faded images: where we go when we’re gone

IMG_2961

Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.

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

baking bread

Things have flown by in a blur over the last few days.  Kid and Cat moved in and my meticulous schedule of procrastination has been irreparably dented.  I think I’m back.  And that is the eternal problem, isn’t it?  I think.  And as for the “back” part, when will I learn that I was never anywhere but here so there’s no “back” to back into?  Other than these mental flappings of my cognitive wings, it’s been quite a lovely holiday… so far.

I’ve spent a bit of time wandering over to various blogs. Over the last few months, there hasn’t been a spare moment to enjoy the amazing authors and their wisdom.  In fact, there’s been precious little time to develop my own writing – leaving me to even wonder if I can keep up the pace of a daily missive.  Of course, when I do read the H-core Zennies, I begin to wonder what the heck I’m doing trying to translate my practice into words.  Is this Zen?  Is this practice?  Is this worth the nanosecond keystroke?  But beyond the usual self-flagellation for low self-worth (a sure cure for poor self-esteem, I tell you, is to beat yourself up silly and then eat chocolate), my reflections on blogging are still positive.  It has to be.  It’s the only goal in my Initial Learning Plan for chaplaincy that is being met.  Goals 1-3 are trashed and that will be chaff for another grinding.

So.  What’s been happening?  For the soul, Santa Jizo dropped off a few books for me to chomp on over the holidays: The Work of the Chaplain (nice documentation but little soul), Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki (nice review over at NellaLou’s; looking forward to it), and Great Doubt (mentioned in passing here a few posts ago; so far a bit disappointing but it’s published by my OI dharma sister and brother so I’d better be nice).  The Kid gave me Everything is Broken by Emma Larkin – a tale of Burma’s tragedy and farce.  And she gave me something else that will take a bit of consideration before I post about it.

For the body, I got a gadget.  A new breadmaker that makes breads in traditional-shaped loaves.  If you’ve succumbed to the production of bread via Teflon blades and preheat cycles rather than the intense tactile kinesthetic process of muscling dough, you know the problem with most bread makers is the tall, impossible to slice or store shapes dictated by the form of the machine.  No longer!

Meet my sexy, sleek new love.  It’s got a zillion bake cycles and three memory storages for my favourite things.  Frank still out-performs it in the memory-for-my-favourite-things department but really, this baby puts out for Mamma.

Christmas lunch was planned to be simple because we were bringing my Mum over for the first time in a year.  We were anxious because getting her to cooperate with dressing for outings has been hit-and-miss for a long while.  Her dementia has progressed sufficiently that the usual “hooks” don’t work.  But I was going to take an optimistic approach and prepared veggie “meat” pie topped with mashed potatoes which were laced with cambozola cheese chunks and served with hot cornbread.

Having been experimenting with gluten-free recipes, I threw together a cornbread mix in the old bread maker.

There’s a very brave woodpecker out there who has my eternal love.  Failure only means you have to modify the recipe in a different direction.  But the lunch being the next day, I opted for a tactical retreat.  My tried-and-true gluten-and-fat-laden Southern cornbread!

There were no complaints except from the juncos and chickadees who felt Woody was hogging the hanging loaf.

The next day I took a test drive with my new buddy.  A Zojirushi bread machine with enough gearshifts to deal with the temperamental curves of GF baking.  Look at it!  Doesn’t it make you weep?  A Poppyseed loaf – it lasted a day or two.

For the spirit, I got this:

This is Mom.  I just missed a shot of her trying on the slippers as mitts.  Unlimited by form, a true practitioner.  Dementia does that, I suppose.  Cleaves off the complicated parts of our mind and leaves the barest minimum.  Although I would wish that some of the necessary pieces were still intact – like certain memories.  But then, maybe that’s not really necessary either:

It’s all a matter of getting the right ingredients, not letting the recipe rule, and finding the right combination of warmth, leavening, and letting go of what shape you want it in.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

tending the home fries

The Kid returned home Monday night from her escapades in New Zealand over the last 8 months.  She flew in via Vancouver so of course, we waited for her at the International Arrival gate.  Who wouldn’t?  She got home, scarfed down her favourite food from one of our favourite restaurants in Ottawa – General Tsao’s Chicken from So Good in Chinatown.  After regalling us with tales of the Netherworld, she went to bed.  I figured wouldn’t see her for a few days.  But there she was the next morning, Burmese cookbook in hand and getting ready to cook for us for a month in compensation for squatter’s rights on the spare bedroom… sorry, her old bedroom.  I think I can live with this.  No scruples.

Oh.  The Burmese cookbook is Hsa*Ba.  I’d say it was food like Mom made but Mom, dear soul, didn’t know how to cook Burmese food. It is however food like my Kid makes.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more on the issue of sin, sinning, and being sin.

Oh and… please check out Lasha Mutual’s project 108 White Tara paintings which was mentioned on the Tricycle Editor’s Blog.

Thank you for practising,

Genju

PS: the title is not a typo.  Home Fries are a cultural delicacy, served with thick gravy and curd cheese.

owning self

Our practice realization and neuroscience come together to show that the sense of a permanent and integral self is constructed but is also needed to function.

Notes from Zen Brain talk by Al Kaszniak.

Harkening back to John Dunne’s talk, in the five skandhas, we have a built-in systematic map of our lived experience out of which we create a sense of self.  Evan Thompson called this a process of “I-ing”, a continuous integration of external and internal perceptions that forms a feedback loop.  Under all the nuances and variations of developmental theories is an inescapable truth: without an Other, there is no I that can be created.  What is perhaps not so explicitly stated is that the creative process is one of discerning what is most useful to integrate and what is not required; in other words, it is a process of grasping and rejecting relational offerings.

Without this discernment, we can be overwhelmed by our perceptual experiences or take inappropriate ownership of things that are in proximity to us.  There’s fascinating phenomenon called the Rubber Hand Illusion – a disruption of the sense of body ownership in which we can feel as though a disembodied hand is actually ours:

Growing up is not that different.  We develop a belief of ownership by proximity to the object of our perception and the simultaneous stimulation that is called relationship.  That’s not all bad.  Love works that way.  So does caring, empathy, compassion, and the feeling of community.  It only causes suffering when reification and inflexibility set in.  When we are deluded in the belief that things not connected to us define us or are defined by us, we create the conditions of suffering.

At the Q&A of the Zen Brain talks, I asked about research that explored neurological changes related to the relational aspects of our experience.  I was surprised by the way I constructed my question.  Prefacing it briefly with the facts of my mother’s dementia, I noted that as I was watching her deconstruct herself, I was also deconstructing myself.  We were rapidly becoming no-mother and no-daughter, falling to signlessness.  In as much as the trajectory of the relationship for her was a natural course of neural deterioration, it was also crucial, in my mind, that I met it as a process of practice realization. I had to let go of the belief I owned the Rubber Hand of our developmental relationship.

When she and I were able to meet as two beings whose shared history could not longer be acted out, something shifted.  There were no past stories to live out, guard against, or correct.  There is only the moment of sitting, eating, holding, feeling.  Don’t get me wrong.  I also feel sadness – but not for the woman she was who would have been devastated to see herself now.  There is sadness that this is way in which she attains liberation.  For me anyway.  Perhaps you see it differently.

Thank you for practicing,

Genju

disowning self

We have a commonsense notion of self.  Self is thought of as a given, unique, agentic, independent, integrated, cohesive source that is permanent, underlying the flow of our conscious experience.  We experience self as the independent cause of voluntary action.

Al Kaszniak, Neuropsychologist

from Notes on Zen Brain: Contributions to an understanding of self-awareness from the study of neurological illness

Al’s research examines how the constructions of self are dismantled through a disease process that we call Dementia which means “deprived of mind.”  Alzheimer’s disease is the most common one we identify as a Dementia and is the major cause of Dementia.  Memory loss, changes in behaviour, transposed timelines and relationships, and reduced intellectual function create a flowing parody of the Three Doors of Liberation: selflessness, signlessness and aimlessness.  Age is not protective, nor are accomplishments, intellectual prowess, wealth, fame, or any of the legacies of our actions.  And in its initial stages, it’s hard to discern the development of the disease from the assertion of personality.

The most read post on this blog is losing and letting go, an exploration of my relationship with my mother who was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago.  I can only think that the popularity of the entry is because so many of us are trying to cope with the transformations this disease brings not just to the self of the person afflicted but to our own identification with the Other.  In our commonsense understanding of Self, we hold to the belief that under the expression of wild words and bizarre behaviours there is a solidity that will re-assert itself – given time, rational discourse, and a good night’s sleep.

It was easy for friends and family to lionize my mother.  She was certainly larger than most lives, passionate, fierce, and dominantly generous.  Her independence was legendary and there were few who returned for forgiveness after encountering her cold rage.  She and my father walked from Rangoon to Mandalay, a distance of some 400 miles, to escape the occupation of Japanese forces.  There are stories told from that period that cast her as an avenging protector, a trait that did not serve her well when transplanted to the West twenty years later.  In an environment that conceptualized relationships differently, she entrenched, refusing to reconstruct herself.  Or perhaps, there were no pathways, never had been any, that allowed a perception of experience as relational.

As she lost the world she understood, she had little choice but to disavow the world she had.  Having watched this from childhood to adulthood, I wonder why I pushed back against her unravelling self when the dementia began to flourish.  In the first few visits with medical personnel, I took great pains to explain that “this” was who she was: the rage, the lack of tolerance for not getting what she wanted immediately, the blaming, and the shaming.  They tried to explain that “this” was involuntary, a dismembering of neural networks that left her blameless and a candidate for equanimity and compassion.  I watched her put together the fragments of her identity, like a kaleidoscope, creating new combinations yet only ever arriving at the same place of desiring, rejecting, and confusion.  All observers agreed on the impact of her behaviours.  Yet I went home each night from the hospital where she lived for three months feeling like I had been transported into a strange universe where I knew everyone was finally seeing what I saw but were not bearing witness to it.

As she became disconnected from the concepts and ideas about her I had built for decades, she said as much about me in that way she had of highlighting my deficiency in making the world easier for her to cope with.  We were responding involuntarily to who we were to each other but remained unaware of it.  It reminded me of a phenomenon called Alien Limb in which the person afflicted claims their limb (an arm usually) is not their own.  The arm acts in various ways that are often embarrassing or oppositional to the person’s wishes or intentions yet the person will insist it was not their actions.  Combine this with a phenomenon called anosgnosia (an unawareness of having a deficit) and we had a pithy metaphoric recapitulation of what our mother-daughter relationship had become.

There is Dharma in this if we can get past the drama.  It raises for me the question of how to drop under the surface of losing identities and see, feel, realize the selflessness, the interbeing, the interconnectedness that is the mystery of relationship.  There is nothing lost.  There is only an observation of what is letting go.

Thank you for practicing,

Genju

2009 – all that it was

Where is the Hindrance?  Our life is usually so hectic that we quite easily lose ourselves.  Zazen is a wonderful opportunity to face and closely study ourselves.  In a way, it is almost a joke to have to find out who we are or to realize what our life is.  Our life, this life, is already in realization.  It is already manifesting, so what is there to look for?  When we look for something, Buddha calls this delusion.  Unfortunately, this is what all of us do one way or another.

from Appreciate Your Life by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

Sharing below a reflection of my delusions in 2009.  Still, I have been blessed to find these many paths that allow me to walk out my practice.  I think I’ve caught almost all – except for the running – which may have to wait for another time.

It started in January with an unexpected chance to record the priest ordination at Upaya while I was there for a calligraphy retreat with Kaz Tanahashi.  In Spring, playing chauffeur, tour guide and close protection for roshi during her talks on hospice care and a Summer of preparing for jukai back at Upaya.  Then a side trip to San Francisco on the way home.

And home… the refuge of five kitties, wild birds, dragon fruit, and snow.

And home 2… the beach…

I still haven’t figured out how to get all this attached to  music.  That’s my delusion for 2010, I guess.

I hope you enjoy it.

Please have deep conviction and trust in yourself to be truly Yourself.  There is no other way.  By doing so, you will have a deep confidence and respect for yourself.  Going one step further, since the life of each of us contains everything, taking care of yourself is taking care of everything else, do you see?

Taizan Maezumi

Thank you for practicing,

Genju