Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Way Seeking Mind

“That’s what it was like to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those...of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know- that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.” -Our Town, Thornton Wilder

At Zen center there are dharma talks every Sunday and sometimes Wednesdays. These talks are usually given by “teachers,” that is people who are ordained priests and have studied long enough to be given dharma transmission, or the blessing of those more senior than them, who have gone before, to go out and share the teachings of the Buddha the best ways they know how. In words and actions. Sometimes these talks are given by people who are not “teachers” but are felt to have something unique to share that can help others in their practice. One type of talk is called a “Way Seeking Mind” talks. It is an opportunity for someone to share how they came to study Buddhism or how they came to find their “way-seeking mind.”

I have mentioned in a previous post how I got to Green Gulch but I wanted to talk about one particular aspect of this journey that was really essential to my ability to practice with my whole heart. Reirin, my friend, is the Shuso of the practice period. “Shuso is a Japanese word that is usually translated as Head Student. Serving as scribe, role model and general dharma friend for everyone...” She mentioned in her most recent and last talk of the practice period that for her, surrender was a life changing part of her practice. That learning to bow to others, to take refuge in the buddha, dharma and sangha, and to give up the ego that said “I am right” opened the heart to a vast and life-long practice of finding contentment instead of happiness.

When I first started practicing Buddhism in New Orleans with my now husband my ego screamed, LOUD. I wondered, why so many rules? Step into the zendo with this foot, turn this direction on your cushion, do not put the chant books directly on the floor, try not to move in your seat, keep your eyes half open, and the list went on, and on, and on...and on. It seemed ridiculous. I felt like I was back in middle school wearing my school uniform. I was so oppressed! How dare they take away my individuality! Everything that makes me, me, and god knows the world cannot exist without ME.

Then I started to wonder, what would happen if I follow the rules? Just as a little experiment :-) Wouldn’t you know, several things came up. First, there was a calmness about forms. Having decided to follow them, there was less confusion and more grace in the way we moved together. It was like realizing that I didn’t have to spend any time deciding what to wear when I had a uniform. I didn’t have to try and be cool, which is what “individuality” really came down to, being cooler than someone else.

The next thing that came up was that when I wondered how to practice mindfulness I wasn’t sure what that looked like. People say it all the time, it’s a very sexy word right now. People say they are interested in Buddhism or that they study Buddhism and read books by the great masters but there has to be a next step, to practice Buddhism. You can call it what you want if it sounds too religious but eventually you have to practice and these forms helped me practice. My husband so graciously pointed out that it wasn’t that stepping into the zendo with my right foot was any better than with my left foot but that I knew what foot I stepped with at all. Creating these routines reduced confusion and increased my attention. I am (was) infamous for losing things like my house keys or locking them in the car (thanks AAA) or leaving my shoes on top of the car and driving half way down the street before realizing. These forms have helped me to pay attention and be deliberate.

Finally, as Michaela Bono pointed out in one of her dharma talks at Mid City Zen, doing what you want is not necessarily a good thing. We have to ask ourselves, is it really what we want? What are we trying to actually get and is it helpful to those around us? The key is to ask yourself these questions. Why am I doing this?

(the calligraphy above is a work from the amazing Kaz Tanahashi who Austin had the gift of studying with recently)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Karmic Ramblings

When I have the guts to put my name on the dokusan list to speak with Reb Andersen I will pose some of my questions to him. For whatever reason this question of karma has plagued me for many years. I even got it tattooed in sanskrit on my wrist as if never to forget its constant presence and impact in (my) life. It’s funny though because while I find myself preoccupied with it at times I also wonder, “who cares?” But in Zen we chant to repent our ancient twisted karma every morning! That’s big. That’s big to not understand exactly what you are repenting. And for the record, I have already let go of any residual Catholic apprehension related to my past experience of “confession.”

In Hinduism I often understood karma as being related even to your past life and how well you lived it. Your circumstances could be due to actions that you took in this life or before. I never really liked the idea of consequences from a past life I cannot remember. I have more recently heard about karma as simply action and consequence. That regardless of your action there will be a result that is neither positive or negative. For example, if you jump out a window you will hit the ground. It’s just what happens. I know not all situations are that simple but it is a good place to start. I also like that it shows what a neutral consequence means. I think more about it and acknowledge that the consequence maybe has to be neutral because when we choose our action we do not know what the consequence will be and we never really “know” what’s helpful. Oh yes, and that intention is much more of the important factor in that whole equation. Indeed, that does seem to be all you have control over, that and your choice.

I also have heard it described as something akin to habit. That karma is setting up a pattern of action or behavior. Like when we do something once we are more likely to do it again, and again, and again. People, even in the Zen world of Green Gulch, use karma so loosely sometimes I don’t get it. I hear things like “it’s your karma to be here” or “burning away bad karma” or as I mentioned “ancient twisted karma.” Interesting.

Access to Insight, a Teravadan Buddhist website has this to say among other things:

“For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear and complex...Buddhists saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.”

We'll see what comes up.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Funday

Nothing beats the party like atmosphere of Fridays at Green Gulch. Most people have the day off (except the poor saps in Guest Programs, but seriously, thank you to the Guest Program for taking care of the folks who pay our bills, if you read the SFGate article about Zen Center you would know that 85% of our revenue comes from program offerings). So really the fun starts Thursday evenings when there is no evening zazen. I meet friends in the yurt where we can play music and do yoga and even dance wildly. I am currently obsessed with Rihanna's "We Found Love" song which serves as the perfect antidote for any down or tired mood.

This morning started an epic day of meals with homemade biscuits and gravy and seitan sausage prepared by the one and only Bryan Clark. I also paired my breakfast with a "poor man's mocha" of coffee, cocoa mix and soy milk. Lunch will be bag lunch with tempeh "tuna" salad and finally finished with pizza night and dessert.

But this morning I am on fire! I got my hair trimmed by a lovely guest student. I hung up framed art in the room, and I will be hiking to Slide Ranch with some other gardeners to visit the baby goats.

Other updates: (1) I successfully completed my first one day sit! We sit 9 periods of zazen (meditation) between 5am and 6pm along with several periods of walking meditation, a few breaks, oryoki (see previous post for description) breakfast and lunch and a tea break. By the end of the day I was so full of love for everyone I was luminous (and maybe a little wild eyed). (2) I will be feeding the roses tomorrow a mixture of blood meal, feather meal, alfalfa meal, kelp meal and gypsum. Does that mean they are not vegetarian? (3) After the wild week of rain we are currently at 13 inches for the season which is still half of what we normally get between October and now. The ironic fact is that we are in “drought conditions” and when we got all that rain, it stirred up the spring so much we couldn’t drink it and Green Gulch was in shortage mode on drinking water! (4) I included below the link to Steve Stucky's dharma talk which includes the sweetest Buddha love song. Stay tuned for a link to Fu Schroeder's talk on "War and Peace.",10&pageid=3180

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vernal Equinox

Today is the first day of spring. I know that the crazy weather has confused the plants and animals but we celebrate anyway. We had a lovely ceremony after morning zazen in which people shared poems and other words. It was truly beautiful, gave me chills and filled me with love. Go hug a tree or smile at a flower today ;-)

Spring - Mary Oliver
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Flower Arranging: The saga continues

Some consider flower arranging a "disciplined art form in which nature and humanity are brought together." In Japan, this approach to arranging is called ikebana.
"The spiritual aspect of ikebana is considered very important to its practitioners. Silence is a must during practices of ikebana. It is a time to appreciate things in nature that people often overlook because of their busy lives. One becomes more patient and tolerant of differences, not only in nature, but also in general. Ikebana can inspire one to identify with beauty in all art forms. This is also the time when one feels closeness to nature which provides relaxation for the mind, body, and soul."
The flower arranging I do is not exactly ikebana but I would say it shares many of the aforementioned intentions. Trying to integrate with everything in the world around me, not just the people. Also simply feeling the pressure that my work, my arrangements, are out there for everyone to see and someone might even have an opinion or some feedback about them.

Sometimes I feel funny writing about my struggles with gardening or flower arranging because it certainly isn't a life or death situation or a "high-stress and fast-paced job. But one thing I am learning about or practicing with at Green Gulch is the truth that no job is more important than another. Everything has to get done by someone and if everything has to get done no one's skills or job is more valuable than another. Everyone will clean toilets, wash dishes or cook food.

So I don't know much about the forms of ikebana but I can share what I have learned about the arrangements I do. There are about 20 or so altars at Green Gulch that need flowers, and I assure you they are required and their absence is noticed (as I can attest after forgetting to put up the new vases before the lunchtime ceremony in which the head of practice period visits several altars). We change the flowers every Thursday regardless of their condition. For the first time this week I got to do one of the arrangements in the main meditation hall or zendo. It went well. So here's your tips, pardon me if I have repeated these in old posts :-)
  • Generally, the actual arrangement should be at least the same height as the vase it is going in
  • Take note of whether the arrangement will only be viewed front side or if it is in a position of 360 degree viewing
  • The flowers should be arranged so that they are all mostly visible, so that no flowers are being hidden by another; it's a waste of precious flowers
  • Often a front side arrangement looks nice if it makes a full circle above the vase; in other words you add greenery as a sort of halo around the flowers
  • A 360 degree arrangement may take the shape more like a mountain or cone
  • Don't get too complicated!

Saturday, March 17, 2012


The 4 Great Vows

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to end them

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

Suzuki Roshi translates this as: “Although sentient beings are innumerable, we vow to save them. Although our desires are limitless, we vow to be rid of them. Although the teaching is limitless, we vow to learn it all. Although Buddhism is unattainable, we vow to attain it.” The question of whether it is possible is sort irrelevant, the process of trying to uphold your vow is where good stuff comes from. I love these vows.

Someone asked me the other day why Austin and I decided to get married. In the past, I know I had questions about the purpose of marriage and why we needed (wanted) it. At first, it wasn’t anything I could really put into words, just a feeling that the tradition was important to me. Now after practicing Zen for a while I have fleshed it out a bit more and found a lot of meaning in vows. That taking formal, even ceremonious, vows is really important to me. They’re helpful. Our wedding was a time to look right into the eyes of someone I love, in a way we don’t often do, and make a commitment to do the hard work.

I think that in the past I also believed there was maybe a flaw in the institution of marriage because you were making a promise you did not know you could keep. In Zen we often make vows like this. There is something really epic about making a vow in spite of that. The parameter is so wide in fact that you can never fail.

I have a faith in the Buddha Way that is deeper than all the questions I have about what practice looks like. I trust the tradition, I trust the teachers, and I trust a practice that encourages, even requires, inquiry and seeing something for yourself rather than taking someone else’s words for truth. That the difficult work is where the good stuff is. That when sitting zazen is hard and miserable as long as you keep showing up something good is happening. That you just keep choosing to show up for your life. And sometimes it is helpful to make vows so you have something to carry you when the path gets really rocky.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Garden "Potpourri"

I have some catching up to do but here are some very important tidbits of life as of late.
  • I love quails and when I am weeding quietly and calmly they will swarm around me as they make their funny sounds and peck for food
  • I had a very Lebowski moment the other day. Allow me to explain. When we are planting new things sometimes we use what's called nutrient amendments. This amendment consists of bone meal, feather meal, alfalfa meal and kelp meal. I mix certain proportions of each one. As you might imagine the bone meal is really ashy and dusty. I didn't realize how dusty until I scoop from one bucket to the other and a huge puff of bone explodes into my face and all over my jacket and pants. A travesty I assure you.
  • Tulips will continue to grow after you cut them and put them in a vase. What that means is your beautifully arranged bouquet may look a little off in a few days.
  • We got two inches of rain yesterday and the day before. It seems like so little but it was enough to turn the mellow meandering creek into a rushing raging river!
  • We have a large blue heron that visits the pond often. He also comes to the garden to walk around. This prehistoric amazing bird eats gofers, whole!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Off Campus Adventures

Mom and dad came for a visit last weekend. They stayed for a night in the beautiful Guest House. They enjoyed leftover night in the dining room (always hit or miss, but turned out decent :-) and we played cards and shhh, drank wine in their room! The next day we gave them a tour of the farm and garden. We talked about what we do all day, what we are learning, what inspires us and what challenges us here in this life we live.

As I mentioned a while back, Green Gulch has a policy the new residents must stay on site for their first month. It may sound cultish to some but I have come to realize a few reasons for it. Given that transitions can be rough for some folks, present party included, not being able to just run off when things are uncomfortable is really saving us from ourselves. Yesterday marked the end of our month of lock down and after a visit from the parents we ventured to "the outside." We had lunch in Sausalito at Le Garage, French fusion of sorts. I had an amazing Kobe beef burger on ciabatta, holy cow! Then we head to San Rafael to relax at the rents' place and pick up some stuff we left behind. Then we had to run errands at Whole Foods, CVS, and Best Buy. It was totally overwhelming! Tons of people running in a million different directions, dumb songs playing, packed parking lots, traffic, oh my. The shock of going from the land of trees, ocean, mountains, mindful movement, quiet, small town life to life in the big city of all these strangers doing their thing kind of ignoring each other was a bit...weird. I don't know what else to say. I had a headache by the time I got home and had the feeling that I didn't want to do that again for a while...

But here I am visiting Lacey my bff at her new house in Berkeley. I think it will prove a bit more relaxing. A nice day off before my first one day sit!

Friday, March 9, 2012


Ok. Here goes. Remember how I said back in one of my first posts that, based on experience, I knew I would have moments of doubt about my decision to move? Well, I can tell you that it already happened and it happened much sooner than I anticipated. Frankly, I was miserable my first week here. Austin is the only one who really knew, poor guy. The transition was such a shock to my system in every way. I just thought, “what have I done!?” Work was hard, I missed my friends and had no new ones yet, the vastness of Zen study was overwhelming, I thought “how will I ever learn all this? and if I don't learn all this, how will I realize the Buddha way?!” I just turned really far inward. I was totally in my head, telling myself all sorts of stories. In Zen they say "perception is deception.” It is really hard to accept that sometimes. We feel like in order to have some sort of ground to stand on we have to be able to at least trust our own experience and emotions. But in many ways those are the least trustworthy. Think of all the judgements or appraisals we make of any given situation and how different that same situation is described by someone else. Or how quickly our emotions change based on very minor shifts in perceived tone or actions of someone else.

Anyways, just as quickly as it came it started to leave. The stories I told myself continued to be proved incorrect and before I knew it I was feeling like my old self again. Hopefully, old self but with some new wisdom. The reminder that everything passes, everything changes. Good and bad. Work continues to be challenging but I can see now the improvements. Even my flower arranging is getting better! (See example A). And all through this, I have a most amazing husband. He is wise, and patient, and deeply compassionate. Not just sympathetic compassion but from a deeper place of meeting my suffering where it is, not where he is. And he leaves me sweet gifts (example B) and makes me laugh and really listens. He really listens.

The best lesson I learned is that after a time of suffering, when you learn from it you feel light. You feel changed and you feel a fire re-ignited.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Earthquakes, guitar and hiking, oh my!

Hey everyone, I have some tidbits to share on this cold morning. First off I am wearing cranky pants this morning. I only wanted to share that so you know that even Buddhists living the dream get cranky. It will pass.

The last week or so has really been a delight. Work is getting more comfortable. I am settling in with the residents here and feeling loved. And I am hearing some really great teachings. Last Sunday the central Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, Steve Stucky, gave the dharma talk at Green Gulch for the kids program. This usually involves some sort of brief kid-appropriate "dharma talk" (a children's story or in this case a song) then they leave and do fun stuff while we adults get serious ;-) The song he sang was about the young Buddha under the bodhi tree and how nothing could distract him. Steve asked kids for suggestions of what could be a distraction and their responses included babies, mosquitos and earthquakes. I couldn’t even recount what he talked about except that it was simple, loving and true and it ended with a song on guitar about the Lotus Sutra that almost made me cry. (I’ll include a link for the talk when it’s is posted)

Monday morning I had the day off and while I lay in my bed cozy and aware that everyone was sitting zazen, an earthquake rolled through the valley! I smiled and thought, “from the mouths of babes.” My next thoughts though, were if it was bigger my best option would be to run out of the building as fast as possible. Cloud Hall feels like it is made of toothpicks. Everyone in California knows that seismologists predict “the big one” within the next 30 years. Comparable to the quake in Japan. Being on the coast here I guess tsunamis are also a concern....

Oh well. On my day off I took a lovely hike with Austin and two friends. We had lofty goals of making it to the top of Mt. Tam but realized we were very behind schedule for that endeavor and settled on a lovely stroll through the Dipsea and Ben Johnson trails ending in Muir Woods. Amazing views and tree, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hard boiled egg, chocolate and good conversation. Perfect.

New garden knowledge: Tulips continue to grow in the vase so within days they may be taller and falling over; quails like to eat newly planted sweet peas; bob cats like to sit on warm compost piles


Friday, March 2, 2012

The Day Off Update

Ok, about that freckle. I have been working outside in the garden for twelve days. I wear some sort of sunscreen almost every day and I definitely have a new freckle on my nose. While I know it's not good to get new freckles in this day of skin cancer and all but I am going to wear it as a badge of my hard earned new skills and gardening muscles. I can't believe at the ripe age of 30 I am still finding muscles I didn't know I had. Two days ago I discovered my lawn mowing muscles and it only took 2 hours of mowing to find them. Then I found my weed whacking muscles, that only took 1.5 hours and a few wayward plants I accidently whacked. The next day I could barely hold my chant book my biceps were almost shaking.

I know that my descriptions of my work might sound like I am having the best time ever and in some ways I am. But on the other hand, the work is not only physically exhausting but mentally too. Every single day I am learning something new. I am being given instructions and names for things/plants and expected to remember how to do it all with minimal follow-up. I am the only new person so sometimes I feel all this anxiety about making mistakes and looking dumb. It couldn’t be a better lesson for learning to let go and being patient and to be honest with myself that I am doing my best (usually) and that is all I can do.

Today I have the day off. Fridays and Mondays. It’s pretty great to have split days off because I never work more than three days in a row and I don’t have enough time on vacation for it to really hurt when I have to get up early again. Most of Green Gulch is off Friday so they make it kind of special. It is bag lunch day and usually there is something fun for breakfast and dinner. This morning it was bagels and cream cheese with the requisite rice cereal too. Tonight it will be pizza for dinner. Bag lunch means a spread of homemade bread, different veggie pates, cheese, spreads, lettuce, hardboiled eggs, etc. and you make your own plate for later. Awesome! I feel pretty blessed to get to eat all organic food, most of the veggies are grown here and very little meat. When I do eat meat it will be a treat. Working in the garden I am reminded how much I care about the health of the planet and the subsequent health of its inhabitants, including, but not most importantly, ourselves.

P.S. We finally got some good rain

P.P.S. The first picture is of Redwood Creek emptying into Muir Beach; the second picture is of the lower fields of Green Gulch

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I Have a New Freckle!

And it is Buddha nature :-) There's been a lot of talk about what is Buddha nature. We are in fact taking a whole class about something that, in the end, we all know is indescribable and practically inconceivable. In the first class we all had to go around and say what we thought Buddha nature is or means. There of course was a wide variety of answers. I said that I think it is like looking at stars. When you look at them really hard and you squint you can barely see it but when you look away you know it is there. A lot of the things we are reading talk about how Buddha nature is everywhere and everything. We all have it (are it) but our mind just makes it hard to know that. Being human is just what we are, we have no choice. Being human means we have this brain, this mind, that needs something to do ALL day. But what we are trying to understand and practice is that what the mind DOES doesn't have to be so goshdang busy and unhelpful!

I was/am really struggling with what it means to practice. How do we get better at a (spiritual) practice that is meant to last a lifetime? I often feel like I am making no progress. I intellectually understand that making progress is totally a silly concept because progress sort of implies an end or goal, of which there is none. Ultimately, I just want reassurance that I am going in the right direction and sometimes I get confused and think if something is this hard maybe I'm doing it wrong. I am thinking this then last night I read this:
"For the beginner, the practice needs great effort...You must stretch out your
arms and legs as wide as they will go. Form is form. You must be true to
your own way until at last you actually come to the point where you see it
necessary to forget all about yourself..." - Zen Mind Beginner's Mind

It goes on with some other good stuff but it would be a little out of context. Anyways, reading this bit came at a perfect time, I was practically asking myself the very question it answered. As they say "when the student is ready, the teacher appears."

More about the new freckle later.