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.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Conditions Change

Yesterday, I learned that one of my publishers has decided not to take one of my manuscripts.

Okay, two of my manuscripts.

This doesn't feel good -- it never does. But that's the way it goes. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right publisher, and sometimes it takes a while for the manuscript to be ready. And sometimes, some manuscripts are never ready, but through the process of development, they serve to strengthen other projects, or the author's vision.

That's the perspective I'm choosing to have.

In honor of honorable rejections, a poem that appeared in the Mindfulness Bell (Summer 2009):

Kill the Buddha haiku

A letter comes back:
Sorry, these haiku are just
not Buddhist enough.

-- Charles Suhor

Such moments offer a good opportunity to contemplate the Eight Worldly Vicissitudes.

"Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. ...

these conditions among human beings
are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don't charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance."

Conditions change; they most certainly do. The whole publishing world has changed, and the market into which books are now published. (I.e., it's the economy, buddha.) I will try not to resist the condition of walking down the avenue along which certain kinds of publishers set up shop and finding that they don't fill my bowl the way they used to. But it seems intelligent to explore other avenues, along which different publishers set up shop. And also to make note of the sorts of books that booksellers along those avenues find are filling their bowls.


Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World" (AN 8.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009,

The alms bowl is available at

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Truth

I saw this bumper sticker on a car yesterday:

"The truth will set you free": this, of course, comes from the Christian Bible, specifically the Gospel According to John, 8:32. It is a saying that has meant a lot to me over the years, from the time of my upbringing in a Congregationalist church. One thing it has said powerfully to me is that to embrace what is really going on brings freedom and life; hiding from and denying what is really going on brings pain and suffocation. No wonder Buddhism felt like home, once I found it.

But my idea of the "truth" in question has always been quite different from what the "truth" has traditionally been interpreted to be. The context of this verse is an argument between Jesus and the chief priests and Pharisees, and phrases from this chapter have been used to justify persecution of the Jews. John is my least favorite among the gospels, as it seems to be written as a polemic against all who reject this Jesus who proclaims himself Christ-as-Savior; to me, this telling of Jesus' life and teaching paints him as a raving narcissist. (He does go on and on about his wonderful self.) But I am sure that some of the potent sayings are indeed authentic; to give voice to them, the writers of the Gospel created a Jesus character who served their purposes. (As did the writers of each of the Gospels, and of all scripture, and the creators of any kind of literature or art).

But I digress. Seeing this bumper sticker got me thinking about what variety of truth the bumper sticker refers to, and what variety of anger. The car also featured a "Quakers!! Where?" bumper sticker, so I assume that the car belongs to a Quaker. If this is a Quaker of the universalist, New York Meeting stripe, the sticker is probably pointing a bit ironically to the truth-of-Christ-as-savior concept. It points more wholeheartedly to the truth-of-God-as-justice notion, which springs from the powerful message of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and Amos.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

And so the truth that sets you free, but first makes you angry, is the truth of power, of seeing who has power and who doesn't, and who is using that power in self-service. Once you see how the game is really being played, you are free from delusion. One could say that it is the truth of suffering, of the First Noble Truth: Suffering exists. And perhaps seeing the causes of that suffering, the endemic injustice within human society, is an echo of the Second Noble Truth, that suffering has discernible causes.

And those aspects of truth are enough to make anyone angry. As angry as the prophets of old.

But what do you do with that anger? Because feeling angry is not enough. Just as suffering is not enough (as Thầy says), anger is not enough. The Dharma teaches us to see ill-being for what it is, and to transform that ill-being into freedom -- freedom from the delusion that traps us into reenacting the causes of ill-being. How are you going to use that energy of anger in a way that will not simply perpetuate these causes?

I know I'm asking a lot of a bumper sticker, but I wish it had said something about love. Because our society has a very distorted view of anger. We conflate the energy of anger with the expression of anger. Many interpret the Christian tradition as teaching that we should never feel angry, that we should turn the other cheek, forgive immediately, and to someone who takes our cloak, give our coat as well. On the other hand, we're taught how important it is to express your feelings, to vent rather than to hide your feelings. So we have a victim mentality mixed with self-righteousness mixed with entitlement. What's missing is an alternative to so much self-involvement. What's missing is the idea of expressing your angry feelings in a way that shines a light on the situation that triggered the anger, without exacerbating it. You do that through love, through compassion.

In his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thầy writes:

You have the duty to tell [your beloved] when you suffer. When you are happy, share your happiness, with her, with him. When you suffer, tell your beloved one about your suffering. Even if you think your anger was created by him or her, you still have to keep your commitment [to support each other]. Tell him or her calmly. Use loving speech. This is the only condition. (p. 57)

We have the duty (elsewhere, he says we have the right) to communicate our anger. But we must do so calmly and lovingly. Here he speaks of anger between family members, but because of inter-being, this teaching must extend to anger between constituents and governments, and to anger between nations.

Martin Luther King, Jr., worked hard to channel the energy of anger into prophetic, powerful, loving action. So did Gandhi and Dorothy Day. And Thich Nhat Hanh.

I would like to see a bumper sticker that reads:

The truth will set you free.
So that's what that funny little half-smile is all about!

A bit more about the Society of Friends:

During the two years or so that I attended the Brooklyn Friends Meeting, I learned that many of my assumptions about Quakers were wrong, or incomplete. The Brooklyn Meeting is unprogrammed, meaning that there is no pastor and no liturgy -- the meeting sits in silence, listening for leadings. But there are other types of Quaker meeting, more common in the Midwest and West (apologies for over-generalizations). Roughly speaking, the Quakers stream into four branches: Liberal, Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical.

Click to read about Liberal, Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical Friends' beliefs and customs.