"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Zen

spirit stuff . . .


DSC_0003As usual in the wintertime, I’ve been pulling out my books on Taoism, Buddhism and Zen to thumb through as the snow keeps falling and falling. The book, I-Ching, stays out for me so that I may ask the Cosmos questions when I am stumped or looking for reinforcement.

Recently, I decided to read over my father’s translation of the Tao te Ching, an endeavor that took his attention for the last four or so years of his life. He died in 2008 and was well known for his research in the field of astrogeology but it was a spiritual quest that included meditation and his work on the 81 verses of the Tao te Ching that consumed him at the end of his life. He was quite deliberate about it because he felt that Western translators who were not native Chinese and unable to read the ancient texts themselves were usurpers or worse. “Interpretations,” not even translations like Stephen Mitchell’s widely acclaimed version of the “Tao te Ching” just drove him crazy.

One of his footnotes to the first page noted his disdain for Ursula Le Guin and others who had used the word “power” as a translation for the word “te” (Tao te Ching) rather than  the word/concept of “virtue.” In hindsight, it almost seems comical that someone could be that furious about something like this, but hey–isn’t that what academia is all about? They love to argue about these kinds of things all the time.

I tend to enjoy translations and writing by a writer who calls himself “Red Pine” (aka Bill Porter.) That’s because he took seriously the idea of Taoist hermits and went searching for them in the wilds of the Sian mountains and wrote a book about it. One of my favorite parts is when he writes that these hermits are not invisible nor necessarily to be found in remote shacks in the wilds but are hiding in plain sight. In other words, there are tons of such Taoist hermits but you just don’t know by looking at them straight on that that’s who they are. I love that.

The reason I wanted to read my Dad’s version of the Tao te Ching is that I wanted to see what he was about in doing this work. Some of his wording belies his training as a research scientist in that he seems to feel compelled to explain everything about everything so thoroughly that you can’t miss it. Of course, if you’ve ever read any of this stuff, it’s almost just the opposite. In fact, in reading articles in a journal called “Buddhadharma” and looking at Zen Monastery websites, I’m at a moment close to shouting that “the Emperor’s Has No Clothes On” because honestly, (and I went to college!), it seems, sounds like and looks to me to be gobbledygook most of the time.

Zen enclaves offer retreats, courses and ask for donations all the time. They are marketing their wares just as much as say, MacDonalds is hawking hamburgers. Buddhist and Zen Priests, Roshis and hangers on congregate, fall in love with each other, have affairs with others (some of the Senseis are notoriously more famous for that than their spiritual leadership.) Deepak Chopra is a rich man. They are not ego-less, that’s for sure, because they’re writing books, making audio CDs, getting published and they care very much about their reputations and how they appear to the world. What’s wrong with this picture, I wonder?

In any case, I trust the I-Ching and its wisdom helps me out all the time as long as I don’t read into it what I think I want to hear. Which brings me back to what all this Tao stuff is all about. Simply put, I believe that the Tao is the Cosmos or the Universe. It is a belief in something greater than ourselves. And to me, it has been beneficent and guiding, not harsh and punishing like some religions that inculcate the young they will go to hell if they eat pretzels during Lent or something. Or that adultery can be worked off by saying X number of “Hail Mary’s” or lighting candles at Mass, for example.

My life has been an exemplar of a greater good guiding, rescuing and helping me every time I’ve been in a difficult life situation. There have been many, and I’m not exaggerating either. I have been helped when it seemed it was fruitless to hope for a positive outcome. I remember when I gave in or up to this higher power when I realized I could not “fix” things just by myself. The rest is history, as they say.

So, whether one wants to read about Spirit in a religious context, in a philosophical context or whatever, it’s really about faith and belief. I’m not sure if that huge Cosmic force works for someone if they don’t believe in it first. I just know that its presence in my life has been constant and has had a huge influence on how my life has turned out. I don’t pray to it per se. But I do ask for guidance and for help. I believe that Helpers are available just waiting to be asked. There’s some level of activity involved in engaging with this Tao–you just can’t rely on things happening without some belief or some giving energy going back and forth. Gratitude is a big component of this spiritual engagement. Asking for help and thanking the Helpers when it arrives serves to activate the belief that one’s life has more to it than just what I can do by myself by sheer will and effort alone.

So, my father’s writing is very verbose, at least in the translation version that I have. It’s a little less so in the draft that my sister has in her possession. And it’s nothing at all like the rather sparsely poetic translations that Red Pine and Stephen Mitchell have published.

As for reading about Zen and the Buddha dharma, it’s a true mystery to me and I’m no longer interested in looking for hidden meaning when I can’t even fathom what the unhidden words are saying outright. As for meditation, my physician said to me that it’s a lot more helpful to practice it than to read about it. Point taken.

So, that’s all the mystery I can think about writing in this post today. Either you believe because you have experienced it or you don’t. Either you have faith in a beneficent Universe that looks over your life or you don’t. It doesn’t really matter to anyone else. It can be a big influence on your life or absent altogether. We’re all different, right?

“nirvana is right here, right now” . . .

nirvana is right here, right now. . .

nirvana is right here, right now. . .

Since I’m Chinese, I have returned to reading Asian thought, especially since Zen seems like a safe place to be in this wild and precious life that I seem to be living in. As I awoke from a brief nap this afternoon, the afternoon sun lit up the room with a soft light and I could see the tip of the tall Norway Spruce in one of the skylights.

Here is some text I read in a book from my shelves of Taoist and Buddhist books called simply, “Appreciate Your Life – The Essence of Zen Practice” by Taizan Maezumi Roshi. On page 4, the Roshi writes:

“We do not see that our life right here, right now, is nirvana. Maybe we think that nirvana is a place where there are no problems, no more delusions. Maybe we think nirvana is something very beautiful, something unattainable. We always think that nirvana is something very different from our own life. But we must really understand that nirvana is right here, right now.”

He goes on to say:

“Do not be dualistic. Truly be one with your life as the subtle mind of nirvana. That is what subtle means. Something is subtle not because it is hidden, nor because it is elusive, but because it is right here. We don’t see it precisely because it is right in front of us. In fact, we are living it. When we live it we don’t think about it. The minute we think about it, we are functioning in the dualistic state and don’t see what our life is.”

In reading these paragraphs, I begin to faintly understand what is so hard to put into words: that when we release our mind and are in the moment of that moment, we are in nirvana. In nirvana, our life and the world is just this! There is nothing extra. But it is also all.

For a person like me who reads constantly and whose mind moves around rapidly, these pages were a refreshing halt to the machinery going on in my head. After reading the pages quoted above, I looked around the room I was in, the late afternoon sun glowing on the walls and I could feel the peacefulness of those moments, even though I was still thinking about nirvana rather than being in nirvana just by being in my life.

zen day (sun-day) . . .

muffin 1One reads about the middle way, neither too yin nor too yang. Not one extreme or the other, but follow the golden mean. Take not gain nor loss to heart. Stay calm and do our best. Every day. Fret not about what we can’t affect. Influence modestly when we can. Doesn’t that sound calming? It takes the struggle from contention. It neutralizes fear because if we do our best, fear becomes a waste of energy.

This weekend, my daughter, C. visited and we made blueberry muffins because it was Sunday morning. A new recipe I found online with small bits of unsalted butter mixed in with the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Then eggs and milk. Blueberries and orange zest. Baked and sprinkled with lemon zest and sugar on top: the crowning glory of flavor. They were delicious, especially with cups of hot coffee while we read articles aloud to each other from the New York Times. Not too big like supermarket muffins sometimes are. C. remembered when we used to make blueberry muffins from Duncan Hines box mixes on Sundays when the kids were growing up. I forgot about that somehow.


We talked about friends, some in need, and what we might be able to do to help. Played some Scriabin and Beethoven on my incandescent Steinway grand piano (“Victor”). The tone so clear as a bell and resonant too. Then we ordered a small mushroom pizza, getting gas for her car on the way to pick up our lunch. More munching and talking about teaching, kids cyber-bullying and wondering what comes over girls during adolescence?photo-5

C. folded up the sheets, blankets and quilt in a neat pile which will be put away until her next visit. . .  soon we hope.

echoes . . .

DSC_0487I’ve been thinking a lot about what Denise Linn said about identity, it being an external idea that we take on like clothing as small children, behavioral patterns that have imprinted themselves on us and which we then unknowingly re-enact over and over again every day no matter what our age is now. It’s not just the memory or sensation of that experience, it’s the irrational feelings that cookie stamped themselves on us–like feeling helpless and over-responsible at the same time. Or a feeling of dread when we wake up, fearful of what next thing is going to hit the fan. Whatever they are, they are THOUGHTS and emotions that come from those thoughts. And as identity, these thoughts get in the way of our reaching for our true authenticity.

And because they are just thoughts, we can recognize them and do something about how we want to deal with them: let the endless replaying of the taped memory go on and on until we die, falsely believing that we are in control of our lives. Or, hitting a pause button with our finger in the air, and experiencing the silence. Sudden emptiness of not feeling the same old thing all the time. The nothing-ness of feeling anything and at the same time, not feeling beleagured any longer.

Is that why people like Zen? Maybe that’s what living with a bare slate is like. Not having that replay going on and on without our even knowing it. What strikes me is how much time it takes to even think about ourselves in this way. Why is that anyway?

Having had my own share of what-ifs and disappointments, I’ve resolved since my last birthday (you don’t want to know) that I choose every day to do something satisfying, simple as it may be: drinking fresh citrus juice, writing a haiku poem about the red/pink dogwood tree that we planted last week, cleaning the kitchen and putting away the dishes and straightening things on the counter.

I realized also that we are inundated by bad news about tawdry and tragic events that we read about first thing in the morning in the newspaper, listen to on local news, then repeatedly again on national news (maybe two stations worth) and then late at night on the eleven o’clock newscast before we go to bed. That’s at least FIVE times of bad, awful news about things we can’t do anything about directly and bad, awful behavior on the part of people who should know better and who keep grinding their axes regardless. I keep thinking things were more awful before in terms of how people enacted human nature (look at “Game of Thrones” for example which I can’t bear to watch for more than a few minutes.) Or Congress, for that matter.

Anyhow, back to how to survive and live in the midst of all this bad news and horribleness, we still have freedom to live with purpose and dignity each day. It’s different for each of us, that’s for sure. How are you managing with yours?

the middle way . . .

Have you ever overreacted to something and then felt sorry afterwards? I was thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that disappointment is directly proportional to expectation. And you know what a rocky road that can be, right? Sure, the Buddhists and the Taoists and just about everybody else, Zen and otherwise, caution us not to have expectations. To tamp down our ego so that we can take the middle way. That would be nice but difficult sometimes because we are also human. Oh yeah, I forgot about thatIMG_9691!

Being human, we get excited, pouring love into things that we give those whom we care about. Sometimes their reaction is lukewarm, or delayed or whatever it is that didn’t meet our anticipation of what we had hoped for as their joy.

I’ve learned an important lesson which is kind of embarrassing at this stage in my life. And that is, that other people are not like me. In other words, the way that I might react to things is not the way other people do for the simple reason that we are different. Or there are other things going on. Or, whatever. I wonder where my naivete came from and how it has lasted this long?

Acknowledging to myself that I can be human and that others can be human differently, expands my little window on life. Somewhere within, the middle way runs through it.

nature and nurture . . .

Today, there’s a fascinating article in the Science section of the Times which describes the work of Dr. Hopi Hoesktra, a biology geneticist at Harvard. Her recently published paper in Nature outlines work her team of researchers have done to distinguish genetically traceable traits in two different species of deer mice by the way that they build burrows and provide escape hatches (or not.)

We are not mice but we might as well be to think about what we have control over in the way that we look and behave in the world as much as the person beside us or across the table from us. Much has been made of how much acculturation (nurture) has influence on our personalities and character traits. What if, for example, much of it is genetically persuaded if not outright determined; e.g., “we were born that way?” Recently, there has been so much information about how behavior is influenced by our DNA and the physical/biochemical makeup of our brains. And this is not just from watching “House” on TV either.

In my own life, I have been surprised to gradually understand how many habits and traits I have that are similar to my father’s, the helpful and the not so helpful: insight and intuition, bluntness, adherence to what you believe in even though others may disagree. So much literature is devoted to describing these kinds of parallels in families and life consequences that result from them. I’ve often wondered whether it was the nurture from such strong traits growing up that causes that symbiosis or whether it’s mostly genes. Probably some of both.

In any case, the reason I am writing this post is that the deer mice research is truly fascinating to read about. And to think that we humans might also be genetically predisposed to either building long burrows versus fat ones and whether or not to provide an escape hatch in the burrow is, well, a humorous reflection on our own human behavior.

I know that many of us take life too seriously (that’s me) but that we may also have ancestors who have done that for eons before us it seems. How happy we are with ourselves depends on a lot of things. Luck is a big one, it seems to me. That’s been an influential factor in how life has made corrections for me almost in spite of myself, and for which I am ever thankful. So, with nature (genes,) nurture (environment) and luck (unpredictable opportunity) maybe it’s time to give in to the Zen idea of just going with the flow, and not to resist because of some preconceived idea that maybe we know better.

“acceptance” . . .

You know how people talk about “just accept it,” as though if you acquiesce and accept whatever, that it will make it okay? The zen book I am reading, “Being Zen,” handily counters this notion by saying it’s much deeper than acceptance. That living your life as your practice means that it would help if you realize what your expectations might be and that they are the real root of the problem of being unhappy. A real no-no. Because if you don’t have whatever expectations you might have about how life ought to be, then there’s nothing to accept, per se.

To put it another way, we, in our American culture, have a lot of expectations. Some might even say that they’re part of an “entitled” world view: every man and woman is able to pursue his or her American Dream and succeed to some degree, find the love of your life, bear beautiful, inspiring children, live in homes with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, huge flatscreen TVs, and have enough money to do and wear what you want.

If these are our widely held expectations, then there’s a lot of acceptance to be had when we’re missing some or many parts of that American dream. A Zen approach is basically to have no expectations at all and to experience the present moment for what it is, without judgment nor opinion, even. Otherwise, the book says, we are just living a “substitute life,” not a real one in a universe where we are not constantly feeling hemmed in with what’s working or not working for us.

Seems easy to describe. Harder to live by.

signs . . .

Sometimes, I find that signs are visual, like a white bird that appeared three weeks ago, flying along the highway next to my car, then fluttering right in front of my windshield before flying off. It seemed like some kind of sign, but different from all the red cardinals which have swooped in front of me and which augured blessings or good fortune, like a pat on the shoulder from the Cosmos that I had encountered before.

Signs also appear in conversation when I find myself recounting something from the past, as I did with my daughters while looking at their aquarium, about how things were so hard twenty years ago and remembering someone who had appeared to help me and who had also given me a book on the I-Ching, my introduction to this Sage which has guided me to where I find myself now. I had searched for that person a few times over that twenty year span with no luck. This time, I came up with information of her married name, which I had forgotten. And for $1.98, I was able to obtain a phone number and three email addresses. When the voicemail message came on the cellphone, I recognized J.’s voice. It was she.

Days later, I had not received a response and wondered if she wanted to be found. That morning, on Saturday, I happened by a store selling futons, used books and clothing in town. On top of a small stack of books was one called, “A Flock of Fools” by Kazuaka Tanahashi. The name was familiar because I had taken a zen calligraphy class of sorts years ago at the Zen Monastery in Tremper, New York. Truth be told, I was turned off by the egotistical attitude of some of the monks during the sesshin sittings and wondered if this was really Zen. Or Zen-like. I realized later they were just being human. Meanwhile, I read Zen writers like Alan Watts, Suzuki, John Tarrant and the Taoist hermit seeker, Red Pine (Bill Porter). My father, before he died, wrote his own translation of the Tao Te Ching which he took from old Chinese texts.

Anyhow, so I chance upon this book which is signed, no less, and carry it home. When I arrive, there is a voicemail from J. saying she had been on a retreat and would love to be back in touch. Our first conversation revealed that she lived in a remote area of redrock country and will be ordained a Zen monk in December. I kid you not. She told me that she had worn a jade pendant that I had given her a long time ago that she hadn’t worn in years, around the same time that I began looking for her again.

Yesterday, someone suggested to me that I think about becoming a mediator. When I heard that, it was a bell-like sign that resonated with me. Back home, I found quite a number of options for mediator training and wrote to J. about it because they conflicted with a visit and a sesshin that I had thought about coming out for a visit at the end of September. Turns out her Zen practice includes mediation and facilitation as core training and that her sensei had also been a Director of Conflict Resolution for the Judiciary system in Utah. And as J. so succinctly notes, conventional mediation is “great for a transactional universe, but leaves a lot on the table in the transformational domain…Training in mediation and facilitation is a part of our formal (and formational) path — required of all the monks. Welcome to the new Shaolin Temple. Our action logic is no-shadows; no-conflict. An interesting evolution in the form of warrior energy.”

So after a long period of stagnation in my life filled with pessimism, exhaustion and oppressiveness, the appearance of the white bird has opened doors to somewhere new. The pace is accelerating as well. My faith in the Cosmos is renewed. Or perhaps its faith in me is refreshed. Either way, I am grateful.

retreat . . .

I have learned an important observation about progressing through life from studying the I-Ching. And that is to be still when it’s time to be still. I think that we all recognize times when movement forward is not happening. Or that a next move is up to someone else or forces that are externally beyond our control. In America, the cultural norm is to think of progress as a straight line trajectory up and away, all the time. But in real life, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the most appropriate stance we can take is to be still.

Retreat into oneself can be an act of strength, not weakness as often interpreted in the West. Preserving one’s integrity while holding still is one of the most powerful concepts that I have learned from reading about Zen, the Tao-te-Ching and other lessons from the I-Ching. Keeping one’s flame alight, although hidden, is a way to get through situations when everyone around you is not of your kind or who are Read the rest of this entry »

one wish. . .

I was in Porter Square yesterday for a late lunch and saw something that caught my eye in a shop specializing in Japanese pottery and decorative things. They were papier mache dolls of Daruma, used in a practice to focus one’s intention on a wish, place it into the Universe and follow it to completion.

Since Monday is the Chinese New Year, the year of the Dragon, I bought two of these dolls, one for me and one for George–and have been thinking about what my wish would be. Apparently, you’re supposed to make the wish and fill in one eye on the doll (see Wiki Daruma doll photo above.) Each time you look at it, you Read the rest of this entry »