All posts by It's Alive! Zen

About It's Alive! Zen

I've been working with koans with John Tarrant, Roshi and the wonderful folks of Pacific Zen Institute since 2006. I am constantly in awe of the way koans trick me into stepping into my own life and into freedom. There is simply nothing better. This blog arose out of a desire to provide support to the koan small group I lead, called It's Alive! Zen. (https://www.facebook.com/ItsAliveZen). Please enjoy the blog and come sit with us if you're in the area. Thanks.

The morning after

This morning, it was raining when I woke up. I looked at my phone and read a friend’s email, my first indication of how the presidential election had swung.

I shuffle into the kitchen, where the cats are waiting for breakfast.  We’re out of their regular food, so I scoop out some canned food. They’re like me: junk food is a special treat, something out of the ordinary.

I make my coffee and sit down on my cushion.  Little snippets of Donald Trump flit through my mind, spurts of worry, disappointment and surprise mixed with mundane thoughts of the day to come.

I leave home early to pick up donuts to take to work, and I notice my mind is looking everywhere for signs of the apocalypse.  I walk into thewp_20141006_001 grocery store and I’m greeted by the smell of fresh pastries, the sight of people stocking produce, an employee talking with her manager.  I see people of all colors and wonder what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and how their future might be different from mine.  I half expect to see people running around in a panic, gnashing their teeth and looting shelves, but all seems relatively calm.

I get my donuts, step up the the cash register, have a short conversation with the cashier. She is pleasant, I am pleasant, I care about her.  We look each other in the eye and wish each other a good day.

On my way out, I pass another employee. We look up at each other and smile, wish each other a good day.  I think of the guy who just inspected a house for me, a vehement Trump supporter, and how helpful he was.  I wonder how many other people I know who are Trump supporters (bodhisattvas, bodhisattvas!).

What is the blown-hair sword? 
Each branch of coral holds up the moon.

I look back on my participation in conversations surrounding this election–the piling-on I’ve done, the moral outrage I’ve enjoyed, and all the speculation and character assassination–and while it seemed like the thing to do at the time, now is a different day.  It seems important to pay very close attention to my life, to allow myself to love other people. My body moves slowly and it feels good.

When something confronts you, don’t believe it.  Whatever appears, just shine your light on it.  You can trust the light that is always working inside you.

wp_20140907_005I do like things that truly upset my understanding of the world, and this is one of them.  I like waking from strange dreams and when my expectations are shattered, and in a way, I like this, too.  We asked for someone to fix the fan, and what we got was a rhinoceros.

Years ago, some rich noble or another gave Yanguan a fan made out of carved rhinoceros horn.  One day, Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “It’s broken.”
Yanguan said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”

As I pull off the freeway and into work, I feel as though I have been given the honor of holding the whole world’s uncertainty.  I notice that there is the option not to give my speculations more weight than my experience, that the rain and the trees have something to say, too.

Taking the form of Guanyin, find shelter for the homeless person.

Overnight, stock prices fell and then went back up again. Immigrant families are making plans.  Pundits are trying to make sense of what happened. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form. Uncertainty is exactly certainty, certainty is exactly uncertainty.  We are sure we understand something, and just as quickly as that understanding is shattered, we are sure we understand something else.  On and on, a reassuringly routine farce.

What is the Way?
The clearly enlightened person falls into a well.

I am reminded of those refuge vows, though I never think of them, and they give me comfort now:

I take refuge in awakening,
I take refuge in the way,
I take refuge in my companions.

Fortunately, they don’t mention say anything about taking refuge in circumstances going my way.  Despite any certainty I may have felt in the past, I do not know what will happen next, nor do I think anyone else knows.  And somehow this is comforting.  We’re all in the dark together, feeling around, tender fingers searching for a handle.  We can wp_20160322_008absolutely count on not knowing. Perhaps we should add a fourth line to the refuge vows, though it might be redundant:

I take refuge in uncertainty.

I invite you to take refuge with me.

What does that mean? (update 11/10)

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we stuff our heads underground and pretend that nothing is happening.  I am also not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel worry or anger or sadness or any other thing, or that we shouldn’t think about the implications of what the outcome of this election might mean for us, our loved ones, and all the people of the world.

odysseus-and-the-sirens-1024x506What I am suggesting is that we have an incredible, often untapped, capacity to hold fast in the face of our immediate reactions, and to balance our fears of what might be with the experience of what is now, right now, in this moment, and this moment, and this moment.  And for me, that capacity carries a responsibility: to keep my eyes and my heart open so that I can hold the world when it weeps.

I heard a commentator on NPR last night say that Mr. Obama has been criticized for moving too slowly, for taking too long to make decisions.  The commentator, who has spent time around the White House, said a wonderful thing in response: the average day of the President of the United States is filled with impossible decisions, situations where the amount of information that is available is never truly sufficient to make a decision, and yet make a decision he must.  And so how does one approach decision-making in that situation?  Here’s an offering from Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell:

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream,
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory,
Courteous as a guest,
Fluid as melting ice,
Shapeable as a block of wood,
Receptive as a valley,
Clear as a glass of water.Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

My point is not to support Mr. Obama’s process of decision-making, though I think I like it, but to point out that we are all faced by impossible decisions every day. We rarely, if ever, have sufficient information to make a truly informed decision, but we must act in the world somehow.  This is one of the cruces of koan practice: in this world full of confusion and uncertainty, how will you move?  Will you be paralyzed by anxiety or rendered senseless with anger? How will you respond in situations of distress, and is that helpful to you or anyone else?

When difficult times visit us, how should we greet them?
Welcome.

I spent yesterday meeting with mothers of elementary school students who are homeless, families living piled up with family members or friends, couch-surfing, sleeping or lying awake on inflatable mattresses in living rooms.  It has taken me over a month to track down one mother, Diane, because she has no fixed address, no telephone, and no car.  I found her at the restaurant where she works and when she found out who I was, she began to weep.  We talked for a few minutes and set up a time and place to meet that was convenient for her, so she could tell her story, so we could talk and make a plan and get to work.  As I got up to leave, she wiped her eyes and said that she wished that she could hug me.  That sounds great! I said, and we did.  In that moment I loved her, and as I think of her now, my heart swells with warmth and worry.

I don’t know if I can help Diane with her problems, and that’s okay.  It’s not time for me to know that yet.  I’ll just do the next thing.  I will take refuge in the way things are: the sound of the traffic, the warm cat on my stomach, my worry about Diane and what feels like the flu coming on.  And if the time comes where the world is falling apart, I will take refuge in that as well.  But not before then. Not before then.

Image credit: “Ulysses and the Sirens,” John William Waterhouse, 1891, retrieved from: http://www.johnwilliamwaterhouse.com/pictures/ulysses-sirens-1891/

Not knowing is most intimate

Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

I’m standing around feeling kind of useless when the young girl introduces herself to me.  “I’m Ramona!” she says enthusiastically, sticking out her hand.  I tell her my name and I say nice to meet you and we shake hands.  She wants to show me her plot and so she walks me over. Everyone else is planting tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, but her plot is filled with flowers.   “I love flowers,” she says, beaming.

About a quarter-mile down the road, I pull into a gas station.  As I’m filling up my tank, I hear a commotion, so I turn to look.  An older man wearing dirty, baggy clothes is pushing a teeming shopping cart across a busy four-lane street, and traffic has reluctantly stopped to let him pass.  As they honk their horns at him, he mockingly makes loud, honking noises back in protest.

Bermuda grass—Cynodon dactylon, also known as dog’s tooth grass, devil’s grass, and wire grass—is fast-growing, aggressive, and very tough.  It’s commonly used for golf courses and sports fields because it recovers quickly when damaged.  It is remarkably heat and drought-resistant, grows a deep and extensive network of roots, and is invincible to most herbicides.  To really get rid of Bermuda grass, you have to dig up the soil and pull it out by the root.

I find a place to park about a block away and pull my water jug and a few Powerades out of the car.  My hands are even more anxious than I am, so I’m dropping things all over the place.  I manage to get everything into a plastic bag and set off down the sidewalk toward  the Handy Stop.

As he cleans up the mess, the tall guy remarks that they didn’t even bother to eat it.

We are all together now—mother, daughter, Lucky and Kona and I—as Kona and Lucky wash off  the blood and dirt.  They are gentle and concerned.  We are all concerned.  The damage is bad: a large patch of feathers is missing from his back and the skin has been peeled away.  I cringe as a wave of empathy hits me.  Occasionally, he lets out a string of what I imagine is the turkey equivalent of expletives, but other than that he seems remarkably calm.  As Kona gingerly plucks ants from around the wounded area, the group discusses the turkey’s fate: will he be strong enough to survive, or will the wounds become infected?  Lucky jokes that he has a friend who just completed training as a butcher.  Kona finds a towel to wrap the turkey in and settles him in a box somewhere safe.

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The Secret Life of Crises

Here’s a koan for you:

Sickness and medicine heal each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
– Yunmen

In day-to-day life, it seems like there’s a general consensus on certain things: getting into a car accident sucks, getting a raise at work is good, it’s terrible when someone you love dies.  This koan offers the possibility that those assessments may not always be true, that life might be more interesting than that, and that if your world falls apart, it might not be a bad thing.

WP_20160221_006There are crises all around us. Even here, in one of the most developed nations in the world, single mothers raise children while living out of a car, floods kill hundreds of people and displace thousands more, and racial tensions cause violent social upheaval. There are smaller crises as well: a car breaks down in the middle of a busy freeway, someone shows up to the airport without an ID, a child gets sick with the flu.

I like to ask people what brought them to meditation. More often than not, their story involves some kind of crisis, a  disruption in homeostasis. One friend realized that yelling at his young son for no good reason had become a normal occurrence; a college student suffered the unexpected death of a parent; a musician quit using drugs after years of addiction. The story of the Buddha starts in a similar way: a young prince is suddenly faced with the frailty of being human, leading to the discovery of an unexpected depth to life.  What starts him on his journey is the disturbing realization that things fall apart: we get sick, we get old, and we die.

Of course, we all know that these things happen, but there’s a difference between seeing them on the news and having them barge into our living room.  Crises have no respect for what is reasonable or fair or even possible. They take us out beyond the luxury of our usual resources and demand that we respond anyway. They bend us to their will and shatter our expectations.

mouse01 croppedWe cannot know if a loved one will recover or how we will afford the car repairs. When our basic certainties desert us, we are forced to rely on reality: the smell of the hospital waiting room, hot tears on our cheeks, clouds crawling lazily across the sky. We are sustained, moment to moment, by very small things.

Although there is often chaos in the midst of a crisis, there can also be an unusual sense of clarity. We are given the opportunity to notice things we never noticed before, as though in the commotion, someone accidentally left a door open into the universe. We see the way things are in a different light.

While spending time with this koan, a friend received news of several separate family crises in one day.  His usual response in these situations was to be the composed one, to warehouse his feelings at a safe distance so that he could be the hero. But this time, he felt a pull to meditate, to take his time with sadness and fear. It’s not that it wasn’t still painful, but he seemed to be genuinely enjoying it, in a way. The crisis and the koan had worked together to change his sense of who he was and how he responded to life.

Bird carcass in snow cropMeditation is not a way to solve or avoid a crisis so much as a path to savor it fully. Just as children grow new taste buds that help them to appreciate more complex flavors, so can we more fully taste the complexities of life. We learn to love the sour and spicy as well as the sweet.

While I was on a recent trip to the west coast, a friend suddenly fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital.  I spent the wee hours of the morning in the emergency department, keeping company with his family while they waited for news. We had just come from a wedding reception, so everyone was dressed impeccably. We looked like a cocktail party that had been blown off course. After the ordeal, the family apologized for the inconvenience, but I considered it one of the best parts of my trip. It was an opportunity to access the world just beneath the crust of my expectations, to be shanghaied by unusual circumstances and smuggled into real life. Having navigated a crisis together, I felt closer to all of them.

Crisis can simplify things.  Unnecessary concerns drop away and we just do what needs to be done. Who we think we are becomes irrelevant as we are caught up in the flow of things. But sometimes the most painful parts of a crisis are when things have calmed down a bit, because they give the mind an opportunity to tell itself horror stories, a dubious attempt to recoup certainty. This, too, is an interesting moment: like the Buddha, sitting up all night under the Bodhi tree, we are assaulted by our worst fears, judgments, and delusions. If we can stick around for the show, we will see the house of pain constructing itself right before our eyes. We may or may not have achieved supreme enlightenment by sunrise, but at least we will have lived with a degree of compassion, just by not turning away.

The tricky thing is that a crisis isn’t any different than the rest of life—it’s just an unexpected arrangement of circumstances, really—but it can serve as a gateway deeper into life.  That’s not to say that we won’t be sad or angry or terrified or even in danger of losing our health or our life, but we don’t have to refuse what we’re being given. And that might change the way we experience life in a very unexpected way.

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It’s not meditation

A student asked Zhaozhou, “What is meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s not meditation.”
Dumbfounded, the student asked, “Why is it not meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what meditation is. I’m not sure why. It generates a series of questions that just seem to go around and around and contradict each other.

There are lots of meditation schools that offer very clear practice instructions: where to meditate, how to breathe, how to sit, what to do with your hands and your eyes and your mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t interest me all that much. It might have something to do with my allergic reaction to being told what to do, but also, when I do meditation like that it feels like there’s a bit too much of me in it, like I’m trying to run the show.

WP_20150212_005I like to be surprised, I guess. That’s the best thing about jokes: the surprise. We think we know what’s coming, but we get sideswiped. It’s disorienting. It blows up our expectations and our perception shifts. We laugh. We feel happy. Enlightenment happens like that—out of nowhere, by surprise. You’re just minding your own business and

the world

falls

apart.

Okay, I’m back. Between the last paragraph and this one, I went looking for a good joke to illustrate my point and ended up spending an hour on Reddit and Youtube. I did bring one back for you:

Two older couples were having breakfast.
Old Man 1: We went to the best restaurant last night.
Old Man 2: What’s its name?
Old Man 1: Oh, I have such a terrible memory. What’s that red flower?
Old Man 2: Carnation?
Old Man 1: No, the one with the thorns.
Old Man 2: Rose?
Old Man 1: That’s it! (Turns to his wife) Hey Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?

Meditation imitates life. Or maybe life imitates meditation. I’m not sure. Either way, just like the rest of life, I never know what’s going to happen in my meditation (I think I like it that way). So I never know what my meditation practice is going to be—I just show up and greet whatever comes. It’s a kind of a DIY discovery process.

WP_20150218_001Sometimes my mind is wild, making plans for the future or gathering evidence to justify why I don’t like someone; sometimes it’s still and quiet, as empty and vast as outer space; more often, it’s somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I’m distracted and sometimes I’m focused; sometimes I have insights and sometimes I feel dumb as a brick; sometimes I have a lot of physical pain and sometimes my body seems to disappear altogether. I might plan a road trip, have an argument, or visit with dead relatives.  I don’t think it’s my job to decide whether or not something should be happening. When I argue with The Universe, the score is always

Me: 0
Universe: ∞

But that’s OK, because actually we’re playing for the same team. So maybe it’s more accurate to say the score is

Me: ∞
Universe: ∞

Whatever.

The point is that we don’t have to drag meditation into the tiny closet of right and wrong where we keep most things, because then it’s “not meditation.” We don’t have to know what good meditation looks like or how to fix crappy meditation. We can WP_20151112_003just fall into the aliveness of the process, because it’s really our own aliveness. And if we’re just in our own aliveness, then perhaps we can accomplish superhuman feats like hanging out with ourselves whether we’re angry or bored or sick or happy and meditation isn’t some special thing we do for a certain amount of time in a quiet room on a special cushion, but something that’s always happening whether we think it is or not.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

If you’ve got a few more minutes, comedian Norm Macdonald will upset your expectations:

 

 

Credits

The older couples joke was posted on Reddit by user Mordeci00

The Norm Macdonald video was posted on Youtube by user Eva Griffin is sound

 

“Gremlins point the way” OR “How a car crash saved me from myself”

This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way.

One of the side effects of Zen practice that I enjoy most is a softening around my insistence that “This isn’t It.”  When the universe serves me something unexpected, I am more likely to trust that it’s for me, even though it may not appear to be what I ordered.  Maybe I think my eggs are too runny, I should have done college better my first time through, or that someone needs to change before I can love them.  But rather than insisting on how I think things ought to be, I keep finding that it’s easier to just trust the way things are.  Navigation is simpler that way and it sure beats paddling upstream all the time.  Here is a story about not trusting.

For the past few weeks, I have been preparing to move to Texas.  I never thought I’d live in Texas. In fact, I was pretty sure my next move would be back to the West Coast. But then, things just move in the direction they move, and it seems right to move with them.  So I’m moving to Texas.

WP_20160522_002 croppedMoving is full of changes and, for a time, it becomes more clear that changes are themselves the material of my life.  I wrap up some relationships with friends and colleagues and devise ways to continue others.  The true intimacy of a relationship can become more clear very near the end, just as waves heave up as they begin to break.  My relationships to things change also.  I have much to sell or give away, and managing ads on Craigslist becomes a full-time job.

Out of all the things I intend to cut loose, my car feels the most pressing.  It is no spring chicken and I’m anxious about the chances of selling it for a decent price in the little more than a week left before I leave Virginia.  I spend hours scrubbing the car inside and out, and in the process I develop a deep appreciation for all the time we have spent together. (The true intimacy of an relationship can become more clear very near the end.)

sale-car1I’m feeling pretty good about how the car looks and drives, but there are a couple of seemingly minor issues that need to be addressed before showing it to potential buyers. A leaky hose prevents the air condition from blowing cold and  I have not yet installed an aftermarket stereo system given to me by a friend.  In my excitement, I post an ad on Craigslist before they are addressed and almost immediately, emails asking to see the car start pouring in.

Without noticing it, I have drifted into dangerous territory.  I am advertising something I do not have. I’m getting ahead of the universe and hoping that it won’t notice that there’s nothing behind the curtain. Looking back, it seems like it could be the plot of an episode of I Love Lucy. 

troops holiday mail delugeI parry my way through a melee of emails while the car is in the shop, waiting for the A/C hose to be replaced.  Of course, the parts dealer’s computer system is down, so the mechanic doesn’t know when the repair will be finished or how much it will cost.  (Only later do I realize that I have not factored the potential cost of the repairs into my asking price.)  Then there is the aftermarket stereo I advertised, which has not yet been installed (did I mention I’ve never installed a car stereo before?).

It’s strange to experience the elation that comes with each interested buyer mixed with the stress of having to manage what feels like a lie that is becoming less and less white.  I push suitors out to the next afternoon, hoping the car will be finished by then.  I schedule the first one for 6:00pm, the next for 5:30pm, 5:00pm, 4:30pm, and I can feel the pressure mounting between present and future as I bet more and more on cards I can’t see.

WP_20160522_006 croppedI am getting out of hand.  My mind is swirling.  I’m short-tempered with my fiancee, who is only trying to help, I’m pushy with the mechanics, and I’m frustrated with myself for putting us in this position.  I am the poster boy for dogged willfulness, and it seems the only strategy is to continue digging to save face and a sense of control.  (As I’m writing this, I notice my breathing has become shallow and I am gently grinding my teeth.) There is some faint voice reminding me periodically about trust and koans and my practice, but I shut it out because it’s not useful for manipulating things in my favor.

The time finally comes to show the car to the first suitors and the A/C hose has still not been replaced.  There is a whole separate mini-drama surrounding the installation of the stereo, but that’s another story.  The suitors arrive early and are walking up to my door as I give the new stereo the final push into the dashboard (it works great, by the way). They seem like very nice people and they test drive the car and tell me they’ll think about it and I say of course.

Lost in my fog of obsessions, I have not eaten in several hours.  I make a quick trip to a fast food joint up the street to grab a snack before the next showing, and as I’m turning into the parking lot, a car zooms up and collides with mine.  In the split second before impact, I have just enough time to say, out loud to the universe and anyone else listening, “Are you f***ing serious?”

After all that trouble, all those hours of scrubbing and polishing, of agonizing over details and organizing suitors and nagging the mechanic and struggling to get the stock stereo out and trying to understand wiring harnesses…Are you f***ing serious?

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As Governor Wang arrived at Zhaoqing Temple, they were making tea. When Elder Lang held the kettle for Mingzhao, it turned over. When the governor saw this, he asked the
elder, “What’s under the little tea stove?”
“The spirits that hold up the stove,” replied Lang.
“If the spirits are holding up the stove,” asked the governor, “why did the kettle turn over?”
Lang said, “You can serve as a high official for a thousand days, and then lose it in a morning.”
The governor shook out his sleeves and left.
Mingzhao said, “Elder Lang, you’ve been eating the food here at Zhaoqing Temple, but you’re straying across the river chasing after junk.”
Lang asked, “What would you say?”
“The humans lost.”

The other driver and I pull into the parking lot and exchange information.  A kind police officer is nearby and comes over to check on us.  In situations like these, there can be a strong drive to decide who’s in the wrong.  Though I notice that I’m a bit shook up, I’m not actually angry, and placing blame seems totally uninteresting. The other driver apologizes profusely and I find myself saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” She is sweet and I like her and we chat while we’re exchanging WP_20160128_004information.  She laments that she’ll catch hell when she gets home and I laugh and say me, too.  I am delighted by the sheer irony of the situation.  I stop on the way home to show my mechanic what has happened and I am pleased by his look of genuine astonishment. He covers his face and shakes his head and suggests that, considering my luck, it might be safer to just park the car and walk home.

Sometimes we are rescued by something terrible.  As I look over the damage of the car, each new injury adds to a faint but growing sense of relief.  (Ah, the fender is ruined! Ooh, the frame is buckled! I smell antifreeze!) It begins to sink in that, for all my willful scrambling, the bottom has dropped out of the situation.  The stress of managing car repairs and dealing with potential suitors has been completely wiped away by the accident.  The ship may have been commandeered by pirates, but at least I’m no longer sailing us straight into a sandbar.

gremlin floor greasersAfter events such as this one, the mind often sprouts thoughts about how things might have been different–if only I’d gone somewhere else to get a snack, if only the car showing had taken 5 more seconds, or 5 less seconds, or the mechanics had repaired the air conditioning–but these explanations are always based on what we know, and any given moment is far beyond our understanding.  In World War II, Royal Air Force flight crews “blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest” (Wikipedia).

The actual state of things in each moment is something I can rely on.  Blame is not something that can be proven because there are always gremlins or stove spirits who are pulling strings backstage, silent partners with mysterious agendas.  As I was writing this post, the repair shop my car was towed to–one I have never had dealings with before- called.  They wanted to let me know that they’re backed up and would not be able to begin assessing my car’s damage until 2 days before I leave for Texas.  And what of that?  Well, that’s the gremlins’ business.  As for me, I’m going to remove a tiny splinter from my toe and go have lunch with a friend.

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Credits

The first koan about the stone is a haiku written by the Japanese poet Santōka Taneda.  It appears in the Pacific Zen School's Miscellaneous Koans collection and is translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland.

"U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail During WWII" (1944). Unknown photographer. Presented by Smithsonian Institution, downloaded from Flickr Commons on May 8, 2014.
The tea kettle koan is Case 48 of the Blue Cliff Record, translated by John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland.

The wonderful flying animals art piece was done by Hannah Curry, a 3rd grade student in Cyndi Marchetti's art class at Elmont Elementary. It is presented here with her permission.

"Gremlins Are Floor Greasers" (1942-43). Unknown source. Lovingly archived by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Downloaded from Wikipedia on June 2, 2016.

All other images were produced by the author.

Invisible Crimes

Many people think koans are mysterious and hard to understand. Well, in this post I’m going to explain to you how koans work.

Here’s a koan:

The Diamond Sutra says, “If people despise you, it’s because of sinful karma from previous lives that has inexorably led you into evil paths in this life. Then, being despised by people in this life extinguishes the sinful karma of previous lives.”
First, there’s this poster of a harp seal in the restroom at work:
V__062B

Seal tearsI don’t know if you can tell at this resolution, but there appears to be a tear coming out of her right eye. At the bottom of the poster is a caption that reads, “SAVE US – Contrary to popular belief, the slaughter of harp seals continues.” I truly love all kinds of animals and seals are pretty close to the top of the list. Still, when I look at the poster I kind of grimace at the bleeding-heartedness of it and make sarcastic comments to myself (“Is it really ‘popular belief’ that the slaughter of harp seals has stopped?” “Is that really a tear in her eye? Gimme a break!”).

I’m currently having some kind of friction with a coworker who I consider a friend.  I apparently did something that really offended her, but she won’t address it with me or even tell me what it is. Having people mad at me is not one of my strong suits and, being the doggedly accommodating individual that I am, I have carried around an appropriately weighty brick of guilt and a remorseful sadness for a few weeks now.

WP_20150211_003Because I am so accommodating, I am willing to adopt the role of perpetrator when it is offered so convincingly, even when I don’t know my crime.  Gosh, she doesn’t even want to talk to me about it. I must have done something really bad. I do my best to make amends in exile.  I think hard about what I have done (even though I don’t know what it is) and sincerely pledge to institute moral reforms. When she is around I imagine how she would or would not like me to be, and then I try to be it.  Even when she’s not around, sometimes my mind paints her looking over my shoulder. I make myself very small and I walk on my tippy-tippytoes. It feels stiff and robotic. I lack free will. It is very painful.

This evening, I went into the restroom at work and, as I often do, looked at the poster with the harp seal on it.  This time, instead of ridiculing it, I realized that the tear in the harp seal’s eye was for me.  I felt a rush of forgiveness and relief. Of course! I’m no perpetrator, I’m just me!  I laughed and said aloud, to the seal poster in the bathroom, “Ohhhhhh, thank you buddy.”

Now you know how koans work.

 

(P.S. Just for the record, I find the modern killing of baby harp seals for their pelts, or for any other reason, absolutely heartbreaking and repugnant. For more information on seal hunting, this is a pretty good (and graphic) article)

i’m lost

Presently my life is a delicate egg balancinghoneycomb. It is composed of compartments of circumstances which I have meticulously arranged in order to make them perform in concert with one another. Work, school, internship, exercise, food, vacation time, sleep, relationships, art, income—each one rests on all the others gently, precariously.

But then there was a single moment of less-than-optimum attention, a slip of one nanoscale gear tooth, which threatened to send those carefully contrived components grinding against each other in a melee of desperate uncertainty.

It’s only a small mistake in my work schedule.

It’s only the keystone to the entire kingdom.

a koan:

Step by step in the dark,
When my foot is not wet, it has found the stone.

I do not know how this is all going to work out—this is certain—but it doesn’t stop my mind from whipping out in all directions like a cartoon octopus learning to ice skate. Guanyin is here but she is floundering, countless confused hands thrashing about and the eye in each rolling in nystagmic ecstasy. Will I get enough hours at work? Will I lose my health insurance? Have I damaged my relationship with my supervisor, who I respect and admire? Does she hate me? Do I hate me? How will I survive this colossal fuckup?

I had dreamed the future with such eloquence, but now I’m watching the gossamer filaments of my certainty hiss and crackle as they collapse.

WP_20150117_028 (2)Blaming emerges as a possible navigation method.  It offers a simple storyline, something to hold things together. There is a momentary feeling of exhilaration. I am rising, but these sudden wings feel chintzy.

First, this fuckup is someone else’s fault: The world is chaotic and I succeeded in bringing it into focus, but in the end I was betrayed by someone else’s incompetence.  This is a well-ordered world, but as with most well-ordered worlds, inside it I feel angry and impotent. That environment is too extreme to support life and so I rocket to the opposite.  Now it is my fault: I am narcissistic and careless and in my hubris, I have brought chaos and suffering on innocent people. This world makes sense too, and is very familiar, but living there makes me feel guilty and hopeless. I begin to settle into a dubious compromise: perhaps it is both our faults–a little bit hers, a little bit mine. I know that won’t do either, but at the time I cannot see a way out. Those very filaments of certainty that had once cradled the promise of a bright future are coming to life again, this time to bind me.

WP_20160203_002Days away, I am at work and my body feels sluggish. My eyelids hang heavy like plush velvet draperies. A lump has made its burrow halfway down my throat and the corners of my mouth plunge downward in a persistent frown. My breath is shallow and sometimes I wonder if it has disappeared altogether, fleeing the kaleidoscopic churning in my gut. My body knows it is adrift in foreign waters and yet my mind pores over familiar charts, hoping to stumble upon a friendly constellation.

I don’t much feel like eating but I know I’m hungry so I order a pizza. The nurse I am working with eggs me on, assuring me that I deserve the indulgence. The pizza fills me but also gives me heartburn. I go outside for a walk and it is cold, dark, and snowy-quiet. I convince myself for just long enough that this unease could be related to giving up smoking again, so I have a cigarette. I catch a buzz that’s frosted with shame. I peer up at stars through spare winter branches, chase the sweeping gaze of headlights, pursue a blinking jetliner.

They are all crystal clear and aloof.

That is not the thing that will save me. Nor that. Nor that.

I have 25 minutes left on my dinner break, so I grab my meditation cushion and take over an empty office. I can feel that the action is inside, so I feel fairly confident in giving up on reaching outward. I sit down, close my eyes.  I gingerly tend the supernova that is whirling quietly inside me and my mind does the octopus thing again, this time flipping manically through its rolodex for a koan that will turn this shit into gold: scorn,WP_20151123_005 (3) stone crypts, an enlightened person in a well, branches of coral, crimson threads, mistakes on pilgrimage, spilled tea, rolled up blinds, standing on needles, wars, stone buddhas, clay buddhas, wooden buddhas, homeless people, the light, dogs with or without Buddha nature—they all fit and none of them offer a way out.

It is still night and somewhere inside this hard, dark fog, I begin to feel that my feet and the ground are negotiating, remembering me from the bottom up. It’s a conversation I’m not equipped to contribute to, so I gratefully surrender the helm. This brings the familiar twinge of relief as I begin to rediscover my powerlessness, our powerlessness, the glorious inevitability of things. All those doors to other versions of me and other ways that things might have worked out simply disappear, like scattering roaches in the sudden light. I do not know where they go to hide.  I just feel the simplicity of my body, no longer an octopus, as it lolls gently, undulating with the deepest currents.  I could stay here for a while.

Here’s a song for you.

 

(Photo credits: Egg Balancing Act: Joseph Janney Steinmetz, 1939)

Putting the universe back together

Here’s a koan:

One day at Nanquan’s monastery, students of the eastern and western halls were arguing over a cat. When he saw this, Nanquan held up the cat and said, “If you can say the right thing, I won’t kill it.” No one could respond, so Nanquan cut the cat in two.

Recently, I was with friends for Christmas. They have a young child, a happy, bright boy about one-and-a-half years old. From among his many presents, they carefully chose one in particular for him to open on headless boyChristmas Eve. That night, the grandparents came over for dinner. Through some misunderstanding or miscommunication or some peculiarity of human will, the grandmother brought her own gift for the boy, one that she had chosen especially for him to open on Christmas Eve. Not long after she had walked in the door, the parents noticed this and a power struggle ensued. The parents were angry that the grandmother had not respected their wishes. The grandmother claimed ignorance and protested that the parents were too controlling. The argument went on in this way for some time. Meanwhile, the child stood between them, looking confusedly back and forth between parents, grandmother, and the offending gift. In their desire to have their way, both parties had forgotten about the child altogether.

WP_20151123_007You can see the effects of human will struggling against itself everywhere: politics, relationships, work, family gatherings, in ourselves.  When politicians impose their own wills against each other, the nation suffers; when partners impose their own wills against each other, the relationship suffers; volunteers called court appointed special advocates are needed all over the country to ensure that foster children don’t become victims of the very systems created to protect them.

WP_20151007_004It’s not hard to find someone who is willing to fight to defend a position. (The progressive rock band Tool wrote an awesome song about this called Right in Two.) When we get lost in our own will like this, we cut the universe in half.  We split ourselves into pieces that shout at each other from opposite ends of a vast schism. How can we hear each other like this, let alone touch one another? It is easy to get trapped in stances of right and wrong–defending loot, pride, beliefs–but Nanquan asks for something even easier than that: is there anyone who can put the universe back together again? Although this was difficult for the monks, it doesn’t have to be for us.

If we just keep company with a koan, it will begin to show up in our life. We might notice it in our relationship with our partner, at work, at the grocery store, or watching the news.  Even when we think we’ve lost it, we can trust that is working hard for us all the time.

Beach Stop SIgn cropped wideThe koan is always offering us the fundamental aliveness in our situation, and yet we can cleverly find ways to avoid it.  Perhaps we ignore the aliveness because we think it’s in the wrong place. Maybe we think we need to figure out the situation before we respond or that we have no power.  Either way, the cat dies. But it seems that we can become less and less adept at ignoring our suffering, at playing dumb, and we can fess up to what is required of us: to invest something real of ourselves.  And while it likely won’t involve anything as dramatic as saving a cherished pet from being dismembered, in a way our very life hangs in the balance.

Koans can help us to fall out of theWP_20150726_003 character we usually play, which can fortunately also mean forgetting our strategies for avoiding life. They shuffle our scripts around so that we can no longer be sure of who we are going to be in any given moment. This might be unnerving at first, but sometimes freedom is like that. When you have fallen out of character, whoever you already are might be the right you. As the koan presents itself in your life, you might suddenly find yourself inhabiting the role of various characters in the story.  Perhaps you are a monk of the east or west hall, or Nanquan, or the cat, or even the blade that cleaves precious things in half. Perhaps you are the room where all this took place. Wherever you are invited to enter can be the right place.

Here’s another favorite koan that has been echoing around as I write this post:

One day when Dongshan and a monk were washing their bowls, they saw two crows fighting over a frog. The monk asked, “Why does it always have to be like that?”                 Dongshan replied, “It’s only for your benefit, honored one.”

In this situation too, you might be anyone–the monk, the crows, the frog, even the bowls being washed.  Being the frog might be interesting because it can easily be overlooked as a supporting actor whose only role is to set up the punchline.  But if you are the frog, you might find out what it’s like to be fought over or pulled apart by something in your life.  Maybe you are a live frog and it’s terrifying, or maybe you are a dead frog and so you don’t mind.  But even in that case, what is it like to be a dead frog in your own life?  In this way, we can enter anywhere.

This process of falling into a koan happens naturally as a byproduct of spending time with it. We do not need to decide who we are, because we are already. We can feel our way into who we are like trying on a new coat (where are the pockets? Zoey Supine cropped tightWhat happens when I move my arms this way?). We can become intimate with it and discover something. We can ask, “What is it like to fully inhabit this role, in my life?” As the cat in the koan, I notice that my allegiance is not to the east or west hall, but to the warmest lap. As the child in the story, I don’t care whose gift I open first because everything already belongs to me. As one of the monks, when Nanquan holds up the cat I feel a great shouting desperation well up in my chest and I forget all about laying claim to anything.

There is a second koan that wraps up the cat story and offers us an intriguing role model:

That evening, Zhaozhou returned from a trip and Nanquan questioned him about what had happened. Zhaozhou took off a sandal, put it on top of his head, and walked out. Nanquan said, “If you’d been here, you’d have saved the cat.”

Someone told me that putting a sandal on top of one’s head used to be a sign of mourning in China. (Poor, poor kitty.) Others claim he’s saying something about turning things upside-down or that he’s just making a silly gesture to point out the absurdity of the situation. Either way, Zhaozhou’s response comes from outside the tug-o-war of human wills that began this episode and Nanquan seems to approve of it. But the fact that Nanquan approves of it doesn’t mean that we have to, and our task is to discover our own true response to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

So, when Nanquan threatened to kill the cat, what would you have done?

A Sandwich for Frank

Sometimes I help out at a place where people sometimes need help.  On Monday, I was sitting in the office alone when there was a knock at the door.

“Are you Jeffrey?” she asked.

“No, I’m Jesse,” I replied.

“Oh! Would you like a sandwich?”

flowers crop squareThere was a meeting and they had too many sandwiches, so she was offering the extras around.  It was in a brown, waxed cardboard box labeled “Smoked Turkey,” that was sealed shut with a single piece of Scotch tape.  Not being one to (ever) turn down free food, I graciously accepted.  I wasn’t terribly interested in a sandwich, but just about anything sounded more satisfying than the baby spinach salad and Fuji apple I had brought with me and anyway, I consider unexpected food to be one of the great joys in life.

I set the sandwich aside.  I mused on it on and off for a couple of hours.  I thought about the other person working that day, who was out on an errand.  I wondered if she had brought a lunch and whether or not she liked smoked turkey sandwiches.  I decided that I would save the sandwich for her.

But once time decided to be around 1:30, I started doubting that the other person was going to return in time for the sandwich to be relevant.  I looked at the sandwich.  I severed the tape and opened the box, inspected its contents: one smoked turkey sandwich on wheat, one cookie (looked like molasses, mmmm), and one tiny plastic ramekin of  some couscous-like substance.  The sandwich didn’t look all that appealing to me, nor did the couscous substance, but I had an errand to run at 2:00, so I figured I should probably eat something soon.

I checked in with my stomach: not hungry at all. Usually, not being hungry is no barrier to me eating, but this time my stomach was actually telling me not to put food in it: “Don’t do it. We’re good.”  I hesitated. I WP_20150401_001looked at the sandwich.  I looked at the cookie.  I looked at the couscous cup.  I thought about my salad.  I looked at the sandwich again.  And the cookie.  Slowly, I began to unwrap the sandwich, all the while feeling very apathetic about the whole affair.  Undaunted by my lack of hunger or really any interest at all, I picked up half the sandwich and brought it to my mouth.  Just as I was about to take a bite, there was a knock at the door.

“Yeah?  Come in.”

“Hey, brotha.”

A Kentucky drawl.

“Hey Frank, what’s up?”

I put the sandwich back in the box and set it aside.  He sat down.

“Can you help me call my doctah?  I don’t know when my next appointment is.”

We called his doctor and found out his next appointment time.

He kept sitting there.

“So how’s it going, Frank?”

“I’m really just tryin’ to hang in there today.”

“Oh? Rough day, huh? What’s going on?”

“I don’t have any food at all in my apartment.”

Missing Piece fitsSuddenly it all made perfect sense.

I pointed to the sandwich.

“Do you want this sandwich?”

“No! No, brotha, I can’t take your sandwich.”

“No, really, I don’t want it.”

“That’s really generous of you brotha, but I can’t take your sandwich.”

“Frank, let me tell you how I got this sandwich…”

I proceeded to tell him a considerably more concise version of the story of the sandwich than I have just told you, which seemed to satisfy him.  His entire demeanor shifted.

“OK, thank you brotha! Bless you!”

He ate the sandwich.  He seemed much happier afterward.  We talked for a while and then he left.  Then I ate my spinach salad and my Fuji apple.

They were delicious.

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I have been visited by many koans who have tried to take credit for this story.  What koan(s) does this story remind you of?  Let me know by commenting below.

P.S. The black and white line drawing of a circle with a wedge in it is from the Shel Silverstein book The Missing Piece. If you did not already know that, your life is a little better now.

Ending homelessness

A koan: Taking the form of Guanyin, find shelter for the homeless person.

There seems to be a WP_20150923_002connection between my happiness and how I hold the world.  Often it seems as though the task in meditation is just to welcome visitors: the sound of my cats facing off or my partner emptying the dishwasher, the smell of a full litter box, the feeling of back pain or drowsiness or visions of the day to come.  This morning, our foster kitten crawled into my hands while I meditated and began to purr loudly.  It seems that how I hold things is how the universe will hold me.

WP_20150405_002A friend of mine who meditates recently told me a story of a friend of hers who meditates.  He has young children and, trying to get some good meditation done, trained the whole family to be very silent around the house during his daily meditation sessions.  Failure to comply often earned stern scoldings.  At some point, he decided to teach his oldest child to meditate, but while he was instructing him for the first time, he noticed the child was fidgeting and looking very uncomfortable.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.  The child hesitated for a moment, then  explained that since his father always seemed so unhappy about meditation, it must be a very difficult and terrible thing.

WP_20150719_006Aside from our regular Monday night koan group, I offer another meditation group every week in the Charlottesville community.  This week, one person showed up: a young woman with a quick mouth and an intense stare who is determined to get the world before it gets her.  She shines with a bright intelligence and it is clear that somewhere safely behind the ramparts, there beats a vivid, crimson heart.  “So is it just gonna to be you and me? Cause I said I’d come to this, but I really don’t wanna be in here with the rest of these assholes that live around here.  It’s the same drama, same bullshit, they’ll just move it in here.”

She then proceeded to talk WP_20150305_004nonstop, rolling out a disjointed, sensational tale of homelessness, incarcerated partners, partner abuse, drug abuse, brain damage, property damage, gang violence, violent love, love triangles, female fist fights, betrayal, and raising other people’s children.

Often it seems as though the task in meditation is just to welcome visitors.

After about 25 minutes, she stopped abruptly and looked at her watch.

“Well, are we done?” I said.

“Can we be?”

“Of course.”

She thanked me and apologized for not humoring me with “the meditation thing.”  I thanked her for not humoring me with “the meditation thing” and told her that she was welcome anytime.

WP_20150403_001There seems to be a connection between my happiness and how I hold the world.  To refuse what is being offered in any given moment is to make the entire universe homeless.  To care for what shows up at our doorstep is to come in from the cold.

Ringing the doorbell:

  1. Who is someone in your life that you just can’t accept?  What is a part of you that you just can’t accept?
  2. When or where do you feel like you don’t belong?  When do you feel most at home?
  3. Was there ever a time when you left what is safe and familiar on purpose?  Why?  And what was that like?