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.