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

 

it’s okay to be angry

It’s okay to be angry. Be totally angry. You don’t have to build it, bury it or chew it. Anger incinerates itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be sad. Be sad. You don’t have to drug it, drag it out or plumb it. Sadness subsumes itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be tired. Be nothing but tired. Fed up, over, out, done. You don’t have to fix it. Tiredness tires of itself, and it will end.

Be angry. Be sad. Be tired. Be as you are, not as you think you should be.

I bet you feel better already.

the covid improvisations

A month ago when the big one hit and the world shook loose, communities began to gather online. That’s when I started offering weekly zazen and dharma talks to the group of students around the country with whom I practice regularly. The talks are recorded and publicly available, but I am posting them here so you won’t have to go looking. Each talk is 20-30 minutes and informal, arising from the mood of the moment. They are arranged here chronologically, but you can play them in any order that strikes you. Just to pause for that long and listen could keep you afloat.

On my site, you’ll see embedded players below. If you receive my blog via email without the embedded players, the links to each talk are here:

Peace Is All That’s Left, March 29
We’re All Hermits Now, April 5
Beyond Stress & Anxiety, April 12
Breathing Makes Beautiful Sense, April 19

Above photo by Sam Wermut on Unsplash



the last outpost

I walked down to the post office again today. By again, I mean for the second day in a row. I’m partly motivated by my personal mission to save the postal service as the last outpost of our once-civil society. Yesterday I bought stamps; today I mailed a book. Yes, I wore a mask and gloves and kept a social distance. I could have driven, but walking matters. Walking can save the day.

Twenty years ago I moved here from a place where walking outside was not something you’d ever be able to write about. You just didn’t do it. You lived a kind of pneumatic existence, riding a blast of air conditioning from one enclosure to another, entirely avoiding the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Oh the humanity.

Once I got here I saw real live people unseal their windows and doors, step onto the sidewalks, and mosey about all day long in the wide-open air. At first, I thought less of these slow pokes: they clearly had nothing better to do. And then I learned that there was never anything better to do.

When a crying baby came I found out what a walk to the post office would accomplish: a miracle. Her upturned face warmed by the pure light of the sun, skin cooled by the soft caress of the wind, senses delighted by birdcalls and coos—a few blocks in her stroller would calm the baby and silence the cries. All was well that day and every day we made it down to the post office.

I had one child who outgrew the stroller a long time ago. Now she gets around by herself. But there’s another crying child, restless and fretful, who still lives here. When she’s tired and cranky, past her limits, worn out from worry, I take her out for another walk to the post office. As long as there’s a post office, I believe I can keep going.

***

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

what my mother taught me

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

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