open view

It’s a good harvest this year and a good practice of living with the unknowable.  We’ve never had much luck with squashes.  The growing season is short and that means there’s only a sliver of a window in which to get the squash seeds in.  A cold and prolonged Spring or an intense hot Summer can wipe out any dreams of crook-neck stir-fried with greens served al fresco or a warming curried Buttercup squash soup on a chilly Fall day.  But the predictive equation of life is riddled with hidden variables so despite a head start in the Spring with the Buttercup (middle green one) planted in carefully protected boxes, we got two.  Planting even later, I threw down two types of seeds outside the wire, the area that was to be tilled for strawberries, and promptly forgot what they were.  Nothing germinated and I forgot also that I had planted anything.  They were spaghetti and crook-neck in the foreground of the picture.

This is what I love most about the teachings of gardens.  They give only what they can.  Maybe we can call Nature cruel, indifferent or insensitive but I doubt the rain, soil and artificial walls consider their role as having such valence.  I think it is more an issue of the depth of my own vision.  Each planting is invested in a future projected from my own eyes.  And I cannot see that I am blind.  We could call it ignorance but it isn’t a willful disregard of reality.  It is closer to a blurring of the uncomfortable truth that I have no more control over what will come of my investment in the seed than the seed has of itself.

Sometimes, like true teachers, gardens give what we’ve asked for though it may not be in our time line.  We had spread the compost from last year across the space for strawberries and from the depths, a squash seed sprouted.  I joked with Frank that the volunteer squash were mules because none of the flowers set to fruit (not surprising because store-bought vegetables usually don’t re-produce).  He informed me on the weekend that if the orange bulb growing is any indication, it’s likely a pumpkin, something we’ve coveted for years as a jewel in a Fall garden.

So I practice refining my vision, adjusting the focal length to capture at what is truly at hand.  There in the stack of golden harvest is a lovely interplay of a hidden relationship.  Can you see it?

Thank you for practising,


closed door

Sometimes our animal nature takes over and we disregard what’s good for us.  This is TomCat.  He wandered onto the property two summers ago looking somewhat worse for wear.  I named him.  He stayed.  Indoors, TomCat tends to be a pushover. All the cats except his buddy, Slick, swat him away from the food and allow him the barest edge of a cushion or chair.  Outdoors, we suspect he’s unwilling to let the lack of testicles dictate his social skills.  On the way to the vet this weekend, Frank noted that we have spent more time in the ER of the local animal hospital with TomCat than we ever did at the Children’s Hospital.

From the location around his neck of the large contusions, abscesses and all that goes with using one’s claws and not one’s words, it seems TomCat tangled with something rather fierce and with big teeth.  The evidence points to a willing engagement or the bites would have been on his rear, explained the very chatty vet.  Her verdict: house arrest for two or three days until the wounds stop oozing and he’s feeling less punk.

Tell TomCat that.

He’s perfected his caterwauling skills for the two days he’s been incarcerated and no amount of logic is swaying him from his unshakable claim that he has been wrongly sentenced. Keeping him in, however, is more than just logic about healing.  There is something large out there and because his buddy, Slick, hasn’t been home for three days, I’d prefer to worry only half as much.

We often don’t know that a closed door is better for us than access to everything our nature desires.  Even when we’ve been hurt and mangled, we cling to the idea that there is no connection between where we were and what happened.  A closed door challenges our beliefs that we are entitled to everything on the other side of it.  It also triggers our fears that we will miss out, not have, be deprived of what is rightfully ours.

Old habits die hard, I suppose.  On other occasions, TomCat howled and the door opened.  Having been there in various forms, I understand completely.  Been there, invested in the relationship, climbed the ladder.  Sat in front of that closed door.  Sometimes for years.  Sometimes even waiting for a window to open when that door closed.  It didn’t occur to me until recently that the closed door is practice.  It brings me face-to-face with my greed, my sense of entitlement, my assumptions that wanting is all that is required for having.

Consider the generosity of a closed door.  It gives the space to heal, to come into one’s own.  And given I’m not big on leaping out of windows as an alternative to closed doors, it is also a chance to explore what is already here.

I’m beginning to think it’s time to find a quiet place to curl up and live life as it is.

Thank you for practising,



in the air

A travel day today.  The next two weeks are going to be hectic with retreats, mini-vacation, and the Chaplaincy.  I’ve lined up the 108buddhas and some pictures of the gardens.  If there is time, I’ll share reflections as I can or even upload some pictures from Upaya.

In the meantime, as I sit through airports and cramped planes, trying to manage the anxieties of leaving home, being receptively attentive, and letting go of old stories, I will be reminding myself that buds open to blossom with the purpose of dying to fruit.

Thank you for practicing,


get a grip

I thought this was an interesting picture.  The squash vine has wildly taken over its box and overflowed into the pathways.  It’s actually quite lovely.  The curly tendrils allow it to climb and secure itself to various surfaces so that it isn’t dislodged by driving rain and wind.  But here, the springy wire has attached itself around a bud that will grow into a squash.

It draws up memories of times I’ve tried to steady myself by latching onto some aspect of what I thought was solid about Me.  But it isn’t possible to grow and be locked down at the same time.  Nor is it possible to hold onto myself and hope to have a strong foothold.  So inevitably, I have found myself without the anchor I counted on.

Thank you for practicing,


is there an app for this?

I’m crunched for time.  In two days we leave for Upaya and the Zen Brain retreat.  It promises to be another intense set of rounds with neuropsychology’s heavy hitters: Al Kazniak, James Austin, Amishi Jha.  Retreat participants received a set of articles via email by many of the  presenters and I’ve muddled through them.  It’s not that the topic is overly difficult; probably the most valuable skill my education gave me was the ability to scan a research paper, get the gist of it, and ear-mark it for future reference if it was applicable.

Now, that’s the sticky point: applicability.  The further I get into practice, the more my romance with research on meditation has faded.  It’s not that I have lost respect for the researchers and philosophers who try ever so hard to connect the practice of mindfulness/meditation to something substantive that may lead to good health via new interventions.  But there you have it: the convolution and expanse in that sentence alone makes me take a deep breath and ask: how is this helping me understand and live Dharma?

Of course, some of these folks – Evan Thompson, John Dunne, Al Kazniak – could expound on the telephone book backwards and I would defend that as Dharma.  But I’m partial to brilliant minds with charming smiles.  Hence my very successful 30-year marriage to He-Who-Tolerates-All-Things-Genju.

After Zen Brain and a three-day excursion around Santa Fe, I dive into the second retreat of the Chaplaincy with Fleet Maull and Jimmy Santiago Baca teaching us to live “Dharma at the Edge.”  Last week, I met with a hospital Chaplain and we discussed the intensity of being with those who are dying.  For two hours we dug into what it means for a family member to not look away from the suffering of a loved one, to make life-and-death decisions on their behalf, and what being a supportive advocate means in that context.  I was infected with her enthusiasm and her commitment to living her livelihood.  I’m glad I met her before I set out on this second phase because I am having a hard time folding aspects of this process into my practice.  Again the question arises: how is this helping me understand and live Dharma?

Yesterday, the answers was to download my garden as an app.  Over the next 10 days, who knows?

Thank you for practicing,



Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.

Jose Ortega y Gasset,
quoted in Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson

We had an interesting discussion in sangha about opportunity and destiny.  I had read a passage from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s autobiography A Place to Stand.  Baca is a writer and poet who was incarcerated for 15 years for drug-related crimes.  He was illiterate up to the age of 21 years; as a child his family was the target of his father’s drunken rages and Baca became phobic about going to school.  The turmoil in the family was so intense that he became lost in the battles (given his experience of bigotry advancing in what was available as education may not have been possible anyway, I imagine).  He slowly wove a life of drug use and crime.  Just prior to reading Baca’s book, I had skimmed through Fleet Maull’s Dharma in Hell (OK – full disclosure: I’m cramming for the Core Chaplaincy retreat next week at Upaya).  Maull went through his own hell serving time which, in his case, deepened his Buddhist practice (before prison, he was Buddhist while running drugs etc. – go figure).  Both men have formed organizations and developed programs for prisoners; Baca founded literacy and writing programs while Maull founded the Prison Dharma Network.  Canadian inmate Roger Caron, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well.  Infamous as an armed robber who repeatedly attempted escapes, he wrote Go-Boy! and two other books.  Unfortunately, despite the success of his book and rubbing elbows with the well-heeled in Canadian social circles, he dropped into several abysses that eventually lead to a desperate armed robbery in 1992 while high on cocaine and stricken with Parkinson’s disease.  His life closes in a hell of dementia and advanced Parkinson’s.

In sangha, we shared about the way in which our landscape shapes our vision, our choices, our destiny.  We wondered if it would have been different for Maull had he been assigned to the laundry section and not the medical facility where he became attuned to the need for hospice care.  Would Baca have become the prize-winning author if he couldn’t envision the opportunities opened to him within the container of his fate?  Of course, we wondered about the rolling hills and abysses of our own landscape.  Did we see what was available or carve it out of a parched ground?

Interestingly, the quote by Gasset above took on greater significance in the context of Baca and Maull’s books.  I don’t know anything about Gasset (yet) other than what I found via the Oracle (Google).  A philosopher, he asserted that who I am is inseparable from the circumstances I am in (don’t quote me on this!).  It harkens back to the embodied mind of Varela and the process of self as emergent.  But, I’m in over my head here.  The take-away lessons from Baca and Maull are about letting go (without erasing) and entering a dialogue with the container of our lives – be it a wide panaroma or a small container in an urbanscape.

In the context of gardening my life, it makes me look more deeply into the factors that shape my body, speech and mind – not only in the wide swath of fields, hills, and valleys but also in this tiny cut of soil I’m rooted.

Thank you for practicing,


500/5000 vision

About two years ago, Frank had eye surgery that restored his vision to 20/40 – meaning he no longer needed corrective lenses. Having lived from childhood with 20/750 vision, he’s learned many adaptive (and not so adaptive) ways to cope with Coke-bottom eye wear and eventually with contacts which corrected his vision to legal limits.  The surgery took restorative treatment further with two new lens implants; I think one is even a bifocal lens!  The ability to relish a blue sky and that finally being able to really see me didn’t send him screaming into the hills is not the punch line to this story of our relationship.  The gift of new visual range brought into harsh relief the ways we had sculpted our growth around each other to manage the limitation.

I’ve never quite understood the whole vision terminology in the first place but learned enough to know that 20/40 means you don’t think the moose crossing the driveway is a big dog.  So, the fact that after the surgery he still couldn’t find the jam jar on the fridge shelf 10 inches away did not compute.   My logic is impeccable: if you can see something at 20 feet away as clearly as I can when I’m 40 feet away, and if we’re both 10 inches away from the damn jam jar why the heck can’t you see it too!  Try as he could, he could neither explain nor help me understand this predicament.  I, on the other hand, have many explanations that involve unpruned neural pathways, avoidance, gender differences in object pattern recognition, and subtle aversion to my homemade jam.  But none of this actually resolved the problem so he has learned to pick up and read the label of each jar on the shelf and I’ve learned to leave the room to write my blog until he bellows, “Found it!”

All poking at hubby aside, growth, spiritually and otherwise, is about vision.  First, it is in the transition between seeing with old and new eyes (the term refers to one of Joanna Macy’s stages of “work that reconnects”).  Seeing with old eyes is watching an old movie or reruns of a TV show; the brain uses an auto-fill similar to the way your computer fills in a word when you type the first few letters.  Nothing changes because nothing changed. Using new eyes brings things into relief from a familiar ground, highlighting the edges and contours that would have been missed when transmitted through the lens of the old eyes.  Of course, you know we’re not talking about the eyeball anymore.  It’s now about the way in which our assumptions, stories, and desires draw us into the lines, contours, shading, and tone of our experiences.  It’s also about the repetitive nature of how we attend to our environment; what I see today will differ from what I see tomorrow (or the next moment) – all at the mercy of being internally 20/20 or 20/800.

Wendy Johnson, in Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, describes one of her teachers, Harry Roberts, who asked the gardening students to look over the vegetable garden and into the coastal meadow that rose behind it.  Over a year, they described each week what they saw – developing trust in their vision.  About a year after they began this practice Johnson describes noticing the appearance of a sliver of green under dried brown grass.  It took that repeated effort with unattached vision, entrusting that clarity would emerge with time and seasons, to see that one spot in a field which could protect and support new growth.

Second, growth requires a powerful range of vision. It isn’t enough to simply focus on the blossoming and shoots of this season.

“Remember in your thinking,” Harry once said to me (Johnson), “That this is a Buddhist community.  And we are trying to live like one.  Buddhism is forever.  It’s not a crash program for the next five weeks.  We are looking at things from the perspective of five hundred years.  Buddhism is not a religion.  It is a way of life.  If we make it five hundred years we will make it for five thousand.  We are building for the future.”

We need to cultivate the power of this range of sight.  Playing with this concept, I imagined that the Buddha and other enlightened teachers saw our potential from 2600 years ago and we perhaps only began to appreciate that potential about 200 years ago (conservatively estimated); that gives us a vision range of 200/2600.  Not quite spiritually blind but still likely to need correction.  Now the question remains: what will be necessary in our practice as individuals and a community to adjust that vision so that it is 500/1000 or 2500/5000?

Thank you for practicing,