Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

Good dog

May 18th, 2008    -    11 Comments


The author and Zen teacher Lin Jensen wrote a book entitled “Bad Dog!” I haven’t read it although now I want to, since Lin let me read an advance copy of his forthcoming book, “Together Under One Roof.” You will want to run out and fetch that book too as soon as it’s out. You will want to want to run and fetch and sit and stay with everything Lin writes from now on, as I do, because I have a hint of what he writes about in “Bad Dog!”

And that is that there is no such thing as a Bad Dog. Mercy me, there is no such thing.

This is what I have been learning so vividly in my relatively brief yet eventful tenure as a dog owner, in my slightly longer stint as a mother, in my considerable experience as a wife, on the bumpy road as a daughter, and even in those storied stretches when I’ve been bad at any and all of those things.

If you’ve been traveling here with me for a spell you know that Molly, our dog, came to us from my father’s house, after his death, after all other recourses failed, on good authority that if not yet altogether bad, she was probably difficult, quirky, nervous, untrained and prone to peeing on the carpet. Including his last, humiliating debilitation, those were the very things we would have said about my Dad.

Molly is none of those things, or maybe all of those things, but we just can’t tell anymore. We can’t tell because she’s such a damn Good Dog.

Her goodness was revealed to me in little bits, like milkbones, until Molly went and had herself a bad accident in March. It was the kind of accident that turns your day and night inside out for a good long while, topples your every notion of what a dog could and should do (and what you’d like to do yourself), rattles all that loose and shakes it silly.

She ruptured her ACL, the ligament behind the knee, repairable by a fabulously expensive surgery. She spent four days in the hospital and then came home with a list of post-op instructions that knocked the last bit of sense out of me. She was to be completely confined in a crate for two months, hoisted for weeks via a sling when hauled out expectantly to pee and poop, noosed for 14 days in an Elizabethan collar (a gross misnomer for its indignity) and kept painfree. I look at this list now and it doesn’t seem outrageous enough. It doesn’t seem like the list that left me deranged. We are now six weeks into the stretch, she and I, six weeks when we’ve never been closer or more dependent, and I can only say that I’m smiling now, my eyes flooding with love and appreciation, because she is such a Good Dog.

I’m dedicating this week to Molly so I can show you all the tricks she’s teaching me.

So not the Zen I’m in

May 2nd, 2008    -    24 Comments

It’s not that Zen is holy, it’s that this gives you every reason to laugh out loud.Have a happy weekend!

Notes on a wildfire

May 1st, 2008    -    13 Comments


“Diligently practice the Way as though putting a fire out on top of your head.”

There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.

I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.

Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances.

This is what I learned:

The best fire prevention is fire. When an area burns fully it does not burn again. To extinguish the fire of ego, you must burn the concept of self completely. Then it does not re-ignite or flare up in trouble spots. Have no more inflaming thoughts of yourself: what you want, what you need, what you wish, what you think, what you feel, what you don’t have, what you don’t like, your dramas and intrigues, the world according to you. It is not enough to comprehend this, though. You actually have to burn the brush away, and let the fire rouse you from the bed you sleep in tonight.

A fire isn’t out until the roots are upended. When a mountain catches fire and the flames soar from a vertical surface, the battle begins from the air. Water and fire retardant are dropped over and over. It’s impressive. It buys time, but it doesn’t finish the job. To finish the job, they send in the ground crews. Foot solders, who scale the blackened slope with picks and shovels to turn up the smoldering roots. The roots of burned vegetation can hold a fire for months, I’m told, like the roots of ego attachment, ageless embers of ignorance and anger, all the delusive ways in which you hold fast to the idea of yourself.

Fire erupts from conditions, an inextricable set of causal conditions including heat, dryness, fuel and a spark. Unfavorable conditions sustain a fire, no matter how valiant the strategy. When conditions change, the wind turns, humidity climbs and the temperatures drop, the fire goes out. Like that, it goes out.

To practice the Way is to change the conditions of your personal suffering. Like that, it goes out.

***
Written in haste, while clear and fresh, and with apologies to those who have no interest in these matters.

Ingredients on hand

March 20th, 2008    -    19 Comments


Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

Time after time I’m refreshed by this obscure line from a nearly forgotten verse on a 7th century koan I studied long ago. When you first approach a Zen koan, through meditation, you can get lost in a labyrinth of intellectual incomprehension. Using what? Whose hand? Finishing what? The yard where? And then you might stop wondering for a second and the instructions surface, clear and direct. As clear as picking up a rake, for instance, or sweeping with a broom.

This is how life is. We always have at hand everything we need to finish up. We know how to do what needs to be done and we know when to quit too. It’s what we don’t need to do when we don’t need to do it that is so puzzling.

If I ever wrote a cookbook, this would be my sole instruction: Use what’s at hand. That stark brevity means, of course, that I could never write a cookbook. But I could make dinner out of limp celery and garbanzo beans, as someone once said.

Similarly inspired by the forlorn kale, spongy mushrooms, forgotten carrots, patient potatoes and canned tomatoes in my kitchen yesterday, I made ratatouille for dinner. Not that it was ratatouille from a book, mind you, but what I simply called ratatouille in a spark of who-me individuality and why-not invention. My daughter was so engaged by the prospect of dinner a la Remy that she instructed me to thin-slice the accompanying sausage and array it like “fallen dominoes” around the circumference of the mush. See? She knew.

We always have the ingredients on hand to finish what we already know how to do.

As I write this, by hand, the sun has just risen in the mists between the surf and the cliffs of Orange County, California. I followed a medical transport van here in the wee-hour darkness, a van that carried my sister. Last week, on the first of what was to be seven days of Colorado skiing, she broke her ankle and her wrist. Back home now, she’s doing what she knows to do using the help at hand. Today, surgery to re-set and secure the bones and hasten recovery.

The thought, the mere thought, of losing the use of one leg and one arm is paralyzing, isn’t it? But here she is, with a medical transport taxi to get her to and fro, a couple of good doctors, a home health attendant, and a sister in the waiting room. I would be here anyway. But now, by virtue of life’s passing, I am her next of kin, her domino.

It turns out none of us is paralyzed.

Today I write with my hand the words that you read. It is the writing that makes for reading and the reading for writing.

We all, each of us, come together where we are, as we are, to make one savory stew, one delectable taste, interdependent and whole. In the way my sister is grateful for me today, I am grateful for you. Together we make a meal.

Planet Lazarus

March 18th, 2008    -    16 Comments


Last weekend I sat in the middle of more than a dozen newcomers who participated in the Beginner’s Mind retreat at my Zen Center, and it was a remarkably powerful experience. Powerful because it always is. Remarkable because attracting more than a dozen people out of the drunken sunshine of a lazy LA Sunday to practice eight hours of silent self-discipline is a miracle. A miracle, I tell you.

Now it’s nothing much to boast about compared to what they’re calling America’s most popular church, the church of Be as Rich as God Wants You to Be.

And it’s a pittance compared to the self-styled gospel worshipped at the altar of Be as Rich as You Think You Should Be.

But it is a miracle in the plain and ordinary church that I frequent, the church where, invite as we might, many are called and stubbornly few ever choose to step even one foot inside, the church of Be.

Sitting there all day in this simmering brew of effort, willingness, endurance, open-mindedness and sincerity, sitting with strangers in a slow bake of solidarity and mutual encouragement, percolating in the intimacy and acceptance of a shared experience, I was overwhelmed with delight and gratitude. When it was over, we all left on weightless wings, sailing on gusts of freshness, into the lives we had, only eight hours earlier, been desperate to leave behind.

Truly, miraculously, we raise the dead.

Please come next time. There is always a next time, and there is always room for you.

Life is a box of Thin Mints

March 10th, 2008    -    21 Comments


You spend all your time waiting for it to arrive and then it’s gone in an instant.

It’s better when you consume it like there’s no tomorrow.

It weighs next to nothing but puts an extra five pounds on you each year.

They say it keeps in the freezer but no one keeps it there long enough to find out.

If you do have any part stored in your freezer you could well be judged criminally insane.

Even when you’ve had enough, you haven’t had enough.

On their deathbed, no one wishes they’d had any less.

Authored in my official capacity as Cookie Co-Chair for Brownie Troop 1242 where our motto is “Eat the Damn Things and Get it Over With,” a creed which I swear to uphold and uphold to swear.

The smile spread

February 29th, 2008    -    9 Comments


I thought I’d told it all, but yesterday when I was doing an all-day sit at the Hazy Moon, I remembered something. Without realizing it, I began this recollection on February 24, which would have been Maezumi Roshi’s 77th birthday. I decided to add this benediction, with a smile.

Coming softly down the carpeted stairs on the last morning of sesshin, she saw Roshi and his attendant having tea, the way they did every morning when she passed by. This time, Roshi asked her to join them. He introduced her.

She’s been having her own business for over 15 years, but she can’t be over 16 herself! He laughed at his own flattery.

Actually, today is my 37th birthday, she said.

Why would you want to spend it here? His smile spread.

I was hoping not to meet you, she said, letting the truth be playful for a change.

Then let me write you something. And come to see me before you leave.

After the morning sitting and the work period and the closing remarks, she came to see him, giddy to be finished and facing only the full blue sky of a return flight to Texas.

He sat in his study, behind a deep wooden desk made serious with the surrounding stacks of papers and books. Looking up, unshaven, he handed her a square flat package wrapped in sturdy rice paper. When she unwrapped it she saw that, to Roshi, writing meant calligraphy. The bold black strokes danced down an ivory bristol board.

Let me read it to you, he said as he came forward. Congratulations on the anniversary of your birth September 26, 1993. He pointed to two large characters stacked on the right side. Spring and fall.

Do you want to see my inspiration, he asked, pulling a leather bound volume from the bookshelf. He turned to a page, pointing at the last two lines.

She read to herself: No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall.

Do you know what it means? he quizzed. She shook her head no, but she knew without knowing. He had seen through her all along.

That would be 1956, then, the year you were born? He scratched his stubble and she nodded.

That was the year I came to America, he said.

They hugged then, a full familiar embrace, and she ran to catch the ride that would take her home.

***
Happy birthday, Roshi. Happy birthday, Everyone. It’s always a good day to be born.

Some other place entirely

February 28th, 2008    -    11 Comments


It seems like it’s over even before it begins:

Inside the dokusan room, she bowed again, a full bow to the floor, then lifted from the waist and stayed seated. Maezumi Roshi sat two feet away. She spoke as she’d been told, stating her name and her “practice,” which was counting her breath, although she didn’t really know how to do it, or whether she did it at all.

He spoke. Are you a teacher?

No, she wasn’t a teacher. She had her own business in Houston, Texas. A public relations business for more than fifteen years, although she was going to sell it and change her life and all of that. And all of that.

And you came to Zen by?

Not by her parents, and not her training, not anyone in particular, not that, no, no reason at all. By a book, she half-lied, ashamed that an endlessly broken heart could send her tumbling all this way.

He nodded and talked. Kept talking and saying things she would not remember or ever repeat, streams of words assuring, encouraging and appreciative and she felt her face hot and wet and knew that she had been crying for some time. He asked her to turn sideways and he lightly touched her shoulders so they lifted, and he showed her how to relax her neck and lower her chin in posture. He was slowing down now, winding it up. Do you have a question, he asked, in courteous dismissal.

Yes, she seized, aiming to do her best. When I get up right now do I do a standing bow or a full bow?

He tossed his head back and laughed and called her sweet, and she caught her breath at the sound of the nickname only one other had ever called her. Smartness alone isn’t as nice, he said. She stood and bowed and left the room, walked back to her seat in the zendo and sat down in the spot where she started, in some other place entirely.

***
You could also try this place, or this place, or even stay right here.

Wake up when you get here

February 27th, 2008    -    6 Comments


There’s still time to dive into the story because it’s just starting.

By 9 p.m. she was back in her upstairs room, the first night done. She had followed everyone else’s moves, a half-beat off, corrections whispered by well-meaning strangers. The sitting was easy and quick. She shuffled off with the other newcomers early for a lesson in eating “oryoki” style, using monk’s bowls with chopsticks and chanting, all choreographed in unison like a mealtime ballet. Come breakfast she would be lost.

It was a strange night in a strange place and she didn’t sleep, which wasn’t strange at all. Where oh where have I ended up? She wrapped her head in a pillow to fend off the all-night noise from the street below, and gradually sunk into the wide-eyed defeat that accompanied nearly every night’s tossing. Hours evaporated. She heard a gentle rap at her door. It was Roshi, calling her name to wake up for the dawn sitting period. He said the r in her name like an l. The clock said 3:30. She washed her face and dressed, went downstairs and out back and sat in her spot on her cushion in the dim light of the zendo.

The room filled to stillness, and the timekeeper struck the bell three times to begin the sitting. Before long, Roshi and his attendant rose and walked out, turning down a side hall to what she had been shown the night before as the “dokusan” room, where the teacher saw each student in a private interview, sometimes several times a day. This was the real stuff of Zen, she knew. The eyeball to eyeball encounter that revealed all. And this was the tight spot she still hoped to opt out of, unready to defend her feeble motivations for being here.

The attendant returned to the zendo and announced that the dokusan line was open for those attending their first sesshin. No mistake. This meant her. Right now. Her legs responded and she stood, picked up her cushion, and watched her bare feet move in autopilot across the parquet floor. This was how she found herself kneeling in a shadowy hall waiting to show herself to a Zen master. Against her better judgment. She craned her ears to listen for the next cue recollected from last night’s hasty lesson. From inside the interview room , Roshi rang a tiny bell, signaling her to enter. She stood, walked, stopped, bowed, went inside and closed the door behind her, guessing at the moves.

***
All week, and all because of the Beginner’s Retreat coming up on March 16.

Both feet

February 26th, 2008    -    9 Comments


From a story that seems like it began yesterday:

She followed her guide out the back door and into a shaded garden, where she could now see that this place, a collection of houses and apartment buildings painted pale yellow with blue trim, covered perhaps half a block. They walked across the yard to the far house, which she took to be the teacher’s.

They paused inside the door to remove their shoes and padded through the downstairs in stocking feet. In the living room the woman pulled up and did a little bow. There in a nubby upholstered armchair sat a little Japanese man, bald-headed and smiling. She fumbled at the bows and nods, invisibly, she hoped.

Hers was a large guest room with three twin beds. She was too early, and where she thought there would surely be something, something important to do, there was nothing to do but quiver and wait. Wait first for supper, then the first sitting period beginning at 7. This was what Zen Buddhists called a “sesshin,” or a meditation retreat. Four periods of seated meditation a day, two hours each, divided into 30-minute periods with walking meditation in between. Meals, services, work and rest in all the other hours. Starting at 4 in the morning and ending at 9 at night. She’d been warned that, even though this was a beginner’s retreat of only three days, it would be the hardest thing she’d ever done. These days, everything was hard for her. Eating was hard, sleeping was hard, speaking and making sense was hard. She laid down on one twin and listened to the street noise barge through the open windows: cars, buses, horns, shouting, the forlorn refrain of an ice cream truck. She was too afraid to cry.

Shortly before 7, she put on her loose black pants and t-shirt and went downstairs to walk over to the zendo, the meditation room. It wasn’t like a lecture hall. With just over 40 people sitting along the walls, she wouldn’t be overlooked, but she could still be inconspicuous, she thought.

Just outside the backdoor, she found Roshi, now in his black robes, standing with his attendant. They looked at her and smiled.

“Are you ready for me to torture you?,” Roshi kidded, the words softened by his accent and his laugh.

“I do that well enough myself already,” she joked, flush with the narrowness of her escape.

***
To be continued all this week or until I find out how the story ends.

Once paradise

February 24th, 2008    -    4 Comments

I’ll be leading another one-day beginner’s meditation retreat on Sunday, March 16 in Los Angeles. That reminds me of a story.

The taxi driver was lost. Not lost, but not where he expected to be. She sat silent in the back while he retraced the turns then stopped on a narrow street crowded with pastel apartment houses and faded cars. Airport fares didn’t come to this part of LA. She paid, grabbed her duffel and stepped out.

It was a raggedy neighborhood not far from downtown. Tiny bungalows perched off the curb behind chain link fences; noisy, messy lives on full view through open kitchen windows. Only if you looked up, straight up, at the palm trees swaying against the perfect sky, did you realize that this was once paradise.

She was unsteady after the big trip. And disappointed. A three-hour flight and she was standing on a painted porch without a soul in sight. The door was locked. She rang the buzzer and an intercom voice answered. Come in, the woman said, we’ve been expecting you. The automatic lock unlatched. She went inside.

She’d always mistrusted the mean little black pillow he sat on when he turned his back to meditate, mornings and nights. Once she had tried the pose beside him, only once and only to please. Follow your breath. Count to ten. She didn’t get it. It hurt and it was dull, almost impossible to do and who would want to? So when he chose it, day after day, a sacred routine, she tiptoed past, petrified that this strange seduction would drive them apart.

Much later, a slender red spine caught her eye on a night spent roaming what remained on the bookshelf. When she opened a page of the Chinese verse, the ache in her gut yawned wide and the words fell in. Dropped all the way down and echoed back again. She took her bed pillow and folded it into a high square and sat on it. First, for five minutes. The cool space that surrounded her seemed so significant that she wrote the date down in a book by her bedside: June 18, 1993.

She read more books and bought new ones. The man at the yoga studio said it’s called a zafu and it’s $36. She left work at lunch and bought her own hard black cushion. That night and almost every night after she sat and watched the wall, measuring the time and her intent. Why am I doing this? What am I hoping for? She remembered his reverential reference to a teacher in Los Angeles, one of the first and now one of the last. One day she dialed directory assistance and asked all the questions without, she thought, revealing her doubts. When the woman said they had a special training planned for September 24-26, she said yes send me the form because it coincided with her birthday and only just then she had begun to believe in magic.

She went upstairs to the office and was greeted by a kind-faced woman who handed her a schedule and keys. She nodded at all the instructions but couldn’t respond, taking in the cases of books and papers and mismatched furniture that filled the room. How nice you’ll be houseguesting with Roshi, she heard the woman say, and she squinted at the rarefied name of the teacher she’d hoped to avoid.

***
More to come. There’s always more to come.

Bookmark it

February 21st, 2008    -    16 Comments


Updated to note the first come, first served below:

Jena tagged me for the meme that I’ve seen a number of you do already. Like most exercises, it is useful. I am to take the book closest to me and open it to page 123, then go to the fifth sentence and quote the next three sentences, or some such. I’m not being too exact with these instructions because, well, I wasn’t too exact when I did this and you’ll see that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we do it at all, and the how just takes care of itself.

I honestly did reach for the book closest to me here at my desk. It is a book that sits, indeed lives, under my desk. A number of books live under my desk, because literally and figuratively, that’s where my writing grows out of: the underneath. A box of books I wrote sits under my desk. But the book closest isn’t one I wrote. It is a book that I endeavor to rewrite daily through my life itself. It is my muse and inspiration, “The Way of Everyday Life” by Maezumi Roshi. This happens to be a self-published publication from 1978. It is out of print. And because it has that circa-1978 zen spin, it doesn’t even have page numbers. So I turned to what I would like to think is page 123 and I scrolled down a bit and chose not three but four sentences:

Some people think that until they complete their practice and attain enlightenment, they can’t help other people. But such a time will never come, because practice is our life itself, and continues endlessly. So, according to the demands of each situation, we do our best. That’s our way.

We do our best. That’s not only our way, it’s the only way. We are always doing our best. When I see these words, so simple and clear, I want to weep for all the times that I have forgotten them.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and writing) lately. Because of these appetites and my deep belief in the beneficent and reciprocal power of circulation, I have books to pass on to you. This post gives me a way – the best way – to offer up some fine paperback reads for your taking, and this is the only kind of tagging I do. I will send any of these by very cheap, excruciatingly slow media mail service to anyone who claims a title by name in a comment. Then email me separately with your address. Please take only one so more can benefit. I enjoyed them all in their own original way. According each to its situation, they were the best. The one you choose will be the best for you. That is our way.

The books have been claimed by the following readers, many of whom pledge to pass their copies along in good faith, and whether they do or not it will be good enough. I am delighted to have heard from so many first-time commenters and I encourage you to keep coming so together we can keep going:

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton/The Conspirator
Handling Sin by Michael Malone/Mama Zen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel/Jennifer The Word Cellar
Oil by Upton Sinclair/Kathryn
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan/Someone Being Me
Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See/Kirsten Michelle
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Jena
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett/Backpacker Momma

Rinsing off the zen

February 6th, 2008    -    13 Comments


Some things said are not to be forgotten:

“Mommy, make your next book not about Zen. The whole idea of Zen is bogus.”

Pause here before you rush in to soothe my bruise; to bolster my case. There is no purer truth than what she uttered here. No finer precision, nothing clearer. If only I could do it, really do it, then I would earn my place as the dimwit ancestor of the wisest, choicest, sassy ass eight-year-old Master of the Milky Way.

You go, girl! Show me the back door straight out of bogus, as you always do. Truth is more beautiful than beauty treatments.

***

This is Not to Be Forgotten Week on the Road, where we share Some Things Said.

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