. I still don’t have a phone like the ones everyone else has. It must seem pretty silly. People keep telling me I can’t live without one. But you can live without a lot of things. I lost my reckless ambition in the accident, or at least my momentum. Someone died, and someone else came alive.

People sometimes ask me how I made such a big change all those years ago. But I didn’t make a change. I made a mistake, a terrible mistake, and it changed everything.

Offered in the spirit of fresh starts, second chances and, please Lord, better days.

Photo by mohsen ameri on Unsplash

 

 

we all fall down

Yesterday it rained. It rained all day, which is a major event in and of itself, a genuine freak of California weather. When it rains here in late fall and early winter, it doesn’t only rain drops. It rains leaves. The leaves—oh my goodness, yes—are ready to fall, needing only a plonk of water to let loose.

That’s how it feels these days: like we’re all ready to drop, quit, let go and fall apart. I spoke to someone this week who could do nothing but wipe her eyes and cry. She couldn’t say a word. Even when things are getting better they feel worse and going forward feels backward and when will it all be over?

And then I catch a glimpse of what I’ve always known about this time of year: it’s dark, it’s dank, wet, windy, and never-ending. There is no break, no rest, no peace, and no place to find. That is, until there is, only it’s not what we were looking for, not what we were wishing for, not better, not like before. We were looking for a place and time we remembered and what we got was a lean-to, a shack, a roof with a hole in it, a disaster of Biblical proportions.

We all suffer losses. Some lose what they love. And some lose what is better off gone. Either way, there are absences, hollows, and estrangements. Lines crossed, words said, luck run out, spirits broken, hearts bereft.

Before the new year comes, 400,000 leaves will drop from the sycamores in my backyard. (It’s a fact.) I always think: oh no, not again, not now, not me. But what will I do? I will love the trees, the leaves, and especially the rake. I will love the sky, the wind, the rain, and the pond scoop. I will love the fall and the fallen. I will love my life, which is yours too, and I will cry your tears.

the myth of the missing moon

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! I’m always right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Patience. Love. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you have everything already.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, unappreciated, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a $429 gourmet toaster with a red knob, a Sub Zero, and a Mercedes, make that a Tesla, piles and piles of shiny, meaningless, objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit, then filled a giant cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal. She stomped her feet and screamed, sent mean emails and angry subtweets. All of it made a mess, but nothing ever satisfied. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real; when we believe what isn’t rather than what is.

You are always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way. And until you do, you don’t.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

A cosmic gift for the season of giving.

Photo by Camille Cox on Unsplash

a few less thoughts on gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, it is the parent of all the others. — Cicero

It’s too hot, it’s too cold, and the passengers are attacking the flight attendants. It’s too wet, it’s too dry, and five million people have died. It’s the fires, liars, deniers, cheats, grifters and resisters. The fears and the worries (don’t get me started on the judges and juries.) Oh, the bother, the trouble, that sister, that brother! It’s too late, it’s all over, it’s goodbye. And now they say even pies are in short supply. How are you supposed to conjure gratitude out of all this bitterness, rage and bad attitude?

It’s pretty hard, but it’s pretty simple.

A few weeks ago I talked to my podcasting friends Lori and Stephen Saux about this very topical topic. Where does gratitude come from? Empty your head, open your eyes, and look around. Start to see, really see, what’s being offered to you right under your nose. It’s not what you think.

You can’t be charitable, you can’t be kind, and you can’t be genuinely loving unless you are first grateful for your life. But if you never see your life clearly — without anger, judgment or expectation — you will never know gratitude.

Thank you for not expecting more than this.

Listen to the podcast right here or right here: Practicing Gratitude Without Expectations 

Photo by Andrew Dunstan on Unsplash

life lessons in bubble wrap

It wasn’t long ago that I took a trip, my first trip in what seemed like forever. So I was out of practice, which made me nervous, and I forgot a number of important things along the way. That’s what this story is about.

Practically speaking, when you take a morning flight out of LAX you’ll have to leave home in the middle of the night to get to the airport on time. I left home in the middle of the night, and before I’d driven half a block I realized I’d left my computer power cord plugged into my bedroom wall. I kept going, though, since I didn’t believe a trip to LAX for a pre-dawn flight allowed for any U-turns.

You see, when you arrive at LAX at any time of the day or night these days you will immediately realize that you are not in proverbial Kansas anymore, and furthermore, you are not in any zip code, time zone or nation-state where you thought you lived. You are instead in a raging flow of people, sounds, languages, lights and chaos, a rough-and-tumble reality otherwise unseen, and one in which your only ambition is to mind your own business and keep going.

I landed in New York City later that day entirely intact except for my missing power cord. Crazed with doubt that they even made power cords for my obsolete eight-year-old laptop which no longer holds a charge or even closes all the way, my first stop was the Apple Store, where an utterly unruffled representative behind a pristine white counter swiped through a catalog on her handheld device and said three words that chimed like crystal to my stopped-up ears: We have it.

Four days later I left my Kindle on a side table in my daughter’s apartment, a sad fact realized mere moments into the trip to the Newark airport and a flight bound for the furthest regions upstate. I’ll send it, my daughter texted, and I eased back into the contoured seat of my ride.

Six days later I left two prescription bottles in the bathroom of a hotel room, a grave certainty grasped as I boarded an airport van for an all-day return trip home. We’re checking the room right now, I was told, my life now held in the hands of a reassuring front desk clerk back in Buffalo.

The Kindle arrived in a bubble mailer, double wrapped in another bubble mailer, on which my daughter had written her aim, For extra protection!

The prescriptions came encased in a weave of bubble wrap so impenetrable it could have contained the crown jewels and not my teensy thyroid and blood pressure pills.

I was overcome, really, at the repeated acts of such service and care, attention and concern. How thorough, how reliable, how very noble and good! And not just with my replaceable things, but with each irreplaceable other! We are going to have to count on people, I realized anew. We’re going to have to help each other. We’re going to have to give a damn, and not spend so much time being fed up and bothered. And we’ll probably have to step outside our cozy little bubble to learn it.

All this is to say, I love you.

what you don’t do

Life is full of difficulties: things that are hard for us to handle. Sometimes those things are difficult people, and sometimes those things are difficult circumstances, but what we have to see is where the difficulty comes from. As long as we think the problem lies outside of us, nothing changes. We can rail against a person or situation with our anger or blame, but then, who’s being difficult?

Buddha Dharma gives us a straightforward answer in the Ten Grave Precepts. Not to be confused with commandments, laws, rules or ethical boundaries, the precepts simply show us how we make things difficult, and how to make things less difficult by letting go of our egocentric views.

The precepts have been re-interpreted in different ways intending to make them more understandable or relevant to modern times. In my practice tradition, we still use the language that came from the first Chinese translations of the earliest Buddhist texts. That’s where we find a not-so subtle clue to disciplining our behavior and transforming difficulty into ease.

I vow to refrain from killing.
I vow to refrain from stealing.
I vow to refrain from unchaste behavior.
I vow to refrain from telling lies.
I vow to refrain from being ignorant.
I vow to refrain from talking about others faults or errors.
I vow to refrain from elevating myself and blaming others.
I vow to refrain from being stingy.
I vow to refrain from being angry.
I vow to refrain from speaking ill of the Three Treasures.

On first glance, we may not see the clue. After all, we tell ourselves, we don’t kill, steal or lie! We’re nice, not mean. We give money and old clothes to charity. And more than that, we’re right about most of the things that other people are wrong about.

But the clue is in none of those things. The clue is the word “refrain.” What we are vowing to refrain from is letting ourselves be controlled by the ego-driven “I” that wants to impose itself on others in self-centered ways. The practice of refraining is multi-dimensional and profound. It requires self-awareness, self-admission and self-control before taking action. And it makes a big difference. In the words of Dogen Zenji in The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, “refraining is not something that worldly people are apt to think of before concocting what they are going to do.” Pain and suffering result from actions taken by people who do not refrain.

There are no limits to the good that comes from what you don’t do.

This blossoming of strength will extend beyond all places, all worlds, all times, and all things. And the measuring of it will take “refraining” as its yardstick.

New dharma talk, “Refrain From All Evil Whatsoever”
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

all this and skinny jeans

Last week I talked to my friends Lori and Stephen Saux on their podcast, “If We Knew Then.”  We were talking about beginner’s mind, the mind that is free of expectations and judgments—the mind of now. At one point, I remembered this story from 10 years ago. Can we meet our lives right where they are? Can we meet our children as they are? Can we enter the next moment as it is? The answer is always yes, and it can turn your world upside down.

Some truths are self-evident. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Appearances don’t matter. You can’t tempt me with a mindless shopping spree. So it’s easy for me to say no when my 11-year-old daughter resumes a noxious whine for skinny jeans or a bazillionth pair of dimestore earrings. I’m not the mom who shops. I’m the mom with the $12 haircut, the 10-year-old sweater, in the same faded khakis you saw me wearing yesterday. I am the one with a half-empty closet, a near-empty wallet, and a brand of religious devotion that keeps them that way. I’m a Buddhist priest. I’m not the mom at the mall.

That changes one day as I’m driving her home from school.  Something surprising opens in me—a whim, a glimpse—and I turn onto the street I never take, into the asphalt sprawl of the local mall. The two of us are fairly airborne as we enter the cool cavern through the automatic doors and ride the escalator past the food court. Striding beside me on the concourse, my daughter narrows the subtle distance she has begun to keep from me in public. I notice her head tops my shoulder. Her face has narrowed, and her lips have grown full. She flashes me a comrade’s secret smile and reaches for my hand. “Mom,” she says, radiating her bliss, “I don’t think Dad gets this.” In one unexpected turn, I’ve entered the exuberance of her girlhood, a treasure too fleeting to resist.

It’s true, appearances don’t matter, and the skinny jeans won’t last, but I found something I’ll always cherish – the closeness of her company before she outgrows me for good.

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”  Shunryu Suzuki

Listen to the podcast here or here.
Photo by Double e on Unsplash

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