lotus petals & the four noble truths of intergenerational relationships


It was close. The various plans for holiday celebrations had been set for some time after that psychological window of a snowy Christmas. Still, it was a relief to have a dusting over the landscape followed by a 20-cm literal windfall a few days later. This space between the Christmas and New Year festivities can be trying as much as it can be contemplative. Or maybe there isn’t a difference as I often find the most trying times call for a deepest of contemplations. Of course, deep thoughts in this holiday period tend to have a preamble of frantic decisions over what to serve for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. How many cookies? What kind? And who-thought-this-would-work types of “discussions”.

Totoro-cookie-cutterThis season, being the 3rd Great Feast of the Grandest Baby, I pulled out the stops on aiming for maximum robai-shin points. (Being only 3 weeks old on the First Great Feast, I figure her consciousness was primed for impression at this one.) Capitalizing on her favourite character, Totoro¹, I scoured the internet (and hundreds of ‘how to ice cookies’ videos) for that perfect Totoro cookie recipe only to end up – happily – making my own cookie cutter out of a donut cutter and using this cookie recipe.

The results were excellent – if one discounts the two attempts to make grey dough that ended up producing 56 cookies, half looking sickly green and the other half mahogany red. Icing is easier to tinge.



This grandmother gig is becoming an interesting thing. Yes, it’s about creating that space for fun stuff and I’ll tell you now there’s nothing like hearing that gasp of awe when the Littlest One recognizes one’s attempts and squeals, “Tot’ro!” And the proof of the cookie being in the eating, it was heartening to see she actually liked the cookie too!

This, however, is also a reminder that the state of robai-shin² can’t settle for the glitter gel or sugar icing coating mis-coloured baked goods. The First Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships is that they don’t survive the sugar rush unless there is something of substance in them. The Second Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships is that although sugary distractions can bridge gaps, it quickly becomes the addiction we all indulge in: settling for the quick-fix, easy stuff that keeps us seeing only half the life we have.

lpitsWith the publication of my essay in Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women³ about my mother’s dementia and dying, I’ve felt drawn into considering this pattern of inter-generational love. My own grandmothers were powerful women: One a devout Catholic who cooked for the parish priest and the other a devout Buddhist who supported the local monastics. The former was a fierce hotel owner who could bargain down any deal to her favour, sometimes to the degradation of poverty-stricken nomadic sellers; the latter a cheroot-smoking dame who had a deadly aim with a wooden clog when disrespected. I can’t see them baking Totoro cookies but my life has been shaped irrevocably by their fierce determination to carve their own way in a time when women were regarded as not much more than the cattle wandering the fields.

My mother was not that different though her relationship with self, others, and the world was a triptych of personalities laid out in highly edited scripts, more nuanced and cunningly aware of the societal demands she fell prey to. She didn’t bake cookies either. But under the rage and disappointments she felt so keenly there was a profound love which sadly could only emerge through the paths she had created by walking out her life. And this is the Third Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships: We walk out the paths of our life with those in that life. We are shaped by each others’ experience and carry those formations forward.

When we see that our path which we claim as some individualistic attainment is really inter-meshed with all those before and those to come that Fourth Noble Truth of Intergenerational Relationships has to be a powerful yet simple recipe whose eating will offer proof of the pudding’s or cookie’s ability to nourish.

How can we understand this crimson thread, this bloodline of truth and its avoidance?
How can we create our path with an intention set on cultivating enduring relationships?

How can we action this wisdom through our choices of behaviours, speech, and livelihood?

How can we titrate effort so as not to become depleted or manipulative?
How can we hold in gentle awareness all that has gone before without being weighed down by pathological regret and guilt, yet learning from the paths we walked accompanied by our parents and generations beyond them?
How can we stay committed to our path: focused without obsession or over-control, distilling the essence without becoming rigid or unyielding?

Happy Baking!

¹ Totoro is a character from the animation My Neighbor Totoro“, a “1988 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli“.

² I wrote earlier about “robai-shin” here, interestingly about recipes there too.

³ To encourage purchase of the book, Lotus Petals, whose entire price is donated to charity, I’ve taken down the original blog post on 108 Zen Books. Please purchase the book here (Canada) & here (US and other countries).

invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

treating the obvious


I’m not the sharpest finger pointing to the obvious.

A few months ago, my body and mind decided to separate leaving the Me-Who-Functions-More-Or-Less a bit adrift. Coming out of a restaurant where I was entertaining a visiting lecturer and friend, I tripped on the edge of the raised sidewalk and sprawled unceremoniously into the street. In my pre-occupation with having left my car unlocked (and catastrophic visions of his computer having been stolen from it), I failed to coordinate my foot with an edge I’ve step up to thousands of time – this being my favourite pizza place. Not only had I skinned both my knees but I also sprained the tendons holding my knee cap. Of course, seeking treatment was – and often is – out of the question because… well, because, just. because.

A few weeks later, taking my computer bag out of my car, I dropped it. Being my new MacBook and all, I tried to save it with an open-handed dive only to have the bag, book, and ‘puter trash my finger. Now you would think, “Oh, she’s a smart cookie. Perhaps with two injuries she’ll get the karmic bellow about taking responsibility.” Silly you.

I did eventually go to the urgent care clinic for my knee, only because I thought it was broken and there was a sesshin looming in my future. No, no breaks; just a badly sprained patellar tendon. In my defense, I figured that one hardly needs a knee on a regular basis; it’s more of a perform-on-demand kind of joint. Apparently not. I was also too chagrined by my neglect of life and limb that I didn’t ask about my finger. I still haven’t. However, one of our classmates in our weekly “Train your human to be a good dog owner” class came in wearing a splint. It look pretty.

So I got one.

It hurts. A lot. And it’s even harder to find words that don’t use the letters T, R, F, G, V, B for this post.

I sit humbled by the strand of sinew attached to this digital joint, as much for its attempts to communicate with me as for a nuanced dharma teaching on the Second Noble Truth.

We know stuff happens, poop pervades, and disgruntlement is dismally normal. That’s the big NT1 and not only is it True, it is Real. Real because we regularly encounter disruptions, trips, bashed fingers and toes, illness, pain, and loss. These are the sufferings of suffering; the regular stuff we try to avert from, striking a posture of insouciance. Then there is that suffering of change; what was well is now not so well. What was whole is now in parts – or at least stretched beyond its limits. And the suffering that arises out of our tendency to adopt various stances to our experience (conditioned suffering) leads us down pathways seeking a fix-it solution.

It’s helpful to see these three as interdependent and co-emerging. But what is important is not to diminish that “fix-it” tendency especially at the entry-level of suffering. Get the x-ray, get the splint, get the second opinion. That’s simply because when we begin by treating the obvious source of immediate suffering, we defuse the firing of the other two forms of suffering. When we take charge of what is literally and figuratively painfully evident, there is a slightly less possibility that we end up in mental pretzels about our worth or worthiness to be well and whole.

(OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve taken off the splint so I can type this faster. Because. Just. Because.) Now go and find the obvious thing in your life that needs immediate attention and care.

center’s punky

The oak tree in the north field came down in a windstorm.  It stands inverted in the ripening soya beans, the shredded base blaring a trumpet solo into the sky as the branches hold it up.  Systems break down.  It’s inevitable.  And yet we find ourselves surprised when our favourite selected systems shatter. We’re offended because that system, that process, that particular set of interconnections which was meant to service us, let us down.  Even in a farming community, which by definition embodies the never-ending process of births and deaths, neighbours expressed shock and dismay that the oak toppled.  Perhaps, it’s only oaks in other communities that are supposed to fall.  But NIMBY!

I’ve been starting to feel that way about many things around me.  Things that seem to keep toppling over.  Saving all beings, transforming inexhaustible delusions, penetrating innumerable dharma doors, embodying the Great Way.  Don’t even get me started on the Great Matter and dharma teachers of varied ilk.  

Yet, I say, “Oh, this is good – for things to topple over.”  A knee jerk response.  A good Zen Response.  A good Buddhist Response.  It parades my familiarity with buzz-word-dharma: impermanence, equanimity, emptiness, not knowing.  It even impresses some teachers – who immediately topple over from the weight of my willful ignorance, my refusal to see what’s really in front of me.

The man who cuts down trees looked at the oak and said, “Center’s punky.”

It was an impressive executive summary of the Four Noble Toppling Truths.

It works like this: though we experience Reality directly, we ignore it. Instead, we try to explain it or take hold of it through ideas, models, beliefs, and stories. But precisely because these things aren’t Reality, our explanations naturally never match actual experience. In the disjoint between Reality and our explanations of it, paradox and confusion naturally arise.
If it’s Truth we’re after, we’ll find that we cannot start with any assumptions or concepts whatsoever. Instead, we must approach the world with bare, naked attention, seeing it without any mental bias—without concepts, beliefs, preconceptions, presumptions, or expectations. 

Hagen, Steve (2009). Buddhism Is Not What You Think (pp. 4-5).
Harper Collins e-books. Kindle Edition. 

fluid wisdom

I’m enjoying reading Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain & Simple.  Part of my final project for the Chaplaincy program is an exploration of different perspectives of the Four Noble Truths and his book was the only one in the Zen tradition I’ve read so far that takes an organized approach to teaching these fundamentals of the buddha-dharma.  (It’s an approach more typical of the Theravadin teachers.  But I’m sure it’s not the only Zen perspective to do so.  If you have any suggestions please let me know.) 

After a very compelling explanation of the first three Noble Truths, he begins to work on the Eight-fold Path with Right View.  By describing it as a fluid process, something constantly in motion, he opens the way to clearly see how we facilitate our mind of suffering through a false certainty about our reality. 

Take the banner picture of this post.  If asked, I would say, “Oh, that’s my apple tree in bloom.”  Actually, I did say that and watched my “are-you-sure-mind” kick in.  Well, it’s not really MY apple tree.  If it were I should be arrested for floral neglect given the minimal attention it’s received from me.  And actually, it’s not in bloom but perhaps blooming because even as I was playing around it, the sun was warming the buds coaxing them open.  Or maybe it wasn’t really blooming but dying because the wind was lifting petals off the stems and depositing them on the lawn. 

And all that would be wrong too.  It’s not an apple tree in bloom at all.  It’s a picture, a two-dimensional representation of a slice of time and space.  It’s a bracketed moment holding sensations of eyes, nose, hand, and desire.

Not too many books take me into these treacherous philosophical waters.  But I like it.

This is how we commonly deal with the world.  By our very attempt to grasp an explanation, we leave things out.  In just such a manner, to take any frozen view is to leave out a piece of Reality.  What we repeatedly fail to notice is that there is never a static object to observe – nor, for that matter, a static, clearly-defined observer.

Hagen goes on to point out the fallacy of a fixed identity and the pitfalls of latching onto it.  Frozen in static awareness, we become fearful and, through that fear, we adopt a rigid stance to our experience.  “I am” becomes the separator, the device to keep us from truly connecting with the world, relating to it in skillful ways.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The fact is, I’m not anything in particular.  Nor are you. Nor is anyone.

meeting the demons

Right Mindfulness is the last node of the Eightfold Path in our mandala of practice. I was reading a dharma sister’s publication in the new journal called Mindfulness where she wrote about her mindfulness practice and how it helped to deal with her husband’s illness and death.  I’ve never met (physically) Karen Hilsberg or, when he was alive, her husband, but connected with them deeply through correspondences for a short year before he died.  After his death, Karen and I continued our correspondence both as ordained members in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing and as mental health professionals.  Karen writes of the various practices that sustained her through the ordeal of managing the strain and eventual loss of her beloved partner as well as holding their children close through it all.  I hope you can access the article; it seems available to the public.  It is a rare piece of hard-hitting writing that manifests a deep mindfulness practice as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches without any of the white-washing or naiveté I often read in articles about personal journeys in mindfulness.

As I write this, I have Karen’s husband’s article in front of me; he had sent it along when he and I were discussing the challenges of bringing mindfulness practices into psychology.  He wrote:

One thing I dream of is a time when in the context of work, these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention prior to conducting the meeting.  This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

I have kept his article on the shelf over my desk under a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva since I first received it.  It reminds me over and over again that many of us share this dream of moving past our autopilot and into a space that is beyond labels.  Although his dream addresses our view of the patient who is the focus of the treatment planning meeting, it applies equally – if not more – to each of us around the table who get caught in the auto-pilot of our professional identities.

In the personal realm, there are all these autopilot identities too.  The identity of well-being, recognition, and many others become entrenched as rights to which we feel entitled.  As I read through Karen’s article and looked into my own life, I could see the ways in which mindfulness practice tore away the need to have a limited experience of life.  Karen writes of diving deep into practice – the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of impermanence, relational self, and letting go – and it provided her the freedom to be with what was unfolding.  A dharma teacher who lead a day of mindfulness at our sangha described equanimity as freedom; when we can be with someone just the way they are in this moment, non-preferentially, non-judgementally, we give them the freedom to be.  Just be.  And in that freedom a hundred thousand miracles occur.

The precepts, engagement, and vision of our lives make up the practice of Mindfulness, a way of meeting the demons that visit regularly.  It folds into itself being both a node in the mandala of the Eightfold Path and the over-arching robe of liberation that we put on each moment.

I bow deeply to my dharma sister, Karen, and thank her for her wisdom and generosity in bringing her practice to all of us.  May the merit of her journey and her husband’s constant presence in our lives bring freedom from suffering to all beings.

Thank you for practising,


chaplaincy – part deux

The tempo is ramping up.  On Saturday I leave for Upaya again.  Chaplaincy, Part Deux: ordinations and milestone check-ins.  First, I get to bear witness to the ordination of the next flight of Chaplains and another dharma friend’s aspiration manifesting. Heart-filling stuff and I’m packing extra tissues!  Then, there will be the various milestone check-ins. How this all serves to illustrate Right Concentration may not be immediately (or ever) apparent.

I’ve been poring over my Chaplaincy handbook which is meticulously organized with dividers keeping general information, forms, and records in their little intellectual ghettos.  Do you ever wonder how we can be so particular about separating some things from others but not really care if others mash together?  Intellectual property, for me, demands an intricate system of organization but vegetables do not.  A glop of turnips, carrots, sweet and red potatoes served with gallons of vegetarian gravy can transport me to the fourth jhana.  Put a piece of paper in the wrong end of my folder and it’s blaspheming the Dewey Decimal System.

I have attended with diligence (effort) to Chaplaincy which looms, however, as a mash of readings, writings, project development, and hands-on work.  My attention is fragmented and my concentration is firm.  This distinction is often lost when we talk about the wandering mind.  I describe it as allowing the background programs to do their work without interfering with them while I get the foreground work done without (too much) intrusion.  On the cushion, it takes the form of establishing steadiness of presence.  Off the cushion, it is a dance with the Five Hindrances – restlessness when things aren’t congealing in my brain, sloth & torpor (my favourite twins!) when I think I’ve got it wired but really am just avoiding the deeper work,  and desire for more and more (books).

These entanglements wove through 7 reflection papers, 4 field trips, 4 book reports and an Individual Learning Plan.  I had a hard time with doing a book report  – on one book.  Who reads just one book?  How do you comment on its impact and relevance if you take a book off the shelf and treat it like a unique organism with no history or family?  So I developed an approach of  “Consolidated Books Reported Upon.”  It required a lot more work but it was more fun to do; and, it was a practice of allowing attention to roam while concentration stood its ground.

The Individual Learning Plan was an example of fixed attention and concentration rampant.  Did we get a little hyper-focused on consuming all things Buddhist?  On the other hand, it was well-intended.  Goal 4 was to “develop a regular writing program” and included daily 108ZB blog entries that explored Buddhist teachings, developing the Ox-Herding pictures as a framework for therapy, and completing the Mindfulness Clinic Guidebook.  I think I’ve managed the blog piece and the Ox-Herding-as-treatment-framework has been lots of fun.  It’s on stand-by as a potential project along with the Clinic Guidebook.  Or maybe I can integrate the two and then I can…  Oops…  Breathing in…

Goal 2 was an aspiration to work with a dukkha magnet organization, offering in-house training both as part of an internship and in assessing the impact of increased mindfulness in preventing burn out.  After a year of negotiations, it was clear that we had mis-matched concepts of well-being.  This was less a loss of relationship than a letting go of my assumptions of being mutually invested: I tend to think everyone has the same view and thinking when it comes to wanting what’s best for each other.  Lesson learned, and learned well.  The nice thing is that the Burn Out Resiliency course is taxiing onto the runway for a May take-off in the clinic and there is a never-ending line-up of organizations where the impact of dukkha exposure can be met and assessed.  I kept a teacher’s log here on the course we delivered at the hospital where I’m doing my internship.  This clinic blogging evolved into an awesome exchange with the folks down at UCSD who had put up a similar teacher’s log of their course.  Actually, Steven Hickman had inspired the idea in the first place so all credit goes to him.  In conversations with each other, we explored our growth edge and a potential of mutually nourishing each other in our practice.  When you meet the Buddha on the road to Upaya, know it.

Thank you for practising,