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,


vast spring water

Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endlessly coming up out of the earth… From where does this spring water come?  Not from anyone’s small, individual territory.  The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep.  The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth.  This is where you have to sit down.

from Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri

The second time I felt a deep inexplicable connection was during an all-day sitting at a zen center nearby.  It was my first all day sitting and I was very scared about my ability to get through it.  The first rounds of sitting were fine and then we settled in for the dharma talk.  The teacher sat on a raised platform in the middle of the room and his attendants worked around him to set up the microphones, podium and his papers.  He simply sat, letting it all happen without directing the push and pull of wires, tables and tablets.  When it all seemed almost ready, his personal assistant moved in and gently began to arrange the folds in the teacher’s robes.  He straightened the pleats, layered the material around his teacher’s seat and legs, and smoothed the wrinkles of the robe along his back.  The teacher sat unmoving, surrendering with complete trust to the ministrations of his assistant.  I felt a huge swell of emotion rise from the depth of my body, so intense I thought it would emerge as a gasp or a cry and shatter what had become a thick silence.  In dokusan, I tried to explain what I had felt but it was beyond words.  I think I only managed to say something about wanting to be “in service like that” to which the teacher replied that it took a lot of time to become a teacher’s personal assistant.

I wasn’t sad or disappointed that he failed to hear what I was trying to say.  I’ve come to understand that often in trying to verbalize our experiences of connection, we can convey a neediness, an ambition or a greed.  Where before I used to feel offended, now I’ve tried to listen carefully and direct my self-inquiry to clarify my intentions without diminishing the experience itself. The truth is I don’t even think I knew what it was I experienced in these connecting moments.  And, delusions are numberless.

I went on to practice in other centers and with other teachers, watchful for these “spring water” experiences.  It remains as a marker that there is a vastness beneath the concepts and formulations of practice.  Although I’ve not been blessed with the same intensity of connection, in the years of practice which include experiences of deep joy and profound anguish, one thing has remained from both experiences.  There is a connection that transcends the gaze and there is a move into service that is beyond any act, singular or collective.  Experiencing it cannot be forced through any form of practice.  It will not adhere to any rules of engagement.  But its presence is always available and always absolute.

Thank you for practicing,


Next: Friday