Monthly Archives: January 2010


The Complexities of Charity

When I was living in Japan, I volunteered at a soup kitchen for homeless day laborers in a neighborhood in Osaka. The men who came to the soup kitchen for hot meals each day were the invisible of Japan. Most of them were Korean Japanese, burakumin (the “untouchable” class of Japan) or Ainu (the indigenous people of Japan); all three groups are heavily discriminated against, and because of that, they tend to be underemployed.

Much like our immigrant workers in the United States, the men stand in groups on the street in the morning, hoping that a truck will stop and take them to a construction site or other location for a day of work. When they do get work, they take their cash from the day and come back to this ghetto neighborhood, spending the money on alcohol and pachinko (a Korean gambling game), and a night’s stay in a boarding house. When they don’t work, they sleep on the streets, and spend the few dollars they have buying hot sake out of vending machines. Those who are aging or sick are the most vulnerable, because not working means not having food and shelter.

The soup kitchen was a project provided by a group of Japanese Catholic nuns and priests, affiliated with an order from France. I learned of their existence when I met a young Japanese woman who was Catholic. In my own Osaka neighborhood, only four train stops away, no one had ever heard of this ghetto, and all assured me that there were no poor in Japan, and also that there was no discrimination.

On weekends in the winter, I sometimes went out on night patrol, driving through the streets in a van. We stopped whenever we found a group of huddled forms in the darkness. We offered rice balls and hot miso soup, and handed out extra blankets. On the coldest nights, it was not uncommon to find a corpse among the living, someone whose poor health could not sustain them through the extreme chill on the concrete.

There was one particular older man who I grew to know well. He was aging, and sick, and rarely able to work, and he sought comfort in sake and the friendships he had with other men in the area. He was always good humored and friendly. Once I accompanied him to a medical clinic as an advocate. He was having circulation problems, and one of his legs was turning black. His rough, rambling speech was incomprehensible to most. I found myself in the ironic position of serving as a translator, a white American woman rendering his slurred expostulations into meaningful Japanese for the attending physician and nurses.

As the weeks wore on, his condition worsened. He began to be incontinent, showing up in soiled clothing. Finally, the priests decided he needed to be taken to a hospital to be treated, and cared for long-term. When he had been gone for several weeks, I asked if I could visit him.

One of the priests took me to see him, at a hospital clear on the other side of the city. They had taken him there, instead of to a nearby hospital, because he kept trying to escape and return “home.” Now he was so far away, that if he had wandered into the streets, he would have had no idea how to make his way back to his friends at the soup kitchen.

He was in bed in a dorm-style room that could house a dozen men. He was clean, shaven, and in a hospital gown. But his wrist was tied with a length of sheet, secured to the side of the bed. They were trying to prevent him from running away. He was distant and mostly unresponsive. I had brought him a small radio as a gift, because I knew he liked to listen to the baseball games. He barely acknowledged it. I was shocked when I saw him. He looked nothing like the smiling, happy man that I had become friends with at the soup kitchen. I left the hospital in tears. And I never saw him again.

I know that those who put him there thought they were doing the right thing. He received needed medical care, a warm place to sleep, and regular food. He was safe. But he was also absolutely miserable. They had saved his body, but killed his spirit.

I often think of that old man. Good people want so much to help. And yet sometimes helping can be so complicated. What was the right thing to do? In the best of worlds, we would have been able to provide local care for him, and housing in his own neighborhood. And then, it seems, that allowing him to stay outside all day and drink sake with his buddies, even though it was ruining his health, would have been his decision. Those of us with more money get to make choices like that – but too frequently, poor people and mentally ill people are stripped of their right to decide how to live out their lives, in the name of charity.

There are no easy answers. But seeing his vacant eyes in that hospital bed, with all of the joy gone – that was no solution.


All That I Am

My younger sister Ali gave me a piece of artwork two years ago, with a drawing of a dragonfly, and a quote by e.e. cummings:

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

When I re-painted my home office shortly after, I used the small message as my centerpiece. I chose paint that matched the green, and pumped up the yellow to a brilliant lemon for the opposite walls. My entire room is filled with art, most of it by or from friends. But this little green and yellow missive now hangs directly in front of me when I sit down at my desk to write.

I think of it as a Purple Heart, a badge of honor. For many, many years I struggled and fought, questioned and doubted, stubbornly resisted. I said, over and over again, “I am not that!” I wasn’t sure exactly who I was, or where I was headed, let alone how to get there. But I knew that someone else’s answer wouldn’t work. I was convinced that even my family’s best wishes for me, though much appreciated for their intent, were off the mark.

Stumbling through many dark years, becoming a friend with despair, making mistakes again and again…still, I pushed on. Some small voice in my head said, “You are enough.” But I felt so flawed, and so out of step, and so lost.

And then my Zen teachers told me: “The goal of practice is not to become a better person; it is to become more fully yourself.” To become who you really are.

When I received that little painting from my sister, I knew I had finally been seen. And being seen by someone else helped me to see myself.


A Lesson from Ghandi

Ghandi – just saying the name conjures up an awesome energy, a reverence, a worshipful adoration. When people are asked, “What if you could have dinner with five people, living or dead, who would you choose?” the name “Ghandi” frequently makes that top five list.

And yet – I read something today about the saint-like Ghandi that taught me a lesson not of what to do, but of what to avoid.

I am reading the book The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China by Forbes magazine Asia editor Robyn Meredith. In it, she chronicles Ghandi’s legacy in India. Much of that inheritance, we know, was a great gift. He embodied the idea of nonviolent protest, setting an example that would transform human and civil rights movements in the coming years. And he gave India a sense of identity separate from British colonial rule.

But did you know that he also was completely against modern medicine, because of its ties to the Western world? When his own wife lay dying from bronchitis, doctors flew in penicillin to save her life. Ghandi believed that even the use of a needle contradicted his philosophy of nonviolence. So he turned the medicine away, and sat at his wife’s bedside, holding her hand until she died, of a completely curable disease.

Meredith also states that Ghandi professed the only acceptable form of birth control was abstinence. He remained sexually abstinent for the last 42 years of his life. Wanting to follow his example, his fellow country men and women shunned all methods of contraception. But, being less saintly than their guru, they failed to live up to complete abstinence, of course, leading eventually to the population explosion in India.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ghandi’s belief systems. They are admirable, and praiseworthy. But to these lengths? To the detriment of the lives of others? He failed to see the value of the middle way.

Make a vow not simply to make a vow. Hold steadfast to resolution only when it is the right thing to do, not when it is the only thing you know how to do.

As much as we admire the saints, it is actually more difficult to live in the world of gray than it is to practice in the realm of black and white. That is our Zen challenge: the middle way.


Merrily We Sew Along…

It was a big moment in sewing class today. Debi Papazian finished her rakusu! She is the first in our group to successfully complete the face, straps and envelope, and is now an official sewing graduate.

There are nine of us, seven from the Healdsburg sangha, who have been meeting weekly on Sundays since October to work on our rakusu in preparation for jukai, or Zen lay ordination, which is scheduled for August.

When our sewing teacher Connie Ayers first said we would probably be meeting through February, I thought, geez, it won’t take that long! This flippancy, however, was born of naivete. It arose from a place of ignorance, before I was properly introduced to the myriad intricacies, convoluted patterns and layers upon layers of stitches that comprise a Zen rakusu.

As you can see by my rakusu, pictured above, I am not quite ready to graduate. Now, February seems alarmingly close at hand. I have been assured (repeatedly) that this is not a race. What do you mean, not a race? It’s a class, right? Classes are contests! That’s what I did throughout my academic life – enroll, study hard, excel, revel in the high grades.

Well, with a couple of exceptions, of course. There was that disastrous home economics course my mother forced me to take in ninth grade. I somehow skated through the cooking portion, because we were assigned to teams. On my team, the other two girls cooked, and I ate what they cooked. It worked beautifully. Unfortunately, when it was time to sew, I didn’t get to share my A-line skirt with someone else. I had to make my own. Let’s just say “horrid,” and leave it at that. I haven’t been near a needle since.

That is, until October. And here I am, spending my Sunday afternoons sewing. (The only person more incredulous than me about this whole state of affairs is my mother. Every time I see her lately, she says, “And you’re sewing!” Then she shakes her head, clearly wondering what other surprises the universe has in store for her.)

What I am truly beginning to appreciate through this experience is the nature of the student/teacher relationship. Connie has been so patient, and so gentle in her tutelage, moving from person to person around the room. Barely a moment goes by without one of us raising our hand in the air and whimpering, “Connie, can I be next?” When one is confidently stitching away, her neighbor has just knotted her thread in the wrong spot. As another masters the art of pinning, his neighbor finds he has mistakenly sewn through three layers of cloth instead of the aimed-for two. None of us are ever at exactly the same place at exactly the same time. And yet, somehow, Connie manages to keep us all occupied, soothed, supported, challenged, and committed. Now, that’s a teacher.

So I’m not at the head of the class. I’m learning it feels pretty darn good simply to be showing up.


Talking About a Revolution

If you haven’t already read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat & Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, put it on your list. I’m heading into the last chapter now – and it’s one of those books that makes me want to run out and buy a dozen copies, to distribute to all my friends.

The title refers to three impending crises: hot (global warming), flat (the burgeoning middle class around the world, leading to greater use of resources and energy), and crowded (the population explosion). Friedman, a New York Times columnist, argues that the dovetailing of these three trends is pushing us into a new age, the Energy Climate Era, in which the world as we know it must either change – or we will all perish.

Sounds dire, I know. And the first few chapters are a bit of a downer. The problems seem almost insurmountable. But what makes the book good is that here are not just problems, but also solutions. Friedman talks to experts all over the country, and the world, and shows us how we can change in time to evade disaster.

One part that particularly struck me was the chapter called “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth.” Friedman points out that “green” is so hip now, that every magazine, every group, is coming up with lists of ways to make a difference. But they’re always presented as “simple” or “easy” – it’s painless being green.

Sure, all of those little things add up. Using CFLs instead of conventional light bulbs, recycling your aluminum cans, bringing cloth bags to the grocery store – that matters. But Friedman argues that this can hardly be seen as a revolution. It’s more like a fashion statement.

Revolutions are about turning the world upside down, shaking things up from top to bottom, radically reconfiguring the way we look at everything. We’re talking casualties, bloodshed. I don’t mean that literally, that people will have to die. But institutions and ideas should definitely be on the chopping block.

Friedman gives dozens of real-life examples of people and companies and even government agencies who are re-thinking every product made, every watt used, every structure built, and coming up with the innovation that is critical to save us from Mother Earth’s Judgment Day.

The good news is that he remains convinced that the most effective ways to change our world originate with grass-roots movements. Nations and politicians need to be on board; but each one of us has the power to steer those governments (and mega-corporations) in the right direction.

Keep bringing your own bag to the grocery store. Don’t stop composting. Maintain your vigilance when sorting garbage from recyclables. But don’t stop there. Take the next step. Think of it as an extension of the bodhisattva vow: “Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.”

Start a revolution.


Taking the Fifth

The Fifth Precept is: Avoiding the deliberate loss of awareness. It is sometimes defined as “no intoxication” and also as “to cultivate clarity for self and others.”

The most literal interpretation is to avoid alcohol and other drugs. That, for me, is easy. I am ten years clean and sober, after earlier escape finally proved too problematic to continue. So when I first read this precept, I thought, “No big deal. I’ve got this one licked already.”

But as our discussion in last week’s precept class unfolded, it became clear to me that there was still much work ahead. In Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche’s explanation of the Five Precepts, on the fifth he says, “I commit myself to the avoidance of mindless and unskillful consumption of anything.” Now that opens up a whole new dimension.

Suddenly, everything is on the table: my cigarettes, my chocolate, my naps, my online shopping sprees. “Mindless and unskillful consumption” pretty much sums up what happens when I’m trying to avoid myself.

I know this is true, because when I try to quit one of them, just as when I first quit alcohol and drugs, the discomfort and dis-ease of each moment is nearly intolerable. The last time I tried to quit smoking, about six months ago, on the second day I thought to myself in total despair, “I’m never going to enjoy anything ever again!” Talk about drama! And for the last two days, I have been unable to sleep through the night. Normally, sleep is a refuge for me. Lately, it has been filled with bad dreams, and fitful awakenings. Instead of getting up and sitting zazen, or writing in my journal, or doing anything that might be a way of being present with myself, I go into a total tailspin of anxiety and fretting, worried that I will never be able to sleep again.

Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche does offer an alternative to the “checking out” mode. He says, “I commit myself to inebriation from the hot blood of compassion, and to the experience of kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings.”

“The hot blood of compassion” – sounds racy and enticing, yes? And who can argue with experiencing “kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings”? Makes the sugar and the nicotine look paltry by comparison.

I guess it’s time to take the Fifth.


Live the Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four

Rain and solitude…a good combination for reflection, quiet thought, stillness of emotion. I am in that space of seeking. I seek relief from pain. I seek answers to questions. I seek light in the darkness. I seek a barely visible deer trail on the forest floor, leading out of the wilderness. I seek myself.

It is easy to fall prey to the false belief that one answer will come, an answer simple and direct, which will change everything. It is tempting to look for a pre-packaged, bottled, instructions-included solution. And yet I know that what is made to order is not made for me.

Rilke says: Try to love the questions themselves. There is no sense expecting that my seeking will lead me anywhere, not any time soon. What I must do, to follow the advice of the great poet, is to love the seeking, enjoy the quest.

Live the questions now. What better way to say it? Be there then. Live here now. In the pain, in the emptiness, in the suffering, in the middle of nowhere. When I had my first dokusan, and tearfully exclaimed, “I have been seeking a Zen path for so long,” Darlene Cohen said to me, “You are already there.”

Thank goodness for teachers. Thank goodness for poets.


Organizing the Piles

When my life feels out of control, I organize.

I make lists; I double-check my Outlook calendar and make sure it’s in line with the calendar on the wall in the kitchen. I synch my Blackberry. I go through the stacks of unread magazines and put them in order of title and date. I sift through the basket of “mail to take care of” and toss the stuff that is now so long overdue that it is no longer relevant. I look at my bulletin board, and do the same thing – pull off all the items that happened months ago, so a reminder is no longer necessary. I pick up the books perched precariously at the edge of shelves, and file them in the appropriate section on my bookcases, alphabetical by author. I file paperwork from the DMV and other old bills in the color-coded, labeled folders in my file cabinet.

When even that is not enough, I go to Office Depot and wander slowly through the office organization aisles. I end up coming home with a new cabinet, or a three-tiered letter holder, or magazine rack. Then I go home and tackle things fresh.

Now is one of those times. My energy level has been so low that it would make a three-toed sloth look positively peppy. I have barely been able to drag myself out of bed to do the tasks that are absolutely required, like showing up for work, or keeping commitments to go to my precepts class or doctor’s appointments. I seem to be moving through a dense, impenetrable fog. Each step requires vast reserves of energy, and yet I have nothing in that reserve tank.

Given that scenario, it makes perfect sense that today I would choose to use my unexpected two or so hours of relative vigor to do the one thing that makes me feel secure. I put things in order.

I tried out every pen in the house that I could find and threw out all the ones that don’t work, or were so cheap that they’ll invariably fail right when you’re trying to write down an important phone number. I straightened every picture on the walls. I even moved several of them to new locations, because I saw that the balance wasn’t right. I carried things from the left side of my office to the right side of my office. I picked things up from one shelf, and transferred them to another. I went into my Outlook calendar, and changed the due date on everything that was supposed to be done last week, so it wouldn’t look like I was so far behind.

In other words, I didn’t really do a damn thing. I wonder who I think I’m fooling, when I act busy this way? I’m in the privacy of my own home; no one else is watching. So what exactly am I trying to prove to myself? That maybe if the external appearance shifts, it is evidence of real change underneath? That I really am in control of my emotional state and my life, if my mail is properly filed in color-coded folders?



A Long Night’s Journey into Day

There is a Zen book for everything, it seems. A rapid perusal of the first few hits that come up on reveals the following titles:

Zen & the Art of Happiness
Zen Golf
Zen to Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System
Zen & the Art of Knitting
Zen Zombie: Better Living from the Undead
The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web

and, of course: Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love

So I should not have been surprised when I stumbled upon The Zen Path through Depression by Philip Martin. Since it seemed a natural fit for me, I bought a copy. The trouble is, when I’m not depressed, I find no reason to pick it up. And when I am depressed, I don’t have the concentration or the energy to read. There it has sat, on my bookshelf, for at least 10 years.

But for some reason, tonight I glanced over in that direction and spotted it. I had enough inclination to at least pick it up and flip through the pages, even though the thought of sitting down to read the whole thing is a little daunting.

I just happened to open to this passage:

Return to the place you have imagined as your depression. If you have been here a number of times, you know this place well. You may even feel comfortable here. You have found it is no longer a terrifying place, and that there can be much of value in this place.

As you return, envision that in this place there is now a path to be found. Perhaps it is a trail that has been worn through the dark forest you were in, or a star to follow to guide yourself out of a deep desert night – or a lifeline you can follow from deep beneath the sea.

Look closely at this path, this trail, until it becomes clear to you. Realize that there is a way out of this place you once thought you would be lost in forever. Are you ready to leave? Are you perhaps surprised to find you are sad at the prospect of leaving? Are you ready to begin the journey?

So much resonates for me in these words. Yes, I know there is much value to be found in depression. I have lived deeper and more intensely because of these battles, and I believe they have made me more compassionate, more honest, and more courageous.

I love the image of the star leading me out of “a deep desert night.” There have been many, many nights with no stars. But now, as I think on this, it is exactly like nature’s sky: on the night’s without stars, they are not actually absent; they are hidden from view. The stars do always come out again.

And while I am waiting for the star to appear – it is a long night’s journey into day.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved