Friday, January 29, 2010

The Complexities of Charity

When I was living in Japan, I volunteered at a soup kitchen for homeless day laborers in a neighborhood in Osaka. The men who came to the soup kitchen for hot meals each day were the invisible of Japan. Most of them were Korean Japanese, burakumin (the "untouchable" class of Japan) or Ainu (the indigenous people of Japan); all three groups are heavily discriminated against, and because of that, they tend to be underemployed.

Much like our immigrant workers in the United States, the men stand in groups on the street in the morning, hoping that a truck will stop and take them to a construction site or other location for a day of work. When they do get work, they take their cash from the day and come back to this ghetto neighborhood, spending the money on alcohol and pachinko (a Korean gambling game), and a night's stay in a boarding house. When they don't work, they sleep on the streets, and spend the few dollars they have buying hot sake out of vending machines. Those who are aging or sick are the most vulnerable, because not working means not having food and shelter.

The soup kitchen was a project provided by a group of Japanese Catholic nuns and priests, affiliated with an order from France. I learned of their existence when I met a young Japanese woman who was Catholic. In my own Osaka neighborhood, only four train stops away, no one had ever heard of this ghetto, and all assured me that there were no poor in Japan, and also that there was no discrimination.

On weekends in the winter, I sometimes went out on night patrol, driving through the streets in a van. We stopped whenever we found a group of huddled forms in the darkness. We offered rice balls and hot miso soup, and handed out extra blankets. On the coldest nights, it was not uncommon to find a corpse among the living, someone whose poor health could not sustain them through the extreme chill on the concrete.

There was one particular older man who I grew to know well. He was aging, and sick, and rarely able to work, and he sought comfort in sake and the friendships he had with other men in the area. He was always good humored and friendly. Once I accompanied him to a medical clinic as an advocate. He was having circulation problems, and one of his legs was turning black. His rough, rambling speech was incomprehensible to most. I found myself in the ironic position of serving as a translator, a white American woman rendering his slurred expostulations into meaningful Japanese for the attending physician and nurses.

As the weeks wore on, his condition worsened. He began to be incontinent, showing up in soiled clothing. Finally, the priests decided he needed to be taken to a hospital to be treated, and cared for long-term. When he had been gone for several weeks, I asked if I could visit him.

One of the priests took me to see him, at a hospital clear on the other side of the city. They had taken him there, instead of to a nearby hospital, because he kept trying to escape and return "home." Now he was so far away, that if he had wandered into the streets, he would have had no idea how to make his way back to his friends at the soup kitchen.

He was in bed in a dorm-style room that could house a dozen men. He was clean, shaven, and in a hospital gown. But his wrist was tied with a length of sheet, secured to the side of the bed. They were trying to prevent him from running away. He was distant and mostly unresponsive. I had brought him a small radio as a gift, because I knew he liked to listen to the baseball games. He barely acknowledged it. I was shocked when I saw him. He looked nothing like the smiling, happy man that I had become friends with at the soup kitchen. I left the hospital in tears. And I never saw him again.

I know that those who put him there thought they were doing the right thing. He received needed medical care, a warm place to sleep, and regular food. He was safe. But he was also absolutely miserable. They had saved his body, but killed his spirit.

I often think of that old man. Good people want so much to help. And yet sometimes helping can be so complicated. What was the right thing to do? In the best of worlds, we would have been able to provide local care for him, and housing in his own neighborhood. And then, it seems, that allowing him to stay outside all day and drink sake with his buddies, even though it was ruining his health, would have been his decision. Those of us with more money get to make choices like that - but too frequently, poor people and mentally ill people are stripped of their right to decide how to live out their lives, in the name of charity.

There are no easy answers. But seeing his vacant eyes in that hospital bed, with all of the joy gone - that was no solution.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

All That I Am

My younger sister Ali gave me a piece of artwork two years ago, with a drawing of a dragonfly, and a quote by e.e. cummings:

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

When I re-painted my home office shortly after, I used the small message as my centerpiece. I chose paint that matched the green, and pumped up the yellow to a brilliant lemon for the opposite walls. My entire room is filled with art, most of it by or from friends. But this little green and yellow missive now hangs directly in front of me when I sit down at my desk to write.

I think of it as a Purple Heart, a badge of honor. For many, many years I struggled and fought, questioned and doubted, stubbornly resisted. I said, over and over again, "I am not that!" I wasn't sure exactly who I was, or where I was headed, let alone how to get there. But I knew that someone else's answer wouldn't work. I was convinced that even my family's best wishes for me, though much appreciated for their intent, were off the mark.

Stumbling through many dark years, becoming a friend with despair, making mistakes again and again...still, I pushed on. Some small voice in my head said, "You are enough." But I felt so flawed, and so out of step, and so lost.

And then my Zen teachers told me: "The goal of practice is not to become a better person; it is to become more fully yourself." To become who you really are.

When I received that little painting from my sister, I knew I had finally been seen. And being seen by someone else helped me to see myself.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Lesson from Ghandi

Ghandi - just saying the name conjures up an awesome energy, a reverence, a worshipful adoration. When people are asked, "What if you could have dinner with five people, living or dead, who would you choose?" the name "Ghandi" frequently makes that top five list.

And yet - I read something today about the saint-like Ghandi that taught me a lesson not of what to do, but of what to avoid.

I am reading the book The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China by Forbes magazine Asia editor Robyn Meredith. In it, she chronicles Ghandi's legacy in India. Much of that inheritance, we know, was a great gift. He embodied the idea of nonviolent protest, setting an example that would transform human and civil rights movements in the coming years. And he gave India a sense of identity separate from British colonial rule.

But did you know that he also was completely against modern medicine, because of its ties to the Western world? When his own wife lay dying from bronchitis, doctors flew in penicillin to save her life. Ghandi believed that even the use of a needle contradicted his philosophy of nonviolence. So he turned the medicine away, and sat at his wife's bedside, holding her hand until she died, of a completely curable disease.

Meredith also states that Ghandi professed the only acceptable form of birth control was abstinence. He remained sexually abstinent for the last 42 years of his life. Wanting to follow his example, his fellow country men and women shunned all methods of contraception. But, being less saintly than their guru, they failed to live up to complete abstinence, of course, leading eventually to the population explosion in India.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ghandi's belief systems. They are admirable, and praiseworthy. But to these lengths? To the detriment of the lives of others? He failed to see the value of the middle way.

Make a vow not simply to make a vow. Hold steadfast to resolution only when it is the right thing to do, not when it is the only thing you know how to do.

As much as we admire the saints, it is actually more difficult to live in the world of gray than it is to practice in the realm of black and white. That is our Zen challenge: the middle way.

Upcoming Schedule, Jan. 26-30

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Jan. 25
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by student Phil McDonel on his path with jizo

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Jan. 30
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Merrily We Sew Along...

It was a big moment in sewing class today. Debi Papazian finished her rakusu! She is the first in our group to successfully complete the face, straps and envelope, and is now an official sewing graduate.

There are nine of us, seven from the Healdsburg sangha, who have been meeting weekly on Sundays since October to work on our rakusu in preparation for jukai, or Zen lay ordination, which is scheduled for August.

When our sewing teacher Connie Ayers first said we would probably be meeting through February, I thought, geez, it won't take that long! This flippancy, however, was born of naivete. It arose from a place of ignorance, before I was properly introduced to the myriad intricacies, convoluted patterns and layers upon layers of stitches that comprise a Zen rakusu.

As you can see by my rakusu, pictured above, I am not quite ready to graduate. Now, February seems alarmingly close at hand. I have been assured (repeatedly) that this is not a race. What do you mean, not a race? It's a class, right? Classes are contests! That's what I did throughout my academic life - enroll, study hard, excel, revel in the high grades.

Well, with a couple of exceptions, of course. There was that disastrous home economics course my mother forced me to take in ninth grade. I somehow skated through the cooking portion, because we were assigned to teams. On my team, the other two girls cooked, and I ate what they cooked. It worked beautifully. Unfortunately, when it was time to sew, I didn't get to share my A-line skirt with someone else. I had to make my own. Let's just say "horrid," and leave it at that. I haven't been near a needle since.

That is, until October. And here I am, spending my Sunday afternoons sewing. (The only person more incredulous than me about this whole state of affairs is my mother. Every time I see her lately, she says, "And you're sewing!" Then she shakes her head, clearly wondering what other surprises the universe has in store for her.)

What I am truly beginning to appreciate through this experience is the nature of the student/teacher relationship. Connie has been so patient, and so gentle in her tutelage, moving from person to person around the room. Barely a moment goes by without one of us raising our hand in the air and whimpering, "Connie, can I be next?" When one is confidently stitching away, her neighbor has just knotted her thread in the wrong spot. As another masters the art of pinning, his neighbor finds he has mistakenly sewn through three layers of cloth instead of the aimed-for two. None of us are ever at exactly the same place at exactly the same time. And yet, somehow, Connie manages to keep us all occupied, soothed, supported, challenged, and committed. Now, that's a teacher.

So I'm not at the head of the class. I'm learning it feels pretty darn good simply to be showing up.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Talking About a Revolution

If you haven't already read Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, put it on your list. I'm heading into the last chapter now - and it's one of those books that makes me want to run out and buy a dozen copies, to distribute to all my friends.

The title refers to three impending crises: hot (global warming), flat (the burgeoning middle class around the world, leading to greater use of resources and energy), and crowded (the population explosion). Friedman, a New York Times columnist, argues that the dovetailing of these three trends is pushing us into a new age, the Energy Climate Era, in which the world as we know it must either change - or we will all perish.

Sounds dire, I know. And the first few chapters are a bit of a downer. The problems seem almost insurmountable. But what makes the book good is that here are not just problems, but also solutions. Friedman talks to experts all over the country, and the world, and shows us how we can change in time to evade disaster.

One part that particularly struck me was the chapter called "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth." Friedman points out that "green" is so hip now, that every magazine, every group, is coming up with lists of ways to make a difference. But they're always presented as "simple" or "easy" - it's painless being green.

Sure, all of those little things add up. Using CFLs instead of conventional light bulbs, recycling your aluminum cans, bringing cloth bags to the grocery store - that matters. But Friedman argues that this can hardly be seen as a revolution. It's more like a fashion statement.

Revolutions are about turning the world upside down, shaking things up from top to bottom, radically reconfiguring the way we look at everything. We're talking casualties, bloodshed. I don't mean that literally, that people will have to die. But institutions and ideas should definitely be on the chopping block.

Friedman gives dozens of real-life examples of people and companies and even government agencies who are re-thinking every product made, every watt used, every structure built, and coming up with the innovation that is critical to save us from Mother Earth's Judgment Day.

The good news is that he remains convinced that the most effective ways to change our world originate with grass-roots movements. Nations and politicians need to be on board; but each one of us has the power to steer those governments (and mega-corporations) in the right direction.

Keep bringing your own bag to the grocery store. Don't stop composting. Maintain your vigilance when sorting garbage from recyclables. But don't stop there. Take the next step. Think of it as an extension of the bodhisattva vow: "Beings are numberless. I vow to save them."

Start a revolution.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Taking the Fifth

The Fifth Precept is: Avoiding the deliberate loss of awareness. It is sometimes defined as "no intoxication" and also as "to cultivate clarity for self and others."

The most literal interpretation is to avoid alcohol and other drugs. That, for me, is easy. I am ten years clean and sober, after earlier escape finally proved too problematic to continue. So when I first read this precept, I thought, "No big deal. I've got this one licked already."

But as our discussion in last week's precept class unfolded, it became clear to me that there was still much work ahead. In Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche's explanation of the Five Precepts, on the fifth he says, "I commit myself to the avoidance of mindless and unskillful consumption of anything." Now that opens up a whole new dimension.

Suddenly, everything is on the table: my cigarettes, my chocolate, my naps, my online shopping sprees. "Mindless and unskillful consumption" pretty much sums up what happens when I'm trying to avoid myself.

I know this is true, because when I try to quit one of them, just as when I first quit alcohol and drugs, the discomfort and dis-ease of each moment is nearly intolerable. The last time I tried to quit smoking, about six months ago, on the second day I thought to myself in total despair, "I'm never going to enjoy anything ever again!" Talk about drama! And for the last two days, I have been unable to sleep through the night. Normally, sleep is a refuge for me. Lately, it has been filled with bad dreams, and fitful awakenings. Instead of getting up and sitting zazen, or writing in my journal, or doing anything that might be a way of being present with myself, I go into a total tailspin of anxiety and fretting, worried that I will never be able to sleep again.

Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche does offer an alternative to the "checking out" mode. He says, "I commit myself to inebriation from the hot blood of compassion, and to the experience of kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings."

"The hot blood of compassion" - sounds racy and enticing, yes? And who can argue with experiencing "kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings"? Makes the sugar and the nicotine look paltry by comparison.

I guess it's time to take the Fifth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Live the Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four

Rain and solitude...a good combination for reflection, quiet thought, stillness of emotion. I am in that space of seeking. I seek relief from pain. I seek answers to questions. I seek light in the darkness. I seek a barely visible deer trail on the forest floor, leading out of the wilderness. I seek myself.

It is easy to fall prey to the false belief that one answer will come, an answer simple and direct, which will change everything. It is tempting to look for a pre-packaged, bottled, instructions-included solution. And yet I know that what is made to order is not made for me.

Rilke says: Try to love the questions themselves. There is no sense expecting that my seeking will lead me anywhere, not any time soon. What I must do, to follow the advice of the great poet, is to love the seeking, enjoy the quest.

Live the questions now. What better way to say it? Be there then. Live here now. In the pain, in the emptiness, in the suffering, in the middle of nowhere. When I had my first dokusan, and tearfully exclaimed, "I have been seeking a Zen path for so long," Darlene Cohen said to me, "You are already there."

Thank goodness for teachers. Thank goodness for poets.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Organizing the Piles

When my life feels out of control, I organize.

I make lists; I double-check my Outlook calendar and make sure it's in line with the calendar on the wall in the kitchen. I synch my Blackberry. I go through the stacks of unread magazines and put them in order of title and date. I sift through the basket of "mail to take care of" and toss the stuff that is now so long overdue that it is no longer relevant. I look at my bulletin board, and do the same thing - pull off all the items that happened months ago, so a reminder is no longer necessary. I pick up the books perched precariously at the edge of shelves, and file them in the appropriate section on my bookcases, alphabetical by author. I file paperwork from the DMV and other old bills in the color-coded, labeled folders in my file cabinet.

When even that is not enough, I go to Office Depot and wander slowly through the office organization aisles. I end up coming home with a new cabinet, or a three-tiered letter holder, or magazine rack. Then I go home and tackle things fresh.

Now is one of those times. My energy level has been so low that it would make a three-toed sloth look positively peppy. I have barely been able to drag myself out of bed to do the tasks that are absolutely required, like showing up for work, or keeping commitments to go to my precepts class or doctor's appointments. I seem to be moving through a dense, impenetrable fog. Each step requires vast reserves of energy, and yet I have nothing in that reserve tank.

Given that scenario, it makes perfect sense that today I would choose to use my unexpected two or so hours of relative vigor to do the one thing that makes me feel secure. I put things in order.

I tried out every pen in the house that I could find and threw out all the ones that don't work, or were so cheap that they'll invariably fail right when you're trying to write down an important phone number. I straightened every picture on the walls. I even moved several of them to new locations, because I saw that the balance wasn't right. I carried things from the left side of my office to the right side of my office. I picked things up from one shelf, and transferred them to another. I went into my Outlook calendar, and changed the due date on everything that was supposed to be done last week, so it wouldn't look like I was so far behind.

In other words, I didn't really do a damn thing. I wonder who I think I'm fooling, when I act busy this way? I'm in the privacy of my own home; no one else is watching. So what exactly am I trying to prove to myself? That maybe if the external appearance shifts, it is evidence of real change underneath? That I really am in control of my emotional state and my life, if my mail is properly filed in color-coded folders?


Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Long Night's Journey into Day

There is a Zen book for everything, it seems. A rapid perusal of the first few hits that come up on reveals the following titles:

Zen & the Art of Happiness
Zen Golf
Zen to Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System
Zen & the Art of Knitting
Zen Zombie: Better Living from the Undead
The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web

and, of course: Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love

So I should not have been surprised when I stumbled upon The Zen Path through Depression by Philip Martin. Since it seemed a natural fit for me, I bought a copy. The trouble is, when I'm not depressed, I find no reason to pick it up. And when I am depressed, I don't have the concentration or the energy to read. There it has sat, on my bookshelf, for at least 10 years.

But for some reason, tonight I glanced over in that direction and spotted it. I had enough inclination to at least pick it up and flip through the pages, even though the thought of sitting down to read the whole thing is a little daunting.

I just happened to open to this passage:

Return to the place you have imagined as your depression. If you have been here a number of times, you know this place well. You may even feel comfortable here. You have found it is no longer a terrifying place, and that there can be much of value in this place.

As you return, envision that in this place there is now a path to be found. Perhaps it is a trail that has been worn through the dark forest you were in, or a star to follow to guide yourself out of a deep desert night - or a lifeline you can follow from deep beneath the sea.

Look closely at this path, this trail, until it becomes clear to you. Realize that there is a way out of this place you once thought you would be lost in forever. Are you ready to leave? Are you perhaps surprised to find you are sad at the prospect of leaving? Are you ready to begin the journey?

So much resonates for me in these words. Yes, I know there is much value to be found in depression. I have lived deeper and more intensely because of these battles, and I believe they have made me more compassionate, more honest, and more courageous.

I love the image of the star leading me out of "a deep desert night." There have been many, many nights with no stars. But now, as I think on this, it is exactly like nature's sky: on the night's without stars, they are not actually absent; they are hidden from view. The stars do always come out again.

And while I am waiting for the star to appear - it is a long night's journey into day.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

And Then Came the Rain...

I am struggling. Again.

It's the "again" part that is hard. For much of my adult life, I have battled with depression. There are many contributing factors: repeated trauma, biochemical imbalance, personality, philosophical bent. But knowing the cause doesn't help to deal with the numbing heaviness when it once again descends upon me.

I have been blessed with relief for much of the past six years. Some of that is due to extensive work on tough issues. Some of that has been thanks to appropriate medication. And some, a huge part, has been because six years ago I met the woman that I would marry, someone who has given me the safe haven and unconditional love that I had been seeking my entire life.

As a bonus, my wife also reconnected me with animals. I had strong relationships with a childhood dog and cat, but had not included animals in my adult world, partially because of my itinerant proclivities. Now, when I come home at the end of the day, I am greeted by the faithful lab Ripley who holds a special place in my heart, the adorable kitten Kenji who can always make me smile, and dogs Houla and Teo, parrot Barney, and cats Bailey, Dozer, Gordy and Idgie, each one of whom loves me in that unrelenting and uncomplicated way that only animals are capable of.

Also, I have found in the past years, for the first time in my life, a spiritual home. Sangha and zazen and teachers...all have been an incredible comfort and source of strength and growth.

And yet - here I am. Barely making it through the days.

It is so familiar. The weight, the dreariness, the fatigue. The inability to concentrate, the trouble getting motivated to do anything, even the things that I enjoy.

But it is also different. Before, I didn't have all those "good" things from the paragraphs above. Now, I do. Before, I couldn't think of one reason to keep on going. Now, I can make a long list. Before, I truly believed that it was never, ever going to change. Now, I know that the depression did finally lift in the past, and that it will lift again.

It will change. Everything changes. For right now, though...the rain.

Monday, January 11, 2010

From Suzuki Roshi's View

More thoughts from "Zen Is Right Here," stories of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi - a selection that represents some of the things I'm struggling with at the moment.

* * * * *
A student of Suzuki Roshi's, a publisher of Beat poetry, saw his teacher of a year and a half in a private interview. He said that he couldn't continue, that every time he sat zazen he started to cry. "I can't take it," he said. "I'm leaving. I can't be here anymore."
Suzuki didn't tell him to stay. He merely said, "You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper."

* * * * *
Once in a lecture Suzuki Roshi said, "Hell is not punishment, it's training."

* * * * *
On the fourth day of sesshin as we sat with our painful legs, aching backs, hopes, and doubts about whether it was worth it, Suzuki Roshi began his talk by saying slowly, "The problems you are now experiencing..."
"Will go away," we were sure he was going to say.
"...will continue for the rest of your life," he concluded.
The way he said it, we all laughed.

* * * * *
A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, "Why is there so much suffering?"
Suzuki Roshi replied, "No reason."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oshogatsu Omedetou

This is the time of year that I miss Japan the most.

For three years, I lived in Kyoto and Osaka, studying, teaching, and becoming part of a community. I was lucky to share my life there with several Japanese families, and with the Nakamuras and the Masumotos, among others, I was able to experience the best of all the holidays.

New Year’s is the longest celebration of the year. For the last week of December, women are busy preparing food, every imaginable kind of delicacy. They make enough to last through the first three days of January, so that throughout the days off everyone has plenty to eat, but no one has to spend the holiday in the kitchen.

For three days, all the businesses close down, from giant corporations and banks, to the mom and pop stores on the way to the train station. Everything closes. And people focus in on family, on neighbors, on community.

On New Year’s Eve, at midnight, everyone goes to their neighborhood Shinto shrine. They bring with them the amulets from the past year, wooden and paper placards, animals, arrows with blessings tied to them. At the shrine, each person takes turns approaching the huge bell, and tugging at the thick rope to ring in the new year. Then the old amulets are brought over to the bonfire, and thrown in. Crowds of people stand around and watch the old year burn away. And each person leaves the shrine with new amulets, for the new animal year, starting off fresh.

On New Year’s Day, we usually woke up late and moved slowly. Food was available all day; there was no set meal time. People just ate, and drank, and visited. It is the time of year when you pay respect to relatives, local community leaders, bosses and teachers. When I spent one New Year’s with a high school principal, people came to the door for days bringing small gifts of food, bowing to this teacher, asking for his continued favors for themselves and their families.

And it is also a time to visit the large temples, to make religious pilgrimages a little further away. First we spent hours preparing, all the women together, with the older women in the family dressing the younger women up in kimonos.

I remember one year standing still for nearly two hours while five elderly aunts and grandmothers labored over my holiday outfit, putting on layer after layer of clothing, tugging and tucking and fussing. By the time the obi had been tied, I had been transformed; I felt like a living doll. Then we all took the train together to the temple, walking through the snow in our zoris, carrying our parasols.

And then there were the afternoon karaoke parties, with everyone in the group taking their turn at the microphone, while the others cheered them on. I spent hours rehearsing a Japanese pop song so that I would be able to hold my own.

Every year, when our New Year’s Eve parties are being planned, I am flooded with memories of Shinto shrines, kimonos, big snowflakes, bonfires, and friendship. And I find myself checking out airfares to Tokyo in the newspaper.

Oshogatsu omedetou. Happy New Year.

Upcoming Schedule, Jan. 12 - 16 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Jan. 12
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Tony Patchell on body and practice

Tuesday, Jan. 19
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Keith

Tuesday, Jan. 26
7 p.m. sit, service, dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Jan. 16
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Life Is Impossible

From Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories & Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki

During a lecture, Suzuki Roshi had said that life was impossible.
"If it's impossible, how can we do it?" a student asked.
"You do it every day," Suzuki answered.

For today, I have nothing to add.

(Thanks to Tony for introducing me to this wonderful book.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Squeal of Brakes and a Crash...

The night was foggy, and still. I was sitting out on my deck in my pajamas, having a smoke before sitting down at the computer to blog. I had just arrived home from work about 20 minutes earlier; I glanced at the clock - it was 2:15 a.m.

Then the quiet was pierced by a squeal of tires, and a huge, thudding crash. The dogs, out on the deck with me, broke out in three-part alarm barking. I jumped up, grabbed the flashlight, put the dogs in the house and snatched up my phone, and ran as fast as I could in my slippers out to our road.

I had seen headlights, but now the night was dark again. At the base of Cedar Lane, as I turned onto River Road, I called out: "Anybody there?" I heard the crack of stumbling footsteps, and swung my flashlight beam over to the side, just in time to catch a body falling forward out of the dense undergrowth and trees.

A young man staggered towards me. He said, "I had an accident." I turned my light towards the car, which I could now see buried deep in the culvert, air bags deployed, front windshield cracked.

His name was Jordan. He was confused and disoriented. I checked him over quickly: bloodied lips, abrasions on his arms, and a discolored dent on his forehead, but no other signs of injury. My primary concern was concussion. I tried to get him to sit down, and pulled out my phone to call local police. The dispatcher said an ambulance was on its way.

We waited. Jordan moaned periodically, and started to cry. He kept repeating that his head hurt. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but said nothing - I was afraid he might be aware enough to realize he was soon going to be in a lot of trouble, decide to take off on foot into the night, and end up unconscious somewhere in the vineyards with a head injury.

He pulled an iPhone out of his pocket and punched in a number. I said, "Jordan, you know it's really late, don't you?" He said he was calling his parents; he lived with them in Santa Rosa. I listened as Jordan work his mom and dad up, telling them the bad news. A minute into the conversation, he began crying and handed me the phone, saying, "Can you talk to him?" I told his dad that an ambulance was on the way, that he wasn't injured badly, and that I would call again once emergency personnel arrived. He thanked me, the worry evident in his voice.

Jordan reached into his pocket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. He lit a Marlboro, and took a few puffs, seated on the side of the road. I was standing above him, holding the flashlight. He suddenly fell backwards, arm extended above his head, lit cigarette ember-first in the grass. I grabbed the cigarette and stomped it out. Jordan sat up, saying, "It's okay; I'm okay. Oh, my head hurts!"

A door opened. The dogs were still barking - they could obviously hear my voice. I knew Sabrina must have woken up, and realized something was amiss when she saw my abandoned coffee cup outside. She appeared a few minutes later, also in her pajamas and slippers. I introduced her to Jordan: "This is my partner. She's a trained EMT. She's going to look you over."

Finally, after Sabrina had determined that Jordan's biggest issue was that he was drunk, the fire truck and ambulance arrived. We were surrounded by men and women in crisis mode; they put Jordan's neck into a brace, placed him on the stretcher, and loaded him into the ambulance. Our night was done.

Jordan was 20 years old, not even of legal age to drink. Thankfully, no one else was in the car, and no other vehicle was involved in the crash. It was chilling to realize that not 20 minutes before his wreck, I was on that foggy road, coming home. I'm glad we didn't meet.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


We held a special New Year's ceremony at the Healdsburg sangha tonight, to bless and give thanks for our meeting space.

The ceremony was fairly simple, moving to each room of the building and lighting a cande, then giving three bows. At the end, we all returned to the main altar, and in between chants, we took turns stepping in front of the altar to announce our practice intentions for the year.

Intentions, though coming at the same time of the year in this case, are not the same as resolutions. As Darlene Cohen explained, resolutions are a matter of applying one's will to something: losing weight, quitting smoking, being on time. But intentions are commitments to mindfulness, a form of vow.

The intentions voiced by members of the sangha ranged from following the Precepts to the best of one's ability to recommitting to daily zazen, from giving oneself a break to bringing practice from the zendo out into everyday life.

Darlene stressed the importance of vow, and of taking the time to state intention, as part of practice. She said since Zen is "nowhere standing," with nothing to hold onto except the fact that there's nothing to hold onto, knowing one's own intentions is critical.

She also spoke of daily intentions, making a statement to oneself each day when sitting down to zazen. This reminded me of my friend Clare, who said that her New Year's resolution for 2010 was to take a moment each day to reflect on what she is grateful for. Here, slightly reframed, is a similar thought: once a day, ask yourself why you are doing this Zen practice. Darlene points out that finding an answer is not important; what matters is asking the question and remaining open to whatever comes in - and continuing to sit, regardless.

My intentions...a good thing to add to my day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My Name is Michelle, and I Am an Addict..

I have a confession to make. I am a complete, unapologetic, wildly out of control book addict. I can't seem to stop buying them.

I have five bookshelves in my office/work space at home, and they are almost full. I'm spilling out into the rest of the house: bedside table, bookcase in the bedroom, a row of hard-bound classics on top of the piano. (The picture above shows what it looked like last summer, when I had to clear it all out to paint the room, and then somehow put it all back in order again.)

It's not as bad as it could be, because about ten years ago, after slowly accumulating books for the first 35 years of my life, and carting them all around with me, I went through a major purge, and sold or gave away almost all of them. After that, I was lean and mean for a while. I started using the library almost exclusively. When I did have to buy a book, I would read it and then give it to a friend.

But somewhere in the nesting that has happened in the past six years, the book habit has crept back into my life. I had kept some volumes, the best of the best, ones that I couldn't bear to part with. And now, I am adding new books all the time. I've been in a book group for the past seven years, so that's one new book a month. Then I hear recommendations, or read one book that references another, or read a review, or stumble across a find on, and off I go.

I am constantly interested in new things, and that interest always leads me to more books. So I have a shelf of books on Zen and other Buddhist writings, a shelf of books on Japanese language, a collection of Spanish books, an assortment of books on writing, a bookcase full of poetry. Then I veer off into all kinds of topics, from vegan eating to gay culture to classical music and music theory to the history of World War II to contemporary philosophy.

There is so much amazing literature out there, so much to learn, so many pages to examine! The problem is that my thirst/appetite outweighs my capacity for consumption, i.e., I have several dozen books that I haven't read yet, and I'm still purchasing new ones. That's where the "addict" label comes into play.

I suppose it's better than a lot of addictions. It's not really hurting anyone else. And it doesn't damage my health, or ruin my relationships, or threaten my job. Sometimes it does put a crimp in the paycheck, though.

So the big resolution this year is to read, read, read! I read "The Taming of the Shrew" by William Shakespeare tonight. I've discovered books on CD, and that has upped my ability to get in more "reading" time. There are fabulous editions of Shakespearean plays on CD, acted out with full casts. I'm listening to each play in my car during my commute, then reading it from my "Collected Works" at home, then listening to it a second time, to really get in touch with the language. Very enjoyable, and a less daunting way to tackle Shakespeare than trying to read all 1,000-plus pages of the "Collected Works" straight through.

Within the next couple of days, I plan to start on the Buddhist reading plan I've laid out for myself - I have lots to choose from. And lots to learn. Maybe I can control myself, and not buy any more Zen texts until I've read the ones I already have. Maybe not....

Upcoming Schedule, Jan. 5-9 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Jan. 5
7 p.m. sit, service with New Year's blessing

Russian River Zendo:

Satuday, Jan. 9
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Saturday, Jan. 16
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Zen Monk's Workout for Perfect Quads & Abs

I mentioned briefly that Russian River Zendo held its first-ever Full Moon Ceremony on New Year's Eve. What I failed to note was that I hobbled around like an old lady for two days after that.

The Full Moon Ceremony lasts about 20 minutes. It has all the fun Zen stuff - big bells, small bells, clappers, the inkan (another bell), and a kokyo script (for the chant leader) that would test Pavarotti. I showed up early for rehearsal, to "shadow" the doan (master of all the bells) and kokyo, with the idea that at some point in the future, I may be able to take on one of those roles. Also, since our sangha had never done the ceremony, Joan Amaral (our ino, person in charge of the ceremony for the night) thought it would be helpful to have one other person (me) who knew what was coming next, to help model for everyone else.

For the ceremony, you set aside your zafu, and use only the zabuton. The entire time, you are either standing, bowing, or sitting in chokei, which means knees bent, resting your weight on your knees and shins, with the rest of your body upright, in gassho (hands in prayer position). I have done some exuberant full prostrations at Tassajara, and also at our recent Rohatsu Sesshin, so I know that those bows can work up some body heat. But I had never sat in chokei before. It looked deceptively simple. But, whoa! It turns out that this posture requires some major quadriceps action! Between the bowing and the kneeling, I was warm, winded, and sore by the end of rehearsal.

And that was only the rehearsal. I had to do the whole thing all over again about an hour later, the real deal.

Don't get me wrong; it was absolutely fabulous. The ceremony, the sounds, the music of it all, combined with the physical movements: It was like being part of a dance. I loved it so much, that I can't wait to do it again. And I really want to learn the kokyo role.

But when I woke up the next morning, I groaned. My thighs felt like I had just gone through circuit training at the gym with a gung-ho 20-year-old fitness pro, after spending a year of sloth on the couch eating bon-bons and watching daytime soaps. It was that bad. My partner was in hysterics listening to me vocalize every time I had to either stand up from a chair, or sit back down again - equally painful.

I asked around via email, and it turns out I'm not the only one who got a workout. My buddy Malcolm Yuill-Thornton said he had just been saying to someone in his life that he was still "feeling the 'burn' from our prostrations." When I mentioned it to Joan, she sent this reply: "I call the full moon ceremony the 'quad and pec total workout.' Not for sissies!!"

So, coming as it did at this auspicious time of year when we're all setting goals for ourselves and turning over the proverbial new leaves...How about introducing the idea of a Zen Monk's Workout? I can already see the ad campaign on late-night TV:

"So busy you need to multi-task? Find spirituality and get fit at the same time! Just call this toll-free number. We'll send you a Full Moon Ceremony workout DVD and a zabuton for only $29.99! Call within the next 15 minutes, and we'll include a complete set of oryoki bowls, with detailed instructions on how to lose weight through the clumsy use of chopsticks. But wait! There's more! Tonight only, we'll also throw in a five-inch-high glow-in-the-dark statue of Buddha. Act now, and don't miss this amazing offer!"

Whattaya think? A money-maker, or what?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A New Year, New Decade

When I was in highschool, watching the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" for the first time, that date seemed so far off in the future. I was sure we'd all be travelling around in Jetson-family-like hovercrafts, and taking one small pill every day to supply all of our dietary needs.

It never even occurred to me then that in 2010, I would still feel young.

New Year's is a good time to reflect on the past, what has worked, what has not worked, and plan for the future. I tend to get a little carried away with self-improvement plans, though, and set unrealistic goals. So this year, I'm thinking maybe I'll space things out a bit, tackle things one at a time.

First on the list: I'm embarrassed to say this, because it's such a cliche. But I've got to get a handle on my food intake, weight and fitness. This is a huge stumbling block for me, one that I have wrestled with for many, many years. I'm trying to figure out how to frame it so I can really make a positive change that sticks. Something about healthy choices: food as fuel, exercise as daily maintenance. And throw in there some Zen awareness about each mouthful, so that I know I eat in the full presence of every bite, hoping that will eliminate all of the unnecessary calories.

Second: Continue on the path I am on towards jukai, and expand my knowledge of the Zen community. I feel firmly placed within my sangha, so this should not be hard. I would like to return to Tassajara again this year, and also, if possible, make time for some short stays or even day visits to City Center and Green Gulch, since I have never been to those places. I hope to expand my reading on Zen in particular and Buddhism in general, so that I can begin to get a grasp of the wonderfully rich heritage of this tradition. I also want to re-commit to daily sitting at home, since I've been somewhat lax about that lately.

Third: As a writer, I have made good progress in the past year. After attending a writing retreat in August, I was much more productive than I have been in ages. I have finally started writing short fiction (in addition to poetry and essays), something I had wanted to try for years, and I am enjoying it immensely. I have two strong writing partners who I can share my work with, and look forward to continuing to build those relationships. A focus this coming year will be on moving towards a more regular writing practice, and being brave enough to submit to journals and magazines.

Fourth: Read more! Of everything!

And that's probably enough to work on, at least for now. There are a couple other big ticket items (like quitting smoking) that I hope to get to soon, but I want to try to get a handle on these first. At least get the momentum going, anyway. I'll have to quit smoking eventually, if I even dream of being able to be the kokyo for the Full Moon Ceremony. No way I'll have the lung capacity otherwise!

Anybody out there have some goals for the year? Care to share? We could form an online support group!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Good-bye, 2009 - A Year in Review

Last night at Russian River Zendo, we finished off 2009 with three hours of sitting, our first full moon ceremony, ringing the densho (bell) 108 times up to the stroke of midnight, and then hearing a neighbor play "Auld Lang Syne" on his trombone. The new decade started upstairs at Tony and Darlene's house, with champagne, hot sake, a varied potluck spread that contained everything from cabbage rolls to sushi to mini-quiches, and lots and lots of chocolate.

It has been quite a year for me as a Zen practitioner. 2009 is the year that I decided to plunge in completely, to give myself to this practice and open my heart to my sangha.

After two years of rather erratic attendance, last January I made the commitment to attend my Tuesday night sangha every week - a commitment that, with a few rare exceptions, I was able to keep. Regular attendance meant that I began to feel part of the group, and gradually took on responsibilities, and now I miss it terribly when a scheduling conflict keeps me away.

I also began attending a study class at Russian River Zendo one Saturday a month, and in April, started participating in the monthly Precepts class as well. That led to fairly regular attendance at Saturday morning sits and service at RRZ, allowing me to expand still further my Zen family contacts, as I grew close to people in that context.

Before this year, I had only done one all-day sit. This year, I participated in two all-day sits at RRZ, one at Berkeley Zen Center, plus a three-day sit and a five-day sit with RRZ at Black Mountain Center. The one day sits were fairly tortuous, and I thought I would never survive a longer sit. The three-day one was difficult - but the most recent, the Rohatsu Sesshin, although the longest at five days, was the easiest so far. I fell so completely into the rhythm of the experience, that I believe I could have continued for a couple of weeks. What a surprise! It has made me eager for more sesshin days.

This past summer, I made the decision to pursue jukai (lay ordination). With a group of my other sangha members, I have been studying the Precepts, and since October, we have been sewing our rakusu together. The sewing has been challenging but also unexpectedly pleasant, considering the fact that I had very little faith at the outset that I was going to be able to do it.

I also broadened my Zen world byvisiting other places. I went to services at the Berkeley Zen Center and the Santa Cruz Zen Center this year, as well as a small zendo in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The trip to Tassajara made me become enchanted with the forms and rituals of Zen, and so I was thrilled to be able to be part of two classes with Joan Amaral on the forms, and have brought that knowledge into my role as kokyo (chant leader) at the Tuesday night group. I have become so enamored of chanting, that I have added it to my home sitting routine as well. I just can't get enough.

Along with others, I made a ceramic jizo for the new temple grounds at RRZ, which was so much fun that I went back to artist Susan Spencer's house to make a second for my own garden.

At the urgings of Tony, Darlene and Joan, I started a blog for Russian River Zendo during the last days in September, and have now posted over 90 entries in the past three months. This "practice" has proven to be both challenging and rewarding, and has led me to many new insights and richer understandings of everything else I am learning.

And, as a culmination of all of these things, I asked Tony to be my teacher, and am in the process of beginning what I hope will be a long relationship of guidance and tutelage.

So, all in all, it has been one amazing year of deepening practice and Zen discovery. Thank you to all of you for being part of it.