Book Review & Giveaway: Meditation on Perception by Bhante Gunaratana

Book Giveaway: I won a softcover version of this book and much as I crave keeping it I will practice the essence of Meditation on Perception by offering it to a randomly chosen reader who leaves a comment on this post, Twitter, or Facebook. Giveaway closes October 17, 2014.

Meditation on Perception (Wisdom Publications) by Bhante Gunaratana is a gem of wisdom delivered in Bhante G.’s simple, clear style. Those of us who study the teachings of the Buddha have an almost facile response to the cause of suffering. It is craving, which is fed by perception; dukkha arises from the way in which we perceive the world and its events. True enough and this book unravels our misperceptions about perception.

(I)n its own nature perception is pure and clean. Yet it is also quite delicate and vulnerable to being distorted by the virus of concepts.

In my own practice, I’ve come to have an ambivalent relationship with my perceptions. A necessary evil in my mind, I engage them with narrow trust and a wide berth. Yet Bhante G.’s unwrapping of the process and mechanisms of perception reveal a subtle working of perception as the language between body and mind. This means a wider trust and more intimate relationship is called for if we are to be guided well by it.

As our mindfulness becomes more stable, we discover that the entire Dhamma is inscribed in our body and mind.

Meditation on Perception is exactly what it says: perception is the object of our meditation with the intention of fully understanding how the six senses (thoughts are one of them) feed us information from inner and outer sources. While the Girimananda Sutta, Buddha’s teachings on perception, forms the primary framework many other relevant suttas are tucked quietly into the chapters exposing us to a wide range of the Buddha’s teachings. Bhante points out that despite the initial purity of perception “concepts, ideas, opinions, beliefs, and many other categories of conditioning, have influenced our perception. In essence, our perception has become distorted. (ebook location 444)” We fall into the mirage of believing there is a fixed self, knotted by desire for permanence and suffering, and living through a preferential mind that leans into pleasurable experiences.

The good news is that perceptions can arise and cease because the causes and conditions that give rise to them also arise and cease. The tough news is that other perceptions take effort to bring into line. To borrow a phrase from neuropsychology, concepts that arise together, wire together. This unwiring takes effort, practice, and unrelenting diligence. Bhante offers several paths of healing distorted perceptions, all of which are applications of teachings from the Ānāpānasati and Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas. By cultivating awareness of breath and mindfulness, we begin to see how the distorted perception self-generate. When we understand that that tainted mind seeks validation from from inner and outer experiences to reinforce its perception, we can also understand the necessity for guarding the sense doors, developing presence to what is arising, and developing patience and loving-friendliness (metta) for our experience.

The ten healing perceptions, impermanence, nonself, unattractiveness, danger, abandoning, dispassion, cessation, nondelight in the entire world, impermanence in all conditioned phenomena, and mindfulness of breathing, are the path through this tangle of distorted perceptions. Meditations on these healing factors disentangle us from our preferences that world meet our needs in a precise, self-centered way. This profound attachment is the fundamental cause of our suffering and the Girimananda Sutta offers hope of release.

What I truly treasured in Bhante’s writings is the use of language that is natural and therefore accessible. Terms that tend to trigger argumentation in my head are rendered in ways that reveal their meaning without any esotericism. “Aimlessness,” one of the three gateways to liberation, is simply “wishlessness.” Disenchantment does not mean disappointed rejection; it is a stance of mature realization of what truly is. The five aggregates each “consists of three minor moments: the rising moment, the living moment, and the passing away moment.”

The living moment.

The delight in the book is also the opportunity to re-engage with the four foundations of mindfulness as well as a number of meditation instructions which place attention on perception, mind, impermanence, and liberation.

This is a welcome addition to Bhante’s prolific series of books that have brought the wisdom of the Buddha to our hearts.

bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.


Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump




The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.





Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.



CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.


mother-daughter: mastering the art of losing each other

“Operator? Operator. Please put me through to my daughter.” Her voice is pleading to my voicemail message, her words say, “Time is collapsing into itself and I am lost and alone.”

“Operator, can you hear me? My daughter’s name is Lynette. Please tell her I called. I need to speak to her. Please.”

It’s 11 PM and I’ve just come home from a long day at work. I’m torn by an urgency to drive the 2 hours to her home or call my brother who is only 20 minutes from her. He answers his phone, groggy and disoriented. I explain the message and my concern, voice steady, knowing any rise in inflection will trigger some long-buried familial mine. He’s patiently explaining to me that there is nothing to worry about. Mum just has a problem with… his voice tails off. “I don’t know if you will understand this but it has to do with her mind.”


For as long as I can remember, my mind has been my worst enemy. It didn’t seem to play by any rules of engagement I understood. Or if it did, those rules changed so it was the only one who ever won a debate, discussion, or a challenge. When explaining mindfulness concepts of letting go negative thoughts, I was fond of telling my patients that there was no point getting into a debate with one’s mind; after all I had yet to win an argument with mine. It was highly skilled at the Art of War, used unconventional tactics, and I was always rendered defenseless in a matter of nanoseconds.

I like to think I come by these features honestly. My father worried incessantly about what people thought of him, of us, fearful that anything happening in our vicinity would be blamed on us. He lived in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. My mother approached everything with the assumption that she already knew the outcome would not be to her liking and manipulated its evolution. She lived in a perpetual state of conflict preparedness. Out of their stances to the world, I distilled a view that somehow we were not worthy of safety, generosity, or kindness. Somehow the world would conspire to take away what was precious. Somehow everything I achieved was only because it wasn’t a real contest, the best candidates had dropped out, or it was a joke. But it didn’t matter anyway because even achievements gained under such conditions would be stripped away.

My mind thrived on this fodder of shame, unworthiness, and dark secrets of who I “really” was. My father wrote in my book of quotes, “Trifles make perfection but perfection is no trifle.” I lived by this, focusing on details but in my fear all details were important. Lacking discernment, I drove family, friends, and research assistants to distraction. Mainly, I drove myself into despair, a progressively deepening dark crater that took up most of the area around my heart and closed off my throat. My coping skills amounted to living in over-drive and narrowing my world so my dirty secret that I was doomed to fail would not get out.

Over the years of working with people who deal with post-trauma reactions, I’ve come to understand that my family and I have struggled with the same symptoms. My parents survived World War II and the occupation of Burma (Myanmar) by the Japanese, Allied Forces, and later the military junta. The stories they told around the dinner table were literally “war stories” and this predated our understanding that hearing these stories would be a form of secondary trauma. I remember events and experiences that I now understand shaped my vulnerability and reaction to perceived control and isolation. We each carried these clusters of suffering in us which would work their way out over the years. For me, the depth of my own suffering revealed itself one morning, after several years of meditative practice. I realized I had woken up and not felt regret that I had not died in my sleep. The dark crater had emptied and there was a spaciousness I could enter without being engulfed by fear.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.[1]

Transcendental meditation classes were all the rage when I was an undergraduate Science student and I attended faithfully, more hold onto my boy friend than any interest in enlightenment. I lost the boy friend anyway but the practice stuck and over the years evolved into a practice of Buddhism. My father was thrilled by my explorations; his mother was a devout Buddhist. My mother was nonplussed; it didn’t seem productive to sit around and navel-gaze. To her it was just another data point in a vast database proving my inherently lazy, pointless, and selfish life. For me, it ranged from a great stress management tool to an excruciating half-hour of listening to my critical and obsessive mind tell me my mother was right.

By the time I allowed myself to try a lovingkindness meditation, I was desperate to find some distance from that unrelenting inner voice. I figured if I could at least out-shout it with kind mantras, I’d break its grip. One of my Buddhist teachers suggested it would be a bridge to compassion, transiting from befriending myself to being present to my pain without recriminations. I just wanted the noise to stop but what did I have to lose? For two years, I sat and practiced self-kindness[2]: May I be free from suffering. May I be at peace. May I see all my actions as arising from my limitations. May I see my limitations as simply human. Seeing and experiencing my failings as part of a common humanity loosened the grip of the inner critic. It also opened me to the realization that my demanding stance with others was rooted in my own fears. Somehow I believed that the only way to feel safe was to control the outer environment because certainly I felt no control over my inner environment. But the world was not creating my sense of danger; I was through an inner critic that was misguided in over-protecting me from failure. Before cultivating compassion for others, I had to learn to soften to myself. Self-compassion required me to cultivate a gentler way of relating with myself, to tolerate and calm the inner reactivity, and to take responsibility for having created my own experience[3].

This useful space opened up just in time. In 2002, my father died after an eight-year struggle with the travelling cancer cells that eventually lodged in his brain. I didn’t lose him. He let go and I too opened my hand. At his funeral service, I saw one of those early moments of my mother’s own letting go. I wanted to name it then, dementia, but it was hard to differentiate from the stress of losing a partner of 65 years. Over the next three years, however, it became clear that this was now an inexorable march to an unknowable endpoint. Other than death. Death is always a known variable.

By the time she was admitted to a hospital for a geriatric assessment, I had learned to surrender to helplessness at how it was unfolding. Her neighbors called to say she was sweeping the street in her nightgown. Her cardiologist insisted her memory was intact and old people just remember in funny ways.  She insisted the plastic flowers were flourishing from her constant watering and the fresh orchids had been grown in her friend’s backyard. After seeing her granddaughter’s graduation picture with cap and gown, she worried if it was too soon for “the child” to decide to ordain.

The geriatric assessment showed a long history of strokes that had rendered her brain a scarred mass of thick braids and knots. As we struggled to understand the consequences for her, she remained relentless in trying to escape the hospital. I opted for distraction and walked her to a dead-end corridor and we sat in the vinyl sofa shoved into a dark corner. She railed at me. I was useless, should never have been born, unable to do anything right, a waste of a life. “Like your father,” she whispered into my face, her own contorted with anger and bereft of hope. My heart ripped apart and yet was wide open. Not with love or kindness but with a profound recognition. Here I was in the seat beside me! My critical mind made real, embodied. This was not my mother in the true sense of the word. This was the propaganda of our family. Under threat, we resorted to motivating heroic acts through severe beatings, through a form of “show me differently!”

Feeling impotent and defensive, I retorted something early in her tirade and caught myself. This was not a way to staunch my suffering or hers. May you be free from suffering. May we meet this pain with steadiness. May I honor my practice and your motherhood. I sat, trying my hardest to be fully present yet knowing that I needed help as internally my practice eroded. A nurse, hearing the exchange, reassured me medication was on its way. It took three hours. A friend later said, “Three hours? And you feel you lost the battle to be compassionate by uttering one retort and thinking a million? You need to lose sooner than three hours!”

Losing and letting go. Elizabeth Bishop wrote piercingly of this in her poem, in One Art[4].

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

We fear losing our capacity for kindness, for love, for respect. These don’t seem “filled with the intent to be lost” but they invariably are through the vagaries of our self-control. And, in the context of losing our parents and all they represent, it can seem like a disaster.

This is especially true if we hold to cultural myths of how to love our parents and be with them with compassion and equanimity. When we set those standards, we set ourselves up for failure each time we become impatient, snappy, sharp, critical, and confused. We roll out the red carpet for our inner critic when we hold to beliefs that we somehow transcend the hardwiring of our childhood experiences just because they grow old and we retain our cogency (insofar as we do).

Bishop entreats us to practice losing so we master it; it is after all a necessary art. But it’s not the keys, the books, or the favorite t-shirt that we learn to lose. True, those are the forms to which we become attached and many a Zen master will encourage the losing of that attachment as one’s practice. However, these attachments, tendrils that weave around us, form the shape of our identity, our way of knowing self, other, and the world. In my deepest hopelessness and rank fear, I saw myself as unable to know who I was in any moment and thereby rendered powerless to act on my own behalf. This, I feared losing.

The loss is the hardest practice. And it happened one day, a day I count as the happiest of my life. She had been a resident at this home for several years, moving among the other residents like a wind-up toy determined to be the social convener, the advocate, the soothing hand. The staff and residents (most anyway) loved her and explained away her outbursts of violence. This was a huge challenge for me, as I slowly had to let go of my need to speak the truth of her actions. “This is who she really is,” I wanted to scream when they excused her outbursts. “This is not the dementia!” But that only served my agenda and took me back down old pathways that lead to dark and dangerous neighborhoods. I had to lose that map, that knowing of myself as victim and her as abuser.

I came regularly each Sunday to take her for lunch. For the most part, she enjoyed the outing and tended to have greater self-control in public. On this fateful day, she turned to greet me when I walked into her room; never knowing her mood, I had developed a tentativeness about those initial moments. “Oh, there you are!” she sang out. “I thought it was my daughter.” She was excited that we were going out, happy that I came so often to care for her, and grateful for the new clothes I had brought earlier. “Not like my daughter who never brings me anything!” she sighed.

It was inevitable and irrevocable. I was gone from her mind. She had mastered the art of losing, it seemed, and in losing her daughter, she had set herself free of all the disappointments, regrets, and rancor of who I was to her. Simultaneously, she was gone from my mind. The mother of whom I had but one gentle, joyous memory. The woman who was insatiable in her need for approval and vicarious success. The one who was enshrined for super-heroic performance in saving the family from death and later destitution, leaving no room for anyone else who had pulled along with her. Gone. Mother-daughter. Gone.

When I’m asked if it was hard to watch my mother decline further and further into delusion, I respond that all that needed to be lost was lost and in that space I found the mother I always wanted and deserved. The mother who held my hand as we walked across the parking lot. The mother who loved the restaurant I picked and laughed about my preferences in food. The mother who asked how my children were doing (I only have one but it didn’t matter by then) and whether I was working too hard. The mother who looked at my husband and said to me, “Don’t let him go. He’s a good man.” The mother who held my face in her hands, leaned in to bump foreheads, and giggled like a child.

When she was dying, I sat by her bedside and spoke to her of our joys and love. I chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a thousand times. I sat in meditation on the floor at the foot of her bed, sensing into each part of my body and willing hers to let go. This prayer emerged from that moment:

These are my mother’s toes
which raised her up to reach for all that was needed,
a flower, a cup, a bag of cookies, a dream.

These are my mother’s feet
which strode through the house shaping everything to be beautiful,
which carried me as an infant, then a child, taking me across the tarmac
to meet my father returning from his journey.

This is my mother’s womb
which carried me before I was I,
which embraced me with warmth and nourishment,
which released me into the world with gentleness and grace.

This is my mother’s heart
which sent her life’s blood flowing into me,
filling my body with potential and passion.

These are my mother’s lungs
which purified the toxins from the air,
which gave me life.

This is my mother’s face
which conveyed her love and laughter,
which spoke her words and heard mine.

These are my mother’s hands
which held me firmly walking across the street,
which stirred the soups and stews, the curries and rice,
laying out the heritage of gathering at tables and in kitchens.

These are my mother’s shoulders
which bore the weight of loves and loss,
which never learned to shrug or cast off a burden,
carrying everything with equanimity and fearlessness.

This is my mother’s brain
which created the intricate relationships of her life,
weaving the net that holds us all.


[1] Tao te Ching: Chapter Eleven, Lao Tsu, transl. by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, Vintage Books, NY 1997

[2] Self-compassion is defined by Kristen Neff as comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

[3] See the practice Soften-Soothe-Allow by Christopher Germer.

[4] One Art: Letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: NY, 1994

hits & myths on this wonky path

DSC_0025 copy_Fotor


There’s been yet another opportunistic article floating around the social media on the misuse of mindfulness, this time by the august New York Times (complete with skinny, white female in meditative pose). The Mindfulness Backlash starts out well with a gesture to the work of researcher Willoughby Britton who is becoming the point person for discussions on the negative effects of meditation. Britton has some interesting points to make about what she calls the “Dark Night of the Soul” phenomenon in which meditators experience long-lasting and negative psychological effects from meditation practices. And then, the article takes a wonky turn into the a rehash of the misuse of mindfulness in corporations, military and the like. I’ve come to refer to this as the Bogey Man bait-and-switch. Not only is it an attempt to sustain mistrust in anything outside the purview of “Buddhism” it also often comes as a ploy in distracting from Buddhist practices that suffer the same pitfalls. And made all the more ironic given the topic itself. I stopped reading after the author began quoting Michael Stone, who simply rehashed the mangled arguments against teaching mindfulness to the military. (Seriously. There’s a strong, clear argument to be made in these cases but  I may be dead and gone before it is.)

A bit later in the week, Dharma Spring on Facebook posted the article and damn if I didn’t get involved. Yes, yes. Ego reigns supreme still. And ego being what it is, here’s how the conversation went:

  • Lynette Monteiro It’s now the rehash that is a mushy backlash and distracting from the dialogue that should have happened.
    • Dharma Spring How would you describe “the dialogue that should have happenned (sic)?”
    • Lynette Monteiro When “mindfulness” entered the clinical world, it became something very different. Secularizing it stripped away the traditional supports of what constitutes mindfulness in Buddhist terms. Buddhist practitioners had little to say about this until recently when the secular application expanded to areas that overtly transgressed the principles of sila. The dialogue between Buddhist and Secular mindfulness teachers needs to be a clarification about the complexities of Buddhisms and their individual definitions of mindfulness and also address the reality that both Buddhism & clinical applications venture into hell realms. A community that is mutually supportive and not divisive is required especially in the face of a growing competitive and rancorous secular/clinical (and even Buddhist) industry that is functioning without wisdom or compassion.

My only defence for the staccato response  is that it’s hard to squeeze in the impact of Buddhist Modernism, secular adaptations, clinical applications and the 12-steps of dependent origination into a small space. My close friends refer to me as going all Sheldon Cooper explaining physics to Penny when someone asks what is mindfulness. In my version, I would expound, “Well, it all started with the European Enlightenment, Romanticism and the need for colonialism to succeed.”

I try for a leanness of expression but the misconceptions on all fronts of this bizarre battle are hard to take and serious decisions about practice and its intent get mucked up in the process. The bottom line in these “discourses” is that the arguments proffered by both Buddhists and secular mindfulness practitioners are held at the extremes of what are Buddhism and secular mindfulness and therefore destined to fail at many levels.  So kudos to Tricycle for scoring a hit by covering 10 Myths of Buddhism with Buswell & Lopez, authors of the awe-inspiring The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Of note is Myth #2:

The primary form of Buddhist meditation is mindfulness.
In fact, there are hundreds of forms of Buddhist meditation, some for developing deep states of concentration and mental bliss, some for analyzing the constituents of mind and body to find that there is no self, some for meeting the Buddha face-to-face. The practice of mindfulness as it is taught in America today began in Burma in the early 20th century.

Another hit for clearing up the view is from David McMahan’s generous rendition of the development of Buddhisms in the West, The Making of Buddhist Modernism¹. He brings together a historical progression that took Buddhism out of its native context and, in McMahan’s terms, “detraditionalized, demythologized, and psychologized” it so as to be more palatable to the Western mind and its desires. Part of that detraditionalization was to move wisdom as externally granted to an inner authority. Part of demythologization was to align with a scientific model that offered a halo-effect of reliability to Buddhist thought and philosophy. Part of the psychologization was to shift the path of liberation away from a means of transforming “becoming” to a psychological state of “being” (my term & emphasis). McMahan points out that the process of psychologization runs hand in hand with the other two processes. In unison, they become a mudra of significant enough power to transform indigenous Buddhism to something created by and in the image of the Western mind.

What McMahan and others like  Robert Sharf argue is the knowledge that a multiplicity of Buddhisms have evolved over time and through cultures has been lost in migration. Although the fundamental aim of practice in the Buddhist framework is self-understanding, self-regulation and self-liberation (I think Michael Apollo of the University of Toronto said this to me), the design of the path from desire to nirvana depends on whose Buddhism one chooses. Ironically then, instead of actually moving away from a core tenet of Buddhism, the indeterminacy of life, we seem to have entrenched ourselves in a new monolithic system of Western Buddhism.

Having penetrated Western mental models, it’s no surprise that psychoanalytic psychology fell head over heels in love with the vipassana aspect of Buddhist practice. And interestingly, current applications – despite the claim of being insight-based – find samatha useful in dealing with a variety psychological ills. Of course, that also leaves psychological applications open to somewhat naive criticisms of being solely for symptom-management. And this brings me to the part about dialogue.

There are so many misconceptions about the intent of both secular and clinical applications of mindfulness practices, not to mention of the Buddhisms themselves. True, the biggest elephant in the zendo is the absence of explicitly-taught ethical principles that underpin current applications of mindfulness. For a Buddhist practitioner, (one assumes) mindfulness IS ethics and mindfulness only makes sense AS an ethic. However, to claim that only Buddhists understand this and therefore hold the “right” of Right Mindfulness is propagating a myth. I only need to draw attention to the long days and months of profoundly painful and divisive arguments over the sexual exploitations of Shimano, Merzel, Sasaski, Baker and so many more to hammer home the truth that mindfulness and sila are sometimes not one and often are two.

On the side of the secularists and psychologically-minded, to insist that we are only seeking a transdiagnostic intervention that is denuded of its religious trappings, while understandable, misses the point that we as mental health practitioners need to understand the origins and intentions of the practice. This is “best practice” not because there is an authority to whom we abject ourselves but because it allows for wise diligence and therefore wise action. The Rhys-Davidses and Jung psychologized Buddhism about a century ago and likely most of what we know as psychological interventions is imbued with Buddhist philosophy. To turn a blind eye to that is as naive as the assumption that meditation alone will win wars. Perhaps the  most articulate and useful distinction of Buddhism and psychotherapeutic intervention has been made by Mu Soeng. He points out that in the transformation of the longing-clinging-becoming cycle psychological model of mental health requires cessation of longing and clinging. A Buddhist model of mental health goes further into the cessation of the process of becoming².

This is the field in which the dialogue to refine and ferment a deeper understanding of mindfulness should be happening.


¹I’ve avoided reviewing McMahan’s book although it was very helpful in setting the framework for my thoughts. For reviews of McMahan’s book please read Justin Whitaker’s excellent posts here for an impressive list of other reviews and here for an additional take on Buddhist Modernism and its vicissitudes.  And a podcast on the Secular Buddhist here.

Thank you to John Murphy for pointing me to his comprehensive review of McMahan’s book in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

²Soeng, Mu. (2006). Zen koan and mental health: The art of not deceiving yourself. In Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, eds. D. K. Nauriyal and Michael S. Drummond. London: Routledge. p. 305

paradise in plain sight: lessons from a zen garden by karen maezen miller

IMG_1860 In an exchange with Karen Maezen Miller, author of Paradise in Plain Sight, I wrote, “I have Paradise on standby (pending a number of other activities that crowded my schedule).” I suspect that truer words were never written, spoken or lived. If I learned but one lesson from Paradise in Plain Sight it is how determined we are in obscuring that it is. Our days are filled not with what inspires and impassions us but with things that eat time and offer little nourishment. And then we are astonished that we feel overwhelmed or incapacitated.

Maezen Miller takes us on a gently disciplined stroll through her life as she cultivates this clear seeing of paradise. First, she tells us that paradise means an “enclosed area” and ultimately it is the enclosure of our own backyard, our own life. The lessons of how to tend to that life are offered through teachings stories of her experience in tending simultaneously to her own life and the Zen garden she tends.

It’s actually quite simple. First, she writes, find a garden. I looked out my window at the dishevelled stretch of the west garden. Well, that was exciting, I muttered to myself, at the same time realizing this is how I meet whatever I notice in my life. In the first chapter Maezen Miller brings us into the push-pull of her own life, decisions that should have been made but weren’t, tentativeness about going this way or that, until a chance word turns it all around: “The whole thing was built for Zen.” The real estate agent likely meant the garden itself; Maezen Miller soon discovers it means the thing was built for the whole of Zen, life itself.

Of course life doesn’t come in neatly weeded plots of springing-up roses and gracefully bowing willows. It was heartening to read that ground is hard to break in her world too. Apparently Zen teachers don’t get pre-tilled soil or Super-Gro on demand. They too struggle with the Great Matter. In the chapter “Moon,” she offers the tenderest of teachings by her own teacher, Maezumi Roshi.

“Whether we see a crescent moon or a half-moon, in any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking?” Maezumi said in the talk (she had transcribed for him). “Perhaps you are more logical than me,” he laughed, “and you don’t wait for the day your life will be full.” p. 42

Maezen takes up the teaching and points to the way we see ourselves as lacking because we mistake the waning moon of our abilities as a true diminishing of who we are.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way. p. 44

The moon is always full. It is our vision that waxes and wanes. And that is the purpose of practice, to see that fullness.

The point of Zen is to settle on the ground. Feet, knees, butt: on the ground… There is no Zen that is not on the ground. p. 29

DSC_0162It’s reassuring, especially if you garden, to know all that time in the dirt and mud is not just for putting a pretty face on the house. It has been cultivating the solidity we all crave so we can be unshakable in the storms and upheavals of our lives. This solidity defines the spaciousness which is crucial to understanding what life truly is about. And if what life is about must be spelled out: It’s bamboo. Really. Strong, solid yet hollow bamboo which stand firmly planted yet boundless in its infiltration of the ground. It reminded me of the Bishop’s Weed my cousin gave me. Boundlessly indestructible. Maezen Miller crafts a manifesto of being out of her war against bamboo (and I grasp mine against the Bishop’s Weed); it is only a war with ourselves.

  • Be quiet
  • Drop your personal agenda
  • Lose all wars
  • Give up your seat
  • You’re as ready as you’ll ever be
  • Reject nothing
  • What appears in front of you is your liberation

And my favourite: Start over. Always start over.

DSC_0161Finally, though I wished it had been at the beginning, she takes us into the weeds! However, without the tantalizing tales of how the Zen garden came to be, how her life unfolded petal by petal, how roots take hold and vines entangle, I don’t think I would have been ready to take up a vow to live all weeds as an intricate part of my life.

Maezen Miller’s book is an invitation to stop using the constructed clocks around us to define paradise, that enclosed area which we render as a cage or a trap. She appeals to us to seek out the natural timing of our heart beat and the rhythms of our breath so that we can design a space that is livable, sustainable and truly boundless.

Paradise cannot be deferred or put on standby. It wouldn’t matter if it was because that would not keep it from unfolding. It would just keep us from seeing it.

Maezen Miller respectfully reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken, awaken!
Take heed!
Do not squander your life!


On a personal note, this book has been an a-maezen gift (yes, I just did that) as I enter my 7th decade this week. Half of it has been spent trying to avoid weeds and overgrowth while tentatively plunking down the flowers in all my gardens. At least now, the trowel looks like an old friend.

hand-wash stones cold

DSC_0158 It’s the mantra of this season around the community: Tough winter. Lose everything?

I would hope so. Losing everything is the practice, isn’t it? Youth, good health, eternal life – these we know we are meant to lose. Ah but, let go? No. That’s a whole different matter. I’d rather die than let go and that has all the makings of a terrific TV drama. The sad thing is it’s my life drama. Dying is easy¹; letting go requires getting dirty.

A tough winter helps with letting go. So do two hooligan pups weighing in at 90 lbs apiece and loving the untrammelled joy of tearing through the dry bed garden. The results showed as the snow did its own letting go: a magnolia with top-kill, the Japanese maple looking gouged out and gnawed, the pebbles of the dry bed strewn hither and yon.

Determined to face this year’s disasters with equanimity, I dug deep beyond my typical tendency to overwhelm. This year would be different. I am, after all, a seasoned practitioner. So I sat in the Japanese garden by the upheaval of landscape material, stones, and cedar chips stuck to dollops of dog shit and cried. Crying is a normal function of a deep-felt embodied equanimity. Truly. In that moment of sensorily experiencing a vibrant mixture of soil, dirt, and poop, it is a statement of abject honesty which is the first part of equanimity.

The second is to start with what is at hand. Yes, even if it is dog poop. But if you’re really squeamish, do it first. Then pick up each rock, pebble, stone and wash off the debris of winter. Some things need a bit of help to let go of their accretions because they can’t quite do it for themselves. Sometimes we need to be the one driving that wedge between comfortably covered in useless material and frighteningly adrift in a cold wash of freedom.

And so I progressed from the Japanese garden to the walkway of the south garden.



Then onto the veggie and rose gardens where there was much more letting go to be done. It’s easier to let go of weeds but making the decision to tear out the vegetable boxes and all the paraphernalia that went with it was a bizarre series of discussions that eventually amounted to confronting my attachment to “being fair” to a pile of rotting wood. Pruning back the overgrown rose bushes drove the point home quite literally. There is no logic to attachment, only a misperception of what we think we’re nurturing.


rose garden








In the end all the procrastinating, crying, and debating culminated in a rather nice new layout.

veggie boxes


Yes, it’s been a tough winter. And we didn’t lose much but we let go of everything.


¹Ram Dass (2010). Dying is absolutely safe. Retrieved from