this field of boundless emptiness

Botataung Pagoda

Every Sunday my family began the day with an early morning Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral.  Latin Mass.  The rafters resounded with the Credo in Unum Deum and Kyrie Eleison thankfully absorbing my screechy accompaniment.  I lived for those moments of transcendence which set into all of my ten years a deep yearning for total devotion to prayer.  Unlike my peers I needed no bribery for surviving the never-ending chants or the choking scent of the incense censer (interestingly called a “thurible” and for a stunning display of one version check out the last scenes of the movie “The Way” which is about a father’s journey along El Camino de Santiago).  Besotted little Love Dog of the Teachings, I was only too eager to be there front and center absorbing the ceremony and answering back whole-heartedly.

In the afternoons my parents would have their poker parties.  Don’t get me wrong; they were every bit as devout as a good Catholic couple would have been in the wild 50’s of post-war Burma.  But they also knew to feed their attachments to good liquor and cards.  The house would transform into a speak-easy of beautiful men and stunning women navigating around tables of cards, dice and other games I can’t recall.  In the background the strains of Dorsey, Miller, Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters erased all trace of the resonant Latin chants.

That was when my grandmother stepped in.  My father’s mother, a cheroot-smoking, shoe-throwing devotee of the Buddha, was not impressed by the exposure I was getting to the three poisons.  Though I doubt she actually thought of it that way.  Perhaps it was more an issue of trying to neutralize the Latin Mass.  In order to marry my grandfather (who was Catholic), she had to agree that her children would be raised Catholic.  So my father, although his devotion to the mystery of being expressed its way in both forms of worship, lived his life a staunch Catholic with a worldview shot through by a quiet Buddhist thread.  And I, swept off to the Botataung Pagoda each Sunday, lived out both their hopes of the Buddhist lineage.

But I didn’t know that at the time.  Sundays were simply, complicatedly, a day of Latin chants followed by the shedding of frilly dresses for the tomboy pants and a walk along the railway tracks that lead me and my grandmother to the pagoda’s turtle pond.  There she bought large compressed balls of popped corn which I fed the turtles, watching them wait semi-submerged and then rise lazily to break off a piece of the chunk I threw into the broad lotus leaves.  I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking “turtle food.”  These interwoven rituals became my practice roots.  Not grandiosity of the Mass, the priests or monastics, the genuflections or prostrations , the soaring Kyrie or monotonic memorized recitations of the suttas that floated in the background of the pagoda grounds.  These were the forms of religion, vaguely activating in the heart but not captivating enough for devotion.

The turtle pond, however, was a different bright boundless field. At its edge I learned the early lessons of transcending sights and sounds, of leaving no trace and reflecting mirror-sharp reality.  This became and continues as the center of my circle of devotion.

The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning.  You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits.  Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness.  Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything.  Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions….  The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner.  The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds.  The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations….  With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder.  This is how you must penetrate and study.

The Bright, Boundless Field.  In Cultivating the Empty Field: The silent illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu

window on Burma

The past week has offered a number of events worthy of comment and I admit to having been too caught up in dukkha of my own creation to make it to the blog window and write about them.  It’s not so much a callousness or numbness to the tragedies unfolding in the world – though I feel the ironic edge of numb creeping up – but rather a preoccupation with several emotional encounters that may or may not signal another koan window to leap through.

A Zen koan poses the question of why the tail of an ox can’t get through a window when the entire ox can.  Lately compassion (for all beings including myself) has this feel.  So much pours out as though the window is vast and boundless and then I get stuck.  Interestingly, I might be able to lay the blame at the feet of Western philosophers for this one.  According to Paul Gilbert, author of Compassionate Mind, our philosophical roots lead us to be more likely to feel compassion for those whose suffering we believe is undeserved.  That may explain why we donate freely for victims of disasters but hesitate for the homeless person in front of the liquor store.

Well, the world has no end of opportunity to show compassion for those who did nothing to deserve their suffering.

On 2011 March 24, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude hit northeastern Burma in the Shan State.  The effects were felt in Bangkok and Hanoi.  The Irrawaddy (click on photo to the left) reported 150 dead and significant damage.  The government of Burma, of course, has a different story.  Apparently this isn’t enough of a photo-op for the generals so there hasn’t been any ego-feathers flapping as there was with Cyclone Nargis.  Likely as not, the generals aren’t expecting the same volume of Western goodies to be delivered that they can spirit away for themselves.

Ah, such cynicism.  It is expected, I suppose, and not just because of the lack of effort on the part of those in charge of Burma.  There is scant news available on the earthquake and its impact and even fewer calls for aid.  Perhaps we’re all too shaken by the intensity and danger of what is happening in Japan.  I know I am.  Perhaps the people in a mountain region of a country constantly beset by mind-boggling cruelty – natural and man-made – is too much for us to absorb.

But here it is.  One more tragedy in the long list of things happening at the end of the world.  I sadly point you again to the list of humanitarian agencies on the Ways to Engage page of this blog.  Please do what you can… again… and again.

Thank you for practising,


step into the fire – what we don’t know about Burma

It’s a sunny day in Santa Fe and, while Frank is at a training retreat, I’m contemplating the teachings of the previous week.  It’s all still a mash of concepts and perspectives.  One of the teachers was Merle Lefkoff who taught the Science of Surprise – complex systems and compassion.  One of the points that impressed me was the idea of adaptive systems.  Adaptation is about letting go, it is about becoming open to the unknown.  Of course, we don’t tend to live that way.  And that brings me to the insight of the week: our practice makes us outliers to the norm.  In Lefkoff’s terms we are the scout ants of the colony, reaching out beyond the tried-and-true.

The danger, of course, in being an Outlier is the risk of being shut down, put out, and closed off from the mainstream.  In a word, the risk of humiliation is high and that can be a deep cause for suffering.  Being an outlier means being comfortable with solitude, having deep personal relationships rather than collecting people, seeking truth outside the system with humility and respect.

Lefkoff put us through a number of exercises.  As an aside, I love this quote from my notes: We are attached to each other by the task itself not only the exercise.

One exercise was to imagine what seems impossible at this moment.  What scenario can you devise that does not seem possible in the world at this time?  This was before the tragedy in Japan.  My scenario would have been very different, I think.  Or maybe not.

I described a Burma without oppression.

The second part of the exercise was to take a step back and see what has to happen for the scenario to actualise.

What did you think?  Get rid of the military rulers?  This narrow view opened a deep realization for me.  In any discussion about Burma, the focus is on the current conditions: the oppression by the military.  What we tend to miss are the outliers: the various ethnic groups who have been struggling for recognition since the British invaded Burma and sliced it up into pieces.  I’m particularly familiar with the Karens, having been a loyal supporter of Zoya Phan and her work through the Burma Campaign UK.  Phan’s book Little Daughter is a powerful revelation of the tragedy of bigtory and persecution.  When I met Phan in Ottawa, she became the first person to acknowledge those who stood up against the beginning rule of the military by Ne Win and who spoke out against the duplicity of U Nu.  Scout ants.

We miss the real issue when we rant against the military rulers.  True, they need to be confronted but there is a deeper issue that is too consistently being ignored – the diverse ethnic identity that is Burma.  Not one, not two.  Shan, Kachin, Pau’a, Karen, Padaung, Arakan, Chin, Mon, and more.  We disregard their rights when we speak of saving Burma as if it is a unity.

In the science of emergence, there are initial conditions interacting with rules of the system which in turn interact with relationships.  These interaction result in emergent behaviours presumably ones that result in upaya – skillful actions.  In the case of Burma, the rules have to change.  Our rules.  We need to see beyond our salvationistic tendencies and begin to acknowledge that the initial conditions are not the generals in their constructed cities but include the diversity of the region.  Each ethnic group needs to have a voice for a respectful re-construction.

What does this have to do with practice?  It’s up to you.  The next time someone talks about Burma as if it’s another Afghanistan – speak up.

Thank you for practising,


Aung San Suu Kyi released

The world woke up to this amazing news that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest today in Rangoon, Burma. Born  in 1945, the daughter of one of Burma’s iconic leaders, Bogyoke Aung San, she has enthralled the world with her determination, fortitude, and courage.  Her political will has been fired by her father’s spirit and perhaps not the least by his assassination.  After refusing to leave Burma, she suffered the loss of her beloved husband, Michael Aris, to prostate cancer and has been separated from heer sons for two decades.  The National League for Democracy, lead by Daw Aung San, won its first election with a landslide however the military rulers refused to acknowledge the victory, instead, placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.  In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has been the focus of other Peace Prize Laureates who have appealled for her freedom.  Although she was released from house arrest,  after a violent confrontation that threatened her life, she was again place under “protective” arrest.  Despite her incarceration, Suu Kyi has fought valiantly for the freedom of the people of Burma.  Today she is free.  For the moment.

May her relentless practice light our way in practice.

this, that & guest post on Jizo Chronicles

I’ve been trying desperately to get to the part of the computer that deals with blogging.  However, the realities of running a business that is teetering on the edge of change yet again and a cat with a bandage around its neck  – who, by the end of the day, looks like Jacob Marley in the Christmas Carol – have got the better of my time.

Change can be fun.  I enjoy re-inventing myself every five years or so and it’s a year early but what the heck.  Of course, re-inventing myself means letting go and we all know how great I am at that!  Before the re-tooling however I’m taking time to notice that all this started with a surge of connections in my professional and spiritual community.  Good thing.  The drought has been going for a while.

Building sangha is tough, spiritual or professional, and when the two overlap, it’s even tougher.  Sitting one morning, I had the sticky thought, “It’s apples and oranges.  You can’t mix them – even in fruit salad, it’s still bits of apples and oranges.”  So for this week, this has been my practice: honouring the appleness and orangeness of my communities, even as a mix.

Canadian Thanksgiving is coming up this weekend too.  All these threads weaving together.  So let me say I am so grateful for all of you.  By your presence, you have supported this little space.  I’m particularly grateful for my dharma pal, Maia Duerr, author of the awesome Jizo Chronicles and Upaya Zen Center Chaplaincy Director.  Maia has a way of bringing me into just what is needed in this moment.  Last week, she invited me to write a piece for TJC on the Saffron Revolution, the monks’ protest in Burma in September 2007.  You can read the post on today’s Jizo Chronicles.  Writing it really brought home for me that sometimes it’s not about the apples or the oranges.

What can we make of that?

house arrest for aung san suu kyi

On June 19, 2010, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will celebrate her 65th birthday.  She has been under house arrest for 14 years since she returned to support the people of Burma.  Each year there is a call for a day of contemplation or a day of “house arrest” to demonstrate solidarity with her and the people of Burma.

Please consider a “house arrest” in whatever form it can take for you.  A day of mindfulness, a period of sitting meditation, a choice in a moment to “arrest” an unskillful thought, word or action.

It will make a difference.

Today’s 108buddha is dedicated to all those who are imprisoned and endure violence so that the world may wake up.

Thank you for practicing,


embedded home

<–Previous: why I had to hate Jack…

The conclusion of that day is likely obvious to all of you: I don’t know Jack.  I was convinced that all my reactivity was related to the incompatibility of Westerners with the True-Pure-Real Burmese tradition of Buddhism.  Starting an hour before dawn, I began, inviting all the evidence that would support my Theory of Everything Wrong with Western Buddhism.  Instead, all the heartaches, all the sorrows began to come home.  My inner theatre filled with scenes from childhood: the pagoda I lived next to in Rangoon, the walking meditation around Shwedagon Pagoda with my grandmother, feeding the turtles in the pond at Botataung Pagoda, and then the wrenching leave-taking from Home.  For years I wrote to cousins and aunties and uncles in Burmese, desperate to keep up my written skills.  As the country closed down, they stopped replying.  I practice the letters now in my shodo art; they are symbols stripped of language but still evocative in their beauty.

Through the morning, the afternoon, the evening, I sat with pain of this loss.  Penetrating through the craving, I felt the emptiness.  And then as I felt a sense of helplessness to fill that space, Mara spoke.  Just go home; Jack does. Emotionally, I fell off my cushion!  Jack goes home… to my Home…  (Note bene: The many travels of the IMS teachers to Burma have been instrumental in bringing the dhamma to the West and has likely protected the root teachings from being lost in the political mess that is Burma.)

Suddenly, I remembered a fight with my cousin who had come to live with us because his family was in upheaval.  We were playing school and there was a blue pencil we both wanted.  We struggled and he stabbed me in the arm breaking off the lead in my flesh.  The pencil broke and he cried, “Why should you have it if I can’t have anything?”  This was the heart of my suffering in my encounters with Theravada in the West.

The discoloration from that lead is embedded in my arm to this day.  A piece of home.  I felt flooded with joy: Jack has his Sayadaws; I have this little piece of lead in my arm I now wouldn’t trade for all the gold on the Shwedagon!  It’s hard to believe that anger can be so transformative.  At one level, I truly regret harboring such deep negativity towards incredibly generous teachers.  Yet, that anger has fueled my persistence in my professional and personal life, protecting me from the feelings of isolation and despair.  For so many years, that anger continued to be fueled by many perceived rejections and injustices.  Like the bulbs and plants in my garden, it multiplied by splitting: You/me, us/them, mine/yours.  And these concepts are defined by what I objectify in my environment through a false sense of ownership.

In the Q&A on Day 6 of the Vietnam retreat, Thay offered his guidance to a young woman who wanted to conceive a child but had been unsuccessful.  We develop an attachment to one thing and it becomes the object of our attention.  We come to believe it is the only way to feel fulfilled, feel happy, feel at home.  I look around as his voice fills the meditation room.  The roses on the altar evoke memories of the rose garden at the Botataung house.  The incense brings me home to the pagodas.  The sound of the bells in the water fountain is the tinkle of the bells in the spires.  The ancestor’s altar is filled with pictures of my father, his mother (a devout Buddhist and minus cheroot), his father, my maternal grandmother (a devout Catholic), and Frank’s ancestors who struggled in the poverty of the Deep South.  I am embedded in my life right here.

Next: transparency of water