The Zen of Beauty

 

This post is based on a talk first given at Hartford Street Zen Center on June 2 of this year and then revised for Stone Creek Zen Center on August 26. This is the first time I’ve given substantially the same talk twice. Usually I’d find it boring (and lazy) to do so, but this particular topic has held onto me, refusing to let me go until I do it as much justice as I presently can. As I grapple further with it, other incarnations may arise, though I won’t subject the same audiences to them. But through their questions, both sanghas contributed to the refining of this talk, and I thank them. Also my thanks to Akihiko Masuda, who asked me to address this topic four years ago. My deepest apologies for the belated response.

 

Seven nights ago I had a strange dream. I was supposed to give a talk at Dogen’s temple in Japan, Eiheiji, but I lost track of time chatting with the female priests there (this was a dream, remember). I was also having trouble getting my head properly shaved before the talk – somehow I had only shaved half of it, so I had a Mohawk look, and I was frantically rummaging around the women’s bathroom for a razor to finish the job.

But all I could find in the cupboards were ancient-looking carved stones, and I wondered if that’s what women priests in Japan had to use to shave their heads. I was trying to imagine scouring the hair off my head with a stone when I realized I’d completely missed the time for my talk. But then I consoled myself that I was going to give another talk at Stone Creek in a week, and I liked that place better anyway.

A few years ago, someone asked me to write a book chapter about zen and beauty, and what it means to live a beautiful life. I agreed, and shortly afterward was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a poorly understood illness that has been met mostly with ignorance and denial by the medical establishment.

I got sicker and sicker, and I couldn’t write this essay about how to live a beautiful life because I had lost my ability to find beauty in life; I was struggling so hard just to keep living. For me, this felt like a tremendous failure of my imagination and my zen practice.

I’ve always believed that whether or not we paint, play music, or dance, we’re each the artist of our own life. Although we often experience life’s events as random, all things have causes and effects, and even when we’re not trying to make a design, patterns are created. The question is, are we choosing these patterns, or are they determining us? Art or karma? A liberated imagination or compulsive repetition?

The circumstances of our lives often feel beyond our control, because they are. But this is where the art comes in: every medium has its potentials and limits. It’s these idiosyncrasies that make creativity meaningful. Creativity is not making something out of nothing – that would be magic. Creativity is making something from a given set of conditions and materials.

Certain kinds of art seem to freeze moments in time, like photography, painting, or writing, while other forms, such as music, dance, and life, collaborate with time as a co-creator. According to this distinction, sculpture would be considered a static art form. But one of my favorite artists, Andy Goldsworthy, transcends this classification by creating sculptures in nature, using materials at hand. For instance, he painstakingly assembles huge arches of ice or stone, and sews together streamers of rainbow-colored leaves with thorns. He lies on pavement before a rain and gets up soaked, leaving a dry silhouette behind, until the raindrops finally erase it.

Goldsworthy begins with a vision of what he wants to make, and then his vision meets the conditions of the day – its light, temperature, wind, and rain, and he collaborates with these elements, with time and change. His ice arches are as beautiful when melting as when standing strong, and perhaps most beautiful of all when the tide comes in and the waves begin slowly to carry them away.

Goldsworthy says of his art, “Perfection in every work is not the aim. I prefer works that are fashioned by the compromises forced on me by nature, whether it be an incoming tide, the end of the day, thawing snow, shriveling leaves, or the deadline of my own lifetime.” What he calls “the compromises forced on us by nature” could also be called our lives.

We’re given particular bodies and minds, talents and shortcomings, families and environments, and challenged to make something of them, ideally something meaningful and beautiful. We do this through a lifetime’s accumulation of choices — choices about how to spend our time and energy, what to think about, and which stories to tell ourselves and each other about the world.

The children’s author Mo Willems wrote a book called Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. He said the moral of this tale is that if you find yourself in the wrong story, you can leave. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves in the middle of what we’re sure is the wholly wrong story and desperately wanted out? In fact, we can’t leave suffering, sickness, aging, or death, but we can change the stories we tell ourselves about them. And those stories in turn change our experiences of the events themselves.

Stories get a bad rap in zen, but I don’t think we can live without them. Of course, as a writer, it’s convenient for me to think so. But I believe we’re all story-making animals – our brains churn them out, even when we’re sitting zazen and nothing is actually happening.

Such stories are tremendously powerful. They can give us enthusiasm and inspiration, or tangle us in beliefs, accurate or not, that sap our vitality and will. Of course, we’re free to re-imagine our stories at any time.

The best use we can make of our stories is to reality-check them, exercise our creativity and discipline to imagine alternatives to our habitual re-runs, and hold our chosen versions lightly, open to the possibility that we might have things all wrong.

For example, I could say, “I’ve had a hard time the past four years, being sick and not knowing what to do to get better, undergoing painful and invasive procedures, and constantly fighting our for-profit medical-industrial complex, its indifference and carelessness.” This story is accurate. But when I fuel it with my energy, my thoughts, I feel more exhausted and defeated.

Alternatively, I could tell myself, “Over the last four years, I’ve fought terrifying battles with more or less grace, and a relentless perseverance I wouldn’t have imagined myself capable of. Obviously I’ve prevailed to some extent, because I’m still here. Maybe I’m stronger than I thought.” This is an equally plausible story, but with a more salutary influence on my ability to cope with my present life.

According to current understanding of the neuroplasticity of our brains and the connections between our brains and other bodily systems, the stories we tell ourselves affect us not only emotionally but also physiologically. Through elegant and complex mechanisms just beginning to be elucidated, our thoughts and emotions continually re-create our brains and bodies.

The underappreciated power of stories derives partly from the spiraling nature of time. We know that the past influences – literally, flows into – the future. But present and future also flow back to transform the past. History and memories are revised continually in light of fresh insights and continuously unfolding events.

We have one experience in a moment, and then we have different interpretations and experiences of it afterward, depending on what happens next. Miles Davis said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines whether that note was good or bad.” Life, like jazz, is improvisation.

Which means that our lives are completely redeemable in each moment, depending what we do now, and what we do after. So the meaning of our lives never lies “out there,” as an objective truth waiting to be discovered; it’s something each of us creates for ourselves. As photographer Wright Morris observes, “The final act of coherence is an imaginative act, and the person who created the parts must create the whole into which they fit.”

A capable artist should be able to make art out of anything, right? Just as we must live our lives through the causes and conditions we’re given. Our practice is making something out of this body and mind. And if we cannot make meaning from this moment, that’s not a fault of the moment, but a limitation in our perspective.

This is one of the most demanding and beautiful aspects of art and spiritual practice — that there are no excuses. The hindrances are the path. I was very moved by a story from an HIV-positive practitioner: his teacher told him, “You’ve been given a really rough road, there’s no doubt about it. But this is your road. What are you going to do with it?”

Tolstoy wrote, “The aim of an artist [and I would add, a spiritual practitioner] is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life, in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” To me this is the essence of the bodhisattva vow – to love samsara into nirvana.

We’re taught the image of the bodhisattva helping people across the river separating samsara from nirvana. Yet these two shores are one land, as Dogen tells us over and over again: each thing is everything. Practice is enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment are interdependent, sewn together to make Buddha’s robe. Samsara and nirvana suffuse each other. Our difficulty is perceiving them within each other, in seeing the whole. When we’re in samsara, nirvana feels as if it doesn’t exist. And in nirvana, samsara doesn’t matter. Sickness and health, life and death, so many things feel like this to us.

So the bodhisattva’s first task is a leap of imagination — conceiving the other shore from where we stand now, and not only finding the oneness in the two, the unity of difference and sameness, of form and emptiness, but being this oneness, manifesting the equality of all things as a reminder and inspiration.

Activist and writer Rebecca Solnit comments that while “kindness, compassion, [and] generosity are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones.”

So here’s my definition of enlightenment: acting in harmony with all things. Seeing the world whole, living it whole, and loving it whole. Which means we have to love it as it is, and love ourselves as we are, while at the same time working for better from the world and ourselves, burnishing the jewels of Indra’s net.

Dogen wrote a poem that begins: “Polishing the moon, cultivating clouds.” I love these metaphors for our practice. We polish something that is already so bright, the life force that animates all things. We polish it not for itself, but for us, so that through our practice of polishing, we reveal its brightness to ourselves. Polishing doesn’t change the nature of life; it changes how we perceive it. Our effort makes visible what has always been there, what has never been lacking.

The beauty attending the action of polishing is important, because beauty helps us love the world, which is the bodhisattva’s calling. But it matters where we find beauty. In Japanese aesthetics, asymmetry is considered more attractive than symmetry. This is unusual, because we humans are naturally drawn to symmetry. It reassures us – it’s predictable and gives us a sense of security, and we don’t care if that security is a delusion.

In living beings, symmetry itself is usually an illusion. Artificial things can be engineered to be perfectly symmetrical, but natural ones are tricky. Most of us have two feet that look the same size, but aren’t. We’re not perfectly anything. So Suzuki Roshi teaches us to find perfection within imperfection, like wabi-sabi.

Author Robyn Lawrence explains this expression beautifully: “Wabi [means] simple, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. Sabi [translates as] ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression. Sabi things carry their years with dignity and grace: for instance, the mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegance of a bare autumn bough.”

Wabi-sabi is what scholar of religion Karen Armstrong might call a “moral aesthetic” – an understanding of beauty that teaches us to live better, more kindly and truthfully. Normally in our culture, we live in denial of the impermanence that we know lurks everywhere. We’re conditioned to believe that old age is ugly, and that it’s morbid to speak of death. This denial costs us dearly, causing us to take for granted our own lives and those of people we love. Where and how we find beauty is not only an aesthetic choice; it’s also a moral one.

In his mind-altering commencement address, “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace noted: “The only thing that’s capital-‘T’ True is that you get to…decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because…in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

In this country, it seems to me that we worship money and youth, in that order. I’m currently editing Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on Dogen’s complete waka poems. Recently I was trying to find a synonym for a word he’d translated as primordial, which didn’t work in context.

I duly consulted my thesaurus and was directed to a list of synonyms for old: wizened, decrepit, failing, rundown. In English we have no words for age as a positive quality. But does impermanence subtract value, or enhance it? In Japan, the answer is clear. Cherry trees bloom unpredictably and fleetingly; their blossoms are delicate and can be dropped by one good rain.

Yet the blooming of these trees is celebrated throughout the country as a kind of sacred rite, observed with picnics under the trees day and night, for as long as the flowers last. People chase the blossoms from south to north, just as they pursue the turning autumn leaves in the opposite direction come fall. Between these pilgrimages is the summer ritual of fireworks, or in Japanese, hanabi, which translates as fire flower.

All these evanescent flashes of beauty are cherished for their impermanence, which, given the nature of our world, makes more sense than stipulating, “I’ll only invest my love in things that will reward my devotion by sticking around forever.” Because the only things that won’t die on us are things that never lived either.

True vitality embraces aging and dying, not as design flaws to be overcome, or masked at any cost, but as inherently valuable links in the chain of life. Living things are partly made of dead things. Death is the means through which life renews itself. I sometimes imagine life as a child playing dress-up, proudly parading one outfit after another, donning and discarding them with equal zeal. But appreciating this endless spectacle can feel impossible when we’re sick, exhausted, or grieving.

I remember Reb Anderson saying he wanted a practice that could take him through blindness, through cancer, through anything that could happen. Which makes sense. A practice we can only do when everything’s going well isn’t very helpful. So where was my unconditional practice when I was sick? Why had it forsaken me, or I it?

Shohaku Okumura once talked about a low point in his life, when he was broken down after years of hard labor building a temple in the woods of western Massachusetts. His body was in such bad shape that he couldn’t sit zazen.

For many years, he had thought he was practicing proper zazen, meaning zazen without any gaining idea, or “good-for-nothing zazen,” in the words of Homeless Kodo. But when Okumura Roshi couldn’t sit, he lost his sense of meaning in life, and then he realized zazen had been his purpose, which meant he hadn’t truly been sitting good-for-nothing zazen after all.

This is such a delicate balance. We have to make zazen important enough to do it, but if we make it too important, or for the wrong reasons, if we make too much contingent on it, we fall prey to spiritual materialism, which might be the worst kind of materialism, because it undermines the heart of our practice.

For reasons not fully clear to me, I love zazen and have sat monthly sesshins for almost ten years. Yet at my sickest, I couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes; I was in too much pain, physically and emotionally, and zazen made me more aware of it, as it makes us more aware of everything.

I couldn’t write either, because my intention in writing is to inspire and empower, and I was feeling neither myself. It’s relatively easy to write a soaring tale of redemption after the fact, after having come through the maze. But what about while we’re trapped in the middle? What if we never come through?

As a priest I’m by definition a person of faith, so I don’t like to admit that I don’t have faith in much. Needless to say, this is an ongoing koan for me. I do think there are things worth believing in; I just have trouble believing in them all the way, trusting life completely, because we know terrible things happen all the time.

The question is, “Can we make our dharmic courage equal to these things?” We are the ones who get to decide, personally and politically, whether we keep working for stories of victory, or succumb to despair and call ourselves defeated.

In her excellent book about activism called Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit admits: “Everything is flawed, if you want to look at it that way…[but what] has helped me most is this: in Hurricane Katrina, there was bumper-to-bumper boat-trailer traffic…going toward the city the day after the levees broke. None of those people said, ‘I can’t rescue everyone, therefore my efforts are worthless.’ All of them said, ‘I can rescue someone, and that’s so important that I will risk my life and defy the authorities to do it.’”

In transforming suffering, our intention isn’t only to make something of our lives, but also to shape what life makes of us. Who am I becoming by saying these words, taking that action, or thinking my habitual thoughts?

One thing I do believe in is artistic alchemy…turning bitterness into beauty. Mollusks have hard shells because they have soft bodies. When a grain of sand irritates the softness, a mollusk wraps the sand in pearl. I’ve often wondered what this transformation costs the oyster.

When my particular body-mind was suffering most, I couldn’t do much about it. All I did was hold on, and that took everything. Lying in bed, I remembered how Uchiyama Roshi wrote that when you don’t know what to do, waiting is an acceptable substitute for zazen. There are many kinds of waiting – impatient, aggressive, resigned, lazy. Of perhaps the finest kind, T.S. Eliot observed, “The faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

I also thought often about the origin of the word “heal,” which isn’t to cure, but to make whole, and that wholeness, like enlightenment, is something we are never outside of. It’s a given. Virginia Woolf wrote, “The whole world is a work of art, [and] we are part of [that] work.” We can be suffering and whole, sick and whole, dying and whole. In fact, we can only be whole if we are also all of those things.

Another given is change. This is the dharma, the truth, that we take refuge in. And things did change for me. I’m not cured yet. I hope I will be someday, but I know that I don’t know. We can know only this moment, before it changes into something else. The notes – sweet, bitter, and silent – keep playing. The universal life force keeps changing its clothes. All we can do is let ourselves be one with it, dropping off body and mind into it.

At SFMOMA until October, there’s an exhibit of late paintings by Rene Magritte. Two of the paintings are titled “Kiss.” In one, a bird made of bright blue sky with puffy clouds flies through night. Magritte called this “the bird of sky.” In the other “Kiss,” a bird of starry night flies through a hazy daytime sky. Light kisses dark, bird kisses sky. Magritte remarked, “Wherever our destiny leads us, we are always protected by an element of beauty.” Like the oyster protected by its pearl.

In “Genjokoan,” Dogen reminds us, “When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.” In other words, no matter how turbulent or dark the sea or sky, we are never out of our element. We are not in the wrong story. This is the truth we are asked not only to accept, but to embrace.

During my first practice period at Stone Creek, we studied a draft of Okumura Roshi’s book Realizing Genjokoan. In that book he wrote two of my favorite sentences: “When a bird is flying, the sky is also flying…. The entire sky is the wings of the bird.”

We usually translate the Pali word dukkha as dissatisfaction or suffering. But it also means sky. Our practice asks us to remember that suffering, sickness, aging, and death are also the wings of the great bird flying, the wings of the entire sky flying.

 

Le Baiser (Kiss) — Rene Magritte, 1951

 

 

 

 

 

Each Thing is Everything

“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things…. Choose a place where you won’t do very much harm and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” – E.M. Forster

 

Bodhisattvas, or people who consider themselves such, can be annoying. A vow is not an identity ripe for reification; it’s an awareness, a commitment, and a reminder of how often we fall short. As with the Dharma in Genjokoan, if we think we have it, we’re far away.

I’m remembering the chalkboard in high school math, where my teacher has drawn a curve that approaches infinitely closer to a line without ever touching it. We might consider our lives a failure because we can never fully reach our aspirations. But if a vow has guided the entire trajectory of our lives, we can’t say it accomplished nothing.

The central vow I made at my ordination was the bodhisattva vow to “save all beings.” My Zen teacher, Shohaku Okumura, has said that “saving” all beings means being one with all beings. This understanding has been vital for me, because people sometimes idealize priests and elevate practice centers above “the real world.” But such separations undermine our vows.

When I arrived at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 2005 to begin my formal training, I was struck by how often students referred to in here and out there, as in, “People are so much nicer in here than out there.” I had no idea what they were talking about. The practitioners at Tassajara seemed like people anywhere – fully human, endowed with “both thief nature and Buddha nature,” as Kodo Sawaki Roshi put it. Since I had recently immigrated from out there, I would’ve noticed a substantial difference in niceness. What I saw instead was discrimination.

Would a bodhisattva see herself as a bodhisattva, which necessarily means seeing some other people as not-bodhisattvas? In other words, would a bodhisattva think in such dualistic terms? Would she elevate herself above others?

Zen practitioners are taught the image of the bodhisattva helping people across the river separating samsara from nirvana. And yet these two shores are one land, as Dogen Zenji tells us over and over in his dazzling displays of poetry and paradox, which all come down to one truth: each thing is everything. Practice is enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment are interdependent, woven together to make Buddha’s robe. Samsara and nirvana suffuse each other. Our difficulty is in perceiving them within each other. When we’re suffering in samsara, nirvana feels so far away that it doesn’t exist. And when we’re at peace in nirvana, samsara doesn’t matter. Sickness and health, life and death, so many things feel like this — like mutually exclusive domains with no bridges between them.

The bodhisattva’s task is not only to find the oneness, the unity of form and emptiness, of difference and sameness, but to be this oneness, to manifest the equality of all things as a reminder and inspiration. This is “so-called enlightenment”: being and acting in harmony with all things. Seeing the world whole, living it whole, and loving it whole – “joyful participation in a world of sorrows,” in the words of Pico Iyer. Standing for all you’re worth, facing the sunshine, because bodhisattvas need joy as much as determination.

I think some people naturally do this work in the world, without needing to make any particular resolution. Others have to spell it out, to affirm for ourselves, “This is what I’m devoting my life to.” And then spend every day thereafter trying to figure out what we’ve promised, and what our promise means in each moment. I don’t think it means always being nice and giving people what they want, or never saying no. If you can’t say no, then your yes is meaningless. The bodhisattva no is important.

I first learned about religions other than Christianity and Judaism when I was twelve. My history teacher said that Shinto holds everything in the world to have a spirit, even things we don’t consider alive. I looked down at my desk, initials carved on top and gum fermenting underneath, with newfound curiosity and respect. I have no memory of Dr. Pisani’s descriptions of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, or Islam, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of wonder, the possibility that everything I’d taken for granted might be party to a sacredness secretly shared by all things.

Partly thanks to that moment, I’ve believed fiercely since childhood in the equality of all people and things. This conviction has held its own against our society’s pervasive brainwashing, overt and subtle, deluding us that certain races, genders, and classes of people are more valuable than others. And that human beings naturally matter more than other living and non-living things.

Such discriminations result in devastating inequities in people’s access to necessities, opportunities for fulfillment, health, safety, and freedom. On a wider scale, privileging human beings above all other life and non-life wreaks havoc on our planet, our home – the ultimate no-win situation. Each thing is everything.

Just before I left Japan, I visited Eiheiji with a friend. There I met a Japanese priest I really respected. I asked if he’d ever been to Tassajara, and what he thought of it. He hesitated as people do when they don’t want to say anything negative. I assured him that I was going there anyway; I was simply curious about his opinion. He thought Tassajara was one of the most beautiful places in the world to practice, but that some of the longtime practitioners there “had dead eyes.”

I could imagine what he might be referring to (the studiedly serious “I am a Zen person and must behave accordingly” expression), so I asked him what he thought caused this condition. He said, “I think American Zen students feel a need to worship their teachers, and that’s unhealthy for both students and teachers. Here in Japan, a Buddhist priest is a very ordinary thing. No one expects us to be God.”

Sometimes I’m reluctant to wear my robes, especially when I first join a sangha; I imagine they can create a feeling of separation for people who don’t have them. I also don’t like some of the projections they invite. But I believe it’s part of a priest’s job to work to overcome such projections and perceptions of separation. People wear different clothes, but if I allow mine to represent “betterness,” I’m corrupting the robe’s intention: to symbolize humility and vow — the vow to be one with all beings.

While training at Okumura Roshi’s temple in Indiana, I supported myself by helping international graduate students with their English speaking and writing. One, a Chinese Buddhist, liked to confide her romantic woes. Once I empathized, “Yes, I just hate when that happens!” She looked shocked. “But I thought as a priest you would have transcended all that!” All what? Love? Anger? Disappointment? Emotion in general? Maybe transcended being human altogether? Nice work if you can get it. But it isn’t to be had, not in this incarnation at least.

One of the reasons I don’t think of myself as a bodhisattva, despite my vows, is that a bodhisattva is described as a person capable of abiding eternally on the sunny shores of nirvana but electing not to, out of her great compassion and desire to rescue those still tossed on the rocks of samsara. I certainly can’t take credit for renouncing a permanent nirvana dwelling I’ve never had. I also can’t immediately think of anyone I know who would qualify as a bodhisattva under this exacting definition.

As far as I can tell, most of us commute regularly between samsara and nirvana; I don’t think we have any choice. That’s the nature of our life, moment by moment. It’s also the nature of nirvana and samsara – the shores always shifting as the river flows onward. Who could be just one thing? How fortunate that each thing is everything! Mary Oliver wrote, “There is only one question: how to love this world.” I wholeheartedly agree with her – it may not be my only question, but it’s the one that moves me the most. For me, it’s the fundamental bodhisattva question.

I do love Zen practice, and what I love most is that it changes lives. Living by vow changes lives. It has changed my life, and I’ve seen it change other lives. When I lived in Maine, I sat with some people and we discussed Hojo-san’s Homeless Kodo book, one chapter at a time. Most of us had never practiced before. Except for me, no one was wearing any special clothes, and we weren’t in a temple; we sat in a living room overlooking a river that had once separated the two worlds of a mill town: where the workers lived and the owners resided.

I’d edited Homeless Kodo with my usual ambivalence about editing, but each week I witnessed its words help people transform themselves: smoothing family relationships, putting work challenges in perspective, calming mindstorms. It was remarkable to see words having such tangible power in the world, since writers often feel we’re shouting into wind. As poet John Keats had inscribed on his tombstone, “Here lies one whose words were writ in water.” Like too many artists, he died convinced his life had been a failure, without any idea what his poems would mean to generations. Bodhisattvas do not necessarily know they are bodhisattvas. Maybe they cannot know it, because then they would stop being it.

In my twenties I had a one-day tenure as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood, counseling women who’d just received the results of their pregnancy tests. My client was in tears. She was a migrant farmworker who had several children already and couldn’t afford another. I couldn’t think of anything useful to say; I murmured a few words, listened to her talk and cry, and concentrated very hard on not crying myself. After half an hour, she thanked me and left. I called my supervisor the next day and quit, explaining how useless I’d felt, and how I’d very nearly cried, which could hardly have been reassuring to the client. She told me that in fact the client had felt better after our session; she said it was the first time someone had really listened to her.

What I experienced as a failure became a koan about help: what is it? Giving people what they need or what makes us feel good? What are our motivations? Are we serving them, or validating ourselves? What are the limits of one person’s ability and responsibility to help another? Are false assumptions or hidden judgments on either side hindering our efforts? Can we help someone without a trace of selfishness in our hearts?

I once read that counselors assume they help people through their words and methodologies – Jungian, cognitive behavioral, whatever they trained to do. But the writer asserted that people are helped most not by what we say, but by who we are, and by the quality of our relationship with them.

So how do we become better bodhisattvas? We work on ourselves. Zazen, and especially sesshin, has been one of my ways of working on myself, of gathering my heart-mind, of remembering the difference between society’s values and my vows, between so-called reality and the true nature of life. People are sometimes surprised that I still sit four or five-day silent sesshins whenever I can, often at home. To me it feels very straightforward —  I just sat for long enough that sitting became a normal thing to do. Turning off my email and phone and not doing what’s expected for a few days became acceptable and even essential to me.

Recently I heard a Dharma talk at my new sangha. A friend from Tassajara, a priest, writer, and hospice counselor spoke of his challenges in meeting suffering, and how he returns to our practice when he feels himself overwhelmed by the cries of the world. Afterward someone asked, “Practice is great, but what are we supposed to do about all the suffering when we stand up from the cushion?”

With a beautifully rueful smile, my friend said, “I don’t know.” I really respected this answer. It takes courage to admit “I don’t know” from the teacher’s seat. And it’s true. He can’t know what she should do when she stands up, because the bodhisattva vow must be manifested uniquely according to each person’s desires, abilities, and limits. Realizing our individual incarnation of a universal vow is the work of our lives. And vow isn’t static; it changes along with the person who vows.

So if you ask me tomorrow what the bodhisattva vow means, I might give you a different answer. And that would be all right. In the deepest regions of life, I prefer questions to answers. Questions are alive. And any question worth its salt has as many answers as the ten thousand things.

 

This post is excerpted from an essay in Boundless Vows, Endless Practice, an anthology of writings on the bodhisattva vow published recently by The Dogen Institute. The book is available here: https://dogeninstitute.wordpress.com/purchase-pubs/

Also, I’d like to note that despite my occasional critiques of institutional Zen, I’m endlessly grateful to my two training temples, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Sanshin Zen Community.

 

 

The Laurels of the Day

 

In The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, Sawaki Roshi describes riding down a mineshaft in an elevator: “For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast. Then I started to feel as if it were going up. I shone my headlight on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily. When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but when the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising…. In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.”

Many of us have experienced this effect, or the equally odd sensation of a moving train seeming to stand still while another train runs alongside. Our senses are easily deceived by motion, its speed and direction. And definitions of forward and backward vary depending on our desires of the moment.

We tend to gauge our station based on where we’ve been or want to be, although such relative calculations might often be inaccurate. I think we mostly have no clue where we are, because our perceptions are filtered through our hope and fear. Our feelings about our present hinge on how closely it resembles where we’d like to be. We’re constantly comparing our interpretation of reality with our image of how it ought to look.

Such comparisons are the enemy of joy and peace. Under what circumstances is now enough? Who decides? Is a good life always and forever “out there,” fleeing us as we pursue it, the Daphne to our Apollo?

As far backward as I can remember, I’ve been a forward-looking person, “goal-oriented,” as we say. This quality or conditioning drives me to pack my days with things to check off, and to value a day and a life by the crossed-out lines in a calendar. Because I rarely stop long enough to savor anything, after 50 years, much of my life feels as if it happened to someone else.

In the myth, just as Apollo finally reaches Daphne, she turns into a laurel tree. And the god of light weaves a crown from her leaves, making his failure a symbol of victory. What does this tell us about the nature of success and failure? Is it, as I read somewhere, that almost every success could also be told as a succession of failures? Or is the myth encouraging us to make wreaths of beauty and jubilation out of all we’ve lost and are bound to lose?

Resting on laurels bears its negative connotation, particularly for people who resolutely face forward. But I’m coming to believe there’s something to be said if not for resting on them, then at least recognizing them, giving their subtle fragrance and weightless grace its due. Perhaps each moment, bitter or sweet, offers the makings of its own crown if we look closely, without regard to our expectations or craving. Maybe, as Annie Dillard suggests, our days themselves are gods — taken for granted, wrongly judged, and sometimes ill-used, but true reigning gods nonetheless.

 

 

Medical #1

Recently I went to the hospital for a test that involved applying electrical current to my nerves and muscles to assess their function. I was double-booked for this appointment, so I had to wait a while for the technician. The assistant checked my vital signs, finding my blood pressure and heart rate elevated, in my opinion appropriately, given the situation. Then she asked whether I wanted to be “roomed” right away or wait in the lobby.

This was such unusual grammar that I was compelled to inquire obtusely whether “roomed” meant put in a room, although under the circumstances, what else could it mean? I was further nonplussed by the choice; usually medical personnel decide for themselves according to criteria unknown when to “room” a patient. I’ve spent hours in both lobbies and rooms with as little control over the location of my wait as its duration. After some hesitation, and reasoning that there would be fewer possibly contagious people keeping me company, I opted for immediate rooming.

Thus I was shown to what I couldn’t help thinking of as my torture cell. It was tiny and fluorescent and crammed with unpleasant-looking equipment which I chose not to inspect closely. Turning my back on the machines, I realized the room overlooked the western half of San Francisco. Because this neurology department occupies the top floor of a building on a hill, the view was breathtaking: pale houses and lush treetops; a large pink and gold church; avenues scattered with lights like jewels, stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean; and the discordant blocky tower of the new museum that charged substantial admission for a view sadly inferior to mine. Ironically, I’d for once remembered to bring magazines, since the excitement of waiting room literature wanes after a few surreal hits of “People.” But who could waste such a sight? And I wouldn’t have been able to savor it nearly as long if I’d made the wrong selection of venue.

Since I was already in a robe, one of those numbers that never manages to comfortably cover one’s personal terrain, I climbed on the table and sat facing the windows, as if I were meditating. Meditation is difficult, and no less so in the face of awesome beauty. But at least one thinks about different things; inner scenery shifts with the outer, which is probably why we’re taught to sit in front of a wall. That way distraction is obviously an inside job.

Yet the beauty helped in ways not only spiritual. I observed that the insistent pain of the needles and shocks registered more distantly when I faced the sky. I felt perched there, amid the immensity; in fact I had to lower my gaze to see anything other than clouds skating on blue. By gracious accident, I’d been granted an honor contingent on nothing, and undiminished by its attendant suffering. This is the deal, I was reminded — this is life, exactly.

 

 

 

 

Everything is All Right

For Al Tribe

A fundamental tenet of Buddhism (and science) is that nothing can be lost from the world: life and death are one continuous flow of form into other forms. In our blood are minerals that once were rock, observed poet Lorine Niedecker. Rock and water flow in our veins, and we flow back into them. We know this much. Which makes birth and death opposites — the entering and escaping of life from a given form. But life and death aren’t opposites; they’re partners in an infinite dance. Death is the means by which life renews itself.

Despite this understanding, when someone we love dies, we experience a hole in the world through which something beyond value has slipped away. Life feels utterly changed, and we know it will remain so. And yet life doesn’t pause in deference to our loss, but proceeds with seeming indifference.

Poet W.H. Auden wrote about the death of Icarus:

“…the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

This is the sadness and the beauty of life — that it sails on, with and without those we love, with and without us. The sun shines because it has to. This is all that life knows how to do, the never-ending to which its ingenuity is devoted: it goes on.

Even in the thickest beginning of our grief, there are moments when we forget our loss. Then the memory breaks over us, and we’re shocked anew, and remorseful for having forgotten even for a second…for having sailed on. Death is harder on the living than the dead, because we have to continue. We think of questions we want to ask, jokes we want to share. We have long conversations with our memories and our imaginings.

Some Buddhist monks meditate in charnel grounds. This is a way of holding death where it belongs: in front of our eyes, all the time. Because we would live our days differently if we lived them intimate with this reality, rather than in virtual denial of it. Of course, we know we’re going to die. But we think of death as something that will happen sometime. And we think of sometime as a time removed from now. This fallacy enables us to be petty, to waste life, to obsess about things we know don’t matter, and to take for granted ones we love.

If we felt in our bones that we could die at any moment, which is the truth, how would we live? If we knew that each meal might be our final one, would we taste it more? If we thought that this day could really be our last, or another’s last, what would we say to them? How would we behave in the world?

There is a ground that is neither denial nor despair. It’s a middle path not halfway between those extremes, but beyond both: a way that embraces life-and-death as one, a practice that Pico Iyer describes as “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.”

My friend Al Tribe was, among many attributes and qualities, a Zen priest, psychiatrist, and deeply loving man. For about two years we met once or twice a month on Thursday afternoons at the same coffee shop. During one of these conversations we discussed enlightenment, which now seems odd because it’s not something I think about much. Maybe I was testing him; I tend to be skeptical about dwelling on enlightenment. Anyway, Al wrote his understanding and experience of the word on the back of the receipt for our lunch. It read, “EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT.”

For nearly a year, the receipt sat on my altar. Al died just before Rohatsu, the first week of December, dedicated in the Buddhist world to silent meditation in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment. In the middle of this meditation, I visited his family, taking a copy of the receipt for his wife. I worried whether it was too soon for that particular message, but it was the only one I had in his handwriting. It turned out to be all right.

This is just to say I miss you, Al. And I wonder — even on days of least light, is it conceivable to feel that everything is all right?

 

 

 

A Fierce Egalitarianism

 

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”

— John Maynard Keynes, 1930

 

Writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, Keynes was optimistic that when economic conditions improved so that people had enough money to live, their values would shift accordingly. Material acquisitiveness would cease to be a virtue; success would no longer be synonymous with a person’s “net worth” — a curious expression: net of what?

Clearly Keynes’s hopes have gone unfulfilled. If anything, American society is more hag-ridden than ever by pseudo-moral principles like Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good.” Or the belief that people who are poor don’t deserve help because their poverty is their fault — they’re lazy or stupid or otherwise unfit to live in a society in which capitalism has been neatly translated into social Darwinism.

Life itself has become a commodity of conspicuous consumption, advertised via social media: “Look where I am! Look how much fun I’m having!” Young people who never knew a world before cell phones and the internet learn to value themselves according to the currencies of Instagram and Facebook, by “Likes” and “Followers.” Some of our contemporary values aren’t just morally questionable; they’re downright creepy. Time was, only aspiring dictators and cult leaders needed followers.

Northern California is an especially strange land these days — recently awarded the distinction of being the most expensive place in the nation to live, yet every day I walk around people sleeping on sidewalks. Communities live beneath overpasses and bridges blocks away from one-bedroom apartments renting for $3,000 a month.

While versions of this scene play out in cities across America, I find it especially morally painful in this region dominated by the “high” technology industry, which proclaims its supposed mission to “make the world better” from shiny billboards along the freeways while quietly displacing entire urban populations beneath them, creating masses of domestic refugees. From the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, Silicon Valley’s “better world” looks a lot like highway robbery.

Our government has been timorous about restraining the monopolistic practices and profits of what European anti-trust officials call “GAFA”: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Because in this country, capitalism is our abiding religion. From Wall Street to health insurers and pharmaceutical companies, our economic and legal system privileges corporations over people, rich over poor. We still consider ourselves the most “advanced” country in the world, despite decades of statistics to the contrary in areas such as healthcare, public safety, education, and happiness.

John Lanchester’s recent New Yorker article, “How Civilization Started: Was It Even a Good Idea?” cites anthropologists, political scientists, and economists whose work suggests that in many ways “civilization” has made us both less happy and less civilized than the people we think of as our “savage” ancestors.

Lanchester quotes anthropologist James Suzman about the Bushmen of the Kalahari: “The sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

From here, it’s hard to imagine a world where material inequality is not tolerated. Here, we live in a zero sum game: for one person to succeed, many others must fail. Here and now, inequality is not merely tolerated; it’s venerated. It’s our measure of success, not failure. What happened on the way to civilization?

In some ways, says Lanchester, “It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took [a Bushman] only about 17 hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities.” The hunter-gatherers averaged 2,300 calories a day, slightly over our recommended amount, though short of what we need to maintain our obesity epidemic.

At the time of the study, the average American week required 40 hours of paid work and 36 hours of domestic labor. Despite our modern, time-saving conveniences, we somehow enjoyed half as much leisure as the Bushmen. Because we had to pay for the conveniences. And pay not just enough to cover the cost of their production or a living for their inventors, but enough to make companies and their owners rich. Henry David Thoreau defined the cost of a thing as the “amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Some of the principles that distinguish the Bushmen’s society from ours are: “[They] do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, then stop. They exhibit…an unyielding confidence’ that their environment will provide for their needs.” And above all, they share, with fierce egalitarianism.

When was the last time we ate or bought simply what we needed, and then stopped? I think it’s become difficult for us to recognize when our needs are satisfied because we’ve been sold on packing all kinds of desires into our idea of need. And as the Buddha observed, desires are inexhaustible. So we suffer a constant state of imaginary scarcity which feels so real to us that we can’t stop worrying, acquiring, or hoarding.

We have no faith whatsoever in our environment to provide what we need, and how could we? Because our society doesn’t value sharing; we prize competition instead. Such competition is supposed to be good for us, motivating us to create better products and thus better lives. Has our great American experiment in free-range capitalism proven its hypothesis? Has it made better, happier lives for our majority?

In a chapter titled, “Mistaking Technological Advancement for Human Transformation,” Kodo Sawaki (Homeless Kodo) wondered half a century ago, “Advancement is the talk of the world, but in what direction are we advancing?”

 

1826 into 1926, Charles Howard

 

 

Jumping Fences

 

“Free your mind and your ass will follow.” — George Clinton

 

I once lived with a husky puppy in a house with a picket fence. As he grew, he displayed the independence typical of his breed, and an impressive way of leaping vertically into the air before pouncing on things visible only to him.

One day I looked at him, curled under a tree next to the fence, and saw that he was actually big enough to clear the fence easily, and had been for a while. I worried about whether we needed to build a taller fence. But then I realized that he’d learned a long time ago that he couldn’t jump this fence, and had long ago stopped trying. He didn’t know that things had changed — that he had changed. His early relationship with the fence (I can’t get past this) functioned like a spell, keeping him in place, frozen in time and space. And I thought, this is how it happens to all of us.

We grow up in an enchanted forest of the mind whose scenery changes slowly, if at all. And often we continue to live under the spells cast by our childhood and culture without ever recognizing them, or realizing the extent to which our feelings and actions are driven by them, or noticing their surreal ability to remain unaltered while everything around them changes.

Buddhism sometimes talks about enlightenment as “waking from a dream,” or life itself as a dream, which would presumably make death the awakening. (This is how Shakyamuni Buddha’s death is described — as passing from life into nirvana.) In our everyday lives, we assume that we wake from dreams into reality. But reality isn’t the single, universal entity we like to imagine. We’re always living in a unique construction of reality: ours. This reality is colored by our karma — our experiences and actions, our thoughts and feelings, and all the spells we haven’t unravelled.

These spells are simply conditioning that has led to fixed habits of mind. Such conditioning includes ideas about who we are and how the world is. It arose in response to a particular environment, a specific time and place, but it doesn’t recognize or adapt to changes in that environment.

Buddhism tells us there’s no self, which means no fixed, unchanging self separate from everything that surrounds and pervades us. The true self is co-created in each moment by everything around us, and changes moment to moment in collaboration with myriad causes and conditions. This self is interdependent on everything, and remarkably flexible. It responds freshly to each new constellation of circumstances.

Yet it’s much easier for us to identify with a false self. We feel more comfortable with an idea of self that is a certain way: constant and discrete. This self is perhaps the way we think we should be. Or who we were told we were — how we experienced ourselves and the world when the spells were cast and time stopped. It’s this false idea of self that imprisons us in a realm where the deepest things never change, because we don’t let them. If we think we know exactly who we are, and if that conception hasn’t changed in a long while, then it’s time to get curious.

The past happened, though not necessarily as we remember it. We’ve been conditioned to think in certain ways, but we’re free to teach ourselves to think in others. And what we think can change our reality. Imagination is our ally in this unweaving of spells, in the creation of fresh perspectives on ourselves and our world. It’s not easy to re-imagine a self or a life; it takes practice and perseverance, because our minds tend to follow well-worn tracks of thought and feeling. We have to bushwhack new trails without knowing where they’ll take us.

Maybe we start by simply having a look around, inside and outside, scanning for what’s different, noticing what’s changed. Don’t be the scientist whose attachment to her hypothesis is so strong that it blinds her to contradictory evidence. Contemporary scientific understanding of the neuroplasticity of our brains is beginning to catch up with a spiritual insight more than two thousand years old: karma can be transformed; spells can be broken. Fences that have been standing for years can be cleared in one good leap.

 

 

 

 

 

Believing All the Way

One of the hardest things to do is believe in something all the way. This is true of reality, religion, life, relationships, and alternative medical treatments. Many things are partly true, with their opposites often equally true. Most human motivations are dazzlingly mixed.

Choosing things and people to believe in is a dicey business — one conducted largely unconsciously, in realms where we’re easily misled by our habit-bound ways of perceiving and thinking about the world, our fears and desires. To believe in something freely and accurately, you first have to see it clearly, and that is nearly impossible for us to do.

We see things through the filter of who we are, which means we see them partially and with prejudice. There is no other way for us to see them. This is why Uchiyama Roshi observed that when a person dies, an entire world dies with her: the unique world construed by that person, believed in by her.

I’m thinking now of a particular kind of belief — faith. To me, faith is not imperviousness to “the facts,” those elusive entities more often cited than proved. Faith is a decision in the absence of conclusive evidence. This poverty of proof is our usual circumstance, with the things that matter most to us often least susceptible to being proven.

How we cope with the unknown that is our lives, which beliefs we choose, exert great influence over our experience: what happens to us and how we feel about it. We know of the placebo effect, when faith in a treatment makes it work. Such faith is powerful and common enough to pose a challenge to find drugs that outperform it. Its opposite, the nocebo effect, is equally powerful, although its mechanisms are less well understood medically.

Carl Jung wrote that when one finds oneself with a question whose answer cannot be proven one way or the other, one should select whichever belief is most helpful. Advice both pragmatic and idealistic, one of my favorite combinations.

The time to believe in something all the way is for as long as you’re doing it. Or living it or loving it. If what you do, live, or love turns out to be unhelpful, you can always change your beliefs and actions based on your experience — something we’d benefit from doing more often. But hedging faith hinders the unknown’s ability to help, and to prove itself. The only way to give an unknown a fair chance is to believe in it with all your heart.

 

The Business of Life

“The most solid comfort is the thought that the business of one’s life is to help in some small way to reduce the sum of…degradation and misery on the face of this beautiful earth.” — Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)

The business of one’s life is a very businesslike expression. To me it suggests the way I spend most of my time: dealing with practical necessities like doctors’ appointments, medical bureaucracy, car repairs, meal planning, ensuring a sufficient supply of toilet paper, etc., etc.

Business could also be interpreted as one’s principal employment or job — in my case, zen priest. Here I would seem to be on solid ground with Evans’ statement: one could say the vow and activity of a zen priest is to help reduce the sum of misery in this beautiful world. But that’s not what I spend the lion’s share of my time and energy doing; it’s a mere fraction of both, the remainder I allow myself after everything else has been done. There’s the vow, and there’s the To Do list — notice which is in capital letters.

One of the most radical decisions we make is how to spend our time — which things we prioritize with lists and deadlines and capital letters. Reducing the sum of misery doesn’t usually make the to-do list (which can at least typographically be cut down to size). Why not? Maybe it’s too hard to check off? Does it meet the SMART criteria of goal-setting: specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, time-based? Reducing the sum of misery as written isn’t specific or measurable, but it can be made so with little effort, and in myriad ways. And some have used significant and meaningful, rather than specific and measurable, as the first two SMART criteria. Furthermore, what about the possibility inherent in “dumb” goals? Goals that are outsized, immeasurable by current methods, perhaps impossible, unreasonable, and lengthy? Are these goals not worth aiming at? We wouldn’t have many of history’s innovations if someone hadn’t been stupid enough to try them, and keep trying past the point of all reason.

One of the things that bothers me most is when I lose track of what matters, when it gets buried by things that I’ve thoughtlessly imbued with a false sense of urgency. Yes, the car must be fixed and the laundry done. But maybe those tasks could be interspersed with some attempts at misery-reducing, instead of relegating the real work, the central vow of my life, to the time that’s left over after the inbox is clear.

Because that time doesn’t exist. The inbox will never be clear; we know that for the cherished delusion it is. As long as we’re alive, life generates things that must be done. Even after we die, our lives continue to create things that must be done, except that someone else has to do them. But every moment we’re alive, we’re deciding what’s most pressing on that list or in that box. Yet the biggest, most important things live outside such containers, because they’re things we don’t know how to write down, or don’t think we have to. 1) Pay attention to the people I love…Check!  2) Enjoy this fleeting life…Check!

When one of the people I love left for work this morning, I was attempting to muster the energy for a day of extricating the truth from insurance agents, checking legal documents, doing laundry, retrieving prescriptions, and visiting the doctor. As Chris walked out the door, he called down the hall, “Write something — that’s the most important thing.”

Knowing in a given moment what’s the most important thing is one of life’s greatest challenges, its constant koan. The moments add up quickly, and no one wants to get to the end of them and realize we were in the wrong business the whole time.

What’s the business of your life? Are you busy doing it?

 

 

Begging

My teacher, Shohaku Okumura, was supporting his zazen and translation work with traditional Buddhist begging practice (takuhatsu) on the streets of Osaka when a boy, about 10 years old, came up to him as he stood in his robes, holding out his bowl, and said, “You want money, don’t you?”

Okumura Roshi said he didn’t know how to answer the boy’s question, and it became a kind of koan for him. It was true he wanted money to support his priest’s work, but if money were his real object, there were much easier and more effective ways of making it than begging.

He also said he found it so moving that people put money in his bowl without knowing anything about him at all, except that he was a Buddhist priest: they had faith in his practice, in his life’s work and its value. His gratitude led him to constantly question his practice and whether he deserved the unconditional support he was given.

In this country, zen priests have no regular practice of takuhatsu, and we have to figure out how to support ourselves in a culture whose mainstream doesn’t particularly value what we do, no matter how many products are bought and sold with the word “zen”; the real religion of this country is capitalism.

When I practiced at my teacher’s temple, we had a five-day sesshin or retreat every month, plus zazen starting at 5 a.m., so it wasn’t possible to hold a regular job and follow the temple schedule. I supported myself by teaching English to foreign students at the university. Since most were East Asian, they understood when I had to take a week off each month to work and practice at the temple.

Many of the priests and other full-time practitioners visited a local food bank once a week. This organization wasn’t government sponsored, so it hadn’t erected huge bureaucratic obstacles to receiving food; you simply had to sign a paper attesting that you earned less than a certain amount, or needed help for other reasons such as illness.

It took me a long time to show up at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. I had been encouraged to be very independent since childhood. I was embarrassed to need help. I didn’t think I deserved it, because I had made a choice that resulted in being poor, rather than having been forced into poverty by circumstance. I saw families waiting on line and felt guilty.

But eventually I realized someone had to do this job. Someone had to commit her life to being a zen priest, to manifesting the truth, to a different object of devotion than money. And I reasoned that I was a fair candidate for this calling, because the things I had to give up (having children, professional prestige, expensive possessions, financial security) cost me something, but they didn’t cost me what they would cost someone else. And because I trusted I could be a good priest someday.

After some weeks of standing in line for food, my doubt and embarrassment gave way to something else: an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Like my teacher, I was humbled by the fact that this community organization gave me food without knowing anything about me except that I needed it, and supported my practice without benefitting from it. Picking up my food each week became an exercise in thankfulness, and whenever I cooked or ate, I asked myself whether my practice was worthy of the food that nourished it.

My second experience of takuhatsu in America is the online medical fundraiser that an already very busy friend organized for me last week to help with the expenses of my Lyme disease treatment. She first proposed this a year ago, but my need had to overcome my resistance. I’m reluctant to ask for assistance even with small things like lifting a suitcase down from the overhead bin of a plane. Although I’m very grateful for the financial help my parents and my closest friend have given me while I’ve been sick, it’s also a challenge to accept even from them.

Widening this circle represents deep vulnerability, possible feelings of disappointment and rejection, and the perhaps even more threatening possibility of actually being helped, which again raises the question: Do I deserve this? Do I deserve it because I’m a zen priest? An ostensibly “good person”? Or simply a sick person who needs a little more help?

I told my dear friend that regardless of the outcome, this fundraiser would be good practice for me, and it has been: a roller coaster of feeling small and naked, loved and forgotten, embarrassed and deeply grateful. And always questioning.

If you’d like to have a look, here it is: https://www.youcaring.com/mollydelightwhitehead-823283. Please share it with anyone you think might want to help.

With my heart in my bowl, thank you.

 

 

Beginner’s Mind, 20 Years Later

 

Toilet, Point Reyes

I’ve been practicing zen for two decades now, and in honor of this anniversary, I wanted to write about how I got started. I used to do black-and-white photography and built a darkroom in my house. A photographer friend came over sometimes to use the darkroom, and he talked about Tassajara, where he had helped build the new bathhouses. He thought I’d like it there, and lent me Suzuki Roshi’s classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which, in the true spirit of the title, I could hardly make sense of. But I liked it. This is one of my favorite things: that although I’m always trying to understand everything, I can still like, and even love, things I don’t understand.

After months of ignoring my friend’s advice to visit Tassajara, I finally signed up for five days of their spring work period. I was taken by the sound of the creek outside my window, the kerosene lanterns, the wood architecture, the quiet, and the zendo, especially its faint but lingering fragrance of incense. Although I was seduced by all this beauty, what made the deepest impression on me was an experience that the beauty made possible.

My work assignment was painting cabin interiors white. I took considerable pleasure in this way to make things look fresh without actually having to clean them, like snowfall in a city. The work leader stopped by occasionally to see if I needed anything, but she never seemed to be checking my work, how well or quickly I was progressing. I so appreciated her trust in me, in my unsupervised diligence, that I felt a need to justify it, and I began to set goals; I’d finish this much by lunch, that much by teatime. I started making these commitments to her when she came by.

After a while, I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying painting anymore. Instead, I was feeling stressed. The work had become only about finishing. In the quiet spaciousness of that environment, I saw that the pressure I was feeling hadn’t come from outside — the work leader had made no demands. My stress was completely self-imposed. I had created it out of a need to prove myself worthy of what had already been given. And in doing so, I’d switched my attention from what I was doing to how well (quickly) I was doing it, thereby robbing myself of the joy of the activity itself, the joy of just doing. I wondered how many other pains in life were like this — experienced as arising from external facts, but in reality self-generated.

The desire to see life that clearly and inquire into it that closely was the seed that grew into a twenty-year practice. Since then, I’ve been shown over and over the value of cultivating beginner’s mind in each moment. As I wrote to a friend recently, it’s not simply about keeping an open mind or avoiding arrogance, although those are worth doing. The bottom line is that beginner’s mind is one of the keys to joy.

Teaching English in Japan for several years, I noticed that beginning students were delighted when they could assemble simple sentences. When they couldn’t, they tended to laugh at their mistakes. Either way, they had fun. Which meant that I had fun too. But the more students advanced, the more they hesitated to speak. Because suddenly they weren’t thinking about how to make a sentence; they were worrying about whether to say “a” or “the”.

They were focused less on what they wanted to say than on all the possible mistakes they could make in saying it. They often looked pained. And because they were so reluctant to speak, I probably looked pained too. I kept urging, “Just say something, and then we’ll fix it. If you don’t say anything, I can’t help you.” I realized ruefully that the students who most exasperated me were the ones most like me.

In contrast, I had a private student who was an unusual guy in many respects. He owned his own travel agency, called Gump Travel because he’d loved the movie. He adopted stray dogs, which was rarely done in Japan. And he persisted in practicing English every week for years although his grammar was beginner’s level and never improved, and he knew it. But he had an ardent curiosity and desire to communicate, and our conversations ranged widely, encompassing complex and controversial subjects. I was amazed that he never failed to understand me, nor I him.

I won’t say that doing things well doesn’t matter, because it does. And to do things well, we usually have to employ our faculties of discrimination, of recognizing and caring about differences in quality. But the moment you notice that you’ve stopped enjoying something, ask yourself whether expert’s mind has hijacked you — whether you’re too focused on details, mistakes, finishing. To paraphrase a comment about a famous painter, “If he could have drawn better, he wouldn’t have been as great an artist. His energy would have been diverted into finessing the wrong things.”

Expert’s mind has many uses, but it can lead you astray, into finessing things that don’t matter at the cost of what does. And maybe more importantly, expert’s mind limits the expanse of what you can love. Once you’ve tasted freshly ground coffee, it’s harder to enjoy instant.

Long ago, a mechanic advised me that when shopping for a car, you should always drive the smallest, most basic model first. Because you might love it — it might be enough. If it’s not, you can always try the next one up. But if you start with the most luxurious, you’ll never be entirely happy with less. His words still rank as some of the best advice I’ve gotten about life. Desire Management 101.

 

 

A Crack in Everything

 

Wall, Oakland

Recently I’ve been re-learning how to be doshi, the priest who leads service at a zen temple. Re-learning because when I practice on my own, I don’t do service. And because the forms of service vary from temple to temple. So the ones I learned at Tassajara and at my teacher’s temple, Sanshinji, are different from those at my current temple.

I remember a class at San Francisco Zen Center, where students often discussed “the forms” and how much they mattered — when and how we bow, ring a bell, chant certain verses. The visiting speaker was a bishop of the Pure Land school. When someone asked about the forms — i.e., do we really have to do these things the way they supposedly did them in Japan in the 13th century? — he said, “Well, first you have to remember that someone made all this up.”

Somehow this simple and obvious statement triggered an explosion in my mind that still reverberates today. Like many other students, I’d been trying very hard to get the forms “right,” while wondering why exactly it mattered to do so. I’d noticed senior teachers flash angry looks at students who rang the bell at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and I felt their reaction said more about the teacher’s practice than their student’s, that an error so small could disturb their equanimity. Yet I didn’t want to be the student who disturbed it, either.

Linda Ruth Cutts, leading a practice period at Tassajara, said: “Please don’t use the practice of zen to reinforce your pre-existing psychological conditioning.” In other words, if you’re a perfectionist, don’t use the forms as a weapon to beat yourself.

Even more fundamentally, don’t use the practice for anything at all. As soon as you use it, you lose it. This is the meaning of Dogen’s “no gaining idea” and “just sit”. An agenda beyond the action itself corrupts the action. The zen understanding of a pure act is something done for its own sake alone. Precious few of our actions are taken in this spirit, although we would enjoy our lives more if they were.

Because we do most things to get (or avoid) something, it’s natural to bring this gaining (or escaping) mind to spiritual practice. But the whole point of practice is to free oneself of this mind. So it’s ironic to find myself on the cushion spending zazen in a state of high anxiety about the service that will follow, and whether I will do things “right”.

This “right” is problematic in itself. First, because someone just made these things up a long time ago. Second, because people have interpreted them differently since then. I learned to do this Sunday service from a disciple of the temple’s abbot, and I took careful notes.

The next time, I watched the abbot himself do the service, and some things were different from what his disciple did. So I changed my notes. A week later, I watched the abbot do the service again, and he did a few things differently from the week before. What to do now? Change my notes again? Ask the teacher which time he was “right” and which “wrong”? Not appealing.

Some people view zen forms as a kind of mindfulness exercise, because they force you to pay attention. But the question is, what are you paying attention to? To how you look or sound as you do them? To what other people might be thinking? To the expression on your teacher’s face? To your karmic need to do things “perfectly” so you can justify your existence on this planet?

All these concerns are centered on yourself as a performer, which makes what you’re doing a performance. But spiritual practice shouldn’t be a performance. Neither should life. It could be an offering, whole-hearted and heartfelt. A gift with no room for how you look or what you think people think. A gift that really has nothing to do with you at all, but is a pure action, done for itself, in devotion to something, maybe these things: the truth (dharma), the realization of the truth (buddha), and the intimate and infinite interdependence of all things (sangha).

As zen priest Leonard Cohen sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.

 

 

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

 

 

“During our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioral, and emotional composite that we later mistake for ourselves.” — Dr. Gabor Mate

 

In zen, one’s “true self” is often explained as “no self,” or a self so interconnected with and interdependent on everything else in the universe that there’s no separate “there” there. This is sometimes called the emptiness of self.

Yet self also has a form. In the net of interdependence, each intersection of the shimmering strands of being creates a unique jewel, a form, that reflects the entire net within itself. It’s this identity — a zen-spirited word that manages to connote both sameness and uniqueness — that I want to discuss today.
 
According to Dr. Mate, many of us suffer a case of mistaken identity: we confuse an environmentally conditioned set of adaptations with our actual self. And then we compound the error by presuming that this self is fixed, even hardwired somehow — genetically, perhaps — and therefore beyond the reach of transformation.
 
The only thing more disturbing than such an assumed, immutable identity is the realization that it might not be accurate. Because if we’re not our conditioning, our karma, then who are we? I don’t think the emptiness of interdependence is a sufficient answer to this question, although it’s part of the truth.
 
“The emotional contexts of childhood interact with inborn temperament to give rise to personality traits. Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, [but] only coping mechanisms acquired in childhood. There’s an important distinction between an inherent characteristic, rooted in an individual without regard to their environment, and a response to the environment, a pattern of behaviors developed to ensure survival.”
 
Bearing our inborn characteristics, we develop in such a way as to ensure the best chance of thriving within a particular environment: a given place and time, family, class, culture. Then the environment changes, and sometimes we do as well. But sometimes it’s as if we never noticed the change in scenery. We keep doing the same things even if they aren’t necessary or desirable in our new environment. One of the reasons we do so is that we’ve adopted our adaptations as our identity, the essence of who we are, rather than a by-product of where we were.
 

Even our genes, the modern version of destiny, are sensitive to changes in our physical and emotional environments, capable of being switched on or off by various external and internal mechanisms. One of the most powerful of these influences is the thoughts and emotions that we choose to fuel with our time and energy.

How do we distinguish our true selves from our “convenience” selves? Inborn characteristics from environmental adaptations? Which is not to imply that inborn characteristics are good and environmental adaptations are bad. It’s recognizing which are which, and learning to work with them all to polish our moon: to continue becoming our best and brightest selves over the course of our lives.

Who are you, really?

And if you wanted to, could you change your self, and never be the same?

 

 

 

 

The Fine Art of Freedom

 

Glass Dome Tacoma

Dome of Glass, Tacoma

 

“What’s the most liberating thought you’ve ever had?”

This question was passed along by Rob Brezsny, author of the most liberating words I’ve ever read:

You do not have to think thoughts that make you sad and tormented.

You do not have to feel emotions that other people try to manipulate you into feeling.

You do not have to live up to anyone’s expectations.

You do not have to strive for a kind of perfection that isn’t very interesting to you.

In short, you’re free to be exactly who you want.

To me, this passage resounds like a declaration of independence. If one accepts the validity of each tenet, then the conclusion is inevitable. And yet we find it so difficult to believe that we are actually free to be whomever and however we want.

Partly it’s a terrifying statement, because it means that we’re finally responsible for who we are, for what we make of ourselves and our lives. I’ve said before that the most important work of art we create is our life.

Scholar of religion and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong contends that spiritual practice is an art form. “Religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you.” And because of the interdependence of all things, it changes everything around you.

From Dogen’s Bendowa: “Grass, trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings…. And [beings in turn] extend this dharma for the sake of grass, trees and walls. The wholehearted practice of the way allows all things to exist in enlightenment.”

So if we pay attention, actively resist our karmic conditioning, and exercise our imaginations, we can create ourselves and our lives in harmony with the ideals we most cherish. There are many things in life we don’t get to choose, but who and how we are in the world is not one of them.

Zen priest Leonard Cohen observed that “Any artist who remains true to herself becomes a work of art herself…. If someone has that vocation, and diligently applies herself to the exigencies that arise, she will lose a great deal but she will have created her own character.”

If we diligently apply ourselves, and the artistry and alchemy of our practice, to our lives — what do we lose? Perhaps the thoughts that torment us, the emotions society tries to manipulate us into feeling, and the Sisyphean task of attempting to be and do things that don’t matter to us.

These are “losses” worthy of the word liberation, although I’m guessing Cohen had in mind other losses as well.

What’s the most liberating realization you’ve ever had? And what did you do with it?

 

More Fun Than A Circus

“[Pauline] Oliveros’s compositions…can’t be disrupted. If anything, they are enriched by interference. I listen to them in an illusion of an apartment…within vomiting distance of six late-night bars. I’m not comfortable drowning out noise with louder noise; it makes me feel claustrophobic. A far better option is to play something…by Oliveros. Then something quite extraordinary occurs; the abrasive clanging and crashing…all around me isn’t obscured but rather miraculously incorporated into a mutating opus that makes no distinction between good sounds and bad ones. Dislodged from their mundane context, each pitch, each tone, every vibration, finds a new relation and contributes to a far-flung and evolving sonic universe.” — Claire-Louise Bennett

Life CircusMo Willems wrote a children’s book about Goldilocks trapped in a house with dinosaurs. He said the moral of this tale was that when you find yourself in the wrong story, you can leave. While some stories conveniently have exits, in others the only way out is to rewrite the whole damned thing. Easier said than done, although in fact we’re constantly writing and rewriting stories.

I read somewhere that “an estimated 70 percent of all continuous-loop thoughts running through our minds are negative, and 95 percent of our life activity originates in the subconscious, which was programmed by observing others.” And telling ourselves stories about them.

Which is why I found Ms. Bennett’s commentary so thought-provoking. Obtrusive noises surround her, creating disquiet. “Neutralizing” them by drowning them out with something louder makes her feel cut off from the world. So she plays a kind of music that, partly because it’s based on the sounds of everyday life, weaves the ambiance of the moment into itself, transmuting it from noise into music — simply another part of life’s ever-changing symphony, equal in worth to every other part.

Whenever I’m suffering, I wonder what I’m not seeing. My perspective narrows, and it’s often what’s left out of the frame that compounds the interest on pain, accumulating suffering. For example, I could tell the story of my persisting illness in many ways: as bad luck, as a blight on my life, as an object of unceasing curiosity, a challenge to grow in different directions, a Joseph Campbellian hero’s quest.

How I feel about my life will depend partly on which story I tell. And the story I choose will depend partly on how I feel; story and feeling are interdependent. Some might define a zen life as one freed of story — simply experience in a “pure” form without anything extra, such as interpretation or meaning, layered on. I don’t know if some people can live like that, but I’m pretty sure writers can’t. 

So my question is, how can we consciously create an inner composition rich and open enough to enfold events usually experienced as discordant so they become part and parcel of life’s music, rather than disturbances of it? One friend said that this would be enlightenment.

There are many interpretations of enlightenment; one is seeing the world whole, embracing it as such, and acting from this awareness of the unity of all things. This reminds me of the final lines of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which convey the proof of Siddhartha’s enlightenment to a doubting friend, who bends down to kiss him and is startled to see reflected in his face the infinite forms of life and death, the countless joys and sorrows, and arching over them all a smile that “reminded him of everything he had ever loved in his life, everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.”

How do we see the world whole, and love it whole, now? How do we hear every sound as music?