Monday, March 29, 2010

Upcoming Schedule, March 30-April 3

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 30
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Beata Chapman

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, April 3
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
Garden Day
noon to mid-afternoon
A work day in the garden, plus spring cleaning of the zendo.
Bring work clothes, gloves, sun hat, garden hand tools.
Lunch prepared by Darlene Cohen.
Please RSVP to

(will be canceled in case of rain, or if too muddy)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Would I Need a '49ers Jersey, Too?

We had an all-day sit at Russian River Zendo today. As is usual with such events, there were so many layers.

On the positive side: It was gorgeous, sunny and crisp, especially pleasant for our two outside walking meditations. There was a nice cohesiveness to the group, a coming together, a forming of sangha that felt very nourishing. Everyone put themselves wholeheartedly into their service roles, whether serving tea or preparing the noon time meal.

On the less-than-perfect side: I have had trouble sitting lately, and my hips have grown very tight. As the day progressed, I was in more and more pain. I had to shift and move and reposition frequently, each time more self consciously. I struggled with wondering whether or not I was doing the right thing to continue to sit on the cushion, instead of moving to a chair. Was I simply being stubborn? Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was the level of agony in my hips so severe that I was about as far removed as possible from any kind of mindful meditation?

I was acting as doan for the day, which made it both better and worse for me. Better, because I was able to look at the time and calculate when I could reposition so that I'd be able to walk when I rang the bell for kinhin. Worse, because I always feel that in such a role I should be setting some kind of example of steadfastness, and today I felt anything but that.

Somehow, though, I managed to get through the day in good humor. The pain, thankfully, only affected my hips, not my mood.

When I returned home, I called my grandmother, Gladys, for one of our regular check-in phone calls. I told her about my day, explaining that I had been at an all-day meditation retreat. I said I my hips had been hurting because I was sitting on the floor. She said, "You need to get some padded pants." I tried to explain to her that it wasn't exactly like that, it was more the position I was in that was uncomfortable. She listened, asking more questions. "So how long did you sit?" I said, "From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m." She said, "All day?" I said, "Well, we have breaks. We have lunch, and tea, and take short walks." She was quiet for a moment.

Then she said, "You know what you need. You need a pair of those football pants. With the pads built in." I laughed and said, "I'm not sure that would look quite right." She paused. "Well, you could wear them under your skirt."

That visual just about did me in. Thank goodness for grandmothers.

We did continue our discussion, and came up with one other solution. Gladys is a seamstress, and she said she'd be happy to help me sew some support pillows. Not quite as fun as football pants, but equally full of grandmotherly love.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Should You Return the Wallet?

In our Precepts class today, we discussed sticky ethical situations, places where there was not an easy right or wrong answer.

Let's say you find a wallet, stuffed with bills. Should you return it to its owner? Most of us would say yes. That's what I was brought up to do -- and I have done it, when the situation has arisen, as it has in my life.

But -- consider this scenario set out by Tony Patchell, our priest. Say you're a med student, who's putting yourself through school moonlighting as a cab driver. One night you're flagged down by a loud, ostentatious Texan with two women. They get into the cab, and the Texan spends the entire ride belittling you, putting you down, in some sort of attempt, apparently, to impress his two lady friends. When you arrive at their destination, he pays the fare, and then says, "Here's your tip," and flicks a nickel right into your face. After the door slams shut and he disappears around the corner, you look into your rear-view mirror and see that the man has left his very fat wallet lying in the back seat.

Now what do you do? Tony says that his friend took the money, and chucked the wallet into a U.S. mailbox, leaving it to the government to route it back to the Texan. There definitely is a certain feel-good justice to that solution. But was it ethical? Was it warranted?

Does the "right" thing to do change when someone has treated you badly? Or, conversely, when someone has treated you well? (As in, would you help someone cheat because they were really nice to you, or they had done you a favor?)

One student said for her it's about flow. Were she to find a wallet, she would think: Do I need this money? If so, she would take it. Does a friend of mine need this money? If so, she would give it to the friend. Does the person who lost it need this money? If so, she would return it.

Priest Darlene Cohen reminded us that the Precepts are not absolute rules, but simply guidelines, since Zen is, in its essence, a belief in "nowhere standing." There are no absolutes. There are no firm answers, things that are always correct, unfailingly dependable. Each situation must be addressed for its own merits, in the moment, and judged accordingly.

Going back to the wallet -- I know that I have left my wallet lying on a countertop in a convenience store in the Mission in San Francisco, and gone back 30 minutes later to find it safely stashed underneath the till, with all the bills inside. I do not remember how much money was in the wallet. What has stayed with me is that human connection, the enormous smile on the face of the clerk behind the counter when he greeted me in Spanish, and said, "Senorita, you came back!" In that simple transaction, we built a bridge of trust that was so much more valuable than anything that could have been taken out of my billfold.

So I return the wallets.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cleaning House

Some days it's just time to clean house.

I have been feeling low energy, barely getting the "absolutely must get done" things done. My partner Sabrina had surgery last week on her right thumb for arthritis, so she's in a splint (which next week will be replaced by a cast), and although she's an incredible trouper, managing for the most part to completely take care of her own basic needs, there are still many things she can't do. Little things like picking up the big water bowl for the dogs to refill it, or sweeping the floor, are simply two-hand jobs - there's no getting around it.

So when I step into the house after work, I toss my messenger bag on the counter and immediately do the basics: fill the water bowl, open the cat food cans, refill the parrot's dishes, take out the trash and the recycling, start a load of laundry, make at least a half-hearted pass at the accumulated dog hair on the kitchen and living room floors.

But I haven't had time to really get much beyond that, until today. Finally, there was a break, an afternoon without appointments or social obligations, and we were just at home together. I replaced the filter in the air purifier, changed the sheets, washed all the throw blankets (our dogs and cats have "blankies" scattered about the house just like a bunch of toddlers), vacuumed all the carpeted rooms, cleaned and relined the bird cage. I even emptied the wading pool on the deck (the dogs' pool), which was full of rain water, and starting to collect mosquito larvae. Kenji the kitten wasn't thrilled by all the activity, as he is terrified of the vacuum cleaner, hiding behind furniture whenever it appears. He recovers, though, given enough love. Eventually.

There is something so deeply satisfying about walking through the rooms of a clean house. I love seeing the just-vacuumed lines in the carpet, smelling the fresh sheets, seeing the neatness and order everywhere.

I live with five cats, three dogs and a parrot, in addition to my partner. It will only be clean for approximately five minutes. But it doesn't matter. It's a wonderful five minutes.

It's an exercise in living in the present moment, because the tidiness doesn't last. It begins to be undone almost immediately. It is in the creation of cleanness, though, that the satisfaction comes. Not in its longevity. (Although, of course, I must admit that occasionally I fantasize about laminating the entire house and locking everybody outside.)

For now -- clean sheets, and fresh dreams.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bad Tire Karma

Last night, I was traveling home on Highway 128, a twisty two-lane country road that is scenic in the daytime but can be somewhat treacherous during stormy weather. Rounding an ess curve, I came upon scattered softball-sized jagged rocks, brought down from the recent rain. Sure enough - thump! I hit one of them.

This is not my first experience in this rock slide area. Four years ago, in exactly the same spot, I was driving with my dog Ripley and encountered a rock slide, with bigger rocks. That time, it shredded my tire on the spot. I barely squeaked over to the side of the road - there is no shoulder, and it was too dangerous to stay in the car. So Ripley and I crossed to the other side. And of course, there's no cell phone reception there. At least it was during the summer, and it was still daylight. A nice mom with kids stopped and gave us a ride to a nearby ranch with a phone, we called AAA, and then we sat by the road to wait. A UPS driver who came by to deliver a package even gave Ripley a cookie, leaving her with the distinct impression that the whole thing was just an unusual way to go about getting a treat.

Since then, whenever it rains, I try to remember to be alert as I approach that section of the road, to slow down enough that I have time to run through the rocks like a downhill ski slalom course. But, eventually, the habitual nature of the drive wins out, and I go into auto pilot, listening to books on CD or music, zoning out, until BLAM! There's another damn rock.

Somewhere in my past lives, I've decided, I must have pissed off one of the tire gods. I have blown tires travelling at 65 miles per hour on the freeway. I have blown tires late at night on elevated on ramps in cities, where I had to get out and walk in the dark for over a mile because it wasn't safe to stay in the car, even though I knew walking didn't feel very safe either. I have spent three days meditating at a Zen retreat center on Skyline Boulevard, and then, completely blissed out, returning home on a two-lane, twisty country road, hit a rock on a blind curve and blown a tire, just as the skies opened up and the rain started to pour down.

I live in constant fear that my tires are going to go flat - that the air is slowly leaking out, that a nail is stuck in them, that the tread is worn to a point that they will just disintegrate. This regardless of the fact that I faithfully replace my tires. I am also terrified of putting air into them - I am afraid that I won't know when to stop, and that they'll overinflate, and explode, and fly off into outer space. Thank goodness for Cloverdale Automotive Services, where Butch, Andrea and Jeff know my name and my quirks. I'd be lost without them.

But back to last night. I have learned a few things. Now I know - if it's a bad place to stop, keep driving, even if your tire is flat. If you ruin your rim, you can replace it. Bearing that in mind, since I had a flat tire, it was the middle of the night, there was no shoulder, no cell phone reception, and no one nearby, I kept driving for another mile and a half. I finally pulled into a driveway, safely off the road. Part of me was secretly hoping that I had just dinged the tire, that it wasn't really flat. But as I slowed down, I could hear the thwacka-thwacka-thwacka. And when I stopped, I smelled the rubber.

My Zen calm completely left me. I was simply annoyed. I got out of the car and danced around for about one minute swearing at my bad luck. But then I called AAA, pulled the donut tire out of my trunk, called Sabrina to let her know what had happened -- and believe it or not, 30 minutes later, I was back on the road, none the worse for the experience. (If you don't count the bill for the new tire.)

Either I'm getting close to paying off this karmic debt, and this is one of my last flat tires, or I'm destined to deal with this particular frustration for the rest of this life, and maybe even the next. No matter which is correct, all I can really do each time, is fix the tire.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Yesterday I sewed the envelope for my rakusu, the final step in my sewing process. All nine of us were present yesterday, coming together one last time specifically to work on the envelopes, even though many in the group are not quite done with the rakusu themselves. But all are so close - so close!

Our teacher, Tony Patchell, came to Sebastopol to pick up the two completed rakusu, Debi Papazian's and mine. Our sewing teacher Connie Ayers had set up a small altar just outside of our sewing studio. She lit a candle and incense. Debi and I took turns passing our rakusu through the incense smoke three times, bowing to the altar, and then turning and bowing to Tony, handing him the rakusu. It was official. We were done!

Sewing the envelope was especially fun because we got to be a little bit wild. The rakusu itself is pretty traditional, with its staid navy blue. The only deviation was that we were allowed to choose our color of thread. I chose a shimmering green. The envelope is made of the same navy blue on the outside, but on the lining, anything goes. Generally you use silk, something with some stiffness to help the envelope stay flat. But colors, patterns - go for it! I chose a green that matches my thread, with dragonflies.

Jukai is now five months away. So after pouring myself into this sewing for the last six months, I have now just given it away, and I won't see my rakusu again until August. And then, the blank white silk on the opposite side will have my new Buddhist name, and I will be taking refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. Five more months.

Upcoming Schedule, March 23-28 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 23
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and discussion of "Trust in Mind" by Mu Soeng

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, March 27
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30-2 p.m. Precepts Class

Sunday, March 28
8:45 a.m.-5 p.m. One-Day Sesshin

Saturday, April 3
Garden Day
noon to mid-afternoon
A work day in the garden, plus spring cleaning of the zendo.
Bring work clothes, gloves, sun hat, garden hand tools.
Lunch prepared by Darlene Cohen.
Please RSVP to

Saturday, March 20, 2010

All the World in One Day

In the Hsin Hsin Ming, there is a line that says "one instant is ten thousand years." Today felt like that.

I seem to have covered the entire range of human emotion and experience through my connections with family and friends, all in a single day. First thing this morning, a friend called to say she'd just been released from the hospital after a dangerous alcohol-induced diabetic reaction, finally acknowledging that drinking was a problem. Another friend called just an hour later seeking advice, because her teen-age daughter was suicidal. I was hit hard by both phone calls, pulled deep into emotional response, feeling helpless and scared.

But the day didn't stop there. We had a full social agenda. My best friend was celebrating her 40th birthday in the afternoon, so we went to congratulate her, socialize and meet up with other acquaintances.

Then, right on top of that event, we had to race to Santa Rosa to a special event at the senior living complex where my grandmother resides, where they were hosting a special open house in her honor. The two-hour event, with champagne and desserts, was a celebration of her years of service in the community. They had asked a member of the family to write something about her, and I, as the family writer, was designated. The previous night, I had written a one-page tribute, and I read it aloud to a packed dining hall of strangers. I am used to reading to audiences, since I often do it as a writer. But I have a hand trembling problem. A podium is what generally saves me. I can lay the pages on the podium, slip my hands into my pockets, and no one is the wiser. But tonight, there was no podium. I was standing up in front of this crowd holding a single sheet of paper in one hand and a microphone in the other. Two paragraphs in, my hand began to tremble so badly, I couldn't read the page. My partner Sabrina came to the rescue, pushing a high-backed chair out for me to lean the paper against, and I was able to finish the presentation. Despite my self-criticism, annoyed that it was not perfect, the piece was well received and drew smiles, laughs, and compliments. Grandma, who will be 100 in August, was in high spirits, loving the attention, and all in all, the evening was a success.

So now I am at home, sitting down at the computer, after not posting for four days, trying to wrap my mind around this vast universe of a day. Celebration and loss, medical scare and longevity, emotional pain and family support, nerves and confidence, empathy and bewilderment, friendship and fear...this last day seemed to encompass the entire human condition, in some way or another.

And I have come to no solutions about any of it. The only answer has been to keep showing up: answer the phone, return the message, bring flowers to the party, write the tribute. I guess that's what I'll keep doing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Just Me

Sometimes I read back over my blog entries and think, "Why me? Who do I think I am? Who am I to profess to know about Zen?"

I know, at the very outset, I made a disclaimer. I am a beginner. But on some days, the tone of my writing seems to take on a sense of authority, as if I have some special insight, or knowledge of this practice. As if I were attempting to teach something to you.

Really, what I am doing, is trying to figure things out for myself by means of my most effective thinking tool -- putting words down on the page.

In a lecture on Buddhism by Prof. David Eckel of Boston University, he tells a story about a talk he heard by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama went off on a fairly extensive, complicated explanation of Buddhist philosophy. But at the end, with a little grin, he said, "And who is it that is telling you this? Just me."

"Just me" when said by the Dalai Lama has some hint of irony, of course, since he is probably the most well-known Buddhist figure in the world today. But his message was meant for all of us. Buddhism is about "no self." There is no permanent thing that is you or me, only a series of moments. And so, given that, there is no ultimate font of wisdom, no source of answers. It might just as well have been you, or me, standing at the podium that day, talking about Buddhism, suffering, and emptiness.

So I guess the more pertinent question is: Why not me?

Upcoming Schedule, March 16-20

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 16
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and discussion of "Trust in Mind" by Mu Soeng

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, March 20
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Giving in All Its Forms

It seems that so many of the people who I meet in the Zen community are "givers," caretakers, providing direct service to others. At Saturday's priest ordination, I heard about Julia's work on behalf of abused children. I know there are so many others who work in hospice, or do body work, or act as therapists or counselors, or social workers, or activists.

As I am wont to do, I lapse into not-very-helpful comparisons. What do I do? How do I help? What offering have I made to the world? Not that the questions themselves are without merit; they're not. But the "I'm not as good as others" accompanying emotional state is more destructive than proactive.

Last week at work, after wrestling with this question for a few days, I realized that although my days at the office may not, on the surface, look like a traditional helping field, there are many ways that I do help others.

I work as a community journalist for a small town weekly newspaper, The Calistoga Tribune. I am not dealing with earth-shattering exposes or breaking headlines most of the time; what I am doing, though, is building community, helping people in a small town to share their stories and to make connections.

Two weeks ago I went to spend the afternoon with a group of teen-agers and some adult leaders who have just started a new program providing home-cooked, nutritious meals for cancer patients. The teens meet once a week and prepare wholesome, organic, nutrient-dense, restorative, and delicious foods, which they then deliver to those who have just come home from the hospital after undergoing major cancer treatment. The fledgling group is an off-shoot of a Sonoma County organization. It was a good story; the teens were enjoying themselves, learning to cook, feeling positive about themselves. They were providing an important service. It was activism and community involvement at its most grassroots level. All the kinks weren't worked out yet; they didn't have a commercial kitchen to work in, they were hoping to line up area chefs as mentors, and they wanted to establish connections with local food producers. But they were making a start.

The next week, the woman in charge of the group came in to pick up extra copies of the newspaper. She said that because of the story, two different offers of kitchens had been made. Several chefs contacted them and said they wanted to help. Others had phoned and said they, too, wanted to be involved. I had nothing to do with starting the group - but because of my story, they are going to be able to take their project to the next level.

We have a seniors activity group that meets weekly called Creative Living. They come together for a simple lunch, bingo, arts and crafts projects, entertainment, and conversation. The group is staffed entirely by senior volunteers, and recently much of the work has fallen on one or two people, who were getting overwhelmed. They came to us and asked if we could put out a call for help in the newspaper. We obliged, running two short notices, free of charge, talking about the group and its need for help. Their organizer came in tickled pink the next week, saying she had received three calls offering assistance.

We keep citizens informed about planning commission decisions and school board deliberations, track the impact of the recession on local shopkeepers, warn people about a rash of vehicle break-ins, and just generally help everyone stay "in the know."

My co-workers and I build awareness about fundraisers by the Soroptimists and the Rotarians and the Kiwanis and the Lions so that these service groups can then turn that money into scholarships and grants and support for essential community services like the Family Center, local schools, and Migrant Farmworker Housing.

Perhaps one of the most important things that we do is give people recognition for the efforts they make in the community. Whether it is a successful student at the high school, or a octogenarian with a fascinating life history, or the Latino owner of a thriving business, we take photos and write stories, weaving these people into the fabric of this small town.

It is on the days that people come into the office to buy extra copies that I am reminded of the value of what we do. And it is good for me to then translate that into an understanding that giving comes in many different forms, each with its own value.

How do you give?

Friday, March 12, 2010

In the World

(The conclusion of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls.")

10. In the World

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Comment: Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible. Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs? I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.

Here, at the conclusion of the Zen story, is the real lesson. We do not seek the bull or knowledge of self (enlightenment) for our own benefit; it is so we may bring that expansion of self awareness and compassion out into the world.

Looking once again at this story as a metaphor for a single period of zazen: After we have sought the bull, found him, tamed him, led him home, transcended him...then the bell sounds at the end of the period, we stand and stretch our legs, and we turn and bow to those in our sangha. We finish the morning or evening with a service and dharma talk, and a discussion with our fellow practitioners, supporting each other in our practice by sharing of ourselves. That support can be through direct service, acting as doan or kokyo or tea server, or it can be through asking questions following the talk, or listening to answers. It can even be through something as simple as smiling at others as they arrive at the zendo, creating a community, making everyone feel that they belong.

I am humbled by how many of my fellow practitioners provide direct service to the world in their daily work, as therapists and body workers and counselors, working with the mentally ill, the sick, the aging, and the hurting. I have done that kind of work in the past, as a volunteer, working with the homeless and the hungry, and providing service to survivors of domestic violence and rape. Currently I am not doing any direct work like that, and I miss it. There is something very grounding in such work, even though it is often difficult, because there is a strong sense of connection with the world of dukkha, or suffering. I hope to find a way to return to that type of involvement in the world.

But for now, it is good for me to be reminded that simply being part of the sangha, showing up and participating, provides service, a way of going out into the world. And, of course, there is always the possibility that as my own life is transformed, even those I come into contact with outside of the Buddhist world will be touched in some way for the better.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reaching the Source

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls.")

9. Reaching the Source

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without --
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Comment: From the beginning, truth is clear. Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration and disintegration. One who is not attached to "form" need not be "reformed." The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo, and I see that which is creating and that which is destroying.

From the beginning, truth is clear. All that stuff in the middle - the seeking, and the heartbreak, and the wrong paths, on one hand, and the joy, and the self-satisfaction and the answers on the other hand - those were just things taking us away from the truth that already resided within us.
At least, that's how I interpret this passage. I think this is referring to our inherent Buddha nature, the fact that each one of us is already a Buddha, and we need only awaken to that truth.

I like here the statements about each thing being just itself: The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red. The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo. Professor Eckel of Boston University, the lecturer from the Buddhism course I mentioned yesterday, used the example of the Japanese tea ceremony to demonstrate this re-finding of the truth. He said when you first begin to practice tea, a bowl is a bowl, and tea is tea. Then, as you reach a deeper understanding of the ceremony and of the aesthetic surrounding it, the bowl is no longer a bowl, and the tea is no longer tea.

But it doesn't stop there. As you continue to practice, he says that you once again come back to the original truth: the bowl is a bowl, and tea is tea.

The answer is here within us all along. But that doesn't mean, I don't think, that all the seeking and questioning along the way has been a waste of time. Because that final understanding of truth, of the bowl as a bowl and the tea as tea, is more intensely present, more potent, thanks to the journey.

Besides, this is all about no regrets. At least on my path. I work on embracing the fact that it is only through my life, in all its messiness, that I could have ended up here. Dwelling in one's true abode.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Both Bull and Self Transcended

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls.")

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Whip, rope, person, and bull -- all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Comment: Mediocrity is gone. Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. Since I linger in neither condition, eyes cannot see me. If hundreds of birds strew my path with flowers, such praise would be meaningless.


If yesterday's message was that two is one, today's message is that one is none. I love the drawing here - just a circle, no bull, no self.

I like to think of "emptiness" as the color black. We think of black metaphorically as the absence of all things, of nothingness. And yet, as any painter will tell you, black is actually the presence of all colors, of everything. It is both nothing and all things.

The lines in the comments that speak to me are these: Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. I have been listening to a lecture series on Buddhism from The Teaching College, given by a professor from Boston College. In it, he quotes the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna: Everything is possible for one for whom Emptiness is possible.

If everything is delusion, the bull, the self, then there are no barriers left. There is no more attainment. I do not seek nirvana as an escape from samsara (the cycle of birth and death), because there is no difference between nirvana and samsara. They are one and the same.

The illustration for this phase is the enso, a Japanese circle which represents enlightenment, the universe, and the void. It is an artistic expression purely of this moment. I sit down with my calligraphy brush and draw a circle, the only circle that exists right now. It is not limited by anything, because it exists both completely within everything and absolutely beyond everything.

Here lies the paradox of Zen. The more you try to explain it, the more it becomes a riddle. But perhaps we need riddles in order to step outside of our differentiating mind, our overwhelming urge to categorize and solve and label.

This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Ah, not messages, but dissolving snowflakes. No teachers, but only footprints of teachers. There is no here here. Wrap your mind around that!

(Sorry about the tardiness of the completion of this post. It was a 16 hour day at work yesterday, and although the spirit was willing, the body was weak...)

The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Bull Transcended

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls.")

7. The Bull Transcended

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.

We chanted the Shin Shin Ming tonight at sangha, The Mind of Absolute Trust. It is the oldest poem from Chinese Zen, that serves as a manifesto of sorts for the Zen path. Reading the comments today (all is one law, not two; of fish and net, one path) reminded me of this chant, because it is filled with seeming paradoxes, putting two disparate things next to each other and then stating that they are one and the same.

Examples from the chant include:
One instant is ten thousand years.
The tiny is as large as the vast...the vast is as small as the tiny.
There is no self, no non-self.
The best you can say is not two. In this not-two, nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It seems to me that this is what has happened at this point in our story of the ten bulls. Up to now, there were two separate entities, the self and the bull. In seeing, catching, taming, riding the bull, there was always a sense of attainment, mastery, bending to one's will, even using a whip and rope. Now, we have entered a new phase. The bull and the self are both resting. There is no need for the rope and whip. There is a merging, a changing of two into one, and in that paradox, which is called here "home," there is time to rest.

When my zazen periods gift me with moments of grace, it is like this. Unbidden, I find myself at home on the cushion. I rest in a way that is active and alert while at the same time completely quiet and calm. And when I fall abruptly back into the world of differentiation, rather than berate myself for having an imperfect practice, I am attempting to train myself to smile. Good humor is nearly as restful as good zazen.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Upcoming Schedule, March 9-13

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 9
7 p.m. sit, service and discussion of "Trust in Mind" by Mu Soeng

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, March 13
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
3 p.m. Priest Ordination

Riding the Bull Home

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls.")

6. Riding the Bull Home

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Comment: This struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children. Astride the bull, I observe the clouds above. Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.

When I completed my first five-day sesshin, I was on top of the world. I believe those days last November were the closest I have come in my life to feeling that "this struggle is over." Things change; about that time, I also began, once again, to experience depression and old discomforts. But they are not the same as they were in the past - having my Zen practice to support me and my sangha to fall back on, the load is lighter, even on the hardest days. Because, you see, I can still feel in my body the energy and lightness, the sense of being both planted in the earth and buoyant, that I discovered during that sesshin.

A couple of months ago, my boss Pat, who is a Presbyterian, was asking me about some of my Zen experiences. She shook her head in wonder and said, "Michelle, I think you are the most spiritual person that I know." I was taken aback at first: Who? Me? Spiritual? But then I just let it sit, that observation, let it come in. And I knew that it was true. I have finally managed to find the touchstone of my own spiritual journey.

When I am struggling with my own burdens, it seems that I am completely self-obsessed, all of my energy directed inwards. And yet, every time I step into the zendo, something changes. I reach out towards others. I am able to give of myself, and allow others to come close. That zendo experience is spilling out into other areas of my life - to my work, to my outside friendships, to my family. I am greeting all with a different wholeness that was not present before - even in those times when I am most challenged with the ogres of old pains.

Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.

The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Taming the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls")

5. Taming the Bull

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Comment: When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity. Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.

I'm not sure how successfully I am training the bull. I would venture to guess that the most sure-fire way to do so is to sit regularly, on good days and bad, when it is easy and when it is hard. I still struggle with this. Because things have been difficult lately, I have wandered away from daily practice. And when I do sit, it frequently feels rather pointless and frustrating.

One positive note, though: my recent questioning and self-doubt have not led me to the bigger doubt of wondering whether or not Zen is my path. That remains sure and true. I have committed to this, in a way that I seldom am able to commit. I have retained the most important aspects of my practice, as much as I have been able. Last Sunday, I finished sewing my rakusu, after four months of weekly sessions with my fellow sangha members who will be going through jukai. Since much of that four-month period I have been plagued with depression, it truly felt like an accomplishment, a sign of discipline, to have shown up week after week to sew.

I also have managed to continue with this blog, which has become part of my practice. Even though last month I wrote much less than the previous months - still, I wrote. I sat down in front of the computer and tried to find small truths that would help me get through each day.

On Saturday, I served as kokyo/doan (chant leader/time keeper) at Russian River Zendo for the two sitting periods and service that are held there weekly. I did not want to go; I had had an exhausting and physically challenging week. And my body was sore and uncooperative, making the periods of zazen difficult. But I did it; I showed up. Perhaps that is one way of "holding the nose-ring tight and not allowing even one doubt." Because what this Zen story says proved correct; one thought arising from enlightenment led to other true thoughts. Showing up for my commitment helped me to reconnect to the sangha, and to push through my resistance towards sitting, and to find in-the-moment joy even in the midst of my difficulties.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Catching the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls")

4. Catching the Bull

I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Comment: He dwelt in the forest a long time, but I caught him today! Infatuation for scenery interferes with his direction. Longing for sweeter grass, he wanders away. His mind still is stubborn and unbridled. If I wish him to submit, I must raise my whip.

When I first began to practice with Tony Patchell, he told me the Zen koan of the iron bull and the mosquito. At first I thought I was the mosquito, and Zen was the iron bull. I was flitting and buzzing about, trying to gain entry to an impenetrable path. I felt as powerless as a mosquito would feel, in such a predicament.

Later at home, I had an epiphany: I am the iron bull! It seemed that I was the one who was implacable and unwilling to change, tethered to my world view, and the mosquito, Zen, was relentlessly pursuing me, trying to get my attention, wanting to wake me up with its nipping bite.

I do not know if one or the other of these insights was correct. All I know is that having my understanding inverted, thrown from one thing into its opposite, split my world open. My life-long attachment to duality and good/bad, me/you, was tossed high into a stormy summer sky, and I was left fresh and new because of it, even if only temporarily.

So am I catching the bull? Or is the bull catching me? Do I raise my whip to subdue the bull? Is that what happens when I sit down to meditate, refusing to get up until the zazen period is done? Is the bull my wandering mind, seeking the pleasures of other pastures? If so, is it a whip that will pull it back? Or a gentle beckoning?

No answers - but many possibilities of answers. And in that wealth of opportunities, a widening of the world.

The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Perceiving the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls")

3. Perceiving the Bull

I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Comment: When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like color in dyestuff. The slightest thing is not apart from self.

The first time I was invited by friends to the Healdsburg sangha, and heard the dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and Tony Patchell, I knew that "the bull" was finally within reach. Not that I had an immediate sense of home; I did not. There were still more hurdles to leap across. But I felt that I was finally in a place where it was possible - I had finally found teachers, at a time when I was ready (or almost ready) to be taught.

It has occurred to me, over the past several days, that this story of the Zen bull can be taken rather literally, as I have been approaching it, as seeking out the path of Zen, sort of a "way-seeking mind" talk. But now that I am more firmly entrenched in my practice, another way of interpreting this tale has sprung to my consciousness.

The entire ten steps can be part of a single period of zazen. Every time I sit down to meditate, I go through the same seeking: lost, no trace of the bull, as I attempt to make my sitting posture stable and try to quiet my mind; sensing that I am approaching the bull, as I settle into my body; glimpsing that first sight of the bull, as the input to sight, hearing, feeling begin to merge into one experience...

Some days, I go through the early steps quickly, and find myself in a place of "emptiness" almost immediately. Those days are a gift. Other days, I am caught on the third, or the second, or even the first step, never getting beyond that.

But I have experienced a complete, utter one-ness, a non-duality, while sitting. I guess that is what gets me through all those other days when I feel as if I am starting from scratch.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Discovering the Footprints

(A continuation of the Zen story, "Ten Bulls")

2. Discovering the Footprints

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.

Comment: Understanding the teaching, I see the footprints of the bull. Then I learn that, just as many utensils are made from one metal, so too are myriad entities made of the fabric of self. Unless I discriminate, how will I perceive the true from the untrue? Not yet having entered the gate, nevertheless I have discerned the path.

For me, the footprints came many, many years ago, long before I was ready to actually follow the Zen path. I practiced aikido when living in Seattle, and as part of that practice, did zazen for the first time. I was intensely drawn to the Japanese aesthetic, which resonated most clearly for me in all things Zen. I received a master's degree in Japanese Studies, and then went to Japan to live for three years. While there, I poured myself into study of Japanese art, literature, culture, and religion, frequently visiting both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. I loved most the Zen temples, with their austere gardens, sculpted sand, and unadorned wooden structures.

So for years, I was drawn in this direction. There was no mistaking the path. But still I was wary, unwilling to commit to the pursuit of anything, particularly any kind of a spiritual exploration. My own life continued to be itinerant, as I flitted from one interest to the next. I had no foothold anywhere.

What is interesting to me, looking back over this period of my life, is that regardless of my haphazard approach to things, I was moving in a certain direction. Although I had no idea how to put my ideas in a spiritual context, I was examining again and again what was true and what was not true: in my own self identity, in the nature of the world, and in the realm of thought and belief.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ten Bulls - A Zen Story of Self-Awareness

Tony Patchell recently shared with me the Zen tale of Ten Bulls, a story about the journey to self-awareness. I am going to share it with you here over the next ten days, with comments as they come up for me.

The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co. (Hopefully that covers all the legal bases...)

1. The Search for the Bull

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Comment: The bull never has been lost. What need is there to search? Only because of separation from my true nature, I fail to find him. In the confusion of the senses I lose even his tracks. Far from home, I see many crossroads, but which way is the right one I know not. Greed and fear, good and bad, entangle me.

I have always been a seeker...of knowledge, of home, of the heart of goodness. My seeking began innocently enough, as a child raised in a Christian family, doubting the religion, finding more questions than answers at Sunday school. I separated completely from that faith at a young age, and turned instead towards a moral ethic, something I felt existed apart from spirituality. I made up rigid rules for myself, and expected others to follow them as well. By the time I was 20, I had come face to face with so many betrayals and obstacles that I lost hope in that explanation.

For many years after that, I wandered. Without planning, I somehow managed to always choose the hardest path: the rockiest relationships, the most challenging situations. I became split into two people: the cynic who believed only the worst in people, and the innocent who continually hoped for the best. That held true for the way I felt about myself as well. I both hated myself, and loved my intentions.

By the time I was in my mid-30s, I was emotionally spent and physically exhausted. I had all but abandoned the thought that it would ever be anything but what it was at that time - living hell. I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night. I was lost in that night, and fear had overcome me to the point that I truly believed morning would never come.

In the commentary, it says: Far from home, I see many crossroads, but which way is the right one I know not. Greed and fear, good and bad, entangle me. That was me, caught up in a tangled web of uncertainty. My whole life had become the search. In a way, though, I guess I was lucky. Things were so bad, that it was obvious it was time to find a new way. For that I am grateful.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Without excuses

The worst part about depression is the retreating...from things I would like to do, from people I would like to see, from tasks that I'd like to accomplish. Over the past several months, I have stopped going to my book group. I have missed my writing group twice. I have been sporadic in my attendance at Tuesday night sangha. I have cancelled my piano lessons. I have been unable to keep my commitment with my writing partner. And I have repeatedly set up dates with friends, only to change plans at the last minute.

Just doing the things I must do has become a chore. Showing up for work takes everything I have each week. And even there, I have had sick days, and days when I arrived late or left early.

On top of the mood issue, I have been feeling physically unwell, dealing with nausea and night sweats. I have been sleeping poorly, waking up numerous times, often from vivid, terrifying nightmares.

Add to all of this new medications with their side effects, and the uncertainty that changes bring, and I have been rendered nearly dysfunctional.

Much of the time, when I sit down at this blog, trying to keep that commitment, it is a huge task to write about anything unrelated to all this chaos. And yet, writing about it makes me feel vulnerable and whiny and self-conscious. Sometimes, like tonight, after a day that was particularly bad, I end up writing about it anyway, because there is just no getting around the elephant in the middle of the living room.

I think I stress most about the fact that I have to repeatedly say, "I'm not going to be able to make it." Or "Sorry, not this week." It seems okay to make an excuse once, maybe even twice. But when the excuses continue, week after week, I can't help but feel that I am getting on everyone's nerves, wearing them out with my own weariness.

I wish I knew the date that this would end. If I could just say, "Everything's off until March 15 - then I'll be back on board," it would feel manageable. But instead, I wake up every morning not knowing how much longer this will last, this time.

So - forgive me for not showing up. Please pardon my absences. I'll try not to make any more excuses. It just is what it is, apparently, and no amount of determination seems able to change the state I am in - I can only trust that eventually, it will change.

Monday, March 1, 2010

One Thousand Fingers

Have you heard the story of Angulimala? He was a very bright student in India, so bright that he caused jealousy among the other pupils. The students managed to get their teacher to turn on him, and as a grisly test, at the completion of his studies, the teacher asked Angulimala to bring back 1,000 fingers from people he had slain.

So off went Angulimala, killing people wherever he met them, and collecting the fingers in a chain, or mala, around his neck.

The local king heard about these murders, and sent his army out to kill Angulimala. The man's mother learned of the king's plan, and set out to warn her son. But at that point, having collected 999 fingers, and thoroughly twisted by his violent pursuits, Angulimala would even have killed his own mother to reach his goal.

This is where Buddha enters the picture. He sensed the situation, and decided to go and save Angulimala from his own fate. He appeared before Angulimala, and the criminal thought, "Oh, here is my last victim!" He rushed towards Buddha, ready to kill him and cut off his finger. But although Angulimala ran as fast as he could, the Buddha was always just one step ahead of him, gliding along effortlessly. Finally, exhausted, Angulimala demanded to know what kind of man this monk was.

And, the texts say, Buddha answered in this way:

"I stand still Angulimala evermore,
For I am merciful to all living beings;
But you are merciless to living beings.
Therefore I stand still and you stand not still."

Hearing these words, Angulimala threw down his sword and became a disciple of the Buddha, donning the monk's robe and achieving nirvana.

So what's the lesson? Being an avid student, so eager to please that he lost his own moral compass, Angulimala serves, I guess, as an exaggerated example for all students of the dharma. And I also surmise that even when you're that far gone, you're still capable of recognizing the Buddha when you see him, and nirvana is still within your reach.

Having read this story, though, I will never look at my mala the same way again. Thank goodness Buddhist tradition decreed strings of beads instead of fingers. I'm not sure I could meditate while counting knuckles.