10-foot-square life

This week I received wonderful news about two people I deeply admire and respect.  They each have played a deeply significant role in my spiritual and professional life which always leaves me wondering at the way random meetings and chance occurrences can shift the bedrock of our being. Melissa Myozen Blacker will receive inka from her teacher James Myo’un Ford Roshi in July creating a new bud in the long. flowing branch of Zen ancestors.  Melissa and Florence Meyer were my training teachers at the MBSR Practicum at the Center for Mindfulness in UMass and it was a life-changing experience.  My very first sesshin was at Melissa and her partner, David’s, zendo where I learned how not to stop fish from drowning.  You can follow Melissa’s teaching at Firefly Hall.  The other is  Dr. Al Kazniak, neuropsychologist and long-time student of Roshi Joan Halifax, who received Dharma Transmission on Sunday May 30th at Upaya Zen Center.  Al & I shared the great honor of being the bathroom cleaning crew during one sesshin which generated my favourite memory of sweeping the ground around Al’s feet.  Little did I know that washing those bowls and polishing the flagstones would become this extended opportunity to learn from and practice with him.

I was telling a friend about all this and said that it feels like there are amazingly clear footprints for me to follow.  She asked if I ever felt frustrated by expectations of where my path would take me.  Of course I am!  Looking at my somewhat peripatetic spiritual path, I feel as though I’ve wasted my time poking around the quick-fix types of practice, missed the boat, and shooed away the rescue workers trying to pull me from the disaster zones of my life.  And yet… and yet… there has been such a deep teaching in all of this.  The early disappointments came with the wild horsewomen of abandonment, shame, and blame.  Later let downs came with denial, distancing, and deconstruction.  Being older and tiring more easily, now I laugh.  Both with irrepressible joy for my dear dharma friends (who have always been teachers) and for my silliness in wishing something would grow from the disasters and calamities of my life.  I am learning, slowly and less painfully, to live in my own space, challenged and enriched by these wonderful people around me.

Kamo no Chomei, third author in Watson’s Four Huts, met with disappointments in his own life.  Born to a family of Shinto priests in Kyoto, he was not allowed to succeed his father, causing him much bitterness.  He turned to writing poetry and became a distinguished player of the lute although these accomplishments did not seem to fulfill him.  He became a Buddhist monk (I hate to think hie thee to a monastery is a solution but it does seem so for some of these tragic figures!) and wrote The Ten-Foot-Square Hut in his 10-foot-square hut.  Despite his accomplishments, Chomei’s writings play a repeating chord of defeat.  Still, he asks a penetrating question:

Possessing power, a man is filled with greed and desire; lacking supporters, he is an object of contempt.  Riches bring manifold fears, poverty finds one seething with discontent.  Depend upon others and you become their creature; have dependents of your own to look out for, and love and obligation ensnare you.  If you abide by the world’s ways, you suffer the loss of freedom; if you flout them, you are looked on as mad.  What place can you live, what activities can you pursue, in order to ensure a haven for your body and bring even a moment of peace to your mind?

My neighbour’s uncle lived in this little shack until he became ill in his late 70’s.  There is no electricity or running water in the hut; chopped wood, carried water all his life.  As most of his farm became surrounded by the ever-growing village, he became more and more reclusive.  Like Chomei, he escaped into silence and isolation.  I don’t know if, like Chomei, he hoped to escape creating any bad karma with (his) tongue.  Perhaps like Chomei, he too felt freed of judgment and censure if he did not perform the expected offices of the day. It seems tempting.  However, my strongest influences are from the Sutra on a Better Way to Live Alone and the life of Sodo Yokoyama (you can read about the “grass flute monk” here and here) which means I can’t resort to flight when the world fails me.

Reading Kamo no Chomei’s prose and feeling the great joy for my dharma friends, I am reinforced in the belief that there is no need to flee the world or seek peace through insulation.  Moreover, there are innumerable 10-foot-square huts in my life.  My office happens to be those dimensions – and there is so much that happens in these 100 square feet!  My gardens, study, and even the 2.5 sq feet of my zabuton are all huts in which and from which I practice.  These are also places where I meet all the stress points that become new growth.  Anyway, how can we run away from that ultimate abode – our own self?

Thank you for practicing,


moving the kamo & the bodhisattva zeno

Our next author on the simple life is Yoshishige no Yasutane who was strongly influenced by Po Chu-i whose grass thatched hall we visited yesterday.  Although Yoshishige no Yasutane wrote of a large mansion in the heart of Kyoto rather than a thatched hut, his sensibilities were rooted in the simple and the spiritual.  After he retired from the civil service in 986, he became a Buddhist monk.  His Record of the Pond Pavilion describes the displacement of people from areas of the city as the landscape was dramatically shifted to accommodate urban sprawl.  Changing the course of the river Kamo and the widespread deforestation to make room for estates caused floods in many areas.  Yoshishige no Yasutane describes the vast changes in the community:

There are abandoned homes where thorns and brambles grew till they covered the gate, and foxes and raccoon dogs dug their burrows there in peace.  From all this it is clear that it is Heaven that is destroying the western sector and no fault of men.

Despite the attempts of farmers and gardeners to adapt, rice paddies flood. Do they expect the citizens of the capital to turn to fish?

The exodus into what were recreational lands cause the loss of forests and streams.  Is Heaven causing this as well, or is it the madness of men themselves? he asks.

He describes his own home: the buildings cover four tenths of the area, the pond three ninths, the vegetable garden two eights, and the water-parsley patch one seventh…  Everything I’ve loved all my life is to be found here.

Just outside the range of the picture to the right are rows of townhouses and supersized homes built on what was farmland and marsh.  The joke in one of the new developments was that they built a pond to replace the marsh because the latter was smelly.  But that only expanded the ground of water and floods everything in the Spring.  It’s natural, I suppose, to want shiny, new things – homes, cars, gadgets.  I freely admit to lusting after the iPad at the moment.  So I can’t be judgmental about the buyers and sellers of what are the grass thatched huts of others.  An externally constructed hunger is an illusion and only feels so real because it mirrors an inner hunger.  We each design our excesses to feed this imagined hunger and, strangely, are surprised when it can only mirror lack.

Yasutane pushes the edge: if we can’t control many aspects of our outer environment, we can be master architects of our inner environment. In its construction, our spiritual abode causes no expense to the people, no trouble to the spirits.  We use benevolence and righteousness for the ridgepole and beam, ritual and law for the pillar and base stone, truth and virtue for a gate and door, mercy and love for a wall and hedge. The piling of goodness is the family fortune.  Such a house cannot be destroyed, invaded, or fall victim to disaster and it passes long into successive generations.

But first, I do have to deal with the external mirages of wanting more and more.  Out of the neural mess I call thinking, Zeno’s challenge emerged as an interesting bodhisattva practice.  So, I invite myself to see how I can get by with half of what I think I need and push to practice with even half less and half again – 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, ad infinitum.

Thank you practicing – and not by halves,


Addendum:  Please read Ox Herding today for Barry’s brilliant insight to the difference 1% can make.