Wednesday, December 30, 2009
My bird-watching day was no random event: I was participating in the Christmas Bird Count, a census of birds in the western hemisphere that has been conducted annually over a few weeks in mid-winter by the Audubon Society for more than a hundred years.
According to the Audubon website, the count was begun in 1900 by an early bird conservationist, Frank Chapman, as an alternative to Christmas "side hunts" where hunters competed against each other in teams for the largest number of birds killed in a day. Now more than 50,000 volunteers in 17 countries participate in the count, and the results are used by ornithologists and conservation organizations to monitor the health of bird populations in their winter ranges.
I did the count with a friend, and we were assigned to an area of about one by seven miles in the hills above Bolinas Lagoon, out on the outer coast just north of San Francisco. Our day began at about 5:15 am - hours before either of us normally wakes up - followed by a groggy breakfast and a drive in the dark across the hills to the coast.
We're relative neophytes, so we were paired with two more experienced birders - an ecologist and an ornithologist - whom we met just before dawn in a muddy parking lot near the lagoon.
After minimal introductions, we headed up into the hills in silence, all four of us listening intently to the tweets and chirps and little sounds all around us in the dim woodland, though really only two of us (guess which two?) knew what they were hearing. Every few minutes someone would see something and we would all be peering into the tangle with our binoculars, trying to see a sparrow or a towhee or whatever might be lurking there, keeping a count of how many birds of each species we saw or - in the case of our companions - heard.
And so the day went, mostly in silence, hiking on or off trail through the canyons filled with coast live oak (and poison oak) or willow and bay, sometimes up in the chaparral or grassland of the open hills, sometimes all four of us together and sometimes split apart, each one of us completely intent on seeing and counting, eyes and ears and senses fully engaged, not stopping to eat or chat or even sit down. It was cold and gray, and in the afternoon it started to rain, first gently and then with determination, and we kept working as long as we could, until the rain came down so heavily in the early dusk that we were blinded and the birds were essentially invisible.
Part of what I loved about the day was the way that EACH BIRD MATTERED. In ordinary birdwatching, when I see one kinglet, I'm pleased, but the next one I see doesn't matter so much, and by the tenth I'm usually oblivious. But in the Christmas Bird Count, each raven, each crow, each jay matters, no matter how common, no matter how many have been seen before. Ah, if only we treated everything this way!
After a nine hour day in the cold and rain and muck, We drove back across the foggy slopes of Mt. Tamalpais to a warm cafe where we sat and drank hot chocolate, still in our wet jackets, still completely focused on the count. We added up what we had seen: sixty-three species, about average for a Christmas Bird Count in this area.
For each species our leader added up our individual counts, "Robins?" he would say, "how many robins?", and each of us would peer at our wet notebooks and scribbled, pencilled, nearly illegible numbers. "Sixteen, no, wait a minute, that's twenty, with those four I saw near the farmhouse," remembering the bright birds high up in the trees like so many orange Christmas ornaments. "Kestrels?" and we would get into a brief discussion about whether MY two kestrels were the same or different birds than the ones someone else had seen hovering like tiny kites above the hills.
Then we all shook hands and went our separate ways out into the dark. Our little count will be added to the count for all of southern Marin County, and that will be added to counts all across the hemisphere, and someday someone might comb through the data, noticing that this year, like the last few, no oak titmice were seen on the Marin coast, another population winked out, or our fleeting glimpse of a peregrine might tell a researcher that peregrines still hunt the flocks of ducks out in Bolinas Lagoon, a conservation victory after the birds came so close to extinction.
Strange to know that what felt so inconsequential - our day of effort counting robins and chickadees - would be added into a grand continental pattern created by thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of birds, a tapestry across time and space and the usual barriers between species. Even now as I write this there are people out with binoculars and spotting scopes, perhaps in your neighborhood, looking up into the trees, recording the often unnoticed life that fills the air with song and flight.
The next morning I woke up early again and drove to Spirit Rock Meditation Center, part way back toward the coast. Another gray, foggy day. The grassy hills of Spirit Rock were lost in the cold fog, but inside the meditation hall a hundred people or more sat quietly on chairs or cushions. At the front of the room were two striking women, both with shaved heads, one in brown robes, one in white: Ajahn (which means teacher) Anandabodhi and a novice nun, Anagarika Santussika.
Ajahn Anandabodhi and two other siladharas (nuns that take ten precepts, including celibacy, not handling money, depending entirely on alms, and eating only once per day) just arrived in San Francisco to start the first Buddhist nun's community in North America (Saranaloka).
Photo from Saranaloka website
The nuns, who are British, come from a monastery in Great Britain, the only one I know of in the west that trains nuns as well as monks. Although a women's order of nuns has been part of the Buddhist world since the time of the Buddha, the history of women renunciants is a history of marginalization. In many parts of Asia the women's order has died out altogether; in other areas women practice as nuns but in desperate poverty, not supported by lay people in the same ways that monks are, and often not empowered to teach.
As a consequence of this sad history, in all my years of meditation practice with many teachers, I had never been taught by a Buddhist nun before this midwinter day. I sat down near the front and listened as the Ajahn gave basic meditation instructions, struck by her clarity and steadiness. Then the hall settled into silence, silent sitting alternating with silent walking out under the dripping trees.
Usually at one day retreats each person brings their own bag lunch, but for this event, which was also offered without charge (monks and nuns cannot charge for the teachings), we were invited to bring something to share and to offer to the nuns, since they can only eat what is explicitly offered. At about 11 AM, when the nuns eat their one meal for the day, Ajahn Anandabodhi came and received the individual dishes from those of us who had brought an offering, gently taking the dish from our hands and placing it on the tables. Then she and her novice nun offered a meal blessing. Afterward we all went through the line, sharing the bounty of a hundred gifts to one another.
I've written before of how moved I am when I see the power of generosity, and this day I felt it very deeply, almost to tears, seeing both the radical trust of these women's lives, and the tremendous kindness of my fellow retreatants. It was particularly poignant to know that after two thousand years of being pushed aside, ordained women could now step forward with their gifts and be appreciated, even celebrated.
This is the best of us as human beings, I think, this generosity, just as the generosity and caring of the Christmas Bird Count represents the best of us - crazy people willing to go out in all weather in the depth of winter while their friends and relatives are at the mall or in front of the television, all for the sake of the birds of our world.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in silence and attention, just as I had the day before, though my attention was on breath and silence itself, rather than birdsong and movement, and I was grateful to be drier (!). When I walked outside, once again I saw each crow, each jay, each black phoebe, and almost without thinking found myself counting them, amused and glad at the way that my vision had been clarified by the day before.
These two worlds are both my worlds - the world of inner attention and the world of birds and trees and fog....I am so grateful for both of them, and for the people who share my love for them.
In the depths of winter, nourishment and renewal.
Monday, December 7, 2009
I celebrated Thanksgiving this year up in Sonoma County. Ah, it was great. We had organic roasted vegetables from local farms, a huge selection of fine cheeses, fresh organic artisanal bread, organic roast turkey, poached wild salmon, roast lamb, local pears poached in Merlot, a selection of locally-produced wines, overflowing tables of pies and deserts.... There were linen tablecloths, white napkins, china, and lovely garden flower arrangements on every table.
And this cost nothing, not for us and not for the other four hundred people celebrating together, whether poor or rich, young or old. We went up early and spent all day with about fifty other volunteers, guided by some of the best chefs in the county, turning boxes and boxes of donated organic food from local farms and from Whole Foods into a free Thanksgiving feast, and then some of us helped serve, and then we sat down at the beautiful tables and enjoyed the abundance with everyone else, just as one does at home with friends and family.
And abundance it was - an abundance of kindness, of laughter, of good will and hard work, gourmet food and great wine, all offered generously. Kids ran around everywhere, older folks in wheelchairs chatted together or with families nearby, and street people sat next to doctors, lawyers and migrant workers. The feeling in the big community center hall was like one big four-hundred-person smile.
There were people who would have spent Thanksgiving alone, people who came to spend Thanksgiving with their friends, people who spoke no English, people who volunteered every year, people taking food back for bedridden family members - every sort of person, in every sort of situation, side by side at the long, happy tables.
What I found most inspiring was the way that there were no boundaries. I've served Thanksgiving in shelters, and found it very moving, but this was something else, a wide hospitality and a wide open door for whoever wanted to enter, vineyard owner or street kid. And no cheap donated old vegetables and canned food on paper plates, dressed up pitifully as a "Thanksgiving meal". This was the best of the best, served with love and pride.
It reminded me of Dorothy Day's radical Catholic teaching of how to be with the poor or homeless: "Bring them bread and roses." Not just bread: people need roses too - dignity and beauty. Herding a bunch of poor people into a line for canned cranberries and green beans is better than nothing, but it's not roses. Creating a place where everyone is welcome, where rich and poor sit down together, and where everyone is served beautiful, organic food - that's I think what Dorothy Day meant by 'roses'.
Over the years I've struggled with my relationship with Thanksgiving. On the one hand it seems like a perfectly lovely holiday, a celebration of the harvest and of gratitude. On the other hand, sometimes I feel that it has degenerated into a kind of family food orgy, the table groaning under vast plates of food, soon to be followed by a vast mess in the kitchen and the next day by Black Friday, the beginning of the Christmas buying frenzy. Maybe it's because most of us don't grow our own food, so the food has lost its connection to the land and its abundance. Perhaps my problem is a feeling that in a country that has grown fat on the wealth of the world, something is subtly off about a holiday that's primarily about consumption.
Some years I've fasted for the day. A few times I treated it as a normal work day - it was a fabulous day to get a lot done and I had an entire six story building to myself. But those things didn't feel quite right, as if I was out of step with something quite important, even primal. Last year I served a Thanksgiving meal in a shelter in Flagstaff, Arizona - not a very good Thanksgiving meal, to be honest, served amidst the bunk beds in a cold concrete-block building - but the gratitude on the faces of the men there was palpable, and I felt like I was finally touching something closer to the way I want and need to celebrate this holiday.
This year I'm in the Bay Area, and although there are plenty of poor people here, there aren't many free Thanksgiving meals, especially outside the churches and Salvation Armies. I was spending Thanksgiving with a friend who is allergic to organized religion, so those places were not possibilities for us. When I found out about the Sonoma Thanksgiving, I was intrigued by the idea, and my friend was particularly delighted about the organic turkey, so we traveled an hour north into the little town of Sonoma, and proceeded to have so much fun that I'm surprised it was legal.
I don't know why it's SO MUCH FUN to work really, really hard to make a free Thanksgiving, but believe me, it is. My friend carved organic turkeys to his heart's content, to the admiration of the other guys. I had the rather amusing job of trying to serve roasted parsnips to a highly skeptical crowd, "What are those? Parsnips? What are they? What do they taste like? No thank you." (A hint to other Thanksgiving volunteers: don't get stuck with the parsnips.)
Nonetheless, it was great. At the end of the day, after helping with the mountain of dishes, we were exhausted and utterly happy. The four-hundred-person smile had seeped into us and our sense of a true participation in 'Thanksgiving' was deep and complete.
Maybe the message of Thanksgiving is not just abundance, but generosity. Perhaps that's why we were so utterly happy - we had spent the day drenched in generosity, poached in generosity like those pears in Merlot (mmmmm...those were good).
Many thanks to Gary Edwards, the mastermind behind the Sonoma Community Center Thanksgiving, who somehow coordinated a bunch of raw, restless recruits and got a hundred-course meal out on time, the other great chefs and caterers, the many volunteers, the farms and businesses that donated food, and to Bob Kinsey, one of the loyal volunteers who took the photos in this post. We'll be back for the Christmas Day meal!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
It was a very rich and full experience – it felt like several months worth of life – so much so that I’ve found it hard to write about, despite being back for more than a month. What I’ve decided is to write two posts about the trip – one of thoughts and musings about Cretan history and culture, and one more straightforward travelogue, for those of you who might want to travel there yourselves someday. This first post is the “thoughts and musings” one.
A number of people asked me, “Why Crete?” Why does a Zen Buddhist priest with not much money fly halfway around the world to visit a Greek island? The easiest answer is that I was drawn like a moth to the light of an ancient people.
Five thousand years ago, when most of my ancestors in northern Europe were probably still standing nervously behind wooden stockades hoping that the most recent wave of barbarians wouldn’t do us in (or were the barbarians headed for the stockade), an extraordinary culture grew up on Crete. We don’t know what they called themselves; the later Greeks called them the Minoans, and named their island the birthplace of Zeus, the greatest of the gods.
Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, more than 100 miles long, and it was - and is - full of high forested mountains and deep caves, gorges and rivers and fertile soils, wild olives and wild grapes and wild herbs, surrounded by the rich waters of the southern Mediterranean.
There, a long way from the waves of barbarians, there was enough peace and enough prosperity for something utterly unique and highly sophisticated to develop, at the very dawn of Western history and culture. Their world continued for sixteen centuries. And even though the Minoan culture has been gone for 3,400 years, a few of its gifts were passed to the Greeks and Egyptians and through them, faintly, to us.
I only wish that more of those gifts had come our way. From the many archaeological sites (and it seems like every little village has at least one Minoan site), it seems that the Minoans lived with extraordinary grace, playfulness, awareness of the natural world, and appreciation of both men and women.
The shrines to their divinities were simple structures on the heights of the mountains, rather than heavy-handed temples, and most of the images of divinities that have been found are of goddesses.
The frescoes that remain in the ruins of their “palaces” are full of leaping dolphins, flowers, bold unveiled women, and lifelike animals, as if the artist could feel the animals from the inside.
Their architecture was human-centered and extremely graceful – I would happily live in a Minoan house, with its colonnades and light wells, its brightly painted walls and smooth stone floors, its clever waterways and drains, its gardens and terraces.
No fortified Minoan site has been found, nor any images of slaves. Artisans lived side by side with nobility, and Minoan artisans were the finest in the Western world at the time. They knew how to work gold into delicate filigree, how to make glass paste figurines, how to cast bronze, how to throw and fire elaborately decorated terracotta pots six feet high, how to make fantastically beautiful frescoes that have survived for four thousand years … and those are just the things we know and that survived the many earthquakes and invasions and wars since their time.
We don’t know their music or their poetry (their script has yet to be deciphered), but I imagine that it was equal to their art and craft and architecture. Some researchers believe that they were the first people to cultivate olives for olive oil and crocuses for saffron, and they had great wooden boats that traveled all across the Mediterranean. Evidence of their fine craftsmanship have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and on mainland Greece, and there were Minoan settlements on many other islands.
I find this tremendously sustaining and uplifting. If the Minoans could create and maintain such a culture, perhaps we too can someday create and maintain a humane and graceful culture. If it was in them, it’s in us. As different as we seem to be, with our vast technologies and complex economic and social structures, genetically we are virtually the same. I know I may be idealizing them, and it’s impossible to know what it might have been like to live as a Cretan woman or farmer or artisan, but I choose to believe that there was truly something good there, so far back in our history. Their beauty, so long gone, gives me hope.
The cynics among you are probably thinking, “Yeah, and I know what happened to the Minoans. Run over by some warlike tribe from somewhere, right? The nice peaceful people never win in the end.” Well, not quite. Instead, as far as the archaeologists can tell, what destroyed the Minoans was the very land that had nurtured them. In about 1450, one of the Minoan islands, the modern-day Santorini, not far from Crete, blew up in a massive volcanic explosion, the largest in early history. Violent earthquakes and tsunamis rocked the entire eastern Mediterranean. The Minoan “palaces” and houses burned and fell into rubble, and the Minoan settlements on Santorini were buried in pumice and ash. The culture never recovered.
Fifty years later a warlike group from mainland Greece, the Mycenaeans, invaded and took over the ruins of the old palaces and settlements, driving the Minoans deep into the mountains. For a few hundred years, refugee artisans continued to make beautiful objects in these mountain holdouts, but now made of clay rather than gold. The jewels and glass and bronze was gone. The work became rougher and rougher as conditions deteriorated, and eventually even the mountain refuges disappeared.
But the Mycenaeans must have been in awe of what they found in the rubble on Crete, and maybe a few of the Minoans stayed and taught their new overlords, because many aspects of Minoan culture began to appear in Mycenaean art and myth, and spread throughout Greece. The last vestiges of the encounter between the Greeks and the Minoans is preserved in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the great half-bull (a symbol of the Minoan’s connection to the animal realm?) hidden in the middle of the labyrinth of the palace at Knossos.
So that’s why I went to Crete: to see, up close, the vestiges of that world. And this is the great thing about traveling…..whatever you think you will find is always not exactly what you find, and who would have it any other way? If you stay home your ideas are never shaken by reality.
I did see the palaces and the frescoes, the gold jewelry and the painted pottery, but all of it was somehow unapproachable, sanitized, inspiring but no longer alive. The ruins of the palace of Knossos were buried in busload after busload of cruise ship tourists, waiting in line for hours for the chance of a photograph in the “throne room”, their guides shouting at them in a dozen languages. All I wanted to do at Knossos was escape the crowds and go look at the birds in the pines.
The huge archaeological museum in Iraklion was undergoing renovations and only a few things were visible, although those few things were beautiful beyond belief.
I felt closest to the Minoans on top of Mount Yiouhta, which towers over ancient Knossos and the modern village of Archanes. We were there in the late afternoon, the only people on the mountain.
There was a Minoan shrine on the north peak, just a tumble-down group of stones surrounded by a half-hearted chain-link fence. On the south peak was a small Greek Orthodox church, built for local pilgrims who still walk up the mountain on holy days.
The sky was huge and misty blue, and enormous griffin vultures and a dozen hawks were catching the thermals along the ridge. It felt like a charged place, where the powers of the earth and sky meet and mingle.
* * * *
But mostly what I experienced on Crete were the many layers of post-Minoan time that sit heavily on the people and the land. One could say, with some accuracy, that Crete was a conquered place, a colonized place, from 1450 BC to 1905 AD – more than three thousand years. The Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Turks, British and Germans all had their turn on the island. The forests were stripped from the mountains for naval fleets, leaving the soil unprotected from erosion. Goats kept the forests from growing back, leaving only stones and spiny shrubs. The people were brutalized, forcibly converted, turned into guerilla fighters hiding in caves.
Under the Turks there were bloody uprisings every few years, and every man became a warrior. While I was on the island I was reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ great book Freedom and Death, which is the fictionalized account of one of the last uprisings, and of the character of his own father. It reads like a book about modern-day Afghanistan, where the whole culture glorifies the man with the gun, the glorious, violent, hyper-masculine patriot who dies in a rain of bullets.
We stayed in the converted farmhouse of an old family in the village of Archanes, and on the walls were framed 19th century photographs of the fiercest-looking men and women I’ve ever seen, nearly every one brandishing a gun or a knife. It took the Nazis, by the way, six weeks to subdue the Cretans, and some believe that the delay cost them a victory in Russia. Without Crete, WW2 could have ended very differently.
I could still feel this in the people of Crete. They were friendly but rough; rough with each other, rough with us. Crete isn’t a gentle place; it’s a hard place, hewn through war and conquest and resistance. During the day we walked through beautiful gorges and swam in clear water, but at night my dreams were full of death, as if the ground itself was soaked with so much of it that it rose in the night like mist. The famous hand-worked Cretan knives, razor-sharp, hung incongruously in the tourist shops.
One night in the ancient city of Chania, four of us went out to hear traditional Cretan music at a small taverna in the old Turkish quarter, and for hours we sat at a table listening to the wildest, most beautiful, stirring and haunting music I’ve ever heard.
There was a small stage up front, and when we arrived there were three young men, dressed in black, one playing a lute, one playing a lyra (like a violin bowed and held upright in the lap), and one playing a small hand drum. As the night went on, other men would come in and join or replace the ones on stage, and the music grew more and more unrestrained.
My Greek friend leaned over and translated some of the songs, full of poetry - images of eagles and the sea and the moon and the mountains, unrequited desire, yearnings for freedom, love for the island (watch and listen here for to get a sense of the music I heard that night, played on traditional instruments, accompanied by photos of Crete, or here for a footage of one of the most famous Cretan lyra players, in his home village). Even without knowing the words, my eyes kept filling with tears.
Finally, late, late at night, a group of men began enacting a very old tradition – nearly lost, my Greek friend said – of linking improvised rhyming verses, like a battle in song. One would sing a verse, and then another man, staring straight into the eyes of the first, would take an image or a feeling and carry it further, turn it, and then another would turn the verse again. The intensity and fierceness between the singers was palpable, a vibrato of power, as if their feet were buried in the earth and the energy of the land was rising through them and between them.
Later I realized that my two ways of seeing the island came together that night. The Minoans aren’t gone – those men singing in the taverna are their descendents, most surely, full of poetry born from the land. And those men are also the descendents of the desperate guerillas, all softness beaten out of them by their conquerors. We carry the past in our bodies and voices, as surely as we carry the genetic gifts – and curses – handed down to us.
Now that I’ve written this, I have to admit that I don’t know why I went to Crete, really.
Maybe I went for that night of soul-stirring music in the dingy taverna in Chania.
Maybe I went for a moment standing with my mother in the crystal clear water of the Libyan Sea, while a brilliant kingfisher flashed by us, like a jewel in flight.
Maybe I needed to see and stand in a place where once something wonderful happened, for a few centuries long ago.
Like all traveling, we never really know why, though, if we’re lucky, our hearts are a little wider, a little less certain, when we come home again.
Friday, September 4, 2009
The Zen wanderer has temporarily alighted on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, the guardian mountain that stands to the northwest of San Francisco Bay.
“Mt. Tam”, as people say around here, has been an important place to me for a couple of decades now. Green Gulch Farm, my home temple for many years, lies on its southwestern flanks in a narrow valley that leads to Muir Beach; Spirit Rock, where I’ve spend so much time in silence, lies to the north of the mountain, and on a clear day I would climb up to the ridge about the retreat center and gaze at Mt. Tam on the southern horizon.
I’ve wandered its great grassy green flowery western meadows above the Pacific, walked a pilgrimage route around it, sat with friends on the serpentine outcrops high on its slopes, slept in the dark on its northwestern flank and then woken up in deep fog, toasted the moon with wine at Inspiration Point (and gotten a ticket for being up on the peak too late), and a hundred other adventures, large and small. So now, to find myself living on the ridge above Blythedale Canyon, looking north and west to the peak of the mountain, so close it feels like I could run my hands along its rough chaparral-covered slopes…well, it’s a wonderful thing.
I’m in a studio surrounded by manzanita and coast live oak, near the end of the road and the beginning of the wild country.
My landlords are below me, in a hand-built Japanese-style house that Ed Ross, who is now 94, mostly designed and built himself, starting 60 years ago. He was an entomologist for the California Academy of Sciences for many decades, and crisscrossed India and Africa and South America and nearly everywhere else through much of the 20th century. Ed is also an extraordinary photographer, with hundreds of striking, powerful images of indigenous people from all over the world. I feel very lucky to be here for the next few months, on this land that Ed and his wife Sandy love and care for so well, sitting and writing and looking at the mountain.
Last Sunday I drove around the mountain to Green Gulch for the weekly public talk, this one given by Hoitsu Suzuki, the 70-year-old son of the late Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and brought Soto Zen to the West. Hoitsu stayed in Japan when his father came to America in 1959, and has lived a mostly quiet life as a temple priest at the temple that he inherited from his father.
He is my dharma great-grandfather: my teacher, Norman Fischer, was given dharma transmission (full ordination as a priest) by Mel Weitsman the abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, who was given dharma transmission by Hoitsu. So when I hear him speak, I feel like I’m hearing my great-grandfather speak. In Zen, the “feeling”, or “flavor” of a particular lineage tends to persist, and I think the flavor of Hoitsu is very gentle and warm, very unassuming and humble, “nothing special”.
Much to my delight, he talked about mountains, and what Dogen, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen in the 13th century, had to say about mountains. “The mountains belong to those who love them” is a quote from Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra (which could be translated as, "The Teachings Spoken by Mountains and Rivers”). Dogen also said that mountains are walking – we just can’t see their walking. We see what we can see, and to our little, short-lived species, mountains are static, monumental, still. But is Mt. Tam still? It is bird song and leaf-fall, underground waters, the shifting of stone, the rattle of pebbles off the trail, clouds coming and going, darkness and light and darkness and light again – with just a little shift of perception, Mt. Tam breathes and shrugs its great shoulders, gazing over the Pacific to the Farallones, breathing with me as I perch here, like a small bird in a great big tree.
Even more wonderfully, Hoitsu talked about the spirit of zazen, or meditation. He started by saying that zazen is inhalation and exhalation. And indeed it is – the breath, and the breath within the body, and the awareness of body and breath. But then he said something else. He said that zazen is also a soft, warm heart.
“A soft, warm heart”. What we do is not just what we do, or what we focus on, but the spirit we bring to it. This is true of anything, but particularly of spiritual practices. We can do a spiritual practice perfectly, but if the spirit is cold and judgmental, no amount of perfection will bring grace, to oneself or anyone else.
So that’s what I carried with me as I got up from the talk last Sunday. To remember the soft, warm heart that lives at the heart of our lives, always possible, with every breath.
Meanwhile the crows are cawing, and the wind has come up. I can see it moving the gnarled branches of the manzanitas. Gratitude to Mt. Tam, to Ed and Sandy Ross, to Hoitsu Suzuki, and to life itself, which can bring such sweetness.
Hoitsu Suzuki's talk will be posted in the next week or two, here.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
My apologies for a long posting hiatus: I've been finishing up fieldwork in the California Sierras and the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border (and driving back and forth between the two!). My 2009 field season, which started at the beginning of March, is finally over, though I'm not complaining - surely I have some of the best work in the world, from walking the Mohave desert in spring flower time to walking the edges of clear sub-alpine lakes with mountains all around. That said, there were some moments this year when I wondered how many other people in their mid-40's make their living bashing and crawling their way through thick brush for hours, or struggling up steep slopes climbing hand over hand through vine maple in ninety degree heat. Some days in the field are bliss, and some days are...well...slightly less than blissful.
But I really want to write about weddings today. A few months ago two very sweet young people, Sophie and Justin, asked me if I would officiate at their wedding. As an ordained priest, I can legally perform weddings, but their wedding was my first. Neither of them are Buddhist. I was honored that they asked, and I also knew that a "traditional" Zen wedding would not make any sense to them. I write "traditional" in quotes, because in many parts of Asia it's not at all traditional that Buddhist clergy perform weddings - in Japan, Shinto priests perform weddings (and Zen priests are in charge of funerals), and in SE Asia, couples are married in civil ceremonies and go to the local monastery for blessings.
But since Zen came to the West, there have been Zen weddings. Zen weddings generally look like other vow-taking Zen ceremonies, but in a wedding the couple take the bodhisattva precepts together, rather than individually, as people do in ordinations. Zen weddings are quite beautiful, in their way, but rather serious and stripped-down compared to most American weddings - very appropriate for Zen students, but not so much for people outside that world.
Sophie and Justin and I worked together to develop a wedding ceremony that was true to them. I had found a version of the precepts developed particularly for weddings by a priest at San Francisco Zen Center (and which I modified a little more), and they really liked it, which made me happy too. I realized that I needed to bring some of the forms of Zen to the wedding - to wear robes, to have an altar, to offer incense - and that all those forms helped me to help support them, and to be true to myself. The rest of the ceremony was much like a traditional American ceremony - vows and rings and attendants and our other lovely rituals.
I realized at the rehearsal that the most important gift I could give them was stability and centered calm. Weddings are really insane events, particularly for the bride and the bride's mother, but really for all the family members. I could bring the thousands of hours of zazen that are woven into my body right there into the middle of the wedding, and it could help everyone. And that's what I did. I felt like my body became a big bowl that was large enough to hold everyone - the bride and groom in their innocence and beauty, family, friends, caterers scurrying around,sky, oak trees - everyone and everything there. And I asked the people who were gathered there to help me make the bowl, so that together we could support the two who were marrying. The ceremony itself was surprising, emotional, and filled with beauty and heart.
What was most surprising was what Sophie and Justin gave me, as they made their vows of commitment to one another, smiling into each other's tear-filled eyes.
I come from a family of many divorces, and I've been married and divorced. I married sixteen years ago, and I married with all my heart and with every intention of being together for a lifetime. Five years later it came apart in fire and pain, and nearly swept my life away. Not surprisingly, I'm a little cynical about marriage and its possibilities - so much so that I wondered whether I was the right person to "celebrate" a wedding. I tend to think and say that marriage is an outrageously brave and foolhardy and noble act, in this time of such easily broken vows - like two people diving off a cliff together, the blue water far below.
But as soon as I stood there with them I knew that this wedding was not about me, and I completely forgot all my ideas about marriage when I saw and felt the love and happiness radiating from those two, all the way through them. To stand with a man and a woman as they make lifelong vows to one another, as they prepare to have children together, as they are moved to tears by the beauty of the other - well, I can't think of anything more inspiring, more of an honor to witness and support.
I can't believe that the universe has arranged itself so that this is possible for me. Somehow I'm empowered to help with these sacred vows. It feels a little like being a midwife, helping a marriage to be born, with all the wonder at the miracle that one feels when a new life appears. And after all, a new life IS appearing - the new life of the long journey of marriage. We said the old words, "Till death do you part," and I felt the resonance of life all the way to death, and the grief of parting, right there in the middle of the new life coming into being.
And something in me was born that day too. I don't have words for it yet, but I can feel it in me. Something humbling, sweet, and unexpected.
I had worried about marrying people and then having the marriage "fail", but that changed for me. I realized that no marriage "fails". Some last a lifetime, some last a year, but I think all marriages actually last forever. The resonance of those vows and that love goes on forever, whatever happens next, even through other marriages and vows. I knew that before, because I feel my own vows and marriage inside me, but I really knew it as I midwifed those vows that day two weeks ago. And what happens next is out of all our hands - everyone's hands. Like a new child, the marriage will have its own life, its own joys, its own sorrows. All we can do is bow at the wonder of it.
So I feel pretty lucky right now. And even luckier that in two weeks I will help with another wedding. Maybe I'm not so cynical after all. Or maybe something in me is healing, as I stand in a circle of lovers, surprised, amazed, and grateful.
Here are the precepts that Sophie and Justin took that day, with my introduction:
As a support and preparation for your wedding vows, and for a life of kindness, peace, and happiness with one another, I offer you these ten ancient precepts, or vows of harmony. As I say each one, please bring them into your heart. Please remember and practice them as an ever-deeper path of love, through all that the future may bring you. In this way, you can ride out the storms when clouds hide the face of the sun in your lives -remembering that even if you lose sight of it for a moment, the sun is still there. And if each of you takes this responsibility, your lives together will be touched with beauty, compassion, and delight.
I vow to love you, to cherish you, and to support your happiness.
I vow to appreciate you and the gift of our lives together.
I vow to stay faithful to you, and to trust your faithfulness.
I vow to speak the truth to you.
I vow to keep my mind and heart clear and loving toward you.
I vow to speak of you with kindness.
I vow to see you as my teacher and friend.
I vow not to hold to anger or hurt toward you.
I vow to willingly share you with the world.
I vow to honor your true nature, my own true nature, and the true nature of all beings.
These are based on the ten "grave precepts" taken by Zen practitioners. If you're interested in the more traditional Zen precepts, you can find several versions on the Everyday Zen website.
Friday, June 5, 2009
And I wonder: what are the true sources of security and prosperity? How can we - I - best take of ourselves as the world bends dangerously around us? I don't pretend to know the answers, but these are some of my thoughts, based partly on the life I've been living for much of the last three years - without a home or a job, radically contingent and dependent on circumstances and on kindness.
When we are planning for the future, wouldn't it make sense to consider how we can best nurture our friendships and relationships? Relationships pay dividends twice, to all who are part of them: in the present, through the joy and love we can feel in one another's presence, and in the future, through the support we can offer each another if times get hard - if illness strikes, or sadness, or a hundred other difficulties.
Recent studies have shown that friendships and relationships increase longevity and happiness. And yet some people I know treat friendships as a luxury or a burden, something extra around the edges of making a living or the many tasks that can fill our days, rather than central to a human life. What if we valued others' love, and took care of it, as much or more than we valued our retirement accounts?
My favorite web resource on gratitude is a site developed by Brother David-Steindle-Rast, a joy-filled Benedictine monk in his 80's: www.gratefulness.org . He has dedicated the last part of his life to teaching gratitude.
And finally, path. I was going to write, "faith", but faith is a tricky word for a Buddhist. Still, I mean faith too. What I mean is the feeling that one's life is not bound entirely by conventional identities as a consumer, or a worker, or a wife, or a student, but is instead held within a larger container, as a "child of God", or a person dedicated to awakening and compassion, or whatever it is that is a meaning far beyond and far larger than our small identities.
Several of my colleagues whose jobs are disappearing are people of faith - Baha'i or Christian - and I can see that they hold what is a disastrous event (by any standard) within a certain deep and beautiful trust. When our identities are limited, and we lose that identity, we lose everything. When we are held within vastness, within love, within a purpose beyond our small selves, the loss is different - still significant, still painful, but not shattering in the same way.
So I see these three as true capital in hard times, or for hard times to come. If each of us truly nurtured mutually supportive friendships, gratitude, and whatever path sustains us, we would be rich beyond belief, protected and blessed. The winds could roar, our house could be swept away, and we could suffer, but we would also be held by priceless gifts. What more is there to wish for in this brief life?
Saturday, May 16, 2009
These last few weeks I’ve been considering a kind of paradox, one that I’m reminded of every time I walk along the shoreline here where I’ve been staying: to what lengths must we go to undo the damage we’ve done? And if to undo the damage we must use a kind of poison, are we right to play with such fire?
I’m staying on the shores of
Shoalwater, Willapa …the words soft in the mouth, sibilant like rain on water.
Back then the low hills were rich in old-growth western red cedar and hemlock, the huge, shallow bay was rich with native
The early settlers got rich gathering up the native oysters and sending them to Gold Rush San Francisco, and by 1894, the oysters were nearly gone. The old growth lasted longer, until the mid-20th century. Then
One thing still thrived and grew in the bay, a slow cancer. Back in 1894, when oyster spat was brought from the East Coast to replace the native oysters that had been decimated by over-harvesting, something else came with them. The spat were kept alive in boxes packed with moist layers of another East Coast native, Spartina alterniflora.
The Atlantic oysters failed, but the spartina thrived, growing on the sand and mud below the high tide line where the shorebirds fed, seemingly barren places that supported great life and diversity just beneath the surface. The spartina formed dense patches that trapped more sediment, converting the intertidal zone to meadow. Eelgrass beds, juvenile salmon habitat, shorebird feeding areas…all gone.
For most of its first one hundred years in the bay, the spartina spread slowly. In 1984, there were just a few hundred acres of the grass in the bay. Then it exploded, and by 2003, there were 20,000 acres of the tidelands completely dominated by the grass, and it was increasing by 20% a year. It was like a wildfire, killing everything in sight.
The cabin where I stay is close to a tidal channel that drains a large salt marsh and sand flats. Across the channel is a deserted sandy island. In the few years that I’ve been here, I watched the spartina fill in the tidelands and saltmarsh, until there was little else. I would try to dig the smaller clumps, but it was like flailing at the edges of a monstrous growth; the next year there would be even more.
I seldom saw shorebirds here, because the invertebrates they depended upon couldn’t survive amongst the spartina, and the dense growth provided cover for their predators. I knew that this was happening everywhere else in the bay, an inexorable loss, a helpless grief I felt every time I walked the shoreline.
I came back to the bay a few weeks ago. I’d been gone a long time, since late summer last year. I arrived back at Willapa in early twilight. I got out of the car, stretching cramped muscles from the long drive, and heard the thin high calls of godwits nearby. I hurried down through the beachgrass and then stood, stunned at what I saw.
The tide was low and shorebirds were everywhere, feeding, calling, flying. Plovers and sandpipers and dowitchers and dunlins, companionably chatting with one another as their bills probed the wet sand. The big shorebirds were there too: godwits and curlews and whimbrels and willets, their very names a kind of ancient poetry. I had arrived at a place I thought I knew and found it reborn, alive in a way I’d never known.
Over the next few days I visited the beach many times, each time near to tears, grateful beyond words. The water flowed smoothly between the open sand shoals, eelgrass exposed at the lowest tides. At night I heard flocks of shorebirds calling out of the dark sky as they flew, and wheeling down to land just a few hundred yards from where I lay. Brant- beautiful black geese – roosted on the island. A place that I thought I knew had been transformed, had come alive like a beautiful animal, breathing in the dark, life flowing richly in its veins.
The rebirth I saw wasn’t a fluke. It was born of hard work and controversy and a great determination to bring Willapa back to health, a valiant attempt to undo the damage that had begun nearly a century ago, and that threatened not just my little spot, but the very fabric of the bay, its rich and extraordinary ecological integrity.
It took a long time for anyone to realize that there was a problem in
In 2007 and 2008 the people with their sprays and special mowing machines came to my corner of the bay, and I watched acres of dense grass open up again. Above high tide, the native plants began to come back. And by this year, 2009, the shorebirds had their habitat back. This part of the bay teemed with life in a way I had never known. By this year, through great effort, they had reduced the spartina in the bay to less than 1000 acres.
But what about the herbicides? Even “less toxic” herbicides are still toxic to some extent. Some people fought tooth and nail to keep the spraying away from their beloved bay. Can I blame them? We’ve made so many mistakes in the past, overlooked effects we didn’t want to know or see. It’s hard even for me to write this; I feel that I’m somehow betraying my own ideals of working in harmony with the natural world.
But on the other hand, we made this terrible mess here, inadvertently. A whole system was dying – I saw it with my own eyes - a system that millions of non-human beings depended upon. I know people with cancer who did everything they could to avoid chemotherapy, as I’m sure I would. But would you withhold chemotherapy from someone if it meant a good chance of recovery? Could we have said, “Ah, too bad about Willapa Bay and its beautiful shorebirds, its salmon, its ancient harmony. Let it go.”?
There’s something beautiful about what was done here – a great effort to save a place, beyond human needs. I think that’s what moves me. Maybe we’ll find out it was a mistake. But meanwhile, I listen to the shorebirds happily feeding, and I bow to those who worked so hard to bring them back, mistaken or not: the politicians, the biologists, the humble people who walked the mud with backpack sprayers, day after day in the rain and wind. Thank you, thank you.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time - and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. - Georgia O'Keefe
Three weeks ago I led a wildflower walk in the coastal hills just north of San Francisco, on a blue-skied, blue-oceaned, emerald-green-hilled California early April afternoon. A poet and Zen practitioner named Genine Lentine had asked me to lead the walk as part of a series she’d organized (Space Walks). I had said I’d be happy to lead a wildflower walk, but I wanted to do more than point out the flowers and give them names: I wanted to explore the relationships between botanical language, deeply seeing the natural world, and the flowers themselves, blooming so extravagantly in the spring wind. So that’s what we did together, a little group of people gathered on a weekday afternoon, admiring spring wildflowers and thinking together about naming, seeing, knowing.
I carried a shoulder bag full of heavy books out into the hills with us: my huge Jepson Manual of the Plants of California, my slightly smaller Flora of Marin County, a little paperback book on spring wildflowers of the
It was language that brought me to plants in the first place. Specifically, a little poem by Gary Snyder, read first when I was eighteen or so ("For The Children"):
To climb these coming crests, one word to you, to you and your children:
stay together learn the flowers go light
He’s speaking of knowing where we live, what we live amongst, as native people know the living world around them in deep and sensuous and essential detail. Living not on the land, but within it. I read that little stanza and knew that I wanted to “know the flowers”. I had no idea that knowing the flowers would lead to a lifelong commitment and love for the green, unspeaking world. I could never have imagined that my “knowing the flowers” would support me, literally, for much of my life.
Botanical jargon is a language of deep observation. The Inuit may have many words for different kinds of snow, but botanists have just as many elegant and exact words for the shape of a leaf or the kinds of tiny hairs on the stem of a flower. Leaves can be simple, compound, pinnate, palmate, bipinnate, tripinnate, lanceolate, oblanceolate, caudate, spathulate, acute, dentate, lobed, ovate, crenate, spinulate….these are just the words that come to mind at the moment – there are dozens more, each with a very specific meaning, a shape in the world. Hairs can be stellate, dendritic, hispid, sericeous, tomentose, glandular, postulate, puberulent…again, just a few of the words that come to mind, among many others.
This is a language of seeing, seeing made manifest on the page. When a plant is first described, formally, a description of the whole plant, from roots to stems and leaves and flowers and fruits, is written and published in Latin. Anywhere in the world, someone who knows this botanical language could make a painting from the Latin description which would strongly resemble the plant itself, enough that someone could probably match the illustration to the plant. This language, and the scientific names that go with it, is a language of seeing and knowing.
With this language, I can go anywhere in the world, look carefully at a plant, and begin to know it, begin the knowing of it. It’s just the first step, and not the only one, but it’s a great step forward into relationship.
It’s not uncommon for me to come across people who feel that classification and naming are actually a problem, a separation from the world rather than a meeting of it. What I say to them is, “When you first meet a person, you don’t know their name or anything about them. How close are you to them at that point? Then, over time, you learn not only their name but their family, the way they look when they’re sad or tired, where they went to college, the names of their children. Does this lead to great intimacy or less?”
It’s the same with plants. All that language is a bridge to intimacy, not a wall. I remember that before I began learning the names of trees, the forest was a “wall of green”. Then it became “beech, maple, oak”, and I began to see that some forests were mostly beech, others mostly oak, and that this was the land and soil itself speaking in trees. Some places say “beech”, some places say “oak”, but before I can hear that speaking, I have to know the difference between a beech and an oak.
I think there’s a notion that naming is new, a product of our scientific mania for classification, but I remember learning, years ago, that the people of the Yakama Nation in eastern
At one point on our wildflower walk, on a spectacular bluff overlooking the Pacific, I invited everyone to sit down next to a plant and look at it closely for five minutes. When we gathered again, everyone’s eyes were sparkling. Each person described something wondrous: one woman had looked closely at a poppy, and had seen the individual pollen grains dusting the base of the petals, had seen the light through the orange petals as like the light of a flickering fire; another person had looked at the long fruit of stork’s-bill, and had noticed that as it dried it curled into a fantastic parasol. Each person was amazed at the beauty and intricacy of what they had seen.
This is what I do every day that I’m out in the field, using the language that I have painstakingly learned over the decades to look closely at plants - how they grow, their leaves, their flowers, their fruits,. And from that knowledge comes the ability to name – and protect – some of the rarest plants in
And joy. The joy that each person felt on the bluff that day is a joy I still feel after all these years, a joy that arises naturally in, as Georgia O’Keefe said, “seeing a flower”. I don't know what it is exactly, but try looking closely at a flower, even a humble weed in your backyard, and see what happens.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
I offer this old poem in honor of a beautiful lady, Hisako Kimura, who was born June 23rd, 1918, and who died gracefully at home this last Sunday evening, April 5, 2009. Everyone who met her loved her. Now her generous spirit has gone back into the world as a blessing.
- Do not stand at my grave and weep,
- I am not there, I do not sleep.
- I am in a thousand winds that blow,
- I am the softly falling snow.
- I am the gentle showers of rain,
- I am the fields of ripening grain.
- I am in the morning hush,
- I am in the graceful rush
- Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
- I am the starshine of the night.
- I am in the flowers that bloom,
- I am in a quiet room.
- I am in the birds that sing,
- I am in each lovely thing.
- Do not stand at my grave and cry,
- I am not there. I do not die.
Friday, March 27, 2009
“It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
Edward Abby, Desert Solitaire
I’m working in the California desert this spring. Every day I walk across the vast landscape, through sandy washes, over rocky low hills, amongst the creosote bush and wildflowers.
The sun is bright, the wind cold, and all day long I hear the crunching of the small stones beneath my boots. Lizards scurry under shrubs when they hear me, antelope ground squirrels flick their tails, and if I’m very lucky I might see a desert tortoise, infinitely dignified and every-so-slightly comical, blinking its ancient eyes. Some days there's a river of painted lady butterflies, streaming past me from the south, alighting now and again on the tiny bright desert flowers for a sip of nectar before flying on.
I drove through the desert last December in a blinding rain, and the glorious wildflowers all around me are the fruit of those winter storms. Sometimes I walk through a sea of golden desert dandelion, splashed with the blue and purple of phacelia. The beavertail cactus is just coming into bloom, a brilliant unlikely fuchsia. Tiny white “desert stars” dot the gravels, and evening primroses of every shape and color are splashed across the landscape. It’s a paradise for these few weeks of spring.
I’m working with a team of botanists, looking for rare plants on a huge swathe of public land. We’re here because this land may end up bulldozed to make way for one of many, many solar energy projects slated for the southwestern deserts. Everything we see and document may be gone in a few years.
The work is glorious, we all agree. We work long hours but we have the joy of seeing the desert in bloom and of working in a place that feels like wilderness, miles from the nearest paved road. Most of us are tremendously concerned about global warming and climate change, and cheered by the new emphasis on alternative energy. But to see this beautiful landscape and imagine it utterly changed is painful. We walk and wonder…is it worth it? Is this the only way?
Millions of acres of public land in the southwestern deserts, much in pristine condition, are currently being identified by energy companies as potential sites for solar and wind power projects, in a kind of 21st century gold rush. I was told that if all these permits were actually granted, more public land would be destroyed than in all the mining since the passage of the mining act in the 1800’s.
Wind power leaves some natural habitat beneath the turbines, but most solar projects need to completely flatten the landscape to provide a stable surface for mirrors or solar panels. Nothing is left except the stones and gravel. And these projects can cover many square miles of land, enough solar power to be equivalent to a nuclear power plant.
Is this good? Is this bad? Some environmentalists – and the current administration in
Deserts have always gotten the short end of the stick. They’ve been the places we put our prisons, our bombing ranges, our landfills, our toxic waste dumps. They’re too dry for cattle, too stony to farm, too far from cities for suburbs. Most of the desert is public land, but there’s no money for the government to make on creosote bush and sunlight. Until now. And it’s a great deal for the energy companies, perhaps even what makes these huge projects feasible: rather than spend millions for private land, they can lease – and utterly alter – public land for a fraction of the cost.
“Public land” means “our land”. But no one seems to be considering yet where these projects will do the least harm, or how to plan for them on a regional scale. We do our surveys, but it’s not clear that they will have the slightest effect on the final decision. The government wants clean energy,
So far not one major national environmental group has been willing to raise concerns about the effect of “clean energy” on desert lands. Only the tiny California Native Plant Society has stepped forward: Deserts Need Care in Rush to Clean Energy.
Last week, Senator Feinstein became the first senator to take a stand and ask for greater protection for desert lands that were specifically purchased by the public for wildlife conservation and are now being considered for solar projects: Feinstein Seeks Block Power from
Meanwhile, I walk through the desert, bending down to identify the small flowers, feeling the clean wind in my face, loving this place while it’s still here, knowing it may one day go to feed our great hunger for energy, like so many other places – our coal mines, our uranium mines, our oil fields, our pipelines…Even though part of my spiritual practice is to know that "all things that have a beginning have an end", still I can hope that this place, and others like it, will go on as they have for thousands of years, free of our insatiability.
Every day that I walk here I love it more, and wish for others to see it and love it as I do. Surely there’s a way to move toward more solar and wind power with less harm. Surely people can and will wake up and ask our government to care for the land that belongs to all of us, and to the plants and animals that live here, no matter how barren and empty it may seem at first glance.
That’s my prayer.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, trans: Red Pine
Right now I’m sitting in a motel room in Barstow, California, deep in the Mohave desert. I just made myself a cup of tea, and as I sip it I’m remembering Spirit Rock, and the many times during my month of silence this February that I sat on the bench in front of the dining hall with a cup of tea warming my hands, looking over the hills to the sky beyond. How much I appreciated each sip, how much I appreciated the sky and clouds as they changed, the echoes with other retreats when I had sat on that same bench, the breeze against my face.
In some ways, that’s all that happened for that month of silence. I sipped cups of tea, I sat in my room with my breath, I walked the beautiful open hills, I listened to birds. Sometimes I walked in rain, sometimes in sunlight. Sometimes my mind was clear and light and easy, sometimes cloudy. I could just leave it at that, and it would be accurate. At the end of a retreat, the teachers advise that if someone asks you about your retreat, just smile and say, “It was great.” That’s all people want to know anyway. But I want to say more, at the risk of saying less, because the gifts that come from retreat feel beyond the personal. They’re glimpses into what it means to be human, what we really are, what our minds can know and hold, what is possible.
The quote above is from a teaching given in 8th century China by a great Zen teacher, Hui-Neng. The teaching was so inspiring and encouraging and powerful that it has been read and memorized and quoted for the last twelve hundred years or so, in China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and now the West. It sounds lofty and abstract, but I think he’s just talking about something as close as this mind, right now. Space is nothing special, but it can hold everything. The human mind seems confused, but it can hold everything too: heavens and hells, happiness and sadness, birdsong and the sky and the gritty feel of sand in the palm. That’s what I saw, in this month of silence – not “saw” in the sense of “intellectually understood”, but “saw” in the sense of “directly experienced”. And it came through an unlikely teacher: pain.
Those who know me know that I’ve wrestled with a chronic illness for a long time. One of the symptoms, when the illness is active, is severe body pain, like the pain of a high fever. I was in pain when the retreat started, and for about half the time I was there. Strong pain while in silence can be quite overwhelming, because there’s no distraction, no buffer between the mind and the pain – no book to read, no movie to watch, no telephone to pick up to call a friend. I’ve left retreats because the pain was too strong and my misery was too great. But developing a relationship with the illness and with pain is important, because it’s part of my life, not anything I can push away or pretend isn’t there, and I wanted to see if something other than misery was possible.
In the first few days, I wondered whether I would have to leave. I wasn’t sure I could be in silence and hurt that much. My mind felt like a white-water river, tumultuous and frightened. But as the days passed and my mind settled, I could feel myself getting calmer and wider and happier, like that same river when it comes out of the mountains and on to the plains.
I remembered a teaching by Darlene Cohen, the author of Turning Suffering Inside Out. Darlene has had rheumatoid arthritis for thirty years, and is also a Zen teacher. One of her teachings is, “Find what doesn’t hurt, what is pleasant. That’s there too.” When we’re in pain we tend to lock on to the pain, to close down around it, but at the same time that there’s pain, there’s also sweetness – the warmth of a cup of tea, the softness of fabric against the skin – and if we’re not careful we’ll miss the sweetness altogether, lost in our bad dream. When we open up a little, there’s room for pain and pleasure, sweetness and suffering, and that changes our relationship to both.
At the same time, one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk on a traditional Buddhist teaching about how we relate to sense experiences. Basically, every time we have a sense experience – seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, thinking – right away there’s one of three possible visceral responses to it: we like it, we don’t like it, or we’re not sure whether we like it or don’t like it. That response is almost hard-wired, although we can grow to like things we once disliked, and grow to dislike things we once liked.
What usually happens is that we miss the moment of that visceral response, and go immediately to trying to get more of it (ice cream, for instance), or less of it (physical pain, for instance). This activity actually takes up a lot of our waking energy. Traditionally it’s taught that if you can just see that initial response in a neutral way (“Oh, this is unpleasant”), without going into the cascade of “Oh, make this go away”, there’s the possibility of freedom, right in that moment.
So I applied both those teachings to the physical pain I was experiencing: I opened up my senses to the things that were happening that weren’t painful, and I just noticed when something was pleasant or unpleasant. And, miracle of miracles, I found freedom, right in the midst of the pain. I found that I could know that pain was happening without contracting around it and desperately wanting it to go away, and that the experience of not contracting was actually joyful. I could be in pain, notice the light through the leaves of the tree, feel happiness in my heart, and sip a cup of tea. Room for everything, just as Hui-Neng said. The mind vast like the sky. What a discovery.
And the strange thing was that the pain itself responded, and instead of staying steady day in and day out, it would come and go, as if it was also more free, now that I wasn’t clenched around it. And whatever it was doing, I was OK. More than OK. Really happy.
I had a dream, while I was there, that I was in a high wind, and the wind was buffeting me and pelting me with stones and silt, but my mind was peaceful and steady, even in the middle of the chaos and roar of the wind. To know that it’s possible to be peaceful in the high winds of life, and not just when things are easy ….that’s freedom.
And it’s not just possible for people who spend months in meditation. People who spend months in meditation are like astronauts going to the moon or oceanographers diving deep in the ocean – they do it for the rest of us. We may never do those things, but what they learn about the nature of the universe opens us up to new possibilities. I learned a little about my own nature, which is the same as yours – and now I offer it to you.
“In your dark house of afflictions
keep the sun of wisdom shining”
The Platform Sutra