first line of defense

Try telling an orally fixated kitten that you too like to lick your bowl clean.  It’s a Zen thing, I explained.  Clean your bowl!  As you can see, he’s not impressed.  I’m fascinated by Sprout’s practice of defending himself.  My lacerations will heal soon and the sting does little to deter me from testing out what actually triggers his grab-and-slash reflexes.  So far I’ve sorted out that it has little to do with territory (but he has yet to meet the other two cats) or food (ample and free-range).  It does have much to do with that vulnerable underbelly.

Form.  The first of the Five Skandhas and the one that stands as the exemplar of the boundlessness, the unknowability of the other four.  Red Pine in his commentary (1) says that it represents our obsession with the material.  It is “our first line of defense in contesting attacks on the validity of our existence…” and we need to believe it exists.  We try to define ourselves in terms of the structure, shape, and extension into space and time of our body.  Oh and, how we fail.

Red Pine goes on to say we disregard the other four skandhas at our own peril.  We risk entrenching form as the only path to understanding emptiness and forget the intricate role all five play with each other.  One of the things that always fascinated me about this section of the Heart Sutra is the dropping out of “sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness” from the recitation.  It worries me that we don’t chant them with the same thundering detail as we do with form.  It elevates form as something to truly be wary of and without attention, our stance to the other four becomes one of benign neglect.  And, truth be told, becoming caught in believing the solidity of sensations, perceptions, memory, and consciousness is more cause for worry than form by itself.

Let me put it this way: when the body fails us, we may have a sense of assault on our image, identity, potential, and so on.  However the power of the delusion that we are identified by our form lies not in the body but in what we sense in it (pain!), perceive of it (Oh this is never going to end!), memories we have of it (the last time I was laid up forever!), and consciousness of the experience with it (why me!?).

So repeat regularly:

Feelings are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as feelings
Perceptions are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as perceptions
Mental formations are the same  as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as mental formations
Discernment is the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as discernment. (2)


(1) Heart Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine
(2) Skandha terms from Heart Sutra version translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Joan Halifax Roshi © 2003 

bring me the rhino virus

Yen Kuan called to his attendant, “Bring me my rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”

Yen Kuan said, “If the fan is broken, bring the rhinoceros back to me.”

The attendant had no reply.

I brought you back the rhinoceros from Rohatsu.  Interesting creature, isn’t he?  As you know, I’m a koan study drop-out however, lately, these little blithers keep creeping into my field of practice.  This one became quite the insistent bug during Rohatsu, likely riding in on the back of the other bug – the flu.

But first, let’s look at Yen Kuan and his fan.   In the various renditions of this koan, he sounds to varying degrees, insistent, petulant, dismissing.  Perhaps my experience was coloured by the air burbling up into my snot-filled nostrils because to me, he seemed to be testing his poor attendant as much as all the various practices of trying to sit Rohatsu with a cold and fever were testing mine.  Yen Kuan seems to be asking his attendant: Well?  What have you created that is refined and special out of all this practice with me?  Show me!  Bring it here!

I felt like that in dokusan.  What is your practice, Genju?   How is your practice going, Genju?  Questions like that get me focused on the cushion-life of practice.  That’s the jewel for most of us, I think.  The hours spent following the breath, letting thoughts come and go.  Butt to zafu is surely proof of our dedication to this path!  It certainly can be and it is so much more heightened in times like a sesshin when we are called upon to exert all that physical presence for hours and hours.  And I have.  Until this one where the chills, low-grade fever, sprained knee and other aches and pains brought me face-to-face to a very quiet phobia I’ve nursed all my life.

The attendant says the fan is broken.  What is he saying?  I’ve tried to shape a practice, master, but it hasn’t worked?  That thing you think is special just isn’t.  It doesn’t always work; it isn’t always of service to me or to the numberless creations I am trying to free.  I’m lost.  I don’t get it.  But Yen Kuan is merciless.  None of this backing out and running away, whining and whingeing about your problems!  Get back to the raw materials.  Bring me back the rhinoceros.   We’ll start over with the raw materials of your life.

The days were exhausting, not only because my system was struggling with several challenges but there was no way to replenish.  I watched hot oatmeal served into the Buddha bowl during oryoki congeal into a cool mass as we waited for the entire hall to be served and then bowed and chanted before eating.  It was vaguely manageable until I watched the hot polenta with cheese harden to a sticky mess that only reluctantly gave way to the edge of my spoon.  Then the fan broke.

I have no fear of dying.  In fact, my life has been so rich being filled with the gifts of so many beloved ones that should I drop right now on the next keystroke, I would be just fine with it.  Being ill, however, is altogether another issue.  Ill, alone, isolated from all that sustains me.  That’s a brokenness, the fear of which, I have never been able to bear in thought or action.  For years, I watched my grandmother – and now my mother – deteriorate in their health, dying neuron by neuron.  My father, over eight years, succumbed to one cancerous virus after another.  Ironically, in Burma all three lived in terror of contracting and dying from even a simple cold.  I was imbued with a psycho-genetic anxiety of getting sick and I thought I had overcome it with all my practice on the impermanence of life.  Yet, there I was, feeling broken and facing the choice of giving up or giving in.

In dokusan, Roshi Joan said, rest deeply.  Roshi Enkyo encouraged me to dive into the cold because I was the only one who could truly experience it completely.  To me, they were asking: what have you crafted from this life of practice that sustains you?  I struggled with the confusion of knowing this was not fatal, that nothing was permanent and wanting this fatiguing series of hacking coughs and snotty-sounding blowing of my nose to go away.  What was I missing in my practice that this situation had become so complicated in my mind?  I watched myself rise at 5 o’clock every morning.  Wash.  Dress.  Walk to the genkan and prepare to sound the han.  Despite the foggy thinking and the open door facing a brutal North wind, I managed to keep steady the pace and rhythm of the striker on the wood slab for the 15 minutes of gathering everyone into the zendo.  No two rounds were the same and the weak strikes, I realized, were like the brush strokes of the enso, irretrievably broken.

And suddenly, I realized my health insofar as I ever believed I had health, has always been broken.  Chicken pox, measles, colds, flu, fevers, sprains, and a myriad of arrows have struck this body.  Fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue have all cracked and fissured this panel I thought I was keeping whole and unblemished.  I didn’t have to worry that the fan might break; it already was broken.  Perhaps Yen Kuan’s attendant had this realization too.  It is the nature of fans to break.  (I think that rascal Yen Kuan knew this all along and was messing with our minds!)  

Yet, despite its brokenness, we have found some usefulness in it.  Or we might have begun again and again with the raw materials of our life to craft another and another.  And those too have broken because that is the nature of all things.  So I said to my fear-filled attendant, Bring me the rhino virus!  We will work with it, craft another practice of fearlessness from it!

But there’s more than just an individual process pointed to in this koan.  Yen Kuan says, Then bring me back the rhinoceros.  He didn’t say, Well, go out and get another beast and start over!  Asking his attendant to bring him back the rhinoceros might suggest they will work on it together.  Koans, after all, are relational; they point to what transpires in the space between you and me, all the roshis and their students, Yen Kuan and his attendant.  Between me and all the 10, 000-armed bodhisattvas who held and carried me through the week.

You can fit a nice-sized rhino in that space.

Later this week:  Another take on the rhino

nameless curbs

A little souvenir from Toronto.

It was a full weekend moving The Kid to her new digs in Toronto where she will take on the world.  We made an abortive attempt to wander our old haunts that once were hippie hangouts (yes, even in staid TO) but are now toney boutiques.  I claim the heat got the better of me but I’ve taken a considerable ribbing about the cause being the many bags I was lugging around the streets of Yorkville.  Totally untrue but do check out the stunning red purse at Kimina.

We actually spent much of the time in Ikea dodging the millions of back-to-schoolers looking for bargain furniture for their own digs.  It was a little strange to be assembling tables and chairs late into the night when it wasn’t Christmas Eve and the former-child was doing her share of cussing at the Allen Wrenches and bemoaning the absence of a Phillips screwdriver.  About the time we seemed ready to launch into the etiquette of tool naming – wrench, spanner, wrench – the collection of circles, squares, and triangles manifested into rather pretty and useful objects.

On the way to our car, a frantic man in a car pulled up beside us and mumbled, “Vanier…Vanier…”  I was about to say, “You’re about two neighbourhoods and 500 kms in the wrong place.”  He managed to clarify: “Frosh week.  Vanier Building?”  As I apologized and said I was new here too – and intended to remain so – a voice shrilled from the passenger seat.  She looked about 12 years old and was slamming her hand on her iPhone: “Dad!  Forget it!  Ok?  Just forget it!”  

Life can be very intense at some ages.

For me, it was nice to learn through a fun exchange with Roshi Joan that I can put some of those bags of intensity down at “nameless curbs.”  And walk away.

rohatsu highlights 1: fire

This year, the ramp up to Santa Season feels very different.  Last year, at this time we were on our way to the beach in North Carolina and had just battled our way through a double storm system that shut down Pennsylvania and Virginia; I seem to recall much whinging from one squirrel blogger about being snowed in with yeti.  I’m grateful for the quiet this year.  Things have proceeded apace with little drama and a delightful amount of dharma.  That is, if you don’t count a momentary fire in the kitchen when the gluten-free bread baking in breadmaker decided to ignite.  I was on a conference call so missed all the drama but idea of my kitchen in flames did connect with what I shared with my group about my intentions with respect to entering the Chaplaincy program.

In the first talk of Rohatsu (which is online on the Upaya website), Roshi Joan described the experiences of Guishan Lingyou when he was the head cook at Baizhang’s monastery.  When Guishan was attending the abbott, Baizhang, he was asked to poke around in the fireplace to see if there was anything there.  Guishan said, “It’s dead.”  Baizhang went over and dug into the ashes and drew out an ember.  “Isn’t this fire?” he asked.  Guishan awoke.  (See also Enlightenment Unfolds by Kaz Tanahashi for a terrific exploration of this story.)

For many of us, practice is a fragile spark, easily put out by the tugs and pulls of our life and our desires of that life.  And I don’t mean just spiritual practice, though I don’t believe there is a difference between spiritual and “other” practice.  Without the right fuel, we die.  Unfortunately, we think fuel means that perfect relationship, job, friend, what-have-you.  I know I came to a point in my path where all that had failed me, and failed me continuously enough that I couldn’t remain deluded (though I still try my best to remain so).  I also could only see the ashes and, like Guishan, made an assumption.  “It’s dead.”  That friendship, that marriage, that career, that opportunity gone.  All dead.

Still deluded, what I wanted more than anything was for someone, something to ignite my life.  Bring on that passion, open up my heart, see right into the depths of Me and make it all right anyway.  These events were the Baizhangs of my life showing me how to dig deeper.  But they only hold up the ember.  The ember is not a flame.  It is the potential of everything.  It is this ember that I carried into the Chaplaincy program.  It is this ember that will catch when time, causes and conditions embrace.  Baizhang said, “When the time comes, delusion immediately turns into enlightenment and forgetting turns into remembering.  If we contemplate buddha-nature, we realize that buddha-nature is ours.  It doesn’t come from somewhere else.”

I am reminded of the chant before a dharma talk:

The dharma is vast and subtle.
We now have a chance to hear it, study it, and practice it.
We vow to realize its true meaning.

This is the ember.  This is my intention as a chaplaincy candidate.  The theme of sesshin was “Buddhas and all the buddhas” and Sensei Kaz distinguished between upper case Buddha and lower case buddhas.  I think the same can be said for Chaplains and all the chaplains.  Chaplaincy is not something that interests me.  But chaplaincy… now that is the flame.

Thank you for practising,


rohatsu reflections

It’s always difficult to put words into an experience like a silent retreat.  Well, it is now for me.  Used to be, I could come home and blather on about this, that, and all those people, places and things that collided during the days (often seemingly interminable days).  So far, I’ve been to two sesshins – silent retreats complete with oryoki (formal eating from three bowls and confusing utensils while sitting perched on my cushion trying not to spill anything on the zendo floor).  It’s actually fun.  And that being the case, I think I’ve been missing the point of sesshins.

Rohatsu is different, I told myself.  First of all, it has this exotic title and it’s a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Second, we practice not just to commemorate the event of his Awakening but it’s a chance to get there ourselves!  In other words, it can be categorized and there is a likely outcome!  Ingredients I tend to like in a mix.

Of course, this is supposed to be the ingredients of any sitting.  That I-am-too-friggin’-tired-to-sit-this-morning sitting, the why-do I-always-leave-it-for-the-evening-when I’m-too-friggin’-tired sitting, the Oh-good-we’re-in-sangha-so-I-can-just-look-like-I’m-sitting sitting.  All of these are opportunities to awaken.  But somehow, putting a name like Rohatsu and making it a festivity just seems to sweeten the deal which made Rohatsu a longed-for experience for many years.

I have to admit, I was a little anxious heading to Upaya this go around.  I’ve been in deep discussions with Roshi and Maia about issues of Chaplaincy and my thoughts about going into the second year.  Much of it is related to time but also to my categorical mind which cannot discern between Chaplaincy and Psychology.  But before we get into that, let me share a few memories of Rohatsu – which turned out to be a fascinating mix of sleep and waking.

Day 1: It’s like Homecoming!  Met up with all my buddha-buddies. My seat assignment is perfect!  I’m surrounded by my dharma pals, Andrew, Maria, and a few more.  It’s like being in a little dewdrop!

Day 2: This isn’t a picture of roshi.  It’s a picture my mind made of roshi when I met with her to continue our discussions face-to-face.  She asks, “What is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?”  I blather.  She says, “Thank you for your practice.”  But it’s that Bodhidharma look my mind registers.  A new koan: what is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?

Day 3: I’m into the oryoki.  Brought my own set too.  Bamboo bowls.  Laminated bamboo bowls. Somewhere from the depths of samadhi – or dozing, I can’t tell the difference – I recall the instructions: do not soak bowls in water.  The server fills the bowl with tomato soup.  It’s not water, I say, reassuringly.  It’ll be fine.  We chant the food offering and hold up the Buddha bowl (that’s the first and largest bowl).  In my case, it’s filled with hot tomato soup.  For a while anyway.  It seems hot liquid in a laminated bamboo is the perfect condition for liberation of tomato soup.

Day 4: It’s been 4 days and 12 oryoki meals.  I’m sure I’m transcending because my dharma sister and Chaplaincy classmate Susan’s red painted toes with a gold ring on one of them are looking like the path to nirvana.  Or maybe it’s just Pavolvian.  Susan serves larger quantities than that other server with the blank toenails.  I wonder if I will now drool every time I see red painted toes.

The temple assistant had asked us to take off all our jewellery on the first day.  I didn’t think my rings and earrings were “jewellery” since I wear them everyday.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Not thinking.

I brought chocolate-covered almonds (code CCA) to get me through the rough patches and drop one on the floor of my room.  “TWO-SECOND RULE!!!” my mind screams (it does that just to get attention and  to hear itself speak).  Germs in the zen center, germs int he zendo… And I begin to wonder about the germs in my oryoki set (they only get washed out with hot tea at the end of each meal).  But then, germs are beings too and they probably are sitting Rohatsu along with us…

Day 5:  I’m taken by Enkyo roshi.  Something about the way her mouth and eyes dance when she’s scanning the room.  Like we’re mala beads and she’s reciting a mantra.  I’m hoping it has something to do with getting my enso submissions into the Sweetcake Enso art show at the Village Zendo. Oh… craving, clinging, ego, eggo, eggs for breakfast, hmmm, have to ask Sandra about that raw cashew fig cream thingie…

Roshi Joan, Beate Stolte sensei, and Kaz Tanahashi sensei all give talks along with Enkyo roshi.  The theme is “Buddha and all the buddhas”.  Kaz sensei talks about upper case Buddhas – and he gives an amazing historical perspective of the Big B-Buddha.  He’s not in favour of capitalizing Buddha because it’s all about the lower case buddhas.  Changing the English language, he says.  But not when we have to write Buddhism or Buddhists because in the face of all the other religions who get to capitalize themselves, we Buddhists should not “lower our case.”

Sensei Beate can’t stop laughing because Sensei Kaz says that in German all nouns are capitalized so Buddha has to become a verb.  I thought I heard Kaz say “ich bin buddhaen” but Beate is laughing to hard for me to figure it out.  She reads from Camus’ The Stranger.  I’m caught by the words: tender indifference of the universe.

Sensei Al had talked the day before about brains swinging in harmony and Enkyo gets into the groove with Zen Master Duke Ellington’s teachings: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.  Dowa, do wa, do what?

“Transcend the koans!” Roshi Joan says.

Day 6: We all go out in the early morning to watch the morning star.  At home, once when I sat Rohatsu, I stayed up through the night.  That was last year.  This year I’m too old to do silly things like that.  We walked out into the parking lot and huddled together.  That’s the brightest I’ve ever seen Venus shine.  Enkyo roshi had talked about the invisible buddhas who point out the obvious next thing we have to do.  Just after being slapped by Linchi for his impertinent question, Elder Ting bows when told to by an unnamed monk.  He awakens.  Body and mind come together in that instant.

Bodhi and mind.

Day 7: Svaha!  Loosely translated as “Yahoo!”

My roomie and I hit the trails to the Tea House for chocolate chai and pie.  Coming back to the ZC, I get a sloppy lip-smacking lick by Lucy the Wonder Dog.

And wake up.

And wake up again at 3AM the next day which lead into a 24 hour travel day with flight delays in Chicago.  Maybe I’m not too old to do that overnight zazen.

Thank you for practising,


mind of poverty

In her retreat at Upaya, Joanna Macy spoke of being satisfied with just what we have.  A retreatant asked how that could possibly be useful to the people in Haiti (the earthquake was very prominent in our thoughts on that day) who now had less than what had been already a horrendously impoverished life.  Roshi Joan Halifax, adding to Joanna Macy’s response, pointed out that the dharma was aimed at our perceptions and she closed with this statement:

“Do not foster a  mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

There’s something about these words, isn’t there?  Kindling, not an image, but a felt sensation of lack.  Or is it destitution?  Deprivation?  The edges of my grasping melt and diffuse outwards and the boundaries become softer like a gentle net that will catch me.

I’m particularly attracted to practicing with this as an aspiration in the light of ongoing debates about awards and recognitions of worth.  In my wandering, I came across this blog, Layers, which has on its home page, the statement “no awards PLEASE – but I LOVE to receive comments.”  Fantastic statement – and pretty amazing art too.

Unfortunately (or may be very fortunately), it makes me feel my greed deeply.  I like awards – a bit for myself but more for others because it can honour those who really put themselves out on the line.  Besides, how else to practice boundless joy?! And how else can we practice not fostering the mind of poverty in ourselves and others? Because the winning is not in the acquisition of the prize and the losing is not in standing aside.  It is in the mind of desire which learns ever so  slowly about what it already has and what is just cluttering up the view.

What do you have that you would not if you cultivated a mind poverty?

Thank you for practicing,


Vegetable garden just perfectly organized!

a mandala of precepts

from my notes on the talk on precepts by Roshi Joan Halifax:

In the practice of Buddhism, the context of moral authority is  transmitted through a dharma mandala of Theravada, Mahayana, and Buddhayana.  The Theravada teachings provide a literal perspective that connects action to consequences, cause and effect.  The Mahayana lens enters the realm of interconnectedness.  Suffering is shared and therefore compassion is generated for the liberation of all beings.  The Buddhayana lens is the boundless mind, encompassing not just all beings but all concepts and visions of the path, lifting desire away from outcome.  Thus, moral authority resides in the integration of action, interconnection, and casting the net of compassion wide.

The guiding principles of such moral authority are manifested in three dimensions: inner, outer, and interactive.  The inner source of moral authority arises from a singular precept: regulation of one’s mental continuum.  This coolness and peacefulness prepares the ground to “pull aside the curtain that makes our ethos less visible to us.”  That is, a solid stance taken on stable ground increases the likelihood of seeing what is present, unclouded by preferences, conditioning and cultural bias.  By taking on the precepts, we clarify our intentions, direct our motivation and center our aspiration.  It makes conscious our intention and holds up to scrutiny the rationale for doing what we are doing.  These are also ego-taming precepts that regulate the psychological domain and mitigate the effects of anger, addictive behaviours, and preferential judgments.

The external source of moral authority is evident in the behavioural manifestation of what it means to be a good person within our social order and the congruence with cultural expectations of gender, age, and faith.  These behaviours do not and cannot exist in a vacuum, free of the changing expectations of women, men, and children of any generation.  It is within this crucible that the precepts of realization form and generate our awakening.

The practical source of our moral authority arises from the interaction with the world.  Like the external source of our development, they are consequentially-based and context-driven.  Actions congruent with one community may be incongruent or misperceived in another.  The demands of living this precept requires a relinquishing of fixed knowledge and entering a “not-knowing.”  Within this context, bearing witness provides that context-based way of engaging and compassionate action can be sensitive to the sacred language of the community.

The world as I experience it remains cold to the concept of practice that arises from precepts.  It is enamored of situational ethics and moral ambiguity.  As I reflect on the many scenarios of my personal and professional life, I am suddenly aware that we spend a lot of time negotiating around and from that place of outer and practical precepts but rarely spend time learning of the other’s inner precepts.  Yet, it is these inner precepts that allow us the flexibility and clarity to develop the other two and engage wisely with our community.

Thank you for practicing,