mirror bright

I’m not sure why gardening gloves would be called Karma but I bought a pair.  And perhaps that is my karma; always dragging myself around from one bright, shining object to another.  No wonder I’m frequently fatigued and frustrated.  Or frantic and fearful.  No, I think it’s more like indecisive and irritated.

Well, as I write this, I am certainly feeling indecisive and irritated.  It’s cloudy and the delivery of the newly purchased lawn mower is delayed – threatening clouds holding the overgrown lawn hostage.  I want to get out to the vegetable garden and clean it up.  It’s one of the last pieces of the gardens that needs attention.  But I’m torn between doing paperwork (it is cloudy after all) and weeding.  What if I did one and neglecting the other has serious consequences?  What if I did the other and neglecting… no wait… that’s the same question!

It happens frequently.  I think I’m asking good questions, analyzing the best approach to something but really I’m just stuck in this split, wanting an answer I can live with, one that confirms my worldview and belief system, something that isn’t going to be demanding in its corollaries.  That would be too frightening.  And when I’m most fearful, I tend to become most dogmatic.  This is the moment when I am vulnerable to zen sickness: there is no decision, no decision-maker, no garden, no paperwork.  I’m starting to see that the most insidious of my cravings is the desire to annihilate reality because it, too often, confirms my limited self.

Joko Beck (Everyday Zen) writes about the “Bottleneck of Fear,” the way in which we contract our lives down to a limited view of ourselves.  We are all subject to being conditioned to protect ourselves however we derive meaning about who we are from the conditioning.

The bottleneck of fear isn’t caused by the conditioning, but by the decision about myself I have reached based on that conditioning.

I am conditioned to value efficiency and efficacy.  These are the cornerstones of my identity; they are the twin deities of my personal religion.  Split between decisions – even if they are those of low-threat as paperwork and gardening – triggers a gut level response which Joko points out is my best teacher.  Bringing awareness to that gut-clenching illuminates the fear and sheds light on the falsehood of my limited self.  But it takes practice not just sitting around waiting for that understanding to emerge from the murky depths of my multi-layered delusion state.

Joko does something fascinating with this idea of practice.  She points out our eagerness to go to Hui-Neng’s verse that raised him to be the Sixth Patriarch: “there is no mirror-stand, no mirror to polish, and no place where dust can cling…”  Sure.  If our vision is clear in the first place.  But usually it isn’t; clouded by the cravings, desires, preferential states and deceptive actions, how can we get past the dust, let alone find the mirror!

It’s a paradox, Joko writes.  We need to understand the Sixth Patriarch’s words but we need to practice with the verse that was not accepted by the Fifth Patriarch.

This body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is a mirror bright:
Carefully cleanse them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

(W)hen we fail to see clearly, we create merry mayhem for ourselves and others.  We do have to practice, we do have to polish the mirror, until we know in our guts the truth of our life.  Then we can see that from the very beginning, nothing was needed.  Our life is always open and spacious and fruitful.  But let’s not fool ourselves about the amount of sincere practice we must do before we see this as clearly as the nose on our face.


It’s going to be a spatter week!  Oh and, Joseph… note the white balance!  I’m too embarrassed to explain why I wasn’t getting the right effect for all the advice I was getting.  But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  There are subtleties in the join-these-dots-please of a teaching I tend to be oblivious to.

The nuances of getting the ink to spatter was one of those moments.  However, it ended up being a good lesson about the physics of objects in motion and letting go of how I think something should happen.  And it lead me down a rabbit hole about mass, velocity, and attaining enlightenment.  If I recall, mass X velocity = momentum.  Which says a lot about the effect of my surplus baggage on sustaining momentum in anything I’m doing – mental or physical – including getting enlightened.  One of the excess bags is the one that I call Wishfulness.  It carries the shoulda’s, woulda’s, and what if’s.  (The coulda’s are in the Resentment bag.)  It gets heavy at times, these moments of wanting a second chance – or even a better first chance. 

Here’s a nice piece from Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen:

To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive.  Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won’t keep on that way….Nobody believes his or her life is perfect.  And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless.  We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life.  So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle.

Joko points out that we tend to look outside ourselves – that bigger car, higher salary, better vacations, and so on.  These are the “if onlies” that we go through hoping for a resolution to the puzzle of feeling our suffering and intuiting our boundlessness.

First of all, we wear out those (if onlies) on the gross levels.  Then we shift our search to more subtle levels…we turn to a spiritual discipline.  Unfortunately we tend to bring to this new search the same orientation as before….  “If only I could understand what realization is all about, I would be happy.”

Enlightenment is not something you achieve.  It is the absence of something.  All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal.  Enlightenment is dropping all that.

I’m getting the sense that just dropping off those excess bags at the Salvation Army is not enough.  Velocity has to drop off too.  A full stop?  It suddenly occurs to me that the velocity of the ink is most powerful when the brush comes to a sudden stop on the paper.

hidden promises

Sunday’s post announced that Zen teacher Joko Beck was in hospice care.  Scouting around the bloggosphere, I’m touched by how deeply this teacher drew so many of us onto the path of practice – and service.  I read Joko’s book Everyday Zen decades ago, wandering across it as I struggled with the role Buddhism played in my life.  I was in graduate school, mangling relationships and getting mangled in turn by the zeitgeist in Psychology that had yet to understand the concept of empathy.  We were a good match. 

In the turmoil of egos and crazy-making interactions, Joko Beck’s writings were a clean straight arrow shot into the air.  The tempo of a cognitive psychological stance resonated with my studies.  It’s not the intention of her teachings to activate the left brain but it is skillful means if the brain at hand is tilted so.  Whatever it was, I learned and grew from her books.  Nothing special, simply unfolding breath by breath, in my life as it was at that time – and it is now.

When I read the news of her dying, I lit a stick of incense. 

May you journey safely to the other shore, Joko. 

May you finally be free of carrying us, one-by-one, word-by-word, to our transformation. 

May you rest now, trusting in the labor of all of us who take your teachings into heart and plant them into ground. 

May you find your promise kept and no longer need to practice disappointment.

These are some of my favourite readings from Nothing Special:

The problem is that nothing actually works.  We begin to discover that the promise we hold out to ourselves – that somehow, somewhere, our thirst will be quenched – is never kept.  I don’t mean that we never enjoy life.  Much in life can be greatly enjoyed: certain relationships, certain work, certain activities.  But what we want is something absolute.  We want to quench our thirst permanently, so that we have all the water we want, all the time.  That promise of complete satisfaction is never kept.  It can’t be kept.  The minute we get something we have desired, we are momentarily satisfied – and then our dissatisfaction rises again.

Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment.  We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us.  This discovery is our teacher.

The promise that is never kept is based on belief systems, personally centered thoughts that keep us stuck and thirsty.

It’s useful to review our belief systems…because there’s always one that we don’t see.  In each belief system we hide a promise.

Joko Beck in hospice

Barry at Ox Herding just announced that Joko Beck has been placed in hospice.  Similar to Barry’s experience, most visitors to this blog find their way here through the search engine term “Joko Beck.”   It’s not surprising.  Joko was the first Zen teacher whose words sunk in and had a profound impact on my life.  Her transmission of the dharma brought to me – as it has for many others – a sense of all this being doable, possible, likely in my lifetime.

Here is the message about Joko from her daughter; the complete message is on the blog Clouds:

My mother, Joko, is now in hospice and I don’t expect her to live more than one or two more weeks.  I put her into hospice because she was not eating and losing weight.  Please know she is completely happy.  She gets to lie in her hospital bed and no one is telling she has to get up and walk every hour.  No one is asking her to please eat.   Now, she will take a few bites of breakfast, and maybe a few bites of her other meals and eat all her vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.  She is happy as a clam and, as she told me, will die when she’s ready.  She says it’s soon.

Please hold Joko in your prayers and meditations.  She leads.  We will follow.  Such is the path.

Namo Avalokiteshvara
Namo Avalokiteshvara
Namo Avalokiteshvara


mushin & the train of enlightenment

I often feel I’m not getting anywhere in my practice and that usually coincides with things in my environment going to pieces.  My behaviour gets out of whack or my thoughts spiral out or I just feel a general sense of lack.  Nothing seems to be working or satisfying.  In these periods of agitation, I will do one of two things: let my formal practice lapse or become obsessive about it.  Either way, it’s not fun. When I read the Parable of Mushin in Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Joko Beck, it became my favourite story about practice and the unseen ways in which it works on us.

To preface a bit: I don’t experience love and work as different.  To me, they are both verbs, processes with no start or finish.  Loving and working flow together seamlessly – until I become confused about the intention of loving what I love and how to work with it.  In practice, I feel a process of loving the entirety of the experience: lighting the candles, arranging the cushions, setting the incense stick in the sand, placing the rakusu over my head, approaching the cushion, sitting, and so on.  I feel my body working into each transition effortlessly at times, a struggle at others.  Over time things have shifted, one way then another.  It wasn’t always like this, nor is it always like this.  So when I lose sight of how to keep loving the working of practice, I am grateful for the Parable of Mushin.

This is my compressed version.  The full version is worth the read.

Joe was also known as Mushin because he was really into dharma studies.  He was also very unskillful so he ended up losing his job and his wife.  He decided in the middle of this catastrophe, he was at least going to have enlightenment – whatever it took.  So he got a book called “How to Catch the Train of Enlightenment”, studied it with great care, followed all the directions, and went to the train station to catch the Train of Enlightenment.  Well, you guessed it – the train came and went without Joe being able to get on it.  Not being one to give up, he dove into practice and was relentless at it.  Other people read the book too and came by the station only to suffer the same results.  Over time, people also brought their kids and the station became a little community.  Like all communities, living together created demands like the need for child care, shelter, food, lessons for kids who should be in school.  Joe, looking around, noticed all this and began to set up huts and dining rooms and all the things communities take for granted will appear just because they need it.  Of course, he had little time for meditation or other practices that would get him on that train.  He began to get angry and resentful.  “You know, I’m only interested in enlightenment.  Those other people get to watch the Train and what am I doing really?”  Then one day, he re-discovered zazen and practiced that.  Given the hub-bub of organizing care for this community, it was a quiet way to enter the day.  It allowed him a sense of peace and others, frustrated with not catching the Train,  joined him.  They could hear the Train roar by, but they were too busy taking care of everyone to get on it or worry about missing it.  Over the years, Mushin had the chance to see many people come and go; some stayed to watch for the Train, others gave up and went home, others joined his care-taking community. He found himself able to accept whatever and whoever was present.

But Mushin was tired.  This was hard work, all this loving care.  And there was no Enlightenment Train to give him some reinforcement to keep practicing.

The ending of the parable is probably obvious.  But I like to stop here when I recall the story or read it back to myself.  It leaves me with many questions about the nature, purpose, and epiphenomenon of practice.

What are the things that are being cultivated in the middle of or because of my dissatisfaction?

Thank you for practicing,


joyful openness of the heart

I’m torn between continuing with Katagiri’s books and using this week to bring forward the words of women zen teachers.  It’s one of those conundrums (not a koan, just a conundrum) one encounters, I suppose, in trying to find tasty nuggets of teachings that are immediate in their impact, emotionally and culturally.  In the end, it was an academic exercise because, I was somewhat chagrined to discover, I don’t have many Zen Women on my shelves!  Joko Beck, Joan Halifax, Maurine Stuart, Diane Eshin Rizzetto and Grace Schireson.  That’s it.  This calls for more mindful consumption at my local bookstores for Zen Women writers, not because I think there are better teachings to be had but because I wonder if some challenges in practice would benefit from teachers who are intimate with the conditioned female self.

In reading Katagiri’s book You Have to Say Something, I fell into the chapter titled Opening your heart which lead to certain considerations.

For anyone living a spiritual life, the most important practice is openheartedness.  But dealing with life with compassion and kindness is not easy.  We tend live in terms of “me.”  But if you’re interested in the spiritual life, you will have to consider more than just yourself.

This is a challenge not just because of the self-protectiveness we train to deal with a lifetime of disappointments but because opening to others includes a willingness to be vulnerable to the consequences of their actions.  There’s another part to this that is the cultural baggage of being female: I’m constantly told I have to consider more than just myself.  It might be related to my generation but the roll call of all the women I work with says, perhaps not.  It feels like a conundrum: realizing a spiritual life means not only risking hurt but also could continue to foster a gender myth of willing self-sacrifice.  At the same time, if there’s an element of truth in the myth (as there often is), sacrifice should come easy.  It doesn’t and I think it goes back to the willingness to experience the vulnerability of opening the heart.

At the beginning of a retreat, Roshi Joan Halifax commented that she had heard that evening so many stories of hurt, of “being dropped from arms that should have caught (us).”  Joko Beck writes in Nothing Special,

…I am struck that the first layer we encounter in sitting practice is our feeling of being a victim – our feeling that we have been sacrificed to others.  We have been sacrificed to others’ greed, anger, and ignorance, to their lack of knowledge of who they are.

In practice we become aware of having been sacrificed, and we are upset about this fact.  We feel that we have been hurt, that we have been misused, that somebody has not treated us the way we should have been treated – and this is true.  Though inevitable, it’s still true, and it hurts, or seems to.

Though inevitable. It’s taken me a long time to understand it is inevitable; careening off each other will bring an unavoidable hurt as much as it will an ineffable joy.  Beck goes on to write of practice as acknowledging that we have been sacrificed and cultivating our awareness of the need to retaliate, to react.  And then, to see how we too sacrifice others on the altar of our desires.  This is where the openness is crucial: seeing our own willingness to sacrifice others and yet, and yet, to not do so because that is the only means of ending the cycle.  The willingness to make a sacrifice whose intent is the end of suffering is not perpetuating victimhood but ending it.  In fact, it strengthens the heart so it can stand up to and speak out against abuse in all its forms of rejection, unrealistic demands, and neglect.

The first dharma name given to me was Joyful Openness of the Heart. I was not wrong to see the conundrum-not-koan in it.

Thank you for practicing,


what is the subtle sound of the female hand?

My dharma friend at Ox Herding has announced a new book on women ancestors in the Zen tradition titled Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters.  I ordered it as soon as I got the Wisdom Publications notice – yes, I only use Facebook for its dharmic content -and they kindly informed me that it should be arriving this week.  I’m thrilled; it’s like waiting for a visit from a good friend.  So, yesterday, I cleaned up the shelves to make room for it and that lead to interesting finds.

matriarch's bloodline

matriarch's bloodline

The bloodline of female teachers in Buddhism is not often discussed and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I actually never thought about it.  In fact (and this is really embarassing), it’s taken me a few years to see the many disconnected dots on my bookshelves.  Maurine Stuart is there.  As is Sallie Tisdale‘s penetrating stories beginning with Maha Maya.  There is Ayya Khema.  And the Therigatha, the poems of the women elders.  Of course, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Pema Chodron, and Joko Beck.  Evidence of my face-to-face teachings with my Dear Hearts is tucked into the spaces above and between the books: Myozen, Roshi Joan, and Sister Annabelle (Chan Duc) Laity.  Why then, did I not question who was the face of these women before they were?

Add that preparing a matriarch’s lineage is part of taking the precepts (jukai) and I have to wonder if I should surrender a piece of my X-chromosomes.

This is particularly perplexing because I’m no fainting flower of femininity.  Nor am I a feminist.  I have done things that many would say are outside the box of conventional female pursuits.  Perhaps.  I tend not to experience things that way yet I also have felt in my body and heart/mind the yin and yang of every practice center that has held me.

In university, there were several of us who broke the barriers of being women in the physical sciences.  My mentor was not-so-affectionately called the “Tasmanian Devil” for her whirlwind way of decimating anyone she perceived as only using their minimum of two neurons.  For the longest while, our role in our careers was to educate our bosses (who were usually always and seemed evermore to be men) that we were not hired to wash the glassware, sweep the floors or bake cookies for Friday socials.  Although we founded organizations like W.I.S.E. (Women in Science and Engineering) and did our best to encourage the next generation of women to see science and all careers as equally available to them, I eventually walked away from all that because it felt too much like religious fervour.

Several years later, while writing my dissertation, I got bored and went for a drive.  There in a store window was a call for volunteer firefighters.  It wasn’t and never had been an issue of challenging male bastions.  It just interested me to push my own boundaries of physical and mental tolerance.  Zen as now.  And in this now, my day job takes me to interesting places and things.  It’s only in retrospect that I am likely to notice I’m in the company of only one or two other women colleagues.

So I wonder.  This essential part of my spiritual history.   Call it female and it’s wrong.  Call it not and it’s wrong too.  What is it?

What a question!  What a great day for it to appear!

The true life of our Zen practice comes from sitting quietly, doing nothing, and then getting up quietly and acting dynamically and directly in our everyday lives.

from Our own light, in Subtle Sound: the Zen teachings of Maurine Stuart, ed. Roko Sherry Chayat

The way of being human is beyond all shapes.  It has no form.  When we use words like “Buddha” or “Tathagata” there is some danger that we think of this as something apart from us.  Searching for the mystery outside oneself leads us astray.  The mystery is right here.

from Who is the real you?, in Subtle Sound: the Zen teachings of Maurine Stuart, ed. Roko Sherry Chayat

Thank you for practicing,