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!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mud and Loot-us

When I invited folks from my sangha to visit this blog, I mistakenly typed the functional link as "mud and lootus. blogspot. com." When a few intrepid friends clicked, they received the message,
"Sorry, the blog you were looking for does not exist. However, the name mudandlootus is available to register!"
"Mud & Lootus" -- that could be an interesting blog. It puts me in mind, for some reason, of The Iliad, which opens with a dispute over loot, war loot. The Greek hero Achilles falls into a sulking rage at having one of his war prizes, a young Trojan widow called Briseis, taken from him by Agamemnon, who had had to return his own war prize, Chryseis, to her father because he was a Trojan priest for Apollo, who in his divine annoyance had beset the Greeks with a plague of arrows raining from the sky. (It's complicated, epically so.)

Achilles responds the way many of us do (at least internally) when something is taken from us that we like: he taunts and withdraws from battle ("I quit!") and he complains to his mother ("It's not fair!"). His mother happens to be the goddess Thetis, and she, very unwisely (or perhaps with very subtle wisdom?) appeals to Zeus to turn the war against the Greeks until Achilles is properly respected again. This leads to the death of Patroklos, Achilles's dear friend, as well as thousands of Greeks, which leads to the death of Hector, as well as thousands of Trojans, which leads ... well, you get the idea.

The story is full of gods and men (and goddesses and women) behaving badly. But also, at times, honorably. The best and worst of our nature. Worst of all is wrath -- wrath over loot. If that's not mud, I don't know what is.

(And as we all know, eventually Achilles, too, met his mortal fate.)

The Wrath of Brad Pitt