bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.


Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump




The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.





Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.



CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.


stone unicorn

This is a cat only a mother could love… and her “mother” is half a world away.  But I have to admit, even I was charmed by the little poser sitting on my dining table cuddling with the stone unicorn.  All sweet and adorable until she needs to wreak havoc on the other unsuspecting felines in the house.

This raises the question for me about competency.  I had a rather intense discussion with someone recently about the issue around work-related competencies and people-competencies.  We really weren’t getting anywhere because in his view, being competent with people was irrelevant to being competent at what you do for a living.  I am assured in his total wrong-headedness simply by virtue of the fact we were two over-educated head-docs having an argument with him being accusatory and me being smug as only an ego-inflated meditator could be.  Quod erat demonstratum.

Take the cat (please).  Very competent at being a cat as evidenced by her ability to pounce, scratch, use the litter box, and hunt insects (mice scare her).  However, she’s lousy at being a communal cat able to deal with the stressors of living well with others, as evidenced by throwing up when upset, beating up on the bigger cats, and in all other ways demonstrating poor emotional intelligence and the judgement of an inebriated mouse.

So now, I’m wondering: what is that edge between being good at what I do and being good at who I am?

What are the skillful means of the stone unicorn?

Thank you for practicing,


compassionate mind

Your comments to the post all in the waiting touched on this marvellous phenomenon of self and other.  Barry’s inquiry into the relationship we have with our pets asked if our feelings for them are selfish.  He recounted an exchange between a teacher and practitioner who was crying for the loss of his pet.  The teacher said, “You’re not crying for your cat, you’re crying for yourself.” My reaction to the statement might initially have been to question my motives in owning my cats/dogs/elephants and to wonder if somehow I’d missed the Dharma Train of Enlightenment.  Interestingly, my thought actually was to ask the teacher, “Then who is the cat?”

Interbeing is not a concept I can work with easily – and that may have to do with its overuse both in my root community and in the Buddhistic media.  So I am surprised that I felt Barry’s story as a moment of Interbeing; the cat and I are interconnected (I really resist “Inter-are”!).  Because I experience my relationship with my pets – horses, dogs, cats – as Authentic Presence, I often feel the dissolving of boundaries.  I think that’s the nature of any relationship that is authentic in its expression of compassion and kindness.  When I have been open to such a way of being with another, I am totally vulnerable and have the strength to be with them in their joy, their pain, their suffering.  This is what I understand to be the interplay of compassion and empathy – the willingness to be with the other and, because of that, to understand and feel as they do.

When I had to end the life of my horse, I knew it was a decision that ended his suffering (compassion) but I was unprepared for the shock that ran through my body as he died (empathy).  Suddenly, our decade of connecting was stilled and I believe I died too in that moment.  In no lesser ways, I felt my own death with each of the dogs and cats we had to euthanize.  Oliva, our matriarch cat, is now 20 years old.  I keep my mind steadfastly in the present – she is curled up beside me now as I write this, her breath rasping and her fur drifting up and onto my keyboard with each out breath!  Whether she dies in her own time-appointed fashion or not, soon enough, I will die again it seems.

Do I cry for the cat/dog/horse or for myself?  Neither.  The tears, the grief are for the third thing; they are the third thing – what has developed and manifested because we have lived with honest compassion and kindness for each other.  And we do not truly live without compassion and kindness.

From Compassionate Mind by psychologist Paul Gilbert:

…(F)rom the day we are born, our brains are biologically designed to respond to the care and kindness of others….  When we are distressed, kindness helps; if we’re facing tragedies such as the loss of loved ones, the kindness of others helps; if we’re having to face out own death, then feeling loved and wanted is important to our ability to face it.  We now know that close friendships and affectionate relationships play a huge role in our mental health and well-being and influence how our bodies work.  For example, people in affectionate relationships show lower levels of stress hormones and higher ones of “happy” hormones than those in relationships characterized by conflict.  Research also has shown that the way we relate or ourselves – whether we regard ourselves kindly or critically, in a friendly and affectionate way or hostilely – can have a major influence on our ability to get through life’s difficulties and create within ourselves a sense of well-being.

I am not surprised then that a loving relationship can evoke from me powerful emotions when it has shifted out of my human and limited perception.  Our thinking brain can rail on about non-attachment and self-centeredness but the body thankfully is deaf to reason.

There is a story told (and very loosely recounted here) of Master Lin Chi who cried at his teacher’s death (or perhaps it was at his favourite student’s death).  His students were shocked by this emotional display from a Zen Master who taught non-attachment so aggressively.  They confronted him about his tears and Lin Chi replied: I am not attached but my poor eyes don’t know better!

Thank you for practicing,


not two

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.

Obey the nature of things,
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage
the truth is hidden,
for everything is murky and unclear,
and the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness.

To come directly into harmony
with this reality just simply say
when doubt arises, “not two.”

In this “not two” nothing is separate,
nothing is excluded.

Faith Mind Poem

from Zen Mountain Monastery Liturgy Manual

last things

Last Things (from

the subjects of eschatology: the final destiny of the individual and humankind as a whole.

Story adapted from Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought:

In a field behind a little farmhouse, there was a squash patch.  One day the squash began to fight among themselves and the arguing grew so vicious that they split into two factions.  The Squash On the Trough yelled and called the Squash in the Box names.  The whole thing got so out of hand that the farmhouse priestess came out and spoke sharply to them (in a compassionate sharp voice, of course).

“Settle down, all of you!  Do you want time out in the back room?”  Knowing there was a sesshin coming up and having heard stories of what she did to squash in her back room, they settled quickly.  She took advantage of their obedience and decided to teach them how to sit zazen.  After a little while when they became calm and solid, she said, “All right!  All of you, reach up and touch the top of your head.”

When the squash touched the top of their head they found something attached there that stretched out into the garden.  As they explored it, they discovered it was the vine that connected them all together!

How silly, they said to each other.

We’re all tied together and living just one life.

Something for the curriculum in cultivating little Bodhisattvas…

Thank you for practicing,


sic transit gloria, she wrote back

More Ryokan.

The moon appears in every season, it is true,
But surely it’s best in fall.
In autumn, the mountains loom and water runs clear.
A brilliant disk floats across the infinite sky,
And there is no sense of light and darkness,
For everything is permeated with its presence.
The boundless sky above, the autumn chill on my face.
I take my precious staff and wander about the hills.
Not a speck of the world’s dust anywhere,
Just the brilliant beams of moonlight.
I hope others, too, are gazing on this moon tonight,
And that it’s illuminating all kinds of people.

zmm main hall

zmm main hall

After reading of Roshi Daido Loori’s retirement, I sent a note to my teacher.  “Don’t get any ideas!” I typed.

“Sic transit gloria,” she wrote back.

Separation anxiety.

Zen Mountain Monastery was my first encounter with hard-nosed Zen.  I fell in love with the rituals – and Daido Loori is all about finding the sacred in the rituals.  When I heard him define liturgy as the language of a community, I knew I had found a precious jewel in his teachings.  My friends call it obsessive-compulsive features of my nature.  So be it.




Everyday rituals connect me to others.  The cup of tea, the favourite songs, the email signoff, the restaurant where we celebrate birthdays, the sweater I always wear when I’m in writing mode – all intricate containers of our commitment to each other.

How is there practice without commitment?

How does that commitment manifest without an embodiment of what is felt internally?

This is the gift of our teachers:  to always be present to us with through the ritual of practice .


<images from Zen Mountain Monastery>

Thank you for practicing,


Engaged Buddhism: Prajna Monastery and taking a stand


The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings (Interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh) are a guide to living in a world that requires us to step out of our comfort zone.  Formulated in the cauldron of the Vietnam war, they are the precepts that seal the relationship between Thich Nhat Hanh and his students.  Among the 14 aspirations are commitments to not be bound to views even Buddhist ones (#1 & 2), to encourage freedom of thought (#3), to manage anger (#6), and to speak truthfully especially against injustice (#9).

batnhamonasticsThe events have unfolded at Prajna Monastery in Bat Nha Vietnam since mid-July 2008 culminating with the violence on September 27 2009.  They have raised concerns globally about what is truth and delusion, what is right action in the face of potentially increasing risk to those who are helpless, what is the balance between being comfortable with uncertainty and embodying the bodhisattva of Great Action.  Our precepts are our only guide and they too must be embodied in a way that is within the context of a world that often seems honesty-blind and compassion-deaf.

There are sufficient independent reports from AP and BBC about the unfolding events.  You can access these here.  In the end, at this very moment, it doesn’t matter what the story is.  It only matters that there are human lives at risk and we must speak to that – and that alone.

Here are ways to learn and to help:

400 Monastics Being Forcefully Evicted Today

This is my summary and includes a list of actions with phone numbers and addresses to contact.


This video is of excerpted clips of Bat Nha Monastery showing daily activities of the young monks and nuns. Clips of the attack on the monastics. Non-violence practice of the monks during the attacks.

AP: Buddhists: Police, mob force monks from monastery
September 27, 2009

Live Audio from Bat Nha
September 27, 2009

from Toronto ON Canada

The Mindfulness Practice Community of Toronto has created a petition site
re: Petition against violence in Bat Nha Monastery Vietnam, to be sent to
the Canadian Embassy in Vietnam, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the
Vietnam Embassy in Canada. The petition letter uses the sample letter we
received from Sr Bi Nghiem. People from all countries can sign the petition.

with gratitude for materials provided by members of the Order of Interbeing