A Letter to Life
Sunday, February 4, 2024 7:48 AM
In the fall of 2021, we experienced the deaths of three close friends within less than two months. Then another friend went through an intense struggle with suicidal thoughts and thankfully made it through that horrendous turmoil. Soon after, I got word that yet another old friend had taken his life. So much grief and loss. In late November of the same year, my blood pressure rose and would not go down. I knew that I needed some kind of deep medicine in addition to my normal daily practices, and when I stopped and meditated, clarity came quickly.
First, I needed to immediately schedule some acupuncture treatments from our friend, Dr. Chen, in Columbus. I did this. Second, with Alana’s support, I dove into Upaya Zen Center’s Rohatsu Sesshin*, which I did remotely. Along with this, I worked outside chopping wood and did a lot of Self-Breema. This combination of medicine was profoundly-healing and clarifying. Because our business was still so adversely-affected by the pandemic and we couldn’t have guests lodging in our home with us, I hunkered down into the intensity and solitude of practice. In January I attended a full month, online winter practice period, again with Upaya. This period was capped with a second sesshin. The whole experience was like an extended retreat that was challenging, liberating and insightful.
After the January sesshin, I wrote a letter to two of the leaders of the period, Upaya’s Roshi Joan Halifax and Wendy Johnson, a long-time lay teacher in the Soto Zen lineage. I have decided to make that letter public in this blog because it was not only a message to them, but also a processing of the period for myself. I have also recently sensed that the letter may be helpful for others who wish to live as Consciously as possible and to support harmony on this planet.
I hope it is helpful to you,
Dear Sensei Wendy and Roshi Joan,
Thank you. Thank you for your years of practice and the offerings from Upaya. I am grateful for both of you and the many teachers I have been supported by via my participation in Rohatsu sesshin at the end of last year, and the recent January Winter Program. This experience has given me the “Ah-Ha!” that I can connect with so many wonderful teachers. I can see if Charlie Pokorny does dokusan via Zoom! Ah-ha! I can come to Upaya one day and sit with you all in person! Gate open! …and Ah-ha, and Ah-ha and Ah-ha! The miracles keep coming. I am really looking forward to the Spring Practice Period too. The complication of COVID shutting down our retreat center during the winter has been so helpful. (Ha! True and not true.)
As I told Wendy during daisan, I may have inherited rascal genes from my “grandfather” teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, Roshi, who I never met and who is in my heart. As I write this, I am reminded of Eido Frances Carney’s book, Kakurenbo. In the chapter titled, “Entering the Gate,” she tells a story about when Ryokan was traveling on the island of Shikoku and went to visit master Soryu. Ryokan quickly discovered that he could not get in to see the master, who was living in a separate hermitage from the main temple. After trying several times and being dismissed by Soryu’s attendants, Ryokan made a sneak approach, late at night. As Eido Frances writes, “He climbed over and into the hermitage grounds where he undid his travel pack and penned a short, quick poem to Zen Master Soryu. Then he set the note under a rock near the wash basin hoping that when Master Soryu came out to wash his face in the morning he would find it.”
The plan worked!
So, in a way, I am climbing over the wall or sneaking in the side gate by replying to this email from you, Joan. Your email was in reply to a message I sent during online practice to let you know about a technical issue - muted sound on Zoom. It turned out that you knew already and you kindly replied, almost immediately. What follows here is my note under a rock, a processing of my experience with you since December, a questioning dance between remembering and forgetting, and it is also intended to be an open-hearted thank you.
In 1993, I became the lucky owner of a copy of The Blooming of a Lotus, by Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed from this earth on January 22nd, coinciding with the opening of sesshin. He might say that nothing has passed. He is right here in our mindful breath.
Wendy, you spoke about Thay in your dharma talk at Upaya. It was just a few days after his body had been laid out in Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Viet Nam, and when I heard your talk, a sort of worded-walk started in me. I wanted to share what unfolded, so I am sending this letter. It is a revisitation with a walk I took in your dear heart-home: from Green Gulch to Muir Beach in the summer of 2019. The journey also has pictures that I took with my phone that day, and you can see them at this link. The walk’s other beginning is with my meeting with Thay’s book. As I have written, I have been surprised again and again at how alive this hike is in this very moment. Past experiences with sangha and life in the marketplace have naturally bubbled up. New questions and old ones have ignited. Writing this letter also gave me an opportunity to continue to look into the wisdom of the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness, the key-song of Upaya’s Winter Program. It’s been a blessing to dedicate time to this playful work.
And so, begin.
I opened The Blooming of a Lotus at a time that felt personally rife with complication and uncertainty, and full of searching for relief. Sitting outside on a bright, warm day, I gladly experienced the simplicity and freshness of breath, mountain, dew, flower, me, sun, cloud, all. This was a reunion with meditation for me, and of course, that meant a reunion with me. As a child, I had learned to sit with the breath in a karate class, and the practice stayed with me for years, until it left. Now in my early 20s, I was ready to begin and continue again in this new way. Ahhh, there was such medicine in just breathing, just walking, only this. I followed practices like the ones you presented at Upaya, Wendy. Meditations like: “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh…” The transformation was tangible, and I wholeheartedly dove in and read and re-read Thay’s book over the next year. His kindness and firmness (it took me a while to try the meditation on my physical body and the bodies of loved-ones decaying!) also helped prepare me for being with my first teacher. I remember recognizing that as someone who was terrified of humans, it took a lot for me to become dissatisfied with carrying that terror through the world. There is no refreshment in avoiding real and intimate connection with others. Not for me, at least. Of course, I don’t mean intimate in a romantic sense, but intimate in the sense of allowing myself to be myself. It may sound corny, but it was luminous time for me. Many years later, I would walk where Thay took your arm at Green Gulch, Wendy. I can see the fields where the two of you met and he said, “Let’s just walk. No talking…”
It was a beautiful summer morning. I’d already asked several friends at the Breema Intensive I’d been attending in Oakland, “Would you like to join me on a long hike out at Green Gulch?” I was aching for this and had been for weeks, maybe even for years. By the end of the week, it had become clear - nobody was available. In fact, even I was almost not available for this. Normally, when attending Breema Intensives, I didn’t reserve time at the end to sink deeply into nature. There were occasions when I did allow such a healthy treat on my many pilgrimages to the Center, but it was less common. I always knew I needed a nature bath, craved it even, but usually I caved in to the pressure to get back to our retreat work, back to planning and routines with the kids. Maybe I had even felt guilty at the thought of taking that fresh air medicine. Luckily for me, this time I had made a mistake when I scheduled my flight, allowing me a full day extra. Thank God for mistakes. When I discovered this, it was as if a tiny voice in the back of my mind suddenly leaped to the foreground, shouting, “YES! Go hiking in the hills by Green Gulch, down to Muir Beach! Spend the whole day walking!” Funny that I was not surprised by this. The wish had been in the background without my really acknowledging it.
After a little breakfast in the darkness of my room, I drove a rental car from Oakland to the north, up along the coast. I was so grateful that I’d get to celebrate the rising sun with an unhurried walk from eden to ocean and up into the hills and down again, and round and round, and step, step, step. I was so profoundly-nourished by those hours of walking and wandering, remembering and forgetting, receiving the impressions of life and sometimes being no different from just that, just this - but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I got out of the car and closed the door with a satisfying “clunk” - the sound embraced in the great body of ancient, vital earth, like a soft kick from within the womb. I began to walk, gravel crunching a bit as I moved. Step, step, step - oh, a family of quail weaving along a mound of earth at the edge of the parking area. Like that photographer I read about who lay down in praise of a puddle (10 steps from ocean while his friends frolicked in the waves) I could have happily lived all day at this feathered school. The quail mama and poppa bobbed and shuffled, little ones a living chain trailing and mirroring their full-bodied movements behind them. Then the bell to be green hills walking quietly rang in my hara. Registering a thankful breath, I stood up from the squat I’d unknowingly taken and adjusted my bag to rest more solidly against my hip. With a subtle bow to the quail, I turned and began to stroll towards the Middle Green Gulch Trail and to the garden beyond. Pine needles and dry leaves underfoot gave such a softly-audible cadence to the weight of this body navigating the path. Then, without noticing, I stumbled a bit over a little rise of earth, which gave an almost hop-like movement to my stride. That surprise cracked me up, and the words, “What is the sound of one foot walking?” popped into my head, a play on the old koan.
With a little laugh hopping from belly to heart to head, I kept walking, making an unplanned veer to the left, towards buildings - restroom, zendo beyond, and more. I was approaching the heart of the center. I did not wish to interrupt or disrupt, but only to ease through this area in a way that was harmonious. I was not surprised that even the restroom showed the care of those who lived and practiced here, and somehow, something in me began to wake up when I washed my hands. As I walked out and passed the zendo, morning bells ringing, I knew that taste of arriving home, like coming in the door to the clink of pots and the smell of soup bubbling. This was familiar.
I remembered words of Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where he speaks of being in the monastery in Japan and everyone simply doing what he or she was doing without any special feeling at all: “For us, the monastic life was the usual life, and the people who came from the city were unusual people. When we saw them, we felt, ‘Oh, some unusual people have come!’”
He continues, saying that after leaving the monastery it was not until he had been away for some time and returned that it was different, “I heard the various sounds of practice - the bells and the monks reciting the sutra - and I had a deep feeling. There were tears flowing out of my eyes nose, and mouth!”
Similarly, I found myself to be an unusual person visiting a sort of sister sangha and having the feeling of reconnection to days of sitting, days of making meals in a tiny kitchen, and ringing bells in the togetherness of a particular, shared practice. Even more directly, I recognized the atmosphere itself, which is invisible and yet so strikingly clear when we re-enter it, though it is hard to put into words. As I continued, I did not know that my walk to the garden would include these steps to the dining hall, step, step, step, but on I went, knowing that this was surely part of the path. As I entered the dining hall, I could hear the activity of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen, but nobody was visible. I helped myself to a hot cup of coffee and went just outside the door to sit on a big rock. I decided that one day I would gladly pay for this delicious cup of coffee. For now though, I just wished to be quiet and not hurry off. I slowly sipped and watched as residents and priests filtered in. I solved no problems while I sat on that rock, and I was well-fed by the silent, wordless song called “nowhere else to be.” To rest there and enjoy that morning brew was such good food. I hadn’t known I needed that. As I write these last lines, I am reminded of a line from the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness - the admonition to be a “fool with no voice.” I am not foolish enough to pretend I completely understand that line, but I recall giving a slight bow of well-wishing to those who passed. No words were needed. Sometimes that bow included no outward movement, just a warm mug pressed between warm hands, whole body supported by the rock beneath.
Rising easily and returning my cup to a table inside, I continued on the trail towards the garden, soon arriving at the little bridge on its eastern side. Here, a hand-painted sign matter-of-factly said, “To Garden, Farm, Muir Beach.” I crossed to the gate and what a treasure it was to grasp the hand-carved latch, proof of a fellow human creating with care. I already knew I was welcome to come and go before I opened the gate, but something about touching the wood was so inviting, like a handshake with someone who I might never meet otherwise. The week before, when I’d looked at maps of the area online, I had taken note of reviews of the trail. The trail itself is a marked public access one, and it passes directly through the Green Gulch garden and farm, which is so fitting for a Zen center. The beautiful interrelationship of joggers passing through as easily as priests, residents, guests and farm workers wordlessly said, “All are welcome.”
I opened the gate and stepped through.
I’d like to wait a little bit before I say more about the garden. It seems too soon to put words to that beauty. I will return here to say more a little later. So, I will continue at the second gate - the one leading from the garden to the farm.
This gate was larger, more substantial and made of steel.
Having closed it, I turned the body I was borrowing (was it a rental? How would I pay?) and in that turning there was suddenly a moment of clearly seeing the auto-pilot mind busy at the job it had been trained for. It was as if I noticed that a song had been playing in the background for several minutes, but this was just spoken words. The conversation had been somehow under the radar, but in this moment I knew that it had been going on for a while. Dave was recounting an exchange from the past, reviewing what he had said vs. what others had said in a conversation, attempting to craft a view in which he was the bestest and they were the worstest, and also terrified that they were rightest and he was wrongest. With no judgment at all, I said with a laugh,“I think I’m better than everyone!” Ha! Those might have been the only words I spoke aloud all morning. That cracked me up. I busted up laughing. There was complete acceptance and complete clarity. I was not this conversation in progress, I was not the hungry ghost struggling to make itself solid. I was not a this at all, and yet the hungry ghost had a right to be what it was. Both were true.
If I look at the experience now while wearing the glasses of the Jewel Mirror, I immediately hear the line “You are not it, yet it is you.” The you who I thought I was could not be Awareness. Without Awareness, no seeing. Small self does not have the ability to truly see itself, just like the eyes. Yet, Awareness includes and reveals that small self.
As I continued walking, left, right, left, right, whole body, whole mind, I was present for several more steps. Then I wandered into thoughts and the body continued moving. The whole experience lasted maybe 10 seconds and had a purifying effect that I can still taste. To quote the Jewel Mirror again, “It’s use removes all suffering.” It wasn’t as if I pulled a mirror from my pocket and said, “Ok, I’m going to use this now,” and then pressed the button labelled, “Remove all suffering.” However, at the heart of the moment, I saw that “no such thing as a separate self” and no suffering were the same.
I was grateful and buoyant. I had set aside a day in nature, guilt free. That guilt gate was nowhere to be found. However, a question was growing… How do I manifest from the understanding of no separation when I’m at the grocery store? Is the world helped by a lone fellow like me having a taste of Unity? Can I be present without taking some heroic stance that takes me right back into conceptuality and a robotic impulse to achieve great shoulds?
Daniel Ladinsky is most well-known for his translations of the Persian mystic Hafiz, but he has also made versions of Rumi’s poetry. In one poem from the collection titled, The Purity of Desire, Rumi through Ladinsky says,
“Things are such, that someone lifting a cup, or watching the rain, petting a dog,
or singing, just singing - could be doing as
much for this universe as anyone.”
I relate to this and have confidence in this truth based on my own experience. At the same time, what else can I do right now? Without turning the question into a “to sleep” list, this is a valuable thing to sincerely ask myself. Of what benefit is my mountain or hill top experience to the homeless woman in the wheel chair, crying for my friend and I to look at her so sincerely that I stop walking and go back, money from my pocket moving to my hand and to hers as I meet her eye-to-eye? That short and intimate exchange, which I had one day while walking along a sidewalk in Berkeley, told me that I had helped, but only because I knew I had helped. There was no doubt in that action of turning on my heel the when I heard her finish the sentence, “Come on you guys, you didn’t even look at me.” Her heart-broken plea to be seen cracked me open. I knew I was there in that moment, just showing up to be with another human, and with no agenda. I saw her. She saw me. We exchanged a few words. I gave her some money and we said goodbye. My friend and I walked on. I can’t say that I can bring this like a cookie cutter to a similar experience, but I do know it was the right action that day.
It reminds me of this new word I recently learned, “Upaya.” Have you heard it? I’ve circled in a few zen circles on and off for years, and although I’ve heard the word, I’ve never once bothered to find out what it means! After the recent immersion online with all of you at Upaya, it finally hit me that I don’t know what this word means, and I wish to know. Lo and behold, it is a word that I relate to, not because I am a super wise dude, but because, as I once said to a teacher, “I don’t know what to do most of the time!” That was great, honest clarity for me to have. Thankfully, I have a little more ease knowing what to do now, and also with the not knowing, but there are still plenty of times I do not.
When I searched online, the first thing that came up for “meaning of upaya” was from Wikipedia: “Upaya (Sanskrit: upāya, expedient means, pedagogy) is a term used in Buddhism to refer to an aspect of guidance along the Buddhist paths to liberation where a conscious, voluntary action "is driven by an incomplete reasoning" about its direction.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upaya) I also acknowledge that Wikipedia may not be the absolute authority!
I take note that this does not say an erroneous or incorrect reasoning, but an “incomplete reasoning.” I take this to mean that I may not feel as clear as the Buddha, but I must take a step, speak a word, make a decision as best I can in any given moment. “Incomplete,” to me, also suggests that this incomplete reasoning is not led by my conditioned mind figuring out what to do, but relies on the actual, raw, tender and real encounter that is the present moment. I’m sure there is more.
From Tricycle Magazine, I also read: Skillful means (upaya-kausalya) refers to an enlightened person’s ability to tailor their message to a specific audience. The concept emerged in Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra, written hundreds of years after Buddhism began, but it also characterizes the historical Buddha’s style of dialogue and teaching. Teachers today may use skillful means to deliver the right teaching to a student in the most effective manner. (https://tricycle.org/beginners/buddhism/skillful-means/)
I am not the Buddha, nor do I suggest I am enlightened, but unless I at least take a step to help or a step to put my understanding into words, in tune with the current atmosphere and person, nothing much will happen. That said, perhaps I will remember practice in the midst of not saying or not doing as “spirit” nudges me to do or say. In that moment, if I remember practice, then that is where I start as I see, “Oh, a bit of Dave is closing the gate on the instinct to act. Oh, that Dave gate says there is no way around or through…Can I register one breath and allow that resistance to be as it is?” But why not, at least sometimes, leap when a voice under the radar says “no” as the heart says “yes”? After all, it was by happy “accident” that I ended up taking this walk at Green Gulch. The no-sayers had refused it for so long!
At the beginning of Rohatsu sesshin there was an exchange that I’m reminded of now. Some of the senior teachers had gathered to speak to those of us participating online (the “Cloud Zendo”) about the private student-teacher interviews that they would be offering. One teacher questioned you, Roshi Joan, about what he ought to say or to convey to us right now. Your answer was simple, and for me, was about leaping, just beginning, and letting the wild sap of spring sing through - “Well, you should say something,” is what I heard you say. I relate to this. Some wisdom may come through as I manifest, as I speak, and I may even be surprised and be a student to what I hear. Or I may just see the jumble of small self, anxious (speaking personally!) and there is wisdom in that research/see-search project too.
One last little side path along Upaya Trail before getting back to that farm trail beyond the metal gate, and I think it will be worth the trip. I am reminded of an interview Krista Tippet did with Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. It was during a retreat he was leading and which she attended in Wisconsin. One thing that struck her was his answer to her question about whether he gave the same teaching to different groups of people. His answer surprised her. He told her that he had to spend time with each group in order to become familiar with their particular suffering and particular identity, whether that group was police officers or members of congress. This calls up the words from Tricycle, about the use of “skillful means to deliver the right teaching to a student in the most effective manner.” In our teaching over the years here at our home center, True Nature Holistic Retreats, I have been grateful to attend the school of teaching others. An essential part of our teaching is being sensitive to choose the most effective way to teach and what to teach to each student. In terms of Upayas, I could also say that the teaching I receive via my own practice of just sitting, and the particular personality that I have are just the right medicine for the process of waking up, moment to moment.
Back on the trail through the farm fields, I passed waves of hearty lettuces nested below the western hills, and I met the Buddha, or at least a statue of the Buddha. He had been planted right beside a spigot labelled, “Drinking water” which seemed appropriate. I happily filled my bottle, and as I turned off the instant stream and looked at the image of Shakyamuni sitting zazen, there came the thought, “How wonderful that I can quench my thirst in the clarity and relief of ‘not knowing.” And how wonderful to know this not knowing so fully and completely as I sit. Then a poem riddle born from my first full day sit - Zazenkai about twenty five years ago popped up:
I rolled it around again. It was probably the least wordy poem I’d ever written, if it is a poem. Still, it felt full to me. It says that my experience is that shikantaza, the practice of just sitting, is a process of “being a fool with no voice.” This process includes knowing of knots and seeing the tendency of the small self to “not now,” (to simply resist and say “no” to) most everything in favor of an always elusive “something else” that it would prefer. For example: Experiencing making breakfast - “not now.” Being with someone as we talk, “not now.” Waiting for the train, “not now.” Yet, the opportunity to be present is always with us and every moment is the right time. I learn that sitting provides me with an open view of this and somehow gives a little discernment when I am off the cushion. It’s like a story I heard at the Breema Center: One morning, a man goes to the well where he gets his drinking water. He draws up the bucket and takes a sip. Just then, a person at the top of the hill above him calls down to him, “Hey, come try this water over here.” He goes over the hill and down into the valley below, and there is another well which he has never visited. He takes hold of the rope and hand-over-hand draws up a bucket full, sinks in the dipper and when he raises it to his lips, WOW! “This is fresh water!” he exclaims that WOW without saying anything or maybe he actually shouts, “Hallelujah!” Before that moment, he did not know he had been drinking muddy water. We are drinking the cloudy waters of not-now-ing and something else-ing so much of the time, even a little sip of wholeheartedly embracing the present moment purifies and refreshes to the bone. So, we have to have some experience that shows us absolutely that we are not awake and not what we think. I can honestly say that I make the regular discovery that I am not awake, and my walk at Green Gulch was no different.
I screwed the plastic lid back on to my newly-filled water bottle and nested it in the bag at my hip. Slosh, slosh, slosh. It gave audible rhythm and some added sensation to my stride. Nearby, a pair of mud-caked gloves had been dropped on a pallet. Peppermint plants poked up between the pallet’s board slats, greenly searching for sun. I was pretty sure another human must have worn these gloves once, but nobody was in sight and the gloves seemed completely unimpressed by my epiphany about the water of sitting practice. I walked on, smiling, forgetting and remembering myself, just like every day. I only had the very distant time constraint of a late night flight out of San Francisco.
As I took a route rising up into the hills and looked down on the farm, I was struck by the visible result of the interrelationship between plants and people - so obvious from a higher view. A few people were coming up behind me. Morning joggers. I kept going, keeping the same pace I already had, and they passed me. Up we went. Up, up, up. Step, step, step. For hours I came and went, sometimes simply knowing the body was moving and breathing, and lit up with the spark of life that knows no boundary. Looking back on that day, again I hear lines of the Song of the Jewel Mirror of Awareness; “When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up to dance.” In those moments of experiencing no separation, the boundlessness of life sings a no me, and this little body moving like a bug across these hills is sweetly fed by being a part, not apart. There were many steps - many steps of gone to thoughts, fear of stumbling down a steep grade, thoughts of past and future, wooden man and stone woman just lifeless ideas, and always the possibility of singing and dancing.
On one skinny bit of the trail overlooking the Pacific from way above the waves, I passed two fellow hikers going south, me going north. It was a tight squeeze, but none of us broke stride. The snippet of conversation I heard as we quickly crossed paths: “...then I ended up dating Charlie Sheen when he was hot and popular, and we moved to Malibu…” That is an exact quote. I know because it was such a shock that I stopped and entered it into my phone.
The comedy of being alone in nature for so long and then suddenly hearing this random line from a conversation between strangers made me laugh. It was also funny because I was already hearing random lines of my own mind’s making. Even though I was in solitude and surrounded by beauty for miles at a time, my lines sometimes rang a bell: “Why didn’t they reply when I sent them those photos? They don’t like me. They’re so annoying!” I had sent my siblings pictures from earlier in the day in a text thread we’ve had going for years. “Those were beautiful photos. They don’t like me. Why didn’t they comment on the photos?” And then again, 5 minutes later, “Why didn’t they comment on the photos?” It was like I was still 9 years old and trying to get their attention. Like the weeds in the valley to the east, I didn’t need to do anything to bring the thoughts. They just came up. The thoughts continue to just come up. Sometimes they are slow, or shortly-absent, but they do come back, and perhaps it is wonderful that they do. In truth the asleepness of myself is part of the suffering of the world, and without it, how would I wake up?
Again, Krista Tippet’s experience at that retreat with Thay comes again. At one point in their talk, she asked him how he arrived at the word “miracle” to be included in the title of his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. His answer was rich and simple at the same time, and at the latter part of it, he said that with practice:
“You understand the nature of the suffering. You know the role that suffering plays in life, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore.You know how to make use of suffering in order to be peace and happiness. It is like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow a lotus flower on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering you have no ways to learn how to be understanding and how to bring compassion. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering, because I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering because in such a place they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. The kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion and therefore, suffering should exist.”
In our study of the Jewel mirror, I learned the couplet “Complications are auspicious. Do not resist them.” What a doozy. That got our attention. I say “we” meaning the Cloud Sangha. Perhaps more than any other couplet, this one drew comments and fed the introspection of myself and other participants during the month. I think it is common to operate in life in a way that avoids complication, avoids what we view as suffering. We don’t want to encounter problems, or if we do, we would rather that they quickly go away. I think we have to keep drawing our attention in close to home, and practice helps. By close to home, I mean that it is easy to think of suffering as just something that is happening “out there” in the world. However, when we sit, we learn about the suffering that is the mechanical process going on in us, and which we usually think of as “me.” What if our experiences of seeing the limited nature of our egos was a newfound impetus or alarm clock for transformation, a reminder not only that we are asleep but that we have this moment and it is an opportunity to serve life - first by knowing we are alive right now, inhaling and exhaling?
And aren’t “complications” simply another word for dissatisfaction with things as they are? In her book, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness and Belonging Zenju Earthlyn Manuel goes right to the core at, phrasing what is almost a syllogism of awakening when she says, “Through satisfaction comes dissatisfaction; through dissatisfaction comes discontent; and discontent can bring about awakening to a boundless self that is uncaused and unconditional.”
“Complications are auspicious. Do not resist them-” Take two: It is easy to focus on the circumstances and events that I think of as outside of me as complications. The repairman didn’t show up, I forgot to turn on the heater in my wife’s office. The washing machine is broken. Closer to home means to see that the complications arise via the reactions of Dave to the events of life. Those may be reactions that could be called good or bad, but they are a sort of filter or interpretation, not the direct experience of life and not a simple response. Those complications are auspicious because I could see through them or see that they are like images in a mirror. That gives me an opportunity. Then I have a choice. I can respond. I cannot always do this, but I can always do this.
Complication: Origin from LATIN, complicare; “fold together” and early 15c.,"complex combination or intricate intermingling,” and "'from com “with, together" (see com-) + plicare "to fold, weave" (from PIE root *plek- "to plait”).
What has complication been woven and folded with? How can I allow light in to the warp and weft? By verifying the auspiciousness of complications, might a natural, willingness to embrace life emerge?
When my ex-wife and I moved to rural Holmes County, Ohio, in 1996, it seemed there was no shortage of complications and also no shortage of the possibility of learning that complications could be auspicious. I was recovering from a too extreme dive into a macrobiotic diet paired with copious hours of Taoist energy meditations, tai chi and chikung. Meeting Zen teacher and friend, Tim McCarthy, at this time was just the simplifying food I needed. I still recall some of the poems that came after (maybe even during) that first Zazenkai with the sangha. The “k(not) k(now)” poem came that day. Some of the others that I still remember:
Like a yin dot, in a yang fish, I smell autumn in August wind.
driving under the overpass,
up on the bridge
a girl’s hair
and sunlight walking.
Insights arrive like a plague-stricken savior.
Back in those early days of sitting with Tim and the rest of the group, I was thankful for sitting and walking and fellowship with friends in his home zendo, which was an open room just off his kitchen. Cats sometimes sneaked into the space, meowing and petting us as we practiced shikantaza together. Tim has a fondness for animals that extends especially to the wounded, frail and sick, and they loved against us or cowered away, depending mostly on what previous human interactions had taught them. Years later, I realized how much sense it made that I was immediately comfortable with and attracted to sitting with Tim, “Oh, yeah,” I thought one afternoon, “I am a wounded dog.” The main challenge for me with this sangha was the cats. My foray into macrobiotics hadn’t been completely helpful to me. What began as a well-intentioned and altruistic quest to become a healer had been led mostly by my head after my heart was initially touched by the dietary system. I made changes and ate in ways that were too extreme for my body, and I did not listen. I dropped a lot of weight - more than was right and healthy for me. I didn’t get the message until one day after riding a friend’s bike home in the rain, I heavy-stepped through the house and crashed on the couch. Then I could barely breathe. Moving an inch made me feel like I might stop breathing entirely. That day was the first of numerous trips to emergency rooms, a basic diagnosis of asthma, advice to eat meat again and handfuls of steroids and inhalers. The upheaval in my immune system exacerbated airborne allergies, and being around sweet, purring cats was enough to constrict my breathing for days afterwards. I also got awful headaches from the shift of muscle use in my neck and shoulders as my body fought for air.
Thankfully, this condition pushed me to get sangha members to come in the direction where I had moved, rather than me traveling to sit in the dangerous house of cats. I was blessed to make a connection with owners of a retreat center, and so I had a wonderful place to invite the sangha down. Ted and Martyne Kempel were the Bodhisattvas I was lucky enough to meet - stewards of a non-profit retreat center they’d created only 30 minutes south of my new home in Amish Country, Ohio. Like Tim’s arrangement, the Kempel’s meditation room was right on their own property, but theirs was in a separate building from their house, and no critters were allowed. The main building, a beautifully remodeled barn, included sleeping quarters for over a dozen people, plus a small kitchen, bathrooms, dining area and a library fit for spiritual seekers. There was another cabin called the Elder House, which had been the first retreat structure on the property, and it sat in the woods farther up the hill. This sweet little cabin could easily sleep 3 or 4 people and it had a small kitchenette and bathroom. The land was vital and alive, woodsy and graced with trails and benches that Ted had lovingly crafted and maintained for years, a clear and caring outer expression of his own inner life.
After my first solo retreat at the Kempel’s, which they had named The Hermitage at Beaver Run, I knew that I wished to bring the sangha down to sit together and commune over meals and poetry around the campfire at night. This wish unfolded very naturally and became a life-line to community for me for about the next decade. At the beginning, I did almost everything to organize these retreats for the Kent Zendo: Planning meals and shopping for groceries, putting together the weekend schedule, creating, printing and posting mailers, corresponding with interested participants, sometimes taxi-ing those who couldn’t drive, ringing bells during sitting periods and on and on. At some point, after we had a succession of repeat attendants, I saw how over-involved and even controlling I could be. Here I learned this magical thing called cooperation and mutually-supportive practice. Sure, at the beginning it was right for me to do so much, but after a while, that was not necessary. Gradually, others began to join me as Tenzo, the cook of the zendo, and I began to enjoy being helped. This allowed friends to participate more fully, and it let me let go of some of the responsibility. Getting my first email account was also revelatory - “You mean I can send a message about the retreat to more than one person at once, and I don’t even need to pay for postage?!” No doubt, the complications that were a door to this period of my life were a real gift, and in hindsight, I see how auspicious they were.
Year-by-year, the beautiful tapestry of retreating became more rich and varied. New friends, new experiences, priceless conversation and priceless silence. We connected with several other zendos and they too began to schedule their own retreats at Beaver Run. I even went to some of those. Somehow our gatherings always remained small, ranging from 4 or 5 to as many as a little over 20. Maybe it was the intensity of what we were doing, simply sitting and walking, bare bones-style in the Soto Zen tradition which kept the gatherings small. On average, we held these retreats, which were led by Tim, (a teacher in the lineage of Kobun Chino Otogawa, Roshi) two to four times each year. In between, I also organized several retreats for bodyworkers, and all proceeds were donated to a wide variety of charitable groups. We gave to Heifer International, private individuals, the Red Cross, The U.S. Campaign for Burma, The Mennonite Central Committee, and the list grew. At that time - Oh, look! A dog has come on to the beach! He’s chasing the seagulls!
I was reminiscing so much, I hadn’t really noticed that I’d arrived at Muir Beach. “Hello,” I said to the dog’s owner, and then I noticed that my belly was grumbling. “Well, it’s about lunchtime,” I thought as I turned away from the wave-lapped rocks. I’d been hiking for 9 or 10 miles, and now it was time to venture back to the car and down into Mill Valley, in search of a little more to eat so I could go back to walk the trails some more before heading for the airport.
As I drove around looking for a place to park, I again pondered the question of coming from the mountain top to the market place. As I did that, I still remember standing on the sidewalk outside that boutique clothes shop for women and the handwritten note on a rack of tops. In red marker, someone had scrawled, “Everything on this rack - just $85!” in big, playful letters. I was no longer in the land of Dollar General that had become so familiar back at home. The sign kind of took me by surprise.
There is no doubt that there is a wide wealth gap in our country and other countries worldwide. People starve because they cannot buy enough food and others starve because they are not seen, even though there is an abundance of money and food. All throughout the range of incomes there is suffering, and although seeing the truth that I am not my personality cannot be denied once we have tasted that fruit, there is the struggle of not enough, too much hatred, confusion, the quest for “more and better,” as one friend would often say. Before we are out of elementary school, we have heard it a thousand times: Money will not buy happiness; yet, tell that to the child who has grown up watching his parents work multiple jobs and still there is not enough to cover the basic costs. On the flip side, I saw firsthand the suffering of many wealthy people after letting go of my role as retreat organizer for the Kent Zendo. I remember sitting outside a small cabin, The Elder House, on a giant rock with my teacher, Tim. At this point, we had been gathering for these retreats for about 9 years. He had just told me about when he stopped shaving his head and wearing his robe in the monastery with Kobun. Tim had made the decision to leave - to go and live back in the world, to help how he could, “out there.” When he told Kobun his intention, the elder knowingly nodded, saying “Ohhh, you want to go underground.” In reply, I told Tim that I was moving away from organizing retreats and also moving my massage therapy and bodywork practice to set up an “organic spa” for a high end inn in our small, very rural midwestern town. My original wish had not been to set up a spa, but all the doors I’d knocked on seemed closed to setting up a holistic center. Then, through some outreach work I was doing, I began a conversation with the owner of The Inn at Honey Run and it seemed like the right step to take. When I talked with a friend who had studied Sun Tzu’s Art of War for 25 years, he advised me to first make sure that the owner was happy and make sure bountiful money was flowing in. He said that would allow me to most fully pursue my own aims. That resonated with me because I felt that I could do this sincerely, without manipulation and that many people were likely to benefit. I saw this as an underground opportunity to bring together a beloved sangha of friends to staff a holistic center, not focussed on superficiality and to connect to more open-minded people from beyond our community. I also saw it as a chance to carry forward the pure beauty and naturalness that I had the good fortune of experiencing on retreat at the Hermitage at Beaver Run. Spontaneously, I heard myself telling Tim, “I want to go so underground that I’m overground!” I didn’t know I’d say that. In response, he made a comically-befuddled expression, staring wide-eyed and exclaiming, “What he said!”as he pointed at me.
So, for four years, part of what I learned was the suffering of and compassion for the wealthy, and their search for satisfaction, for relief. I taught meditation and Self-Breema, organized Breema workshops, staffed the spa with wonderful massage and bodywork friends, did lots of treatments, and I saw that money itself did not provide the core relief that anyone was seeking. The sincere attention we provided did more in this direction, and of course, an exchange of money was part of that. I also met many people who couldn’t afford the high prices set by the inn, but came anyway with the help of credit cards - just to experience something special or as a way to show someone that they cared deeply. Occasionally, I was able to convince the inn’s owner to offer free or discounted experiences. We did our best to deliver whole-hearted, genuine care to each person we met. (I confess that we also played and had a lot of laughs too.) When it came time for me to leave the spa four years later, I was able to more fully put my energy into the co-creation of True Nature, the center that my wife and I have been cultivating for the past 12 years. We organize and lead small retreats (1 to 10 people) at our home, on a beautiful piece of land with forest, a spring-fed pond, rolling hillside and a big open meadow. Our home and our center inseparable, interwoven, not one and not two, just like Tim’s Zendo within his home and Ted and Martyne’s home retreat center, The Hermitage at Beaver Run and the public trail running through the Green Gulch garden.
Back in Mill Valley, I sat in the car outside a Whole Foods, and suddenly realized I’d experienced nothing I could reconnect to from the time spent in the store. Autopilot had kicked in. At first, there was a judgement about that, and then that reminded me what I have learned from classes at the Breema Center. I could start now. I placed my hands on the steering wheel and registered a single inhalation and a single exhalation. Immediately there was refreshment, and I was available. No past, no future. Starting the car by pressing the button, just this. Foot on the brake, shifting into reverse, just this. Foot on the gas, off I rolled into thoughts, without even noticing.
I picked up a toy car from the shelf at the drug store and held it gently in my curled palm. The light weight and texture of the smooth plastic wheels was palpable. This car had helped me. I was home again. I walked across the polished tile. Step, step, step. The car in my hand was small and yellow. It was a convertible that had been made in China. I had no idea what adventures it had been through to get here in my hand, but now it was going to visit a 4 year old in Ohio and I was the delivery boy. At the register, my bank card would not work, and that brought me back to my body breathing. I did a dance of talking with the clerk, trying to sort out why the card wouldn’t work, and never figuring it out and never quite connecting with her. She was happy and bubbly, and saying routine things that I assumed she said over and over all day. She could not listen to me. I did not force it. Then I remembered thank you - the words which I said to her, but most valuable, the thank you of knowing the weight of my body on the floor, the thank you of pulling my credit card from the beeping machine, thank you of smiling, thank you of walking out through the automatic door and into the sunshine.
I drove back to the coast, this time parking in the lot at Muir Beach. I was surprised and delighted to see that the beach was now full of couples, individuals and families. There were little canopy tents pitched haphazardly across the sand, kids playing ball, music bouncing from blue tooth speakers, dogs running after frisbees thrown to the waves and people napping on blankets. I walked to a bench that sat slightly above beach level and just sat for quite a while, watching and listening and smelling barbecue float on the breeze. When I rose, it was with a contented slowness, very different from my glowingly-jubilant pace earlier in the day. My body was suffused with a settledness born from a day of gladly moving.
Rhythmically stepping along the dirt trail from Muir Beach back to the garden, I stopped and undid the straps of the canvas satchel I’d been carrying. My hand fished around a bit blindly at first, then I widened the bag’s mouth to let the sun shine in. There. “There” said touch and sight. At the bottom of the satchel lay a purple plum, warmed from resting against my thigh and softened from the water bottle nested above it all morning. Looking down the trail, I stood up and took a bite of the ripe, sweet fruit. So delicious. I held it up and looked at it, glistening in the light. So miraculous. Thoughts faded, and I tasted the grace of not craving, but only eating this plum. When I began walking again, it was perhaps with the same lucidity of your walk here with Thich Nhat Hanh, Wendy.
In your dharma talk, you told us that when Thay visited Green Gulch, he told you and others that he had a gift for you. That gift was teaching you walking meditation on the path between Green Gulch and Muir Beach, the same path where I was walking. You said that the walk was “usually accomplished in 20 minutes and never felt,” and with Thay leading, it was a fresh, slower and mindful experience - lasting almost 2 hours. For a little while, I settled into a similar pace, kinhin, only the taste of walking and breathing.
When I passed through the metal gate leading into the garden (this was perhaps the 4th or 5th time that day) it was a brand new garden. I was a brand new me. I met yellow and pink roses. Some had brown wrinkles moving through their beautiful faces. Many were supported by aged wooden frames and some stood like surprises amidst thick gatherings of other plants. I heard and felt the buzz of bees swarming on a wide row of lavender that hurrayed the air with its fragrance and with its slow reach to the sky. Poppies intermingled with wild fleabane and other tiny blossoms, white, orange, violet.
As I strolled on, I found that little wooden shrines like tiny houses were here too. They were homes to Buddhas and Kwan Yins, and prayer flags hung from bamboo stalks and the lichen-covered branches of low and gnarly trees. Alone, I walked closer the the prayer flags. I discovered that these were notes, hand-written by those who had been here to gain sustenance for going back “out there.” The written words and wishes were a part of the garden, penned on paper which was gradually decaying back into the earth. And of course, they were prayer flags. On one note tied with white yarn, I read, “Oh great spirit, help guide me and give me the courage and strength to let go of all the old…all that doesn’t serve our life. Om, peace.”
I took a picture of this one, and took a breath as I put my phone back in my bag. It was time to go, time to continue, to take steps to honor the truth that “out there” was in here. Turning around for one last look, I saw that the garden was looking back at me, and without bowing, I bowed a final thank you and said hello to my life.
p.s. The photos in this link (same link as at the beginning of this letter) are all from the day I took this walk, except for two. One is a photo of a little lady and a baby kid. That photo was taken at Muir Beach on July 25th, 2016. That’s my feisty and sweet wife, Alana, and our baby kid, Oliver, who is now 6 and a half. The other picture is of Alana and Ollie and I at Muir Woods, that same year. Ollie is the guy in the stroller.
A blog of good news by David Pratt
David & Alana Pratt
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