rohatsu highlights 2: tender indifference

I’ve spent the last four hours trying to get Outlook to work.  For some reason, it stopped sending email notifications of appointments I booked over the day.  It doesn’t have to be a big deal but technology and I have co-dependent relationship; it promises joy and ease and I will pay any price for delivery.  Unfortunately, the only thing it delivers is obsession and if I complain about the misrepresentation, it points out that the fault is in my perception.

So, I have spent more time than it deserved trying every tactic to get Outlook to return to our old relationship where I enjoyed the delusion of partnership and it hid its tender indifference from me.  (The term is from Camus’ The Stranger, a book I have not read but the words heard in one of the dharma talks struck me deeply.)  We so hate to be thwarted in our desires, especially when we are convinced those desires are our deliverance.

Reflecting on the various partnerships I’ve forged over the years and what tender indifferences were hidden from me makes for an interesting explore.

Thank you for practising,



rohatsu reflections

It’s always difficult to put words into an experience like a silent retreat.  Well, it is now for me.  Used to be, I could come home and blather on about this, that, and all those people, places and things that collided during the days (often seemingly interminable days).  So far, I’ve been to two sesshins – silent retreats complete with oryoki (formal eating from three bowls and confusing utensils while sitting perched on my cushion trying not to spill anything on the zendo floor).  It’s actually fun.  And that being the case, I think I’ve been missing the point of sesshins.

Rohatsu is different, I told myself.  First of all, it has this exotic title and it’s a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Second, we practice not just to commemorate the event of his Awakening but it’s a chance to get there ourselves!  In other words, it can be categorized and there is a likely outcome!  Ingredients I tend to like in a mix.

Of course, this is supposed to be the ingredients of any sitting.  That I-am-too-friggin’-tired-to-sit-this-morning sitting, the why-do I-always-leave-it-for-the-evening-when I’m-too-friggin’-tired sitting, the Oh-good-we’re-in-sangha-so-I-can-just-look-like-I’m-sitting sitting.  All of these are opportunities to awaken.  But somehow, putting a name like Rohatsu and making it a festivity just seems to sweeten the deal which made Rohatsu a longed-for experience for many years.

I have to admit, I was a little anxious heading to Upaya this go around.  I’ve been in deep discussions with Roshi and Maia about issues of Chaplaincy and my thoughts about going into the second year.  Much of it is related to time but also to my categorical mind which cannot discern between Chaplaincy and Psychology.  But before we get into that, let me share a few memories of Rohatsu – which turned out to be a fascinating mix of sleep and waking.

Day 1: It’s like Homecoming!  Met up with all my buddha-buddies. My seat assignment is perfect!  I’m surrounded by my dharma pals, Andrew, Maria, and a few more.  It’s like being in a little dewdrop!

Day 2: This isn’t a picture of roshi.  It’s a picture my mind made of roshi when I met with her to continue our discussions face-to-face.  She asks, “What is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?”  I blather.  She says, “Thank you for your practice.”  But it’s that Bodhidharma look my mind registers.  A new koan: what is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?

Day 3: I’m into the oryoki.  Brought my own set too.  Bamboo bowls.  Laminated bamboo bowls. Somewhere from the depths of samadhi – or dozing, I can’t tell the difference – I recall the instructions: do not soak bowls in water.  The server fills the bowl with tomato soup.  It’s not water, I say, reassuringly.  It’ll be fine.  We chant the food offering and hold up the Buddha bowl (that’s the first and largest bowl).  In my case, it’s filled with hot tomato soup.  For a while anyway.  It seems hot liquid in a laminated bamboo is the perfect condition for liberation of tomato soup.

Day 4: It’s been 4 days and 12 oryoki meals.  I’m sure I’m transcending because my dharma sister and Chaplaincy classmate Susan’s red painted toes with a gold ring on one of them are looking like the path to nirvana.  Or maybe it’s just Pavolvian.  Susan serves larger quantities than that other server with the blank toenails.  I wonder if I will now drool every time I see red painted toes.

The temple assistant had asked us to take off all our jewellery on the first day.  I didn’t think my rings and earrings were “jewellery” since I wear them everyday.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Not thinking.

I brought chocolate-covered almonds (code CCA) to get me through the rough patches and drop one on the floor of my room.  “TWO-SECOND RULE!!!” my mind screams (it does that just to get attention and  to hear itself speak).  Germs in the zen center, germs int he zendo… And I begin to wonder about the germs in my oryoki set (they only get washed out with hot tea at the end of each meal).  But then, germs are beings too and they probably are sitting Rohatsu along with us…

Day 5:  I’m taken by Enkyo roshi.  Something about the way her mouth and eyes dance when she’s scanning the room.  Like we’re mala beads and she’s reciting a mantra.  I’m hoping it has something to do with getting my enso submissions into the Sweetcake Enso art show at the Village Zendo. Oh… craving, clinging, ego, eggo, eggs for breakfast, hmmm, have to ask Sandra about that raw cashew fig cream thingie…

Roshi Joan, Beate Stolte sensei, and Kaz Tanahashi sensei all give talks along with Enkyo roshi.  The theme is “Buddha and all the buddhas”.  Kaz sensei talks about upper case Buddhas – and he gives an amazing historical perspective of the Big B-Buddha.  He’s not in favour of capitalizing Buddha because it’s all about the lower case buddhas.  Changing the English language, he says.  But not when we have to write Buddhism or Buddhists because in the face of all the other religions who get to capitalize themselves, we Buddhists should not “lower our case.”

Sensei Beate can’t stop laughing because Sensei Kaz says that in German all nouns are capitalized so Buddha has to become a verb.  I thought I heard Kaz say “ich bin buddhaen” but Beate is laughing to hard for me to figure it out.  She reads from Camus’ The Stranger.  I’m caught by the words: tender indifference of the universe.

Sensei Al had talked the day before about brains swinging in harmony and Enkyo gets into the groove with Zen Master Duke Ellington’s teachings: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.  Dowa, do wa, do what?

“Transcend the koans!” Roshi Joan says.

Day 6: We all go out in the early morning to watch the morning star.  At home, once when I sat Rohatsu, I stayed up through the night.  That was last year.  This year I’m too old to do silly things like that.  We walked out into the parking lot and huddled together.  That’s the brightest I’ve ever seen Venus shine.  Enkyo roshi had talked about the invisible buddhas who point out the obvious next thing we have to do.  Just after being slapped by Linchi for his impertinent question, Elder Ting bows when told to by an unnamed monk.  He awakens.  Body and mind come together in that instant.

Bodhi and mind.

Day 7: Svaha!  Loosely translated as “Yahoo!”

My roomie and I hit the trails to the Tea House for chocolate chai and pie.  Coming back to the ZC, I get a sloppy lip-smacking lick by Lucy the Wonder Dog.

And wake up.

And wake up again at 3AM the next day which lead into a 24 hour travel day with flight delays in Chicago.  Maybe I’m not too old to do that overnight zazen.

Thank you for practising,


keeping now holy

Barry posted a version of Peter Mayer singing Holy Now on Ox Herding a few weeks ago.  Then Jan Chozen Bays of Great Vow posted this version her Facebook page with this comment:

Peter Mayer’s sacred science song, with captioned lyrics. Organizations may play this video publicly by downloading the mp4 and donating at: (Note: This video, by Connie Barlow, is authorized by Peter Mayer for public use on a donations basis.).


See you all in 2 weeks!

Thank you for practising,


the heart’s retreat

This weekend, we ran a retreat training a group of health care professional in the skills to run Mindfulness-Based programs. It always amazes me that we can be so  highly trained yet feel so much fear when test-driving new techniques or practices.  Of course, it’s a statement of courage that we tolerate our fear so that we can engage willingly in learning ways to better care for others.  In simple terms, these retreats blow my mind.  One exercise we always do is to sit in groups of two and ask: what does your heart yearn for?

What does my heart yearn for?

Rest.  Peace.  Silence.  Connection.

Rohatsu – the time we celebrate and consecrate the Buddha’s enlightenment – is December 8th.  I’ve yearned for years to take part in a Rohatsu retreat yet always felt the “red terror” at the thought of 7 days spent in such intense disciplined silence.  But life is too long to spend time yearning.  In two days, I’m headed to Upaya for Rohatsu with my dearest dharma siblings from all over the North American continent.  This time, different from other retreats, I am doing a few things that are cause the wave of red terror to rise.

I am not taking my notebook.

I am not going to schedule posts from Tuesday onwards.

I am not checking my phone (taking a separate alarm clock).

I am only taking the minimal clothing I will need.  Everything in the smallest carry-on I have.

What does my heart yearn for?

To let go with trust that nothing and everything will change.

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

tangle in the embrace

We go into the darkness, we seek initiation, in order to know directly how the roots of all beings are tied together: how we are related to all things, how this relationship expresses itself in terms of interdependence, and finally how all phenomena abide within one another.  Yes, the roots of all living things are tied together.  Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace.

Roshi Joan Halifax

Going into that darkness, I am aware of the part of me who is Mara, the illusion of who I am.  She challenges my right to be where I am, on the cushion, in my life.  She challenges my right to know who I am – the one who knows me by heart*.  It’s often a secret and silent struggle to assert my birthright.  There is a saying by Thich Nhat Hanh that I printed and laminated: Who you are not is the illusion of who you are.

To shatter the illusion, I bring this struggle into the open, into the visual field of Others.  Who I am is reflected in relationship but is not illusory.

I end this week of practice by touching the earth, witnessed by the Morning Star.  My fingertips brush the floor, mirroring all Buddhas who call to the ground of being to witness their right to be who they are, where they are, what they are.

It is a statement that all existence is relational, can only be relational.

Thank you for practising with me into the Morning Star,


*from Love after love by Derek Walcott

cease seeking

Without desire everything is sufficient.
With seeking myriad things are impoverished
Plain vegetable can soothe hunger.
A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.
Alone I hike with a deer.
Cheerfully I sing with village children.
The stream under the cliff cleanses my ears.
The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.


With each meditation, each moment of engagement with what is, I am becoming more aware of the sensations of desiring.  This occurs to me in a strand of thoughts: when I am content, contact is luxurious.   I take my time getting to know shape, feel, scent, music, colours, and flavour. Plain vegetables suffice in their richness.

When I’m ravenous for contact, there is an urgency that pushes through the sensations, desiring only that the ache of craving be soothed.  The connection is impoverished by theft.

Just this one breath…

just this one breath… is sized perfectly for my heart

Thank you for still practising,