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.

the blinding sound of a calling

calling

I’ve been feeling more deeply how frustrating my peripatetic spiritual path has been. Is. And, for whatever the reason, it’s been more piercing than ever lately. Even more, it doesn’t escape my symbol-loving mind that it began 9 months ago when I made the decision to forego Summer Ango and Rohatsu so I could be with family, awaiting the arrival of the Gr’Kid.

The intent of Ango and Rohatsu however is not only the ongoing cultivation of my spiritual path but also the process of engaging in the path of the novice priest. It looks strange writing it out; some of you already know of this aspiration and practice and I bow deeply to your patience as I harangued you with all my doubts, convoluted cognitions, and self-serving angst.

This is a huge piece of my spiritual life. I knew in a flash of  a moment at the age of 9 years, standing in a church hall watching a young girl who was part of a diorama of  a Methodist nun caring for little baby (it was a doll, but powerful nevertheless). I knew it again sitting zazenkai at the Montreal Zen Centre with master Albert Low as his attendant stepped up to adjust Low’s robes and set the stage for the teisho. I know it again and again standing across from my teacher at morning services at Upaya, blinded by the power of eye-to-eye contact and heart-to-heart connection.

And I know it more powerfully than ever as I walk the hospital halls with my Chaplain colleagues or sit round-table with them developing more and more compassionate ways to met the great matter of living and dying.

And  yet… and yet… this dewdrop world is far-flung and complex.

When I first tried to articulate this ephemeral sense of a calling, it was met with stunned silence which I took to mean I was unworthy. And then there was the mind-twisting advice to not ask because by asking it showed wanting which meant craving and how could it be a real calling if it was a craving. That was easy to dismiss as zennobabble. The wiser mitras pointed out that the practice was in stepping off that 100-foot pole, in letting it all explode into dust, and to know that asking was just another way of piercing the illusion of something to be had.

While there is truly nothing to be gained from ordination, there is much to be lost from not honouring the calling. The power of that driving force is inescapable. It pervades every thought, word, and action. It is cetanā, intention, of every connection. It is all-consuming and abjects us to all means of being in service. And for many of us, it is not necessarily available. And that is a profound loss for both the individual and community.

In my conversations with two of my dearly loved dharma sisters and brothers, I explored all these aspects. The possibility is that we already live a priesthood; true and yet that begs the point of serving overtly in community. The possibility is that it can be sublimated into a lay form of service; true and yet it contradicts the intent of practice being the realization of our true nature. The possibility is that it can happen but not in the specific community or way one had hoped; true and for some of us, this is the most non-negotiable because ordination is a public celebration of our relationship with our spiritual birth-community.

And then there’s the specific one I face and struggle against: the possibility that there may not be a configuration of time and energy. This takes time, a never-ending series of renunciations of the dew drop world. Months away from family (and work  income that supports all this – a financial ouroborus), reconfiguring all the responsibilities of being a householder, letting go of commitments to be present for birthdays, anniversaries, and the likelihood that this body may no longer be able to withstand the physical rigours of this form of practice. I hold out the hope that being a time being, it – and I – will unfold in time.

Not surprising, this week there was the blinding call of time pressing. James Ford wrote here of what a couple of wrong decisions could have meant and why the evening chant is a deep calling. And Brookie at The Blue Lotus Seed wrote here of the ever-changing identity of the sangha’s meditation space and the heart that continues to be present, concluding with the call to find a seat because time is fleeting. And Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being wrote of the merits of home-leaving and Dogen’s exhortation of his monks:

Life is fleeting! Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life!
Wake up now!
And now!
And now!

We lose many things on the path. A sense of entitlement, righteousness, specialness. Gone. Gone, the sense that time limits us. Worn away in the chaffing against time beings.

We take on many things on this path. A sense of duty, loyalty, service. Of being blinded by a calling yet not blind to what it means as it unfolds in time.

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About the photo: I chose it for the piercing points of the ice. As I was playing with the image, it revealed the twisting colouration embedded in the ice. A reflection of the pergola caught, frozen into the icicle. Somehow it seemed very fitting to the topic.

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.

dahl

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.

the great matter of the poppy & the peony

imageThe garden is flourishing in these endless cycles of wet and heat. It has exploded brilliant blooms of irises and poppies which were short lived in the relentless downpours of May. And now, in the muggy days of June, the peonies are surging out in giant fireworks of white and pink.

I’ve always hated peonies, and these in particular for having been planted in the most awkward of places on what passes for lawn. It took me a decade to uproot every last bulb only to find them skulking back into the interstices of my favoured flora.

Now, 20 years later, I’ve transformed my irritation into a marginal peace about them but, I claim, it’s only because they once belonged to Roger whose father built the farm in 1932. Roger is gone now, predeceased by his wife Blanche who had painted the living room the same shade of rose I did a generation later.

The poppies flank one side of a small garden (small being a relative term for something less than 8 by 30 feet) while the unrepentant peonies flank the other. This year they seem to be the punctuations of the Great Matter of Life and Death.

Perhaps my mother’s passing is resonating further with me as we divest ourselves of the material aspects of her life. Selling the house in Montreal, sorting through the final remnants of her collections, and falling over pictures and portraits of her journey in this realm, I find myself wondering what might have been different had on petal dropped this way or that, had one bud opened in June and not May, had one rose bush blossomed blue and not white.

Or perhaps I am feeling more and more the karma of aging as I trip and stumble over bumps and uneven ground in my path. Sitting on my zafu at the retreat Frank and I lead, I felt a piercing through my knee which the mind tackle to the ground and pummelled into an admission of stupidity for allowing it to happen. I marvelled at the logic that says, in retrospect, you should have known it would happen and prevented it. The talks at the retreat were on equanimity and compassion, the former being key to Dogen’s admonition that we examine the constructed selves and the latter to being illuminated by the myriad things as these masks drop to the ground. And through it all that mind-mask howled its misery and portended death of a broken kneecap – of independence, of living, of ever amounting to anything worthwhile.

The poppy stripped of petals and bloom is saying the same thing and the peony still in its naively held breath of birthing is saying the same thing. All things end, begin, end. But they don’t howl. Or clutch at the soreness. Or winch at the fire piercings. They seem animated by the truth of life and death, being and ongoing being. Voicelessly punctuating  here and now.

Perhaps it is time I allowed these myriad things of the Great Matter to pierce me truly, really.

the heart of mindfulness practice – walking the mountain closer

DSC_0153I’ve been journeying. Nowhere special. Just these inner paths of tangled neural wiring, trying to unravel a few connections, solder others and snip out the truly fried ones. This work of un-self-making is a tough one. If I’m not careful, I end up more tangled and frazzled than I started. More often than not, I forget the intention (to drain the swamp) and resort to playing whack-a-mole (or alligator) in futile attempts to resist assimilation into unwholesomeness.

The great thing about having kalyanamitras is that one can spend a morning whacking moles and the afternoon having an hour of gentle guidance about how to cultivate compassion for the critters. After all, even moles suffer. If you’re looking for some of that gentle guidance, by the way, I do suggest you access my dear spiritual pal Maia Duerr who has a terrific new venture called Guidance & Encouragement Sessions.

The conversation with Maia folded neatly into a book I was reading, Walk Like a Mountain by Innen Ray Parchelo (published by Sumeru Books).  As much as I avoid my tangled mess of neural circuitry, I avoid walking meditation. However, Parchelo makes it very compelling from the start of the book where he lays out the framework of a journey (who doesn’t love a road trip) to the end where he brings us home to ourselves with a caveat of the necessity for humility. Walk Like a Mountain packs a wickedly dense amount of information into 204 pages. Not only does Parchelo draw together the threads of Buddhist teachings on walking meditation, he takes us down side roads and up mountain paths of archetypes and ecological history of landscapes he has walked. Furthermore, the chapters on preparation and adaptations to walking (disabilities) are seductive in convincing me that this might just be something I could do. The “Journey” chapters are really practice sessions; you could almost make them into a walk-focused sesshin.

As I read through the carefully structured instructions to cultivate wholesome movement through space, it became clear that a practice that contains even a smidgen of reluctance (i.e., my resistance to kinhin, indoors and out) is really a resistance to the totality of practice. More than that, it is a reluctance to enter the deeper aspects of practice. Parchelo writes frequently in the book of Jizo Bodhisattva who walks into the hottest of hells to save sentient beings. And it struck me that relegating walking meditation to the status of “grit your teeth and get it over with” misses the heart of practice.

To doubt the walking of the mountain means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not yet know, has not made clear, this walking.

Dogen, Mountains and Waters Sutra

The heart of mindfulness practice is to connect with our life just as it is. Sitting, standing, walking, talking, writing, eating, sleeping, defecating, urinating. It’s all movement – some large, some micro – that bring us into intimate connection with the emerging self. There can be, as Parchelo makes clear with respect to the “Zen of running/biking/tennis etc”, no substitutions.

Life. Just this.

The guidance conversation with Maia complemented Parchelo’s work on the power of navigating true to one’s intentions. In the case of entering the heart of mindfulness practice, it is dwelling in the space of our life that is vibrant and life-giving. It is a coming alive and bringing the mountain closer to our center.

Tomorrow, Frank and I lead our very first residential retreat in secular mindfulness practice. I may wear my rakusu anyway. Just because. It’s a frightening and exciting prospect of watching forty mountains walk six steps closer to the heart of an intimate life. I’m hoping Dogen will say a few words of self-making and that the labyrinth walking at nightfall will bring me in the knowing of the walking mountain.

being a time being: dogen, katagiri & the flight of vultures

timebeing1The sight of five vultures waiting at the end of the driveway can be a good thing. What is the good and what thing they point to is, of course, unknowable in the immediate. And yet. That single view is enough to send me wandering on time travels to worlds of worry, regret and wondering what if.

Vultures waiting are a powerful icon for time lost, frittered away. The body/mind unbinding with nothing left but the shell of a vessel poorly treated and meagerly used. I stepped out of the car quietly not wanting to set them on flight; that would have truly signalled the end. So I watched them as they watched something off in the northeast field, unmoving yet intimately related.

Dogen¹ writes exquisitely of time as inseparable from being, time-being or more succinctly being-which-is-time. Uji. It takes a moment to drop into what that feels like because the cascade of moments seems external, impenetrable and inexorably outside our control. Our perception insists that time moves relentlessly and mercilessly as we are dragged along in its wake. No wonder I quail at the sight of an icon of endings.

Katagari² describes “The Pivot of Nothingness” as this present moment – which doesn’t exist because past is vanishing and future has yet to unfold leaving a void, a turning point, a pivot into the next unfolding. For ease of communication, we tend to position ourselves through language. “Here I am.” But the terminology fractures when we drop into the “here” “I” and “am.” Each is a construction of something from the past and a reaching into the future.

In this “here” is a train station into which pulls all manner of locomotives taking me “there.” The room where this or that happened which lead to that or the other not happening. The city where choices ended and others failed to manifest. The bus, the subway where I choose this direction and not that, where one meeting lead to another but a different route missed the intersection of time and another being.

In this “I” are a hundred thousand variations that appear to be a seamless evolution from a past point and into a hopeful future. The aspiring astronaut, the acolyte of science, the lost and wandering characters who make up this play of fools. Examined closely, the appearance of an unbroken tapestry is so heart-rendingly false. More a wildly designed quilt with each patch having emerged from an unknowable confluence of causes, conditions and other beings-of-time.

As I “am” is not enough. There is always something taunting from the future that was planted by a promise from the past. Always something that is insufficient, undeveloped and wantonly wasting time. This am-ness is a counterpoint to what philosopher Evan Thompson³ calls “selfing.” It is an accreted stuckness that takes a wake up slam of vast proportions to dislodge it from the delusion of permanence.

timebeing2And the vultures took flight.

In this pivot of nothingness which contains all that is necessary and sufficient is what Dogen says is the complete moment. Like the firewood and ash¹, it “fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.” To paraphrase, we cannot call here the beginning of there, I the end of you, or am the end of was.

When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the content of your life. Katagiri, p.78

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¹Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed), The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Vol 1. Shambhala 2010

²Katagari, Dainin (Edited by Andrea Martin), Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Shambhala 2008

³Thompson, Evan, Mind in Life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010