leave no meaning

May 3rd, 2016


Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

— Dogen, “On Nondependence of Mind”

For a week I’ve had a thought every so often to write a blog post entitled “Leave No Trace.” Then the thought would disappear and I wouldn’t do it. When I sat down just now to write, I realized that I had not visited this site for twenty-eight days or written anything new for thirty-nine days. In the meantime, my site meter had stopped working. The traffic stats for this website thus appear as a vast empty stretch of tracelessness, as if a flock of birds could fly right through it. Something probably happened over the interval — a few visits here, a few there, two thousand spam comments — but nothing was recorded so I don’t know or even care. While I was so nobly intending to hold forth on the Dharma wisdom of “Leave No Trace,” the Dharma was expounding itself without me.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Your site meter can stop and it doesn’t mean you are dead. You can do nothing and everything still happens. You can leave no trace and you won’t fall into a void of extinction. But you might notice that you are a little less self-obsessed, a little less devoted to fame and popularity, less dependent on recognition and praise, less inclined to argue and blame. This is the subtle and profound wisdom of Zen instruction. You don’t lose anything when you leave no trace but the notion of your own ever-loving importance.

The Dharma is always expounded in the absence of self.

When I first began to attend Zen retreats, or sesshins, I’d see the short admonition posted throughout the retreat grounds. Leave No Trace was taped to the corner of the bathroom mirror, propped by the coffee pot, and hanging above the kitchen sink. It secretly pleased me because I thought it validated my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Wipe your feet! Clean up after yourself! Rinse your own cup! It does quite literally mean those things. But it also means much more. Leaving no trace is a practice that goes on well after you clean your shoes, brush your teeth, and wash a lifetime of coffee cups. No trace is aimed at getting rid of all the petty offenses, inconveniences, and problems in your life: namely, you. Or should I say, me.

Do I have a problem with you? That’s me.

Am I irritated? That’s me.

Do I feel unappreciated? That’s me.

Distracted? That’s me.

Disrespected or misunderstood? That’s me.

Do I feel the need to explain my personal history and point of view so that you can validate my experience? That’s me.

Am I angry at you? That’s me.

Am I struggling with things around me? That’s me.

Do I feel vulnerable, ashamed, defensive, unworthy, or victimized? That’s me.

Uninspired, resistant, and unsure? That’s me.

Do I feel like I leave a big blot of ugly trouble wherever I go? Every day.

Water birds are not dependent on a particular place. When they are on the ground, they function on the ground. On the water, they function on the water. In the sky, they function in the sky. They function perfectly and intuitively wherever they are, moving from one place to another by spontaneous instinct, never lost and never leaving a trace of where they’ve been.

What does it mean to “leave no trace?” It means leave no meaning.

This post was originally published as “The problem with you is me” on April 27, 2015, but then it disappeared. Isn’t that wonderful?

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  1. Reading this and weeping. Oh my goodness, dear one. I have been struggling with an issue the past couple weeks, and drafted a post for tomorrow’s blog about the struggle. I wasn’t sure I would post though. And then this. I’m pretty sure I read it a year ago, too, and it was equally helpful. And here it is again just when I need it most. This is really hard to do (as witnessed by the fact that it touched me a year ago and I am feeling angry and hurt again). But I feel less alone. We have all been hurt, “wronged”; nothing new in that. What do we do with it, that is the issue. Thank you.

    P.S. May I quote you in my blog? (Maybe it will up your stats. Hah!)

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — May 3, 2016 @ 7:29 am

  2. Yes of course, use it freely. When it comes right down to it, I am quoting you all the time in my blog, and you are quoting me, even and especially without meaning to.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 3, 2016 @ 7:32 am

  3. Oh, I recently looked for this post, and it was gone. How did you know to post this now, just when I needed to remember?
    Love you.

    Comment by Marcea Pugliese — May 3, 2016 @ 8:06 am

  4. Because somebody asked me, that’s why. See? There is one mind.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 3, 2016 @ 9:21 am

  5. I love that you said that.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — May 3, 2016 @ 11:40 am

  6. As my Mum and I begin the morbid task of recording what belongings her and my father would like each of us kids to have “down the road” (which feels a bit near lately), I’m shocked at how much stuff there is and how little the possession of any of it means to me.

    Taking a break to make coffee and read this post. Thank you Maezen.

    Comment by Nathan Hayes — May 3, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

  7. Yes, it is so wonderful. Thank you Maezen.

    Comment by Jane — May 3, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

  8. Your post was very moving and really struck a chord with me. I know I will read it many times in the future. Thank you.
    Kind wishes

    Comment by Wendy Gregory — May 3, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

  9. I love this so much. I know it will take several reads (or a lifetime or two) for it to sink in, but nonetheless, the truth of it makes me happy and thankful that you put it here. And the gorgeous writing is the icing on the cake with all of your lessons, dear Maezen. Thank you. XOXClare

    Comment by Clare — May 3, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

  10. Your piece, and the comment about choosing things from a parents home, made me think. After my mother passed away my brother and I cleared her home. We kept those few things which reminded us of home and childhood and the rest was either relegated to the garbage or the local church bazaar.

    Since then I have promised myself that I will not leave all that clearing to my daughters. So much accumulation of so much unnecessary stuff.

    And yet, such reluctance to get started.

    The trace I wish to leave is on the hearts and memories of my girls and the grandchildren.

    Time to start sorting!


    Comment by Jude Smith — May 4, 2016 @ 5:40 am

  11. Thank you, Maezen.

    I read your words and feel my mind shift, my heart shift, and then…usually, often, definitely today, your words leap and my mind just can’t follow. Sometimes my heart can.

    The problem is me, 100%. I get that, and get that it is also the case in this moment. But leave no meaning? Meaninglessness does not = peace. From what I’ve seen, when people don’t care about the meaning they leave, the meaningfulness of their thoughts or actions, pain is created.

    Help me see what I’m missing. I’m sure it is a quarter of that ever present moon, again.

    Comment by Deirdre — May 4, 2016 @ 8:42 am

  12. […] leave it swirling in my head. Then the day after the post from my sister blogger, a post came from Karen Maezen Miller, the Zen Buddhist priest I’ve often quoted, and who hasn’t posted for more than a […]

    Pingback by Searching for Grace | Daughter on Duty — May 4, 2016 @ 9:08 am

  13. Love this. Love you. Love it all. Does love leave a trace?

    Comment by Melissa — May 4, 2016 @ 11:52 am

  14. Selfless love, which is compassion, is as vast and empty as the sky. Never fear.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 4, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

  15. Thank-you for this post. As I connect further with my own spirituality, this is exactly how I feel. I won’t write for days, weeks because a still mind is peaceful. I am learning to transition creatively from an anxious, rapid fire mind to calmness. It is different, but real and in the moment.

    Comment by Tara Thompson-Chapman — May 5, 2016 @ 3:38 am

  16. Welcome back, old friend.

    Comment by Rich Lafferty (@mendel) — May 12, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

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