hits & myths on this wonky path

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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.

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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

on the selfie of self-compassion – part 2

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Here’s your ear worm: You’re no bunny ’til somebunny loves you!

And you may have to lose you head before you can apprehend it.

Strangely though all this is quite pertinent to our question of the self in self-compassion that I posted last week. If you scroll back to the post, the comments are well worth the read as they touch on the illusory self, the suffering self, and its need for compassion. There’s a pointer to the “True Self” and that is very interesting because we get into that tricky semantic process of “self” versus “Self.” All very worthy responses and, in particular, the suggestion that the Buddha actually never said there was no self.

So, at the retreat, my response to the question was the executive summary of all these comments. (I don’t remember exactly what I said but this is close enough.) We hold this belief that there is an absolute self, an agent in our lives that directs and orchestrates. When we look closely, we might be able to see that this self is really a construction of expectations, concepts, ideas, reactions, schema (as in Cognitive Therapy) and protections. The form experiences a contact and the  mind grabs it with an interpretation. Oh, I’m being abandoned. Oh, I’m being judged. Oh, I’m losing something precious. The practice of cultivating mindfulness of each of these arising, these “I-makings” (see this post on Evan Thompson’s book Mind and Life), results in awareness of our agitation and anxiety from holding to the constructed self of the moment. So what is the “self” in “self-compassion”? I think as we practice acknowledging the unhelpful constructions and the way it causes our suffering, we begin to chip away at the build-up of crap that covers what Jack Kornfield calls our “Original Goodness“, that true, luminous self that is worthy of care and love.

Now, that latter piece is where I took a wrong turn. Not that there isn’t Original Goodness or  Buddha Nature because Dogen certainly covers that in Genjokoan. It’s just a huge leap from creating our suffering to that awe-filled moment of seeing the gold under the dross. So, let’s back up this little vehicle!

The self is a performance and therefore not substantial.  It emerges out of conditions but is not reducible to them.

Life is a process of “I-making”.

Notes from Evan Thompson’s talk at Zen Brain retreat Upaya Zen Center

I was lucky that the online course given by Robert Wright on Buddhism and Modern Psychology hit the topic of non-self the day after the retreat. Wright (author of the Moral Animal) interviewed Bhikkhu Bodhi who sets the groundwork. You know, all of understanding Buddhism rests on understanding the Buddha’s intention and pedagogy and, not the least, on realizing the Buddha might have been more an epistemologist than a psychologist. (Ooo… Frank just re-stated this: The Buddha was more interested in the human experience rather than what it took to be human. No wonder I keep him around!) Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi: he pointed out in the video interview that the Buddha used different modes of discourse depending on context.

If the context was one of cultivating insight and aspiration for liberation, then we needed to dive into the primary obstacles of the five aggregates and the three poisons. To do that it was necessary to apprehend all objects of clinging as “not self.” If the context was to cultivate ethical action and the consideration of karma and the fruits of karma, then he used the language of self-hood and responsibility. The tricky part – and it’s not just semantics – is that this can be named a self, which may be capitalized to differentiate it, but it’s in the service of acknowledging one has responsibility for one’s actions and intentions.

Wright also introduced Peter Harvey’s book The Selfless Mind which is a terrific analysis of the meaning of non-self in the Pali Canon. Harvey explains that Edward Conze cautioned against the trivial interpretation that because the Buddha is believed to have said that the Self cannot be apprehended, therefore there is no self that exists. Conze’s reasons, according to Harvey, are that “the Buddha taught ‘self’ to coarse materialists, ‘nonexistence of self’ to egoists, and to those near nibbana and free from all love of self, he taught ‘that there is neither self nor not self.’ p. 18” Furthermore, “(h)aving ‘self as master’, then means being in charge of oneself, preserving one’s integrity by not doing anything that one would be ashamed of. No underlying ‘Great Self’ is implied. p.28”

And, our Pali scholar in virtual residence, Justin Whitaker, wrote this great post on week four’s lecture.

(Wright) interviews Dr. Robert Kurzban, author of the dazzlingly titled, “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.” Kurzban tells him that the ‘self’ he thinks he has is really more of a ‘press secretary’ than an executive officer. A lot of the decision making that is going on is actually not known to that ‘press secretary’ of a self. 

Study in Buddhism long enough and you begin to catch on early in a discussion that context determines the teachings. And we can’t forget that the Buddha exhorted his monks to indeed go in search of the self (Vinaya I.23 in the Selfless Mind). This is not that far from each of us seeking to find who we are even as we become someone else.  What really stands out here is the subtlety of language. Self as an emergent property of clinging to, rejection of, and confusion about our experiences, inner and outer. Self as ghost writer of our experiences in the genre of shame and blame. Self as agent in discernment of wholesome from unwholesome actions. Self as upaya, process, verb not noun. Harvey summarizes it well:

Harvey

 

The press secretary self is a compelling personna and pertinent to the self in self-compassion. Scanning through the Majjhima Nikaya 138, I was really caught by the nuance of the way clinging, rejection, and confusion keep us stuck. In v.20, Maha Kaccana (summarizing the Buddha’s teaching) works through the process and showed that obsession with form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness renders us agitated and preoccupied with their changes. This preoccupation gives rise to anxiety, distress, and concern. This is our nub of suffering, these press releases of dire consequences for being who we were in a nanomoment. This is suffering, the self who suffers.

Now the problem with the word “self” is that if we want to use it to point to a materialistic phenomena (these symptoms of anxiety and distress) or if we want to lay claim to a changing cluster of experiences, we’d have to honor Conze’s explanation of the Buddha’s rationale for his teaching style and get stuck with being called a coarse materialist or egoist¹. Neither actually fit the intention of the practice of self-compassion.

But the Buddha taught more than just about non-self so there is a way out of this (thanks to Harvey’s detailed analysis).

Self is protector of oneself,
for what other protector would there be?
For with a well-controlled self
one gains a protector hard to gain.

Dhammapada 160

As well, in the Rajan Sutta, following on King Mallika’s proclamation that there is no one dearer to him than himself, the Buddha says:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.

So, there you have it. Because we know, we are aware of how dear we are to ourselves, we have the opportunity to then be compassionate to others who feel the same about themselves. Compassion for others is contingent on our capacity to see our own value.

But that value often is shrouded in our shame, our sense of unworthiness, our fears of being abandoned, being cast out, being judged as lacking.

The self referenced in self-compassion is a complete self. It is the press secretary, the one velcro-ed to form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And. And it is the self who relishes the joy, competence, thrill, connection, ease, and resonance with others. I’ve quoted Kaz Tanahashi before: the enso contains both perfect and imperfect; that is why it is complete.

When I can be fully with that completeness, meet it with kindness, and know that others feel the same way², I am free of my head, that thinking brain. Being free of that thinking brain, I am also free of that constructed, constricting self (if ever so briefly). And the self in self-compassion is thus rendered neither self nor no-self.

It is just another place marker of where my practice gains traction.

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¹I do have to note that in MN 148, the Buddha does teach that the aggregates are “not self” but it is a device to demonstrate the falsifiability of the clinging self through reductio ad absurdum. And it’s antidote “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” is less a denial of selfhood than of gaining clarity of the experience. Don’t take my word; I’m waiting on my Pali scholar pal to get back to me on this one.

² The three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. See Christopher Germer & Kristin Neff

a thousand hands of compassion – book review

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Some time ago, one of my dharma friends sent me this lovely book. A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean Spirituality and Enlightenment by Seon Master Daehaeng¹. I was strangely moved. Strangely because I have never really believed that people who haven’t met face to face actually have the capacity to activate a resonance that one might call a bond, a quiet joy, a sense of being considered kindly. More strangely because I thought I’d done enough work on my own walls and thickets, been the recipient of enough gifts from people I’ve not yet met and those I may never meet to have these walls become porous enough for kindness to flow in.

But there you have it. I am one gnarly, snarly nut to riddle with holes.

Kindness is an interesting thing. It’s one of those behaviourally-based activities that is only known when seen. I do find it easy to be kind. Ultimately it doesn’t cost anything and there is a feel-good factor when all is said and given.

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Compassion, however, is something else all together. It costs everything. And it requires that we are willing to be in the presence of everything. There are no options or substitutions allowed.

My one mind is the root of all things.
All things arise from it,
so all things I completely entrust to it.
This letting go
fills my heart with light. (p. 36)

This book is an amazing opportunity to practice just that fortitude. Taken from different sutras, it is compiled as a single text and chanted daily in Korean temples. The verses call on us to devote ourselves to that one mind that is the mind of all Buddhas. Some read as short recitations that almost evoke a full prostration. Others are slightly longer tracts that evoke an inner call-and-response. Each page carries a verse, Korean on one side, English on the other, and is enriched by the stunning art of Hyo Rim.
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The minds of all Buddhas are my mind.
Nothing I see, hear, or do
exists apart from
the truth they realized.
My one mind itself is the Buddha-dharma,
present throughout all aspects
of my life. (p.24)

Tomorrow Frank and I leave for our respective retreats. He’s off to something somewhere that hopefully won’t have him terrorizing other meditators with his death stare. I’m off to learn a bit about self-compassion. It seems an oxymoron this term “self-compassion” but I do recall spending about two years on the first two lines of the Metta Sutta.

May I be free from suffering
May I be at peace

So I’m taking this book and my mala beads and an appreciation for T.S. Eliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

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¹You can read more about Seon Master Daehaeng here.

gyres of time & space – a review of ruth ozeki’s a tale for the time being

So here I am, at Fifi’s Lonely Apron, staring at all these blank pages and asking myself why I’m bothering, when suddenly an amazing idea knocks me over. Ready? Here it is:

I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!

How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!

tb-cover-993x1500Ruth Ozeki, in A Tale for the Time Being, sets up an unimaginable relationship between Nao Yasutani and an anticipated reader. Sixteen years old, Nao is sitting in a parody of a French café in Tokyo, with a gutted book whose cover is the only hint that it once contained Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. She has a plan to write her great-grandmother Jiko’s life story, all the while also intending her suicide when the task is done. Yasutani Jiko, “the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era,” is 104 years old and lives in her temple in Sendai, where the 2011 tsunami struck, sweeping most of the district out to sea.

Across the Pacific, on an island off the British Columbia coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox in the debris along the beach. It is packed with several objects each packed in a freezer bag. She takes out a book, a gutted volume titled À la recherche du temps perdu. And she reads:

Hi!…My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is?…

Like the gyres¹ weaving across the ocean carrying warm air and debris, the story of Nao and her family link into Ruth’s life on an isolated island where she unintentionally has fallen behind herself. Nao writes with a coy approach-avoidance but slowly, as the muse works its way into her heart, the pain of her losses reveals the currents in her story. Intermittently, Jiko contributes to easing her confusion or mediating the fascinating dialogue between Nao and her reader (Ruth) across time and space. Interpenetrating the narrative are Jiko’s wisdom conveyed through the essence of Dogen’s teachings which Nao takes to heart and which open Ruth to her own.

Nao’s discovery of her family history and its lineage of suffering stops the breath as it unfolds. The assumptions about weakness and strength, anger and sorrow, play out as Nao survives being brutally bullied and learns, with Jiko’s training, to see beyond the humiliation. Nao’s parents flow along a parallel current, dragging their own weighty hopelessness and misunderstandings. Like most teenaged girls, she has little time for their way of being time beings. Yet, her fears are no different from any child: that she might be abandoned by their decisions, that she has been abandoned by their neglect, that she has no refuge because the apartment they inhabit is choked with their collective pain.

Obsessed by the contents of the Hello Kitty lunchbox, Ruth searches for evidence that Nao and her family are real. A novelist herself, she dredges the internet for information, uncovering bit by painful bit what is possible to know. Woven into her search is also a search for refuge, for home, for settling into the time and place she inhabits. Her own losses are covered over by her assumptions and misunderstandings of how relationships express sorrow and hopelessness. As Ruth discovers more about one member of Nao’s family, she begins to understand that satisfaction is not a companion of living to ones values, that the complex process of being true to oneself can exact an enormous price, wittingly or unwittingly.

Ruth Ozeki has crafted a complex story of love. Nao is unflinchingly teenaged, with all the raw wisdom that it embodies and all the rampant passion with which it is expressed. Ruth (the character, though one wonders if there are threads of Ozeki herself, how could there not be) is wonderfully obsessed as a researcher, affronted when her protectiveness is disregarded, aloof in her sorrow, and intimate in her not knowing. Jiko is a solid rock in the winds that tear around her family, a solidity that comes only from profound pain and profound dedication to being alive. Crossing both time and space yet resisting actually anchoring in either requires a master craftsperson and Ozeki doesn’t fail to deliver. On reflection, although the entire book is hinged on the possibility of the tsunami’s role in bridging space, one is left with that ultimate not knowing: is it? There are other plotted moments of not knowing how…who…what?? But ultimately it matters less that the currents are purified than to simply enter the fundamental unknowability of anything.

The beauty of A Tale for the Time Being is that, despite the intricacies, it keeps the reader planted firmly in the moment of reading. And yet when the last page arrives, inevitably, there is an in-breath as if there could be more. And there is…

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¹Gyres are rotating ocean currents that move with wind currents.

turning into the new year

Ice CurlAlready.

Another year.

And we continue with the Great Matter.

I’ve been reading of the passing beyond of teachers dear to dearest friends of mine. Maia Duerr reported on the passing of Bhante Suhita Dharma. There is a lovely post at Jizo Chronicles by Maia and it is poignant in revealing the true nature of practice. I was deeply touched by these words:

He was not a Buddhist celebrity, so you won’t find much about him on the internet. He worked largely in the realm of the invisible.

Today, there was news that Abbot Steve Myogen Stucky had passed beyond. Co-Abbot of SFZC until he stepped down December 15, he leaves an indelible mark of humility and loving care on the members of his life community. You can read more here. Words used to describe him are touching: He was humble. He was a safe place. His love of the Dharma was…unstoppable (quoted from posts by Renshin Bunce on various Facebook feeds).

The invisible and unnamed bodhisattvas that work just below our grasping vision are the ones who truly teach us. It’s not that we don’t need the ones with higher profiles and klout indices; we do, but not as a steady diet. Nor should we confuse their work as the only work or what our work should resemble. As I sense into Maia’s words and teachings, I understand that the deepest connection we have is with realizing our own lifework, our generosity, our commitment – all nourished by these unseen, unnamed, invisible bodhisattvas. We can build temples and monasteries but it is how we place our foot on that single blade of grass that brings forth the BuddhaDharma.

May all those passing beyond do so with ease and let go with a deep confidence that all that could be done was done.

May all those continuing along the path tread with care, compassion, and confidence in our Buddha nature.

And by the way, if you ever doubt the importance of invisible bodhisattvas (or their very existence):

Yuki-Kaz-snowshoe

HAPPY NEW YEAR, DEAR FRIENDS!

MAY ALL YOUR ASPIRATIONS FOR 2014 BE FULFILLED!

robai-shin: entering the heart of ancestral recipes

robai-shin“You understand all of Buddhism, but you cannot go beyond your abilities and your intelligence. You must have robai-shin, the mind of great compassion. This compassion must help all of humanity. You should not think only of yourself.”

I can’t find the source of the quote attributed to Dogen, who apparently said it to the Third Patriarch of Eihei-ji. Upon the arrival of our Gr’Kid, a dharma sister sent me the quote welcoming me into the the community of Grandmothers. Robai-shin, wrote another. It will bring you deeper into the heart of compassion.

Dogen wrote in Instructions for the Tenzo that “in performing our duties along with other officers and staff, (we) should maintain joyful mind, kind mind, and great mind.” Joyful mind arises from our gratitude for being born into this human form. More so that “we have the good fortune of cooking meals to be offered to the three treasures.” Now that I immediately understand because cooking is the heart of my family, its compassionate ground, and the source of all healing. The curries, dahls, rice. The desserts of glutinous black rice and agar jellies. The pungent fermented tea leaves and pickled ginger digestives. Dogen’s exhortations in the earlier sections of Instructions read like a day in my own grandmother’s hotel on Sule Pagoda Road in Rangoon. Well, maybe it was a bit more frenetic than Eihei-ji because my uncle and aunt who helped there were just as likely to swing cleavers at each other as at the chickens.

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My mother, despite not knowing how to cook (why would you need to when your own mother owned a hotel and simply delivered the food each day!), developed her own skills ultimately crafting a pilau rice that earned the title “Gamma’s Rice.” And, the deterioration in its edibility was what first raised the alarms of her encroaching dementia. I’m not sure what dishes will identify my place on this earth but that is the nature of being parent – and now grandparent. I delight in an eclectic range of textures and flavours, only coming into the ancestral recipes later in life. Interesting how I can now say “later” although it’s never been an avoided or hidden idea that aging grants me many somewhat unearned privileges. My own curries are finally edible and I turn more towards the Indian styles of cooking and taste. And yet, my signature dishes tend to be Burmese, likely more for their rarity than their actual craft.

Robai-shin. Grandmother-mind. Kind mind. The second of Dogen’s doors to community is that quality of kindness. Not just kindness but a stance of protectiveness of the present for the future. Kaz Tanahashi¹ translates it as a parental mind. We develop this kindness for our children to the extent that we “do not care whether (we ourselves) are poor or rich; (our) only concern is that (our) children will grow up.” In principle, it is our only concern: that they survive. Of course, we harbour hopes that they will live carefully, in good health, making wise choices, respecting others as themselves, and knowing that the bloodline extends through them but doesn’t end there. The tricky part is that our kindness is offered against this backdrop of hope but cannot be directed by it. Robai-shin is an offering “without expecting any result or gain.” It simply unfolds as that hand reaching for the pillow in the night, the bow that evidences transmission beyond words, the sound of the single hand at death. It holds, it honours, it transcends form as it is called to do so.

Both my grandmothers were iconoclasts in their own right. My paternal grandmother was a rather severe character but with a sharp sense of humour particularly about her love of oversized cheroots. Devoutly Buddhist, she was the quintessential pragmatist. She never cooked, cleaned, or otherwise engaged in tasks that someone else in her life was already doing. I saw her weekly but never among family. She arrived each Sunday to take me to the Botataung Pagoda (while my parents entertained their friends at poker and various gambling games). I don’t recall any words of wisdom or special gifts. That is, until one day I overheard an intense argument she was having with my father over the damage he was doing karmically by exposing me to his high society lifestyle. She was formidable and, as I understand from the family myths, would not have been above picking up a wooden shoe to whack sense into him at any age – his or hers. I never knew her name until I was an adult but it didn’t dim the connection.

dahl-riceMy maternal grandmother ran the Piccadilly Hotel in Rangoon. Now she, along with her only surviving son, was all about food. I lived in the hotel with my  five male cousins and we all became little cook’s helpers. Unfortunately, only I escaped the epigenetic change that enabled the boys to become great cooks. As “Ma,” she made sure we roamed the hallways as a little gang, thereby protecting us from certain characters who lodged there in transit to Bangkok or Delhi. She set the rules for riding out into the Night Bazaar on my uncle’s scooter, clutched to his flapping, open shirt. Being the only girl (at the time), I was forbidden to go though my uncle found ways around that senseless rule. Apparently robai-shin meant something different to him. As “Belle,” she swept through the evening society parties in shimmering gowns with a hairstyle of braids wound upright over her head like a dark halo and an eternal eye cast on negotiating the family’s best future.

robai-shin2Out of joyful mind and robai-shin arises great mind. “Like a great mountain or a great ocean,” it is the nondiscriminatory mind. It is the vast, boundless space which is also robai-shin and joyful mind because it contains everything. Instructions for the Tenzo is a simile wrapped around a metaphor at whose heart lies a mirror. It’s a discourse on how to wash rice, pointing to principles for living a life of deep practice, penetrating that deep question of who we truly are.  In the teachings of the three minds, Dogen reveals the components of both community and the Great Matter, leaving it up to us to craft a recipe that honours why we have been held in robai-shin and are called to embody robai-shin.

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1. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.), Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. North Point Press, NY.

Ryokan – the passage of wind in a vast sky

sky above, great wind (Genju 2013)

Reflection on leaving the household

I came to the mountain
to avoid hearing
the sound of waves.
Lonesome now in another way –
wind in the the pine forest.

Ryokan, from Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, Kazuaki Tanahashi

Ryokan is likely my favourite in the imposing genre of Zen Master poets. Kaz Tanahashi offers a delightful exploration of his life and, more delectably, his art. This is a companion book to carry with you and dip into as the moment arises.

There is the simple in Ryokan’s words, a feature that likely gave rise, along with his own demeanor, to the sobriquet of “The Zen Fool.” And perhaps that is fitting because to surrender all manner of contact, comfort, and conventionality would require adopting or cultivating a simple-mindedness about what matters. Like the Divine Fool Nasreddin before him, Ryokan challenges me to re-perceive my life through his subtle teachings.

Falling blossoms.
Blossoms in bloom are also 
falling blossoms.

That preferential mind, holding onto one phase of the continuous flow through life and death. I notice this in every shift from health to illness, that desire for the ease of movement, of the quickness of thought. And he too reveals his own clinging:

Dancing the bon dance,
with a hand towel
I hide my age.

Simplicity of body, speech, and mind reflects a deep self-knowing, an awareness of how we fit in this fleeting world. It’s the honoring of that fit which causes me trouble.

It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
playing alone.

And then in counterpoint, so human, Ryokan reassures me as he writes,

Were there someone
in the world
who feels as I feel,
we would talk all night
in this grass hut.

 Being in world, connecting, becoming open, vulnerable. And all the time, seeking solitude, re-connecting with what matters.

skyabove, great wind (Genju 2013)

If someone asks
about the mind of this monk,
say it is no more than
a passage of wind
in the vast sky.

{Edit: It is with great spacious humour that I admit having mixed up the script for “sky” and “great.” One continuous mistake! These calligraphies are hopefully corrected in the right-minded direction.}