not-zen, not-memes

A quick round-up for this week:

James Ford lists his favourite Zen blogs – and in true Zen fashion includes those Zennish and those not-quite-Zen but nice enough to read. I’m touched to be in the list and somewhat relieved to be a “not Zen specifically”. It’s actually an awakening to the truth that I’ve lost the zap of Zen and am quite happy hanging out here in the fourth jhana, chillin’ with my pups.

As you know, Facebook is a magic land where your actions are given immediate reward. No sooner had I posted something about equanimity – i.e., hanging out in the 4th jhana – when this post from Jack Kornfield appeared on my feed (they call it a “feed” for good reason).

“Spiritual life takes courage : Equanimity is not indifference, and compassion is not pity. True spirituality  requires us to be fully present for life. For us to begin to look directly at the world situation is not a question of ceremony or of religion. Meditation helps us to look deeply at the sorrow that exists now in our world, and to look at our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge it instead of running away. Without mindfulness and compassion the suffering is too great to bear. We close our minds. We close our eyes and our hearts.”

So… about meditation: in a discussion with someone about their resistance to mindfulness practice and meditation, I said: You can’t substitute memes for meditation! No sooner had I posted that on my FB feed (they call it a “feed” for a reason, ya know!) when some smarty-pants posted a meme…which I improved upon:


No promises about the New Year and whether I will discover my Zen mojo.

However, do have an awesome Holiday Celebration!

what’s on your zafu? practicing the great matter

Winter 2014-15 has been one of the most challenging we’ve had here in the NE corner of North America. Atlantic Canada and US have been pummelled by snow, blizzardly snow and by March even the most-hardened of optimists had stopped regaling us with their memories of winters past. And, to really bend the mind, it’s also been the warmest winter on record globally. Too bad we don’t live life in the averages or the picture my dear friend sent from California of an 82°F sunny day in San Francisco would have cheered me up.

A plow makes its way through heavy snow on Route 20 near Park Corner, PEI, 16 March 2015 (Facebook)

I wish I could also say this winter has been a call to deepen my practice by turning towards that Great Matter that hangs around like an optimistic stray which thinks you’ve only forgotten to feed it this time. In one way, I have actually committed to a more consistent practice by sitting everyday. But I must confess, it’s only by virtue of greed and clinging that I’ve managed that. You see, the Insight Timer gives its users a little yellow star – one for every 10 days with a session – and you even get a green star after a bunch of these sessions. I don’t know how the “50 days with a session” star system works. It’s cheesy, I know, I know! But it gets my butt to zafu and that’s really all that matters in the matters of the Great Matter.

Or not really. A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by the glossy magazine Mindful quoting ABC anchor Dan Harris (him of his book 10% Happier – which I thought was quite funny except that he never really copped to his drug addiction). Harris’ comment was excerpted from an interview with Charlie Rose: “I think meditation can be anything you pay attention to. I just think you need a couple of minutes a day of formal practice in order to really get it.”

Just think. Well, I could be paying attention to my Miss Vickie’s potato chips which I munch each day with the same dedication as my butt-to-zafu commitment. It takes less time – only a couple of minutes because they’re the mini packs – and I’m likely to get it! Of course, I do want to be fair because Harris doesn’t say what kind of attention or what the “it” is we would get, really. Would it be much different from the “sudden enlightenment” proponents of Zen, for example. Nah. For me, I do believe all I’ll get from my addiction to crispy, oily snacks would be another cardiac “event” or a different outcome to that couple of minutes of vertigo last night.

That Great Matter again, dammit.

Harris’ comments on practice are not unusual and quite apparent both in his book, subsequent interviews and co-hostings with his new-found pals who are meditation teachers. They are much like the aphorisms we throw out in the heart of winter when our brain freezes over and we regress to magical thinking. In our Zen group last evening, I asked why we practice. The answers were the typical round of “being,” “the present moment,” “here and now” and all the other catchy phrases we think great teachers are pointing to. It’s rare to push past that mind-muffling stage into the real question: What is it in the present moment that we are practicing?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant offers a piercing metaphor of what happens when we fall into a fog of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of the mythic land of post-Arthurian Britain live without awareness of their history or their relationships to each other except in the most rudimentary ways. They function quite well and feel safe in those wrappings of unremembered purpose. It serves to silence the competitiveness, the hatreds, the need for revenge and recompense. It also stops all process of forgiveness and growth. Our practice gets this way. And we fall prey to the quick sound bytes of shiny objects, characters and promises.

We think this is practice. And that’s the poison – we think. And we go no further.

What are the great teachers pointing to then with their commentaries of being, present moment, here and now? The same thing climate change, societal upheaval and our anxiety are pointing to: You don’t have the time you think; you only have the time you practice. And it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes paying attention to make a real practice of the Great Matter.

qi and the fasting of the mind: video by Edward Slingerland

A terrific lecture on Zhuang Zi by Edward Slingerland (Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia) with a section by Evan Thompson (Professor of Philosophy at University of British Columbia) on cognitive science and meditation.


Posted with appreciation for permission by Dr. Slingerland.

as she lay dying – meditation on my mother’s body

My mother is dying. After 94 years of standing up to a world that was at times brutal and at times incomprehensible to her, she lies here in her hospital bed between starched, warmed sheets, dying. Her awareness has receded into an inner world of visions and a landscape only she can navigate. Her consciousness which is the arising out of contact senses the sheets, the shifting air, the moist toweling of her body every hour. Earth has dissolved into water as her organs release their hold on function. Water has dissolved into fire as the fluids in her body diminish. Fire has dissolved into air as the vital forces dissipate into flowing wind. All that is left is the expansion of air into spaciousness, into that boundless realm of entire being.

We sit vigilantly each day, following her breath, recalling her life. Sati, recollecting, bringing together, re-membering the dispersed parts of her life as grandmother, mother, wife, friend, sister, cousin, daughter. Fearless and fearsome dragon lady who survived a World War, the British and Japanese Occupation of Burma, strode across oceans and cherished roses.

As part of my own process I have spent the mornings and evenings chanting the name of Avalokita, reading the Anathapindika Sutta, and sitting a vigil sesshin. I don’t know how it helps or if it does but that is why we practice – to move beyond the need for something to happen.

This was a meditation that emerged from one sitting as I brought my attention to my feet, intending to scan through to the top of my head and then to scan my mother’s body in turn. As I began, our bodies merged and this became the meditation. I offer it for the grace of her life.

These are my mother’s toes
which raised her up to reach for all that was needed,
a flower, a cup, a bag of cookies, a dream.

These are my mother’s feet
which strode through the house shaping everything to be beautiful,
which carried me as an infant, then a child, taking me across the tarmac
to meet my father returning from his journey.

This is my mother’s womb
which carried me before I was I,
which embraced me with warmth and nourishment,
which released me into the world with gentleness and grace.

This is my mother’s heart
which sent her life’s blood flowing into me,
filling my body with potential and passion.

These are my mother’s lungs
which purified the toxins from the air,
which gave me life.

This is my mother’s face
which conveyed her love and laughter,
which spoke her words and heard mine.

These are my mother’s hands
which held me firmly walking across the street,
which stirred the soups and stews, the curries and rice,
laying out the heritage of gathering at tables and in kitchens.

These are my mother’s shoulders
which bore the weight of loves and loss,
which never learned to shrug or cast off a burden,
carrying everything with equanimity and fearlessness.

This is my mother’s brain
which created the intricate relationships of her life,
weaving the net that holds us all.

This is my mother’s body.
Sitting, standing, lying down.
This is my mother’s gift
even now.

a topography of mud settling

We were talking, in sangha, about the things that surface unbidden during meditation.  We explored whether the (hopefully) increasing ability to settle the mud of the mind was giving us glimpses of what lay just below awareness.  Or perhaps, I suggested, the mud simply settled in new configurations, forming a different topography.  That, of course, implies that the pesky self is nothing more than mud – stirring up, obscuring our clarity, and generally making a mess of things.

The picture to the left is from Bandeliers National Monument in New Mexico.  It, along with a photo shoot of the church at Black Mesa, has become one of my favourite places to be.  We discovered the Bandeliers in August 2010 when I had some unexpected free time to wander while my chaplaincy colleagues were frantically learning how to sew their rakusu.  Last summer, the area was ravaged by fire and floods leaving almost 50% of the park closed to the public.

This is a region composed of volcanic tuff – the mud-like material left from a volcanic eruption.  I visited an exhibition about the way gas pockets formed leaving underground caves that became shelters for pre-historic dwellers.  Mud settles and refuge emerges.

In the Bandeliers, the dwellings were carved out of the volcanic tuff or built using bricks made of the mud and mortared together with a mud mixture.  (The tuff stuff’s tough; it was embedded in the tracks of my hiking boots and didn’t look like it would budge without some serious sandblasting!)  Natural openings dotted the canyon walls too and the texture and formations along the cliffs seemed to transform into familiar figures which leaped out at me.

It’s an interesting process of seeing and creating.  The mud settles differently every time.   And a new awareness emerges.

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

coming home to nourishment

All practice starts with ingredients:


When chopping vegetables use a sharp knife so cutting doesn’t crush the spaces in the plant tissue.  I like colourful greens: kale with bright red spines, subtle greens in celery, the gradations of green onions. Use everything.  The stalk from the kale is cut in uniform pieces to balance the angled slices of the green onion and celery.

Compost the discarded pieces:  cooking2

Practice requires preparing the ground:

cooking3 Heat oil carefully.  Like my practice I tend to start out hot and then burn up in a smoky mess.

Start with the ingredients that set the flavor.cooking4

Green onions, garlic, ginger.  Incense, candles, flowers, mat and cushion.

Add the ingredients that support the dish.  Celery, kale stems.  Meditation, dharma talks, sangha.


Stir, resist interfering, let the heat do the work.  Breathe, sit, walk, resist interfering.  Let the heat do the work.


Add the kale – it’s good for you.  Retreats, dokusan, getting frustrated, wanting to give up.  Really, try it.  It’ll do wonders.



Add to the black-eyed peas you cooked earlier.

Oh, did I forget to mention that?  Blackeyed peas, soak overnight, boil 2 hours. Set aside.

This is the part in practice where I want to leave my teacher, ditch the practice, feel betrayed, become a conspiracy theorist.

Keep practising.


The true nourishment of practice is available only if we get cooked enough.

Thank you for practising,


PS added @ 1520:  My dharma friend from Bodhi Leaf just alerted me to Espe Brown’s movie:  How to Cook Your Life.  I had a chance to dine at the Greens in San Francisco – one of my must-do-this-in-my-lifetime events!