entering zen: the wabi-sabi of practice


Whatever it is,
I cannot understand it,
although gratitude
stubbornly overcomes me
until I’m reduced to tears.


Entering Zen by Ben Howard is one of those stealthy books that can overcome you page by quiet page.  And at times, as I read it in a cabin tucked into the misty Catskills, it did reduce me to tears.  There is a simplicity in Howard’s words, something that makes this book and his blog posts (One Time, One Meeting ) a place of exploration that is simultaneously safe and challenging to enter.

These 75 essays offer teachings on Zen that show the practice as basic yet intricate, ordinary yet elegant.  To shine these jewels of practice, Howard draws from his immense knowledge and wisdom of literature, poetry, Buddhist practice, and an intimacy with his own life.  The tone of each chapter is by turn filled with delight at a child’s creativity, nostalgic for ways of living long gone, and delicate in unfolding a complex concept like sabi or wabi sabi.

Weathered Wood, the chapter which does the latter, is likely my favourite because Howard draws us in with a lovely poignant explanation of sabi and extends it to an appreciation of how our lives progress as a “bloom of time.”  He teaches from the wisdom of Tadao Ando, an architect:

Sabi by itself means “the bloom of time.”  It connotes natural progression – tarnish, hoariness, rust – the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled.  It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting…Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.

Howard goes on to point out that sabi carries a suggestion of imperfection.  This is not the imperfection of wrongness or improper creation;  it is the imperfection that confirms the authenticity of a life being lived.  And this is the heart of Zen practice: the confirmation that an authentic life is one lived intimately with the truth of imperfection.

Throughout the book, Howard writes with an ease that comes from his skill as a teacher of English Literature, a musician, and his long-standing practice with different teachers.  He brings out the wisdom and compassion of Dogen, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Toni Packer with the same precise skill as what he extracts from poets Seamus Heany, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder.  It can be intimidating and somehow Howard manages to make the accessibility of the complexities of the dharma seem to be our own wisdom.  And, his consternation at vanity plates that say “ME” notwithstanding, I do feel the urge to whisper at the end of each chapter, “I did it!”

As the current trend in Buddhist writings leans towards snappy phrases and promises of liberation by the last chapter, Howard’s writings are refreshingly honest.  Practice takes effort.  It is worthy of our attention.  It grants us “refuge… more dependable than any bank and more durable than any mountain.”  It is no more or less than this, just this.

the practice of stuckness

Tomorrow is the Harvest Moon.  It’s also known as the Fruit Moon which prompts the question: what have been the fruits of our practice?  What will we gather together with the intention that it nourish us through the cold, dark nights ahead?  If the state of my life at this point is any indication of my stewardship of my spiritual ground, I’d say winter holds promise of a meager diet.  Where did the time go?  What happened to the plantings of six months ago?

Not only has the wild heat of the Summer been unforgiving of the vegetable and flower gardens, this inner heat of dissatisfaction has left me parched in my practice.  It could be a good thing, I suppose: an opportunity to see the places where my character fractures and edges where my ego curls up and withers.  The fact that I don’t like it is irrelevant because once the whole ball of self-reflection and intense scrutiny gets rolling, there’s not much that will stop it.  And the universe helps it along too.

You remember Sprout who pounced his way into our home, leaving a trail of mashed houseplants and mangled Beanie Babies.  He’s now a year old and thriving.

Meet his doppelgänger, Mystery formerly known as No Name.

I came home one Friday evening to find Sprout unusually needy of attention.  His security blanket, Frank, had been away for a few a days and I reframed his utilitarian affections for me as an opportunity to bond.  Apparently, the practice of equanimity was bearing fruit, transforming the typical bitterness I feel about feline fickleness.  And then I wondered if I was having a spiritual emergency when I saw two Sprouts at my feet, asking to be picked up.  It took a moment, a fascinating moment during which I physically felt my brain trying to make the two one, forcing my eyes to reset to a previous configuration.  One not two.

Sadly, though not for No Name, truth always vanquishes delusion.  And now we are left with a mystery, not just about the cat but the manner in which she got into the house and took up residence.  But reside she will, and preside over the reconfiguration of four cats, two litter boxes, and a deferment of my long-desired rescue dog.  The practice of letting go is getting a workout too.

On the bookish front, I’m blessed with two amazing books.  The Existential Buddhist, Seth Segall’s Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings is a tour de force of 9 essays bringing together the Dharma and Western perspectives of mental health.  I had it set for review in October but Frank has absconded with it which reminds me to deepen my practice of generosity and also lock away my new purchases.  The second is by Practice of Zen blogger, Ben Howard: Entering Zen, a collection of Ben’s writings that are always a delight and a deep teaching.  The few chapters I’ve read remind me that there is power in a practice that is softly open and that some things crumble and collapse despite being well-placed and useful at the time of planting.  The third book is a bit of a curiosity called The Heart Attack Sutra by Karl Brunnhölzl.  I have no memory of purchasing this; like Mystery, it seemed to just show up – about the time I was considering cancelling my echo cardiogram and stress echo test because my practice of remembering my mortality doesn’t include fuzzy pictures of a pulsing heart.  (Actually, seeing my heart beat in real-time has to be one of the most profound moments of deep meditation I have ever experienced!)

So.  Yes.  Practice has been a struggle over the last months.  And yet, and yet I know this is precisely the form and purpose of practice: to sit with this discomfort of things out of rhythm and without rhyme.  Dukkha at its most seductive tells us to move away from this stuckness, insists there are more important things to do, critical time that cannot be wasted.  And that is the precise moment to turn into the vast emptiness of practice.

if i can know my pain, i can know your joy

This is a “Pregnant Plant” given to me by one of my clients.  It’s quite beautiful and an easy keeper except that it lives up to its name.  The little leafy nodes cove the larger leaves, eventually dropping off to form more plants.  Prolific little thing and over time I’ve become less and less skilled at weeding out the excessive growth.  

Then again, I’ve always thought of excess as not only requiring deep weeding but itself as something to be weeded out.  An undesired feature of all life systems, excess signals something gone wrong in a delicate balance.  And it’s no different with emotional regulation systems where excess of any emotional state can bring on suffering.  Where sadness is a normal response to loss, hurt, and disappointment, in excess it can evolve into a depression that freezes out light and love.  Where anger can be a natural response to threat, in excess it can become damaging verbal and physical aggression.  We know this, don’t we?  In this particular venue where topics focus on practice informed by Buddhist thought, we know that this is why we practice: delicate attention to that tipping point between love and obsession, dislike and hate, grief and dissolution, joy and mania.

Did you catch that last one?  I’ve been doing some deep thinking about joy.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the joy we feel – or try to feel – in the successes of others.  In terms of the Four Divine Abodes, it’s called mudita or sympathetic joy – an arising of goodwill and appreciation when we learn of the success of our fellow beings.  It’s often taught as a practice of feeling joy and cultivating that appreciation of goodness that flows for others.  Little is ever said about what has to be weeded out in order for that to happen because, let’s be honest, in today’s competitive environment, the success of others is sometimes, if not often, at the cost of our own.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Ben Howard’s terrific post on mudita was reprinted in the Upaya newsletter today and it not only added grist to my thinking mill but provided me with the opportunity to observe envy at his consistent scholarship, annoyance at my lazy-ass attitude to improving my own, and a ream of not-so-nice thoughts about the unfairness of the world in recognizing genius other than mine.  

 I urge you to read Ben’s post here and I credit it for getting me to revisit the thoughts I had about sympathetic joy back in June when it was originally published.  Although not central to the theme of the post, he touches on this issue of conflicting emotions when we are faced with the successes or good fortune of others which Ben points out are perfectly human.  As much as we may be pleased by the success of others, we tend also to harbour unseemly wishes for their failure.  These latter wishes seem to be driven by three things: a belief in limited resources and rewards, a feeling of inadequacy, and a belief that all successes are the same.  But they also have a purpose.

In many cases, resources and rewards are truly limited.  There is often only one top prize – be it the Nobel Prize, the marathon, or the best pie at the country fair.  So it’s quite realistic to feel a sense of urgency in such situations.  Even when rewards are plentiful, seeing others achieve success can fire up feelings of not being good enough and the bizarre worry that our successes may not be as good as theirs.  And finally, we struggle with seeing that a Noble prize is no more valuable a success than best pie at the country fair because success is meant to be something larger than our everyday life.  (As a side note, having competed at country fairs, I can say confidently that there is no Nobel prize winner who would stand up to a local Queen of Tarts in a face off!)

The purpose of our competitive nature and the unwholesome thoughts it nourishes is quite simple.  It keeps us moving forward, trying harder, and becoming creative in our contributions.  Or it should but more often deteriorates into something damaging to self and others.  So in this case, a bit of weeding is necessary before things get too cutthroat – or perhaps it’s too late even for that hope.  Another purpose of our negative slant is also to push us into evaluating our own successes and appreciating them for just what they are.  This is doubtless a more difficult and challenging practice but without which we are destined to become the Silas Marner of the 21st century and beyond.

If it’s starting to look like the practice of mudita is hopelessly complicated, you’re probably right.  But you know that practice is not easy and in this case, it’s not even simple!  

So let me push your edge a bit by suggesting that along with using our dark thoughts skillfully, we must also cultivate our joy if we are to keep expressed joy in the success of others from being a saccharine knee-jerk reflex of being Buddhist or a sycophantic chorus to gain the approbation of others.  We can appeal to the process of empathy to lay this on firm ground.  Empathy is the capacity to connect with the suffering of another because we too have suffered in a similar way.  I cry with a friend who has lost a parent because I too have lost mine.  To be more specific, I touch the sadness of having lost a parent just as my friend touches the sadness of having lost theirs; and, in that mutual connecting to our felt sadness, we resonate with authentic understanding.  This is really important because empathy is not about sharing events; it’s not an “I’ve been there.”  It is the willingness to connect with our emotional states and experience them fully.  Without this there can be no resonance with the suffering of others and therefore no empathy for sorrow.   Or for joy.

Mudita then is what I call resonant joy because  is possible only as a cultivation of empathy, an authentic understanding of what it means to my friend to enjoy accolades, successes, and accomplishments.  It can be accessed because we touch willingly our own pain of self-judgment and perceived or real failures.  We turn from the profound and damaging recriminations and chose to examine what we have and honestly have not.  We work doggedly at valuing the gifts we have and the gifts they have brought us.  And only then can we say our pleasure in the joy of our friends is authentic and supportive.  And we fail.  And we get oh-so-close-to-it.  And we remember that it is likely the most challenging practice only because without it we are consigned to a much larger failure.