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):




breaking bread


There’s a new energy in the house.  Not just the wild exuberance of the pups who have so far managed to survive my every threat of sending them to the Great Beyond.  Not just the brighter light of Spring or the receding snow line on the fields.  Not just the thick glaze of ice crust on the trails from the day melt and night freeze.  Not just anything in particular but all things in their eternal uniqueness that come together effortlessly.  Yet that asks so much of us – to simply wait with deep faith that change requires little of us but presence.

After watching Espe Brown’s movie “How to Cook Your Life,” I had an urge to bake bread.  This was a somewhat safer urge to indulge than the one I tend to have after watching superhero dog survivor movies.  But bread making requires effort akin to the great effort of Zen; and yet Espe Brown made it look and sound like the ultimate in cultivated laziness.  Now I get all the be one with the carrot and the spinach rap of Zen.  I do.  Really.  I even get the drink your tea even if it’s just a riff on the sentiment because I’m doing so while pounding out the next blogpost.  And I know about bread baking too having spent many a year baking two, three, many loaves each weekend.

DSC_0053The dharma of bread making is that there are no guarantees.  It thrives on doubt.  Great Doubt.  It is fickle in its liturgy.  Empty yet demanding of form.  Demanding of protocol yet unyielding in promises of outcome.  It is not for the rigid of mind or acolyte of scrupulosity.  And that makes me the worst person on earth for this practice.

However, great effort is often codependent with great blindness and sometimes the delusion of possibilities pays off.  In one of his teaching moments, Espe Brown said, “Let things come to your heart.”  And when I do, it’s clear that bread making is not about bread or making.  It is about distress tolerance.


At each stage, from the way in which yeast feasts on the sugars to that tender balance between elasticity and collapse of the dough, creating the loaf-to-be is only about trusting the invisible bodhisattvas of gluten and fermentation more than the demons of fear and desire.  It is about letting things go into the dark and do just what they are meant to do without the interference that arises from our desperation to have it done.  Letting go, yes.  Not clinging, definitely.

And yet.  We are not given to truly know the essence of these transitions.  The first round of bread making resulted in a stunted, thick loaf that only Frank, in his endearing love of all things carbohydrate, would relish.  Heavy chunks of glutinous wheat with a savoury buckwheat bite make his morning (and I don’t doubt he dips it in his high-octane coffee).  It may have been the temperature, the thundering hooves of two playful puppies, the arch of my eyebrow, the waves of panic energy that seeped from my palms into the dough as I kneaded it.  Not knowing is the most intimate, Dizang said.  I wonder if he baked bread too.

DSC_0077The second loaf was more generous in its response.  Then again, I adjusted the parameters.  A different recipe from a different book, a few breaths reminding me of my capabilities, more wood in the wood stove, and taking the pups for a 1 hour walk so I didn’t keep checking the proofing of life in the dough.  We can put all the ingredients together when cooking our life.  We can stir, beat, fold, and knead them into some shape.  We can read each expansion and contraction for portents of praise or blame.  We can entrust the clusters of our life to the dark and the light.  We can hold them in boxed forms or freeform.  We can blast them in furnaces or freeze them for some future date.

But we can never really know until we break them open and let them penetrate deep into our heart.

as she lay dying – meditation on my mother’s body

My mother is dying. After 94 years of standing up to a world that was at times brutal and at times incomprehensible to her, she lies here in her hospital bed between starched, warmed sheets, dying. Her awareness has receded into an inner world of visions and a landscape only she can navigate. Her consciousness which is the arising out of contact senses the sheets, the shifting air, the moist toweling of her body every hour. Earth has dissolved into water as her organs release their hold on function. Water has dissolved into fire as the fluids in her body diminish. Fire has dissolved into air as the vital forces dissipate into flowing wind. All that is left is the expansion of air into spaciousness, into that boundless realm of entire being.

We sit vigilantly each day, following her breath, recalling her life. Sati, recollecting, bringing together, re-membering the dispersed parts of her life as grandmother, mother, wife, friend, sister, cousin, daughter. Fearless and fearsome dragon lady who survived a World War, the British and Japanese Occupation of Burma, strode across oceans and cherished roses.

As part of my own process I have spent the mornings and evenings chanting the name of Avalokita, reading the Anathapindika Sutta, and sitting a vigil sesshin. I don’t know how it helps or if it does but that is why we practice – to move beyond the need for something to happen.

This was a meditation that emerged from one sitting as I brought my attention to my feet, intending to scan through to the top of my head and then to scan my mother’s body in turn. As I began, our bodies merged and this became the meditation. I offer it for the grace of her life.

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.

This is my mother’s body.
Sitting, standing, lying down.
This is my mother’s gift
even now.

digging out dukkha

DSC_0101It’s been a rough few days. My heart goes out to the families in Newtown CT and globally in places we never hear about who are going through what, to me, is unimaginable loss. I have no wise words, no salve, no offers of hope for ease and peace. Often, when such tragedies strike, I find myself watching it all unfold, mesmerized by the way online characters respond to words written on this posting or that. Often, when I read cruel and mean-spirited comments or just plain ignorant ones, I find myself turning to Frank and asking him to explain (yet again) the mentality I think is reflected in the words I’m reading. Together, we sit and he tries his very best to explain this aspect of his birth culture and I fail (yet again) to grasp the senselessness of the physical, verbal, and emotional violence so many witness and endure.

For so long I have deeply wished we could eradicate all the weaponry of emotional and physical hurt. I have this delusion that the suffering left will be manageable, witness-able, containable.  But I know that is not likely to be the end result.  So I’ve vowed to stop trying to make sense out of something that cannot make sense – not even in how we reference it because “senseless” violence is the oxymoron of oxymorons.  In fact, to call it that subtly opens a door to discussion for what constitutes “sensible” violence.  And caught in our deluded states of mind (often armed with statistics), there is no end to what we each believe is sensible in these circumstances.   However, nothing can ever justify violence or our reluctance to do what is necessary to prevent it.  But, couched in these discussions, there is a subtle “bait-and-switch” that leads us away from the real issue.  Because violence and death are often dramatically coupled, violent deaths become the salient aspect of an event and the focus of all our energies.  Caught in our passion, we miss that it is the finger pointing to the moon.

Embedded in these events is a deeper truth and it opens to the possibility of digging further into our practice.  In sangha, after we honoured the pain and suffering of all grieving families in the ten directions, we shared our thoughts about the events at Newtown and other occasions of profound suffering.  One sangha friend pointed out wisely that even if we managed to prevent these and other deaths, we are still left with the reality of suffering that is inherent in living.  This is the intimate truth of all living beings; being born is the most predictable cause of dying and it is  not preventable.  Furthermore, there is much suffering that arises in the process of getting from birth to death.  These many variants of suffering themselves become the roots of all forms of suffering – including but not exclusive to pre-mature death, sometimes from violence.  These are, in large part, preventable.

This First Truth of suffering is the touchstone to which we must return each and every time we are confronted with the inexplicable.  Only then can we begin to see the bigger picture of what is necessary and possible.  Only then can we embody our practice of compassionate action through our civic, spiritual, and personal paths as we take determined steps to dig out the roots of many forms of suffering.  If not, if we focus only on weapons or violence or drugs or whatever is salient in this moment, we are only cleaning out the compost bin and not the septic bed it sits atop that itself needs to be dug out.

sati means remember

Rick Mercer, probably most famous for his “talks with Americans,” puts out some scathing rants on life, love and politicians.  I caught this one on Tuesday night and thought it was a good way to commemorate November 11 at 11:00AM.  Mahasatipatthana is one of the key sutras in Buddhist scriptures – the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – that teaches us the path of Right Mindfulness.  It is more than simply “coming into the moment,” a phrase to which I’ve become averse.  It is so much more that “this” moment; it is all moments.  Sati means to re-member, to re-collect all our dispersions in body, speech, and mind.  On this day, at this time, it is about bringing together in all that we need to hold as sacred so that we may live maha-sati or sama-sati deeply and truly.

On our altar we have a placard with the number 156 written on it.  It is in a long line of numbers starting with 138 and is the number of soldiers and support workers who have died in the violence in Afghanistan.  Whether we agree with the politics of war or not, whether those who fought or fight believe in living by the sword, it is nevertheless a compassionate act to remember all those who died from that particular form of violence – and all forms of violence.   I don’t have a Buddhisty label for it.  I just know that to light a candle, to observe silence for all passings is important.  By their death, we are reminded to live.

Thank you for practising,


the binding cord

It is a commonplace of life that the greatest pleasure issues ultimately in the greatest grief.  Yet why – why is it that this child of mine, who has not tasted half the pleasures that the world has to offer, who ought, by rights, to be as fresh and green as the vigorous young needles of the everlasting pine – why must she lie here on her deathbed, swollen with blisters, caught in the loathsome clutches of the vile god of smallpox.  Being, as I am, her father, I can scarcely bear to watch her withering away – a little more each day – like some pure, untainted blossom that is ravished by the sudden onslaught of mud and rain.

…(F)inally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.  Her mother embraced the cold body, and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet –

from A Year of My Life

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) is perhaps one of my favourite poets.  His poems are flip, fierce, and take a perspective of the other – what James Austin calls an allocentric view.  There’s a darkness in some of his poetry and prose which comes from the many losses and conflicts in his life.    Rejected by his step-mother, estranged from family, caught in estate battles over his father’s will, his life seemed a never-ending flow of struggles.  Maybe all this was the cauldron for his creativity.  At the age of 51, he married a 27-year old woman and had three children.  The first two died before their first birthday; the third, Sato, lived barely a year.  He produced his major prose A Year of My Life after her death.  Misfortune dogged him, however, until he died in 1827, leaving his third wife and unborn child.  Yata, his daughter, inherited his home and lived there until the 1950’s.

Loss and grief are such demanding co-teachers.  They assign long hours of practice and work with no promise that I will graduate with honours. And there is no guarantee that the “binding cord of human love” will be severed.

Thank you for practicing,


a family found

After a year or two of caring for Susan Anna’s grave, I became curious about her origins.  I did what any 21st century researcher devoted to truth would do.  I went to the Oracle of All Things Known and Registered in the Universe: Google.  There, listed like the castings of the I-Ching, were thousands of links to the query, Who was Harry Crerar?  I found it hard to believe – as I do when I ask the I-Ching to take responsibility for my life decisions – that the answer would be so simple.

Harry Crerar was a Canadian General.  Henry Duncan Graham “Harry” Crerar served in the Canadian military and is remembered by critics and admirers alike as “mediocre,” “dour,” “colourless,” as well as “competent.”   This finding was somewhat hard to reconcile with the little seemingly abandoned gravesite.  On the other hand, soldiers were remarkably transient and even high-ranking military men, in wartime Canada, were not likely to remain in any one city for long.  Searching further, I connected with a military history writer, Paul Dickson who had published a biography of Crerar.  Impulsively, I wrote to Dickson asking if Susan Anna was a child of Harry and Verse Crerar and told him of my time spent caring for Susan Anna grave.  I received a reply almost immediately.  I’m guessing he doesn’t get many requests about Crerar as unique as mine.

Dickson confirmed that Susan Anna was indeed their child but that he had only referred to the “death of a newborn child” and “personal difficulties of 1933” in the book*.  The family, it seems, was intensely insular and Harry particularly private.  Harry married Verse (actually “Marion Verschoyle Cronyn” and considered a stunning beauty) in 1916 accompanied only by one friend who witnessed the ceremony.  They went on to have three children, Margaret (Peg), Peter, and Susan Anna.  Margaret was a bright spot in Crerar’s life as he struggled with the losses in the battles in the Somme, remained close to both parents, and acquired a PhD in Chemistry later in life.  Peter was born in 1922, joined and left the military, had a strained relationship with his father, and lived the latter years his life in a veteran’s hospital in Toronto.  There is little suggestion that anyone outside the immediate family even knew of Susan Anna.

After her death, Harry’s ambitions cushioned him and he pushed on for promotions which eventually lead him to become endeared to the Queen of the Netherlands for his role in the liberation of Holland (hence all our tulips!) and later aide-de-camp of then-Princess Elizabeth for her coronation.  It was different for Verse.  She and Peter left for England in 1933 where Peg was in boarding school.  The only hint of the grief Verse endured was in Harry’s letter commenting that she “had not been feeling well” when they arrived but bounced back quickly as family life took hold.  Eventually, the Fates gathered them all up to settle in Ottawa where things appeared happy and content with the usual dollop of military-influenced parenting.  Harry died in 1965; Verse and Peg too now are deceased.  Dickson couldn’t tell me where they were buried (perhaps in Southern Ontario or Toronto where Peg lived) and, in the absence of similar family names around her grave, I realized that Susan Anna was alone.

And then one day, in that strange way dots have of connecting, I realized that Crerar might be buried in the military part of the cemetery.  Expecting a long and tedious search through the miles of uniform white headstones, I went determined to read each headstone.

It was the first grave.  A few hundred yards from Susan Anna.  He’d been there all this time.

Thank you for practicing,


*These quotes were not accessible in the book online when I first researched the Crerars and I only had Dickson’s comment via email.