Saturday, January 31, 2009


I'll be disappearing from the blogosphere for the next month; on February 1st I'll enter a thirty day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I thought, as my last blog for a while, that I might share some writing on the practice of silence. These are excerpts from an essay in a book manuscript that I'm hoping will find a publisher in the next year: Not Dwelling Anywhere: Essays From a Time of Pilgrimage.

"We’ve always been around – the people who go apart to some high hill or cave, the people who go on walk-about alone, the people who choose to marry Christ and listen for his whisper. Maybe others would do this if they could, but not all lives have room for such a luxury. And maybe, for some, there’s fear in the thought of silence.

I remember the first time I heard of the possibility of a silent retreat. It was the winter of 1983, I was eighteen, and I was in Washington D.C, living and working with a radical homeless advocacy group. My mother had an old friend in D.C., Tilford Dudley, a socialist lawyer who had come from Illinois during the Roosevelt. His wife, Martha, befriended me. She was a poet and birdwatcher, and I was living in the heart of poverty and concrete, faced with suffering on a scale I’d never seen before. She would scoop me up and take me on long walks along the creeks and forests outside the city, taking care of me in her quiet way. One day we were walking in the hills, our feet shuffling through dry leaves, and she began to tell me about another young friend of hers who had just returned from ten days of silence. We were both baffled by what that might be like, both intrigued. I can remember that we were walking beneath a bridge. I can remember something in me lighting up like a new star.

Six years later I finally made my way to my first retreat. It was a women’s vipassana meditation retreat, held in a Catholic convent outside Santa Rosa, California. It was late March, and the grassy hills were green as the finest brocade and covered in wildflowers. I remember two things from that retreat: realizing with relief that I actually didn’t have to believe all the ridiculous, self-centered thoughts in my mind, and moments of walking in the hills when pure joy flooded into me, so intense that I wondered whether my heart could bear it. The salmon had found its home stream.

Living in silence is not what it looks like from the outside. I think from the outside it seems like a form of asceticism, a relinquishment of community and relationship for some higher good, a voluntary descent into darkness. It doesn’t look like much fun: people in silence tend to look serious, if not downright dour. The inside of a person on retreat is a whole different story. Suzuki Roshi said, “I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing..” When I shut my mouth, I can start to hear, and it turns out that what I can hear is beautiful. Ditto with what I can see, what I can taste, what I can smell, what I can touch. Suzuki Roshi could have just as easily said that he tried to teach his students to look at a tree, to eat an orange, to meet another human being.

Ordinary life is, I think, like being wrapped in layers and layers of cotton wool, protected and defended from our direct experience. Silence unwraps some of those layers. I remember coming out of a retreat and reading a newspaper in the airport. There had been a disaster, as there are always disasters, but this one went right to my heart. I sat on the plastic chair with the newspaper in my hands and I wept. And I was glad to be weeping: it seemed like the sanest, most deeply human response to such news.

I never know what will happen on a retreat. I’ve learned over the years not to assume anything, and certainly not to plan for anything. With stunning accuracy, what needs to be healed appears, spontaneously and often in direct opposition to what I would like to have happen.

In the second year of pilgrimage, I spent a month in silence. Within the first day, a huge pain and sorrow appeared in the center of my heart. I had no idea why it was there, or what had triggered it. I’d spent my previous long retreat in a state of happiness and bliss, far beyond what I had ever known, and I half-expected to continue that bliss. Something had other ideas. For thirty long days I learned about courage. I sat with the pain, opening wider and wider to it like a woman in labor, learning to hold it with compassion, learning not to run away. When the retreat ended, so did the pain, as mysteriously as it appeared. What I do know is that those thirty days changed my relationship to great emotional difficulty, my own and that of others.

I think it can seem like a retreat is a retreat from the world, a retreat into solipsistic naval-gazing Paradoxically, to spend time with others in silence is intensely intimate. I spent a winter at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, more than ten years ago. Every morning we would wake well before dawn and walk down to the meditation hall beneath the bare-limbed trees in the cold mountain air, the way lit by kerosene lanterns. We all wore black Zen robes, so in some ways we looked alike, but by the end of the first month I could recognize every person in the dark by the way they walked, the tilt of a head, the gesture of a hand. Even from the back I knew my fellow-travelers. There were no locks or keys at Tassajara: it was inconceivable that we would steal from one another or hurt one another after sitting hour after hour together in the hall, the roar of the creek filling all our ears, the same gruel filling all our bellies. I learned to trust at Tassajara – to trust the inherent goodness and kindness that arises when those layers of cotton wool begin to come apart.

Tomorrow I’ll enter that silence again, as I have so many times before. I’ll sit with my own mind and heart, not knowing what will happen, trusting the silence. I do know that a few days into the retreat my heart will begin to open on its rusty hinges, and I’ll be filled with gratitude – for the courage of the people who sit around me, for the depth of this tradition, for the beauty of the world. Whatever else happens in a retreat, gratitude is always there, like the delicate scent of a single stick of incense, as natural as the blue of the sky."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

God's Filling Station Revisited

For those who read my blog on December 3rd (God's Filling Station), you may remember that I wrote about how moved and inspired I was by an NPR interview with the lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik. Yesterday I happened to pick up an old newspaper article from December, and read, with sadness, that Richard Cizik was asked to resign from his nearly 30-year position as the Washington lobbyist for the NAE, as a direct result of that interview with Terry Gross. You can read about here.

Apparently his primary mistake was to voice some tentative support for civil unions, but it's clear from the article that there have been powerful voices within the evangelical movement who have been hoping to find a way to silence him for a long time now. He was a fervent advocate of "creation care" - Christian environmentalism - and tremendously concerned about global warming. I can only hope that voices such as his - voices of tolerance, compassion, care for the non-human world, and willingness to compromise - will continue to step forward within all religious traditions. We need them so desperately.

On a related note, I just found an article in Buddhadharma on Buddhism and a response to global climate change. That lead me to a really quite wonderful online magazine: EcoBuddhism Quarterly Review. All religions - all people - run the risk of complacency in the face of global warming. We Buddhists may pride ourselves on our tolerance, but we can indeed by self-referential navel-gazers on occasion, and we too need to be reminded of the connection between our practice and compassion for the world, human and non-human.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

And Yet, and Yet....

Last night I was attending the weekly seminar that my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, offers in Corte Madera. Two days before, Norman lost his closest spiritual friend, his anam cara of 40 years, Rabbi Alan Lew. Rabbi Lew was teaching at a retreat on the East Coast, went for a walk, and died on the side of the road.

Norman and Alan practiced together at Tassajara Zen Monastery in the 1980's, and became life-long friends there. One became a Zen priest, one became a rabbi, seemingly divergent paths, but for the last three decades they have continued to practice and teach together, illuminating each other's lives and bringing back contemplative practices into American Judaism in ways that have reverberated throughout the world and have touched hundreds or thousands of people. What finer example of spiritual friendship could there be?

I didn't think Norman would be at the seminar this week. I knew he'd been with Rabbi Lew's family since Monday, carrying not only his own huge grief but the grief of the people who most loved and needed his friend. But he came and sat and spoke to us. This month we're studying the Heart Sutra , which is the most important and widely chanted text from the Buddhist emptiness teachings...teachings that form the basis of both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

The emptiness teachings offer a radical, fluid and open view of reality - one that emphasizes interconnection, grasplessness, boundlessness. We think we know what we are and what the world is, but it (and we) are essentially ungraspable, beyond categories and thought, not independently existing in the way we tend to think we are. This can be either frightening or freeing, depending on how comfortable one is with not knowing exactly what's going on.

There is a poem about life and reality from the end of the Diamond Sutra:

"As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this." (trans Red Pine, 2001)

So from this perspective, even life and death are not what they seem and there's nothing to mourn. Rabbi Lew has simply (as Norman said at one point in his talk), "radically changed form". And there's truth, and sometimes even comfort in seeing things this way. But then there is the matter of the human heart.

The 18th century Haiku poet Issa endured a life of extraordinary tragedy, including the early deaths of his wife and all three of his children. His most powerful haiku was composed at the grave of his daughter, Sato:

The world of dew
is a world of dew, and yet
and yet...

No matter what we know, no matter how clearly we know that the nature of the world and our lives is fundamental impermanence, we cry when the flowers fall, or as Norman said last night, "Love dictates that I not give up my tears."

There's a beautiful koan, a Zen story, about a woman, a student of the famous teacher Hakuin, whose beloved niece had died. She was standing in front of the altar, sobbing, when another of Hakuin's students entered the hall. He scolded her and said, "I thought you were a true Zen person. Why are you crying?" (in other words, "I thought you understood the emptiness teachings, but it looks like you don't"). She turned to him and said, "My tears are my offerings to my niece, the candles and flowers on the altar to honor her life and death."

I've heard the teachings of the Heart Sutra many times, but seeing my teacher sitting in front of us in all of his tremendous sorrow, teaching with his whole body the deep paradox of life- that everything slips away, and nothing slips away, and still we cry, still we love, still we break over and over again - well, last night I felt the Heart Sutra in my bones, in the center of the center of my heart.

You can hear Norman's talk here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Silence and the Mind of Winter

Happy New Year! I'm humbled and awed by something I've just read, an extraordinary essay about silence by a man now silenced by Lou Gehrig's disease. I'd love to share it - if you have a moment, please read it - it's astonishingly beautiful, and utterly evocative of winter and its gifts: Winter Mind.

Here's the Wallace Stevens poem that begins the essay:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

of the January sun; and not to think
of any misery in the sound of the wind...

from The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954, Alfred A. Knopf.

Winter and silence dance with one another....I think of the traditional Zen 90-day practice periods and the silence of the zendo in the winter dark, the rain on the roof the only sound in the whole world. Or the silence of a morning after a deep snow, the single set of footprints or the brush-stroke of an owl's wing as it swept down on a mouse the only marks of life in the whiteness.

In a month I'll enter 30 days of silence at Spirit Rock . Although I've entered into silence many times in my life, I never know what gifts will come my way from such a radical choice. I know that I'm already leaning toward it, like a tree leaning toward the season when the sap goes down into the roots and the moon tangles itself in the bare branches, dreaming in the dark.