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Zen and the West

We understand the extent to which the contemporary West is animated by “prophetic faith,” the sense of the holiness of the ought, the pull of the way things could be and should be but as yet are not. Such faith has obvious virtues, but unless it is balanced by a companion sense of the holiness of the is, it becomes top-heavy. If one’s eyes are always on tomorrows, todays slip by unperceived. Zen comes as a reminder that if we do not learn to perceive the mystery and beauty of our present life, our present hour, we shall not perceive the worth of any life, of any hour.

Lifelong practicing Methodist and author, Professor Huston Smith in his forward to Philip Kapleau‘s book, The Three Pillars of Zen

A reminder: You’ll find the newest posts in the section on Zen Buddhism for the next couple of weeks, which begins in the March 2009 posts. Or, to make it even easier, sign up with the email subscription button up there on top of the other column and you’ll get all new posts sent to your email address no matter where they’re posted.

No Trace


In Zen, you are instructed to ‘leave no trace.’
When you clean an incense bowl,
this is not easy to do—-
the soft incense powder does not readily arrange itself
when you apply too much pressure, or too little.
You must forget yourself—–
then your action becomes a beautiful action.
Beauty is revealed when the doer is unknown.
In this way, your liberation ensures
the Dharma for future generations.

— Roshi Egyoku Nakao

Got this email – it’s a chance to study online with Harvard professor Dr Diana Eck who’s kind of “The” person if you’re at all interested in learning about other religions and how they relate to one another…

Dr. Diana L. Eck’s course, “World Religions Today: Diaspora,Diversity, and Dialogue” is being offered as a distance learning course throughthe Harvard University Extension School. Students from places as far away asIndia and Bali are enrolled alongside students at Harvard, and participatethrough online lectures and discussions. We invite you to consider enrollingin this course through the Extension School.For a limited time, the first lecture is available online at:http://cm.dce.harvard.edu/2010/01/13481/L01/seg1/index_FlashSingleHighBandwidth.htmlInformation about the course, including tuition information, is
available at:
http://www.extension.harvard.edu/2009-10/courses/reli.jsp#e-1010

Not Knowing

So much of Zen Buddhism is about not knowing. Irritating. I like to know. I like to think I know. I like to tell everyone in my life what they should do to improve their lives based on what I think I know. I wish I could say I’m being too harsh, too self-critical but I don’t think I am. But drop off your first-born for his first year at college and you find out just how little you really know.

(Again, I must apologize. Almost all that I’ve done in Zen Buddhism that leads up to this lies in raw notes in notebooks, soon to be transformed into posts so I can ONE DAY catch up with myself but I just can’t resist writing about some of this when it applies to what’s happening in my life right now. [I sure wish I’d thought about doing a blog from the first day I started this thing….] So, please don’t miss the new posts I’ll be adding fairly consistently this month starting just after the 6 March 2009 post…)

One of the central rituals in the Zen tradition is something called the face-to-face meeting (“dokusan“) with your teacher. In the Japanese White Plum tradition, as it is in many traditions, it’s a wildly ritualized one-on-one meeting the folks at ZCLA suggest having at least once a week. You wait in the face-to-face meeting line, sitting just like you sit in the zendo, on your cushion, meditating (“just sitting”) until you’re at the front of the line. When Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao rings her little bell, you signal that you’re coming by tapping a large iron bell twice. Then you walk down the hall with your cushion and your question. I think you’re supposed to talk about issues that come up in your practice but try as I might to get around it, I found out pretty quickly that “practice” is no different than your life. Sit still and what ever’s bugging you in your life shows up, like it or not. Every time I go in to that little room, with or without a question about Zen Buddhist practice in general or my efforts in particular, we somehow end up talking about my thinking and my ideas about life to which Roshi inevitably responds: “Is that true? Is that really true? How do you know?”

And there is always only one true answer: I don’t. I don’t know.

And then I trudge back up the hallway, cushion in my hands, convinced yet again about how little I actually know when I stop for a second to really question my assumptions.

For instance, when I dropped Luke and all of his stuff off at college for the first time, I was all set to indulge in the maudlin. I’d imagined it all: on the plane he played his part perfectly, falling asleep with his head on my shoulder as he always does. We shopped without rancor for the last few things, ate dinner with my parents as they live near where he’s going to college. I didn’t tear up in front of him but, in bed the night before, I went through all of those scenes of him as an infant, toddler, middle-schooler all in black etc and indulged. He was leaving. Our family would never be the same.

But then Luke veered from my script. He was supposed to hustle me off campus and then not call me for weeks because he was having too good a time. But Luke was miserable. Nothing was what he expected. He was panicked. And I went right down the tube with him. For days. Not completely. I did leave before I got involved setting up every last thing in his room for him. I did get on the plane and head home. I did keep the phone calls and text messages down below insane. But I took his panic and made it mine. I spun out all the possible scenarios – none of them good – about what his unhappy reaction meant about his immediate future and my parenting. And then I started to give advice. And obsess about what I could have or should have done, could say or should have said to make it better. I “should have” stayed to fix his room up because nothing is more depressing than a disorganized chaotic nest.

Then I finally remembered this “not knowing” thing I keep hearing about from the teachers at ZCLA. I don’t know if Luke’s unhappiness is actually bad for him. I don’t know if he’ll finally want to come home, I don’t know if staying is what HAS to happen, I don’t know how Luke should or shouldn’t help himself deal better with the transition and, what’s more, I don’t know, if Luke actually took any of my advice, if he finished setting up his room the way I thought he should, for example, that he’d actually be better off in the long run. I don’t know.

As soon as I really really realized that, I suddenly noticed what MY living room looked like. All around me were chaotic piles of clothes, books and CDs Luke had pulled out of his room to give away. And I don’t even want to talk about the stacks of books by the side of my bed. Here I am obsessing about getting Luke to set up and to clean up his new room so he’ll feel better about his life while sitting in a mess of my own. What better proof of how much I don’t know?

After a day and a half of staying off the phone, off the internet, so I could move the stuff off the living room floor and out of the house, I felt better.

Not knowing. I’m working on it.

Related articles that refer to “not knowing” or the people in this post:

— A lecture by Shunryu Suzuki
–a profile of Bernie Glassman, who was there at the beginning of the ZCLA)
— a Zen talk Korean Zen teacher Hyunoong Sunim
–a dharma talk by Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman on Shunryu Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind
–podcast interview with Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, part one, part two, part three

Don Hewitt

There was no one like Don Hewitt. No one. When I worked for him at 60 Minutes, I can tell you there were many many days when I was very happy there wasn’t. One Don Hewitt was more than enough.

Don was passionate to the point of insanity, passionate for great stories filled with great characters. Woe to any producer who came back with anything less than that. But when he saw a great story – usually one he’d fixed — he’d run up and down the hall telling anyone and everyone about it. And you know, Don was right for so many decades on so many stories, stories that changed the way this country worked and the way we saw ourselves. I learned so much from him. It’s hard to imagine that someone with so much energy, so much life could ever stop. One thing I know for sure: the ripples from Don Hewitt’s presence will be felt even by those who never met him for a long time to come.

To Do or Not to Do

Grief. Sadness. Pain. Impotence. Confusion. Lethargy. Numbness. The energy of rage and anger ebbs and this is what’s left and I hate it. I want to DO something, anything, because, all the time I’m planning and then doing, I don’t feel what I don’t want to feel or think I “shouldn’t” feel.

So, the activity: within moments after finding out about Lily, I started with obsessive “fact” collection, at first imagining her terror, over and over again. Then, I went grabbing after reasons, answers, future prevention, meaning. When that failed to help, I turned to fierce and unfair scrutiny on the response of the school: were these gifted but beleaguered human beings, who were in shock and mourning themselves, doing the “right” things in response? I called other mothers. Other mothers called me. I sent emails. I left voice mail messages. I am so sorry I did that. It didn’t help one bit and I made the pressure on them even worse.

In between all of this flailing around, I kept checking back in with Luke and Matt, each dealing with this in their own way. They both, at eighteen and sixteen, have made it very clear that there’s only so much time and direct attention they want from Kevin and me about this. So, finally, at the end of the week, I’d run out of places to hide from these facts: it happened, I can’t change that; I have only minimal influence over how it affects other people, even those I love most; and I’ve got a whole lot of miserable feelings about all of these facts.

I will run pretty far and wide to avoid feeling like this. My usual tricks are no match. My usual tricks are just that – tricks.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to take any of this down to the Zen Center itself. From the first moment I walked in there, circumstances threw me together with Shingetsu over and over again. There was an easy, informal, personal rapport made much easier for me by her enthusiasm about what I’m trying to do with The Heathen. I felt like she got it and me. Add that I was already seeing her every week to work on the precepts because ZCLA only offers its official precept course (something you need to complete before you can “take the precepts“) during the time of our annual family trip, and it just seemed natural I’d talk to her about it. But, Roshi?

I’d actually backed off from going to face-to-face meetings with Roshi because I had no idea what to say, what to ask, when I went in there. Oh, it wasn’t for lack of questions but there are always so many people in line it all seemed too intense and too short. No one question seemed quite worth placing before cross-legged cleric in the quiet room in half-light. So, when I occasionally got up the guts to go in, I usually ended up asking something tiny or “manageable,” which Roshi would inevitably call me on. Then I’d think she was looking at me like I’m an idiot which, of course, she wasn’t, but that’s what I convinced myself I saw in her eyes which, even while I was thinking it, I knew wasn’t true but it didn’t matter because I had no idea how to stop doing it and besides it was all a little off because I’m writing about this so was I really “there?” Should I really be there? etc etc etc… You get the scrambled up picture. So I decided to stop going for a while until I got untangled some.

But I woke up this Sunday morning and I couldn’t think what else to do. I got in the car and drove down to ZCLA. I got there in time for the short service that starts Sunday morning’s schedule – The Gate of Sweet Nectar – which is the service that commemorates the end of the week. At ZCLA, people bring a donation of food or a toy that’s put on the altar and there’s a lot of singing and chanting that speaks directly to the suffering of all, much of it is along these lines:

Calling all you hungry spirits,
all you lost and left behind,
gather round and share this meal.
Your joys and sorrows,
I make them mine.

After, everyone walks in a line to the zendo and sits in silence for two half-hour sessions during which you can go have a face-to-face with Roshi. Roshi then gives an hour-long talk followed by lunch.

I planned to stay only for one of the half hour sessions. I stayed for both and, when it came time for anyone who wanted to talk to Roshi to line up, I got in the line.

There is no question people– forget “people” — there is no question I want some kind of answers to the mysteries of life and death, evil and pain and suffering…and that many people find answers (or maybe just solace) in their faith. My mom and dad think it’s like turning to fairytales to make yourself feel better. They think it’s kind of pathetic and, even, weak.

What’s becoming clear to me is each faith has different ways of dealing with pain and suffering. Buddhism puts that issue front and center. The historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, was a prince who gave up everything in his drive to understand why people suffer. After putting himself through every religious practice of his day, he finally resolved to sit until he understood suffering. The result? The Four Noble Truths:

1) Dukka – which some translate as suffering. Huston Smith says Buddha meant even more than what we conventionally see as suffering. Smith says it “names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence.” “Life is dislocated.”

2) Tanha/Samudaya – The cause of this suffering is desire which Huston Smith says is, more precisely, the desire “for private fulfillment.”

3) The Third Noble Truth says that the cure for suffering is to overcome selfish desires. Huston Smith phrases it this way: “If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest… we would be relieved of our torment.”

4) The Fourth Noble Truth describes how to do that, how to work towards alleviating suffering. The “how” is the Eightfold Path, the practice we know as Buddhism.

All that’s great to read about but what does it really mean when you’re in it, inside the beast itself?

I sat in line on my cushion just like you sit in the zendo, meditating, eyes almost closed, counting my breath, one to ten and then back to one again, back to one again every time I caught my mind wandering off. It wanders off a lot. It sometimes takes me quite a long time to notice that.

Roshi signaled for the next person to come in by ringing a small bell in her room. When it’s your turn, you have to answer her bell by tapping an iron bell hanging on a low stand twice with a thick wooden mallet made of a smooth gnarl of wood. Those gongs let her know you’re coming down the short hall. I didn’t know what I was going to say but, as the person before me bowed out of the room, a cartoon-like image popped into my head of a squirreled-up ball of energy, reaction, anger and activity, floating high in the air over a barely undulating golden brown, well, hum almost. So I walked in, bowed, and told her about it.

She was quiet.

When you go in to a face-to-face meeting in the zen tradition, the teacher doesn’t look at you most of the time. They sit in pretty close to the same posture as in meditation, with their eyes down.

I continued. “I feel like that ball is me, what I normally do, most of the time. But it’s not working. Not with this. ” I told her I had been able to sit some but I kept thinking there was something I was supposed to be doing, at least to help my children but I was at a loss as to what that was.

She nodded and looked up. Her face was as warm and open as I’d ever seen it in any face-to-face I’d had with her. “Hearts are breaking everywhere because of Lily’s death. And there is no way of knowing what this will become, what will come from this. So we sit, really sit, fully present for what is. ”

“But I hate what is. And there’s literally nothing, nothing I can do about it. Nothing.”

“We can only start where we are. Here. Now. By being fully present, by feeling what we feel.”

“I’m not sure what that means. And I’m afraid that, even if I did, even if I could just ‘feel what I feel,’ I would end up not being able to do anything, to help anyone, to be of service to my children or anyone else.”

“You know how much damage is done by people avoiding what they feel? Mmmm?” She looked right at me for a painful moment. “It’s only from that place of just being fully present for what is, that the right actions arise.

For the first time something about this made some sense. Perhaps it takes something this horrific to show us just how futile it is to try to work around what is and what you’re feeling about what is. I have no idea anymore what the right actions are because, much as I’m desperate for something, anything to DO, there is simply nothing to be done.

So what is true? What is?

I don’t know.

And I feel what I feel about that.

And hating those facts does nothing more than make the pain worse.

In the talk about practice that followed, someone asked how they could tell the difference between feeling feelings and wallowing in them. My question, my fear, precisely.

The answer from one of the other priests? “You feel feelings in your body. ‘Wallowing’ is when you start making stories up about them in your head.” Stories like obsessing on the faults and errors of anyone involved before, during and after, for example.

Just knowing, really knowing, that there is nothing to be done right now, except to sit with these devastating feelings, helped. Some.

Please note that this blog isn’t entirely caught up with where I am. I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying Zen Buddhism at the Zen Center of Los Angeles so I will be filling in the steps that have led me to this point in the next month so, apologies if the names and concepts in this post seem out of the blue. This also allows me to remind you to check in the so-called archives of past posts as you’ll find most of the new posts there in the weeks to come.

The damage done by this event keeps radiating out. One of the difficult parts is that no one in my family thinks they have the right to feel as knocked to our knees as we have been, as we are. This is the Burk family’s tragedy, this is the tragedy of Lily’s closest friends, her teachers, her intimates, not us. We can only imagine the depth of their anguish and stand on the side feeling impotent to help and, as I talk to more and more mothers and hear more and more stories about their children, I know how far and wide these feelings go, the impotence, the feeling that we don’t really have the right to be as devastated as we are, as if we might somehow add to the pain of those already in unimaginable pain if we did.

And so we sit in our houses. Or we sit in other people’s houses. We call. We hug our children if they want to be hugged. We feed them if they want to be fed. But we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. There is nothing to be done.

I emailed Shingetsu and Roshi to let them know what happened. I’m not sure I would have thought to do that but I was supposed to meet with Shingetsu Monday evening – I’ve been working my way through the Buddhist Precepts with her – and I needed to change the schedule so I could be home at dinnertime. Roshi immediately added Lily’s name to the prayer service at ZCLA. And, when I went to meet with Shingetsu, the tiny British Buddhist Sensei tossed all proper Japanese ritual to the wind at first and stood up and hugged me. Hard. She then asked if it would be all right if she added Lily’s name to a list that would be chanted in a ceremony every day for forty-nine days.

“Why forty-nine days?”

“It’s the bardo, the time from physical death until–” Shingetsu held her fingers up in quotes: “reincarnation.”

I was grateful for Shingetsu’s finger quotes, her lack of certainty about reincarnation.

But what about Lily’s parents? The worst part of this is that there is absolutely nothing I can do for Lily’s parents except possibly to tell you — and anyone else who will sit still and listen — what a truly loving, smart, and kind being Lily was, how she made people laugh and feel seen.

Shingetsu suggested lighting incense for them. We did.

I’m not entirely sure what I felt about doing any of this. A part of me felt like it wasn’t my place to do this, that I should have asked someone’s permission first. Another called me fraud. But still another felt just the tiniest bit of relief that there was something, anything, no matter how small or even probably irrelevant, that I could “do” when part of the true horror of this is there is nothing, nothing that can be done.

Is this part of the solace people find in ritual?

After sitting in silence with Shingetsu for a bit, we talked about the horror, about the impotence, and most of all we talked about the feeling of shame that came up about having so many feelings when the tragedy wasn’t directly “ours.”

“But it is our tragedy. It did happen to us, to all of us. There is no separation. This is life. This is death. It’s all part of the same thing. The dire muck and the sun.”

The thing is, I know this is true.