death poem

Basho died while visiting friends in Osaka.  He wrote:

Taken ill on a journey,
my dreams wander
over withered moors.

Aitken Roshi, in The River of Heaven, suggests this was not Basho’s death poem.  Apparently, when asked for a death poem, Basho said:

From old times it has been customary to leave a death poem behind, and perhaps I should do the same.  But every moment of life is the last; every poem is a death poem.  Why then should I write one at this time?  In these last hours, I have no poem.

What is your poem in this moment?

blowing his nose

The sound of someone
blowing his nose with his hand
the cherry blossoms.

This juxtaposition of the delicate with the indelicate always pushes my edge of practice.  Aitken Roshi points out in The River of Heaven,  that while it may be blasphemy to blow one’s nose in the presence of sacred cherry blossoms, we can’t be taking it all so seriously.  The fleeting nature of life is such that a moment spent getting riled up over something is a moment gone.  Basho and the Prajnaparamita remind us: neither sacred nor profane – except that mind makes it so.

the river of heaven

Diving into Aitken Roshi’s book of haiku, The River of Heaven: The haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki (publication date June 14, 2011).  It opens with a bittersweet recollection by Susan Moon of Roshi’s stepping down ceremony. 

“Someone asked him, “What is the most precious thing?” and he replied, “A good night’s sleep.” “

Moon reflects that after all he had contributed to the world of Zen, a good night’s sleep must have indeed been a precious thing.  The River of Heaven is a gentle collection of haiku with Aitken Roshi’s commentary on each poem.  The commentaries reveal not only something about the authors of the haiku but also of Roshi himself.  At times critical, at times nostalgic, he finds a delicate presence between his persona of Zen Master and a humble reader of the Zen Masters.

The book is divided into The Summer Moor which showcases the haiku of Basho and The Spring Sea with the poetry of Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Aitken Roshi leads with Basho, clearly a favourite of his as he describes in the eponymous haiku:

The sea is wild!
stretching to Sado Island
is the River of Heaven.

The Milky Way is the River of Heaven and it conjures up wondrous images of celestial beings walking the path through the skies.  In the commentary, Aitken writes that he fell in love with Basho upon reading this haiku in the Library of Hawai’i in 1938.  Roshi Aitken passed from this earth on August 5, 2010, hopefully to stroll restfully along the River of Heaven.

shadow 4

I’m trying to learn the difference between giving everything away and giving an opportunity for something to emerge.  It’s the difference between donating blood and bleeding out.  Is this what makes dedicated activists head for a cave in the hills?

Creating the space for connections to coalesce into relationships is different from evoking a sense of commonality that seduces people into believing they have something in common a priori.  Is this what makes religions popular as well as dangerous?

I don’t have the answers.  One shadow side of generosity is deceptively easy to spot – it’s usually marked by a sense of elevation from the unwashed masses.  Another shadow side is subtle.  It’s marked by hope.

Thank you for practising,


shadow 3

A few days ago, I took up an exchange with someone who is leaving me feeling wonderfully righteous and quite holier-than-her.  I’m enjoying this.  It’s always a delight to my dark side to see clearly how greed is operating in someone else, how it has motivated her subversive actions, and how it’s revelation to the larger community is causing her grief.  Now, I’m certainly not enjoying the resonant experience of her suffering.  As a good Buddhist, how could I?  But as a karmic accelerator for her unskillfulness, I do feel I’m acting in her best interest by confronting her craving and grasping.  After all, it’s not only that she’s violating the precepts (or at least, if she were Buddhist, she’d know they were precepts) but that the larger community is being harmed in many different ways.

Incredible exercise, isn’t it? I thought I’d write from my real Dark Side.  This is the side that easily justifies all manner of unskillfulness and likes to throw the victim/recipient under the Dharma Wheel.  It was scarily easy to write and very uncomfortable to read.  And a good lesson for my quickly inflatable ego.

But let’s not rush past this.  The shadow side of morality or virtue is a hugely challenging practice for me.  So easy to climb up onto that pedestal.  If it wasn’t such a cardio workout to get up there, I’d install one of those side-saddle chair lifts.

The incident is real.  I can’t judge my skillfulness in confronting the person.  Opinions vary.  However, I heard two things that made me stop and question my own practice of shila.  The first was a response from a colleague that said, “Wow.  Remind me never to piss you off.”  If the translation of shila is “cool and peaceful” then my interventions were hardly that; nor were they perceived to be that.  This is the first clue that virtue has slid into the shadow of righteousness.  Oh yes, I can defend my actions as the skillful outrage designed to protect the innocent.  Hell, it took me two hours to craft my written letter to the supposed antagonist.  But that’s an inadmissible defense because not only did it cause ripples in the system, it created an edge with others that they fear to tread over.  And, ironically, collateral damage to relationships is the very thing I was confronting in the first place.

The second thing I heard was in the person’s response.  After a long and winding explanation of how she had and had not meant to do what she did and did not do, she said, “But I don’t know what I did that was seen as unethical!”  It’s hard to feel righteous in the face of helplessness.  I suppose I should know by now that our scars create blind spots in our vision of self and of others.  I mean both for her and me.  And Manjushri’s sword is no scalpel that can carefully excise away someone else’s scar tissue.  In fact, wielding that Bodhisattva’s sword is about the only time we can do brain surgery on ourselves.


I hate it when I’m right.  I hate it much more when I’m righteous.

Thank you for practising – at least one of us is…


shadow 2

Sangha Arana is our home sangha – or more correctly, it’s our sangha-in-the-home.  As you may have seen in other photographs, our living room/dining room is the zendo and what constituted the LR/DR is tucked warmly into the “TV” room and kitchen.  My non-Buddhist friends (whose numbers diminish by the day) look at me as if I’ve lost my mind but I think it’s only because they miss the weekend long gatherings punctuated by beer, hot dogs, and hamburgers on the BBQ.  My Buddhist friends (whose numbers are quite static) also look at me as if I’ve lost my mind – which coming from a bunch of Zennies should be a compliment, I suppose.

And therein lies many a session about form and wholeheartedness, ritual and zealousness.

Sangha Arana started out as a space and time limited to health care professionals so that we could gather and practice mindfulness through meditation (that is worded deliberately).  As an experiment in providing a space for us to “be ourselves,” where we could disrobe from our professional obligations, it was a minimal success.  The shadow side of prajna kept creeping in and finally absorbed much of the light.  We are so highly trained in the “compare and contrast treatment efficacies” that it is hard to leave that judgemental, preferential mind on the elevator.  But as the disgruntled fell away, there was left a quiet group of us who have come to appreciate the privilege to have the time and space free to dig deep into our shadow side.

At a point in this evolution of community, however, we stretched the definition of “health care” and open the doors to more “professionals,” eventually throwing them wide open to anyone who wanted to practice in a Zen tradition.  That, of course, meant reiterating the ground rules each evening; Thich Nhat Hanh called for deep patience in such times.  After all, he said, the airlines always go over the skills of clinching seat belts and finding the emergency exits each time you get on an airplane because even if it is your 100th flight, it’s always someone’s first.  So we gently repeated, every evening, the ways in which to practice with us.  And, Arana, for a while, became a magnet for people who believed wholeheartedly that the aspiration to find one’s true nature meant doing what came naturally.  About the time our evenings became a roundtable on levitation and license of all things sexual, I woke up to the shadow side of patience.

My reaction (and I take full responsibility for this) was to be even more wholehearted about practice.  By which I meant a strong adherence to “ritual,” thinly disguised as a means of order and control.  These shadow manifestations are fascinating.  Being wholehearted about practice slides so easily into an accreted view of how practice should be.  Being patient softens the boundaries so that no one knows the edge of practice.

Thank you for practising,


shadow 1

It’s been a while since I’ve had the inclination to play with breath-brush-body.  When we lived in Montreal, Quebec, every evening, my parents and I would go for a walk after dinner.  The route took us squarely from our home along a major thoroughfare, and across a boulevard lined by industrial shops on one side and the commuter railway on the other.  That end of the neighbourhood bordered another where the beer factories spewed out columns of white gases, rank with hops.  When the wind blew from the southwest, the rancid smell floated across into the parallel blocks of red brick duplexes and occasional bungalow that huddled together waiting to be gentrified.  On days like that, walking past the shops, my father would stop at one, sniff the air, and read aloud the hand-inked cardboard in the sooty window: Inspiration, Limited.

He would laugh, “You don’t have to look far to see why, m’girl, eh?”

A silly memory but in the last few weeks, it’s been popping up.  Inspiration, Limited.  Head-learning will do that: limit all inspiration.  I’ve been scrambling through my notes from the chaplaincy retreat to write the papers, catching up on technical articles in preparation for the next cohort of soon-to-be MBSR teachers, surveying my library for an inspirational Zen book to blog about, and just plain sneaking in a novel.  This is too much brain candy and I think I went into knowledge-shock, a non-life-threatening form of insulin shock.  But it’s definitely a state that can bring on a similar form of delusional process – I started to believe I knew things.

Thankfully, one of the aspects I was working on from the chaplaincy retreat, which coincided with my re-reading of Roshi Aitken’s book on the Paramitas, was the “shadow” side of each paramita.  The cultivation of Prajna or Wisdom, for example, is an “inspirational” practice (to use Roshi Aitken’s term).  However, it is more related to striping away the layers of delusion than collecting the flotsam and jetsam of information.  When approached with the over-zealous, driven quality we tend to bring to cultivating Wisdom can manifest as a righteousness.  It can lead to fixed positions which then bring about misunderstandings and suffering.   Similarly, single-focused concentration is an inspirational practice.  Not only is it a form of coming home, it gives rise to stick-to-it-iveness, hanging in when the difficult and unwanted come to visit.  Pushing it beyond the edge of Dhyana results in obsession or a tunnel-vision that excludes important aspects of one’s life.

“Inspiration limited” has taken on a new meaning and is a neat little mindful bell for me over this week as I work with the paramitas and their shadow.  I’m finding it a challenge to sense that tipping point where the practice shifts from light to shadow – or at the very least notice the layering of shadow elements over what is.

Thank you for practising,