master the 24 hours

Counting the strikes on the han - 7-5-3, 5-3, 3

From Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield, p 72

“As Gary Snyder says,

All of us are apprentices to the same teacher that all masters have worked with – reality.  Reality says: Master the twenty-four hours.  Do it well without self-pity.  It is as hard to get children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha Hall on a cold morning.  One is not better than the other.  Each can be quite boring.  They both have the virtuous quality of repetition.  Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the car filters, wiping noses, going to meetings, sitting in meditation, picking up around the house, washing the dishes, checking the dipstick.  Don’t let yourself think that one or more of these distracts you from the serious pursuits.  Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties to escape so that we may do our practice that will put us on the path.  It IS our path.”

on forgiveness

From the chapter Forgiving Ourselves in Bring Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield:

Forgiveness is not weak or naive.  Forgiveness requires courage and clarity; it is not naive.

Forgiveness does not happen quickly…  True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way.  It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain.  It cannot be hurried.

Forgiveness does not forget, not does it condone the past.  Forgiveness sees wisely.  It willingly acknowledges what is unjust, harmful, and wrong.

Forgiveness does not mean that we have to continue to relate to those who have done us harm….  Forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.

…p. 54

the work of practice

Standing at the han every morning of Rohatsu was a practice of noting the preferential mind.  This is a North-facing door and when one side was open the wind ripped through the little room.  Thankfully, I was protected by the door directly in front which kept the wind from blowing onto me.  I’m not sure I really noticed the cold anyway; I was so focused on the sequence and timing of the strikes that a troop of marauding yeti would have got pass me.  One morning, one of the teachers came by and gently closed the door  saying, “It doesn’t have to be open all the way in this cold.  It’s too cold for you.”  I bowed gratefully and stood there as the wind bounced off the door and funneled directly onto me.  Good intentions.  I did open the door fully when the teacher left and later we had a good laugh about helping hands.

Kornfield explains in Bringing Home the Dharma that we can get stuck on the pleasant aspects of our experience.  Freedom only comes when we fully experience and then release whatever is present, “no matter how beautiful or how painful.”

As we stay present with mindful and wise attention, we notice three things will happen to our experience: it will go away, it will stay the same for a while, or it will get more intense.  Which of these occurs is none (of) our business! Our job is to allow the experience of the phenomenal world to unfold in all its infinite richness — to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, to rest in mindfulness and freedom at the center of it all.  (pp. 88-89)

This is really helpful, when I’m stuck in these awkward or painful experiences, to know that the shifting is not my job.  Or more correctly, preventing the shift is not in my job description.  Staying present to it is, and while you may wonder at the wisdom of standing in a North wind, being present allowed me to “think” calmly and act skillfully.  A rare moment, I’m sure will not shake up the universe too soon again.  But seriously, my other bag of tricks is to get angry or frustrated or to wish everyone could see how much I’m suffering and for them to launch a rescue effort.  It was just so much easier to note that the teacher was trying to help and that I could simply open the door again – close it fully.

Choices.  Just a quiet way of not giving away my power.

Kornfield brings home the dharma

Jack Kornfield has written the book I’ve been waiting for.  The self-centeredness of that sentence probably is a good clue that I need the wisdom in his new book, now more than ever.  Bringing Home the Dharma, available from Shambhala Publications is a jewel and – if you’re into expectations of ever-increasing levels of insight – a worthy follow-up to his previous in-depth exploration of Buddhist concepts, The Wise Heart.  

One of the first things that impressed me in Bringing Home the Dharma is that it is not a recap or re-configured version of all his previous writings.  Sometimes teachers tend to re-package – and sometimes shamelessly – their words and ideas which truly diminishes the trust we have in their own growth.  Kornfield however has taken the droplets of dharma rain, collected them in little cups, and flavoured them with his own spiritual maturity.   They are offered to the reader, chapter by chapter, and when sipped with mindful attention to the subtle flavour, these moments are refreshingly honest examinations of practice.

He starts with the practice of mindfulness “as fearless presence.”  This is important because too often I find myself feeling very much the embodiment of the Cowardly Lion(ness) or just a nincompoop on a zafu.  “(Mindfulness) lets experience be the teacher.”  In one sentence, Kornfield erases the self-denigration that arises about  the experience and restores our lived experience to its rightful place as guide and mentor.  He describes the diligence necessary (yes, there is effort required) and the cultivation of awareness as something that “sits on our shoulder” respectfully noting the passing sensations.  

More important, Kornfield does not shy away from the shadow side of awareness (or any of the other skills we cultivate in practice).  He names them with such emphasis that we can no longer fool ourselves about the authenticity of our meditative or any other practice experience.  In fact, my favourite chapter, and one which I will return to over and over again, is Perils, Promises, and Spiritual Emergency on the Path.  There are explanations and revelations in that chapter about the side effects of meditation, the traps for the ego, and what in Zen we call “Zen sickness.”  I could feel frustrated as I think back to all those I have asked about these experiences and from whom I got some vague reply or a sense that I was somehow lacking.  But now feeling validated that my gut instinct said these experiences were a detour from practice makes up for it.  

Unfortunately (or not), the next two chapters on the near enemies of awakening and the bodhisattva way are not as luminous.  The concepts are not as well articulated and the writing tends to wander a bit.  There is almost a sense of trying to do too much, trying to integrate too many approaches to the Dharma so we can each, in our varied “yanas’  identify with the book as a whole.  But somehow I didn’t feel negatively about it; likely proof that the earlier chapters transformed my usual tendency to throw the whole index out with the disappointing chapters.  Regardless, Kornfield picks up the tight writing and confident pace for the rest of the book.  

The over-arching style of the book is a willingness, a generosity in imparting what he calls a “mandala of skillful means” to wakening.  You can’t ask for more from a teacher who has met his own demons, shares that experience openly, and who – based on the last two chapters – appears to be embarking on a new journey of guiding the emerging Buddhayana in the West.  I’m not sure I’m ready for all this consolidation and integration of various streams into one massive river; it feels too risky.  But the confidence and enthusiasm that Kornfield exudes in the final chapters at least has me curious and watching with awareness on my shoulder noting it all respectfully.

Over this week, I’ll post a few snippets and reflections from Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield.

transparency of water

<– Previous: finding home

Many teachers point out that our suffering is crucial to our transformation.  Lotuses begin their life in the mud.  We are asked to be patient as we steep in that mud, have faith in the nutrients of the slime and ooze of our attachments.  I’m ok with slime and ooze.  But I’ve struggled with faith (maybe I wouldn’t have if I had read Sharon Salzberg’s book more attentively?).  Faith requires me to accept that there is something possible; it also requires me to be at ease with change.  That is much to ask of someone in whose life change is just a harbinger of more pain.  I need to have faith in something more calming.

Contemplating the nature of mind and self, we know the quality of our mind is as if we have stirred up a glass of water mixed with mud (slime and ooze, again).  Left alone, the mud settles and we can see the water clearly.  That clarity is the true nature of mind.  As I contemplate this glass of muddy water, I am aware it is so frequently stirred up that I may as well just call it what it is: muddy water.  And yet, whatever water may contain, it is always clear.  Water does not possess the mud; it does not cling to it.  Water does not obscure the mud; it does not become an obstacle to looking deeply.

The transparency of water is the very reason we can see the mud, see the settling, see the clarity whether or not it splits into water and mud (which it doesn’t).  Even in the lower part that is mud, it is just that: clear as mud.  It is held by water.  The transparency of water provides us with clarity of the nature of our muddiness.  It is always clear; we are always pure.  It is always Home.

Thank you, Jack, for practicing,


embedded home

<–Previous: why I had to hate Jack…

The conclusion of that day is likely obvious to all of you: I don’t know Jack.  I was convinced that all my reactivity was related to the incompatibility of Westerners with the True-Pure-Real Burmese tradition of Buddhism.  Starting an hour before dawn, I began, inviting all the evidence that would support my Theory of Everything Wrong with Western Buddhism.  Instead, all the heartaches, all the sorrows began to come home.  My inner theatre filled with scenes from childhood: the pagoda I lived next to in Rangoon, the walking meditation around Shwedagon Pagoda with my grandmother, feeding the turtles in the pond at Botataung Pagoda, and then the wrenching leave-taking from Home.  For years I wrote to cousins and aunties and uncles in Burmese, desperate to keep up my written skills.  As the country closed down, they stopped replying.  I practice the letters now in my shodo art; they are symbols stripped of language but still evocative in their beauty.

Through the morning, the afternoon, the evening, I sat with pain of this loss.  Penetrating through the craving, I felt the emptiness.  And then as I felt a sense of helplessness to fill that space, Mara spoke.  Just go home; Jack does. Emotionally, I fell off my cushion!  Jack goes home… to my Home…  (Note bene: The many travels of the IMS teachers to Burma have been instrumental in bringing the dhamma to the West and has likely protected the root teachings from being lost in the political mess that is Burma.)

Suddenly, I remembered a fight with my cousin who had come to live with us because his family was in upheaval.  We were playing school and there was a blue pencil we both wanted.  We struggled and he stabbed me in the arm breaking off the lead in my flesh.  The pencil broke and he cried, “Why should you have it if I can’t have anything?”  This was the heart of my suffering in my encounters with Theravada in the West.

The discoloration from that lead is embedded in my arm to this day.  A piece of home.  I felt flooded with joy: Jack has his Sayadaws; I have this little piece of lead in my arm I now wouldn’t trade for all the gold on the Shwedagon!  It’s hard to believe that anger can be so transformative.  At one level, I truly regret harboring such deep negativity towards incredibly generous teachers.  Yet, that anger has fueled my persistence in my professional and personal life, protecting me from the feelings of isolation and despair.  For so many years, that anger continued to be fueled by many perceived rejections and injustices.  Like the bulbs and plants in my garden, it multiplied by splitting: You/me, us/them, mine/yours.  And these concepts are defined by what I objectify in my environment through a false sense of ownership.

In the Q&A on Day 6 of the Vietnam retreat, Thay offered his guidance to a young woman who wanted to conceive a child but had been unsuccessful.  We develop an attachment to one thing and it becomes the object of our attention.  We come to believe it is the only way to feel fulfilled, feel happy, feel at home.  I look around as his voice fills the meditation room.  The roses on the altar evoke memories of the rose garden at the Botataung house.  The incense brings me home to the pagodas.  The sound of the bells in the water fountain is the tinkle of the bells in the spires.  The ancestor’s altar is filled with pictures of my father, his mother (a devout Buddhist and minus cheroot), his father, my maternal grandmother (a devout Catholic), and Frank’s ancestors who struggled in the poverty of the Deep South.  I am embedded in my life right here.

Next: transparency of water

me & jack kornfield

Some time ago, I read this article to our sangha.  The original title was “Why I hated Jack Kornfield for 30 years so it could transform my life.”  It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek explore of a question people frequently ask me: Why did you choose the Zen path instead of Theravada?  It’s a legitimate question given my roots in a Theravadin culture.  I had no ready answer simply because I didn’t know.  In fact, there is enough history from the Japanese occupation of Burma to make my choice of a Japanese Zen path problematic in my family.  The article, which will unfold over this week, is a slice of my practice over one Rohatsu period.  It’s just a fun exploration – albeit it had important insights for me in the end.  As a side note, it was interesting that some folks in sangha had trouble with the article.  Apparently it’s not Kool to Kick Kornfield… more accurately, it’s not cool to say one has difficulty with iconic and beloved teachers…  That may be a good topic for a future post!

How I hated Jack Kornfield for 30 years so I could transform my life

It’s 10 AM and I’ve already lapsed in my diligence for the day.  I have 7 days alone on this sacred farm I call Home: alone, in silence, filled with intentions to rise at dawn, sit zazen, listen to 7 days of talks recorded during the retreat offered by Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam.  So far, all I’ve managed is to rise at that point where guilt masquerades as discipline and the cats are becoming fierce in their demands.  It doesn’t matter, I say to myself.  When all has been lost, when all has been given to everyone else, what is there left but the heating of water, the steeping of tea, and the sound of the bell to bring me home.  I’m surprised by the depth of emotion I hear in that inner dialogue.

Heat water, steep tea, sit.  In sitting, I bring myself to that feeling of “home” and find there is a deep ache.  For years, I sat with that profound ache which was most painful when it manifested as confusion, irritation and even anger each time I read books by Jack Kornfield and other teachers in the Theravada tradition.  How could I feel such deep anger towards these teachers who were giving so much, who seemed so loving and gentle, who continued the roots of my culture?  All these qualities I knew were good nutriments for my ailing life yet, being fed at that table, they stuck in my throat, closed my heart.  It was a dharmic allergy to good food.  So, like most things that trigger shock, I tasted of it minimally.  Mostly, I stayed away seeking refuge instead in the teachings of Japanese roots of the dharma and finding solace in such sanghas.  Eventually, I found a form of safe haven in the Vietnamese tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thay’s tradition was close enough to my Burmese birthright and memories of practice.  And the food was just as good as grandma’s cooking.  But I was still left with a profound reactivity to good old Jack.  And there seemed no way to build up a tolerance.  I tried all the usual methods: inoculation irritated me; desensitization frustrated me; flooding triggered a defensive superiority.  Out of desperation, I even hauled myself off to a weekend retreat with Kornfield and Trudy Goodman.  I sat in front row, attentively following my breath.  It was Woodstock without the chemical high.

Growing increasingly frustrated, I chose one day to sit with these feelings and observe them closely.  After all, I knew it had nothing to do with Jack or Joe (Goldstein) or Sharon (Salzberg) or Sylvia (Boorstein) or Trudy (Goodman) or anybody (including many Western Theravadin monks and nuns) in that tradition.  I had been watered sufficiently by Thay’s teachings to see that we are all of each other and that the teachings of compassion are non-discriminatory.  But there seemed a powerful purpose in hating Jack and I vowed that for one day’s sitting it would be my dedicated and devotional practice.  It was Bodhi Day; and I made a date to truly see Mara – secretly expecting Jack to show up, of course.

Next: embedding home