Monthly Archives: February 2014

Waking the Dead

Howling relic

My koan small group 16 Bodhisattvas is spending time with this koan right now:

Save a ghost.

Shipwreck (2)When I think of ghosts, themes that immediately come to mind are: failed relationships, perceived inadequacies, fears I try to ignore, old resentments–things that seem not fully alive but not quite laid to rest.

When I first sat with this koan a few years ago, I was very interested in getting right answers, impressing my teacher, and getting to the next koan (“How do I save a ghost? Well, let’s get on with saving them, then!”). But between the seeking and finding a response that would earn me a stamp of approval, I caught a glimpse of something deeper and more interesting.

It was very clear that although in many ways I could run from my ghosts, somehow when I stopped they were always there waiting for me: at the grocery store, after the argument, in my own home. I have a memory of jogging down the sidewalk with the sense that apparitions were trailing out behind my head like phantom streamers on a child’s bicycle.

This poem might have come as a result of spending time with this koan:

demon dreaming 2In the afternoon, I laid down
on the sidewalk under a tree.
I closed my eyes and slipped down somewhere between the waking world
and the one of dreams.
There I saw demons dancing around a fire,
black and sketchy forms like
old woodblock prints from religious texts.
They called out to me as they danced,
We will cut off your head!
We will pull out your entrails!
We will tear you limb from limb!
I watched from some distance away as they fulfilled their promises on me.
I felt comforted as I watched,
knowing that these were my demons
that they were faithful.

While I was sitting this morning before work, I noticed a smidgen of feeling peeping out from under the hem of my consciousness. By reflex I brushed it off but then, noticing the callousness of my response, almost immediately I turned around to see what it was.

I didn’t want to go to work. It was that same sad, scared feeling I would get sometimes when Mom would drop me off at school as a child. Accompanying the feeling was an image of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. A Bruce Hornsby song is playing. I don’t want to go.  There’s so much light at home, and space, and cool blankets. There’s Mom’s kindness. There’s a feeling of timelessness–the day stretches out ahead of me like the sky and there’s nothing yet filling it; there’s the reassuring promise that nothing will ever fill it.

I notice this is the same melancholy that still visits me at the ends of vacations and on Sunday evenings; it’s a small, nagging ache that I usually brush aside, just as I started to this morning. It seems to serve no purpose but then what does? Diamonds were not valuable until we decided they were and this ache, the cascade of images, the wisp of sensation of cool blankets and sunlight is mine.

All mine.

native saves baby

Maybe that’s all that’s needed.

But there’s more to walking with the dead than just putting them to rest. It’s not about exorcising unwanted spirits or purifying my soul or even healing grisly old wounds. When I dance with the dead it seems like my life takes on an extra depth–everything seems more alive and I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed how saturated in fear I was until I stepped out of it.

So what have you got in there? When you feel something shadowy tugging at your hem, do you swat it away? Those nagging sensations, memories, thoughts that you have a solution for–what is it like when you stop having a solution for them? Before you turn around to see who is following you, what is there? Are there places, objects or people that seem to raise the dead for you?

Skull collector
What ya got in there, crazyface?


Who am I and What is This Group?

It occurred to me as I was walking through the door of my house this evening that maybe it would be good for me to introduce myself.

Hi! My name is Jesse.Me smiling

I started this blog as kind of a support site for 16 Bodhisattvas, the koan small group I lead in Charlottesville, Virginia. But also, I love to write and although I share my writings with people, it seems like I want a place to put them where I can go back and look over them. And I guess other people can read them too, if they want.

Maybe a quick history of my practice is in order. I started meditating in April of 2006 after a pretty major life change. It just seemed like the right thing to do: slow down, listen to the birds, look inside. My dad started sending me boxes of the books about Zen and meditation he had collected over his own years of practice, and so I started reading them. I guess I seemed pretty interested, because Dad started looking for a teacher for me. Luckily, he found John Tarrant, who is the founder and director of Pacific Zen Institute.

About six months later, I was off to my first 7-day retreat: silence, lots of sitting, and interviews with teachers. Vegetarian food. I was a pack-a-day smoker at the time but decided I wouldn’t smoke while I was there. I had no idea what I was getting into. But sitting in a hotel hot tub after that first retreat I felt something had changed, although I wasn’t sure what. There was something about the soft, crispy whispering of the trees that I had never heard before and I remember the lines on a dirty pickup truck seemed to be just right. Apparently I got something out of it, because I accepted Dad’s offer to take me to another retreat 6 months later.

Photo by Jana Jardine
Look at me! I’m right here!

I spent the next several years softly concussing my head against the wall with koans, trying real hard and comparing what I was experiencing to what I expected to experience, based mostly on what I had read in books (needless to say, I felt pretty incompetent). When I look back on that time I tend to think, “What kept me going all that time, frustrated, feeling like I was getting nowhere?” I think my answer now is that I was probably getting the same thing I get from meditation now: intimate contact with my own life. The only difference is that now I realize that’s what I want, is what I’ve always wanted. There’s this thing we do in meditation–I think most of us do it–where we assume that there’s some golden ideal to achieve, and it can only be obtained through a great deal of hard, painful work whereby we purify the soul, let go of all worldly attachments, and achieve perfection so that we can Be Like The Buddha. Or something like that. But anyway, that’s all garbage, or at least unnecessary. Strangely enough, when I stop trying so hard to become something, it turns out I already am what I’ve been looking for.

Anyhow, eight years and many hours on the meditation cushion later, I’m still studying with John. Since 2006 I’ve spent time with a bunch of koans and the way I experience my life has changed. A lot. There have been some sudden changes and many more subtle, gradual changes. I’ve just returned from a PZI retreat in January to find that my approach to meditation and koans has shifted dramatically. At least once a year I realize that All Along I’ve been Doing It Wrong, and Now I’ve Really Got It, and this is one of those times. But it’s a good feeling, like finding out that your crush likes you back or being rescued after days lost in the desert. It seems to be mostly about the falling away of my ideas about how things need to be. There’s a tremendous joy and gratitude in that.

And so I guess this current enthusiasm has re-energized me about bringing koans to people.  I work at a mental health crisis stabilization unit and I’m starting to bring koans into my work with clients in a way I haven’t allowed myself to before. I’m also expanding my efforts to reach people who might be interested in what my koan group has to offer.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet with Zen and koans, join us for meditation some Monday night. Here’s information about the meditation group.

If you’re interested in taking the koan path in perhaps a more deeper way, I teach in person in Charlottesville and via any medium of communication.  Here’s information about working with a teacher.

(Thanks to the lovely and talented Jana Jardine for the seagull photo)

(Thanks to Ashley Callen, Ishara Sweeney, Jack Randall and Mike Papciak for making an orange out of me so that I could attend sesshin)

16 Bodhisattvas: the name and the spirit behind it

Our name comes from a great old koan:

 In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”

Who used all the hot water?
Who used all the hot water?

The name 16 Bodhisattvas reflects a sense of being submerged in this life together; it’s an acknowledgment of the way that we find awakening not only through our own personal practice, but also through our connection to others. When we move, ripples flow outward in all directions and when the wind rustles through the trees, something in us rustles, too. It’s good to have company: we support each other, we irritate each other, and we teach each other. We can’t really ever know which we’re doing at any given time, so the best thing might be to just dive in with an open heart. We don’t get enlightened on our own–even the uneven sidewalks and crunchy autumn leaves play their part–and even if we did awaken in isolation there would be no one with whom to share the luminous life we’d found.

A word about bodhisattvas: bodhisattva is an old Sanksrit word that, from what I understand, appears to mean something pretty vague like “enlightenment person.” A kind of rough mythology is that bodhisattvas are those who have taken up the path of awakening for the benefit of all beings (formally, there are vows and ceremonies and some accoutrements that go along with this status). In a looser way, perhaps anyone who seeks enlightenment for any reason is a bodhisattva. Certainly, any increase in the enlightenment quota of this world is a good thing, so maybe even seeking our own liberation is a boon to others.

Does a flea have buddha nature?
Does a flea have buddha nature?

Surely there are many interesting ways to look at the bodhisattva concept that are far more scholarly or accurate than mine, but I like to think that anyone who attempts even 1 second of meditation is officially a bodhisattva. From the first moment we try this practice, we have already moved in the direction of freedom, and that is enough. In fact, let’s break it down even further to suggest that even those people who are not intentionally seeking some experience of spiritual freedom, and even further those who seem to be causing more harm in the world than good–perhaps they are bodhisattvas as well. Perhaps our connections to them carry the light of awakening no less than our connections to friends and family, to the bright red cardinal in the snow, and that squirmy feeling in our guts.

So even if you’ve never meditated, or if you’ve done it a lot but have somehow managed to do it wrong all this time…if you’ve read this far, you might be a bodhisattva and anyway I welcome you to our group. Although I value the time I spend practicing at home, there is an undeniable something special about sitting with others and having conversation. That something special is what I would like this group to be about.

So that being said, there’s a nice hot bath waiting for you. You’re already in it, but you can always decide to notice it.

Go on! Kick off those shoes.