Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gone (Soon Gone)

Looking for good but easy songs to play on my guitar, I came across "Gone" by Jack Johnson. I remember when, according to my sister, his first album, Brushfire Fairytales, was getting lots of play on Boston college radio stations, and he was this wonderful find. Like discovering Tracy Chapman before everyone else did.

jack johnson fairytales

That was back in 2001.

After that, I lost track of him. Turns out he’s become a star, spending 2010 on a world tour.

Jack Johnson Rolling Stone

His song “Gone” appeared on his 2003 album On and On, and it appears to have become a signature song for him.

This is how it starts:

Look at all those fancy clothes,
But these could keep us warm just like those.
And what about your soul? Is it cold?
Is it straight from the mold,
and ready to be sold?

The song starts out about “us,” but quickly becomes about “you,” and “them,” and not about “me” or “us.” It feels a bit sanctimonious to me, and if I’m going to play it, there will have to be some changes.

So I’ve come up with my own version. Hope you like it, Jack.

Gone (Soon Gone)

Look at all these fancy clothes
but do they keep me warm? Lord knows.
What about my soul? Is it cold?
Is it straight from the mold and
ready to be sold?

And cars and phones and diamond rings, bling bling
Those are only removable things
But what about my mind?
Does it shine or
are there things that concern me more that my time?

Gone going
gone everything
gone give a damn
gone be the birds
and now they don't wanna sing
C'mon people, we're
soon gone with all our things

Look at us out to make a deal
We try to be appealing but we lose our feel
'n' what about those shoes we're in today?
They'll do no good on the bridges we burn along the way

Are we willing to sell anything?
Gone with our hurt
We all leave footprints, why shame them with our words?
C'mon people, no more careless and consumed

Gone going
gone everything
gone give a damn
gone be the birds
and now they don't wanna sing
C'mon people, we're
soon gone with all our things

footprints 2

You can hear him playing the song (his way) below. The accompaniment of Ben Harper on guitar gives the song a softer edge which counters the accusatory tone of the lyrics a bit.

Apparently, the Black Eyed Peas also take umbrage at this song, and have created their own response: “Gone Going.” Some people who watched YouTube videos of this version found this band’s criticism of Jack Johnson pretty ironic. Pots and kettles and all.

P.S. Not everyone agrees that the "Johnny" in the song is Jack Johnson. They say, hey, he's performing in it with them! But the JJ sections are sampled. Whatever ... It's another bling-prone group dumping on those who like bling.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Past, Future, Meanwhile

I continue to contemplate the Lynda Barry writing workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable.”

Lynda asked us a few times to write in the third-person objective point of view, which means that you refer to a character as “he” or “she” (rather than “I” or “you”) and that you report only what can be known by an objective viewer: no thoughts or feelings can be directly reported as if you, the narrator, were inside the character’s head. This is an extremely tricky way of writing, especially about yourself, and I asked her if there was a reason for it.

She answered that she wanted us to practice viewing characters as we do (or should more often do) in real life – viewing the actions and words without really knowing the others’ thoughts and intentions. We just observe the characters with an open state of mind, and keep ourselves (our Selfs) out of the way. That means not interpreting everything about them through the screen of our own old, familiar story, but being open to whatever clues to what’s really going on arrive.  I mentioned how difficult a certain exercise had been to take something we had written about ourselves in the first person (“I”), and rewrite it in this third person objective.  All she would say is that it is an important step in moving toward fiction. I said I realized it might help us to ground our stories in the sensory, not just in thoughts and feelings, and she said it would do that, too.

The idea of viewing without assumptions, I said, reminds me of what I try to do in meditation, to simply observe. She said that she, too, meditates, and yes, it is like that. I never learned anything more about her meditation, but I was prompted to think even more about how this approach aligns with the practice.

One little anecdote she told touched on a dilemma I have struggled with as a writer striving to live with mindfulness. She told how one of her nephews had said that if he could engage in time travel, he would want a time machine that works three ways: “past, future, and meanwhile.” We all laughed – yes, our experience in the moment is so often NOT what is happening right now. There’s now, and then there’s meanwhile, back at the ranch meanwhile, back in fourth grademeanwhile, back in that argument with your ex-boyfriend when you should have said X.   



However, that’s not all that meanwhile is. Meanwhile is where we would all go as we wrote furiously for seven minutes. She began every writing period with “All right. Starting with the words ‘I am,’ you are going to write about your image for seven minutes. And I’ll see you when you get back.” Meanwhile is also where we would go as we listened to someone read their story out loud. Meanwhile is what we experience when we are fully absorbed in a book, or play, or film, or painting. Meanwhile is where we are taken by a great piece of music or dance. Meanwhile is where kids go when they are wholly engaged in play. It’s an essential, important place, and it must have its proper place in Buddhist practice.

It’s helpful to think of what meanwhile isn't, or perhaps what an unwholesome meanwhile might be. Meanwhile might be unwholesome if it takes the form of drifting thoughts, or repeating worries, or scenes that play out again and again in our minds without our looking deeply at them. If we do take the time and energy to invite these thoughts and feelings to come forward, if we embody them and feel them and work to know them, then perhaps our time in that meanwhile becomes wholesome.

I think it may be that in the act of writing, inviting the image from meanwhile to speak and taking down the dictation, we are very present to that image, very present to ourselves, and very present to its, and our, suchness or True Nature. And to be present to all of that is to be present to the now moment.

During the question and answer session at a retreat with Thầy, I heard a woman asked about the wholesomeness of remembering. She said that she has many precious memories that bring her a lot of happiness – is she not to think about those memories anymore, since they aren’t happening in the present moment? Thầy answered that of course we all remember the past, and we should, in order to reflect and understand, and also because it brings joy. Also, we all must plan for the future – we can’t only pay attention to what is happening right now. He said that the key to remembering the past with freedom is to be aware that you are remembering. The key to thinking about the future with freedom is to be aware that you are thinking about the future.

As I reflect on my own experiences with writing, I think it is true that the act of writing moors me, to a certain extent, to the present moment. The writing spools out over time, one chosen word or phrase at a time. I try to hold on to the image or feeling as this time runs by, but the image or feeling changes as that time passes. The image, and the writing, are living things, changing over time. The awareness needed to hold on to all of this is an intense kind of awareness, very open and concentrated at the same time.

I thought that John Daido Loori might have some insights about this, and he did.

In The Zen of Creativity, Daido Loori describes “working samadhi” (concentration), which is a bit different from the “absolute samadhi” that we may experience on the meditation cushion: the kind of single-pointedness of  mind in which there is “no observer. There is not awareness of time, self, or other.”

However, we can’t operate a computer or drive a car in this state. We must keep going until this state gradually manifests itself as working samadhi, which means we are able to function in activity but from within a place of stillness, of centeredness.…

In working samadhi there is no effort, no intent. It’s a 360-degree awareness; not so much like the awareness of a hunter, which is very focused and directed, but like the awareness of the hunted – unrestricted.…
…If your art is grounded in the still point, the self will be out of the way and your art will reflect its subject directly. (pp. 58-60)

Getting yourself, your Self, out of the way, is much of what Lynda Barry’s teaching is about.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty

A week ago I attended a writing workshop at the Omega Institute with Lynda Barry, called “Writing the Unthinkable.” It was a powerful and transformative five days. Her approach to writing is emotional, psychological, spiritual, rather than intellectual. I think this method saved her life; at any rate, it has helped her to pass on what it is about any kind of art that makes life worth living.

For instance, she emphasizes the experience of capturing an image over the product of that experience. We are not to look at what we create for at least a week, preferably a month, because we will not be able to look at it without undue, unfair judgment before then. She likens art-making to the serious, fully-engaged play of children. The structure of her workshop was to guide us on a journey back to that open state of mind, in which the drawbridge can come down and images like ponies can cross over onto the field to play. These are Lynda’s words, Lynda’s metaphors; but I love them. I feel they could have been mine.

Every morning and every afternoon, we wrote three short pieces. Part of our preparation for each was to draw a tight spiral, or some other doodle, while she recited the same poem to us from memory. I heard this poem about twenty times. I came to love it. It is a poem by Rumi.

The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty

You are sitting here with us,
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.

You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.

You are in your body
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind.

You are the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach.
You are the fish.

In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.

Your hidden self is blood in those,
those veins that are lute strings
that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf
but the sound of no shore.

Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks


For me, the work was to ride the current, even as it pulled me through rough, dark waters, beyond the “sad edge of surf” to “the sound of no shore.” What is the sound of no shore? I think it is the experience of the world beyond the hurts and upheavals of my own personal history, my own self as I have known myself. It is the experience of story beyond “my story.” One of the promises of the workshop was to move from memory into fiction, which is why I was drawn to it. She took us there – it was an exhilarating journey.

I chose not to write down the poem during that week – I wanted to experience it only as something heard while in an open state of mind. Once I got home, I looked it up on-line (my own Rumi collection has gone missing) and found another translation of the poem. It seems so different, to me, it almost seems like a different poem. Or at least a different poet. I wonder which is closer to the original Persian.

Clothes Abandoned on the Shore

Your body is here with us,
but your heart is in the meadow.
You travel with the hunters
though you yourself are what they hunt.

Like a reed flute,
you are encased by your body,
with a restless breathy sound inside.

You are a diver;
your body is just clothing left at the shore.
You are a fish whose way is through water.

In this sea there are many bright veins
and some that are dark.
The heart receives its light
from those bright veins.

If you lift your wing
I can show them to you.
You are hidden like the blood within,
and you are shy to the touch.

Those same veins sing a melancholy tune
in the sweet-stringed lute,
music from a shoreless sea
whose waves roar out infinity.

Rumi, translated by Kabir Helminsky

Between the two translations, I have a preference. I suppose I can’t help but have a preference. I prefer the version that I heard Lynda recite to us. The second version has its moments, but that word “infinity” just ruins it for me.

About Rumi:


Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī (Persian: جلال الدین محمد بلخى), also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (Persian: جلال‌الدین محمد رومی), and popularly known as Mowlānā (Persian: مولانا) but known to the English-speaking world simply as Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273), was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Rūmī is a descriptive name meaning "the Roman" since he lived most of his life in an area called Rūm because it was once ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire. (from Wikipedia)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Better Way

At a recent gathering of the Mindful Artists Collective, one member read aloud “The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone,” as it is recorded in the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone

Bhaddekaratta Sutta : Translated from the Pali

I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at the monastery in the Jeta Grove, in the town of Shravasti. He called all the monks to him and instructed them, “Bhikkhus!” And the bhikkhus replied, “We are here.” The Blessed One taught, “I will teach you what is meant by ‘knowing the better way to live alone.’ I will begin with an outline of the teaching, and then I will give a detailed explanation. Bhikkhus, please listen carefully.”

“Blessed One, we are listening.”

The Buddha taught:

Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
In the very here and now,
The practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait until tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who knows how
to dwell in mindfulness night and day
“one who knows the better way to live alone.”

“Do not pursue the past. / Do not lose yourself in the future.” These lines have always puzzled me. I am more prone to losing myself in the past, and pursuing the future, than the other way around. I constantly catch myself reliving an event or conversation from the past, rather than living in the present moment. And the future is pursued in the form of plans, hopes, and worries. As if to pre-live the future would be to avoid the pain of surprises. Still, I have no argument with the view that re-living and pre-living are not the way to stability and freedom.

“Bhikkhus, what do we mean by ‘pursuing the past’? When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.

It happens that lately I have been thinking a lot about the way my body was in the past, as signs and symptoms of middle age make themselves known with increasing frequency. The Buddha was speaking of the body as one of the five skandas, or aspects of our experience of being, and not of “the body of my youth” necessarily. But this is the association that arose for me. When I think about the way my body was in the past, is my mind “burdened by and attached to these things which belong to past”? Oh, yes.

There must be a better way.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not pursuing the past’? When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things but his mind is neither enslaved by nor attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is not pursuing the past.

To think about these things and be “neither enslaved by nor attached to” them, neither approving nor condemning those past conditions, nor present conditions – that sounds exactly like freedom.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘losing yourself in the future’? When someone thinks about the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his mental factors will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the future; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and daydreaming about these things which belong to the future, then that person is losing himself in the future.

Mostly, these days, I feel burdened by my imaginings of the future. My body will be even less capable and even less responsive to my wishes. Farther out in time, my body, as well as my feelings, perceptions, mental factors, and consciousness will not “be” at all, in the way that they “be” right now. I used to feel much more neutral about these facts, but increasingly I am disturbed by them. I have miles to go before even coming near acceptance.

I notice that the teaching is clear that it is expected, and acceptable, that we would think about these things, both the past, which is gone, and the future, which is still to come. We’re not meant to stop thinking about these things, only to think about them without attachment.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not losing yourself in the future’? When someone thinks about the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his mental factors will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the future; when he thinks about these things but his mind is not burdened by or daydreaming about these things which belong to the future, then he is not losing himself in the future.

In the next two passages, I find myself doing some mental editing, as you’ll see:

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘being swept away by the present’? When someone does not study or learn anything about the Awakened One [within oneself], or the teachings of love and understanding, or the community that lives in harmony and awareness; when that person knows nothing about the noble teachers and their teachings, and does not practice these teachings, and thinks, ‘This body is myself; I am this body. These feelings are myself; I am these feelings. This perception is myself; I am this perception. This mental factor is myself; I am this mental factor. This consciousness is myself; I am this consciousness,’ then that person is being swept away by the present.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not being swept away by the present’? When someone studies and learns about the Awakened One [within oneself], the teachings of love and understanding, and the community that lives in harmony and awareness; when that person knows about noble teachers and their teachings, practices these teachings, and does not think, ‘This body is myself; I am this body. These feelings are myself; I am these feelings. This perception is myself; I am this perception. This mental factor is myself; I am this mental factor. This consciousness is myself; I am this consciousness’, then that person is not being swept away by the present.

What is striking about “not being swept away by the present” is what is not said about the better way to think. The teaching is that the person does not think, “This body is myself; I am this body.” The teaching is not that the person thinks, “This body is not myself; I am not this body.” We’re not told what the person thinks about themselves in relation to their body, just what they don’t think. Why would this be?

I suspect the right view is neither “This body is myself; I am this body” nor “This body is not myself; I am not this body.” Right view is not both, either. Right view is something beyond “is myself” and “is not myself.” Because right view about “myself” is neither “is” nor “is not.” We neither are nor are not: we inter-are.

These are insights drawn from Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way, one of Thầy’s new “little books” that fit into one’s pocket.


Thầy writes,

The Middle Way is not caught in pairs of opposites, such as being and nonbeing; coming and going; birth and death; same and different; exists and does not exist. These are ideas we need to go beyond. …

Relatively speaking, there are right views and there are wrong views. But if we look more deeply, we see that all views are wrong views. No view can ever be the truth. It is just the view from one point; that is why it is called a “point of view.” … Buddhism is not a collection of views. It is a practice that helps us eliminate wrong views. … From the viewpoint of the ultimate reality, Right View is the absence of all views. (pp. 9-10)

At a later point, Thầy pulls in the idea of touching the Dharma-nature or ultimate nature of all phenomena in order to go beyond the ideas of being born and dying. In the realm of “things as they are,” all things are interconnected, all things inter-are. This is the realm of no-birth and no-death, the realm of nirvana. (p.22)

From that point of view, then, “This body is myself; I am this body” is not correct, because if you say “this body,” you are distinguishing it from everything else that is, when in reality “this body” is everything that is. Even to say “Everything is myself; I am everything” is inadequate, because that still postulates a distinction between “everything” and “myself.” One could say, “Everything is everything,” but that refers to the cosmos as if it is a collection of “things,” separate and discrete, when it is not. Closer might be “Everything is no-thing; no-thing is everything”; which sounds a lot like “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” At this point, we may finally have arrived.

I have arrived sq

The sutra concludes:

“Bhikkhus, I have presented the outline and the detailed explanation of knowing the better way to live alone.” Thus the Buddha taught, and the bhikkhus were delighted to put his teachings into practice.

Bhaddekaratta Suttra (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta no. 131)

What did the Buddha mean by “the better way to live alone”? In a dharma talk, Thầy explained:

“Knowing how to live alone” here does not mean to live in solitude, separated from other people, on a mountain or in a cave. "Living alone" here means living to have sovereignty of yourself, to have freedom, not to be dragged away by the past, not to be in fear of the future, not being pulled around by the circumstances of the present. We are always master of ourselves, we can grasp the situation as it is, and we are sovereign of the situation and of ourselves.

April 5, 1998, Plum Village

The past rushes away from us, the future rushes toward us, but the only place we ever are is in the present.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Every-Minute Meditation

I recently spent a day at a book publishing convention, and at the Wisdom Publications booth I picked up an advanced reader’s copy of Lin Jensen’s new book, Deep Down Things: The Earth in Celebration and Dismay. It will be published in October 2010, so this amounts to a sneak preview.

Deep Down Things

After the convention, I boarded a crowded M34 bus and began making my way, with it, across town in rush hour traffic. This seemed like a fine time to browse through all the catalogs and book galleys I’d picked up. I turned through this book and was stopped by one page.

Reverend Dazui, a monk of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, encouraged the Buddhist practice of mindfulness as an antidote for a life frittered away by detail. Mindfulness as he taught it as essentially a matter of simplification. He called it “every-minute meditation” and it consisted of five steps, four of which I’ve repeated here:

1. Do one thing at a time.
2. Pay attention to what you are doing.
3. When your mind wanders to something else bring it back.
4. Repeat step number three a few hundred thousand times.

“That’s all there is to it,” Reverend Dazui explained. “It’s incredibly simple and requires nothing more than the willingness to do it.”

I think that Thich Nhat Hanh would agree with these four steps. I’m not sure Thầy would characterize the process as “incredibly simple.” For Thầy, the commentary might be, “Just this. Simple, but not easy. That is why we must practice.”

Lin Jensen continues,

The willingness to do it grows with the doing, because, until you’ve tried to simplify your life in this way, you can’t really know how joyful it is to live in the present moment without the distraction of alternatives. Simplicity, as I am speaking of it here, is synonymous with clarity. If I do one thing at a time, my life will be clear and present.

Sitting on that bus, I found myself responding as if the idea of present-moment mindfulness were completely new to me. My inner response was, “But I don’t want to think about or do only one thing at a time! I like living all the alternatives at once! No other way could possibly be interesting enough to my very clever self!” This was my urban professional multi-tasking mind operating in high gear. (And no wonder, having just left a convention floor swarming with urban professional multi-tasking minds.) In that mode, I need to be persuaded that simplifying really will bring more joy and satisfaction. And I spend more time in that mode than I’d like to admit.

I realized I need to spend more time in meditation, more hours in mindfulness, even as I pull up morning glory sprouts in the garden or cut up onions and carrots in the kitchen. Sitting on that crowded, noisy, stop-and-go bus, I vowed to do it.

Back to Lin Jensen (in the same paragraph – it is a long, rich paragraph):

Simplicity, as I am speaking of it here, is synonymous with clarity. If I do one thing at a time, my life will be clear and present. … The old Chinese masters sometimes distinguished between the enlightened and the unenlightened by saying that one who is enlightened sits when he sits, stands when he stands, walks when he walks, eats when he eats, and sleeps when he sleeps. In an important way, enlightenment is simply being present in whatever one happens to be doing at the moment.

Right now, then, I am practicing being present to my thinking, present to my memories of the M34 bus, present to my typing, present to my sitting, present to noting the tension in my shoulders, arms, and hands from typing, present to my mind weighing different ways of wording what I am typing, present to my efforts to touch what it is that I wanted to say, what brought me to the keyboard in the first place. And present to what I had no idea I would say.

I was curious about what Reverend Dazui’s fifth step was. At the website of an Order of Buddhist Contemplatives practice center, I found the five steps expressed this way:

1. Do one thing at a time.
2. Pay full attention to what you are doing.
3. When your mind wanders to something else, bring it back.
4. Repeat step number three a few hundred thousand times.
5. And, when your mind keeps wandering to the same thing over and over, stop for a minute and pay attention to the "distraction": maybe it is trying to tell you something.

Practicing with distraction – that requires a whole n’other post – or maybe a few hundred thousand posts.

From Wisdom Publications:

Lin Jensen 2LIN JENSEN is the critically acclaimed author of the memoir Bad Dog! A Memoir of Love, Beauty, and Redemption in Dark Places and Pavement: Reflections on Mercy, Activism, and Doing "Nothing" for Peace, a fearless and funny account of curbside social action. He is also the author of Together Under One Roof: Making a Home of the Buddha’s Household. … He is the founding teacher and senior teacher emeritus of the Chico Zen Sangha, in Chico, California, where he lives with his wife.

Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy

1945 - 2003

Rev Master Daizui MacPhillamy

He was the Head of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, and also acted as Prior of a small mountain temple, the Fugen Forest Hermitage, in northwestern California.

“The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives is dedicated to the practice of the Serene Reflection Meditation tradition, known as Ts'ao-Tung Ch'an in China and Sōtō Zen in Japan. … The practice of the Order emphasizes serene reflection meditation, mindfulness in daily life, and adherence to the Buddhist Precepts.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meditation 101 (Part 2)

Peace Is Every Step is a favorite book for many people, and for good reason. The tone is caring and gentle, as if Thầy is speaking with us quietly, rather than delivering a lecture or “teaching”; and he seems to be wearing a half smile (or full smile) the whole time.

In this book, before he even brings up the topic of meditation, he talks about breathing.

Conscious Breathing

There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life vivid and more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And as you breathe out, say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words: “In” and “Out.” This technique can help you to keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.

Then he goes on, with one of the most delightful segueways in literature:

Breathing in and out is very important, and it is enjoyable.

Yes, important! And enjoyable, when done mindfully.

Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, “In” and “Out,” we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.

To me, breathing is a joy that I cannot miss. Every day, I practice conscious breathing, and in my small meditation room, I have calligraphed this sentence: “Breathe, you are alive!” Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment. (pp. 8-9)

breathe you are alive

Here is another exercise, based on a familiar gatha.

There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day – you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.

“I know this is a wonderful moment.” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy – tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”

This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy. (pp. 10-11)

Dhyana Buddha Ming Freer Gallery

“Dhjana Buddha,” 1368-1644, Ming Dynasty, China. Freer Gallery of Art (A Smithsonian Museum)

Friday, May 21, 2010

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

For Friday, a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917 -2000.

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep my eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.

I've loved this poem for many years. I can remember times when the sentiment fit my situation exactly. Many devil days of hurt, wandering the hell realm, not sure what "home" to go to.

I particularly like the lines, "And none can give me any word but Wait, /The puny light." I've always envisioned one of those walk-wait pedestrian cross signals, which are hard to find in New York anymore. They have all been replaced with extremely bright halogen signals with pictographs, which can be seen clearly from five blocks away. I suppose in a pea-soup fog or a blizzard of the century, I'll be glad for their voluminocity.

But back to Brooks's puny light. I love the disgust and impatience that word "puny" conveys. Such a light is no light at all, nearly darkening one's path rather than illuminating it. And yet she feels she must obey. Wait. Your turn for happiness will come. For now, wait.

A hungry ghost, aware that she is hungry, aware that this is the hell realm. But able to glimpse other realms.

In other words, a practitioner.


Gwendolyn Brooks, “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Figure: 1950s vintage "Streamline" pedestrian WAIT - WALK signal;

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meditation 101 (Part 1)

This past weekend I participated in a sangha facilitator orientation. Some day in the future, I will serve as a co-facilitator, and then as a solo facilitator. This is something which causes a lot of anxiety to arise, as well as gratitude for the opportunity to serve in this way.

One of the points stressed was that a facilitator should be prepared to give brief meditation instructions, and that these instructions should be Thich Nhất Hạnh’s instructions, not other teachers’. I realized that in my own meditation practice, I do draw on many different sources, some of which I can’t identify anymore. I need to get clearer again on what Thầy’s tradition teaches.

So I went back to Thầy’s books. He is in fact very consistent in his guidance about how and why to meditate. He is also consistent in instructing us to maintain mindfulness of our breath, our body, our thoughts and feelings and mind, throughout the day, no matter what we are doing. But for now, I want to focus on silent seated meditation. Over the next weeks, I will post pertinent passages from different books.

These excerpts are from The Miracle of Mindfulness.

How to meditate:

Zen master Doc The says that when sitting in meditation, one should sit upright, giving birth to this thought, “Sitting here is like sitting on the Bodhi spot.” (p. 13)

The instant you sit down to meditate, begin watching your breath. At first breathe normally, gradually letting your breathing slow down until it is quiet, even, and the lengths of the breaths are fairly long. From the moment you sit down to the moment your breathing has become deep and silent, be conscious of everything that is happening in yourself. (p. 20)

Now begin to follow your breath and to relax all of your muscles. Concentrate on keeping your spinal column straight and on following your breath. As for everything else, let it go. Let go of everything. If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half smile come to your face. As the half smile appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. …

Place your left hand, palm side up, in your right palm. let all the muscles in your hands, fingers, arm, and legs relax. Let go of everything. Be like the waterplants which flow with the current, while beneath the surface of the water the riverbed remains motionless. Hold on to nothing but your breath and the half smile. (p. 34-35)

During meditation, various feelings and thoughts may arise. If you don’t practice mindfulness of the breath, these thoughts will soon lure you away from mindfulness. But the breath isn’t simply a means by which to chase away such thoughts and feelings. Breath remains the vehicle to unite body and mind and to open the gate to wisdom. … Simply acknowledge [the] presence [of thoughts and feelings]. …

If there are no feelings or thoughts present, then recognize that there are no feelings or thoughts present. (p. 38)

Why meditate:

Why should you meditate? First of all, because each of us needs to realize total rest. (p. 33)

…While relaxation is the necessary point of departure, once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to realize a tranquil heart and clear mind. To realize a tranquil heart and clear mind is to have gone far along the path of meditation. (p. 37)

Thầy gives instruction as well in following the breath by counting out the length of the in-breath and the length of the out-breath. He also teaches the technique of counting "one" for an in-breath, "one" for an out-breath, then "two" for an in-breath and "two" for an out-breath, and so on up to "ten."

In addition, he quotes or paraphrases “The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing” quite a bit. These sections are too long to excerpt, but the techniques are certainly central to Thầy's teaching. Especially “The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing,” which is presented in wonderfully helpful detail in Breathe! You Are Alive. He refers to "The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness" as well, which he investigates in Transformation and Healing. But you don't need to have read those books to make good use of the instruction he gives in this book.

There is one instruction which I didn’t include above, as I find it personally too unsettling to practice with. He suggests imagining yourself as a pebble effortlessly falling through water to the undisturbed streambed below. Finally your mind and body are at rest, like the pebble resting in the sand. When I have tried to use this image, I end up feeling breathless and having to stop. Unlike a pebble, I have to breathe, and I can’t breathe while under water. I prefer the image he uses of a glass of cloudy apple juice, in which the pulp slowly settles until the juice is clear. I think he writes of that in The Sun My Heart.

The Miracle of Mindfulness was the first book by Thich Nhất Hạnh that I read and owned. I believe that I bought it in my college bookstore, back in the early 1980s. I returned to that same copy over the ensuing decades. I don’t have that copy anymore; I lent it to someone whom I never run into anymore. It’s hers now; I have bought a new copy for myself, which I would be happy to give away if someone seemed to be in great need of it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Dharma Garden

An old friend of mine named Bluie Piel, then in her seventies, once led me out the front door of her house to admire her half-shaded lawn, where grass was fighting it out with slabs of New England granite that broke the surface like the backs of half-submerged whales. It was spring, and drifts of self-sown blue scilla were all over the grass, blending exquisitely with the clumps of red-and-yellow wild columbine that had also self-sown there, taking hold even in tiny soil pockets in the rocks. It looked like a miniature alpine meadow, Connecticut-style. “Now, dearie,” Bluie said, “God didn’t do that. I did that.”

-- Barbara Damrosch, The Garden Primer, from chapter on “Wildflowers”

In each of us, there is that capacity to recognize what is good, what is beautiful, what is true. ... Our person is like a garden, filled with many flowering plants. But in the garden there are things other than flowers and plants. If we neglect the garden, it will be overrun with weeds, and our flowers will wither and die.

-- TNH, Shambhala Sun, September 2007

[Click on any image for a gorgeous magnified view.]

tripetal 1

Thầy refers to gardens a lot. Seeds, watering, roses, lettuce, weeds, compost. I find it to be a helpful and encouraging metaphor, inherently alive. Even in trying to characterize the trope, I end up using it: organic, earthy, down-to-earth, vital. I like to garden, so hearing the dharma taught through gardening concepts feels good to me.

However, I admit to some ambivalence about the idea of gardening. A garden is not the same thing as nature. A garden is nature under management. If you leave a garden to follow its natural tendencies, pretty soon you won’t have a garden. You’ll have a natural mess.

In that case, what role should equanimity play? Doesn’t tending a garden tend to water seeds of discrimination?


I know it does in me. My discrimination about plants gets keener and keener. Not just discrimination between weeds and cultivars. I am developing strong preferences about all kinds of plants.

I like columbine, but not phlox. I like native geranium, but not lily of the valley. I like clematis, but not honeysuckle. (Or, maybe in your garden, but not in mine, not in the profusion it tends toward.)


I like campanula (bellflower) but not grape hyacinth. I like hollyhocks, but not double hollyhocks. (I don’t like “double” anything. Old-fashioned single will do.) I like lamium (dead nettle) but not hosta. I really don’t like hosta, to the point that whenever I see it, there is the mental commentary: “I don’t like hosta. Don’t care for it at all.”

The list goes on and on. A lot of these preferences are clear instances of useless discrimination.


However, some of the discrimination can be described as the watering of positive seeds. Good gardening is, literally, the cultivation of causes and conditions that will allow what is good, beautiful, and true to manifest. That means supplementing the soil with compost, generated from our own garden and kitchen scraps. Loosening the soil so that water and air can penetrate. Replacing the clay, bit by bit, with humus, sand, and fresh soil. Mounting lattice so that plants that need shade get a bit of shade. Watering when the sky is dry.

Cultivating the right causes and conditions means choosing plants that will thrive in the conditions of my garden that can’t be changed. Accepting that hollyhock and muskmallow will not be happy in my garden’s humidity. Working with the condition of “full sun” as it manifests in my garden in August, which is better described as “equatorial desert.” Allowing my fellow denizens, the squirrels and occasional possum and raccoon, to steal the strawberries just as they ripen. Equanimity about the strawberries allows me to see the beauty in their immature, lumpy, bristly form.


Does an unripe strawberry have buddha-nature?


The thing about gardening is that it reminds me of what Suzuki Roshi reportedly said about his students: “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” Everything is unfolding just as it should (or must, due to past actions) and don’t neglect the weeding. You are luminous and you must practice with diligence.


Let’s close with a gatha from Thầy.

Watering the Garden

The sunshine and the water
have brought about this luxurious vegetation.
The rain of compassion and understanding
can transform the dry desert into a vast fertile plain.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monastery Retreat

This past weekend, I joined fifteen or so sangha members on retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery.


It was lovely being up there, taking in the calm and practice of the monastics, and it was lovely being there with sangha friends.

The first day was sunny and beautiful. Apple trees and others were in fragrant bloom. Trees were still in their first green leaf, a few weeks behind Brooklyn in their pace through spring.


The second day was rainy and beautiful. The birds did not mind the rain at all. I heard birdsong I’d never heard before. In front of the cabin I stayed in, I watched chickadees and titmice brave the blue jay who kept trying to usurp them from their branches, their patch of grass.

The formal Question and Answer period with four of the monks and nuns made a deep impression on me. I noticed, first of all, how Sr. Thệ Nghiêm (True Vow) transcribed our questions onto the board in a way that often conveyed an answer. As if she were reminding us that questions contain their own answers, and we already know what they are.

Here are the questions, and what I inferred were her answers:

1. Inner commentary – how to practice with it

Practice mindfully with it.

2. Fourth Mindfulness Training (in relation to anger)

Be in loving relationship.

3. Resurging habit energies (thoughts, desires, attachments)

Habit energy is always just habit energy.

4. Practicing when others act harmfully/selfishly

Just practice.

5. Dwelling in the present moment “out there”

Dwell in the present moment.

6. Addressing fear in daily life

Hello, my fear.

7. Taking care of self (vs?) others first or simultaneously

Yes. (The word “simultaneously”was Sister’s, not the asker’s.)

8. Prayer (subject/object/function)

In prayer, the subject and object are one. That is the function.

9. What are your personal, intimate volitions

What are yours?

None of the monastics directly answered the last question, except one who said he had never thought of volition as personal and would have to think about it. I suspect that the asker meant “intention” or “aspiration.” By their answers to the other questions, though, they all seemed to reveal their aspiration quite plainly: To live mindfully for the benefit of all beings.

About habit energy, one monk suggested that we may hold on to habit energy out of fear that we will feel lonely without it. Also, he said that some habit energy is beneficial, such as the habit of coming back to mindfulness. Those habits we should nurture.

But the comment that most transformed my experience was this. One nun related how she tries, especially when doing an action that is very familiar, such as entering the meditation hall, to place her mind exactly in that action. “Is my mind with my hand on the knob of this door?” For the rest of the day, I made an effort (an easeful effort) to be more mindful with every door I opened or closed. I also remembered hearing how Thây had instructed the monastics, if you haven’t been mindful with every step in a staircase, then you must go back and climb or descend them again. And so I tried to attend to every step. To some extent, I was successful, and it made me very happy.

Another very special moment was hearing Sr. True Vow sing to us during deep relaxation. This video features her lovely voice. Please enjoy.


P.S. Remember this fellow? About halfway through the first meal, I noticed him hanging in the nun’s dining hall.

Sr. True Vow told me that the sisters were delighted with him. That makes me happy, too.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Compassion for My Mother’s Hands

These are my mother’s hands.

left hand right hand 2

Actually, they are my hands. But when I look at them, I see my mother’s hands.

I don’t remember particularly noticing my mom’s hands’ appearance until I was an adolescent. My mother would have been in her mid-forties then, and at that time there were many things about her that were objectionable to me. Her middle-age spread, her taste in polyester (this was the ‘70s), her suddenly annoying way of speaking. And her hands. I didn’t like the brown spots, or the rough knuckles, or the crepe-like texture to the skin, through which the veins bulged blue-ishly. I never wanted hands like hers.

But I have memories and impressions of my mother's hands that go back before I cared about their appearance. Hers were hands that held her funny nurse’s scissors in a funny way, in the left hand. Hers were hands that shook the thermometer down authoritatively. These were among her RN ways, mysterious and estimable.

Hers were hands that, when the driving on the way to piano/ballet/skating/swimming/pottery class got hectic, reached for a cigarette, punched in the lighter and retrieved it, glowing, to ignite the Carton, rolled down the window a crack, and smoked with resolve – as if one drove better with just one hand.

Hers were hands that gripped my small hands tightly as she trimmed my fingernails, keeping them piano-student short, like hers. Hers were hands that played Bach preludes and fugues in the living room when we kids were elsewhere – she didn’t want an audience. I didn’t understand this back then, but now I do. Even with one child (she had four), I relish times when I am not regarded as “mother,” when I am just myself, the object of no one’s eye but my own.

My mother played beautifully, by the way, when she did. She played Bach and Beethoven, Bacharach and Manilow. She played what my sister and I thought was, “You See The Sky, The Sky’s in Love with You.” And songs like "Moon River” and “Born Free,” for which we mocked her.

I remember her hands on her hips, backwards, when the “dumb dishes” were done. I remember her hands ironing clothes distractedly, a cigarette and ashtray within reach. I remember her showing me she had stopped wearing her wedding and engagement rings, about six months after my father left. I remember her hands at the typewriter, typing up papers on history and economics and policy, as she worked over the years toward a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. I remember her hands spanking me when I was sixteen and had insisted on washing my dirty hair, even though it was well past bedtime and she had said no.

My mom’s hands now wear rings she bought for herself. Her hands haven’t fingered cigarettes in a long time. She still puts her hands on her hips, backwards, when the dumb dishes are done.

right hand a

These are my hands, but when I look at them, I see all of my mother’s hands. I am now in my late forties myself, and I find many things about my hands and body objectionable. But when I see my hands as my mother’s hands lately, I see an opening for compassion.

Compassion for the woman she was, and the woman she is.

Compassion for the child I was, and the adolescent, so full of judgment and uncertainty.

Compassion for the woman I am now, the woman I have become, with these hands.

To peer into this opening is partly a gift, and partly yet an aspiration.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Present Moment, Present Spring

This morning dawned so lusciously beautiful that I ignored any excuses for not taking the camera into the backyard and documenting the moment.

[Click on any image, then click again, for an enlarged view.]

Last year, those tulips were beheaded by the squirrels before I got to see what they look like. Now their beauty has manifested. Thank you, squirrels, for practicing restraint.

The image below is from two years ago. It is our cat Mitsie. About six months ago, my son asked, "Do cats meditate?" I said, "I think everything they do is meditation."

The caption I gave this photo, in my now-retired gardening blog, was, "The sun feels good to us earthlings." I think it's still a good caption.

If you want to see a lot more photos of my garden, through the seasons and various improvement projects, click here: A Garden Grows in Brooklyn.

Poem: April Dharma Talk

Here is a poem by Seido Ray Ronci.
April Dharma Talk

Spring speaks for itself.
Better to go outside
And enjoy the day
Than to sit here
Listening to me.

Seido Ray Ronci is a Zen priest in the Rinzai tradition (in Chinese, it is called Linzi, thus Thay's root Zen tradition). This poem is from his collection The Skeleton of the Crow: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2008. I saw the poem from Tricycle, along with an interview with him, in which he said,

For me, poetry has always been a practice in and of itself. It's not only the practice of using language -- it's also the practice of being aware: of using all the senses and being absorbed by each moment. Zen practice is always about returning to that place where there are no words. Early on, I realized that to use words, you have to live life beyond words, before words, without words. Only then do you have the right to speak.

It's always heartening to me to read about someone who is committed to practicing that present-moment still-point, and also writes. Words are very much the tools of the mind, and can make even a bad idea sound reasonable, even beautiful. Yet they can also be conduits to the dimension of no-mind, before-mind, beyond-mind. In fact, I think that words communicate most fully when they reflect that place of no-mind. Words that connect people soul to soul are not the words that have been put together most thought-fully. They are the words that express something that has been deeply experienced, that one has been fully present for.

As a writer, when I am writing (even this), I don't feel caught up in any dilemma about whether this process of feeling around for words is aligned with my practice. It feels enough like practice, or the fruits of practice, of both the meditative and crafting kinds. I feel caught in dilemma when I find myself commenting, mentally, on what is happening, or what has just happened, or what may happen. As I have previously confessed, I find myself commenting and composing this way all the time. Sometimes this activity is tinged with anxiety, sometimes with excitement, sometimes with no feeling tone at all. It feels automatic. My very mind betrays my practice!

But wait, isn't that the very nature of mind?

Maybe I'm not crazy after all, just human.

These photos are from last spring. This spring is just as lovely. It's been that kind of week -- no chance to pull out the camera.

Check out:
An interesting article about Seido Ray Ronci

A retreat he will be leading in July at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Phoenicia, NY

The Practice of Resurrection

Easter 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh has looked deeply into the Christian story of the Resurrection. From No Death, No Fear:

The practice of resurrection, or re-manifestation, is possible for all of us. Our practice is always to resurrect our selves, going back to the mind and the body with the help of mindful breathing and walking. This will produce our true presence in the here and the now. Then we can become alive again. We will be like dead people reborn. We are free from the past, we are free from the future, we are capable of establishing ourselves in the here and now. We are fully present in the here and now, and we are truly alive. That is the basic practice of Buddhism. Whether you eat or drink or breathe or walk or cit, you can practice resurrection. Always allow yourself to be established in the here and now -- fully present, fully alive. That is the real practice of resurrection. (pp. 98 - 99)

The practice of resurrection should be taken up by each of us. When we practice it with success we will also help other people around us. This is the true practice of being alive. Whatever we do in our daily practice -- walking, sitting, eating or sweeping the floor -- the purpose of all these things is to help us become alive again. Be alive in every moment, and by waking up yourself, you will wake up the world. (p. 118)

Thus the message of Easter is: wake up!

Wake up!

Wake up!

It appears, according to Thầy, that Christmas is Jesus' no-birthday, and Easter is his no-death day. Both are his continuation days.

Happy Continuation Day, JC!


"The Resurrection" by William Blake; source

"Padmasambhava Statue", Tibetan; source:

I OPEN WIDE MY EYES BUT SEE NO SCENERY. I FIX MY GAZE UPON MY HEART, 2007," by Takashi Murakami; source It is our old lidless friend, Bodhidharma.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The crocuses will soon bloom. The crocuses are blooming. The crocuses have bloomed. What more perfect study of impermanence could there be?

first morning

first afternoon

seventh day

eighth day

eleventh day

twelfth day

Click on the "play" button below.
Please enjoy your impermanence.
"Yes, well, get ready ..."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Altar

My altar is a shelf within one of the bookcases in my office. When I look around my office, it is a cluttered catastrophe, but when I kneel on my cushion, light the candle and incense, and invite the bell to ring, I am sitting only in my meditation place.

The items on an altar are not to be worshipped, they are there to serve as reminders of what we are sitting there for. Of what we are committed to. Of what we are recommitting ourselves to. They are fingers pointing to the moon. The moon is what is important, not the fingers. But the items on my altar are important to me nonetheless; they tell back to me my own story of spiritual journey. My altar is a bit cluttered, but so has been my journey.

Central, though in the corner, is the Buddha. I searched a long time for this Buddha statue. I read what Thay wrote about selecting a statue, and took his words to heart.

Be choosy if you ask a Buddha to come home. A Buddha should be smiling, happy, beautiful, for the sake of our children. If they look at the Buddha and don’t feel refreshed and happy, then it is not a good statue. If you don’t find a beautiful Buddha, wait, and have a flower instead. A flower is a Buddha. A flower has Buddha nature. (Being Peace)

I am drawn to this Buddha for several reasons. It is made of wood, still in some way living. It is hand-carved, carrying some of the life force of the artisan. The buddha's face is young, almost childlike; I have strong empathy with children. His expression is serene, almost bemused. I like the way the elaborate carving at the bottom, the lotus petals and swirls of robe, evolves upward toward simplicity, ending with a smooth, shorn head. Above that, the empty air.

As a backdrop, I have placed one of my paintings. When I look at it, I am often reminded that it was supposed to be a lotus flower, but it came out more like a water lily. I have intended for a long time to paint a new image for the altar, but I haven't gotten around to it. I painted this lily a few years ago when I was visiting a good friend whom I don't see often enough. It always reminds me of her.

The plump little figure is Jizo, the Japanese name for Kshitigarbha, the Earth Womb Bodhisatva. I'm not sure what "earth womb" signifies in the original Sanskrit, but in Asian Buddhist culture, Jizo is the bodhisatva who vows to bring peace in places of greatest suffering. He accompanies us through and between the six realms, including (especially) the hell realm. Thus he offers protection to travelers and to children, especially to children who have died. I bought this Jizo when I was involved in caring for a friend with cancer during her last six months of life. She was voyaging beyond where I could as yet go, but the spirit of Jizo within me could keep her company.

In front of Jizo are three "pebbles for my pocket" that I collected while on retreat. At my first retreat, I missed my husband and son terribly, especially my son -- I worried about him growing up motherless should something happen to me. The first hour, a pebble called out to me and I put it in my pocket, a reminder that I would be practicing for him while I was practicing for myself. The pebble helped me to release myself into the retreat. It turned out to be a very powerful retreat for me.

In the other corner, other faces of enlightenment. On the top, another image of Jizo, this time of a thirteenth century Japanese statue on display at The Asia Society Museum. I bought this postcard on my second visit, after bringing a friend there (another friend whom I rarely see). She has since embarked on intensive realm-journeying. I hold her in my heart-mind when I contemplate this image.

The triptych is completed with another image of the Buddha and an image of Jesus in meditation. I count Jeshua of Nazareth as one of my core teachers. For many years, I studied the research on the historical Jesus very deeply, and I retold the Easter story for children from this perspective. One aspect of Thay's teaching with which I resonate is his appreciation of Jesus. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thay writes:

On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors.

Jesus Bodhisatva is one of my spiritual ancestors, so I spent some time looking for the right image for my altar. I love this image, but I haven't been able to track down the source. One website says it is a painting in a Vedanta temple, somewhere. In one version of the image, there is an inscription, "(Jesus Christ in his yoga posture) 'He was there in the wilderness and was with the wild beasts.' Mark 1:13."

Also in that corner are a few lotus pods that I collected from the Botanic Garden, which were either lying on the pathway or floating in the water. I find them kind of creepy, though pleasing all the same.

I recently started using incense, partly in order to attract my son to sitting with me more often (which worked) and partly, to be honest, to add an element of novelty to my meditation. (Which worked.) Sometimes beginner's mind needs prompting.

Below the altar shelf is my Thay bookshelf.

The crystal marble on the mini "peace" vase is a gift from my son. (He has his own on his own shelf.) The vase was bought at the Battleship North Carolina Museum gift shop, in Wilmington, NC. I like the irony.

Above the altar shelf is my computer CD shelf. Mindfulness in everyday life indeed!

The shelf also serves to display my dharma/lineage name transmission certificate and another lotus pod. In the middle is a picture of the same friend whose final six months I was privileged to be a part of. Also a family portrait from several years ago, when my son's head still reached below my shoulder. And a piece of bark that I like. Just picked that up last week.

And above that, books, and Kwan Yin, the bodhisatva of great compassion.

I bought this small statue in Chinatown a few years ago, when our good friends from Madison, WI, were visiting us. Kwan Yin's vase of healing water is positioned over the picture of my deceased friend, on the shelf below. The two figurines are gifts from my son. They are still "his" but he wanted me to have them for my meditation. In the back, a photo of my son, one of the few that he approves of. (He likes the moody look.)

This is how it all stacks up:

Good grief, no wonder emptiness is so hard to realize! But I don't have the luxury of a separate room for meditation. It has to happen in the midst of the "full catastrophe." (To misquote Zorba the Greek: "Husband, child, house, everything. The full catastrophe.") Teaching and living the way of awareness in the very midst of suffering and confusion ...

And now you may view the full catastrophe of my office. What's in your catastrophe?

[Click on the image for an enlarged view.]

P.S. The large calligraphy hanging from the shelf was created by my Chinese brush painting teacher. It says "compassion," which is part of my dharma/lineage name, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart. I sign my paintings with that name.

Further reading on the the teachings of Jesus: For scholarly reading, I highly recommend the four-volume work by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. For more poetical reading (though based on scholarship), I recommend The Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell paints Jesus as a fully-enlightened Zen master.