Is awareness personal?

May 25, 2017

Me (student): Is awareness personal?

Teacher: No!

M: But it feels personal.

And so it goes, back and forth. A conversation that, in one form or another, has driven students to sit face-to-face with their teachers for hundreds of years.

This was not the first time I had been down this rabbit hole. Awareness felt personal, like something happening inside my head. This time, however, the conversation took a surprising turn. After reminding me one more time that my idea of awareness taking place somewhere inside my brain was a delusion, my teacher continued:

T (pointing to the wall): Where is awareness of the wall?

M (silent)

T (placing his hand on the rug): Where is awareness here?

M (placing my hand on the rug and pondering): But the thought comes in so fast.

T (bowing): You have passed your first koan.


I’ve been feeling my age more and more these days, feeling slower, more creaky, and less interested in coping with all of the things that keep others busy. My older friends assure me that I am not yet ‘old’ which is comforting, I guess, but it is comfort of a very meager sort because I feel like they are telling me, in not so many words, that its all downhill from here.

So what should I do? Shrug? Ignore what can’t be controlled? Get on with my ‘life’? Which is to say, act like the other 99.99% of the people on the planet at any given moment and pretend that I (and my so-called possessions) will live forever? Why isn’t my zen practice delivering pat answers to these questions?

I don’t have any answers, but I did find inspiration from two articles that popped into my inbox this morning: The Supreme Meditation (Larry Rosenberg, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017), and Dead Like Me (Ira Sukrungruang, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017). These writers are facing death head on so why shouldn’t I give it a try?

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February 27, 2017

Do you have time for a story? No? Not even a short one? Never mind then.

I became acquainted with this Philip Whalen poem when I heard it read by Barry Magid (podcast, Ordinary Mind Zendo). I’ve been walking many of the paths Whalen traveled (Portland, Reed, San Francisco, zen) and now we meet again.

“Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis” by Philip Whalen

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                         splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                         caricature of Teacher
    on paper held together now by little more than ink
    & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

Saved. Next time my mind starts digging a hole, I’ll try to remember that those ancient folks already solved my problems for me. Just look behind the busted wine jars.

Thanks to Mud & Lotus for sharing the poem and calligraphy.

Listen for the sounds … cheap pants ripping … the lid on Grandma’s cookie jar being lifted as the thief reaches for the bread money … the sounds of outrage … hammers on hot iron. The sounds are there for all of us to hear. We just needed someone to call them to our attention. Thanks.

The Little Planet Daily

When words lose their meaning
I listen for the sounds they make.
Some are like dirty water swirling in a can.
Some are like deflating a truck tire.
Some are like when a child dumps
her blocks on a tile floor.

When words become their opposites
their dignity is not diminished.

When the journalists who covered the protests
against the North Dakota oil pipeline
were arrested and charged with rioting,
their words sounded like hammers
annealing hot iron.

The words of the US president,
when he said he wanted
to restart construction on the pipeline,
using a company he owned part of,
sounded like cheap pants ripping
when someone has grown fat
stealing bread money
from his grandmother,
the one with tired eyes
who remembers what she paid
for every piece of clothing
she ever bought.

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The links between Basho (1644-1694), haiku master, and zen have occupied many a scholar. I recently came across a fairly old Tricycle (Spring 2002) article by poet Jane Hirshfield, “Basho as Teacher,” in which she articulates Basho’s core teaching as interconnection.

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Daughter Laughter

December 23, 2016

Note to self: I heard the title “daughter laughter” in my head before I typed it. Easy to say, but reading it with a straight face throws me for a loop. Daw-ter laff-ter? Why not daff-ter law-ter? My daughters do make me daft, but that’s another post.

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Portland’s Rosy Cheek

November 9, 2016

Autumn begins in early October in the Pacific NW. For some reason Portland and its surroundings have a history of horrific October windstorms and this year was no exception: a tornado blew through Manzanita a few weeks ago. It spent just a minute on the ground, but it created a path of destruction that stretched from the beach to the highway. Fortunately, our house, which was just a few hundred feet from the worst damage, escaped without a scratch.

But autumn’s wind and rain means more than storm damage. It also means leaves, leaves, and more leaves. I’ve spent the past 6 weeks raking at all hours of the day, piling them up before I go to work in the morning, and then returning to the street for another round of raking in the dark after dinner.

There is beauty in this task: raking gives me a “virtuous excuse” to go outside and admire nature’s bounty. I think of the Leaf Man in Harry Nilsson’s The Point and smile at the riches I’m piling up. I think of the zen koan in which a student sweeps up every leaf to create the ideal garden for his master’s guests only to watch the enlightened master reach up, shake a few leaves onto the just-swept garden, and say, “Perfect!” And I leave a few leaves behind even as I keep sweeping.

Autumn is also the best time for walking. My wife and I went to the Japanese Garden last Sunday to admire the Japanese maples, but we were too late. Almost all of them were naked. And yet, as we slowly made our way back to the car we discovered plenty of red-cheeked maples to admire in the hillside neighborhood. Another lesson about slowing down and letting life happen. A line from Thoreau on this subject:

“I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on.”

A few weeks ago I began a conversation with my grownup daughters about some of the news stories I had been forwarding to them recently. Their reaction was unexpected, but not surprising. I might have guessed that they didn’t want to read the kind of “important” news that I had been sending their way. Maybe more to the point, I should have known that my assessment, “hey, they’re adults – they can handle this,” was totally beside the point.

So I’m not sending them this link, but I want to keep it some place handy just the same. It’s a story about possibility and eventuality. None one gets off scot-free.

That said, I want them to know that today I’m fine. So is their mother. We’ve been enjoying our longest trip to the coast this summer. We even successfully dodged three triple-digit temperatures in Portland in the process! Life is good.

But someday … an end of some sort will come and the story I’ve linked below might help my talented, accomplished, beautiful daughters know that they are not alone at times like these. That whatever happens, I’m ok and they will be ok too. I send them my love (so I’m not sending them this link). They’ll have to find it for themselves.

Washing The Dishes, Waiting For Death by Rachel Meyer (Trike Daily, 21 Aug 2016)

Tombstone, chatterbox – both modes of speech come easily to me and I never know which role I will play, but ask me to write a poem and my mind ties itself into bunches of knots: 3 – 5 – 87 – more. And yet, and yet, I love poetry and I’m grateful for a few friends who aren’t afraid to lift a pen.

Andrew Schelling‘s “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Tricycle, Winter 2007) calls one to look into renga. Schelling describes renga as a form of “linked poetry” that appeared in Japan eight centuries ago, i.e., the Japan of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253).

Schelling says:

Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

The quick give-and-take of renga might remind one of Twitter exchanges, but the comparison quickly falls apart. Renga composition was not aimed at the quick knock-out punch. Participants in a renga session were expected to adhere to a strict set of rules, and it was said that one should practice renga for 20 years in order to become a worthy collaborator.

Fun fact: Schelling credits renga composition with the appearance of haiku. Each participant in a renga session would offer a three-line verse, a hokku (opening verse), as a possible starting point for group writing. Because only one hokku would be chosen, the rest would be cast aside. Some of these ‘unused’ opening verses were eventually compiled as short poems in their own right, and these are what we call haiku today.

Schelling’s tribute to renga includes a description of an mountaintop renga session that he and 10 other poets held in the Rockies in April 2006. Verses 6 and 7 from Green Mountain Renga:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw

Soaring high over crescent Moon
Clouds nurse on the Sun’s last embers
Quick burns fade into gray-purple sleep
— Who will I be tomorrow?