Blaming an Empty Boat

During the rumspringa that marked the transition moment after entering as a postulant and before being accepted as a novice, Sister Bridget was in a rowboat on Round Valley Reservoir.  It was a lovely late spring afternoon. The sky was emerald blue, with a few billowy clouds floating by, just enough to invite a bit of day dreaming to envision the clouds as castles and a dragon drifting above her.  Bridget was lost in her thoughts, contemplating the decisions that were just ahead of her in her progress towards becoming a full member of the cloister. The day was calm, water in the reservoir was crystal clear and smooth as a mirror. Bridget inhaled deeply basking in the peacefulness of the moment, of the day.

But then she looked up, and to her surprise saw another boat on the reservoir heading right toward her. She waved her arms and shouted, “Look out! Hey watch where you are going! Hey, hey, I’m here! Watch out!”  But the people in the other boat just ignored her. Her frustration growing, Bridget tried desperately to paddle out of the way. But the boat just kept coming at her. She kept shouting and paddling, but the boat just kept coming.  The other boat rammed right into her little row boat, and knocked Bridget into the water.

Now Bridget is cold and wet. Her borrowed row boat looked a bit damaged. The peace and serenity of her day is in ruins. As she flails in the water trying to drag herself back into the row boat without capsizing it, she continues to shout at the people in the other boat, “what’s the matter with you! What were you thinking!! Why don’t you watch were you are going?!? I just don’t understand how some people can be so inconsiderate.”

Finally Bridget gets herself back into her row boat, and is able to see that the other boat is empty. The person she has been so incensed with is no one at all.  And Bridget’s anger and frustration instantly turn to concern for the owner of the boat.  With a shift in her thoughts, anger dissolves into concern and compassion and Bridget begins to scan the waters for a body without a boat.  Off a short distance, Bridget sees someone splashing in the water waving an oar.  And she manages to stop the motor on the other boat, tie it to the stern of her row boat and to paddle over to collect the woman who is overboard.  Together they restore the other woman to her boat, and each of them finds her way back to her own maritime meanderings.

And Bridget is left thinking about how easy it was to feel personally affronted and to cast blame, insult and injury on an empty boat. And she found herself wondering how often when she thought she was on terra firma finding fault she was actually a bit loose from her moorings casting blame where there was none to be had.

If we are going to be fair and just, before we shower blame on another, it might indeed be better to first be sure there is someone in the other boat, and even then to walk a mile or so in their shoes.

Exploring the Cave of the Blue Dragon: Fear and Fearlessness

Maybe because I was born in the year of the dragon, I love dragons.  Blue is so much my most favorite color that there are moments when I think of the rainbow is variations of the color blue! So imagine my delight when I came across a Zen Koan (meditation on a paradox) called “the Cave of the Blue Dragon.”

Roshi John Daido Loori begins his discussion of this Koan with the story of a great teacher and the emperor of China who in a great time past were walking the palace grounds when they came across a great stone dragon. The teacher said to the emperor, “Your majesty, would you please say a word of Zen, something profound, about this dragon?” The emperor said, “I have nothing to say. Would you please say something?” And the teacher said, “It is my fault.”

Roshi Loori tells us that the teacher was taking responsibility, responsibility for the all of it. Now, on the surface, at first this can feel either masochistic or arrogant. But think about it for a few minutes. As we move through life and encounter challenges and frustrations, we can be a victim and become overwhelmed by fear or we can take responsibility.

Roshi Loori tells us that the prelude to this koan says something like:

When you are up against the wall, pressed between a rock and a hard place, if you linger longer pondering your thoughts, overanalyzing and planning, holding back your potential, you will remain mired in fear and frozen in inaction. If, on the other hand, you advance fearlessly, you will manifest your power, finding empowerment in your liberation. Here you will find peace.

Pema Chodron reminds us that we will find peace, safety and security only when we are willing to not run away from ourselves. That means being honest with ourselves, not running away from ourselves or our mistakes, to be accountable to yourself without being blameful.  From great suffering can come great compassion – or great hatred – the choice is yours.  From great frustration can come victimization and overwhelming fear, or responsibility and fearlessness.

Now, there is fearlessness and then there is fearlessness. This is not to advocate idiot fearlessness: if you can keep your calm when all around you are loosing theirs maybe you really don’t understand the problem. It is not fearlessness born of anger. It is not the fearlessness of youth marching off to war. Nor is it the fearlessness of youth who feel invulnerable. It is rather fearlessness born of conscious, cognizant, conscientious fear. It is compassionate, generous fearlessness.

So, how do we do this fearlessness? Well, there is, of course, a poem at the end of the koan that points us in the direction. My paraphrase of the poem is

The cave of the blue dragon is ominous.

It is the cave of our stuff, our baggage

Where only the fearless dare to travel.

Here the maze of our entanglements

Is rendered into a labyrinth.

Traversing its path and ways we are amazed

Liberation free of the enigma of mystery.

Well, it says something like that. But the point of it is, of course we will all be afraid. Fearlessness is facing our greatest fears with awareness, compassion and action. So, go be fearless even while you are shaking in your boots.

with thanks to Roshi John Daido Loori, Shambhala Sun and Omega Institute

Yoshihime and the Gate through which all buddhas come into the world

Women can be quite spunky when we’ve a mind to be. When we are at our spunkiest best, the stories about what we have done bring a smile to my face and a twinkle to my eyes. So, I was most delighted to find this story in the November issue of the Shambhala Sun.  . . . the story plays off a traditional Zen Buddhist Koan, a a paradoxical anecdote used by Zen teachers to demonstrate to a particular student the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment, often the provocation is in a visceral sort of manner. Often the ‘correct’ response to a koan is not communicated in words, but rather through a simple, elegant, eloquent act or gesture.

 Traditionally Zen teachers and students were boys and men. There were, of course women who studied and practiced Buddhism, but they were accorded far less prominence so to hear about one is, for me particularly, a special treat. So, I am honored to introduce you to Yoshihime.

Yoshihime was a Buddhist nun. Because of her strength and her headstrong approach to life and study, she had earned the nickname “Devil-girl.” After studying and meditating for many years, Yoshihime decided that it was time for her to meet and have an interview with Engakuji, the teacher at the monastery, but the monk who was serving as the gatekeeper barred her way. Before he would let her approach, he shouted a koan to her: “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”

Yoshihime grabbed the man’s head, forced it between her legs, and said: “look, look.”

The monk said, “in the middle, there is a fragrance of wind and dew.”

Yoshihime said, “This monk is not fit to keep the gate; he ought to be looking after the garden.”

The gatekeeper relayed this to Engakuji’s assistant, who said that he would test Yoshihime. And, so he went to the gate, and posed the same koan to Yoshihime, ““What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”

Yoshihime grabbed his head and held it between her legs, saying: “look, look!”

The teacher’s assistant said: “The buddhas of the three worlds come, giving light.”

And Yoshihime said: “This monk is one with the eye; he saw the eighty-four thousand gates all thrown open.”

So, what is going on in this story? Yoshihime lives with the misogyny of her time on a daily basis. Then she is confronted with it in a very personal, particular way in the action of the monk baring her passage through the gate. Yoshihime responds to the misogyny with an act of profound, insightful feminism. What is the gate through which buddhas come into the world? As a woman she immediately understands that it is the very same gate through which ALL human beings come into the world. She responds by demonstrating her awareness to  the gatekeeper and then the teacher’s assistant – all human beings enter the world through their mothers cervix and vagina. The gatekeeper’s misogyny was too thick and he could not see through it, but the teacher’s assistant immediately got it.

Misogyny is not a thing of the past. It is alive and too well in our world today. Yoshihime’s audacity is a powerful lesson to us all. We need to know ourselves. We need to be prepared to stand our ground, to claim our rights, and maybe even to be a bit audacious as we do so.

With thanks to Judith Simmer-Brown and Florence Caplow and Susan Moon.

The Miracle of Pouring Tea

 Three men walk into a bar … no, wait … a priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar … no, wait … I’ve got it! Three monks are on a pilgrimage. They meet a woman who has a teashop. The woman prepares a pot of tea for them. She brings the teapot and three cups, places them on the table in front of the monks, and says, “Oh holy monks, let those of you with miraculous powers drink the tea.”

The monks look at each other, and you can just see them thinking: which of us will pour the tea? Who will claim miraculous powers? We are monks. We can’t publicly claim miraculous powers, what will others think of us?

The woman waits a few moments, then says, “Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous power.” And, she picks up the teapot and pours tea into each of the cups and goes out of the room.

The woman is wonderfully present to and engaged with the moment and the needs and wants of the moment.  The universe is present in that moment, in that act, in each moment, in each act. The sun, the rain, the earth are in the tea leaves, in the fuel for the fire, in the muscle tendons and bones of the woman. All of the universe is present in all. All the world is in a grain of sand if we will be see it.

The woman was fully present to the monks. She engaged with them with an open heart and mind. She taught her lesson, and left to go on to the next bit of living. Lovely. Fair. Just. Dignified.

Know that your powers are miraculous. They are enough. Do your best. That is miracle enough. That is enough. That is a miracle.

With thanks to Mary Grace Orr, “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty five centuries of awakened women” Wisdom Publications and Parabola.

Chop Wood, Carry Water; Lay down your burden, then pick it up again

 Each moment is part of an era. Each era is part of a time. I like to think of myself as a child of the ‘60’s. In my mind, the ‘60’s were dramatic and romantic. The ‘60’s were the era of hippies, they were the time of free love. They were the time of deep social unrest and protest, of fighting for civil rights and to end the Viet Nam war. The ‘60’s culminated in Woodstock, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” at at Max Yasgur’s farm in of Bethel, New York.  Woodstock happened in 1969 and brought the ‘60’s to their fulfillment.  I wanted to be a child of the ‘60’s. I wanted to be at Woodstock. I found out about it after it was over. I was a child of the ‘70’s.

In college I discovered Asia. I took a course in world religions, and discovered Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. I fell into deep infatuation with Zen Buddhism, and began to aspire to enlightenment. Some of that occasionally seeps into this blog, I think.

Today I am remembering a book I read a while back: Chop wood and carry water. The essence of the book is that before enlightenment we must chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment we continue to chop wood and carry water.  In my youth I used to play with this and say that we should chop water and carry wood. Then it was funny because it was clear that I was playing with the words. Now that I am older, when I play like that people are inclined to think about early onset Alzheimer’s. I am a bit more aware of who and where I play now. It is important to remember and respect the era within which you walk as you play. If you would be with me, it is also important to be aware of the depth and luminosity of the twinkle in my eye. Sometimes playing is just playing.

There is a Zen story that I’m fond of (there are many actually, but here is one of them). It reminds me of “Chop wood and carry water.” The story is called “Lay down your burden then pick it up again”

A troubled woman named Tan could not figure out how to live. So she began meditating to find some answers. After many months she felt no progress, so she asked the temple priest for help. 

The priest said, “Go see old Jah.” 

So she hiked to old Jah’s village and came upon the happy-looking old man coming from the forest under a heavy load of firewood. 

“Excuse me, honored Jah,” she said. “But can you teach me the secret of life?” 

Jah raised his eyebrows and gazed at Tan. Then with some effort he twisted out from beneath his great bundle of firewood and let it crash to the ground. 

“There, that is enlightenment,” he said, straightening up with relief and smiling. 

The troubled woman looked on in shock at the prickly firewood scattered over the ground. “Is that all there is to it?” she said. 

“Oh, no,” said Jah. Then he bent down, collected all the scattered sticks, hoisted them carefully up on his back and made ready to walk on. “This is enlightenment, too. Come. Let’s go together for tea.” 

So Tan walked along with Jah. “What is old Jah showing me?” she asked. 

Jah replied, “this is life, this is enlightenment. First, yes, you suffer a heavy burden. Many do. But, as the Buddha taught and many have realized, much of your burden and much of your joylessness is your craving for what you can’t have and your clinging to what you can’t keep. 

“Then you can see that the nature of your burden and of the chafing you experience as you try to cling to it are useless, unnecessary, damaging, and then you can let it go. 

“In doing so, in awakening to this awareness you find relief, and you are freer to see the blessings of life and to choose wisely to receive them.” 

“Thank you, old Jah,” said Tan. “And why did you call picking up the burden of firewood again enlightenment as well?” 

“One understanding is that some burden in life is unavoidable — and even beneficial, like firewood. With occasional rest it can be managed, and with freedom from undue anxiety about it, it will not cause chafe. 

“Once the undue burden is dropped, we straighten up and see and feel the wonder and power of being. Seeing others suffering without that freedom and blissful experience, we willingly and knowingly pick up their burdens out of compassion joining and aiding others in their various struggles for liberation, enlightenment and fulfillment.” 

“Thank you, Old Jah,” said the exhilarated Tan. “You have enlightened me.” 

“Ah-so,” said Jah. “Your understanding is enlightened. Now to make it part of your living and your spirit, you must go follow the eight practices and meditate. Then you will learn to detach yourself from your useless burden of cravings and to attach yourself to the profound source of being out of which life, creativity, joy and compassion form and flow.” 

And so Tan went and did. And understanding the truths gave her comfort. And practicing the good behaviors kept her from harming herself or others anymore. And concentrating on the deep blissful potential of life gave her a continuing sense of companionship and joyful awe and of well-being in his spirit, no matter what else of pain she had to deal with. 

So it is as well with our work for social justice and human rights. It is a process, a path we choose to walk. Some days we feel like Sisyphus  continually pushing the rock of fairness up the hill only to have it roll back down on us. But, as we let go of our attachments to what should be and open our hearts and minds to what is and what can be, we can begin to notice and celebrate the progress that together we are achieving. We are each of us a drop in the ocean, and together we are the waves that wash ever more powerfully on the beach of fairness and dignity. Let no one doubt the power of the ocean and the tides.

We may lay down our burdens, and we will take them up again. We will chop wood and carry water. The times they are a-changing. Peace, justice and dignity will reign across our land.

Wanting to have MU

 We were sitting in the student center, each drinking a cup of coffee, saying our goodbyes. Over the past semester, Ludis and I had co-taught a course, we had talked about life and hopes and dreams, I guess you could say that we had become friends of a sort. Why the qualification? Well, we never went out to dinner, we didn’t do things off campus, we didn’t exactly hang out together. But we did talk before and after class, and we seemed to like each other well enough. So, friends of a sort. As we sat there talking, I asked Ludis if he was ready to head home to Lithuania.

 “In many ways, more than ready. I very much miss my wife and son. It has been far too long since I have seen them. I want to hold them both, each of them, for a long time.” He said blushing a bit at the last admission.

 “And, are you packed? Is there anything you want to do here that you haven’t gotten to yet?”

 “Yes, one more thing.” He said. “I want to buy a sweatshirt from your book store.”

 “A sweatshirt?” I asked a bit incredulous. Ludis just didn’t seem the kind of guy who would care very much about college logo clothing. Let’s just say, in the months that I had known him he did not strike me as a clothes horse. He did not dress badly, but he certainly was neither flashy nor cool. More, I saw him as guy who always wore neat, clean clothes but who had more important things on his mind than haute couture. So, his one last desire being the acquisition of a university logo garment seemed kind of odd.

 “I don’t understand, Ludis, what’s so special about a sweatshirt from here?”

 “Think about it, he laughed, the school’s initials are MU.”


 “And you talk about Zen Buddhism?.” He said sounding a little disappointed.

 “I do, some. But what’s that got to do with it?”

 “MU” he said, “the school for you here, and the koan for Buddhists.”

 And then, finally the light went on for me. Of course, the great Buddhist koan, also known as the first gate to enlightenment. For over ten years I had taught at the university. How many times each year had I written the school’s initials, and I never saw the connection! How many times had I read and reread and meditated on that Koan! At one point I even thought I was beginning to get it. Ugh. Clearly, I did not have it yet. But then, that too is the point of the koan, isn’t it?

 In Japanese, Korean and traditional Mandarin, ‘mu’ means not, nothing, nothingness, without, non-existent or non-being. For Zen Buddhists, one of the first koans is known as MU. A koan is riddle like paradox used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning as the only mode of knowing; mediation on koans help to provoke openness to enlightenment. The ‘mu’ koan is put this way: a student asked the Great Master Zhaozhou, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replied, “Mu.”

 So, the koan can be understood as asking about the meaning of life, the purpose of life, about attachments and possession, it asks about the vastness of life, and offers to teach about how to live and how to love. For an ultra short story, it holds great depths of potential if we are willing to plumb the depths that await us.

 I thought I had been doing some plumbing of the ‘mu’ koan. I thought about it in connection with the adage: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That meaning that if you think you have found enlightenment outside yourself, you are quite mistaken, and so end that delusion. Does a dog have Buddha nature? No because it is not a thing to be had. Buddha nature is more about being than having. I thought all these things as I plumbed the ‘mu’ koan. I thought I was plumbing a bit. And then Ludis showed me that I had not even picked up the wrench!

 When I finally saw the connection, we both sat and laughed for a good long while. Ludis bought the sweatshirt. I left without mu.

boil frogs and your goose is cooked

There is a well worn story about boiling frogs. The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and put the pot of water on a stovetop where you gradually – very, very  gradually – increase the temperature of the water right up to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and will be cooked to death, even though there is no lid on the pot and it could easily jump out. 

That is a very short story. It is a pretty sad and kind of depressing story if you ask me.  I thought about dressing it up and fleshing it out to present here. I thought about making it an interaction between a science teacher and a little girl. They would each have interesting names. It would be a science experiment. But then I couldn’t get past the cruelty to the frog if I made it real. So, I will leave it firmly in the realm of the apocryphal.

And, yet I find myself revisiting the story and thinking, even meditating on it more and more, not unlike a contemporary, middle American koan. 

I am the frog. You are the frog. We are all the frog.

Daily stresses are the increase in temperature. My life, your life, all of our lives are becoming ever more stressful. The pot is near to boiling. Will we stay in the pot? To mix metaphors just a bit, are we all well cooked gooses or is there yet time to jump out? But where would we jump to? Out of the pot and into the fire?

Ah, but if this is a koan, that is a bit too easy, too simple. Yes, the warming water is stress, but it is more than that. The pot and the water are our environment, the society and social institutions which structure the environment within which we live. The ever increasing heat, ah that is structural violence! Direct violence harms directly. It is overt and acute and visible. But, structural violence kills indirectly and slowly, curtailing life spans by depriving people of material and non-material resources. Structural violence is commonplace and impersonal, like the subtly and perniciously ever increasing heat in the frog’s pot, is a chronic threat nearly invisible to wellbeing.

My mother was recently taken to the emergency room of her local hospital. My mother is 87 years old and has Parkinson’s disease. She needs to be on a complex regimen of medications. She spent over 12 hours in the emergency room before she was admitted to a regular hospital room. The well meaning nurses refused to give her any of her medications. In the emergency room they gave her a little food. On the floor in her room, they would not give her food or medication until after they had completed all of their forms and questions, and then we had to wait for the on call doctor to order her meds and for the pharmacy to send them up to the floor. The systems of the hospital are created and maintained for the convenience of the doctors and nurses. The systems of the hospital are not designed for the care and well being of the basic needs of the patients.  That is a simple example of structural violence. Neglecting the need for food and medication of patients who are ill is wrong, and it is the norm.

Structural violence is built into the fabric of political and economic structures of society; it is built into our social institutions to create subtly harmful conditions that become ‘the way things are’.  It is the subtle heat that harms by depriving individuals and groups of access to basic needs: social domination, political oppression, economic exploitation. Structural violence and asymmetries of power generate a kind of quiet brutality that gives birth to the banality of evil.

If we are to not be frogs in the pot, we need to be aware and act to challenge and change how and where the pathologies of power take their toll. Whose needs are served by the rules that structure and guide patterns of social interaction in our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies?  Structural violence and pathologies of power take their toll by creating conditions that deplete and deprive each of us of the potential for well being. The increasing heat is the lack of access to basic capabilities. According to Martha Nussbaum, basic human capabilities include life; bodily health and integrity; clarity, awareness, and the ability to express our senses, imagination, thought, and emotions; practical reason; affiliation; the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; play; respect for other species; control over one’s social environment; and respect for the physical environment. We all have a right to each and every one of these basic capabilities simply because we are human beings; simply because we are sentient beings. Each of these basic capabilities is fundamental to living lives of dignity.

Look at our world, look at your world. Persistently throughout the course of our lives, throughout the course of each day in a myriad of ways, we are denied access and enjoyment of these basic capabilities.  And we are told that this is normal, that this is the way that things are, the way they must be for the efficient and effective functioning of our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies – of our society.  If we continue to buy that line, then we are indeed all frogs in the pot, we will indeed be gooses who are quite cooked.

Rather, we need to learn to cherish ourselves and each other. We need to respect ourselves and each other, and we need to honor each other’s basic dignity as human beings. We need to become our own best friend, even as we develop the attitude and practice of befriending each other, even as we become ever more awake and aware.

Life and death are grave matters.

All things pass quickly away

Each of us must be completely alert:

Never neglectful, never indulgent.

This is a Zen saying, the evening message at many Zen sangha’s (communities), may we honor it well, with deep thought and compassionate action.