Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Are Feeling Very Sleepy....

During a brainstorming session about possible story ideas for the first issue of the Calistoga Tribune in 2010, I was trying to come up with creative angles on the whole New Year's topic. In the past, we have written stories about health clubs, asked local bigwigs for predictions, and stopped people on the street to ask what their resolutions were. After eight years, though, the annual events and holidays become harder and harder to tackle with a fresh mind.

Then I saw that we have two new regular advertisers in the newspaper: a hypnotist and an astrologer. Perfect! Here was a unique take on working on resolutions, and also something I knew nothing about. I hoped it would be interesting to me and to our readers.

And so, I interviewed Anthony Royce Barnacott of Kamalot Astrology and Donna Rodolph of Hypnosis for Change. Both were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and contagiously thrilled to talk to me. But there was a bonus that I wasn't expecting: both also offered me a free trial to get a taste of what they do.

Anthony is currently preparing my TimeLine, an astrological chart which will tell what is in store for me in 2010 based on my Dec. 26, 1962, 5:43 p.m. birthdate. It should arrive in the mail in the next day or two. So that is still to come.

Today, at 12:30 p.m., I was hypnotized by Donna. She specializes in helping people overcome problems, things like losing weight, stopping smoking, overcoming fears, reducing stress or managing pain. Although there were any number of things on that list I could have chosen, I selected the biggest obstacle in my life: food. I have struggled with eating disorders and weight gain and loss since I was a young teenager. I have periods of stability, then again go back into the cycle of destructive behaviors. Could hypnosis really work?

Well, we'll see. The session was surprisingly relaxing, and did not, as I thought it might, put me into an unconscious state. Instead, it was more like a deep attentiveness, with a complete absence of tension. Donna had me visualize what it would be like to be healthy and fit, and I had a strong image of myself as a runner, something I used to do, and have been considering taking up again.

I still feel a bit skeptical of the whole process. But despite that, hopeful. Maybe this really can help me rewire my brain, and establish new behaviors.

An interesting note to all of this was Donna's comment that she could not offer me any "satisfied customers" names for interviews, because when she was starting her still relatively new practice, most of her clients were Christians. As in fundamentalists. And, because of that, they were very guarded about their participation. Apparently there was some sense that a good Christian shouldn't be turning to something as potentially "spooky" as hypnosis for answers. I guess God was supposed to do it for them.

All of which made me reflect on my own spiritual practice. I didn't turn to hypnosis and astrology looking for answers - what I was really looking for was a story. But once I was there, it made me wonder a bit. How does all of this fit in with Zen?

I guess the good news is that it doesn't have to fit. There's enough room in my Zen, anyway, for everything....even the far out stuff. Because it's not a religion - it's a way of being present for life, no matter where each day takes me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Courage of a Patch-Robed Monk

It is easy, day to day, to feel that what I do, what I deal with, is so small in the grand scheme of things. When reading the newspaper and listening to the news, hearing of the wars, violence, turmoil of the world, my own struggles and concerns seem diminuitive, tiny. What does it mean to focus on personal growth and discovering my own true self, when there is so much pain and suffering in the world?

Joan Amaral gave a dharma talk at the Rohatsu Sesshin in which she quoted this passage from Dogen's "Eihei Koroku":

"Traveling the land without fearing the tiger is the courage of the hunter. Sailing the sea without fearing the deep sea dragon is the courage of the fisherman. Facing the sword drawn before you and seeing life as like death is the courage of the general. What is the courage of a patch-robed monk? Set out your cushions and sit; lay out your bowls and eat. Exhale through your nostrils, radiate light from your eyes. Do you know there is something which goes beyond? With vitality, eat lots of rice, and then use the toilet. Transcend your personal prediction of future buddhahood from Gautama."

There are different kinds of courage. In my heart, I know this to be true. The courage it has taken me to find peace with myself is just as great as that of the general or the hunter. Different, but equally valid.

Dogen tells us that simply by setting out our cushions and sitting, we can find transcendence. He honors that everyday courage of being alone with ourselves.

And, I do believe, that coming to the point where I can "radiate light from my eyes" will, eventually, change the world.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Under My Pillow

In ancient Japan, lady courtiers spent most of their lives indoors. During the Heian era, 794 to 1185, the beauty ideal was very fair skin, so staying out of the sun was common practice. The women spent their days composing love poems and letters to gentlemen, having them delivered, then eagerly awaiting the response. They also engaged in incense contests, and music and theater performances, as well as spending a great deal of time coordinating the colors and patterns of their many-layered robes.

In the main living space, women slept on the floor (as they still do in Japan). It was a large, open room, with few places to keep personal belongings. Each woman, however, had her own pillow - a shallow wood or ceramic block-shaped item, that contained in it a slender drawer. The doors became the repository for small personal things, like hair combs or love letters.

It was here also that the women kept their journals, small notebooks filled with their musings about life, poetry, notes on love. The journals came to be known as "pillow books" because of their most usual "secret" spot.

The most famous pillow book is the one by Sei Shonagon, written in the 990s, which has survived to this day. It is a fascinating look into life in Heian Japan, as well as being a masterpiece which can stand on its literary merits, separate from history.

I have always been intrigued with the idea of the pillow book, placing a personal record of thoughts underneath your head at night, pulling it out to record the day's entry.

During the Rohatsu Sesshin, those five days that we spent sitting in the zendo, it was similar to the great living room of these Japanese courtiers. Although we slept in a separate room, all of the rest of our day was spent side by side in the zendo, with our personal space limited to the zabuton and zafu that we were sitting on.

Much to my amusement, I realized at some point during the retreat that my zabuton had become a Heian "pillow" of sorts, with personal items stored not in a drawer, but simply tucked underneath. During the course of the sesshin, I stowed Nicorette lozenges, my clappers for the tea ceremony, my kokyo's chant book and daily schedule, gloves, a hat, tissue, a small notebook, a pen, and even extra "feminine products," not to mention the growing stack of support cushions on top of my zabuton.

It made me wonder what I would have found if I had gone around the room and flipped up all the cushions....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's My Birthday....

and I'm taking the night off!

More Zen-isms on the way tomorrow....

Happy birthday to me!

Friday, December 25, 2009

I received a holiday greeting from Tony Patchell that was simply too good not to share - so I am stealing it, and offering it up to all of you....

"Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2010, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country or is the only 'AMERICA' in the western hemisphere), and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical disability, religious faith, or sexual preference of the wishee."

And with to eat more cookies!

(Thanks, Tony!)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Then Came the Grinch

Two days before Christmas, and we were immersed in the Wednesday deadline at the newspaper, having eaten our fill of chocolates and cookies, when the phone rang. I happpened to miss it - I had stepped outside for a quick smoke. But when I sat down at my desk, I heard my boss Pat say, "Well, I guess I better go home and help Ramona deal with this." And she headed out the door.

After working together for nearly eight years, we all know each other (and each other's partners) pretty well. I was fairly confident that I knew what that tone in Pat's voice meant. "Are the dogs out again?" (Ramona, not being a huge dog fan, always calls for back-up when Grace and Skeeter pull a Houdini and disappear over the back fence.)

I was completely unprepared for Kim's reply: "No, she had to go home because someone stole their van."

What? Someone stole their Honda mini-van? Yep. It was gone. They had parked the van in their own driveway, which is on a quiet cul-de-sac in Calistoga. As is their frequent habit, after years of small-town living, they had left the keys sitting in the console, because Ramona needed to move it in the not-to-far-off future.

And someone had just come along, opened the door, inserted the keys, and driven off. Merry Christmas.

Although stunned to hear the news, part of me is surprised that this doesn't happen more often here. Having lived in large cities for much of my adult life, I am always amused by the low security standards of small town citizens. Almost no one in Calistoga locks their cars; many leave their keys in the console or under the floor mats. And at least weekly, I see an idling, empty car parked in front of the post office, its driver checking his P.O. box inside the building without wanting to bother with shutting the engine off.

I still lock my doors. And I clean out the car every time I arrive at my destination. If I must leave something in the car, valuable or not, I put it in the trunk, out of sight. In my old neighborhood in San Francisco, on 16th and Capp Street in the Mission, even leaving a single cigarette on the dashboard was an invitation for a break-in. Just like learning to walk the streets at night, making yourself an unattractive "customer" for thieves is part of urban survival.

Last summer Calistoga had a rash of car burglaries. People kept calling up the police station and saying, "Someone stole my designer purse (or my laptop, or my cell phone)." When asking for details, the police found that almost without exception, the items had been left in plain view in an unlocked car.

I wouldn't say anybody deserves what they get, but, come on, now! Maybe work a little bit at making it harder for the bad guys?

That said, I still feel pretty awful about poor Pat and Ramona. Because it's not the stolen van that they're broken up about. The rear of the car was loaded up with all of their camping equipment: old Girl Scout cookware, plastic plates made by their son and nieces and nephews, the air mattress they've been using for short, memories. That's what was stolen.

And what about the thief? Of course, the things in the van will mean nothing to him. The van itself might be simply a convenient solution to a temporary transportation problem, soon to be abandoned somewhere by the side of the road.

Theft is such a heartless act. Taking what is not yours - yes, it's wrong. But beyond that, look at the consequences for the victims: shattered trust, loss, anger, inconvenience, financial hardship, interrupted lives. For what? Easy money? A thrill? I would make a rotten criminal. The karmic burden would be so heavy I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning.

Keep your eyes out for a white Honda mini-van with a license plate frame that reads: "I'd rather be in Calistoga." She'd love to be home for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Suzuki-roshi, Bodhisattva

Tonight at the Healdsburg sangha, we held a Bodhisattva ceremony, commemorating those in our lives, living or dead, who have helped light the way, and alleviated our suffering and that of others.

People brought photographs and placed them on the altar. I chose to honor Sabrina, my wife, who inspires me continuously with her generosity, compassion, and open heartedness. Darlene Cohen echoed my sentiments by honoring her husband, Tony Patchell, especially for his words years ago that gave her the courage to continue practice when her own spirit was flagging.

Tony brought a beautiful black and white photograph (shown here) of Suzuki-roshi, the Japanese priest who came to the United States and founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and later Tassajara, the first monastic Zen community in the country. Darlene and Tony (and so all of us, their students) are in the lineage of Suzuki-roshi, and Tony brought his image so we would all remember that without this man, we would not be together on this night.

At the recent Rohatsu Sesshin, student Roland Brown gave his "Way-Seeking Mind" talk, telling us how he came to follow the Zen path. In that talk, he shared this quote from Suzuki-roshi:

“Without Way-Seeking Mind, enlightenment is meaningless. With Way-Seeking Mind, even failure is enlightenment.”

Leave it to the great teacher. Somehow, this charming Japanese priest found just the right words, time and again, to calm our worries, to give encouragement, to challenge our smugness, to push us to new discoveries. I never saw him with my own eyes, but feel privileged to be meeting many people who did know him, and can share stories.

For anyone who is interested, a wonderful biography of Suzuki-roshi is available by David Chadwick, entitled "Crooked Cucumber."

Buried Under Piles

Somehow, my life in the past month has spun out of control. Normally I am very neat and orderly. That's simply what makes me feel secure. When that neatness starts unraveling, it's a sure sign that I'm in overload, for one reason or another.

Right now, there are piles everywhere. The two baskets in my kitchen that I use to hold mail and other miscellaneous "to take care of" items are both overflowing. There are stacks of clothing on top of my dresser. My office is filled with precarious tilting mountains of paperwork, magazines, and notebooks, gradually encroaching upon the workable space. I have packages from UPS that haven't even been opened yet. My bookshelves, normally holding only the books that belong there, have miscellaneous items perched jauntily on all the edges.

The closet which holds all of those things that don't need to be out in the open is bursting at the seams. When I open the door to retrieve something, like Christmas wrapping paper, I am hard pressed to get the door closed again, because of the cascading chaos.

This state of affairs makes me uneasy and discombobulated. I take one look at the disorganized mess around me, and want to gnash my teeth and tear my hair.

When I was first living in Calistoga, I rented a room for a while in the home of a very sweet woman who happened to be the most disorganized person I had ever met. She had severe adult-onset Attention Deficit Disorder, which meant that it was nearly impossible for her to stay on task and get things done. As a result, the entire house was a labyrinth of piles - laundry, cooking utensils, books, etc. It was in marked contrast to my simple living space, which was sparsely furnished and neatly organized. She used to come to the door of my room and peer in, never even daring to step in. One day she said, "Your room is so Zen."

For many years, I moved constantly. I rarely lived anywhere longer than a year, and sometimes I moved two or three times in a single twelve month period. Because of that, my belongings were very minimal. I kept only what I actually needed, and traveled light.

Six years ago I met my partner Sabrina, and after we moved in together, into her house, that all started to shift. It began slowly. Initially, I continued to keep all of my things in a single room. But gradually, as I settled in, and felt more expansive, I began to move into other rooms of the house. Now, with the exception of Sabrina's office, I have "things" in every room, parts of me throughout our entire home.

It is a testament to the sense of security and "at home-ness" I feel that I have been able to transform my nomadic, pared-down lifestyle into this one of expansiveness.

So, it appears that allowing myself to be messy sometimes might actually be a sign of health and wellness. Perhaps it means that I feel safe enough to allow things to get crazy, knowing that they can again be brought back into alignment.

And it is, after all, only a few more days until time for New Year's resolutions. I can make an easy one right off the bat - I vow to clean up the piles.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Continuous Practice

The theme of our Rohatsu Sesshin this year was continuous practice. My understanding of this is learning to take our practice into every aspect of our lives, instead of separating zazen from all other activities.

A sesshin is an ideal place to do this, because the tight schedule and focus on silence and routine remove many of those distractions of our ordinary lives. It is much easier to be mindful at a meal when there is no conversation at the table, simply a keen awareness of the food on your plate, the tastes in your mouth, and the sounds of humans eating.

Staying in the moment is more challenging after the sesshin has ended, when you must return to jobs, chores, and family life.For me, the "to-do lists" very rapidly create a mindset of worrying about the future, instead of staying right here.

In a dharma talk that Darlene Cohen gave during the sesshin, she referred to this quote from Dogen:

"Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude. This means that you practice continuously, without wasting a single day of your life, without using it for your own sake. Why is it so? Your life is a fortunate outcome of the continuous practice of the past. You should express your gratitude immediately. "

— Zen Master Dogen quoted in Enlightenment Unfolds edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi

I love this quote. I love the idea of expressing gratitude by practice. Darlene also said, during that talk, that it was our task nor to become a "better" self, but to become more fully who we are. It seems to me that these two ideas are integrally connected. Learn and become my own true self; practice continually in order to show thankfulness for everything. Two steps both incrediby easy and incredibly hard to follow.

Every moment of every day that I can create space around myself, a gap between input and reaction, a slowing down of movement, I am moving closer to active zazen, continuous practice.

What do you do to bring practice into your daily life?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Upcoming Schedule, Dec. 22-31

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Dec. 22
7 p.m. sit, special Bodhisattva Ceremony

Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's) - CLOSED

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Dec. 26 (day after Christmas) - CLOSED

Thursday, Dec. 31 - (THERE IS A WAITING LIST FOR THIS EVENT. Sorry....all full.)
8:45 p.m. until after midnight, New Year's Eve Ceremony
(9:30 zazen, 10:05 kinhin, 10:15 zazen, 10:45 kinhin, 10:55 zazen, 11:30 kinhin, 11:30 zazen)
Includes Full Moon Ceremony (It's a blue moon!) and 108 rings of the densho bell.
At midnight, warm sake upstairs with potluck and festivities.

Keeping My Balance with Unknowing

By nature, I am a person strongly attached to certainties. I want to know what the rules are. I may not always follow them - I'm not afraid to go against the current. But if and when I do decide to set out on my own, I want to break the rules in full consciousness, so I can be ready for any potential consequences.

For all of you with many more years experience as Zen practitioners, I imagine you are already chuckling to yourselves, because you can see where this is going. Certainty? Zen? You're kidding, right?

I have been told that Zen has a long tradition of not providing all the information. When new students came to monasteries, they were not given a list of rules. They simply had to stumble along, being as observant as they could, trying to figure out what to do by watching others. When they blundered, a teacher or more senior student might yell at them to point out their mistake, but may very well not tell them what the correct action was, leaving that for the young student to figure out.

You can probably guess that this is not my most comfortable learning style. I detest being "caught out" wrong, particularly when I had no idea that I was doing anything incorrectly.

The recent sesshin was a great example of this. Though we had an extensive orientation before starting, it was impossible to cover all of the bases. And even with what we did cover, much of it was forgotten due to information overload. So throughout the five days, we were continually figuring out what was proper form, when to bow, how to acknowledge each other, etc.

As kokyo (chant leader), I was very focused on my role, and of course, aimed for a perfect performance of all aspects of the job. Shortly after the first time I used the clappers for afternoon tea, Joan Amaral (our doan) told me that I should strike them much more softly, like a kiss. She felt that by the end of a five day sesshin, the vigorous thwack I was giving would split everyone's head open. I practiced the new, quiet sound, and vowed to be perfect again. At our next meal, I used the clappers - this time, with a whispered kiss. After we were back in the zendo, Tony Patchell, the acting priest, came up to me and said, "Michelle, when you use the clappers, give them a great big resounding Japanese whack!"

Shortly thereafter, one of our dinners was late in the kitchen, so that all of us were milling about waiting to be served. I was standing near the front of the room (by the kitchen) and Tony and Darlene were in the back. The kitchen staff motioned that all was now ready; I turned and motioned to Tony. (We were in silence, remember.) He smiled, and waved me ahead, and I got into the food line. Afterward, one of the attending priests came up to me and said gently that no one should ever serve themselves or eat before the teachers. I felt completely chagrined. I honestly had only done it because Tony waved me ahead, but I didn't realize there was an absolute rule about "teachers first." Even worse, not knowing that, I suspected there might be a bunch of other things I didn't know, rules that I was about to break at any moment.

Later, after some stillness in zazen, I was able to find a sense of humor around the whole issue, which is always the first step towards change for me. I know (almost) nothing - and that's pretty funny, if I can just manage to steer myself away from over-zealous seriousness.

And maybe, just maybe, it will help me keep my balance.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Calling the Ancestors

(Sorry for the delay -- I fell asleep at the keyboard last night!)

At the Rohatsu Sesshin this last week, we of the Russian River Zendo chanted the names of our Buddhist ancestors for the first time as a sangha. These chants, intoned at daily services at Tassajara and many other zendos, go through the entire lineage of teachers, those who have brought us "the middle way."

The first chant begins with "Bibashi Butsu Daiosho Shiki Butsu Daiosho Bishafu Butsu Daiosho Kuruson Butsu Daiosho...." down through "Eihei Dogen Daiosho" and ending with "Shogaku Shunryu Daiosho" and then, with barely a breath in between, on to the women ancestors: "Acharya Mahapajapati Acharya Mitta Acharya Yasodhara..." until finally coming to the last name "Acharya Chiyono."

"Daiosho" is a Japanese term which means "great teacher," a title which follows the name, in the same way "Teacher Tanaka" would be rendered "Tanaka-sensei" or, directly translated, "Tanaka teacher." "Acharya" is a Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher, and it precedes the name.

We did the ancestor chants as part of our morning service, following the chanting of either the Metta Sutta (Loving Kindness Meditation) or Dogen's Fukanzazengi, which tells practitioners how to do zazen.

I served as kokyo (chant leader) for the sesshin. When preparing for that role, the instruction I was given was to bring my full energy to the task, not being afraid to use a full, resounding voice. Throughout the sesshin, I worked closely with Joan Amaral, who was serving as doan (bell ringer and timekeeper). Joan has a wealth of experience with the "forms" or rituals of Zen, including many years of monastic life at Tassajara. She helped me fine-tune my chanting skills over the five days, working on pronounciation of the Chinese names, over which I stumbled some, and assisting me in setting the pace and rhythm of the chants, particularly the ancestor chants.

Our first attempt at the ancestor chants was a little rough - great spirit, but pretty ragged. But thanks in large part to Joan's tutelage, I was able to step more firmly into my role as a leader, and as everyone in the zendo grew more familiar with the chants, we really rose to the occasion. By the final day, it literally felt as if we were calling each one of our ancestors into the room to sit with us.

Chanting kept me centered throughout the sesshin. I love the musicality, the repetition, the sounds of the bells. And I hear different aspects of each chant freshly each time, bringing my attention keenly in tune with one section one day, and another the next. Morning, noon, meal time, end of day - lifting our voices out into the mountain sky felt so celebratory. Serving as kokyo was such a delight, that I didn't want the week to end at all. I wanted to go home and lead chanting services in front of my altar every morning.

But most profound for all of us, as a sangha, was the chanting of the ancestors. I think each one of us experienced the connection to our past, from India to China to Japan to the United States, in a way that we had never fully realized it before.

All the way to Shunryu Suzuki-roshi....who will be the next name in the chant?

Thursday, December 17, 2009


During this past week's Rohatsu Sesshin (Buddha's enlightenment meditation period), I spent many of my "thinking" moments planning how I would write about everything I was experiencing. Now that I am home, and back in the everyday routine, I find the opposite is true - I am resisting sitting down to the keyboard, wanting to hold onto visuals and sensory perceptions without reducing them to words on the page.

The five days held an entire lifetime of emotion, sensation, pain, suffering, energy and joy, all flowing from one to the other. The routine was simple: we sat, we did kinhin (walking meditation), we ate, we chanted services, listened to dharma talks, and slept. Most of the day was spent in either zazen or kinhin. Zazen typically lasted 30 minutes, and the three long days had 14 separate sessions of zazen. That's a lot of time to be alone with yourself.

The first thing I noticed was heightened sensory awareness. The room we used as our zendo had flat industrial carpet, but over the center of the room, there were two large area rugs. As we did kinhin, I felt the plush, deep pile of the rug near my zabuton, followed by the thinner, more threadbare texture of the second rug, then the firm carpet. Each cycle around the room sent these sensations in through my feet and throughout my body.

The day was marked by the sounds of bells and clappers: the small bell to signal transition periods, the large deep toned bell used in service, the still bigger, bold bell calling us to sit first thing in the morning and after each meal, the clappers marking the beginnings and endings of meals and tea.

Added to these sounds were those of the elements. It was a wintery week, with mist, drizzle, and sometimes wild downpours and gusting winds. Sitting in the zendo and hearing the rain pummel the roof, and the wind buffet the windows, there was a connection to nature that felt profound and joyful. There was even one kinhin period outside where we got caught in a sudden torrent of water, drenching our clothes and faces. So the rain was not just a sound, but also a body sensation: cold, wet, clean.

And of course, there were all the gurgles and breaths and coughs of fellow practitioners in the zendo. Bodies spoke to each other; one person's stomach would rumble, and then the stomachs near by would call out a response. Even the sound of swallowing was perceptible, ricocheting around the room from one seated figure to the next.

The long sit periods held challenges for each of us, as we coaxed our uncooperative and gradually tiring bodies into yet one more session of zazen after each strike of the bell. What kept me going was the incredible example being set all around me, watching and feeling those in my sangha sit and sit and sit in stillness.

I found myself, of course, running after my thoughts during these quiet moments. I covered a lot of ground for someone sitting still on a zabuton. When I realized that I had once again gotten lost in my mind, I would silently chant a short passage from the Fukanzazengi: Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

During dharma talks, Darlene Cohen told us, as the days wore on, that we would begin feeling a building energy from all of this zazen. She called this energy piti, which is a Pali word meaning rapture, bliss or delight, the pleasurable quality in the mind generated during meditation. She urged us not to squander this piti by succumbing to the desire to talk to our bunkmates, but instead to plow it back into our practice, putting the giddiness and joy right back at the center of our sitting.

I did experience piti - unbidden, a growing, irrepressible joy built up over the five days. I also felt a very deep and strong connection, to my sangha, to myself, to the ancestors and to Buddhist tradition. I experienced a profound awakening, or more accurately, a series of awakenings, each one building upon the last.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "All human miseries come from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." That is the challenge we set for ourselves - come face to face with all of our imperfections, the wayward behavior of our wandering minds, the rollercoaster ride of our emotions - and through it all, sit, just sit, and sit some more, in a quiet room alone.

My life was changed. Perhaps that was true for each of us. Perhaps that change will ripple throughout the world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

High Energy

Last night I returned home from the five-day Rohatsu Sesshin, a meditation period celebrating Buddha's enlightenment.

Did you ever go away to summer camp when you were a kid? Do you remember how that one week somehow seemed like a lifetime? You start out kind of scared and alone, but you start doing fun activities, you meet new friends, you create things. By the end of the week, you're heartbroken to have to leave everyone behind, because they are all your best friends by now, and you have a vast shared history together.

Sesshin is kind of like that. I feel as if I could write an entire book about the experience. So much happened in such a short time.

I had to launch right into the work week today, and tomorrow will be my weekly deadline. Because of that, I will be brief for now. But I hope to explore more deeply and more minutely the wonder of sesshin over the coming week in this blog. I certainly have no shortage of material - I have dozens of notes jotted down already.

For now, just this - the sesshin brought to me a huge, sweeping feeling of energy. By the final day, despite the aches and pains in my body, and the lack of sleep from the tight schedule, I was actually more energized than I was on the first day.

Tony and Darlene and eight of us who were at the sesshin met tonight at our regular Tuesday sitting group in Healdsburg. Before the sesshin, I thought, oh, I'm going to be hard pressed to attend my sangha after the fatigue of those five days! But quite the opposite turned out to be true. The sesshin energy was evident in the room tonight. You could just feel that we all were still joined from the experience. Our service was particularly powerful, and everyone was practically giddy by the time we got to the dharma talk.

I feel like I could just keep going, and going, and going....

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Into Great Silence

It is nearly 2 a.m., and I am exhausted after a fifteen hour day at work. It was a good day, but longer than I was hoping it would be.

Tomorrow bright and early I will be leaving for Black Mountain Center for the five-day Rohatsu Sesshin. Rohatsu means "Dec. 8" and it refers to Buddha's enlightenment. The silent sitting period is in honor of that historic date.

I had hoped to be rested and ready - instead I have not yet packed, and I'm worn out. But, it will be what it will be! I'll try to sleep fast tonight.

I will be offline until Monday night, Dec. 14.

Until then!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Under the Bodhi Tree

Today, Dec. 8, is the day celebrated throughout the Buddhist world as the time when Buddha attained enlightenment. Priest Darlene Cohen shared the traditional story at the Healdsburg sangha.

A former prince, Siddhartha left home at age 29 on a spiritual quest. He spent the next six years in severe ascetic practice, frequently going without food, shelter, and comfort. But at the end of that time, although recognized as having attained a high spiritual level by others, he himself felt that the answer was still not realized.

So he seated himself under the Bodhi Tree and vowed not to move until he became enlightened. While sitting, he focused on the ultimate nature of all things, "emptiness." Emptiness does not mean nothingness. It means the absence of distinctions, and a clear vision of the complete interconnectedness of all things. This is what we do during zazen - letting each thought come up, and then letting it pass, continuing to sit while being aware of body and breath.

Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree for seven days. During that time, Devaputra-Mara (chief of the demons) conjured up fearful visions of falling rocks and mountains, and blazing fires. But Buddha's concentration was so great, that through his samadhi the rain of stones turned into flowers, and the fire became rainbow light. Next Mara went to enticement, sending countless beautiful women. He also tried to tempt Buddha into the trap of ego, thinking himself separate from and better than others. Buddha resisted all of this.

On the eighth morning, he looked up and saw the morning star twinkling on the horizon. In that moment, he experienced a deep and profound enlightenment. He saw there was a "middle way," lying between self-indulgence and self-denial. And he sensed the interconnectedness of all things,

The Dalai Lama said, paraphrasing, that at the heart of Buddhism lies the belief that the potential for enlightenment lies within each human being.

Buddha was merely a man. The way is as open to each one of us as it was to him.

Happy enlightenment day!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rethinking Bird Brains

Irene Pepperberg wrote a book about her life and work with an African grey parrot named Alex. The book is called "Alex & Me." Pepperberg trained and studied Alex for 30 years, looking into communication, language acquisition, and learning. (For more information, see Pepperberg's website, The Alex Foundation.)

She makes a compelling case for the complete rethinking, as she puts it, of the insult "bird brain." Alex had a wide-ranging vocabulary, could make new sentences out of the words at his command, and even showed evidence of being able to add numbers. He asked for what he wanted, and threw a lot of personality into the mix, breaking up boring repetition of exercises by innovative change-ups.

As an example, he was being asked to identify different colored wooden blocks, by yellow, red, green, and by three corner - triangle, or four corner - square. Irene was saying things like "How many yellow three corner?" And Alex would answer correctly, "Three." Etc. But he grew tired of the routine, and suddenly began answering, "Five." Five was not the correct answer to any of the questions. Finally, in exasperation, Irene said, "Okay, smarty pants. What is five?" To which Alex replied, "None." Irene was dumbfounded.

This remarkable demonstration of the concept of zero shatters many previously held assumptions about animal and bird intelligence. In this, as in so many other ways, Alex proved to have the intelligence of a three-year-old human, instead of a "bird brain."

The book is fascinating - but none of the results surprised me. Sabrina and I have an African grey named Barney (pictured here), and we are both well aware of the depth of intelligence and emotional awareness that he has. Dealing with him is like dealing with a willful toddler. He knows what he wants, and he'll let you know about it in no uncertain terms. He is a master at mimicry, but he does not just "parrot" words. He uses them at appropriate times - like when he scolds the dogs with a resounding "No!" because they have just knocked something over in the living room. He is interactive and inquisitive, and he even has a sense of humor.

Reading the works of scientists who study animals coming from this place of respect and willingness to learn (instead of those who use animals as lab specimens) always leaves me more devoutly a believer in the thin line that exists between humans and the other animals who inhabit this planet.

Atrocities are committed against human beings, generally, under the guise of belief systems which claim that the victims are somehow less than human. That is the basis of all war propaganda - reducing the enemy to a caricature, or to a demon. Just think of the ways we depicted the Japanese during World War II, or the ways the Germans were represented. And of course, similar propaganda measures were being used abroad at the same time. The slave-owning history of the United States was founded on a widespread belief that blacks were more like beasts than humans, that they did not feel pain, that they could not think or reason.

We commit atrocities against animals using the same fallacious mind set, establishing a hierarchy with humans on top as thinking, feeling creatures, and animals on the bottom as thoughtless, brutish beings incapable of feelings such as devotion or love or fear.

Work like Irene Pepperberg's blurs that distinction between "us" and "them." After reading "Alex & Me," it is impossible to imagine eating a parrot. However, most of us don't eat parrots. But what about other birds? What about chickens? How much can they think and feel?

Many of us have dogs or cats in our lives, and feel horrified when we hear of people in other cultures mistreating such animals, even using them as a food source. But again, why do we draw the line there? Are not bears and deer and raccons equally intelligent? And how far removed are they from pigs and cows and sheep?

For me, vegetarianism is one small thing I can do to honor my belief that animals are, after all, not that much different from humans. I know that there are people in the world who do not have the luxury of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, people who still hunt or raise animals for necessary food. But I can easily live without meat in my life in the Western world. It has been nearly 20 years since I gave it up, and not once have I regretted it. It makes me feel synchronized with my basic belief system, one in which animals are family, not other.

Upcoming Schedule, Dec. 8-12 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Dec. 8
7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen
(on Buddha's enlightenment)

Tuesday, Dec. 15
7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by sangha member Dennis

Tuesday, Dec. 22
7 p.m. sit, special Bodhisattva Ceremony

Upcoming Closures: Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year's)

Russian River Zendo:
Saturday, Dec. 12
closed for sesshin at Black Mountain Center (Dec. 10-14)

Saturday, Dec. 19
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:35 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Upcoming Closures: Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vowing Not to Steal

On Saturday in our precepts class, we discussed the second precept (no theft) as explained by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche.

At first glance, vowing not to steal sounds pretty straightforward, something fairly attainable. As long as you avoid grand theft auto and shoplifting, you're good to go, right?

Not according to Chogyam Rinpoche. As Tony Patchell puts it, the man must be a lawyer - his dense paragraph about the myriad ways in which one can commit larceny leaves no legal loophole. Everybody can be caught up by this precept.

The first line: "I commit myself to refrain from stealing my own opportunities for realization and squandering the proceeds in attempting to create more comfortable methods of remaining in samsara." Samsara is defined as the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. What a concept! That we seek to make ourselves more comfortable in our suffering - more money, better security, more things, excellent health - instead of coming face to face with the reality of the human condition, as it is. Choosing not to pursue the path of Buddha, choosing not to hear the truth of dharma, choosing not to work towards alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings - this is a theft, stealing from ourselves our opportunities for enlightenment.

And the next line is just as hefty: "I commit myself to the awareness that I cannot extricate myself from involvement in exploitation, social injustice, oppression and theft." We are all players in this drama - not one of us is free from implication in the dark forces of the world. This was a good line for me to read. The things I am most passionate about are issues of social injustice and oppression. In that fight, I fall easy prey to the tyranny of self-righteous anger. And then I help no one, especially not myself. There is never a clear role of victim/perpetrator. We all have a part in this. No good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats. Instead, a whole lot of grey.

Chogyam Rinpoche continues: "I recognize that it is impossible to be 'pure' and disconnected from the causes of loss, impoverishment and deprivation of other beings. Because of this I commit myself to making the attempt to deprive others as little as possible through my presence in the world. I recognize that simply to live is to have gained personal advantage from the disadvantage of countless others."

This part is important - he points out that although it is impossible to avoid causing loss, impossible to take nothing from anyone in the world, still we can make a vow. We can commit ourselves to depriving others "as little as possible." Every day we make purchases that can be traced back to exploitative labor practices and disastrous environmental policy. Every day we our wages, our food, our general affluence, is gained at the expense of others less fortunate on the planet. But what is crucial here is that we cannot despair in that knowledge. We still need to make the commitment, to vow each day as much as possible to minimize our negative impact, our plunder the treasures of the Earth. Every small step counts: the conscious choices at the grocery store, the reusable canvas bag, the boycotting of companies that employ child laborers in sweat shops, the adoption of a vegetarian diet, the sharing of our personal wealth and time with service organizations. Living as gently as possible is something that each of us can reach for each day.

Chogyam Rinpoche says, "I commit myself to generating kindness and generosity, by sharing my time, energy and resources with those who experience need." In other words, the second precept is not just about vowing not to steal. It is about committing to the reverse of stealing - promising to be open and magnanimous, giving from our hearts, our wallets, and our minds.

Quite a vow. And yet, all it takes is this action, in this moment, to begin.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How Can I Find the Words?

Thomas Merton, in the introduction to John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen, had this to say about Zen's nature:

"When we in the West speak of 'basic facts of existence' we tend immediately to conceive these facts as reducible to certain austere and foolproof propositions--logical statements that are guaranteed to have meaning because they are empirically verifiable. These are what Bertrand Russel called 'atomic facts.' Now for Zen it is inconceivable that the basic facts of existence should be able to be stated in any proposition however atomic. For Zen, from the moment fact is transferred to a statement it is falsified. One ceases to grasp the naked reality of experience, and one grasps a form of words instead....The whole aim of Zen is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing."

I am addicted to words. I am a writer; I think in letters. When I am trying to fall asleep at night, I unconsciously begin to visualize my thoughts as letters on a keyboard, typing out each sentence until I grow drowsy. At work, I write news articles and feature stories, movie reviews and columns. At home, I pen poems and essays, short stories and blog entries. My entire identity, the sum of me, seems to reside somewhere inside of that so-familiar alphabet. Without writing, I would be lost.

And then I find Zen. Zen, which says words are a mask, a veil. Zen, which presents me with koan riddles that make no more sense to me when answered than when they are first asked. Zen, a confusing, bewildering stream of thoughts which turn one back upon another, encircling, coming closer, closer...but to what?

As I sit down at the computer to write about Zen, I am stumped. How does one write about something that exists not only beyond words, but before words?

There is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in trying. Searching the Sonoma County Library's online catalogue reveals 399 books about Zen. When you turn to the mother lode,, typing in "Zen" reveals 170,444 hits - more than Islam (139,000), Judaism (112,000), or just plain Buddhism (82,000). The only major religion which has greater literary output in English is Christianity, with a whopping 425,000 entries.

But the other "isms" aren't Zen. They are not founded on "direct transmission outside of scriptures." In fact, the opposite is true - they have sacred books on which the entire religion is based.

So, once again, what about Zen? A philosophy/religion without words? And yet, of course, that is impossible. Without words, there would be no dharma, no teacher/student relationship. Words must be part of the equation - but how do we know when we have gone beyond "words as tools to communicate direct experience" to "words as subterfuge"?

As a passionate believer in poetry, I know that the proper words can illuminate something tired and familiar, restoring the object or idea to is original "it"-ness. Is that not true of Zen also? Can an entire lineage of Zen poets be wrong?

How can I find the words?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ninety-nine and Counting

December is birthday month for my partner Sabrina and me. She was born on Christmas day; I was born the day after. I finally met someone with a worse day for a birthday!

We are seven years apart. We were talking today, and noted that adding up our years, we'll be 101 this year -- and then that led to the realization that, as old as we seem to be getting, our combined age is just two years older than my grandmother, Gladys.

Gladys is a remarkable woman. She turned 99 in August, and she's still going strong. On Mondays, she volunteers at the Welfare League thrift shop in Santa Rosa, sorting purses and accessories. She is the historian for the Santa Rosa Garden Club, and an active member in Native Daughters of the Golden West. Once a month, she puts together layettes for needy mothers, which are then distributed from Santa Rosa Memorial. And she's a seamstress. She is still taking in sewing and alteration jobs, working on the fancy new machine she purchased a few years back. She does not wear glasses or use a hearing aid.

Gladys lives in a senior apartment complex, so her meals are provided for her. But she still does all of her own laundry, and basically takes care of herself. She loves to gamble, and makes frequent trips to River Rock Casino, as well as her yearly trip to Reno with Sabrina on a senior over-night bus trip. She is always game for anything, whether it's trying Indian food, going to a concert, or heading out to the Hall of Flowers at the Sonoma County Fair. In short, she is an inspiration.

Sometimes I simply marvel at what the world must look like through her eyes. She was born in 1910. Her first car was a 1932 Ford with a rumble seat. She worked in San Francisco in an era when you put on a hat and gloves to go to the city. Her only daughter, Alice, spent several years of her childhood in an iron lung, because of polio. So many things are new and miraculous to her: computers, cell phones, CDs. So many things are challenging to the standards she was brought up, like me, for once example, her tattooed granddaughter with a shaved head. Yet she has adapted to everything, continuing to embrace the world every day with a freshness and young-at-heart attitude.

As my own age keeps creeping up, ever closer to 50, I have moments when I feel incredibly old. And then I think of my grandmother, who has lived more than twice as long as I have, and shows no signs yet of stopping. It puts things into perspective.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Making Friends with Sadness

I'm stealing my title tonight from an article in the January 2010 issue of Shambhala Sun. Susan Piver wrote a piece called Making Friends with Heartbreak, talking about recovering from a breakup with her longtime boyfriend.

Heartbreak isn't my issue; it's sadness. I have a long history of clinical depression, which has been kept in check in recent years, for the most part, through a combination of helpful medications, hard work in therapy, meditation, and lots of personal soul searching. In July, my mood imbalances resurfaced in a big way, and I went through a med adjustment. I felt great for about six weeks, then crashed again. Another dosage change, another leveling out of emotion. But now the pendulum has swung down one more time, and I am beginning to feel scared and hopeless.

Part of what makes this so frightening for me is its familiarity - my "sadness," for lack of a better word, has led me to some very dark, very lonely places. Because I have spent the better part of the last six years in a more positive space, reentering that world of gloom is terrifying. It is difficult for me to think, "This is just one bad day; it will change." Instead, I go to that thought: "Here it is again. I'm in the pit, and this time I might not be able to climb back out."

Piver suggests offering the hand of friendship to the negative emotion, whether it is grief or sadness. Instead of trying to fix it, or make it go away, she encourages us to really sit with the emotion, feel it fully, and learn more about it.

She cautions: "This process is really, really hard, so you need to appreciate yourself and what you are going through."

Further on, she urges us to be gentle with ourselves, saying, "Gentleness means simply that you acknowledge and embrace your own experience from moment to moment, without judgment. Without trying to fix it. Without feeling ashamed of it...gentleness is actually an advanced form of bravery. You aren't afraid to take on your own suffering, even though you don't know how or when it will end; still, you agree to feel it. Somehow, this acceptance beings to calm things down. On its own timetable, gentleness begins to pacify even the most raging emotions. Gentleness is the spiritual warrior's most powerful weapon."

Agreeing to feel it - that's a tall order. But I like the allusion to gentleness being "the spiritual warrior's most powerful weapon." I like the idea of fighting, even if that fighting is actually a surrender. Because this surrender is active, not passive. It is a moving toward, not a stepping away.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Altars

Creating an altar for yourself is a beautiful part of the Buddhist practice. You can, of course, decide one day that you'd like an altar, and go out to purchase everything necessary. But what is far more satisfying is to let the altar evolve, so that each item on it has special meaning and relevance to you.

My altar is a collection of items on top of a square low table, one that I picked up at a garage sale. The minute I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted. It was the right height, and big enough that it could hold a wide collection of important artifacts.

At its center is a 16 inch tall wooden Buddha. I first saw one similar to it at a Indonesian dance performance in Santa Rosa. When I inquired, I was told they were sold at Gado Gado, an import store. There are numerous Buddha figures there, including the large wooden ones, with different mudras, or hand postures. The one I chose uses the mudra of reasoning.

Over the Buddha's arm hangs a mala, or string of wooden prayer beads, that I purchased at a temple in Kyoto when I lived there 16 years ago. I have a second mala sitting in a stone dish - this mala is from my wedding to Sabrina last summer, where we exchanged malas as well as wedding bands as we recited our vows. I also have candle holders that were used in our wedding.

There are several small flower vases that I use to hold buds. One is from my sister Ali. Another is from a Japanese friend. I also have a bamboo plant in a vase, near the back of the altar.

A second, smaller Buddha figure is a token from a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Tibetan singing bowl was an anniversary gift from Sabrina. The incense bowl I found online at Shoyeido, the Japanese incense store.

And one of my favorite items is a small, hand-made purple tea cup, roughly shaped with imperfect edges. I bought it at a small roadside teahouse in Korea in 1993. It epitomizes the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, beauty in the imperfect. It now holds my used matches.

When I sit down in front of my altar to light candles and incense, I am pulling together the energy of my wife, my sister, my friends. I am joining the places of Japan and Indonesia and Cambodia and Tibet. I am uniting aesthetics with spirituality, art with practice.

When I sit down, I feel like I have just come home.