Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Dharma of Caring

I've brought this post over from my old gardening blog; I think it belongs here as well.

photo credit

This post isn't really about gardening, except in the sense of life, death, renewal, loss, that sort of thing.

This month, an essay I wrote is appearing in a small Buddhist journal called The Mindfulness Bell. This publication is put out by the Order of Interbeing, which practices in the tradition of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. This is the tradition which I practice in. The essay is about my experience of caring for a friend who was dying from brain cancer.

Some definitions for those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism:

sangha -- a community of practitioners who meditate together and support each other

dharma -- the teachings of the Buddha; truths about the nature of life, reality, and our consciousness

dharma sharing -- the practice of speaking from your heart about the joys and trials of your practice, and of listening deeply as others speak; the period of time set aside for this sharing during each sangha gathering, which is all but unique to this tradition

tea ceremony -- in this tradition, the special format of certain sangha gatherings, during which we share tea and food (nuts, orange slices) mindfully together, and then share songs, stories, paintings, poems, etc., in order to "water seeds of joy."

boddhisatva -- a being who commits him- or herself to relieving the suffering of all other beings, through deep understanding and compassion


Sangha as Refuge: The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

by Lauren Thompson

I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by the facts of her family situation. She was living alone at that time. Her parents had both died years earlier. She had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, spending hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition would worsen, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger. What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.”

“I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore – it carried Alison, and it carries me still. This is the dharma of caring for our sangha sister, Alison.

Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

Alison on her 42nd birthday

Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir on her experiences with Alison K.

Copyright (c) 2009 Lauren Thompson

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What to Do if You Meet a Thought

This is something I shared with a few folks in the sangha some years ago. It bears repeating, I think. (There is a pun in there, which will become clear as you read on.)


There are no definite rules about what to do if you meet a thought. Thought attacks are rare compared to the number of close encounters. However, if you do meet a thought before it has time to leave the area, here are some suggestions. Remember: Every situation is different with respect to the thought, the terrain, the people, and their activity.

STAY CALM: If you see a thought and it hasn’t seen you, calmly leave the area.

STOP: Back away slowly while facing the thought. Give the thought plenty of room to escape. Wild thoughts rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.

SPEAK SOFTLY: This may reassure the thought that no harm is meant it.

If a thought stands upright or moves closer it may be trying to detect smells in the air. This isn’t a sign of aggression. Once a thought identifies you, it may leave the area or it may try to intimidate you by charging within a few feet before it withdraws.

Don't run or make any sudden movements. Running is likely to prompt the thought to give chase and you can’t outrun a thought.

Contributed by Kim Boykin, substituting "thought" for "bear" in the Colorado Division of Wildlife's "What to Do if You Meet a Bear" pamphlet

Source: Bay Area Young Adult Sangha

P.S. You can purchase this Meditating Bear Garden Statue if you wish. Who would have thought that googling "meditating bear" would bring up anything?

Wisconsin Winter Drive

Driving up from Milwaukee to Algoma, to my sister-in-law's farm in Kewaunee County. Along the way, views of Lake Michigan.

A world away from Brooklyn.

Click to discover The Be Good Tanyas, one of my favorite groups.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Perfectionism, Foiled Again

Yesterday I decided to try, for the first time, to wet-mount a few of my paintings, with home-cooked wheat paste. I'd seen my teacher do it, and I'd read about it in two books, and also watched a video on YouTube. I felt prepared, very prepared. And excited.

The first attempt went well. I really enjoyed stirring up the paste, and spraying the painting (image side down) and the backing paper, and smoothing on the paste with a wide brush. Just as Mr. Choey had done, I was able to lay the wet backing paper over the wet painting, then pull both up together and, holding up the wet, newly-fused work like a freshly-processed photo, draped it against a vertical board so that it could dry. Very satisfying.

So I thought I'd move on to the painting that really mattered to me, a painting of two fish. I have been planning to send this as a gift to a friend for many weeks now, as soon as I had mounted it.

Everything went well once again. The whole activity was absorbing and very enjoyable. I was taking risks, learning, exploring. Smiling a lot. The experience, and the work, were, dare I say, perfect.

It wasn't until this morning, when I checked whether the two paintings had dried, that I noticed the problem. Somehow, I had managed to paste the fish image-side down against the backing paper. When everything was wet, the paper was translucent and it was hard to tell which side was which. (Though the backwards calligraphy should have been a clue.) Now that it was dry, it was clear that everything had gone oh, so wrong.

Well, only one thing had gone wrong, but it was a very important thing. So much for perfection. Now I was looking at loss. A lost painting, a lost gift.

But not yet. I wasn't giving up on it yet.

I couldn't find anything in my books or on-line about how to remove a wrongly-applied backing from the front of a painting. Just the note from one of my books:

Take care not to paste the rice paper on the painted side! Mounting a painting back to front is a common mistake made even by professionals.

Made even by professionals. Cold comfort.

I decided to try to separate the backing from the painting by brushing water over the whole thing, hoping the paste would dissolve and release the paper before it all turned into one soggy rice-papery mess.

After about twenty minutes, I found that I could begin to peel away the backing. But bits of the painting, onion-skin fine, stuck to the backing paper. Gently I held up the backing with one hand and eased the painting layer back in place with a knife. I would say "scraped," but the effort was to approach the notion of "scrape" without truly meeting it.

The suspension of paper, the suspension of breath; the suspension of fear, lest fear pierce the onion-skin boundary between not-lost and lost.

Here is the painting, face-up, after I had removed the backing. A bit torn and ragged, but mostly whole.

After a few hours, it was dry again. I cooked up more paste, rewetted the painting and a new piece for backing, stroked on the paste, and made certain -- certain -- that I was applying the backing to the back of the painting.

Here it is, re-mounted and drying on a vertical board.

The painting is bruised and scarred, but nobly so, I hope. I think that it wasn't perfectionism, in the end, that drove me to transform back-to-front to back-to-backing. For through all this anxious, meticulous effort there was a lot of joy. I think this was Right Effort, Right Diligence. For if someone were to ask me why I was doing this, I would say, "Because I like it -- it is bringing me joy."

This fish has been through the wars, so to speak, but it still embodies joy to me, and I hope to others.

The calligraphy means "Friend." Jacqueline, this painting will soon (I hope) be on its way to you.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I have been too busy to post, busy making our holiday cards. This year the theme is birds.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry Friday: Dear Writer,

This week, an old poem of mine.

Dear Writer,

Thank you for sending
your story
for our consideration
After careful review
we regret to say

we do all want most of all
to escape the
mere eventfulness
of our lives
the familiar ambiguity
of elevator doors opening
and day following night
of saved receipts
and national news updates
and the trace of a gull's flight
past the gray horizon

Thank you for casting your dread
upon the waters of these pages
We return them to you
mostly unread

The Editors

-- Lauren Thompson

I have a folder of rejection letters, some no more than an eighth of a sheet of typing paper, stating in a sentence or two, Thanks but no thanks.  I never did have a short story accepted. Eventually I had a total of three poems published; that is, before I started crafting them as children's books. I just needed to find the right format for my words.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Refuge: In Memory of John Daido Loori

I've learned that John Daido Loori, founder and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, passed away on October 9, 2009. I never met him in person, but I've gained a lot from his writing about creativity and other themes.

Water Seeing Water, John Daido Loori

I often think about one of his commentaries of the idea of "refuge," which I read in the Winter 2007 issue of Tricycle magazine. In that piece, which was excerpted from one of his books, Loori looks deeply into the idea of "refuge." He begins by reminding us that in Zen training, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures by chanting, "Being one with the Buddha, being one with the Dharma, being one with the Sangha." So "refuge" means "being one with."  But what does it mean to "be one with"?

     The word we translate as “refuge” is taken from the Japanese term kie-ei. Kie-ei consists of two characters. Kie means “to unreservedly throw oneself into,” no holding back, no way out, no safety net, harness, or rope. That is the way a parent rescues a child who is in danger.... The second character, ei, literally means “to rely upon,” in the way that a child leaps into a parent’s arms, trusting unequivocally.
     I remember when my children were young. They were able to stand by themselves but couldn’t yet walk, and I would stand them up on the dresser and say, “Jump!” They would throw themselves into space, knowing I would be there. They had a complete sense of trust. It was total doing. “Unreservedly throwing oneself into and relying upon” differs from “a shelter or protection from danger or distress”—the more common definition of the word refuge.

Toward the end of this excerpt, he asks us to search ourselves:

Why do we practice? What is it that we seek? What is it that we want? What is it that we are prepared to do to get what we want? Are we willing to practice the edge, take a risk, unreservedly throw ourselves into practice?

I find a noble challenge in the contrast between refuge as "shelter from distress" and refuge as "throwing oneself into." Does the practice of taking refuge -- of taking refuge in practice -- play out as seeking shelter, playing it safe -- or just going for it? I mean in my life, in my everyday living. Unreservedly throwing myself into practice: to me, that means unreservedly being present to those around me. Unreservedly being present to myself. Unreservedly being present to what is, right now.

Every moment there is the choice: Jump! Or, wait and see. (Or, not now, I'm too busy.)

It comes back again to No Fear. Fearlessness, having no more fear. Just jump!

Like I said, this is a noble challenge for me. I'm not big on jumping. I'm used to fear; with fear I feel secure.

But I love that image of John Daido Loori's children jumping off the dresser into his arms. How wonderful that must have felt for them! Can I be next?

When I was little, my mother tells me, I loved to jump in my crib. I jumped so energetically that the crib would travel from one side of the room to the other. Here I am, jumping and smiling. Yes, it feels good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Nice things happen

This is the painting I will enter for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Student/Teacher Art Show.

Plum Blossom Awakening by Lauren Thompson

Mr. Choey wet-mounted it for me so that all the wrinkles are gone, and it will be preserved. I still need to matte and frame it.

We have the option of listing a price for our paintings, not that very many of them sell. Last year, when I submitted for the first time, I had no idea how people price their work for a show like this, so I put $75, which would cover the cost of the frame and matte and some of the supplies I'd bought for the class. When I went to the show, I was amazed to see that prices ranged from $150 to $800, with $300 being about average. Some pieces looked very professional, and others, well, not so much. But most artists had listed a price; only a few went with "NFS." I thought, "Next year, I'm pricing up."

I didn't expect that anyone would buy my painting, though of course I was a tiny bit hopeful. Over the month that the show was up, only about five works out of eighty were awarded with the red dot sticker: "sold."

The last day of the show was a Saturday, when I was at the Garden anyway for the Chinese brush painting class. I took a break from the class in order, I hoped, to pick up my painting, so that I wouldn't have to come back for it the next day. (This was in February, and I'm dependent on my bike for travel, so I was hoping to avoid another cold ride. And Sundays are always busy for me anyway.) The gallery and adjoining cafe were posted to closed at 4:00 pm, but when I arrived at the entrance at 3:20 pm or so, I was told by the guard that it was too late to go in. There were a number of us who wanted to visit that building, but she was firm -- NO. Soon they were going to start asking people to leave, and they didn't have enough guards, so no one new was allowed to enter.

Well, I started to get annoyed. It wasn't the first time that I had experienced the Garden as rigid and nonaccomodating; up came the memory and resentment of bringing my toddler son to the Garden and being scolded for serving him his sippy cup and a baggie's worth of Oatios -- no outside food allowed. And other memories, too. The garden is a beautiful place and there is so much I love about it, but I have found it hard to let go of these little grudges against it. Now, being denied access to my painting and being forced to return another day in the cold were felling blows.

I was able to walk away from that guard before I spoke in anger, but by the time I reached the guards at the entrance of the classroom building, I couldn't hold back. I complained to them about the other guard, and they jumped to her defense. The rules aren't up to them, there aren't enough guards, there's nothing any of them could do. I could see, in the eyes of one of the guards, a look that to me read, "Oh yes, another entitled Park Slope type, always wanting things exactly her way." Meanwhile, I'm saying, "I just want to pick up my painting!" To which one of the guards responded, "They probably wouldn't let you take it anyway." Which was probably true.

After venting a bit more, I went back down to class and tried to paint. I knew I had behaved badly.  Equanimity, I counseled myself. Let go. But I was still annoyed.

The next day, I arrived during the two hours designated as "pick up" time, cold and a little miffed. When I got down to the gallery, I saw a couple standing near my painting. It turns out that they had just decided to buy it. They were thrilled to meet me in person -- they treated me like a celebrity, and I blushed a lot. All I could say was, "Thank you. I feel so honored that you like my painting. I feel so honored."

I had with me the packing material for the frame, so I packed it up for them. They gave the exhibit director a check and then went off, hand in hand, taking my painting with them. I felt so full of joy, so grateful. As I climbed the stairs to leave, unexpectedly empty-handed, I felt an immense urge to bow. Along the stairway are planted soaring bamboo and palm trees, so I bowed to them. I bowed deeply, tears in my eyes. Then I thought, I have to apologize.

I went back to the education building -- fortunately, one of the guards from the day before was at the desk, the one with the eyes. I looked right into those eyes. I said, "I don't know if you remember me, I gave you a hard time yesterday about not being able to get my painting. Well, I'm here to apologize. I'm sorry that I took out my frustration on you. I shouldn't have done that."

He rocked back in his chair, smiling, and said, "Well, that's all right! Don't worry about it!" Then I told him how a couple had just bought it -- how if I had been able to take it home the day before, that wouldn't have happened. It wasn't so much that they bought my painting, but that they wanted it, and that they were so nice. The guard kept saying, "You see? Everything works out. You see?" Then he said to one of the other guards, "That's why I like working here. Nice things happen. You see?"

So I bundled up and put on my helmet, thanking him, thanking both of them, and giving them a little bow. Then I rode home, smiling and thinking about how I would tell my husband what had happened. Not just about the painting, but about the gratitude.

Nice things happen.

Birth of a star amid space dust 
[Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/P.S. Teixeira (Center for Astrophysics)]

P.S. That painting was of a wild orchid. It looked something like this:

My teacher, Mr. Choey, had seen it in the show. He never said, exactly, that my painting was incorrect, but he did say, "I will show you the right way to paint orchids." And he did, but his were cultivated orchids, not wild orchids. I'll keep working on them on my own. My goal is to paint something like this:

Orchid Dance by Cindy Pon. She is an up-and-coming children's book author and illustrator, as well as a dedicated Chinese brush artist.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Poetry Friday: Bamboo

In truth, Basho isn't my favorite haiku poet, but I like this one. It goes with my painting.

a cuckoo's cry --
moonlight seeping through
a large bamboo grove

[translation by Haruo Shirane]

“When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.” (Matsuo Basho)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trust in Sangha

I want to post today, but I need to make it short and quick. I am a writer by profession as well as avocation and temperament, and today I have a deadline to meet. Revision as practice -- now that is an idea worth exploring. (Or, procrastination as practice, maybe?) But not today, not here.

So I am posting one of my favorite passages from Thay, about the role of Sangha. Thay has said that of the three jewels, the most important is Sangha. His is truly the bodhisatva vision -- I am within you, and you are within me. We go nowhere alone.

When we are in a Sangha,
we are like a drop of water in a river.
We allow the Sangha to hold us and transport us.
Don’t be like a drop of oil in the river,
not mixing with the other drops of water --
that way you arrive nowhere.
Allow yourself to be transported by the Sangha
so that your pain, sorrow, and suffering
are recognized and embraced.

You have to trust the Sangha.
Imagine you are a drop of water
that would like to go to the ocean.
If you go alone, you might evaporate,
but if you allow yourself to be
embraced and transported by the Sangha,
then you will get there.
You suffer only when you are a separate drop of water.

Please remember this.

 painting: River Run by Devon Featherstone

Devon Featherstone is an award-winning, self-taught artist based in British Columbia. Click here to contact her about works available for purchase. 

[Quotation from Peace Begins Here. The line breaks are mine.]

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why practice?

Why practice mindfulness? Why step, stride, stumble along this path marked out by Siddhārtha Gautama 2,500 years ago?

Different traditions seem to have different answers. Different individuals have different answers. Presumably, they are really all the same answer.

Why practice?

  • To wake up. (I thought Suzuki Roshi might say this.)
  • To develop Compassion. (I thought the Dalai Lama might say this.)
  • To grasp ultimate reality. (Robert Thurman?)
  • To live with ease. (Sharon Salzberg?)
  • To become enlightened. (Whatever that means.)
  • To become lighter.
  • To be reborn in a happier form.
  • To cease to be reborn.
  • To suffer less from the slings and arrows of one's own arsenal.
  • To suffer less from slings and arrows period.
  • To be directed.
  • To be free.
  • To escape.
  • To return.
  • To crave less.
  • To crave but react less.
  • To relax.
  • To sleep better.
  • To sleep when one is asleep, to be awake when one is awake.
  • To become a buddha.
  • To be a buddha.
  • To become a bodhisatva.
  • To be a bodhisatva.

And why do I practice? All of the above.

But that answer is too easy. Sometimes I don't really know why I practice. But I think that Thay is on to something when he says, "Because I like it." Because it brings well-being. And that is the sum of the Buddha's way: if something increases well-being in you, keep doing it. If it increases ill-being in you, stop doing it (or at least do it less).

From a dharma talk given on June 11, 2009:

Why [do] you practice sitting meditation? The best answer is: Because I like it. Why do you practice walking meditation? Because I like it. . . . The practices of mindful walking, mindful breathing, smiling, bring well-being, happiness.
I like this. (Tee hee.) I guess in this instance, it is okay to have a preference. But this would be a deeply considered preference, not a conditioned preference. I guess.

Fodder for a future post ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poetry Friday: Three Haiku

Thanks to the storm formerly known as Hurricane Ida, we've had a very blustery day. I was out in it, riding to and from tai chi class. I watched the trees grow more bare with every gust. It was haiku, that is, bittersweet, to know that when the color and cover of the leaves are gone, they won't return for a long while.

Issa would know what I mean.

Of his 9,300 poems, here are three.

blowing from the east
west south north...
autumn gale

vast sky
vast earth
autumn passes too

behind me
the autumn wind blows
me home

The translator, David G. Lanoue, suggests that on one level, "home" in the last poem means death, our final destination. Tradition probably supports that interpretation. But at the same time, having just been out in the wind and having it behind me only half of my journey, I think that "home" might indeed mean home -- the sense that having fought one's way to whatever errand one needed to run, one is now happy to be hurried home, no matter how humble "home" may be.

Then there is Thay's sense of "home." The autumn wind nudging us, pushing us, back home, to the present moment. If you're not paying attention, you'll fall down.

Translations by David G. Lanoue. Visit his website to search through them all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Discrimination: Sometimes You Gotta Choose

I want to enter a painting for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Student/Teacher Art Exhibit. I can only enter one. I could choose something that I have already done, or I could enter something that I paint over the next week. The paintings can be quite large -- the only real limitation is the cost of backing, matting, and framing. (We are responsible for all of that, including meeting the Exhibit's requirements.)

Two paintings I'm considering are small enough to fit on my scanner, so I thought I would post them here, in the M & L Student/Teacher Art Exhibit. (I would love to enter both, as a unit that look very much like two paintings but are really just one painting, as Required.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Brush Sweeps Mind

In Chinese Brush Painting class, we always start with calligraphy, as is traditional. One practices the strokes in calligraphy, then applies them in painting.

Our teacher, Mr. Kwok Kay Choey, explains the composition and origin of the characters. Some are a teaching in themselves.


The radical on the left means "heart/mind"; the character on the right means "my." Together, it means "awakening." If you know your own heart and mind, you have awakened.


The top portion depicts reeds or branches and means "broom" or "sweep." In the middle, we see dust in a dustpan. At the bottom, "heart/mind." Your heart and mind swept clean of dust: that describes the state of enlightenment.

This reminds me always of a saying by Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a successor of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: "breath sweeps mind." I have a CD set of talks by Jakusho Kwong which I am slowly making my way through. "Breath sweeps mind" is an often helpful gatha for me as I try to settle into meditation.

No Fear

I think of this concept now as "no more fear," because of Mr. Choey's explanation of the character. The top portion, "No," depicts a person carrying wood. All of the timber has been carried away from the hillside, there is "no more," it has been taken away. The bottom portion means "Fear": on the left, the heart/mind radical; on the left, the character for an owl with its two big eyes. I have to admit I'm not clear on this last part, so I will ask Mr. Choey for clarification and update this post later.

Monday, October 26, 2009

84,000 Dharma Doors

And one of them is Calvin and Hobbes. At least in this strip.

[Click on image to enlarge.]

Doesn't this perfectly capture the mystery of Interbeing? (With a pinch of humor, which I think Thay would appreciate.)

I have tried to explain the idea of the interbeing of people, animals, plants, and minerals to my son. When he was younger, he grasped the concept fairly well. Now that he is twelve, it sounds kinda weird to him. Well, he's growing up.

"We humans are made entirely of non-human elements, such as plants, minerals, earth, clouds, and sunshine. ... The Diamond Sutra teaches us that it is impossible to distinguish between sentient and non-sentient beings. ... Minerals have their own lives, too. In Buddhist monasteries, we chant, 'Both sentient and non- sentient beings will realize full enlightenment.'" -- Thay on the First Mindfulness Training, Protection of Life.

Gasho to onions everywhere.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Poetry Friday: Autumn Dusk

This time, something from me.

Autumn dusk
bats and oak leaves rush about
sliver of moon above

-- Lauren Thompson

[photo by Chris Caselli]

I composed this little haiku exactly three years ago, on my way home from having tea with a friend of mine who had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She'd already had to stop working and had moved into an assisted living residence, but she was still out and about, meeting people in coffee shops and visiting friends. She was still traveling to her doctors' offices, rather than they traveling to her. But all of that was soon to change. Perhaps she sensed that. The day before, she had finished drawing up a do-not-resuscitate letter. In fact, five months later, at the age of forty-two, she would be dead. 

But this day, she was very much alive. Up to the very last moment she was very much alive.

I have written elsewhere about the experience of being with her through her dying. I am still working on a book about the experience. I have to call it a memoir, as everything I have to say about it is much more about me than about her. I really hardly knew her. But in some ways my relationship with her was -- is? -- my deepest friendship.

On the same notebook page on whch I recorded the haiku, I later jotted down another haiku, this time written at a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. That was one year ago. The two haiku don't really belong together, but they do.

The monastery cat
stalks the unmowed grass
as if he is wild.

-- L. T.

A black cat has made the monastery his second home, and the monks and nuns call him Batman. The poem got a big laugh when I read it at the end of the retreat, during a public performance/share we call a "be-in." Later, someone told me that a brother had quipped, "The monastery monk / stalks the unmowed grass / as if he is wild." Yes, just so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Noble Way of No Path

During the one-day retreat with Sharon Salzberg and Cheri Maples, they both explored the danger of feeling that peace or happiness are down the road for us, once we have practiced more. We believe that what we need is outside of ourselves, to be given to us by someone else or to be earned as a prize after lots of hard spiritual work. We think, "I'm not there yet," or, "I don't deserve it yet."

This is not a helpful way of thinking about progress, about making progress with our practice. Whatever we think we don't have is actually already within us. Cheri recalled Suzuki Roshi's famous quip, "All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement." Personally, I know I live out of the "improvement" part of that truth, but not the "perfect" part. I don't believe it, deep down; I'm not there yet. And yet on an even deeper level, I'm already there. Buddha-nature is no respecter of persons.*  If you exist, then you've got it.

Sharon Salzberg said that she's heard Sylvia Boorstein speak of the Noble Eightfold Path as the Noble Eightfold Moment. Because the idea of a path can be misleading. Paths lead somewhere; we follow a path in order to get from one place to another. And we do want to get somewhere -- we want to become freer of suffering -- but the way to get there is to be here, where we are. The path is ennobling every moment we are on it. Sort of like M. C. Escher's impossible staircases. Wherever you think this path is going, you're already there.

It occurs to me it may be helpful to think instead of a Noble Eightfold Way. A way is a path, and it is also a method. "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way," as Mahatma Gandhi said.

* Acts 10:34, spoken by the apostle Peter (about God, not Buddha-nature). I didn't know that was the source, did you?

Friday, October 16, 2009


Ever feel that your experience of the world has this texture?

An overlay of language, cluttering up everything. Even brushing one's teeth. (One of Thay's favorite meditation activities.)

Commentary. Unceasing commentary.

For me, it's sometimes brooding, a figuring-out of how I feel about something; sometimes it's chatty, interested in every little thing about life. Always, it's a drive to say something about something, to find just the right way that language can describe something.

I would like to find a way to direct, or at least to view, this commentary impulse so that it is useful for my writing, but not detrimental to mindfulness. Insofar as the introspective commentary adds to insight, I would like to keep it. Insofar as it is an annoying repetition of past scenes and well-rehearsed, petty opinions, then I would like to be done with it.

I know there is old, old habit energy at work here, originating in my younger years, perhaps even in past generations of my family. The habit of feeling that there was so much I could say, if only someone were listening. So much I could explain, if only someone asked. So much I could share, if only someone were curious. It is an energy that scared me at times, wondering if the flood of words, tomes' worth, might drive me mad, or if it already had. It is an energy that fires my writing and has brought me success and connection and much happiness.

There is a lot to ponder here.

Writing this out has brought me a bit of clarity about it all. Words put to skillful use, in this case. (I hope.)

My thanks to Francois-Marie Banier, whose photographs I happened upon. They touched me deeply.

Poetry Friday: Museum Vase

It all started with Suzuki Roshi.

At the Thursday morning zazen sit at the corner yoga studio yesterday, the facilitator, Linda, read a chapter from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. The passage started thusly:

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So "form is emptiness, and emptiness is form" is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, "Form is form and emptiness is emptiness." Here there is no dualism.

    When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of "form is emptiness and emptiness is form." But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of "form is form and emptiness is emptiness."

Wow. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" dualistic? Interesting. So interesting that I didn't even bother to try to stop my mind during the ensuing twenty minutes. Right away I knew I had my topic for this blog, and my typewriter mind got busy. The only thing that slowed it was my intense drowsiness. Eventually my focus was on keeping my eyes open and my body upright, and my mind faded in and out, meandering.

What persisted was an image of an urn or vase. A vessel, which had form, but also emptiness. Its emptiness is what gave it its form. As from the Tao Te Ching: "Pots are fashioned from clay/ but it's the hollow/ that makes a pot work ."*

Over the next twelve hours or so, phrases kept presenting themselves to me. "Wheat, oil, wine." "On old burdens." "Museum urn or vase or ..." "Still it dreams ... broods?" I knew it must be a poem that I had once memorized. Probably in high school: there was a certain sense-memory that came with the phrases, a chemical whiff of nervous excitement (boys) and a dim buzz (overhead fluorescent lights) that brought me back to that distant era. I kept thinking that the poem might be by Robert Graves, but Google proved that it wasn't.

Finally, finally, by searching on-line in a very particular way, I found the poem. It was "Museum Vase" by Robert Francis.

Museum Vase

It contains nothing.
We ask it
To contain nothing.

Having transcended use
It is endlessly
Content to be.

Still it broods
On old burdens --
Wheat, oil, wine.

Doing, being; form, emptiness. Interesting. (I wonder what I had to say about this poem when I was fifteen?)

Rising up from a depth of thirty-one years, a poem. A lotus in disguise? Maybe. Goodness knows that there is a lot of old muck down there.

* From the translation by Red Pine. This word-by-word (or seal-by-word) diagram accompanied the passage where I found it on the website The Feminine Tao.

(1) mold (2) clay (3) thus (4) to create (5) a vessel
(6) as regards (7) its (8) not having
(9) has (10) a vessel (11) the same's (12) use

Friday, October 9, 2009

Poetry Friday: from Auguries of Innocence

Is a difficult truth beautifully expressed made less difficult? Or, hearing it expressed beautifully, can we begin to accept it as the truth that it is?

Thay says, "No mud, no lotus," with a beauty that makes us smile.

William Blake says, with a beauty that makes us sigh:

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro' the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

(from "Auguries of Innocence")

I attended a retreat last Saturday with Sharon Salzberg and Cheri Maples. Cheri is a dharma teacher in Thay's tradition. One thing she talked about was how we all have our suffering; no one goes through life without experiencing suffering. Which is hard enough; then, on top of it, we are unhappy with the suffering we get. "We got the chicken shit, when we'd rather have the pig shit. Or the cow shit." Later, as a kind of gesture of compassion, she asked someone, "What kind did you get, the goat shit or the chicken shit? Mine's the goat shit." We all laughed. It was a way of saying, "Darling, I care about this suffering." Except that it came out sounding like, "Darling, I care about this shit." In the laughter was the silken twine, binding us together.

But about William Blake. There is so much more to him than "The Tyger." There is so much more to "The Tyger" than what is usually assumed when the poem is read to young children. Blake was a visionary, and by that I mean that he had visions. He trusted them utterly and this gave him great confidence. He was wrathful in his compassion for all beings.

From A Vision of the Last Judgment:

"What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.'

May every sunrise greet you chanting, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Svaha!"

Friday, October 2, 2009

Poetry Friday: A Noiseless Patient Spider

This week, some lines from Walt Whitman.

A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

I've loved this poem for a long time, since before I could articulate how much of myself I saw in it. (Loving the poem was my way of articulating certain secret parts of myself.) Standing isolated, launching forth filament after filament into the seemingly "vacant vast surrounding." That was my sense of the universe -- vacant. And yet having an inkling that in fact, it is not all so vacant. An ocean is not a void -- it is a rich, life-giving substance. Seeking the spheres, emminating out like layers of consciousness, and seeking to connect them, and to connect myself to them. Seeking to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to something yet unseen, only mused about, but with faith that the venture will prove worthy.

This poem expresses a kind of courage that often remains hidden within myself, like a seed that needs much tender watering before it dares to venture forth a tendril. This poem waters that seed.

I see this poem as a bridge toward Right View. We (or I) start out feeling isolated, detached, surrounded yet alone; but as we (I) unreel ourselves outward, we (I) start to experience that which is "outward" as "inward" as well. Not so separate after all. "Till that bridge you will need is form'd" -- I love that phrase. Bridge or boat: either way I'll meet you on the other side.

 Hail Walt-Whitman-ishvara, Bodhisatva of Sphere Seekers!