Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winning Millions, Needing Little

On Dec. 28 at Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, Dale Valentine hit the jackpot. He was on the slot machine for the state-wide California Megabucks – and he won $8.4 million.

Dale is a retired firefighter from San Leandro who owns a vacation home in Lake County, where he and his wife spend much of their time, and he’s been a regular customer at Twin Pine Casino over the past 15 years.

In the press release issued on Wednesday by the casino, Dale said he plans to put some money in the bank, make a large donation to Hospice, and to learn how to ride a Harley.

His wife said she would like a larger bathroom and a closet in their house.

When I read that last line, I laughed out loud. Mrs. Valentine didn’t say she wanted a fancy new house. She wasn’t looking for anything spectacular. Just a larger bathroom and a closet.

Oh, if we could all be satisfied by such simple desires!

The cynics out there are probably thinking that the Valentines will be changing their minds soon, finding more expansive ways to spend their millions. But I prefer to believe they are going to hold on to that home-spun goodness, that basic feeling of already having almost enough. If so, they may be among the lucky jackpot winners who actually have money in the bank 10 years down the road, instead of blowing it all on extravagant toys.

It’s New Year’s resolution time again, and I can never resist the urge to examine my life and set out goals, priorities, and aspirations for the coming calendar year. Even though I inevitably fail to live up to most of them, it is a deep-seeded tendency of mine – so much so that I do it throughout the year, not just on Jan. 1.

My main problem is that I make lists that are too long. I never choose just one thing. I want to exercise more, lose weight, stop smoking, practice the piano, brush up on my Japanese, write more regularly, meditate every morning, learn to be a better cook, send my work out to be published, put in more hours volunteering, spend more time with my grandmother, be a better listener, stop negative thinking . . . you can see where I might run into difficulties feeling successful.

But, regardless of past experience, year after year, I make these resolutions, and I draw up charts and diagrams and lists. I set up schedules, and try to follow them. For a few weeks, maybe even a month, I am as disciplined as a Marine. I cannot be swayed from the course. Inevitably, however, something jostles me, bumps me off track, and I gradually veer off into a staccato pattern of start-stop, start-stop, start – and then the final, gut-wrenching, slamming crash.

I am not, at heart, driven much by material goals. So the immediate analogy to the slot machine winner might not be apparent. Having $8.4 million would be nice – but only in that it would allow me 24 hours a day seven days a week to work on all of those other things I just mentioned.

The real connection, I think, is in the simplicity of the wishes given by Mrs. Valentine. She didn’t call out a laundry list of desires. She started with something small and attainable, something she knew would give her pleasure, but at the same time, was not grand in any way.

I have a quote from the Dalai Lama written on a large sheet of construction paper up on my home office wall. It says:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

What if, in 2011, instead of making a list of “Fifty Things I Need to Improve About Myself,” I decided to read that quote every morning? Because if I could focus on that one thing, I would feel better about myself, better about other people, and better about the world – which would make for a pretty good year.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Always Tony

A gentle nudge from one of my fellow sangha members sent me back to my last blog post, where I discovered that I had inadvertently misstated something.

In speaking of the dharma transmission process, I said that Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear will be carrying on Darlene Cohen's lineage, and leading Russian River Zendo. What I neglected to say is that Tony Patchell will continue to be the main priest at RRZ.

I can explain this egregious oversight quite simply: Tony is in my mind so continually, so constantly, that I sometimes forget I have to mention him. He is my dharma teacher, my "heart" teacher, the one I have connected to most strongly on this path. From the beginning, I knew he was the one who would guide me on this journey.

Over the past months, as we have all struggled with Darlene's progressive cancer, I have found myself grappling with how to provide support to Tony. He has given so much to me - now, it seems, it is time for me to give back to him. My basic urge is simply to be close to him. When our sangha meets, during dharma talks, I place my zafu next to his. It may sound silly - but that physical proximity seems one way of showing that I care. And since we are both e-mail junkies, we send messages back and forth regularly, just small notes of connection. Sometimes the notes are about what is going on. Sometimes they are about completely unrelated topics. Either way, they are a way to stay in touch.

Tony remains at the center of Russian River Zendo, with Darlene. And in Darlene's absence, it will be Tony who guides Sarita and Cynthia in their new roles.

And always, always, he remains my heart teacher. Even when I am not speaking his name.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Passing the Torch

Tomorrow our teacher Darlene Cohen begins a week-long dharma transmission ceremony with priests Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear. For those of you unfamiliar with this, dharma transmission is the step which transforms a priest into a teacher, giving her the right to pass on the lineage, and to have her own students.

Darlene has been in the hospital for the past week with pneumonia, brought on by her weakened condition from chemo and blood transfusions. She has returned home knowing that her time is short, yet determined to go ahead with this last step in her own role as head teacher.

There is a large support team gathered at the house, to cook, give massages, provide comfort, and help with the ceremony. Tony, Darlene's husband and our teacher, is of course the main source of strength and stability. But there are many people from Darlene's past, old friends from her years of Zen practice, who have come now to be with her. The house is also filled with flowers and cards from all of us in sangha who are with her in spirit, even though we cannot be there in person.

When Darlene is gone, Sarita and Cynthia have the task of carrying on her work, of leading Russian River Zendo and the Healdsburg sangha and the other groups Darlene has formed, of continuing the ties of the family of practitioners she has created. Both are wonderful women, who will make wonderful teachers. I know that both wish that their dharma transmission was taking place under different circumstances...but life is what it is. And there is no more powerful example for all of us to follow than that of Darlene herself.

I wish I could be there, to watch the process. Instead, I must wait in the background, like many of my fellow sangha members, sending good thoughts, and continuing my own practice. Living upright - that is my task, the best way that I can help. I trust that my opportunity to do more will arise, and that I will recognize it when it comes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hurtful Words

When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.

I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.

After Barney's death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: "Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery."

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing "nobody in town" line - as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.

All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman's rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child - Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.

But it made me wonder - why was I so easily unsettled by this woman's unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?

And I also wonder - what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn't mind the damage she causes along the way?

The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, "Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?" My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.

She never replied.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lives of Grace

In Tuesday night's dharma talk, we discussed the koan of Haykujo and the Fox, Case No. 2 from "The Gateless Gate."

The story is that whenever Master Hyakujo delivered a sermon, an old man was always there listening. Finally, he approached him, and asked who he was. The old man said he used to be a priest on that same mountain, also known as Master Hyakujo. But when a monk asked him, "Does a perfectly enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?" this man answered, "No." And then he was condemned to live as a fox for 500 lives.

The man asked Hyakujo to "say a turning word" on his behalf and release him from the body of the fox. The man again asked the question, and Hyakujo said, "The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured." And the man was deeply enlightened. He asked Hyakujo to perform priest's burial rituals for him - and Hyakujo took his monks behind the mountain, where they found the body of a fox, and performed priest's rituals for it.

The sense here is that those lives as a fox were a curse, a punishment, something which the old man was very ready to be rid of. And yet, when you read on in the accompanying text, you find these words. (All of the "Gateless Gate" koans have a "Mumon's Commentary" section following the actual "case.")

Mumon's commentary:
Not falling under the law of cause and effect - for what reason had he fallen into the state of a fox? The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured - for what reason has he been released from a fox's body? If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

So what I came away with, hearing and reading this koan and these words, was that we, all of us, at whatever degree of enlightenment we may find ourselves, are subject to the laws of karma, of cause and effect. There is no place of rest. I cannot hope to attain a level of equanimity in this realm that will put me beyond pain, fear, desire, hope, suffering. Some might throw up their hands in despair, and say that we are all condemned to live the lives of foxes.

But then I read that final line: If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

Five hundred lives of grace. Despite the hardship, the worry, the challenges. If I choose, this day, each day, I can live in grace. Even as a fox.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Upcoming Closure Dates at RRZ

Russian River Zendo will be closed the following dates:

Saturday, Nov. 27

Saturday, Dec. 11
Dharma Transmission

Saturday, Dec. 25

Saturday, Jan. 1
New Year's Day

Monday, November 22, 2010

Missing in Action

I have not attended my regular Tuesday night sangha for a month, and I feel lost at sea because of it.

It started because the first Tuesday of the month was election day, and I had duties at the newspaper. Then I caught a bad cold, and missed two weeks, both because I felt miserable, and because I couldn't risk being around our teacher Darlene Cohen, in her compromised state of health, with my nasty germs. And now, this week, when I was thinking I could finally go, I realized that once again I have to miss. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, our press deadline has been bumped from Wednesday night to Tuesday night, so I will be at the newspaper until late - I generally don't get done until midnight, so there is no way that I can show up for a 7 p.m. sitting.

In the meantime, Russian River Zendo has already moved forward on the first steps towards dharma transmission for priests Cynthia Kear and Sarita Tamayo, and will complete that ceremony by mid-December. People are cooking food to support Darlene and Tony as they struggle to cope with her worsening illness, and all the tasks that lie ahead of them. I am on the food preparation list, but we are progressing in alphabetic order, and with the last name of "Wing," I have not yet been called upon. I have written cards, and kept in touch via e-mail; but I feel woefully disconnected right at a time when I wish I was close at hand offering support.

Being sick, of course, didn't help. It was just a cold, but it was a doozy. We have no back-up staff at work, so no one can call in sick. I had to work, even on my worst days, which meant that I came home and crashed afterwards, and needed to conserve my energy in order to show up again the next day. It's been a while since I've been this ill. Finally, though, I have stopped coughing, and have regained most of my strength.

My routine has been shaken up, though. My blogging was nonexistent. My sitting practice fell by the wayside. We had pet crises at home in addition to deal with, and a number of other anxieties, and it simply felt like all my energy was scattered, going no where in particular.

Ironically, I had signed up at the start of the month for something called "NaNoWriMo," which is National Novel Writers Month. The idea is to try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. People all over the country (and the world) participate, logging their progress via a website. A friend talked me into giving it a try. I started off with a bang on Nov. 1 and 2, and then Barney got sick, the kitten got sick, I got sick... Sigh. So much for writing 1,600 words a day. I did, at least, come up with the premise for a novel, and make a start, and I am hoping to create my own private "NaNoWriMo" soon, maybe in December or January, when things have calmed down a bit.

Because that's something else that has dropped off. My writing has been neglected terribly. Somehow, the discipline of one thing reverberates through everything else. Sitting affects writing affects eating habits affects exercise. At least that's the way it works for me.

So I am in sore need of my sangha, of their support, their presence, their solidity. A month on my own is far too long.


My aunt, my mom's younger sister, spent her career teaching English as a second language at Stanford University. When she retired, she and her husband moved to Cloverdale. She decided to learn to paint - and immediately threw herself into classes, studying the masters, and within a few years, was exhibiting her work at the local arts alliance gallery. She is also a very active volunteer, tutoring at the high school, working with the Friends of the Library, and seemily involved in everything community-minded.

She has battled cancer for more than a decade, and yet despite chemo and constant health issues, she continues forward, moving her frail body always into new ventures, and always into the service of others.

Last month, she had a stroke, and was partially paralyzed on her right side. Fairly quickly, she began to regain mobility, but of course, it was still a tremendous and unexpected blow for someone only 66 years old. She had little movement of her right hand, and I kept thinking, "How unfair! Just when she has found such joy in her art!" She spent a week in the hospital, then came home to work on physical and occupational therapy.

This past week, I called her to see how she was doing. Although her speech is slower, and somewhat slurred, this is what she had to report. On election day, she had walked the eight blocks to the polls, and the eight blocks home again, unassisted. She may have to use a cane on rainy days for stability, but other than than, no more walker. The day before my phone call, she had completed her final days of physical and occupational therapy - and returned to her job tutoring at the high school.

She said her handwriting wasn't quite what she would like. She can print, but cannot write cursive. She doesn't have the fine motor skills she needs to paint. "But," she said cheerily, "I was thinking I'd try some printmaking anyway."

I am so struck by her incredible tenacity and strength of spirit. There is not an ounce of self-pity in her. She tackles each day as it comes, and moves as quickly as she cans towards healing and normalcy, refusing to be stopped by her limited body.

What an amazing example of will! May I prove as graceful if and when I face similar health challenges.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Losing a Friend

Our house is quieter today than it has been in a long time. There is no chirping, sweet voice in the background, calling out, "Hello?" whenever the phone rings. There is no scolding "No!" when the dogs misbehave. There are no happy little tunes, fragments of songs, accompanied by impromptu dance solos.

We lost our parrot, Barney, today. He was twenty-two years old, young in parrot years. Just Sunday, he was his cheerful, wonderful, mischievous self. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

Sunday afternoon, we noticed an odd little sac underneath his beak, that looked like it was filled with fluid. There are no avian vets available on nights and weekends. He seemed OK, so we waited until the next day. At our regular vet's on Monday, they checked him out and put him on antibiotics. Yes, there was some bacterial infection there. They didn't know what had caused it. An injury, perhaps? They sent us home with medicine, and we hoped for the best.

On Tuesday morning, Sabrina left early for work, at 4 a.m. When I was getting ready to leave at 9 a.m., I checked on him. He was clearly very weak. Our regular vet was not available. We arranged to meet another vet in Santa Rosa, and the two of us met up there at 11:30 a.m. By that point, Barney was dehydrated, frail, barely moving, unable to hold onto the perch. The vet guessed maybe a cat scratch was the culprit, since the bacteria from a cat's claw can be lethal to birds. They put him in an incubator, rehydrated him, started tube feeding and antibiotics, and told us it would be a couple of days before we would know anything.

At 4:30 p.m., we got the phone call that he was gone. Just like that. The worst part for both of us, I think, is that we weren't there with him. You have to understand. Barney is like a small human, a little person. He mimics the way we walk, apes our language, says, "Ahhhh," when we kiss each other. He loves to cuddle. He has a huge, Barney personality that has framed our whole household.

And now, we have an empty cage sitting in the corner of the living room. Every time I walk by it, I turn to look at him, to say something to him, out of habit, only to remember once again that he is not there.

He would have wanted to be held. He would have wanted to lie against Sabrina's chest, feeling the beat of her heart. He would have wanted to coo softly to us one last time.

Ah, the hurt of loss! The price of love.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Cheerfully Solemn Jiko

Susan's tenure as shuso or head student has ended, as we concluded the fall practice period last weekend with our three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and the shuso ceremony at Russian River Zendo.

Each time I participate in a sesshin, it seems I am faced with new challenges and experiences. This one was filled with a confusing mess of conflicting emotions. There were a large number of us, about 40 students. Many who came were grappling with their grief over our teacher Darlene Cohen's worsening health. As the reality of her weakness, and the specter of cancer, hung over the weekend, all of us were brought face to face with our own fears: What does this mean for our sangha? What does it mean for me, and my practice? How can we support each other through this difficult time?

In other sesshins, I have been buoyed by incredible lightness and energy. This time, I was exhausted. I found myself nodding during zazen periods. Twice I took advantage of the optional rest periods offered, choosing to walk in the woods rather than sit. My legs were aching; my body was heavy.

I was saved by my work assignment. On Saturday, I acted as jiko to Sarita Tamayo and Cynthia Kear, two priests who will soon receive dharma transmission from Darlene. They offered dokusan (private student interviews) throughout much of the day. As jiko, it was my job to quietly approach the student in the zendo who was next on the list, bowing, indicating that it was their time for dokusan. I then waited for them to come to the door, and led them to the separate building where Sarita and Cynthia were waiting.

I had never been jiko before. At first I felt vaguely guilty, as if I were cheating, because for most of the day on Saturday, I was unable to sit zazen with the rest of the students. I was too busy shepherding people back and forth to the dokusan rooms. But then I realized that this, too, is zazen - everything we do is zazen, if we can focus our attention properly. So I gave myself over to the task, and completed it as diligently as I could. I was going to say, just now, that I did it as cheerfully and as solemnly as I could. Then that sounded oxymoronic. How could it be both? But that is what it felt like - a practice with both cheerfulness and solemnity.

When it is time to receive a work assignment from one of my teachers, I have a tendency to want to keep doing the same job over and over again, because I like mastery. I am most comfortable knowing that I can do something without error, without hesitation. At first, I was annoyed that my teachers gave me new roles at each opportunity. It seemed inefficient, even haphazard. It has taken me some time to appreciate the teaching in this practice. For me, at least, the constant change is a push, a nudging. It means that each role remains fresh and new as I take it up, and I approach each one with a seriousness, an intensity, as I try to learn. But, at the same time, it has forced me to be light - because I make mistakes. I bobble, and take missteps. The best I can do is simply be cheerfully present, ready for a gentle correction from someone nearby. All of which is a wonderful lesson for a perfectionist with performance anxiety.

Ah, the wisdom of our teachers!

Thank you very much to Susan for being a guest on the blog for these past six weeks. It has been a pleasure reading your words.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: A Chance Encounter

I sit in a cafe working on a presentation for our Wednesday night class on foggy mind. On the table is a copy of Reb Anderson's book, Being Upright. A woman enters the cafe. She is silver haired, like me. She wears a t-shirt that advertises the Fiddlehead Cafe in Hancock, NH. The t-shirt is often-washed green. She sits at the next table with her back to me. When she gets up to leave, she turns my way. She looks at the book. It is clear to me that she is curious about it. I say, "This book is about the Zen precepts. It is about how to find freedom and liberation in practicing them. "Yes," she says shaking her finger. "They are not about commandments."

I ask her about the t-shirt. "My cousin gave it to me." she says. "I love wearing it because it reminds me of her. My cousin lives in New Hampshire." I say, "My son lives in Concord. I have spent a lot of time in that beautiful state over the years." We speak of leaves turning color and falling, yesterday's rain.

She turns to leave. Her silver hair streams down her back almost covering the Fiddlehead Cafe sign.

She points to the book again. "That bodhisattva vow is so difficult - vowing to bring others across." As she opens the cafe door, she turns and says, "Kindred spirits."

I smile.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding Compassion for Those Who Hate

I have always allowed myself to feel justified anger for unforgiveable acts - things like blatant acts of racism, or homophobia, or sexual violence. It has been a hard, bitter place in my heart, where there is no room for opening.

Talking with my teacher Tony about this, he gave me a challenge one day. He invited me to try to extend metta or compassion to the homophobe and the skinhead. I mulled it over for quite a while. I was willing to try, but I wasn't very convinced that I could be successful.

As long as I can remember, I have been plagued by nightmares. There are many recurring themes, lots of things that I have examined and probed. And sometimes the dreams cycle towards healing, taking me to new places. Then they go back into deep hurt and terror, like that proverbial onion, always peeling one more new layer of fear and pain.

Recently, though, I had a dream that gave me an experience that I had never had before: a moment of grace.

Here is the dream:

I am a teenager, sitting with another teen on top of a car near the entrance to an alley, which leads to a path that heads to a park of some sort. We are sitting and talking, when we hear a sound. We look up, and see a man walking down the main street. He is kicking rocks, ping, ping, ping, slamming them up against people’s cars. I call out, “Hey, that’s not too bright!”

He ignores me. He turns in at the alley. I know there are dogs that live at the house at the corner, and I have a bad feeling. I see him continue to kick rocks. He hits one of the dogs with a small rock, then gives a half-assed kick to one of the dogs, then a stronger kick to the other dog. I yell at him to stop, but he ignores me.

I jump off the car, and grab my cell phone. I am going to call the police and report him, so they can pick him up somewhere in the park, and arrest him for animal abuse. Then I see him approach a stray dog. He grabs it, and starts to beat the hell out of it, kicking it and hitting it, just going and going and going. The dog is cowering, not trying to fight back at all. I start screaming as loud as I can. I wake myself up screaming, “No! No! No!”

I am sitting straight up in bed with my arms stretched out in front of me. I get out of bed, and I am sick to my stomach with the feeling of that man, beating the dog. I am standing up, but lay my head down on the bed. Sabrina woke up when I screamed, and she reaches out to me.

For some reason, I remember a Pema Chodron CD I just listened to, about putting yourself in the shoes of a person doing a horrible act, and I think of what Tony asked me to do, loving the skinhead or homophobe. And right in that moment, standing upright, with my forehead touching the mattress, I allow myself to feel what that man must feel like inside, to want to beat the dog. I am filled with an incredible sadness. It sweeps through my entire body.

It is not forgiveness, exactly, that I found. The experience has not erased that hardness I have. But it did give me one tiny glimpse into the possibility of compassion, in a place where I least expected it.

Susan's Shusho Blog: Halloween Costume

Sometimes things just come together. How could it be that the right person, the right thing, the right place come together in a synchronicity that can't be explained or understood?

I need a costume for Halloween. I will be on retreat at Black Mountain Retreat Center in Cazadero. ( On Halloween Eve we will have a traditional segaki ceremony. This is the time when Buddhists unmask themselves. They approach the altar and call in their demons. The demons are recognized, invited in for tea, and asked to behave themselves until Halloween comes around again.

I want to be Kuan Yin. She is the archetype who hears the cries of the world. She is known for her boundless compassion. She has 10,000 arms and eyes to help her.

I know it is impossible to be literal but still, I can't imagine how I will create a costume that represents Kuan Yin.

I go to the Legacy. This is a shop near my home that sells recycled craft and sewing supplies. Proceeds from sales benefit the Sebastopol Senior Center.

I enter not knowing what I am looking for. I see a bolt of gold fabric. I don't know what I will do with it but I know it is exactly what I need. I give the volunteer sales person $3.00 for the fabric and I return home with it . I call my friend Peggy. “Help,” I say. “Can you help me be Kuan Yin for Halloween?”

She comes right over. She brings her sewing machine and a kimono pattern. She sews and I paint.

The back of the costume shows Kuan Yin riding a dragon. I paint eyes and hands on her sleeves and sash. My friend Corlene drops by. She shows me how to make a turban out of a piece of the gold fabric.

It takes many hands and eyes to make Kuan Yin come alive.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 26-31

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 26
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Friday, Oct. 29 - Sunday, Oct. 31
Sesshin at Black Mountain Center to end Fall Practice Period

Saturday, Oct. 30
RRZ Closed for sesshin

Sunday, Oct. 31
Practice Period participants reconvene at RRZ:
1 p.m. Work period
1 :30 p.m. Ceremony Rehearsal
3 p.m. Shuso Ceremony

Friday, October 22, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Be Kind to Animals

A girl scout is kind to animals. This vow springs to my mind as I hear Beata, a Buddhist priest and a good friend of mine, speak about her experience with animals on the roadway.

One time she stopped for a duck who was stranded on the median strip of a freeway. She managed to shepherd the duck to the side of the road amidst speeding cars and angry drivers.

“I probably wouldn't do that again,” she tells me. “It was truly dangerous, but there is something about cars and animals, dead or alive, that evokes a need in me to stop and care for them.” In Buddhist practice we speak of this need as an awakening of bodhichitta, the desire to love and be present for all beings.

This morning on the way to Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, Beata sees a dead deer in the middle of the road. Because she is driving with a friend she doesn't want to inconvenience, she chooses not to stop and move the animal to the side of the road.

She says she is in a lot of pain. She wishes she could go back and move the deer out of the way of oncoming traffic. For years she has always stopped to help animals in distress. This time she didn't' stop. But she did renew her vow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Anger

Last night our precepts class was about anger or not harboring ill will. There are those in the Buddhist community who believe it is possible to abolish anger and all the other defilements.

In Mahayana Buddhism we believe that growth lies in getting into the thick of things. Let the branches of the thicket cut and scratch until you are willing to let go.

Even with awakening, there is always more to do.

I told a story about being part of a practice period at Green Gulch Farm in 1998. I was in kindergarten Zen. I felt overwhelmed by the schedule. I was confused about where to be when. I had difficulty keeping track of chants and vows. I did know, however, when my toes were stepped on. I could recognize anger in myself, but I didn't know what to do with it.

I have volunteered to do a job. It was something mundane and seemingly unimportant, like passing out questionnaires. When I notice a young man passing them out without consulting me I am furious. “That is my job,” my inner voice yells. What do you do with fury when you are on a silent retreat?

I go to the practice leader, Reb Anderson. He tells me to go sit on my cushion until the anger burns up. Last night I tell this story. I also tell people about the ring of fire Reb describes in the book Being Upright. “There is pain around every Buddhist's meditaton seat,” he tells us . . . “It forms a ring of fire."

Around the inner ring is an outer ring of fire composed of anger . . . aggression . . . hate . . . ill will and violence. It is the outer ring of defenses that needs to be broken through in order to see the pain within.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: I Meet a Neighbor

I am on my way down the path to my car. A woman comes toward me. “I am your neighbor,” she says. “Oh,” I say, “I wonder why we haven't met before.”

She tells me she lives in the trailer park behind our property. My home is separated from hers by a field and a fence that is covered by blackberry bushes. Robert Frost said: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Fences also shield us from one another. They keep us apart.

The woman's name is Marilyn. She is on a mission. She has been adopted by a Persian cat and she wants to find the owner. She tells me she learned to move a photo of the cat from IPhoto to document to email. She is a woman of late middle age (or early old age, depending upon how you look at it). She is my age, an aging woman. She is alive, vibrant, and engaged with the world.

Marilyn loves animals. She is also a master gardener. We talk about plants. She wants to divide her phlox and her penstemen and she wants to give me some of them.

Her neighbor is an elderly man who is often depressed. She tells me he would love to have some of my canna lilies, should I be willing to divide them.

I say, “Of course, I will give him some.” I will divide the cannas, walk up my street to the highway, go a block or so south, go east through a construction zone to the trailer park road. I will continue on the road until I find her place.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: The Cider House Rules

I like to pick up films at the video store that are adaptations of books I have been meaning to read. Last night I chose The Cider House Rules which was made from a novel by John Irving. I think it was written in the '50s. I say that because I am curious about the values it presents. . . Where do these values come from and were they acceptable at the time? It raises questions about lying. Is it acceptable to lie when the lie can lead to a greater good? Do we lie to protect the feelings of self and other and do we get to decide when another person needs protection from the truth?

I am reflecting back to the 1950's when I was a young adult, married with young children. I remember being a part of a “don't tell” culture. Often people were not told, even by their doctors, that they had cancer or that they had only a few months to live. I had a friend who became ill with Huntington's Chorea. She didn't want anyone to visit her. She didn't want to discuss it. This was a more painful time than it might have been if her illness could have been out in the open.

I think of this history while I watch The Cider House Rules. Rules are pasted on the door of the cider house where the workers live. They decide the rules are not for them because someone else made them. They tear them down. Who makes the rules and who gets to decide whether they are followed or not?

The story begins in an orphanage in Maine where the doctor/administrator performs illegal abortions for the health and well being of the mother. The morality of his actions are not considered.

The same administrator falsifies documents so that a protegee of his can succeed him after he retires.

One of the orphans dies because of breathing complications. The children are told he has been adopted by a good family.

One of the precepts we are studying in our Russian River Zendo practice period is Not Lying. The cider house rules are an entry point for further discussion.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Grief

Today I will blog about the grief I feel. This grief bubbled out of the depths somewhere hiding but felt. Today it wanted out and I began the morning by working in my small sketchbook collaging images and painting watery figures bent over like willow branches weighted down by days of rain.

I experience layers of grief. Grief is never about one thing, one person, one path of suffering. It is many layered. There are layers I can't know. Layers that will never be uncovered. Layers that want attention and layers that want to lie low .

Sometimes, in the midst of joy, grief lies in wait. It knows that we are about to lose something precious and beautiful. It anticipates the change we know is coming. Grief invites us to feel and face our losses. It can bring us fully into the moment if we let it.

Yesterday there was a celebration at Russian River Zendo. Our teachers, Darlene Cohen and Tony Patchell were presented with ceremonial robes that had been hand sewn by many people from several different groups. After a brief and beautiful ceremony about fifty of us saw Tony and Darlene wrapped in shades of lavender and maroon.

During a pause in the rain we enjoy layers of chocolate layer cake on the patio. The cake has been decorated with two monks wrapped in robes of lavender and maroon.

All is as it should be. We know that soon we will lose Darlene to cancer. This is part of what is. This is what brings grief up for me this morning. Soon I will lose Darlene. I will lose all I hold dear. It is the human condition. This knowing is basic to Buddhist practice.

There is suffering in life and there is a way through and out of suffering. I move, I cry, I sit, I laugh, I breathe, I play in my sketchbook. I try to be present with all of it; moment by moment.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Coffee

Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. coffee is offered for $1.00 a cup at the roaster's shop at the top of my street. The price is enough incentive for me to throw on my clothes, stride up the street, and take my chances on the 116 crosswalk.

This shop opened a day before Starbucks came to town. It is located in the next clump of shops. It is sandwiched in between a dry cleaner and a laundromat.

The young people who own it have created an outdoor sitting area out of wine barrels and ropes. I admire their spunk. How many people would have the temerity to open a coffee shop next to Starbucks?

I am a coffee hound. I admit it. During the day I have a hard time going by a coffee shop without going in and ordering a latte. I say give in because I am truly trying not to drink so much coffee. I know that one cup a day should be enough.

Yesterday I was brought up short. I go to Whole Foods to pick up flowers for Russian River Zendo. I think I will order my favorite coffee drink. “We don't make Jamoca's anymore,” the young woman tells me. “The ingredients in them are not consistent with our policy of offering only healthy, nutritious drinks.”

I take this news personally. Clearly this woman thinks I do not eat properly. She sees through me into my fridge and my pantry. She must know that I don't always buy organic food.

I drive away feeling shamed, angry and deprived.

I think I will figure out how to make the coffee drink in my home blender. Then I realize that the allure of the 4 p.m. Jamoca is that even though I pay for it, it feels as if someone else is treating.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Checking In

Hello, readers.

I've been a bit absent for a while, and just wanted to check in. I must admit, with Susan's regular posts, I've grown a little lazy...every morning, she has an entry sitting in my inbox, ready to go, and all I have to do is put it up on the blog. I have been rationalizing that at least there is plenty of activity....but the truth is, I've simply been caught up in my own whirlwind, and slacking.

I have been enjoying Susan's posts, and hope you have been, too. They are refreshingly simple, and often heartbreakingly honest. I encourage you to make comments, if and when you have the time. She'd love to hear from you.

It has been nearly a month, and our three-day sesshin, which marks the end of Susan's practice period as shuso (head student) is only two weeks away. We will be journeying to Black Mountain Center near Cazadero, a quiet, redwood retreat high above it all, to sit and settle into the stillness.

It will be a huge departure after my crazy October. My YWCA events, the series of author readings for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, are in full swing. We had our first event last Friday in Sebastopol, and it was a perfect evening - about 30 people in attendance, the writers all read well, the audience was appreciative, the words were powerful. It was even more than I had hoped for. Tomorrow night our second event takes place in Santa Rosa, and our third and final event happens next Friday in Cloverdale. I am still frantically composing my own pieces for that event - I have written one poem, but hope to pen two more.

I have never done event planning before, so the whole thing has been a huge learning experience for me. There have been so many little details: readers with special requests, event venues with quirky rules, etc., etc. But all in all, it has been truly a wonderful team effort, and very satisfying to feel part of something that matters.

My work schedule has continued unabated, with the last two weeks having deadline nights lasting until almost 3 a.m., and no end in sight for that, due to our reduced staff. I have vacation hours on the books, but no one to fill in should I actually take a day off. Still, once again, I am grateful to have a job, enjoying the work, and feel part of a team.

That team thing - kind of a theme, isn't it? It's amazing how much one can withstand when one doesn't feel like one is doing everything all alone.

Which brings me to perhaps the hardest part of my week - all of us in the Russian River Sangha are reeling with the news that our beloved teacher, Darlene Cohen, has recently been told that her cancer is worsening, and that she now only has a few months left to live.

When I read the email from Darlene late Tuesday night sharing this information, I could not even respond. It is only now, two days later, that I am even beginning to find a space to open up and let in the hurt.

What sustains me is knowing that I am not alone. I have my teachers, Darlene and Tony. I have my sangha. I have my partner Sabrina. And somehow, together, we will comfort each other through this, and manage to infuse the pain with love.

Susan's Shusho Blog: Vision Quest

The sky is vast and wide. Life and Death are vast and wide. Am I vast and wide? I don't think so. . . too much navel gazing . . . turning inward and taking things personally.

“It's not all about you Susan.” I make this statement while throwing a piece of paper into the fire. I am on a vision quest with nine other older women 8600 feet up in the eastern Sierras.

We have been camping here for three days. Tomorrow we will say goodbye to one another. We will form a circle. We will be smudged by our wonderful compassionate leaders and we will trek to the power spot each one of us chose the day before.

I set up a tarp. This will be my home for the next three days. I have a gallon of water a day but no food. This is to be a solo fasting retreat.

On the evening of the first day I create a circle with twigs and stones and piles of pin oak leaves. I walk the circle chanting and singing and asking the universe to help me.

I see a mountain mahogany tree. She is very old. Her trunk and branches are gnarled and wizened. I see green shoots springing from dead branches and I see how deep her roots go. She is stable. She is open to what is. In that moment I am the tree.

I return to the circle. I honor the four directions. I move in and out and around. I am the tree moving. I call in my ancestors. I tell them how much they mean to me. I call them in.

I sleep under the stars. Every few hours I waken and notice how the stars have moved, how the path of the moon has changed. I waken and I marvel.

On the fourth day I return to camp . I feel vast and wide. I embrace the others . We are each given a gallon of water to bathe with. We enjoy delicious food and we settle into three days of story telling.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Applesauce

My friend and I have a plan. We will get together to make a delicious, nutritious sauce to give away to our friends and neighbors. I buy $20 worth of apples from two guys in a truck off of Bodega Highway. I am sure these apples will be good. They have been hand-picked from a local orchard. I don't think to ask if they are organic.

My friend has several bags of apples. We decide to combine hers with mine. We core, peel, chop and cook. We sterilize jars. My friend says: “These are organic apples. Are yours organic”? I say “I don't know.” There is a awkward pause.

She tells me she doesn't want to make applesauce with any apples that are not 100% certified organic.

I think she is being rigid. I rush to the defense of my apples. I will drive to Bodega to ask the two guys in a truck if their apples are 100% organic. I will ask if they have been sprayed.

I don't want to give up on my apples. I am entrenched in my position. I don't like this feeling. I want to move in and through. Like the apples on the stove I simmer down and become soft. I make a date with my friend to be together and make sauce.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Back-up Book

Yesterday I am in the checkout line at Costco. I have gone there to get a back-up Elite external hard drive book for my computer. “You must have this,” my computer companion tells me . . . in a crash it would be like losing all your photos and family records in a fire!”

So I go to Costco feeling under duress. I always lose my car there. So I try to mark where I have left it. I enter with card in hand, find the hard drive, wander about allowing organic quinoa, toilet paper and a package of tank tops to fly into my basket. I begin to feel woozy and disoriented. I head for the checkout.

A woman is holding a cake in a large plastic casing. She has a few other things. She stands to the side of the line. If I have a question I usually ask the person if she or he is ahead of me. This time I allow my almost numb self to wheel the wagon to the counter. A nice young man helps me unload, another smiles and takes my card. I am awake again. I am feeling connected.

Then out of the blue the cake woman appears. She says: “Are you with that man”? She points to a man in a motorized wheel chair. “No,” I say. She says: “You cut in front of him in line.” Then she says, “You cut in front of me, too.” I say, “I am sorry, I didn't see you.” The "I didn't see you" was a little white lie. The "I am sorry" was the truth.

The man in the wheel chair glided through ahead of me, so I don't know what that was about.

My eyes fill with tears. Ancient stuff is triggered by the present moment. It takes me a long time to find my car.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Birdseed

This morning I learn why it is important for me to follow my daily ritual of honoring the altars and sitting zazen before daybreak. Darkness gives cover to things that call for my attention. Today I rise at 6:30, light incense at the garden altar and then, before sitting, my eye travels to the bird feeder.

I have been away, the feeder is empty, the birdbath needs water, the plants are dry. I don't have the discipline to sit with these demands. Instead of sitting, I walk to the back of the house where I keep the birdseed. I am startled by a raccoon. He looks up at me with a look of total unconcern. The look says, “Who are you to interrupt my breakfast?” I yell: “Get out of here!” I throw a shoe at him and miss. He saunters off behind the woodshed and I am left with the task of picking up scattered birdseed and minding the seed bag.

For the past month I have been drawing in a small sketchbook for a project sponsored by the Brooklyn Art Library. The theme for my sketchbook is “HELP.” I draw a woman screeching "HELP! HELP!" I draw a raccoon with paws tearing open a seed bag. I brush on glue and scatter birdseed over the page.

Last Saturday I attended a workshop on brush painting given by Michael Wenger at San Francisco Zen Center. I heard him say: “Painters don't have to sit as much as people who don't paint.”

Did I draw in the sketchbook as a way of avoiding zazen or was it zazen itself?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: The Tell-Tale Radio

When I was a little girl I loved to listen to the radio. So many characters came to life as I listened to The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Lone Ranger, and many others.

I remember what The Shadow's voice sounded like: “The Shadow knows . . . heh, heh, heh ...” Fibber goes to get something out of the closet and bang, crash, boom . . . all the stuff in the over-packed closet keeps falling and crashing into the room.

One night, when I was about 10 years old, my mother put me to bed, kissed me good night, and tiptoed to the door. “Now get right to sleep,” she said.

As soon as I hear her footsteps descend the stairs I turn on the little white radio on my bedside table. The Lone Ranger is on. “Hi ho Silver (ta dum ta dum ta dum ) away!" This call to the sound of hoof beats makes my heart beat faster.

I listen as Lone Ranger and Tonto go through various escapades. The radio volume is turned low. Suddenly, above the sound of muffled hoof beats I hear my mother's steps on the stairs. I turn the radio off. I turn my body toward the wall . I am in fetal position with my eyes tightly closed.

My mother enters the room She comes toward my bed. She puts her hand on the radio. The radio is still hot due to the tell-tale tubes inside. “You have been listening to the radio”, she says in a stern voice. “Oh no, I have been asleep”, I say in my little white lie whining voice. “This radio was just turned off,” she says. “You are lying to me. Don't you ever lie to me again.”

This was a clear case of lying and being found out. It was a lesson in morality I have never forgotton. Not lying is a deep value for me.

In practicing the 4th precept, not lying, students of Buddhism struggle with questions about what is a lie. Are there times when you need to tell a lie to protect someone else? How and when do you lie to yourself?

Where is the warm little white radio when you need it?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Dinner With a Friend

Shared history with a friend is a precious gift. Last night I had dinner in Guerneville with my former sister in law. We grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In the early '50s we married brothers. Each of us had five children. Our parents were friends. We ran with the same pack.

Through one of life's amazing synchronicities we both ended up in California, she in Monte Rio and me in Sebastopol. She travels a lot with her business, Gerontological Services Inc., but when she is here we always get together. When she speaks, my mind travels on old roads and byways. I see her parents and my parents and our parents' friends. It is bitttersweet. I feel nostalgic and wish I could be in those times again. I am Emily in Our Town . . . could I please go back if only for a day . . . would I really like time travel if I could actually do it?

Our conversation moves to present time . . . what our children are doing . . . where we are in our late seventies' lives. Maria recently returned from an elder hostel trip to Cuba. "They have health care there," she tells me. There is something to learn from repressive regimes. On the way home I hear Carl Rove on the radio. He boasts about the billions of dollars Republicans are raising to defeat Democrats.

Health care? if you want it, move to Cuba.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Order and Chaos

“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.”

this quote is the beginning of a discussion of the 2nd precept, not stealing, by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche. Samsara means doing the same thing over and over again thinking that happiness or some kind of peace will come from it. When happiness or peace don't descend upon us we pretend we don't notice because we can't think of anything else to do.

I allow myself to get buried in the detritus of my own making. Instead of following a routine, I allow my dishes, my laundry, my art materials and various items to take over tables, chairs, beds and floor space. Even my computer feels overloaded.

This is partly personality, and judging myself will make matters worse. I love creating order out of chaos. It is the way I make art. So I have a way of rationalizing the chaos and not choosing to look at other options.

Every day for the past two weeks I have had a wonderful routine. I rise at 5 a.m., I light and offer incense at four altars. I sit for 35 minutes. Then I recite the heart sutra and say a prayer for the good health of my teacher, Darlene Cohen. Then it is time to blog. I feel satisfied and accomplished . I am ready to take on whatever the rest of the day wants to give me.

This morning I choose to break my routine. My benji Carol paul will be here at noon. We will bow and sit then. When I look deeply at my choice to break my routine I don't see it as a conscious choice at all. I see it as running away from feelings of deep grief I woke up with. I see myself trying to wash away these feelings in the hot tub. I see myself trying to connect by answering emails and wrapping presents for my grand niece and my granddaughter. Reaching out alleviates grief but going within heals it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Not Lying

It is early morning. I have the overhead light on. The light causes my head to cast a shadow on the page.

What causes a shadow to fall on my uprightness? Often, I think it is the little white lie. Sometimes it is the inability to speak up for myself or for others when intervention might be helpful.

I am reading The Mind of Clover by Robert Aitken. In the chapter on lying, Aitken gives an example of how a child might learn honesty, or dishonesty, from a parent. If the parent tells the bus driver the child is five, instead of his real age of six, in order to pay less, the child learns it is okay to lie.

I was in my fifties when my hair turned grey. This gave me license, I thought, to get into the movies at the senior rate. I thought nothing of it. In fact I boasted about it. Now I would love it if someone carded me. "Are you sure you are a senior?" is a question I don't get anymore.

In the early '90s I tried to get into Bandelier State Park as a senior. I was 62. The cut-off age was 65. The ticket taker asked me to prove my age. How humiliating!

My little girl is ten years old. We are at the the Worlds Fair. She sees a make-up booth. She desperately wants to have her face made up. A beautiful young woman will put make-up on her face for free, but she must be 12 years old. I tell the woman my daughter is 12. She sees through my story. She tells my daughter she will make up her face but she must never, ever tell a lie again.

The woman is speaking to the mother who continues to get into the movies at the senior rate.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Lost and Found

What is a blog? A blog for me is putting down what is happening right now. Is that possible? The moment found is a moment lost. The moment I got out of bed . . . the moment I made coffee . . . the moment I bowed to the altar . . . the moment now writing.

Natalie Goldberg, writer, teacher and author of Writing Down the Bones, says that Zen mind and writing mind are the same thing. In zazen we watch our thoughts as they arrive, move through and out. We watch them without attaching to them. We give them a lot of space.

In free writing, we allow the pen to move across the page. We write without judgment. We don't question what appears.

This morning , while writing, I see my sketchbook. I so want to work on it. I am aware of a dot of orange light on my glasses frame. The sun is rising above the trees. There is a stock pot on the stove. I will put the stock through a sieve. I will get manure for the garden. I will turn the compost.

I am seeing how I want to jump into the future. . . how I want to rise from my seat . . . open to the moment. What's next? What's next? What's next?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Not Killing

Last week in our practice period class we discussed the precept “not killing.” Committed Buddhists don't kill intentionally, but nonetheless they kill every moment of every day in order to nourish themselves and stay alive.

Killing is unavoidable. Little ants and millipedes are squished when we walk down the garden path. We try to be humane when we kill rats and mice and little furry things but kill them we must. We can't tell them to leave the attic insulation and the boxes of memorabilia alone. They eat what they will.

Small animals like gophers and squirrels and possums can be trapped and released in the next county. Few of us have the will and the patience and the time to do this. Anyway, do we think about where they will go next? Will it be someone else's garden?

At Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm there are ceremonies to acknowledge the intentional and unintentional killing that is part of the gardening and farming activity there. (Reb Anderson; Being Upright p. 92).

Receiving this precept our hearts are opened to the painful dilemmas involved in supporting our lives.

Recent studies have shown that plants feel pain. A carrot pulled out of the ground is a dead carrot.

Soon the six chickens we have raised on our property will go to the soup pot. They are getting too old to lay well and caring for them is stretching our human resources to the limit. The thought of killing these animals brings pain.

I remember seeing a scene from a film about a farm in Tajikistan. In it, the farmer bows low before a sheep before he slaughters it. He asks the animal's forgiveness. Kill it he must, but he will do it with love.

Before our chickens leave on their final journey we will have a ritual of gratitude for delicious eggs they have given us. I will remember the sweet times when they were tiny chicks and my granddaughter would enjoy cuddling them on her bed. Then we will let them go and move on.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Forty Hours of Intense

Today I completed 40 hours of volunteer training with the Sonoma County YWCA, a requirement before being able to do direct client work such as advocacy, hot line answering, court accompaniment, etc.

Over the past three weeks, we have learned about a wide range of topics: the cycle of violence, child abuse, human trafficking, elder abuse, sexual assault, abuse against the developmentally disabled, victims' assistance programs, the legal system, , batterers' treatment, cultural competency, communication skills, therapy, county and city resources through Health & Human Services, and YWCA services such as their safe house, therapeutic preschool, counseling, crisis line and advocacy.

This is not my first time to got through such a training. I completed one as a volunteer in 1993 in Sunnyvale, where I volunteered at the Support Network for Battered Women, and then went on to co-teach two trainings as a volunteer. I also completed a similar training with the Mid-Peninsula YWCA in Palo Alto. So most of the information was not new - but it had been a while, and it was good to brush up on things, and also to learn about the resources and agencies in Sonoma County, since I've never done volunteer work up here.

What was taxing about the training, for me, was how much all of it brought up things from my past. It was down-right alarming how many topics were broached that touched upon areas of my own life. And when I say "areas," I mean the tender spots. Just to name a few: 12 step programs, self-harm/cutting, eating disorders, mental health issues, various and sundry insensitive comments about DV (domestic violence) survivors, rape, molestation, gay/lesbian issues, being on disability....

As each item came up, I was alert and vigilant, wanting to make sure that no misconceptions came across. I wanted to protect whatever group was being spoken about, acting as its representative, since generally it was fairly clear that no one else in the room identified themselves as a member. I was able to speak out. But then I would go home, and doubt myself, and worry that I had spoken too much, overexposed myself, taken up too much space. It was a constant dance, throughout the training. Very taxing, very confusing.

Mostly, though, it made me feel stuck in the quagmire of all of those old pains. Until I brought it up with Sabrina. She said, "But Michelle, all of those things for you, most of them, anyway, were years ago." And she's right. I need to remember that I have moved past them. Much like a favorite coffee mug dropped to the ground, then glued back together, the scars are still visible, but I am whole. I am not irreparably broken; I can be of service - I can help.

And helping is exactly what I plan to do.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Confusion

Confusion/Delusion: it's all the same to me.

The schedule is off and I can't find it. I wake up after 6 a.m. I reverence the altars and, instead of sitting, I begin to do this and that. It all needs doing, so it is easy to rationalize. Feed the birds – water the bird bath – water the plants – do the dishes – vacuum the floor – make a list – somewhere in all this frenzy I catch my delusion. I think that after I do this or after I do that I will feel peaceful. I will be in a frame of mind that will embrace doing worthwhile things like writing this blog.

Then I begin to reward myself. “Have another cup of coffee,” I say, “You need it. The coffee will help you settle down.” Of course the caffeine has the opposite effect. Now I am really jazzed and my mind is busy making future plans. Will I go to my grand niece's wedding in Baltimore in June? Where will I stay? How will I get there? If I decide this now I will feel better.

I have forgotton the importance of doing each thing for its own sake. I stop this writing and I take three deep breaths. I take refuge in Buddha. I take refuge in Dharma. I take refuge in Sangha.

Every day is a good day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: My Turtle Dies

When I was a little girl, the maid who cared for me often said: “We are born to die, Susie, we are born to die.” My mother did not like hearing that. My mother said the maid was being morbid. She said it was something to do with being Catholic. Eva, the maid, was Catholic, but we were not.

One day when I was in the third grade I came home for lunch to find my pet turtle stiff and rigid in the round della robbia ceramic dish from Italy I kept him in. I picked him up. I wanted him to move across my hand. I wanted to feel his tiny feet tickle me the way they usually did. But that was not to be.

I think this was my first experience of grief. I was inconsolable. I cried and I cried and I cried. I refused to go back to school. I was afraid I had done something wrong. Perhaps I had fed him too much, not enough, or perhaps I had not played with him enough.

I don't remember what happened after that. I don't remember burying the turtle or having any kind of ritual around his passing.

Ritual was something Catholics did. I wonder where Eva was. She would have understood. We might have said the rosary together the way we did when I went to church with her.

I think that all those years ago Eva was saying something about acceptance of death as a part of life. Buddhists say: I am of a nature to be ill; I am of a nature to grow old; I am of a nature to die. Acceptance of this deep truth is a gateway to liberation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: What I Want

This morning I awaken at 6 a.m., a bit late for me. I so enjoy getting up at 5 a.m. and making the rounds of my four altars before day break. There is something soft and soothing about being held in the transition between night and day. Often I sit outside in the Buddha garden before going inside and sitting zazen in front of the altar I call the heart of the house.

After sitting I recite the heart sutra, say a prayer for my teacher Darlene Cohen, and do three bows. Then I am ready to begin my day.

On Wednesday I will teach a practice period class on the first precept: Not killing. I want to prepare to teach this class. I want to know everything there is to know about this precept. I want the words to flow out of me in a way that will touch others and inspire them to study the precept further. I want I want I want. The words I have written jump out at me. They are in capital letters . . . boldface . . . highlighted in red.

Wanting will not work here. Try being, Susan, try being with the efflorescence (unfolding) of your own enlightened nature.

What is trying to unfold here? How can I get out of the way? I love the word effloresence. I find it in an explanation of the five precepts by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche.

“I commit myself to refrain from killing the efflorescence of my own enlightened nature as it sparkles through the fabric of duality.”

In preparing for class my mind desperately wants to know which quotes to choose, what order to put them in. I want to know how to present the material in a way that will be helpful to others.

I want. I want. I want. Let this go, Susan. Let the efflorescence sparkle through. Remember your dharma name.

Ki shu Gyoku jun – bright effort jewel, shining benefit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Fear of the GPS

I have a new GPS. I bought it because I have fear of getting lost in the city, going the wrong way on freeways, having an accident because I can't read a map and drive at the same time.

The GPS has been on the back seat of my car for two weeks. I have been afraid to open the box. I am afraid I won't understand the directions.

Some fears are primal. Others are gleaned over time. In a crisis fear can be a motivator: "The house is on fire . . ..Get everyone out now!"

Sometimes fear, for me, is paralytic. It can deny me expression of deep feelings. It can deny me the experience of doing things I know I would love to do. It can deny me the satisfaction of jobs well done. I don't want to volunteer to do the hard jobs for fear I won't do them well. Sometimes fear says "better not" when "go for it " would have been the better response."

My parents were cautious beings. Trips to New York City were circumscribed by rules that made them feel secure. They stayed in the same hotel, went to the same restaurants and shopped in stores where my mother made friends with department managers. Straying off the beaten path was a dangerous thing. They tried to make me a part of their safe and secure world. At 18 I was packed up and sent to Europe under the tutelage of a chaperone.

There is still a chaperone inside of me that says: "No, no, not yet. Don't do that; it's not safe." Sometimes I listen to her . . . At other times I remember getting lost in Kathmandu and finding a motorcycle taxi to take me home. I remember being on the top of Machu Picchu at night. I remember not knowing where I was in Xian, China and finding a monastery and an English speaking monk who invited me in for tea.

I remember these times and I wonder about all the adventures that await me in the future, now that I have a GPS and a computer companion to show me the way.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Ending

Little Bit is home!

I am feeling grateful to the universe that in this one instance, just this one time, there is a happy ending to the story. I know, it could have been otherwise. Life is pretty iffy. But today, things turned out OK.

Yesterday Little Bit was removed from the oxygenated atmosphere, and although she's still breathing somewhat rapidly, and has pneumonia, she can and should recover. We were able to pick her up from the vet hospital this evening, and can administer her medications at home over the next two weeks. She is playful, happy, thrilled to be out of her "glass box" home that she's been in since Tuesday.

The fear we had was that, at some point, that damn piece of nipple that started this whole thing would still end up in her bowels and cause a blockage. Happily, yesterday afternoon, Little Bit threw up the offending piece, intact. It had been in her stomach the entire time.

The nurses and doctors at the vet clinic were all smiles as well. They, too, were pleased to have a happy ending - all too often at an emergency clinic, that's not the way things turn out.

Thank you to all who offered metta, good thoughts, prayers, kind words. Your support was and is greatly appreciated.

Susan's Shusho Blog: The Vacant House

I walk by an empty house on the street where I live. I know the house is empty because my friend moved out two weeks ago. I walk by and I am curious. I see some things resting on the window sill. I wonder if my friend left some things behind. I try the door and it is unlocked. I walk in. I see that the things on the window sill are model trains. I surmise that the landlord has found a place for his collection, now that the house is vacant.

I feel drawn to walk through the other rooms in the house. I see a new phone book on the kitchen table. I need a new phone book. I am a yellow pages junkie. Going on line is not nearly as compelling for me as "letting my fingers do the shopping." I pick up the phone book and I think I will take it with me. Then something happens. I am physically uncomfortable. The space is pressing in on me. I do not belong here. I walk out the door and down the street to my home. I leave the phone book behind.

Phone books, of course, are not considered valuable. What if there had been cash on the kitchen table, or a diamond ring? I would have gasped and I would have told the landlord. Of course I would not take something of value, but what is the principle here? I was tempted to take something that was not given . It is as simple as that. The value or lack of value of the phone book begs the question.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Killing

What is killing? I read so much about killing in the newspaper. I hear about it on the news. I see it on my tv screen and in the movies. I was brought up on the ten commandments. "Thou shalt not kill" was the big one. War, of course, was rationalized away as being a necessary evil. In graduate school I read a book by Michael Walzer called Just and Unjust Wars. His thesis was that we no longer have just wars. Vietnam changed all that. One of the rules of a just war was that it didn't involve civilians. In Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan we don't know who the enemy is. Innocent people are hurt and killed; wedding parties interrupted by violence.

Projection is a psychological process whereby we project powerful feelings inside ourselves onto the body of another. This can happen between two people. I see you and I have a story about you. I am hungry so I think you must be hungry too. I am sad and I feel sadness coming from you. When negative feelings of anger, rage and fear are projected out onto a group of people they become "the other" and a dangerous situation is created.

I remember trying to understand how I was a part of what happened in Nazi Germany before the Second World War. Jew hatred and fear of Jews and jealousy of Jews was projected out onto millions of people. Millions of Jews became "the other". It was easy then to see the other as enemy and see the need for their annihilation.

How can we live in the peace and harmony we say we desperately want and seek? In my 12 or so years of Buddhist practice I have come to believe that the answer to that question lies within. If we can't recognize and own our deepest feelings, we are all in danger of projecting them out. Buddhist confession is reality based. It says look within for the darkness that lies there. Zazen creates the space and the stability for this process to take place.

All my ancient twisted karma
from beginingless greed, hate and delusion
born through body speech and mind
I now fully avow
After saying the confession we say the refuges:

I take refuge in Buddha
I take refuge in dharma
I take refuge in sangha

We are held by the perfect teacher, we have a path and others are there to help. This works. Take it from me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

She's a Fighter

The last 36 hours have been gut-wrenching. Little Bit is still at the vet hospital. My partner Sabrina and I have ridden a rollercoaster of emotions, with each phone call from the vet sending us up to hope, or down to despair.

The very good news: Little Bit has recovered her spunk, is eating heartily, and is very responsive. She is fighting this. And it doesn't appear that there is any blockage, so that fear is gone.

The not so good news: Her lungs are still very compromised, because there is mineral oil aspiration. Earlier today, we were told that she would never be able to live outside of an oxygen tank, and knew that the decision to put her down was imminent. But moments later, the vet called again to say they had taken a new x-ray, and much to their surprise, the lungs showed improvement - against all of their expectations. So there is still hope.

When I called Tony in tears yesterday, he said, well, Buddhists don't really pray....but, heck, people pray. Pray!

So I'm praying. And some good friends who are Catholics have called in the saints. Do what you can. Send out a good thought for Little Bit.

Susan's Shusho Blog: Being Upright

Last night was our first Russian River Zendo practice period class. We are studying shila paramita: the peace and coolness of being upright.

There are 35 people in the class. At the beginning of class I offered everyone ten minutes of authentic movement. Half of us moved in the center of a circle with our eyes closed while the other half witnessed them . Then we switched places: the movers became witnesses and the witnesses got to move. In allowing our bodies to move freely where they will, we experience a letting go of and a transition from the work world to the spaciousness needed for studying the precepts.

Darlene spoke about shila as the opportunity to be truly present to our experience right now. She recommended we read Reb Anderson's book: Being Upright.

After Darlene's presentation we did a free write on the prompt: "I feel upright when . . . " People were asked to write for five minutes without judging, questioning, changing or crossing out. "Just let your pen take you where it will", I told them. The idea for doing free writes comes from Natalie Goldberg's book: Writing Down the Bones. Along with being a writer and a teacher of writing, Natalie is a Zen priest. She believes that writing mind and Zen mind come from the same place.

After writing practice people shared what they had written with a neighbor. The room was alive with chatter. Everyone had so much to say. We then shared what we had written with the larger group.

My writing took me to a time last winter when I needed to be honest with a friend about something he had done that I didn't like. My friend called me and asked if he could stay in our guest room. The easy thing would have been to lie and say the room wasn't available. The honest thing was to say I didn't like the way he had left the room the last time he stayed there. I was resentful of all the work I had to do to clean up after him. I chose to tell the truth and in so doing I realized I was breaking a long habit of slipping and slithering through life by telling half truths, little white lies, or remaining silent because I was afraid I would hurt someone's feelings.

This time my friend did not stay with me but he did come for dinner. We talked a long time. Our conversation went way beyond the messy guest room. At the end of the evening we had a better understanding of one another.

How did it feel to be upright? It felt like it was me being me. It felt wonderful. It felt cool and it felt peaceful.

"The condition of you being you is the source of peace and the source of love". (Being Upright, pg. 43.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tiny Life

We are in the midst of weaning our kitten, Little Bit. She has been resistant, often still wanting the bottle and refusing to eat the various foods we have tried: second-step weaning mixture, like a gruel; kitten food; moist kibble; baby food. We have been at our wits' end, trying to make sure she gets enough nourishment.

Yesterday I had her at work with me, and was trying to feed her. She hadn't eaten much at all so far that day. I was using the baby bottle to pour the gruel into a small dish. She had previously gnawed through the tip, so it was open at the top. She was acting frantic for food, but wouldn't lap out of the bowl. She was grabbing for the bottle. I finally decided to see if I could use the bottle to let her chug some liquid down, even though the nipple wasn't all there. But - in the middle of that, she took a big bite, and ripped off most of the rest of the nipple and swallowed it.

We called our vet, and he was worried that it might cause problems, blockage in the intestines. He recommended trying to get her to vomit. She only weighs 1 lb. 7 oz. I didn't feel confident doing it on my own. Our regular vet is in Santa Rosa, but I was in Calistoga, so I brought her to the vet there. We induced vomiting, but no nipple piece came up. The vet then gave her some mineral oil, hoping that at least it could help her pass the piece from the other end.

But she was miserable. By that night, it was clear that it was not just trauma from the day's event. Something was wrong. We ended up making an emergency trip to PetCare in Santa Rosa. She had aspirated either vomit or mineral oil, and was struggling to breathe, in danger of developing pnemonia. We were told that the diagnosis was "guarded" - less than fair. We left her in their care, driving home in tears.

This kitten, who we have bottle-fed and nurtured for the past five weeks, has become like a baby for us. We are both feeling devastated. My feelings are compounded by guilt: I shouldn't have let her use the bottle. I should have brought her to the vet more quickly. I should have brought her to our regular vet. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I called just a few moments ago, and the doctor said she is doing slightly better, breathing without quite as much effort. I am just praying she is strong enough to make it through.

Susan's Shusho Blog: What Has Aging Got to Do With It

My doctor calls. " I don't like the look of your bone scan", she tells me. "I think you should go back on fosamax. Over the next ten years you are at a high risk of breaking a bone or a hip."

The phone rings. It is my dentist's office reminding me of an appointment tomorrow.

What next? Some days it seems an endless making and keeping of appointments to keep this body on the road. Already this fall I have had a bone scan, an ultra sound, and a mammogram. Soon I will see the skin doctor.

This morning I have a realization. This 78 years old body is a gift. I may not like it, but I have the privilege of being able to take care of it. I am blessed with doctors I love. I have a yoga and a pilates practice. today I will call a woman who has studied bone health for years. She knows of alternatives to drugs. I have another friend who knows about ways to stimulate the brain by playing games on the computer.

The longer I can keep this skin bag going, the longer I will be able to help others.

The first line of a vow Buddhists take when they accept the precepts goes like this:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
We take this vow with full knowledge of its impossibility.

It is a matter of deep intention. It gets into your bones.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Lobsters and Clams and Little Furry Things

Last summer I spent a week at Tassajara Zen Center in Carmel Valley, California. My granddaughter Grace was with me. We were attending a five day yoga and meditation retreat. Grace is 16. She is afraid of spiders. Every day it was my job to remove daddy-long-legs from the white curtains that covered the windows of our yurt room.

I told Grace they were harmless, but this did not reassure her. At some point in my practice of Zen I found myself taking bugs and unwelcome intruders outside instead of automatically killing them. Saving small creatures from death can bring a sense of self righteousness. "Oh look at me now, I am practicing the first grave precept: "A disciple of Buddha does not kill."

Self righteousness dissolves when I remember the mouse poison I leave in the storage shed. . . a week later I discover two little furry things stiff and dead. Better them, I think, than the memorabilia and photos they use as nesting material.

I have been advised to trap gophers . " This is the only way to get rid of them," my gardening buddy tells me. You trap them and then you whack them over the head. This I cannot do.

I used to think nothing of dropping a green lobster into boiling water. I didn't connect with the pain of being boiled alive. I thought only of succulent lobster meat dipped in lemon and butter.

When I lived on Cape Cod I loved walking the clam flats at low tide. An air bubble meant there was a clam underneath. . . a quick dig brought forth a creature in a hard shell. . . a clam knife opened it. I topped it with lemon and cocktail sauce . . . yum . . . it doesn't get any better or fresher than that!

I no longer dig clams or boil lobsters. I do, however, enjoy clam chowder and lobster rolls prepared for me by others.