Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shuso Notes: Cookies, mothers, bodhisattvas, codependents

Once again, these are my musings on what is arising for me right now, as shuso (head student) of the practice period.

Here's a koan for you: What is the difference between a bodhisattva and a codependent?

(Thanks, Bruce Fortin, for this. A great koan from a therapist/Zen teacher!)

This post is my personal exploration and reflection on this wonderful -- and at least to me -- very funny modern koan. I'm not sure why it's so funny, but I keep waiting for the punchline ("A bodhisattva and a codependent walked into a bar...") If someone can come up with a good punchline, please add it to the post comments!

So, the shuso's tasks are many. One is organizing and attending "shuso teas" with members of the practice period. What that means in Everyday Zen is organizing teas in four separate parts of the Bay Area -- San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, East Bay -- and a tea during the sesshin. This is a very sweet and personal part of the practice period. A group gathers at someone's house, sips tea, munches on cookies, and each person has a chance to say something about how the practice period is unfolding in his or her life.

Now, you'd think that finding people to host the teas, coordinating dates, sending out invitations to the practice period participants, receiving RSVP's, sending out directions, and then actually showing up to and facilitating five different teas in a two month period would be enough. But no, Florence has to take it one step further. She has to bake cookies. Homemade, from-scratch cookies.

In my defense, I really wanted to bake cookies for the teas. No one was forcing me, even though I hardly ever bake - I probably haven't baked cookies more than once or twice since I was ten years old and Susan Canon and I made chocolate chip cookies together, singing, "A baby monster cookie for a baby cookie monster," laughing hysterically. I just liked the idea of doing something with my hands and feeding my friends. But I also recognize that this project was every so slightly in the over-achieving realm. This is where we get back to the koan at the top of the post. What, exactly, were my motivations? Bodhisattva? Mother? (After all, mother's bake cookies, right?) Codependent? A little of all three?

Every Monday for the past several years I have joined in a meditation group with a circle of mothers. I've written about this before, in this post for Mother's Day. It has been a tremendous education. Mostly, I've been in awe of what it takes to be a mother: the blood, sweat, and tears of it.

I have identified myself as the "token non-mother" of the group, but invariably someone else will say,"Well, that isn't really true. You're the mother to lots of people!" And I think that's true, to some degree. By not having children myself, my energy is freed up to care for many people, and for the world. On another level it's baloney: I know perfectly well that my life is way easier and way freer than the lives of the mothers I knows. No matter how many people I care for, I generally get to come home (wherever home is at any time), make myself a pot of tea and read a book all night if I want to, without interruptions. They don't have that option.

Anyway, during the practice period I have been looking at my desires in relation to others, whether  motherly, bodhisattva-like, codependent, or something in between. There is a way that the position of the shuso is like being a mother for a whole practice period, and I'm ripe for the task. I see others' suffering - maybe because I know my own so well - and have tremendous desires to ease it, if I can. I have tremendous desires to serve and to nurture (see "cookies," above). I am inspired by others' willingness to wake up to their lives; discouraged when someone seems to making a choice away from waking up, toward the forces of habit and despair. All these desires and inspirations are lovely, in their way, and also tricky. Very, very tricky.

After Bruce brought up the wonderful koan, I had to go look up the definition of codependency in Wikipedia. It's a term that has entered our vocabulary from the recovery community, and I think most people have a vague sense of its meaning. It was helpful for me to look at it more closely. It's interesting to me that one of the first discussions about codependency in Wikipedia is about its similarities to and important differences from healthy mothering. After all, mothers are dedicated to caring for others, to an immense, often self-sacrificing extent. But I think I would say, from what I've gleaned from my reading, that codependents, who are nearly always people who grew up in difficult or alcoholic families, have a compulsive need to be in a caretaker role, are identified with that role, and avoid or displace their own needs for the needs of others.

Some psychologist has even developed a series of questions related to codependency, and I'm afraid I ranked pretty high. So between that, the cookie making, and a few other ways I've been in the practice period, I'm more than a little suspicious that my inner bodhisattva and inner codependent are, shall we say, up to some hanky-panky together.

And all this matters, because the bodhisattva path (the path of awakening, and dedication to helping others to awaken), and the development of bodhicitta (the desire to awaken for the benefit of others) are at the heart of Mahayana Buddhist practice. But wouldn't it be awful if all the time you thought you were training in becoming a bodhisattva, you were actually enacting deep conditioned patterns of codependency? Ack!!!! And it seems that the bodhisattva ideal could be very seductive for people who tend toward codependency, because, like motherhood and codependency, the differences are not as obvious as one might think.

So how can you know? How can I know? Well, these is my working hypotheses, based on observation of yours truly and her behaviors, and bound to be partly wrong, but I share them with you anyway, as a work in progress.

  • If I feel resentment or disappointment toward anyone I think I'm "helping," there's a good chance that I have some vested interest in being "the helper." Not a good sign.
  • But if my heart is wide open, aware, compassionate, and respectful of the other person, not needing them to be a particular way, not needing myself to be a particular way, then the bodhisattva is stepping forward.
  • If I feel any compulsion to be kind, giving, etc, especially beyond my own capacity or willingness, rather than freely responding from warmth and love, I may be enacting some old pattern.
  • Being "good," being well-behaved, or being uncomplaining may not be true bodhisattva activity, even if it looks good. Sometimes bodhisattvas are fierce, like Manjushri, with his sword of wisdom. Sometimes they say "no" or "enough." 
  • If I'm willing to be hurt, willing to cry, willing to be vulnerable, and willing to lose others, that's the bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas definitely cry....some are even born from tears.
  • If I'm willing to respect the suffering of another, and know that it's not my job to fix them, but simply to love them as they are, the bodhisattva is peeking through.

My sense of myself is of a kind of flickering in and out of the bodhisattva and the codependent, from one moment to the next, and my job is to pay attention and notice what it feels like when one is in the ascendant, and when the other is. It feels very important not to judge myself for enacting old patterns, and to understand that "bodhisattva" does not belong to me; it's just the goodness of the universe stepping forward through me.

I think my job is to get out of the way of the bodhisattva and not attach to any idea of who or what I am, and the best way I know to do that is through basic mindfulness, basic awareness, and basic compassion for this mixed-up, imperfect, confused, but sincerely-trying-to-wake-up person, and for all her friends and fellow humans in the same boat: bodhisattvas, mothers, and codependents all together on a stormy sea.

Let's go eat some cookies!

Photo by Lulu Wong, EDZ sesshin cookies, 2012
Here's my cookie recipe, adapted from one on the back of Coach's Oats (available at Costco, I believe). My friend Alison gave me a big bag right before practice period. I think you could use quick-cooking steel-cut or Irish oats as an alternative to Coach's Oats. I did this whole thing with a wooden spoon and they came out just fine.

Oatmeal Coconut Cookies
....with a little bit of chocolate

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp milk
1 cup all purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup Coach's Oats or quick steel-cut oats
1 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup or more of shaved dark chocolate, your choice

Put the chocolate in the freezer overnight for easier shaving. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter and sugars, add egg, vanilla, and milk, and mix just until smooth. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and add to wet ingredients. Add oats and coconut, then shave chocolate and add, mix until combined. Drop by large teaspoons on to an ungreased cookie sheet (I used parchment paper) and bake for 12-15 minutes. Makes 3 dozen cookies, or enough for one practice period tea with some left over to give to neighbors and to take on a hike.




  1. This post has touched me deeply as I identify with every word you write! Thank you, dear Florence. Your wisdom is a helpful beacon in my life.

  2. Beautiful. I've always thought there is a world of difference between co-dependency and interdependent co-arising. And yet... no difference at all.

  3. Lovely piece... And thank you for using my photograph of Jizo holding the baby, Chibi, safely. I love how our images fly around the world, as we connect and seek the path of the bodhisattva.

  4. I'm sorry not to have given you credit for the photo! I found it on another blog that also had no credit. Whenever possible I believe in honoring photographers for their work.

  5. what a beautiful post. touches a lot in me. i stumbled upon it by chance, certainly plan to read more of your writing. thanks!