Friday, January 29, 2010

Poetry Friday: Chuang Tzu And The Butterfly

A quick post today, as I am busy revising a manuscript.

Chuang Tzu And The Butterfly

Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real — the butterfly or the man?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil — what for?

— Li Po

"And still you toil and toil -- what for?"

I think that even if I were working on this manuscript only in a dream, I would toil and toil. Actually, it's not "toil": it is joyful effort striving toward clarity rather than rank and riches. Maybe that makes all the difference.

Li Po was a Chinese poet who lived from 701 to 762 CE, during the Tang dynasty. His many poems are heavily influenced by Taoism. He is considered one of the two greatest Chinese poets. (Yet another great poet to add to my reading list.)

The poem refers to a well-known passage from the work of Chuang Tzu (also written Zhuangzi), a fourth-century BCE Taoist philosopher whose work was important in the development of Chan Buddhism. (More for the reading list ...) The famous butterfly dream:

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Mommiful Practice

When my son was younger, he would sometimes complain, "Why do you have to be so Mommy-ful?" Meaning, why did I ruin all the fun by being "The Mommy"? (Or later, The Mom.)

My answer: Because I am The Mom. Mommiful is what I do -- it is my practice.

Sorry, son. Or what I really mean is, Count your lucky stars, my son.

I like to keep up with Karen Maezen Miller's blog, Cheerio Road. Her most recent post was, How to Raise a Buddhist Child. I hope she doesn't mind if I paste in the whole post.


How to raise a Buddhist child

1. Honestly, have no idea.
2. Diligently, make no effort.
3. Faithfully, accept what is.
4. Sincerely, pay attention.
5. Be kind.
6. Otherwise, apologize.
7. Raise a Buddhist parent instead.

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I think this is brilliant: pithy and wise. Like a good poem, it leaves much to read between the lines. Much that the reader must supply for herself. For me, accepting what is (a child who at times displays explosive anger) and paying attention (to what the underlying issue is, beneath all the static) leaves me with a conundrum about what being kind should look like. Last night I was presented with another opportunity to practice with this koan.

It was bedtime, and my son had planned to read before lights-out time, but he had gotten distracted by the ballgame on TV, so once lights-out time came, he hadn't read yet. But he really wanted to. I mean he REALLY wanted to. Dad had said he could, I had said he could, he didn't care about the clock or the fact that, as he has admitted, mornings are horrid when he's tired. It wasn't fair!

I could see that this was one of those times when he was again resisting the nature of the universe, in particular that clocks run in only one direction. And that actions (watching TV instead of reading) can't be undone. He was frustrated with himself, disappointed, tired, and angry, but he channeled all his feelings into that last one, anger, until it became rage.

This is when Mom (and Dad) call on all the bodhisatvas for guidance. One of the bodhisatvas who comes to my rescue is Mark Epstein, the psychologist and Buddhist practitioner who wrote Going On Being and several other insightful books. He refers a lot to the psychologist D. W. Winnicott. This passage from an article in Yoga Journal summarizes well Epstein's (and Winnicott's) teaching:

It is important to respect a child’s aggression. Without it, they will have no fire, no ability to differentiate themselves, and no drive for creative expression. It is also important not to indulge a child’s aggression; obviously they have a need for limits, boundaries, and discipline.

But it is essential, in the words of the famous British child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, not to retaliate and not to abandon in the face of a child’s anger. A parent’s duty is simply to survive. To accomplish this, we have to be able to deal with our own anger, not by pushing it away but not by indulging it either. Parents have to find a way to make their own anger skillful.

Mark Epstein, M.D. Yoga Journal, July-August 2001

A parent's duty is simply to survive. Exactly. To be more precise, though, what needs to survive is not one's ego, but one's ability to respond skillfully. With my son, when he is raging, the task is to set boundaries and limits to his actions without telling him not to be angry. The task is, largely, to help him contain the anger and to guide him back to those other emotions.

The task last night was more complex, though, because he started shoving. A lot. So part of staying skillful was staying safe. I had to make clear in that very moment that shoving, manhandling, force was NOT OKAY. That meant that I had to be very firm. Okay, I had to yell. But it was kind yelling -- no insults. And I corrected him, loudly and clearly, rather than retreat. I did not retaliate and I did not abandon. I used, I think, the skill of Fierce Compassion, a skill that I am hungry to learn about from teachers and books, but that I seem mostly to learn about through the engaged practice of parenting my son.

After closing himself in the bathroom for awhile, he finally calmed down. I insisted that he apologize. He didn't quite see why he had to. So I explained, firmly but more quietly (since he was now curled up on my lap) how crucial it is that he not use his bodily strength against people. He started to get it. The more he calmed down, the more he got it, the more he remembered that he already got this.

He wanted to end the evening on good terms -- he had looked forward to us both reading on his bed, all comfy -- and so I sat with him and we talked about other things for a little while. Then I left to get ready for bed myself.

It is tiring to have to go through things like this. It is tiring to think about how to teach him to notice his own rage when it is still just a seed, how to talk to his therapist about teaching him. It is tiring to think about having to carry out the consequence (no computer for two days). But I get much less upset about episodes like this than I used to. Partly, I am used to it, and partly, I am much more skilled than I used to be.

That is the Mommiful Practice.

The practice of raising a Buddhist parent.

P.S. In spite of everything, I smile to think that all of this fuss was about wanting to read. Down to the mat for a book! It could be worse.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Poetry Friday: Why

This poem pushed itself on me while I was meditating (or trying to meditate). It has the form of a children's book -- the questions children ask -- but the answers aren't the type we usually give to children. Maybe we should.


Why is the sea so deep?
The dark to keep.

Why is the ocean wide?
To mend the divide.

Why does the river run?
No gain is long won.

Why do the leaves turn red?
To dress the dead.

Why do the earthworms writhe?
In labor blithe.

Why do the birds fly?
To mystify.

Why do the waves churn?
To cool the burn.

Why is the sky blue?
To buoy you.

Why do the clouds not fall?
Pretenders, all.

Why does the wind blow?
The more to show.

Why does the thunder roar?
To hasten the oar.

Why does the sun rise?
To lure our eyes.

Why does the sun set?
To nurse regret.

Why does the world go on?
This rhyme is done.

-- Lauren Thompson

I think of my dad, who is a scientist through and through. He would say that what we can't measure, we can't really know. He would probably say that we ask the wrong questions. We may ask, why is the sky blue, but we can only discover how the sky is blue. There may be no "why," no objective reason. I'm saying, "Yes, but we always create subjective reasons. Just because they are subjective doesn't make them less interesting." But then we leave the domain of science and enter that of poetry. Or, the dharma.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Artist's Love for Haiti

Looking through old copies of Tricycle magazine that have piled up, I noticed beautiful paintings by artist Rami Efal. I found him on-line, and currently he is offering to send anyone an original ink painting in exchange for a receipt confirming a $50 (or more) donation toward the Haiti relief effort.

Here is an evocative example of his work.

[Click on image for an enlarged view.]

Credit: (c) Rami Efal

May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.

May a rain of food and drink descend
To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger
And during the aeon of famine
May I myself change into food and drink.

May I become an inexhaustible treasure
For those who are poor and destitute;
May I turn into all things they could need
And may these be placed close beside them.

From The Way of the Bodhisattva, by Shantideva, Ch. III (trans. Stephen Batchelor)

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Dewdrop World

Feeling sadness today. I thought of this haiku by Issa:
This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet—
According to David G. Lanoue, "this haiku was written on the one-year anniversary of the death of Issa's firstborn child, the boy Sentarô. It has a one-word prescript: 'Grieving.' According to Buddhist teaching, life is as fleeting as a dewdrop and so one should not grow attached to the things of this world. Issa's response: 'and yet...'"

It is an ephemeral, transient world, and this we must accept. Even so, we suffer, and we grieve. For this, we are given equanimity, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other.

When I think of a dewdrop in Japanese Buddhism, I think of Dogen and his Moon in a Dewdrop ("Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water... The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass...".) But if Issa's dewdrop is related to Dogen's, it seems to be so only in a complicated way. (Or perhaps Dogen's dewdrop is related to the dewdrop in Japanese Buddhist imagery in a complicated way, or a way I don't yet understand.)

I found this poem by another Japanese poet (and artist and Rinzei Zen monk), Sengai, which reflects Issa's dewdrop nicely.
To what shall I compare this life of ours?
Even before I can say
it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop
it is no more.

- Sengai (1750 - 1837)
This spare and beautiful painting of the moon echoes the "enso" calligraphy he would have often created:

The poem inscribed in the painting can be roughly translated this way:

Looking at the shadow it casts
into the great Emptiness
I made a firm resolution
     Night of autumn moon.

Dedicating the merit: May the fruits of this post benefit all beings, including, particularly, the earthquake victims in Haiti.

P.S. In Japanese, Issa's dewdrop haiku looks like this:

Tsuyu no yo wa
Tsuyu no ya nagara

I think it's interesting to see a phrase-for-phrase translation:

[Tsuyu-no-yo / wa / tsuyu-no-yo / nagara / sari / nagara]
[Dew-world / as-for / dew-world / while-it-is / so-be / while-it-is]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Worried Little Faces: Metta to You All

This being a Thursday, I went this morning to the nearby yoga studio for a brief sit with a few others. The leader, Linda, has us sit facing the wall, as she does in her tradition. It seems that in our own little sangha tradition, my spot has become the cushion next to Linda's. Which means that on Thursday mornings, I face this:

For as long as I can remember (or, as long as grounded outlets have been standard), I have read such outlets as faces. Worried little faces.

So if my meditation needs direction, I sometimes direct loving-kindness to these worried little faces. That is what I did this morning. I started by directing loving-kindness, or metta, to myself, as is traditional, and then directed it to others.

I first learned about metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg (from her wonderful book, Lovingkindness), and so the phrases I use in my own metta meditations are based on hers. I tend to silently recite:

May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I live with ease.

I sometimes add,

May I be free from fear.

If I am on the subway, or on the street, and I see someone who seems to be in distress, I sometimes direct metta to them:

May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you live with ease.

At the very least, this often helps me not to take on their suffering, not to allow their sadness or lost-ness to trigger such feelings in me. If I feel my heart going out to worried electrical outlets, imagine the boundary-lessness I experience with someone with tears flowing down her face.

I like to read the original sutta now and then, which I would like to memorize at some point. Here is part of it:

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.

All living beings,
whether weak or strong,
tall, stout, average or short,
seen or unseen, near or distant,
born or to be born,
may they all be happy.

Let no one deceive another
or despise any being in any state,
let none by anger or hatred
wish harm to another.

As a mother watches over her child,
willing to risk her own life
to protect her only child,
so with a boundless heart
should one cherish all living beings,
suffusing the whole world
with unobstructed loving kindness.

Standing or walking,
sitting or lying down,
during all one's waking hours,
may one remain mindful of this heart
and this way of living
that is the best in the world.

(translation by Gil Fronsdal; line breaks are mine)

I know that some people feel aversion to this teaching, feeling that just wishing that everyone would be nice to everyone else is worse than useless in the task of ending the massive suffering of our world. I remember feeling that way, too. But now I believe that wishing happiness for myself and others is certainly not the worst thing a person can do. And if you do it sincerely, it won't be the only thing you do, for intention directs action, and cultivating lovingkindness for others surely cultivates kindlier intentions toward them. Then at least my own actions may be kindlier, and I won't be causing more suffering.

And then there is the brain research which shows that regular meditation on compassion seems to change the brain. In one study, monks who had spent at least 10,000 hours in meditation -- and even lay people with much fewer hours -- showed brain activity that is different from those who don't meditate in this way. Here is an excerpt from an article about one study, posted on the Dalai Lama's website:

Prof. Davidson [at U. Wisconsin/Madison] ... used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks' and novices' brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one's emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."

What this means to me is that the more we practice cultivating compassion and empathy, the more spontaneously we will be able to behave with compassion and empathy. We may be able not only to create less suffering, but to ease more suffering, through compassionate action. Our consciousness and even our physical brains seem to have the capacity to develop in this way.

Wonderful! (As Thay might say.)

P.S. I was interested in what kind of compassion meditation, exactly, the subjects engaged in. It may have been tonglen, but I'm not sure. However, I found a related study, from a different institute, which described the meditation in detail.

The compassion meditation program employed in this study was designed and taught by one of us (Lobsang Tenzin Negi).... Although secular in presentation, the compassion meditation program was derived from Tibetan Buddhist mind-training (Tibetan lojong) practices. These practices derive largely from writings ascribed to the Indian Buddhist masters Shantideva (8th Century) and Atisha (11th Century) (The Dalai Lama, 2001) .... Lojong-based compassion meditation has two primary elements: an initial phase in which various arguments are examined that challenge one’s common sense notion of other people as falling into the categories of ‘‘friend, enemy and stranger’’ and a second phase in which one practices developing spontaneous feelings of empathy and love for an ever expanding circle of people, beginning with the self and extending eventually to those with whom one has conflicts and/or dislikes.

["Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress," Emory University School of Medicine; Psychoneuroendocrinology (2008)]

Friday, January 8, 2010

Poetry Friday: Why I Am Not a Painter

Something by Frank O'Hara, who grew up in the town in which my father now lives, Grafton, Massachusetts -- not far from where I grew up, in Holden.

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.


Both Frank O'Hara and I left Massachusetts for New York. But beyond that, the comparisons gets thin. I was never in the Navy, and I have never been to Fire Island. He died there in 1966 as the result of a bizarre accident, at the age of forty.

"Anchovies Too" by L Thompson

Visit the Smithsonian site to see "Sardines":

Poem credit: Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter” from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1971 by Mauren Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O'Hara. Used by the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc,

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Map, No Map

Just when I need clarity about my practice, this particular teaching arrives. Of course, it's been around for a long time. But this morning when I opened my door to the net-o-sphere, there it was, a neat little package with a tag that read, "Open Me Now." So I did.

Inside was a new translation, by Glenn Wallis, of the Parayana Sutta. It has been translated variously as "The Discourse on The Goal and the Path Thereto," "on the Way to the Beyond," and "on the Way to the Far Shore." Wallis calls it the "Destination" sutra.


I will teach the destination and the path leading to the destination. Listen to what I say.

What is the destination? The eradication of infatuation, the eradication of hostility, and the eradication of delusion is what is called the destination.

And what is the path leading to the destination? Present-moment awareness directed toward the body. This awareness is what is called the path leading to the destination.

In this way, I have taught to you the destination and the path leading to the destination. That which should be done out of compassion by a caring teacher who desires the welfare of his students, I have done for you.

There are secluded places. Meditate, do not be negligent! Don't have regrets later! This is my instruction to you.

It doesn't get much simpler than that. "And what is the path leading to the destination? Present-moment awareness directed toward the body."

And as the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing goes on to teach, awareness of the body leads to, and is really the same as, awareness of consciousness and how it maps our way through reality.

Once we're aware of the map, we can, finally, look up from the map and experience simply what is there. That, I think, is the destination. More of a vantage point than a place on any near or far shore.

"There are secluded places." Go find one. Stop complaining, just go. The student is ready, the teacher has appeared, and the instruction has been given. Class dismissed -- go! Go practice.

I thank Barry Briggs and his blog, Ox Herding, for the gift of this teaching. As he notes, it appeared in Glenn Wallis's article in Buddhadharma: The Practioner's Quarterly, which I read, but I didn't take notice of it then.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On Yelling Less

[New Years' Retreat, Blue Cliff Monastery; photo by
Melissa Setubal]

This transitional time between years, and decades, comes at a transitional moment for me -- or at what I want to be a transitional moment. It feels right to make resolutions, to set intentions.

One intention I set is to yell less.

I never wanted to me a mom who yells. There was a lot of yelling in my home growing up, between all of us. I hated it. And in raising my now-twelve-almost-thirteen year old son, I have worked hard not to yell, though of course there were plenty of times when yelling seemed to be the only way to get through to him. Instead, my intention has been to express my feelings and needs powerfully, if necessary, but not violently. I wanted to model for him how we can articulate our inner self to others without simply acting it out. And I think that I have done a pretty good job.

But sometimes a body gets tired. Sometimes a body just wants to yell, "Do what I tell you! NOW!"

I am writing this with awareness that my son may read it. That's okay. He and I have talked about how, at times, he is not the easiest child to raise. He is very smart, very active, deeply feeling, strong-willed, and at times explosive in his expression of frustration with the fact that things don't always go his way. He is also insightful and self-reflective, and can even smile at how he sometimes makes things hard for himself. He's come such a long way over the years. But he is still heavily invested in resistance. And that's what wears me down.

I never want to end up yelling. I never want to spend twenty minutes in growing frustration as he playfully, complainingly, distractedly, and angrily acts out his resistance to whatever needs to be done. I just want him to put on his shoes and go to school! NOW! I just want him to get washed up and GO TO BED! NOW!

Afterward, he is usually penitent, regretting that he pissed me off, sorry that he took things too far. Afterward, when he's insisted that I sit with him in bed so that we can cuddle, he wants to do better. He wants to be very sure of my love.

And I want him to be sure of my love. I love him dearly. And there are many moments during the day when we enjoy each others' company. There is plenty of the good stuff. I just get weary of the hard stuff.

I knew that I had been yelling more, losing my temper more, and I didn't like it. But it wasn't until I talked with a friend about it, and my husband interjected, "Yes, you are yelling more," that I really saw. I don't believe that yelling is effective as a disciplinary, that is, a teaching, tool. And I have evidence, fresh, direct evidence, that yelling doesn't change the unwanted behavior. It just sours the whole environment.

Now, there is a lot of history that I'm not going to go into here. We have wended our way through a wilderness of crises, conferences, specialists, therapists (so many therapists), diagnoses, techniques, strategies, books and articles and dvds ... it's been a long journey. And someday that tale must be told.

But for now, I resolve, before god and the buddha-nature of all that is, to yell less. No more yelling. (Or, very little.)

Even when he becomes a teenager, as of seven weeks from now.

An affirmation for my bathroom mirror:

I will not yell,
I will not whine,
I will not pester other kids,
I will not throw things,
I am the mom,
I am the mom!