Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Another wonderful sesshin

 Last weekend we finished our third virtual zoom sesshin, and again, it was wide and deep.  To the left is a screen shot of many of our attendees.  Our tanto (head seat) Rev. Paul Galvin named it the "Nothing Lacking" Sesshin, based on the text we used by the Chinese teacher Linji Yixuan called "Nothing to Do."

Here is that text, translated by Burton Watson:

There is no Buddha, no Dharma, no practice, no realization.
What is it you seek in others? What is it you lack? It’s as though you
want to put another head on top of the one you already have. At this
very moment your own wonderful function is no different from the
wonderful function of the masters and the Buddhas. It’s only because
you lack confidence that you seek something outside of you.
Make no mistake: there’s no Dharma outside you to run after;
there’s no Dharma within to attain. Rather than seeking, it would be
better to hear these words, rest, and practice having nothing to do.
If something has arisen, don’t try to make it continue.
If something has not arisen, don’t try to make it arise.
This action is more valuable than ten years’ pilgrimage.
There is nothing you need to do. You just need to live as ordinary people.
Wear your robe, eat your food.
• As day follows day, • be a person who has nothing to do. 

Talks from the sesshin can be found here:  Sesshin talks.  Our next Zoom sesshin will celebrate Rohatsu, the day that the Buddha woke up from his dream and understood the reality of life.  It will be held Dec. 3 -- 6, and information can be found here:  Boundless Way Temple.  All are welcome -- see you there!

Sunday, August 30, 2020


Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

-- Children's Song

The 17th century Zen Master Takuan Sōhō, as his last act before dying, wrote the kanji for "dream"  pictured above.  Since I first heard Takuan's story at the beginning of my Zen training, I have been inspired by his simple summation of a life of complexity and wildness.  This is certainly my experience, that life is like a dream.  Zen practice is about recognizing our dream life fully, and awakening into a more spacious life.  

In the past few days of these strange times, I've been having extremely realistic dreams.  Perhaps this is also happening for you.  And two blogs I follow, one from my husband, David Rynick, and one from my teacher James Ford (, also mention their unusually vivid dreams.  As Zen teachers, we often hear about dreams becoming more intense during sesshin, our Zen meditation retreats.  It's been my contention that everyone on the planet, because of the pandemic, as well as the political, racial and gender unrest, is living life more intensively.  We may wish to turn away from all the suffering, but it's becoming more difficult to do this.  And the feeling of turning away can be numbing and exhausting.  At sesshin, we spend many hours turning again and again to what is right here, while sitting in stillness, and transitioning to other practice activities like walking, care-taking of our space, cooking and eating.  Life becomes extremely simple during these retreats.  And for many of us, because of the limitations on the lives we're used to living, what I have been calling the "before-times" everyday life has developed this quality of a silent meditation retreat.

So it makes sense that our dreams are following us as we move into the interior space of the heart.  My dreams have been full of imagery of meditation retreats, people from the past coming back into my life to ask forgiveness for various wrongs they did to me, all surrounded in an atmosphere of love and spaciousness.  I wake up from these dreams feeling alive and present.  My dream life is comforting.  Waking life can be challenging.  But I'm lucky -- I have the good fortune to have found Zen practice, in its many forms.

Attending and teaching sesshin, practicing Zen daily in formal practice periods on Zoom (and recently in person in the Temple garden) and doing my best to continue to wake up in every moment, this is how I stay awake in the dream of human life, right now, on this planet, in this country, with everything exactly how it is.  Our Temple provides many ways to join with others in practice, study and discussion, including sesshin.  (  Maybe we'll find each other in one of these practice opportunities, and we can learn how to wake up together.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Perfection of Melancholy

 After teaching an on-line retreat last weekend for Irish mindfulness trainees and teachers, I was inspired to go back to a book I bought, on the recommendation of Irish friends, the last time I was in Dublin.  Who knows how long it will be, if ever, that I walk down those beautiful, green-lined, busy streets?  

The book, "Are You Somebody?" is a memoir by the late Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain, a wild and daring writer about Irish culture, feminism, and the movement in Ireland from narrow poverty to cultural openness that she witnessed during her lifetime.  

She writes about a breakdown she had just before turning 40, after the deaths of both her parents and before she became sober.  (She, like her parents, and most of her friends and partners, was an alcoholic.)

Here is her recollection of those last days before sobriety, which echo the feeling many of us have had during these oppressive days of life during the pandemics, now 5 months in.  

"An aspect of being vulnerable is that you are very open.  I used to lie on the bed and look at the sky as it very, very slowly got dark on summer evenings.  There was a kind of perfection of melancholy.  On Sunday mornings, or on Bank Holiday weekends, I had absolutely nothing to do but feel the quiet.  In a way, I was with my self very fully.  Afterwards, I used to miss the feeling of being held within pure, empty space."

Maybe you have found that the enforced solitude has been a strange kind of gift, helping you find your way to something beyond the identity with a self that is active and productive and ignorant of suffering.  This is the formula for Zen practice, too.  Sit still, feel everything, as far as you can bear it, and see what happens.  Perhaps you, too, will feel held within the pure, empty space of this wondrous life.

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Zoom Retreat in Ireland

 Earlier today David and I finished teaching a four day retreat in Ireland, hosted by the Mindfulness Centre.  Our hosts were the talented and warm teachers Helen Byrne and Josephine Lynch, and the photo here is one of three screens showing the 75 participants.  As with all of our retreats online since the pandemic began in March, it was deep and profound.  Moving back and forth between formal practice and daily life, we all had a taste of how meditation practice allows us to make our lives whole, no matter what we have to deal with.  The world is on fire, and we can learn to sit with all that is happening, in order to act to help with the healing.  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Darkness is Asking to Be Loved

 The other day I was in the grip of a difficult mood: politics, the pandemic, global warming and racism, sexism and anti-semitism were all mixed together into a toxic mess.  And I felt oppressed and beaten down.  I tried to find some solace in Buddhist writings from the magazine Lion's Roar, but all of the articles were either full of blame or cheerfully upbeat...well-written and I'm sure helpful for people, but there was nothing that even began to touch my own mood.  Until I came across the following prose poem by the Black Zen woman teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.  "This is it!"  my heart shouted out... the Zen approach to suffering.  We must face what we experience directly -- learn to bear the unbearable.  This is why we sit still and upright in the midst of everything.  We can even face our anger and hopelessness, and the parts of us that are trying to be cheerful.  Here are the words of Zenju Sensei:

Darkness Is Asking To Be Loved

By now we have lost the tiny sense of peace we created for ourselves.  Our composure is an idea long gone, reflected in the grinding of our teeth and locked jaws.

If you are still holding up trying to meditate, I invite you to fall down.  Fall down on the earth.  Come down here and smell the sweat of terror on your skin, overpowering the scent of agarwood.  Come down on all fours and greet the darkness that reeks of death, reaches out its desperate hand, and asks to be loved as much as we love the light it gives.

Come down here on this earth and breathe for those gasping for air.  Hear each scream as a bell that never stops ringing.  Bury your face in the mud of this intimate place, in this shared disease and tragedy.  

If you have nothing to say, now is the time for the deeper silence that does not apologize or seek something kind to say.  And yet the deeper silence is not quiet.  It whispers in the dark and wakes you from the nightmare.

Come down here and be still on the earth.  Let loose shame, rage, guilt , grief, pain, and make a river of it.

Come down here.  Catch the love poems hidden in the shouting, watch the unfolding of the seasons from the ground, look up at the sky.  And when it hurts from being down here so long, roll over and see what you couldn't see from the other side.

Breathe out loud.  No particular posture needed.

Fall down onto the earth.  Fall off your soft cushions.  Come down here.  Come down here, where the only lullaby tonight will be the sound of your heart drumming the songs you were born with.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Sangha Treasure Sesshin

Here at Boundless Way Temple we just completed our three day online "Distant Temple Bell  Sesshin"  -- a time for intensive Zen practice.  This was our second online sesshin, and our tanto, or head of practice, Senior Assistant Teacher Alan Richardson, named it the Sangha Treasure Sesshin.  Alternating periods of formal Zen meditation and at-home informal Zen practice, we discovered how to blend all the elements of our lives into one seamless fabric.  Grateful bows to my fellow teachers, David Rynick, Roshi, Michael Fieleke, Sensei, and Bob Waldinger, Sensei, as well as to the "sesshin officers" who ran the practice periods and enabled the teachers to offer individual meetings (dokusan) and dharma talks (teisho):  Corwyn Miyagishima, Jenny Smith and Adam Monty.  And thanks to Senior Assistant Teacher Michael Herzog, who along with Alan, gave beautiful and inspiring evening encouragement talks.  And of course the sangha treasure itself:  41 dynamic people of the Way practicing together in our Zoom zendo.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Courage to Live

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a civil war in which close to a million people, many of them ethnic Tutsi,  were slaughtered.  Statistics vary, but whatever the exact number, of victims, the human mind can barely comprehend violent death on such a scale.  As we know, human beings continue to perpetrate murder upon each other.  This happens regularly, and it hasn't stopped.  All of us will die, but not everyone has to die through hatred.  And yet...

That year I was finishing up my career as a homicide bereavement counselor, working with loved ones of people who had been murdered.  It was a challenging job, and I found my heart breaking regularly.  I continued as a grief counselor in private practice, and had begun teaching mindfulness under the training of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  So I was able to experience some relief from the impossible grief of the people I worked with.  And yet...

In the grief training I had received in graduate school and at the Connecticut Hospice where I did my internship, we were taught to listen, and listen more, and then listen more, as our clients poured out their stories.  Ultimately, healing began when people began to find some ease in the love that remained, and some renewed purpose in their lives -- almost like the people who had died had found their way into the crack in our broken hearts.  And yet...

I still miss my parents and other loved ones who died decades ago.  They visit in my dreams, and especially these days, with the deaths spreading throughout the world from the two pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, I feel a renewed grief for them, and for this world of love and hatred intertwined. 

This morning I read a short story in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It's about a woman who fled Rwanda just before the genocide.  Most of her family,  all of those who remained in her native country, were murdered.  She returns home seeking healing.  The story, called "Grief" is by Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan author who lives in Paris, and it's translated into English by Jordan Stump.  Towards the end of the story, overwhelmed by horror and heartbreak, she receives the following counsel from an old man who guards a church where many people had been massacred.  He says:

"...You won't find your dead in the graves or the bones.. That's not where they're waiting for you.  They're inside you.  They survive only in you and you survive only through them.  But from now on you'll find all your strength in them -- there's no other choice, and no one can take that strength away from you.  With that strength, you can do things you might not even imagine today.  Like it or not, the death of our loved ones has fueled us -- not with hate, not with vengefulness, with an energy that nothing can ever defeat.  That strength lives in you,  Don't let anyone try to tell you to get over your loss, not if that means saying goodbye to your dead.  You can't:  they'll never leave you, they'll stay by your side to give you the courage to live, to triumph over obstacles...They're always beside you, and you can always depend on them... "

In these times, as in all times in human history, we must cultivate the courage to live, the strength to persist.  May we never forget our dead, and may we stay in close touch with their example, finding the power to go forward and fight for justice in this wild world.