Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Mirror

Snow has covered all but the face of the Buddha in the front of the Temple.  The year is slowly fading away, and I find myself reflecting on all the events, sorrowful, shocking, disappointing, joyful, satisfying and amazing, that have filled this time.

Two topics in particular have lingered in my heart these past weeks -- the sudden horror of the Newtown shootings, and the ongoing revelation of ethical lapses by spiritual teachers.  I have been sitting and wondering for weeks about what to write about these things.  They appear to be reflections of the ordinary evil that lies in all our hearts, made real in the world through narrowly-viewed actions.  The death of children?  It happens every day.  Religious leaders as sexual predators?  It's an old story.

The Sufi poet Rumi, in a translation by Coleman Barks, says, "Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror up to where you're bravely working.  Expecting the worst, you look, and here's the loving face you've been longing to see."  

To clearly face the arising of pain from the actions of others provides an opportunity to look deeply, as if in a mirror, at my own heart, and all of the evil I am capable of -- subtle and overt -- through my unskillful actions.  To look at the suffering of the world as it arises within me is not easy, but feels like the necessary step that precedes compassionate, wise action.  Take the spacious view, see others as yourself, and then go out and do what needs to be done.  Vote, ban bullets and weapons, create ethical guidelines and live by them -- cradle the anger and grief and fear in loving arms, and then do something.  

And see that longed-for face, surrounded by snow -- a mirror for the deepest knowing.  Make a vow to heal the world, action by action, moment by moment.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy New Life

Here is a quote sent to me from my dear student and friend, Diane Fitzgerald, which she received a couple of years ago  from my dear husband and fellow teacher David Rynick.  it's from Ox and Window by the 17th century Zen master Hakuin Ekaku:

Bodnant Garden, North Wales
This year, I am determined to be more unproductive.  My goal is to do less and less – to move slower and slower until everything stops.  I and the whole world will come to a sweet and silent stillness.  And in this stillness, a great shout of joy will arise.  We will all be free – free from the advice of ancient ages, free from the whining voices, free from the incessant objections of the responsible ones.

In this new world, it will be abundantly clear that the bare branches of the winter trees are our teachers.  In their daily dance of moving here and there, we will see once again the true meaning of our life.  In the wind song of their being, we will hear God’s unmistakable voice.  We will follow what appears before us – what had once been difficult will now unfold with ease.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

the lost buffalo

Yesterday, at our all-day practice period,  I gave a talk about Case 38 in the Gateless Gate koan collection, and had an unfounded but strong feeling it would be the best talk I've given in a very long time, so I decided to record it using the beautiful digital recorder that a student gave me as a gift a couple of years ago.   It turned out to be a pretty good talk, as these things go, and the dharma dialogue that followed was truly wonderful.  A number of practitioners thanked me for it later, saying that it was very meaningful for them.

And so I was excited about posting it here, and on our Boundless Way website, and sat down just now to upload it to my computer, the first step to dispersing it to the world.  I discovered, alas, with some embarrassment and a little bit of amusement, that the talk does not exist anywhere on the recorder.  It turns out that I still haven't mastered the mysteries of this tiny, complex machine.  I put my nose to the grindstone and devoted myself to reading the thick instruction manual, and I am proud to say that I not only learned how to record talks, but also how to delete them -- at least I believe that this is so.    My new knowledge will be a great benefit to all beings in the future, I'm sure.

While the talk no longer exists in aural form, there are still a few thought waves kicking around in my head, and perhaps in the heads of those who heard it.  So in the spirit of beginner's mind, here is the case, in Robert Aitken's translation, with a few comments from the me who exists in this moment, rather than the me who gave the talk yesterday.

The Case:  Wuzu said, "It is like a buffalo that passes through a latticed window.  Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through.  Why can't its tail pass through as well?"

Wumen's Verse:  Passing through, falling into a ditch: turning beyond, all is lost.  This tiny little tail -- what a wonderful thing it is!

And I will simply add:  Not understanding how to operate a recorder!  What a wonderful thing it is!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bodhisattvas Arising From the Cracks in the Earth

The past couple of weeks have been fraught with unusual events, some joyful, some not so much.  High winds from storms with the names of women have disrupted life in many ways.  One small event that has happened again and again here at the Temple is the fall of one particular string of Tibetan prayer flags.  The city has an ordinance against street signs on this residential block, and so we use the prayer flags to signal our presence to the world as a Zen Buddhist temple.  (I have heard some remarks that the flags also make our parking lot look a little bit like a car dealership, but this is a minority opinion.)

One day, with winds blowing strong, I was attempting to put up the flags once again.  It was a hopeless task, due to the fraying of the string and the fact that I needed three hands -- two to hold the ends of the strings, and one to tie them back together.

A car driving by gently stopped,  backed up and came in to the driveway.  A lovely woman called out, as she exited the car, "do you need some help?"  She had driven by the flags, and the Temple, and the big Buddha, many times, but she said that she had never seen them until today.  All she saw was my struggle, and she appeared, ready to help, and with some twine that she carries in her car, because one never knows when one will need twine.  A Buddhist practitioner from another tradition, she was astounded to know that there was a Zen temple right on the main road into Worcester.  We tied up the prayer flags, and she offered a stick of incense to our big granite Buddha, and went on her way.

Yasutani Roshi used to say that, when we call out to the universe,  bodhisattvas arise from the cracks of the earth to come to our aid.  And so it was this windy day.  The suffering world is full of compassionate beings, ready to help.  They come in many forms, and some drive cars and carry twine with them, because one never knows when one will need twine.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Amsterdam radio interview

David and I spent two amazing days in Amsterdam, being interviewed by Femke Wijdekop for her radio show, and giving a workshop at the American Book Center.  Here is our radio interview for you to enjoy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Sunny Side of the Street

Another episode from our conversation with Tom Hall of ImprovLive 365.  I love the song at the end of the video.  Enjoy!

Costa Rica next February

Click on the link below to discover a delightful place for a very low-key retreat.  My dear friend Florence Meleo-Meyer and I will be teaching at Blue Spirit Resort in Costa Rica, through the Omega Institute.   Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What is it?

More from our interview with our friend Tom Hall at ImprovLive365:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On having no hair

Josh Mu'nen Bartok, Sensei, James Myo'un Ford, Roshi, David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, and me

At our last Boundless Way Zen sesshin (silent retreat), all of us teachers decided to shave our heads.  We were going to ordain a priest, and part of the ordination ritual involves shaving the head of the ordination candidate.  We all wanted to support our new priest, and it was fun to gather in the bathroom and trim and shave together.  (Josh and David had already shaved their heads, and were very helpful, along with James' wife Jan Seymour-Ford, in fulfilling our sudden inspiration.)  

Heading-shaving is a symbol of leaving behind the ordinary world of day-to-day concerns.  I had first shaved my head when my teacher James ordained me, and ever since, I've kept it pretty short for a girl.  Many women Zen teachers and priests keep their heads shaved, but I always felt that it set me apart from regular folks in a way that wasn't particularly helpful.  After I became a priest, strangers were extremely polite to me, and friends who didn't know about the head-shaving tradition or Zen in general would gasp or embrace me with sadness, hoping that I'd feel better soon.  The fact is, in our culture, choosing baldness for men is a fashion statement, and for women, most usually, it means that we're in some stage of chemotherapy for cancer.  (Of course, for some bold women, it is slowly evolving into a fashionable choice.  Very slowly, and not so much in Worcester.)  Even when I wear my Zen outfit outside of the Temple, if I'm not asked about my health, I am usually asked if I do martial arts.  

This time, I have to say I enjoyed the feeling very much.  It coincided with a hot and humid weather pattern, so I felt much cooler than usual.  In terms of temperature. sesshin, it felt very normal.  But once the retreat ended, and I went out to meet the world, I felt immediately how my shiny head made me special, and not in a good way.  Rather than being a symbol of renunciation and simplicity, it became a symbol of being different and apart.  And odd.  Or sick.

For me, Zen is partly about dissolving the barrier between self and other, and my very short hair creates a new barrier.  There are some benefits -- if people ask me about it, I get to tell them a little bit about Zen.  And, I have to admit, although I don't like the pity, it's interesting to be treated with kid gloves by shopkeepers.  At the farmer's market,  I was sometimes given the best vegetables, at a slight discount.  I figure I must have broken a few precepts by accepting this generosity and not explaining that my baldness wasn't earned through suffering, but had been a choice.  As I walked away from one booth, I heard a woman say, "what a shame!"  And her friend replied, "well, we all have to go sometime."

My hairdresser (who I will not see for a few months) told me that human hair grows about a half inch per month.  I am saving money on shampoo, and hot days are more comfortable.  But once my hair grows back, I'm thinking I'll keep it short again -- short for a girl, that is.  It feels like the friendliest option, and the one designed to help those barriers between us fall.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Discipline, Commitment, and...Joy?

another piece of our interview with Tom Hall from Improv365 -- make sure to watch after the credits end!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reading the puzzle of the world

This week I received word of the deaths of two people, distantly known, both meditation teachers and great souls.  Another friend sent this poem, by Jane Hirshfield, as commentary on the great mystery of the passing into death, and what calls us to aliveness.  A rebus is a representation of words in the form of pictures or symbols, often presented as a puzzle.


You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.

Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.

This rebus - slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life -
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see.

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.

The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.

How can I enter this question the clay has asked?

~ Jane Hirshfield ~

(Given Sugar, Given Salt)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Trail Temporarily Closed: Atheism, Delusion, Death and Mindfulness

Yesterday I watched a you-tube video forwarded from my friend Kevin Bonham.  It was a clip of Sam Harris addressing a conference of atheists in Australia.  (If you're interested in spending an hour with Mr. Harris, a very articulate, bright and clear speaker, the video is called "Death and The Present Moment.")  Harris' main point seemed to be that the only logical choice for living in the face of death, freed from the crutches of deluded religious belief, is to practice mindfulness.  Kevin pointed out that if I had addressed that group, with the exact same message, I would have been booed off the stage.   (I assume that a Zen priest and teacher would not be welcomed warmly by a crowd of Australian atheists.)  "Context is everything, " wrote Kevin.  
Temple Lohan on Pilgrimage on Cape Cod
The good news of Zen is that what we are seeking is right here. But we persist in looking south to find the north star.  Any kind of speculating is just the discursive mind doing its habitual thing -- creating scenarios in the mind that block us from discovering what is right in front of us.  This moment is not some narrow, tiny point but is actually everything.  Right now includes memories of the past, fantasies about the future, judgements about the present, emotions and sensations of all kinds.  As soon as we say, "I'm living in the present,"  we've made a significant cognitive error, and created another barrier for ourselves.  

Meditation practice, at least the kind we practice in Zen and mindfulness, brings us into the direct intimate experience of this moment.  There's no room for speculating.  We feel fully alive.  There's no place to go, and yet, we are continually moving through space and time.  The path is never blocked if we can realize that we are always on it, going in the only direction we can go.  We're always heading for here, here, here, here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This Truth Never Fails

A little tour of the Temple garden, beginning with a view of our big Buddha statue, then my husband David Rynick (author of the new book "This Truth Never Fails") and ending with our little Lohan statue. The video was made by our dear friend Fred Alach before the big Book Launch Party last Monday night. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2012


I had a great time earlier this spring presenting at the FACES Conference in La Jolla, California.  The organizer, Richard Fields, has published a book called A Year of Living Mindfully: 52 Quotes and Weekly Mindfulness Practices, with contributions from many well-known writers, including Jack Kornfield, Daniel Siegel, Tara Brach...and yours truly.  To order the book, you can go to the FACES website: www.FACESCONFERENCES.COM.   My essay follows:

Wander into the Center of the Circle of Wonder

When we first being to practice mindfulness, we are taught to focus on the breath, or on some particular sensory perception, like physical sensations or sounds.  Our attention naturally wanders, and we patiently and firmly bring our wild primate minds back to this specific focus.  We do this over and over, and in doing so we train the mind to return to one point.  Our attentional capacity becomes sharper and clearer, and we find we develop some choice in what we turn to, and what we turn away from. 

But for some of us, at a certain point our practice shifts from this narrow attentional training to a more spacious awareness.   We find that we can sit quietly in the middle of a shifting array of thoughts, emotions and sensory perceptions, without much effort.  The Indian teacher Krishnamurti called this practice "choiceless awareness" and in Zen we call it "shikantaza" or "just sitting."  

The 12th century Chinese Chan (Zen) teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue encourages us to "wander into the center of the circle of wonder."  This is his way of describing what "just sitting" feels like.  The mind, which naturally wanders, can be tamed by the practice of attentional training.  But once it has learned to be still, it is free to do what it loves to do.  Thoughts still occur, emotions pass through the body/mind, sensations come and go, but we don't get caught in any of this passing experience.   We understand that the nature of the mind is to wander.  In this wandering, everything that is encountered is a teaching, a pointing, to a life that can be vividly lived.  And every path we wander leads to the same place: "here."  The realization of the continual return to this moment, this time, this place, is liberating.   A sense of wonder arises, of not knowing, and deeply trusting this feeling of simple presence. 

Mindfulness Practice for the Week:

You can use this quote often to remind you to loosen up your opinions about what you think you're doing, or where you think you're going.  This is a practice that can be done informally, with regular reminders to yourself throughout the day.  Or you can do a formal wandering practice.  Sitting in an upright posture, allow yourself to be with your breath, your body, and all of your sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions.  You can notice how all of these experiences come and go, so long as you don't try to hold on to any one of them.  This is a practice of release from effort, and allows a sense of peace and not knowing to arise naturally. If you have spent most of your time and energy training your mind to focus, you may want to give yourself this gift of wandering.  "Wander into the center of the circle of wonder."  Enjoy your life.

Melissa Myozen Blacker
Boundless Way Temple
Worcester, MA

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No-Self Improvement

A lot of my teaching derives from a combination of  Zen training,  graduate studies and practice of psychotherapy, and  training and teaching of mindfulness-based stress reduction.  And of course, there is my own endlessly repeating life experience of loss and survival.   A central theme for me has been to stay simple -- to work with what arises in the mind, heart and body, and avoid getting caught up in ideas, so common in our culture, of improving the self.   Among the countless books and methods that seek to instruct us in having a better life, there is a small group of guides that describe this simple way of being.  It really is possible to stay with what arises, to meet, open to, and create space around whatever it is,  and then to watch transformation occur and/or find a way to actively meet our situation.

Three books that I've been enjoying lately come from different spiritual traditions, but all have this same theme -- the simple power and naturally transformational quality of  meeting what is.  One is an old favorite, Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  Another has been the most exciting book I've come across is some time:  Soul without Shame, by Byron Brown, a guide to working with your inner judge.  (And come on, you know you have one -- we all do.)  And the most recent book is a a lovely little guide called The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them, by Karuna Clayton.

However you decide to become what you already are, to realize your Buddha nature, there's no time like the present to start.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When your wooden fire extinguisher is engulfed in flames

The labels on this wonderful photo, sent from a friend of a friend is traveling in China, read: "wooden fire extinguisher" and "irony fire extinguisher."   Someone at my friend's workplace who saw it commented that it's always handy to have an irony extinguisher, especially when your wooden fire extinguisher is engulfed in flames.

 Let me also say that I admire anyone who speaks another language and attempts to learn English. The subtleties are vast, and there is way too much room for misunderstanding.

I have quite a bit more experience with people whose sense of humor and irony, and I'm talking about native speakers of English, appears to be slightly to extremely impaired. I grew up in a family where the spacious quality of ridiculousness was valued highly. If I'd had an irony extinguisher growing up, I might have avoided a great deal of discomfort felt by friends who visited my home and left puzzled and concerned. Of course, as they went out the door, I am ashamed to admit, we were often laughing helplessly, and crying, ironically, with a kind of joy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What's Going to Happen Next?

More from our conversation with Tom Hall of ImprovLive 365.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Improvised Life

Here's the latest video from Tom Hall of ImprovLive365 who interviewed David and me for his website:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A glimpse of awakened presence

A long time ago, a Zen teacher told me that the world was made for me.  And a Tibetan teacher once said that the world is kindly bent to ease us.  I'm pretty sure that these teachers weren't talking about someone who  actually created the world with me in mind, to make my life easier and more meaningful.   But I do sometimes have experiences of direct perception, when nothing gets in the way of my senses, and at these moments I do feel that the world as it appears to me is me.  My judging, evaluating mind usually sets up an imaginary wall  between me and the world.  In meditation practice, I can notice a space between a thought about something and the thing itself.  In that space, the world comes to me directly, and I can't find any difference between what I call "me" and the song of a bird, a flower's smell or a friend's smile of greeting.  If everything is indeed the Buddha nature, the awakened presence, we might say that the world is a huge reflecting mirror.   Everywhere we look, we catch a glimpse of our true self.
Crane in Kyoto, photo by Jim Bodorf

Monday, April 16, 2012

Awakening can be a quiet thing

If you ever suspect that you should have had an awakening to true reality that was dramatic, full of bells and whistles, and just plain theatrical, here are Liza Minnelli and Kermit the Frog to reassure you:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Introduction to Zen

Tom Hall came and invited us to talk about Zen, improvisation and life for his podcast, which can be found at This is the first of a series. Enjoy!

I just stopped by to see what condition my condition is in

Yunmen once said, "When dew enters the willow tree, it becomes green.  When it enters the flower, it becomes red."  Aliveness manifests in each of us completely uniquely.

Last Sunday night I gave a talk about Huike, the second Chinese Zen ancestor, who stood in the snow trying to get Bodhidharma to pay attention to him, and finally cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity.  Whenever we talk about this story, we always give a warning, something akin to "don't try this at home."  Cutting off an arm may have been appropriate centuries ago in another culture, but today we strongly warn against such an act.

So  I suggested, during our dharma dialogue, that Huike was a bit "over the top:" demonstrating a form of effort that was too extreme.  After everyone had left, David gently disagreed with my comment, and suggested that Huike was doing just what he needed to do -- that his action was appropriate for him, and for him alone.   We agreed that each one of us has to find the right amount of effort to make in our meditation practice.  No effort at all may be exactly what is called for, especially if we're used to trying hard to accomplish something in our zazen.

In each moment we discover this right amount of effort.   Our present situation,  and our own condition, is constantly changing, and our task is to respond in some way to these situations and conditions so that our practice stays alive.  These days there is never an appropriate excuse for bodily harm,  but that doesn't mean that we can't throw ourselves into our practice with every cell in our bodies.  And at the other extreme, we may sometimes find that we simply need to throw ourselves into the loving arms of the Great Way, and make no effort at all.  Everything depends on conditions.  Everything depends on everything else.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Passover, Easter and Buddha's Birthday

Passover began on the evening of April 6, and today is Easter for most Christians, and Buddha's Birthday for some Buddhists.  All these holidays herald the coming of spring, hope, renewal -- a confirmation of an aliveness we can recognize in every moment.  Each breath in is the beginning of everything, and each breath out the end of something.  This AP photo of the rare "pink" full moon on Friday night in New York City awakens us to this time when the whole earth is illuminated and all can rejoice in freedom and liberation from our old ideas.  Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Going alone to meet the teacher

Dokusan is a brief opportunity for connection and dialogue between a Zen student and teacher.  The word "dokusan" is Japanese for "going alone to see the teacher."  There can be quite a bit of formality in the tradition -- the student enters the room, bows, takes a seat, and the meeting begins.  I once heard a story about Soen Nakagawa Roshi leaving a pumpkin on his dokusan seat, and then hiding behind a screen to watch his surprised students enter, bow and react.  Here is a version of this venerable tradition, taken at our recent sesshin.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Joyful Leap

Here's an article I wrote for the May 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine:

In the first episode of the television show Heroes, a young man has a recurring dream of leaping off a tall building and flying instead of falling. One day, he decides to jump for real. As he drops through the air like a stone, he is caught in the arms of his older brother, who, it turns out, actually can fly.
When we stop clinging to the known and allow our dreams to become instruments of change, we learn to practice meditation in action at the deepest level. In these moments, we must risk taking a joyful leap with no guarantee of being caught as we fall.
In Zen practice, we call it stepping off of the hundred-foot pole—living fully without clinging to anything, whether it’s an idea of enlightenment or something familiar and comforting from our old life that is holding us back. Students often speak to me of the great fear that arises even contemplating taking a leap into not-knowing from the cliff top of their old life.
Recently I left a steady job as a meditation teacher at a medical school to live as a resident teacher at a Zen temple. In the heady airspace of the new life, I find myself moving through states of joy, sorrow, fear, irritation, and exhilaration.
What comforting arms rise to meet me as I fall? The surprise of the continually changing display of meeting each moment: a glimpse of the temple garden, the smell of the incense in the zendo, a smile from a sangha friend.
(warning sign on a stone tower on the island of Anglesey in Wales)
All we can rely on, after the joyful leap, is the reassuring discovery of what truly sustains us. I am still in freefall but sometimes I feel the comforting arms of “just this.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

awe-inspiring meditation skills

Who are we talking about here? (I have some theories..) Thanks for the cartoon, Doug!