- Mountains And Waters
There was a Japanese monk, once in the 1800’s, who wanted to visit Tibet, which was completely closed to foreigners. When he got there, sometimes he would be walking for days along mountain paths, and come to a fork where he had no idea which way to go. At these times, he sat down in zazen until a direction appeared. He called this “Decision-making samadhi.”
This poem is about that, and it helps me.
Do not try to save the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.
“Create a clearing…and wait there patiently” until you know which way to go.
I waited for years, never patiently, and finally the direction showed itself while I was sitting in the zendo in monastic retreat. I found myself walking through the Great Plains along a pipeline. When that was done, I again knew what came next. It keeps changing, but that’s fine.
Perhaps this is not useful. I could be more specific. Here, these things:
Those are ways of making space in your life to hear what needs to be heard, or seen, or felt or tasted. Any way is fine.
If you already know your direction, follow it. It’s the only way to be alive, really. It can be discouraging and hard. All your faults appear, interfering with the work – or shaping it, how are we to know?
If you don’t do it, though, if you protect yourself from those humiliating mistakes and hide your character flaws – well, you can feel safe, and you can resent the people who are taking action, becoming known or even famous, who are far inferior to you. Resentment is a miserable way to live, and meanwhile your gifts wither on the vine. Forget safety.
So here’s the thing: will you be here for your life, or will you miss it?
Do you remember, perhaps, how summer days were in childhood? Did you wake in the morning with a whole day in front of you, go out the door to play with friends or to wander outdoors? Occasionally chores? And when evening came, you could barely remember morning, it was so long ago?
There’s an expression from a Zen teacher about sesshin (meditation retreat): “the days are as long as they were in childhood.” We sit facing a wall, with structured breaks for walking, eating, chanting, talks, and maybe a work period. With no escape except the daydream, the days are long, the minutes move slowly. That could be a blessing or a curse, but it’s mind’s habits that make it a curse.
Mindfulness is about becoming free from those habits. I could say changing those habits, and that would also be true. Develop the habit of calm, of readiness, of openness, of interest, replacing habits of fear, escape, or complaint.
One training is to sit still and upright, and let the mind follow the breath: sitting meditation. Of course the mind wanders, and the training is to bring it back. It can feel like work, because the mind’s wanderings seem fascinating, and the present seems boring. This is the cognitive mind, which only knows thoughts. But thoughts are just another experience, known in Buddhism as one of the six senses.
The mind of awareness knows more. The body itself is an infinity of sensations, when we notice them. Even just sounds – stop for a moment and listen, listen, listen. Even the most subtle movements of the body, proprioception. Heat and cold, the movement of air on the skin, the touch of clothing or objects. And the cognitive mind is a vast ocean, thoughts arising and falling, arising and being pursued, arising and being avoided. All the senses – sight, smell, taste as well as sound, touch, and thought – offer vast entertainment for the calm mind, and that calming eventually leads to the delight of deep calm called samadhi, or one-pointedness.
Every action, even stillness, becomes an ocean of sensation for the mind of awareness. And then you are alive.
Writing this is not to deny the thing called work, meaning taking an action with the intention of a result. That requires its own writing. Another time.
And here is something I’m aware of right now, in world events.
May you be here for your life.
“what if our religion was each other,
if our practice was our life,
if prayer, our words.
what if the temple was the earth,
if forests were our church,
if holy water—the rivers, lakes, and oceans.
what if meditation was our relationships,
if the teacher was life,
if wisdom was self-knowledge,
if love was the center of our being.”
Isn’t that the dream? Every day, every moment, every person and tree and pebble known as holy, met fully in joyous intimacy – isn’t that the dream of how life might be?
We’re working our way there. Here are some bits of this work. Perhaps one of them will speak to you.
There is now a small group, meeting monthly over food. We listen to a thought-provoking talk or watch a film, with time for discussion afterward. It was a little awkward at first; gradually it’s growing deeper. After the last meeting, another member said to me “We could actually do the things talked about – become that community rather than talking about it.” I agreed. I believe we will. It will take patience and persistence. (We’ve been listening to Martin Prechtel, “Grief and Praise,” a talk on Youtube in three segments. We haven’t chosen the next one yet, and we will come back to this.)
This reminds me of something we did at Sanshin Zen Community. There’s a Zen tradition called the Precepts Ceremony, or the Full Moon Ceremony. At Sanshin we did it differently: there was chanting and reciting the precepts, then a short talk by the teacher and a sharing circle. Each of us said what precept we were working with now. It took over a year to move from formality to real sharing. I still remember the time when, after saying what I had planned to say, I broke down and confessed to killing hundreds of ants that had gotten into my bed. Reflecting on our own ethics and our own lives – this is a space for connecting.
As an individual, I give attention to the earth as temple and the forests as church. I spend time there, and make offerings. I speak with and listen to whatever earth beings call to me. In caring for the land at the farm, I attempt to remember that they are beings too. The invasive plants and animals especially – they are so much like me as a civilized human – taking their space even though it hurts others – that I struggle with how to restrain them. The kinds of restraint that came from my European ancestors are imprisonment from which I seek freedom. Do I do the same to others – even the not-human? Can they listen, can they change consciousness and learn to coexist? It seems highly doubtful, but as a colonizer dare I claim to be better than other colonizers? And yet, how can I not defend the native plants, not to mention those I planted for food?
So there is this thing I don’t know. I do my best to share it anyway, to make situations for others to meet the earth beings too. These are sometimes called “Land Care Retreat” and sometimes just farm workdays.
So I invite you to these actions – one or more of them:
Gather with other people to make a holy place and time, as we are doing with the potluck/study group. Choose a theme, and adjust it from time to time. Make a habit of it; commit.
Acknowledge the ones who are already with you – spouse, family, friends – honor them, worship the love between you, help it to grow. Just do this all the time.
Worship the forests, the earth, the waters. Do it formally, making an offering of some kind – an offering of words or song or poetry, of dance or movement, of something you made – and listen and accept their offering too. Make a habit of it.
Also do this with others. Be patient, and persist.
And that’s what I have to offer, as we turn toward 2019. Please practice community as religion, in every way.
“The sangha is the whole of the holy life.” (Said the Buddha to Ananda)
“Go ahead, light your candles, burn your incense, ring your bells and call out to the Gods but watch out, because the Gods will come. And they will put you on the anvil and fire up the forge and beat you and beat you until they turn brass into pure gold.” ~ Author Unknown
This writing is for those whose intention is holy. Who are committed to service. Who are willing to turn their lives over to the powers beyond human – by whatever name, here called The Gods – and be used for whatever is most needed by The Whole. That probably means you. If you doubt yourself, it still probably means you. Only if it sounds silly should you exclude yourself from this.
Stories come to mind, of people who have made that commitment, but there are too many. Please share yours, here in the comments. I offer mine, for starters.
I grew up in love with the natural world, and mostly excluded by my peers. My parents were good people, religious, with no psychological or social understanding of how to help me. (Years later I realized how much they loved and treasured me – fortunately while they were still alive.) So the beginning of my commitment would be whenever I started to see myself as an actor in the world. That would be late high school. There’s a marker: in 12th grade, applying for a summer research program at a college, I remember saying “I want to understand everything, and I want it to be useful.” I thought that meant physics, and I didn’t know its use. Later I saw that it meant Buddhism, and the use is evolving.
There were two markers after that. In 2004, not knowing how to respond to political evil, I went to sit zazen (meditation) in public outside both the conventions. It was hard, and I was tired. And, walking from Boston to New York with an anarchist group. I learned that walking is home. In August 2011 I went to Washington with 350.org and got arrested at the White House. I stayed for a week, and on the other days mostly I sat zazen facing each day’s protest. One day I did walking meditation at the protest site. One day, as the only visible Buddhist, I led the group in metta (lovingkindness) meditation, and found it well received.
That September, during formal monastic training, while sitting in the zendo, there were pictures in my mind, pictures of walking along the KXL pipeline with a group of people. The pictures wouldn’t go away. I checked it out with teachers and advisors, and gradually concluded that I should do it. My own teacher simply said “Wait until you have Dharma Transmission.” Another year. The Compassionate Earth Walk happened in 2013.
The Walk itself was very hard, and I was often angry. The walkers talked about why it was so hard, and concluded that our proposal to heal the culture had invoked its faults in our group life. This was some consolation but it was still terribly hard.
I asked myself, again and again, what I could have done differently, what could have made it better. Yet I have never felt so alive, before or since, as when I was fully engaged in that work.
That is the point of this post: the experience of responding to the call is difficult. It is painful. It is full of “what I did wrong” or “what should I have done differently?” or “what a failure I am.”
“the Gods will come. And they will put you on the anvil and fire up the forge and beat you and beat you until they turn brass into pure gold.”
The matter of feeling inadequate is part of the process. It would be nice if we could refrain from beating ourselves up over our inadequacies. But it goes like this: we commit to doing something that is larger than our capacity. We do it – well or badly – and in the process, because our intention is pure, every single flaw is pushed in our face.
That is how it works – becoming more able for the next part of the work.
Two closing thoughts:
If you can recall yourself as part of the whole rather than an independent actor, it helps with those thoughts. There is no such thing as an independent actor; every one of us is a product of the entire world, embedded in it and supported by it. As are our flaws.
The awareness of the flaws is an essential part of the process. Still, there is kindness. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself. Seek support from friends, see a therapist, get enough sleep, good food, calm and joy in your life.
To be continued.
On Saturday, Thich Nhat Hanh returned to his root temple in Vietnam – the place where he entered the Way. He wrote “It has been my deep wish for many years now to return and live where my ancestral teachers lived … until the day this body disintegrates.” (Full letter is here.) Louise Dunlop sent me the video of his return, here.
Sunday morning, Tetsugen Bernie Glassman died. I was eating lunch with my friend Gentle Dragon, who practices with Zen Peacemaker Order, when she got a phone call telling her that he had passed. something about who he was –He was an important person in the world of Buddhist activism – Here’s something about his life.
I had mentioned that someone, quoting me, wanted to call me Roshi and I told her no. GD said, let them call you Roshi. The generation before us is leaving. We have to take our places, we have to step up. (And then she got the phone call. I think that’s the order of how it happened.) Once, there was a Zen abbot who refused ever to move into the abbot’s quarters, keeping his place as student even as he ran the monastery. But mostly, they accept the mantle. Here we are.
My teacher is retiring in a few years. Her teacher is practically retired. And I can see the faces of teachers passed away in the last few years. Our teachers are leaving. It’s time to step up.
This is for me. It might not apply to everyone. People still get to be young, beginners, learners – that time is important. But for me, with 35 years of Zen practice and 6 years since Dharma Transmission, I start to see a difference between hiding and humility.
This is something else, about daily practice:
In an apparent coincidence, my housemate was watching a film series on shamanism, and I joined him to listen to one talk. The speaker, a Peruvian shaman, was talking about always being in ceremony whether we know it or not. He spoke of ways to take care of that, like blessing the water before you drink it and the food before you eat it. And that reminded me: I used to live that way. It’s time to come back. It’s not a hardship, but it is a sacrifice – which means “making holy.”
I’ll write more another time.
And I’m doing some updates on various pages here.
Love to you all.
Years ago, a teacher at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, said to me “We each have to find our own way.” There, when entering monastic practice for the first time, we would first sit in silence for five days. This was called “clarifying the mind.” Now, seeing more clearly, I recognize that this means dropping ideas and letting the Great Way find us.
Some things are now clear enough that I can share them with you. It seems like a direction change, but it’s not.
The most important thing that I am doing is my practice, also known as my work. At this time that means to carry on the combination of zazen (sitting meditation: just sitting with the whole universe as we all create each other) and intimate relationship with all beings of the earth. Those are actually the same, but one looks like sitting still and the other like walking outdoors, making ceremony and offerings, visiting sacred places.
To make space for this, I am dropping some activities. Most of them involve efforts to get people to join me in my work. I’m going to the “attraction rather than promotion” model.
Here are two talks that I liked, from 2016.
“The whole world is the true human body.”
“A single hand held out freely.”
From my childhood I remember going on walks in the woods with my father. He would take me and my sister to the “real woods” – not the overgrown orchard where we played all the time – and would talk about things, and he always brought cookies. It was a special time. Once we found a rotted tree stump, and he said “peat moss” and the next time he brought a bag to take it home for the garden.
Yesterday I went out to the woods on probably our last warm day for the season. I went to heal, to renew my connection with the land, damaged as it was from the tornado. I hadn’t noticed I was hiding indoors, but there it was. I found tiny sugar maples, and praised them; one Korean nut pine is alive and well, and I spoke encouraging words. And in the many, many fallen trees I noticed how many were hollow, or aging, or beginning to rot inside. Peat moss.
Some places are barely recognizable. The ancient cedar tree is standing but tilted. The old paths, sometimes, are covered with fallen branches or giant trees. The woods are more open – and I can feel the possibility of change, of renewal. Remembering the image of storms as cleansing. New things will happen here. I will be able to allow them.
Some of the old sacred places are simply buried. I can’t get to the East Gate at all, and the North Gate now requires a long walk. But the river still sings, and the favorite place on the bluffs is open and beautiful. The higher places are changed. By the creek, the bluffs are radiant.
This time I was able to take pictures. Because I begin to be ready to move forward, to let the land recover, to let it be.
I gave a talk recently, and have found some old talks that aren’t posted yet. I don’t know how to put them in the proper web page, but I’m temporarily putting the new one here. And the potluck group has started listening to talks by Martin Prechtel, here.
I was asked “So what is true?” These things came up immediately, in this order. I remember who said each one to me, though they’re not unique to those people.
And this, for moments of discouragement: Trust the Way, trust that you are in the Way, from Eihei Dogen.
And I want to invite you to listen to three talks by Martin Prechtel, who I’ve referenced before. They’re now linked here.
Please continue your practice.
Loss has my attention today. I was out walking the land with a dear friend that has never been here before. I came back to learn that the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court by two votes. If both Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin had voted “no”, we would be looking toward a less scary future.
Even then, it’s scary. The Amazon rainforest is no longer a carbon sink. https://e360.yale.edu/digest/study-finds-tropical-forests-are-no-longer-carbon-sinks. The Arctic is melting – https://physicsworld.com/a/arctic-thaw-imperils-climate-goals/. And hate, fear, partisanship rule the day in more countries than our own. 2400 children are now in that immigrant camp in Texas, and families are not being reunited. Within five or ten years we likely face a world far different from even the one we know now – let along the green and abundant world of my childhood.
My past week has mostly been about the tornado. My house was close to the path of the strongest of several tornadoes that came through Rice County. It missed the house and took down dozens of trees. I’m still shocked when I look at the fallen and twisted trees. But also now, with much clearing done, I’m looking forward to what might be possible. I have little trees looking for homes – they will tell me where to plant them.
I’d been planning for the land care retreat, just three weeks away, planning to work with some of Martín Prechtel’s teachings. I’d thought of making a sacred compost pile; Martín talks about composting as honoring death and decay. Now it’s more likely that we’ll work with wildness, making an offering to the wild beings (deer, gophers, quackgrass) that threaten the orchard, as we also nurture the trees and spaces that support them. The orchard is weak because of neglect, not the storm; its weakness is influenced by conventional agriculture, erratic weather (climate change), and all the rest – and it longs for human attention too.
The grief of that neglect, and the grief of climate change, of tornado losses, of everyone we’ve loved who has died, of creeping fascism in politics here and in so much of the world – we’ll allow our grief to nourish the orchard as we do weeding, mulching, planting, cutting. And wildness will be welcome in this time. Because the gardens will not be strong unless the wilderness is stronger, and our habit of trying to control it leads to an inevitable end. We’ll allow the grief of lost trees and loss of control, and move toward our natural place in the family of living beings. Which means receiving gifts and giving them, in the spirit of offering, giving back to the earth which gives us our lives.
I’ve been promising to write about my summer’s retreat, but that will wait for the moment. Life is moving, alive, growing. I will write about that later, and also about the conference two weeks ago that was so exciting.
I have one simple request, though. During a solo in the wilderness, I made a vow to support the pine trees of the world – trees that are being attacked by pine bark beetles and blister rust, that are going up in flames. The beetles attach when the trees are stressed by drought or fire. Their attacks make the trees more susceptible to wildfire, which both heats directly and adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. My vow was to strengthen the trees so they will not burn. At one moment, I could sense that the trees had already accomplished this; at another I knew they needed our help.
Please support your local pine trees. I can’t tell you how. Currently I’m offering chanting and prayers and healing energy; do whatever comes to you.
I’m joining a local group working on stopping Line 3, the tar sands pipeline through northern Minnesota – defending our shared home and confronting the state government that I know best. While my strongest draw is toward the plants and earth, I am compelled to join with other human beings as well.
I recommend this article, which as I was reading about the Kavanaugh hearing reminded me of balance.
Howard Zinn in 2005: https://progressive.org/op-eds/howard-zinn-despair-supreme-court/.
“Our culture – the media, the educational system – tries to crowd out of our political consciousness everything except who will be elected President and who will be on the Supreme Court, as if these are the most important decisions we make. They are not. They deflect us from the most important job citizens have, which is to bring democracy alive by organizing, protesting, engaging in acts of civil disobedience that shake up the system.”
Bless you all. I hope you’re voting, this year of all years – please make sure you’re registered. Please love your humans and your earth-beings, and please be well and happy.
I have posted a number of links to articles or talks here for your reading or listening. What they have in common:
Comments are encouraged – in great part because this is my first writing here and I’d like to see if it works.
I want to be thoughtful, give this page my best. Because I’m overcommitted, this results in not writing. It would help me if I knew that people were following this – I just know of one. Please let me know if you read this, if you want to read more. Thanks.
I just wanted to invite you to look at the new writing. These will be about once a week, and will not have notifications except through the monthly newsletter (until we get the new website).
If you are reading here, you probably are aware of climate change, species extinction, long-term racism, and (to be brief) a disastrous political and economic situation.
I offer a poem by Andy Mahler, a friend and forest activist from southern Indiana.
the shit hitting the fan
we have warned
and been warned
since at least the sixties
that if we did not find a more harmonious and peaceful way to live on this beautiful planet that this day would come
and now it is here
a clusterbundle of reasons for anger and fear
but that doesn’t mean we have to be angry or fearful
anger says do something
(hit somebody, hurt somebody, hate somebody)
fear says pay attention
(or run like hell)
anger and fear are the emotional equivalent of junk food
bacon fried coke
love is that strange paradox
where the more you give
the more you receive
you get it when you give it away
someone said to love your neighbor as yourself
said to love your enemy
said love the creator
love the creation
why are you here?
Did you ever wonder
why you are here?
Let me make it simple for you
what do you love?
Not as an abstraction or an ideal
What do you love enough to take action to defend it?
it is under immediate threat
by taking action to defend it, nurture it, grow it
you grow into the person you were meant to be
anger tempered by love becomes purpose
fear tempered by love becomes resolve
why are you here
What do you love?
What do you love enough to defend it, to take action to defend it, to risk your life protecting and nourishing it?
Ask yourself this question at least once a day, and notice the answers. If you’re a person who journals, you can write down the answer each time.
There might be additional results of asking this question. You may want to spend more time with the beloved. You may want to tell them your love. You might find yourself contemplating what you see threatening them, what you wish to change, how you might take action.
All of this is fruitful. Trust that it will evolve and deepen as you go on.
You might want to give gentle attention to how it feels to ask this question and to answer it. To do that, come into a quiet and mindful state, away from distractions, and notice how your body feels. If you’ve ever done a body scan or guided relaxation, you can use those methods to help your awareness. Otherwise, let your attention move through your body – forehead, throat, shoulders, heart, belly, etc. – and just check for tension/relaxation, warm/cold, comfortable/not, and anything else. If you don’t like this part, just skip it.
Whatever you find can be private or shared.
If you would like to share something with the group here, please email it to me next weekend. I can share it here, or just respond to you, as you like. (When we have a better website you will be able to post directly.)
I’ll do the exercise along with you.
It helps me to know who and how many people are here. Let me know, please.
Future study group offering will include small daily mindfulness exercises like this one, poems and other thoughts for your consideration, larger experiments, and recommended readings.
For people who are not familiar with Buddhism, look at this book online The Way of Liberation by Adyashanti – nonsectarian and succinct – for basic orientation.
For all: see if you can find a copy of this book: Kinship with All Life, by J. Allen Boone (1954!). This is a beginner’s primer for communicating with nonhuman animals. Those of us who grew up in civilization probably need something this simple. I got it through interlibrary loan. It might be hard to find.
For me, Buddhist practice is about living as part of the earth, fully sustained and embraced in joy.
Usually we think of Buddhism as a philosophy – intellectual, disembodied – or a religion. “Religion” might actually fit, if we understand it correctly. It’s based on Latin words meaning “respect for the sacred” or “reconnecting with the gods,” and until the 1500’s religion was not separate from secular life – even in Europe.
Buddhism calls us back to the ancient or indigenous way of relating to the world and to the sacred. It asks us to let go of these ways of life and thought that have been trained into us from birth: humans as special, nature as resource, greed and hate as normal. In Buddhism, greed, hate, and the sense of separation are called the Three Poisons. They’re not natural at all, but it’s difficult to become free of them because of long training and the incessant harping of industrial civilization.
The way Life actually works is that each one of us is created by everything around us, past and present, and we in turn give life to everything else, present and future. We are a speck on the wave of Life, never lonely while in a way profoundly alone.
Knowing this is freedom. We can drop our burdens, whether those burdens are saving the planet or making a successful career. Life takes care of itself. Our job as individuals is to respond to the movement of Life in and around us. This requires dropping ingrained beliefs, which is why Buddhist practice can be arduous: before we can respond to Life we must be able to see/hear/feel it. Fortunately, even a glimpse is enlivening and energizing, and glimpses are common.
This way is joyful. Its hope is not the hope that something will change, but hope that embraces things as they are, joins with them enthusiastically, and responds in kind, with gratitude, creating resiliency without expectation.
This way is open to anyone who wants it.