I am a Soto Zen priest, and Abbot and one of the four guiding teachers of Boundless Way Zen. I worked at the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School for many years, and have now retired to full-time Zen teaching and residency at Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, MA. I also have a private practice in contemplative counseling. www.worcesterzen.org, www.melissablacker.com
Some of you may be familiar with Boundless Way Zen practitioner Nat Needle, who has composed many songs about Zen and Buddhism over his long creative life as a musician and educator. Seeing Sarah Loy's photo of our Temple Buddha buried in snow this morning, I remember Nat's song "Under the Bodhi Tree" where kids wonder about "what could bother old Buddha I wonder?" Clearly not snow! Enjoy this cut from Nat's album "Dharma Moon."
A friend recently sent me an interview with Joni Mitchell from 5 years ago. (thanks Joanne!) It's so inspiring to see a woman at 70 who is uncompromising in her sense of herself. She talks about how much she loves life, and, with a laugh, how sometimes she gets sad, frustrated and angry, too. One of her most famous songs, and a particular favorite of mine, is called "Both Sides Now," in which she sings about the impossibility of knowing anything (clouds, love, life). The heart of my practice is reflected in these lyrics, which I first heard as a teenager, listening alone in my bedroom on my vinyl album playing on my little portable record player. Life is so complex, challenging and wonderful. How can we ever know it or anything completely? Here is a version of that song done when Mitchell was in her 50's, on the amazing album called "Both Sides Now."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book of published journal entries called "Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead (1929-1932)" wrote: “Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip? Once you’re off, that’s all right, but the last moments are earthquake and convulsion, and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled off your rock.” That was my own experience for a long time, but the extreme nature of earthquake and convulsion has lessened quite a bit in the last few years.
Recently I was sharing some of my travel experiences with a friend who also does quite a lot of traveling, even though she has a serious disease that limits her capacity to walk or climb stairs. Still, she travels the world, seeing family and friends, attending retreats and workshops. Our conversation led to exchanging stories of other friends with severe health limitations, and how frustrating it can be to cope with the endless changes that arrive every day, due to health issues and ordinary aging, but also because everything is always changing, and we both feel our aging and slowing down affects our voyaging. At one point, one of us said, "if only there was less change involved in living! We talked about the challenges of leaving home, and the longing to find a place to settle.
Being present with constant change is one of the primary practices in Zen. First, of course, we have to recognize that change is actually occurring. It's much more obvious with the big events -- health crises, the ending of relationships, elections, travel...but it's the daily small changes where we get to practice a more subtle recognition. Every moment is different from the one before, and even our sense of who we are continually shifts. Once we notice this, we may get a bit knocked off-kilter, and the root koans of "Who am I?" and "What is This?" can arise.
On Saturday, James Cordova, Sensei, David Rynick, Roshi and I taught our first "Buddhism 101" class of the winter on the subject of the Sixteen Bodhisattva precepts, which begin with the three refuges. I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. One way we came to understand this taking refuge was that the Buddha is our own awakened heart, the Dharma is the way things are, and the Sangha is the group of people we practice with, both formally in meditation at the Temple, and more generally, with everyone we encounter. And these three jewels of awakening, reality and community are always available in some shape or form.
So, in the midst of constant change, I practice taking refuge. And this means that every moment is an opportunity to come home.
Pictured at left is the doorway to El Silencio, the classroom at the Blue Spirit Resort in Guanacaste Province in Costa Rica where I just taught a week-long intensive called Mindful Living. My old friend and teaching partner, Florence Meleo-Meyer and I have been offering this stripped-down version of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for 12 years, and my husband David Rynick comes with us to play on the beach. This year, David took the class as our assistant. We were all so touched by the dedication and sincerity of our 20 students. It's not easy to look at stressful reactive patterns and undertake the discipline of sitting still with whatever arises while residing in paradise. But we all did it, and at the end of the week we all reported feeling a little freer, more open and compassionate, and more willing to return to our busy lives with new skills. The primary skill we teach is to learn to stop, and to bear whatever is happening, whether wonderful or terrible, without running away, fighting, fixing or freezing in response. This simple instruction is not so easy to do, and the support of the community is an important ingredient. And, being on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, we had many other assistants and community members, including howler monkeys, iguanas, butterflies, trees, flowers, the ocean, and of course, pelicans, as shown below in the video taken by David.
A friend (thanks Annee!) recently reminded me of the following poem by the former U. S. Poet Laureate, ecology activist and Zen student W. S. Merwin, published in 1988. In these difficult times, even when things don't go our way, our practice teaches us how amazing it is simply to be alive. From that view, a bow of thanks may be enough to remind us of what is truly important.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is