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.

thatched hall

The Gulf disaster and the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Tibet have highlighted the fragile ecosystem we inhabit and disastrous impact of our lifestyle choices.  And yet, it seems far removed from our everyday life as we get on with the business of life as we want it to be.  Around here, it was another weekend on the farm, consumed with getting vegetable patches ready for planting and violating the First Precept by killing an infestation of grain beetles that had taken up residence in a bag of wheat germ.  To honor the call to action on Sunday, however, I made a determined attempt to look around at the world I inhabit, day after day.

We live on a farm outside the city.  I can’t say that we moved here because of any great conscience about the state of the world.  It was isolated and it allows us a way of life that is simpler than being on an intensely consuming grid of electrical and social power.  Sometimes, I rant and rail against the isolation and the demands of travelling back and forth.  But by the time I turn onto the gravel road, all I want is the silence and view of the maple-dotted ridge and the river where the herons gather.  The house is about 90 years old and we’ve only done the bare minimum to keep it habitable.  We often joke that, when we had horses, the barn was more a photo spread for House and Garden than the house itself.

On weekends, we drive from the farm into town along a route that takes us through the village and then winds  into the quickly spreading suburbs.  It’s a 30 minute drive into this part of town and, along the way, there are houses left abandoned for reasons only known within families: death, illness or the pull for newer and larger abodes.  Markers of life in more difficult yet in some ways, simpler times.

Living the philosophy of a simple life is not so simple.  It often involves taking a stand against prevailing attitudes, speaking to the truth of what is unfolding, accepting what is inevitable without giving in to it, and knowing there will be an ultimate intimacy with the earth.  I’d like to share some of these perspectives over this week in the context of an interesting little book by Burton Watson titled Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life.   The four householders – the huts are metaphors for being a householder – write of an eerily contemporary parallel in their perspectives and their struggles.

The first is Po Chu-i (also known in the familiar as Lo-t’ien) who was one of the most prolific and popular of the T’ang poets.  Growing up in poverty, he ascended the ranks of the civil service only to run afoul of the government because of his tendency to be outspoken against the reigning policies.  Sent to china’s version of Coventry, a remote area south of the Yangtze, he discovered Mount Lu and built a house which he called “grass-thatched hall.”

Three spans, a pair of pillars, two rooms, four windows – the dimensions and expenditures were all designed to fit my taste and means….  One night here and my body is at rest, two nights and my mind is content, and after three nights I’m in a state of utter calm and forgetfulness.

Po-Chu’i only lived there for two years but it seemed a restorative place in all its simplicity and he was content to live out his career as a lowly civil servant  as a consequence for having taken the stands he did.  What did it matter in the end that he was only a “marshal – a fitting post to spend old age in” if it gave him “Kuang’s Mount Lu, a place for running away from fame.”

A new thatched hall, five spans by three;
stone steps, cassia pillars, fence of plaited


The south eaves catch the sun, warm on
winter days;
a door to the north lets in breezes, cool in
summer moonlight.

Cascades from the spring that drip on the
paving splatter it with dots;
the slanting bamboo that brushes the
window isn’t planted in rows.

Next spring I’ll thatch the side room to
the east,
fit it with paper panels and reed blinds for
my Meng Kuang.

I wonder.  In these calls to action, how can we take the necessary stands, suffer the consequences, and not whine about the exile?  Can we experience, in the reach of Mount Lu, the mountains and rivers and build thatched huts from which to enjoy them?

Thank you for practicing,


inside outside


It’s a very still Fall morning.  We’re packed and headed out for a two hour drive northwest into a weekend of cold and snow, I’m told.  I’m hoping the colours on the ridges and hills haven’t faded.  As I write this, I watch a brown-breasted nuthatch feeding frantically, the colours of its breast feathers glowing in the sunlight.  Inside the room, the little hibiscus is flowering.

Inside and outside.

Seasons can be so arbitrary.


Thank you for practising,


2 wooden bowls

This treasure was discovered in a bamboo thicket —
I washe
d the bowl in a spring and then mended it.
At night,
it serves me soup or rice.
Cracked, worn, weather-beaten, and misshapen

But still of noble stock.

Our friend Ryokan (Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen poems of Ryokan translated by John Stevens) is the master of voluntary simplicity which the Simple Living Network describes as “living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.”  It is guided by five values, the first of which is material simplicity.  Although it may seem like an advocacy of living in mud huts and eating twigs, it’s really not.  Voluntary simplicity is about seeing that what we have is enough and living in a way that greatly reduces the drain on our resources.

Fall Produce 2

I look around this room and wonder about my choices.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my TV (but really, three in a house with two people?), the computers (ok, we do need two for two working professionals), the cameras (OK, I’ll admit selfishness – I don’t share well), and books (non-negotiable but in my defense many are over 40 years old).  At the same time, the sofa set was the first new sofa we bought in 25 years.  Most of our cars have been 10-15 years old by the time they left for the great trade-in grounds.  The other furniture in the house are legacies of two sets of parents and thrift stores 30 years ago.  Our big exciting splurge last year was a new more efficient wood stove.  And the rocking chair in front of it was my very first furniture purchase in 1974 (and no, it doesn’t need to be fixed; the kitchen table keeps it from falling over).

We recycle, compost, shop carefully, and monitor our vehicle use.  And still, I fall into that rooster-mind of craving.  For months after the last sesshin, I found myself coveting a set of oryoki bowls of my own.  How appropriate that the definition on the Shambhala site of oryoki is “just enough”!  After much rationalizing, I forego the packaged sets on line ($100+fuel costs to get them here) and buy three bamboo bowls and spatula ($40) from a local store, supplementing them with chopsticks from the sangha collection and napkins from the linen closet.  Noble enough stock.

Practice too is like that.  There is a desire for an external rightness: right time, the right mat, the right cushion, the right room, the right atmosphere, the right community.  Ultimately, I think we wish we had the right life so that practice is a natural flow of one perfect moment into another.  And we miss that we already own all of it.

Where you meditate has everything to do with how useful your meditation will be.  But by where, I don’t necessarily mean in which room of the house, or whether you live in a quiet spot or not.  I simply mean that you should meditate inside the life you have.  If you are an accountant, meditate inside an accountant’s life.  If you are a policeman, meditate inside of that.  Wherever you want to illuminate your life, meditate precisely in that spot.  (The Wooden Bowl by Clark Strand)