Monthly Archives: February 2010


Don’t-Know Mind

The late Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, in “The Compass Of Zen,” said:

If you keep a don’t-know mind 100 percent, then your demons can‘t find you. Suffering cannot find you. Karma, problems, …. coming and going, good and bad –– nothing can touch you when you only keep a don’t-know mind. This don’t-know mind is your most important treasure; it can do anything. It is not dependent on God or Buddha, (Theravadan), Mahayana or Zen. It is not dependent on life and death.

Tony Patchell used this quote in a recent dharma talk. It called out to me. I think the call came because I have, by default, a “must-know mind.” I must know exactly how to act in every situation. I must know when my depression will be over, and my life will return to some semblance of normalcy. I must know the difference between right and wrong. I must know in what way to appropriately express love, and fear, and anger. I must know what will happen tomorrow. I must know what you think of me. I must know everything.

I must know that all of this “must know” is going to cause unrelenting grief and suffering.

Don’t know. Forever a beginner. Always open. Never the same. What freedom lies in those simple words!

I am struggling, struggling, fighting, flailing. I am falling through open air. I am headed for the rocks, and I don’t know if I will crash, splintering, or if I will suddenly sprout wings and fly away in another direction.

Don’t-know mind is not dependent on life and death. It is not dependent on waking or sleeping, on grasping or letting go. It is not dependent on anything, because it is dependent on everything. Emptiness is full; fullness is empty.

One drop, a torrential rainstorm. A single thought, the beauty of the ten thousand things.

How do you hold onto not holding on?


Upcoming Schedule, Feb. 23-March 2 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Feb. 23
7 p.m. sit, service and dharma talk by Debi Papazian on “Living an Undefended Life”

Tuesday, March 2
7 p.m. sit, service and dharma talk by Daya Goldschlag of Spokane

Tuesday, March 9
7 p.m. sit, service and discussion of “Trust in Mind” by Mu Soeng

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Feb. 27
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Saturday, March 13
3 p.m. Priest Ordination



One of my favorite contemporary poets is Jane Kenyon. I discovered her lucid, clear words about fifteen years ago, when I just happened to stumble across one of her books. After I finished, I searched out another, and then a third. I was hungry to read everything she had ever written, and hopeful that she was feverishly working away so there would be more poems soon on the printing press.

I had to go to Chicago for a business trip that year, and brought along my latest Kenyon volume, “Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.” And so it was there, on a queen-sized bed at a Comfort Inn, scanning the inside flap of the book jacket, that I read of Kenyon’s death due to leukemia in 1995. She was 48 years old. Before I even found her, she was already gone. As alive as she had been for me, she was six months in the grave before I read her first poem.

I actually wept. She had become a friend, a fellow writer, a sister. I carried her with me everywhere. And now, out of the darkness, some cruel fate had reached in with his ugly, taloned hands, and snatched her away from me. There would be no more poems.

That makes the work she left even more precious. Here is one of my favorites:


The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

This is such a simple, sweet poem, with such incredible depth of feeling. Looking just on the surface, I know this experience. Having dogs of my own, I can see exactly what that dog face looks like, full of trust, completely open, unafraid of showing expectation.

But the poem goes far beyond that. The reference to the priest and the communion wafer elevates us to another spiritual realm, the offering of the “body of God” to the believers, those innocents with their upturned faces. And then the whole power inbalance, the priest/believer, the person/dog, the giver/receiver. “I in my power…”
I think that’s what resonates most for me: “I in my power…” It reminds me of the recent sangha discussions we have had about coming to terms with the fact that simply by existing, we take from those around us. We do harm, so that we can live. And because we are in that position, the position of making a choice as to what we will eat/consume/kill/take…we are in that place of power. The dog is the innocent face looking up at us, never once suspecting that he could be the one who is denied/unfed/unloved.

It seems that I must be fully cognizant of my “power” before I can be truly compassionate. It makes me think of the bodhisattva vow: “Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.” In order to take that vow, we must recognize that we do have the power to save ourselves and others. And for me, one time that this power becomes visible is when I look into the trusting face of my dog, waiting for a biscuit.

One Stitch at a Time – Revisited

Namu kie butsu. Namu kie butsu. Namu kie butsu.

“I take refuge in Buddha.”

The three-part stitch used in the sewing of the rakusu is done while chanting (internally) namu kie butsu. It is a reminder that with each push of the needle, we are meditating, and preparing for our lay ordination (jukai).

Today I spent three hours at home sewing. I stitched the outer edge of the face of the rakusu, and the seams of the straps. When we began this process in October, I had no idea how involved it would be. Had I known, I would have been more terrified. Luckily, I only know one step at a time. And I am amazed at the results. It actually looks like something! And my stitches, while not perfect, are pretty darn consistent. It is intensely gratifying to do this work.

While I sat at the kitchen counter, bent low over my sewing, my kitten Kenji kept coming up to investigate. I am paranoid about the pins and needles, which can be incredibly dangerous for a kitten. So I removed him numerous times – but he always returned. Finally, he sat down on top of my sewing envelope, curled up tight, then sat mesmerized, watching me work. It’s always good to have helpers.

On Sunday, at my sewing class, I will be attaching the four tiny squares to each corner of the face of the rakusu, a step which I have been told is the most difficult, because the pieces are so small. Part of me is dreading it, because I think it will be hard and I’ll probably mess up and it will take forever. But another part of me is excited, because it means I will be one step closer to finishing, and coming in on the home stretch.

Tomorrow one of my sangha members, Frederika, will be going through her jukai ceremony with two other people at Russian River Zendo. I am going to attend. It will be the first time I’ve seen a jukai ceremony. At the heart, of course, is receiving the completed rakusu, after our Zen teachers have written on the white silk back, giving us our Buddhist name. My own jukai is only six months away. I am very much looking forward to being a witness at the ceremony tomorrow, and getting a taste of what is coming up for me.

Until then…keep on sewing, one stitch at a time.


Simultaneous Inclusion

Darlene Cohen is travelling to Southern California today to give a workshop to stressed out corporate executives on “simultaneous inclusion.” So on Tuesday night at our Healdsburg sangha, she gave her talk a practice run with us, and had us participate in an exercise.

“Simultaneous inclusion” is the practice that Darlene explains in her book “The One Who Is Not Busy.” It is a way of doing two things: focus at will, and focus inclusively.

Focus at will is best manifested through breath meditation. Keep attention on the breath. Everytime you wander away, just bring your focus back to your breath. Darlene likens it to paper training a puppy. The puppy wanders away, and you don’t scold him or punish him. You jst gently pick him up and place him back on the paper, over and over again. Going away is not wrong or undesirable. It simply is. In fact, the more you “go away,” the better off you are, because that means you get to keep practicing coming back, training that part of mind to focus.

Inclusive focus is when you widen your attention to bring everything into your awareness. Not simply those things based on your own self interest, but everything around you – that way, you can connect deeply with your activity, and find a more meaningful presence with your world.

Darlene says living only in the “form” world, or world of differentiating objects, creates stress – because that’s basically the “to do” list of your life. But you cannot exist completely in “emptiness” (absolute inclusion) either, because then you would not be able to meet deadlines, know when it was time to go to bed, or be able to prioritize projects. She says the ideal state is one of “simultaneous inclusion,” moving in and out of the present moment, forming a direct relationship with your work and your life. “Sink into the refuge of activity.”

As an exercise, Darlene instructed us to walk around the room in a large circle. First she had us focus on our breath. Then, after a time, she had us focus on what our bodies could feel: the clothing against our skin, the carpet under our feet. After that, we allowed everything in the room to come into our awareness, without labeling or differentiating, trying to just let things float in and out.

The next instruction was to notice everything that we liked in the room. And following that, we were to notice everything we didn’t like in the room.

It may sound bizarre, but that simple exercise made some things so clear. For me, the likes and dislikes were very enlightening. I had strong, loud internal opinions on almost everything in the room, either liking it (the art on the wall, the shoe rack, the potted plants) or disliking it (the blandness of the overall room, the light fixtures, the messiness of our cushions scattered across the floor). It was exhausting to become aware of all of that judgment, adding extra value to my interaction with every single item in the room. It was a huge relief to allow, once again, all of the objects to simply exist, beyond what I thought of them, beyond their function and form.

Darlene says many people fear “zoning out,” afraid that they’ll not be able to complete their work if they go into some meditative state. But she believes the opposite is true – by becoming fully engrossed in each task, we can become hyper-efficient.

And that “to do” list? It does have its place. But always thinking ahead creates a “hungry ghost” phenomenon, a craving feeling, which can leave you in a constant state of existential crisis, according to Darlene. Once again, that rings true for me – existential crisis about wraps up where I spend my stressful moments every day.

Now the challenge is to take this simple practice and incorporate it into more and more of my daily life, instead of thinking of it only when in a zendo…


Why I Love My Dog

There is an incarnation of Buddha in my life. She’s a four-year-old yellow lab named Ripley. I honestly can’t imagine how I got through my days before she was born.

No matter how bad I feel, no matter how much I am wallowing in depression, or beating myself up about lack of motivation, or dealing with anxiety, or questioning everything on the planet, one nose nudge from my lab re-centers me and puts me right smack dab into the now.

I live in a house with three dogs, five cats and an African grey parrot. They are all wonderful personalities, and I have relationships with each. But Ripley is my one and only sweetheart. Her namesake is Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movies – I wanted a bad-ass warrior on my side, someone who could chase the darkness away. Friends have jokingly told me that “Petunia” might have been a better name…she’s as delicately sensitive as I am, it turns out. But, also like me, that doesn’t mean the warrior isn’t present – it’s just harder for the undiscerning eye to immediately see that fighting spirit.

When I sit in my home office at my computer, all of the other dogs and cats retire to the bedroom. But Ripley stays right at my side, resting with her head just inches from my feet, ready at a moment’s notice. When I meditate, she lies down next to the altar, and waits patiently with me for the timer to go off. When I leave for work, she follows me to the door, and then forlornly curls up on the sofa, dismayed that she is being left behind.

If Sabrina is home when I pull into the driveway, she lets Ripley out of the gate on the deck. Ripley runs like a torpedo bombing through the yard, until she practically knocks me over with a sloppy hello kiss.

Her enthusiasm is unwavering. If I have been gone for 14 hours on deadline day, or if have been gone only 30 minutes for a run to the grocery store, it is all the same to her. She is thrilled that I am once again in her presence. She accompanies me to the garage to do laundry, to the mail box to pick up mail, to the trash cans to take out the recycling. Anything is an adventure, as long as I am at her side.

At night, when I get into bed, she jumps straight up in the air, does a half twist, and lands full-bodied onto my stomach and chest. She lies there on top of me for about 30 minutes, with a look of pure bliss on her face, until we both get so hot that she jumps down and takes up her post on the floor beside my bed for the remainder of the night. She is also my snooze alarm. When the alarm goes off, she gives me about five minutes to respond. After that, she leaps on top of me and licks my face until I groan and pull myself out of bed.

She loves routines. On our walks, there is a spot where we turn around, another spot where we walk to the river for a short swim, another spot towards the end where we sprint as fast as we can for about 100 yards. Each familiar ritual is greeted with eagerness and joy. Nothing gets old.

I have long struggled with nightmares. Since Ripley has been in my life, my worst nightmares have become those in which something has happened to my dog. She is hurt, or lost, and I am frantic trying to make things right. My biggest fear in life is that something will happen to her. I just can’t imagine not having this sunny companion, this steadfast friend, always at my side.

She makes everything so easy. All she asks is that I love her. That’s it. Nothing more. She doesn’t care if I’ve gained weight or lost weight. It doesn’t matter to her whether I had a productive day at work or a discouraging day. She doesn’t differentiate between the me who is confident and the me who is full of self doubt. And she never, ever tires of telling me that I am her special person, the one at the center of her world.

The feeling is mutual.

A Night of Romance

On Saturday, I attended the Santa Rosa Symphony’s evening of romance with music by Schumann and Chopin.

I have not been doing well emotionally, and everything is a chore. Even the things that I normally love to do seem like tasks to accomplish, instead of pleasures to enjoy. So the evening of symphonic music was, sadly, not something that I was looking forward to. I went more out of a sense of obligation (we go with two other friends) than out of a feeling of desire.

And yet – once there, the music was a gift, pure and simple. Berenika, a 27-year-old Polish-born pianist, performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I am a huge fan of Chopin, and it was because of this concerto that I had selected this performance as one of our events for the season.

Berenika is blonde, beautiful and confident, with the carriage of a fashion model. But that is simply icing on the cake. The woman can play! The concerto was fluid, rippling, like water in a mountain stream. Her hands danced across the keyboards, using some of the most exquisite legato that I have ever witnessed. Everything flowed together in a medley of sound, and I was sitting on the edge of my seat, leaning into each note with her. In one word: gorgeous.

Berenika began playing the piano at age three, won her first competition at five, and first performed as a soloist with an orchestra at age nine. She grew up in Canada, attended Juilliard, and later Harvard and Oxford. There’s a great video of her on the Santa Rosa Symphony website. She also has her own website, Berenika Online.

The evening included a magnum opus, a newly composed piece being played for the first time. The composer is Behzad Ranjbaran, an Iranian, and the piece is entitled “Mithra,” which refers to the Persian sun god. Ranjbaran met with conductor Bruno Ferrandis for the pre-concert talk, and shared his process with the audience, as well as discussing the origin of this particular piece. It was a beautiful symphonic effort, with a haunting flute line. Ferrandis and Ranjbaran went to Juilliard together, and they talked about the amazing international world there, where musicians, composers and conductors come together for art, defying all notions of national boundaries.

It was a night of filling the well, pouring some much-needed beauty into my thirsty heart. Sometimes forcing myself to get out is the best medicine, after all.


Upcoming Schedule, Feb. 13-March 2

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Feb. 16
7 p.m. sit, service and dharma talk

Tuesday, Feb. 23
7 p.m. sit, service and dharma talk by Debi Papazian on “Living an Undefended Life”

Tuesday, March 2
7 p.m. sit, service and dharma talk by Daya Goldschlag of Spokane

Russian River Zendo:

Satuday, Feb. 13
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Saturday, Feb. 20
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
3 p.m. Jukai Ceremony

Saturday, Feb. 27
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30 p.m. Study Class


Living with the Unforgiveable

I live in Cloverdale, out in the country on the eastern side of Alexander Valley, looking over the vineyards. My friends, Zen community, and errands take me each week to Guerneville, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa. But Calistoga is my second home.

Calistoga is the place I first moved to when I left San Francisco eight years ago, and it is where I have worked as a reporter for a small town newspaper during all that time. It is a little bit like being in Mayberry. The police chief, the fire chief, the city manager, planning commissioners and councilmembers all say hi to me when they see me on the street. I can’t go to Cal Mart, the grocery store, without running into at least five people who want to stop and chat. I know the people at the post office by name, and can call either the high school or elementary school and say, “It’s Michelle,” and they know exactly who I am, just by my voice.

So when something rocks that community, even though it is technically not my hometown, it hits me hard.

Last week, a 52-year-old woman from Calistoga was driving in St. Helena, getting ready to make a turn onto Highway 29. But when she made that turn, she didn’t look both ways. She struck an 82-year-old woman in the crosswalk. The older woman did not survive the accident. And now, this mother, this wife, this community member, is trying to live with the unforgiveable: she took someone’s life.

The driver was not drunk. It was not dark. The pedestrian did not suddenly dash out into traffic. It was simply one moment, one horrendous lapse in attention, that changed both of their lives forever.

Of course, I grieve for the poor woman who died. Such a tragic, unnecessary accident. And I feel for her family. Their world has been ripped apart.

But I am haunted by the fate of the other woman, the driver. She must feel as if she is in a living hell. I imagine that she plays the scene over and over in her mind, thinking of all the “if only” and “I should have” and “how” scenarios. She is not someone I know, but I am friends with people who do know her. And one of them said to me tonight that he is afraid she will never recover, because she just can’t forgive herself.

It could so easily have been me, or you, behind that wheel. How many times have I driven on auto-pilot? How often have I been distracted, leaning over to change a CD, or trying to fish my BlueTooth ear piece out of my pocket? How ridiculously fragile a human life is, when confronted with a moving automobile.

I have my own “unforgiveable” moments, things in my past that I seem to never get beyond, scenes that play over and over in my mind, always wishing that things had turned out differently, or I had responded with greater love, or a stronger sense of self preservation, or … or anything but the way it actually happened. Those scars run so deep.

And yet, I am almost ashamed to think of them tonight – they seem so trivial compared to the anguish that this woman must be going through. How exactly does one recover from something like this? Where will she find her strength?

I can come up with “Zen” answers: be in the present moment. Do the next right thing. Sit. Love yourself so you can love the world. But would I have the courage, if I were in her shoes, to follow that advice?

What would you do?


A Day of Sunshine and Quiet

The one-day sit at Russian River Zendo on Sunday was a window sneaking a peek into spring – sunlight filtered through the redwoods, and mustard graced many of the vineyards in the valley. It was still cold, chilly enough that the zendo’s heater chugged throughout the day, never quite taking the nip out of the air. I was thankful for the extra-thick socks that I had worn, a cushion of warmth against the cool bamboo floor when we were walking kinhin. I was also grateful that I had opted for my usual over-dressing; the two long-sleeve shirts under a sweatshirt kept me comfortable, but not so warm that I was in danger of dozing by afternoon.

The sit was small and intimate, with only ten people in attendance. We went through the day, from zazen to kinhin to dharma talk to service to silent lunch, back to zazen and kinhin, a short hike down to the river, a break for tea, then zazen once more before chanting the Metta Sutta to close the meditation.

The dharma talk by Tony Patchell focused us on this moment. Tony said we’re always fighting the last war — a reference to the fact that relying on experience as our only teacher leaves us woefully unprepared for the present reality. He said, “Experience serves its purpose, but this moment is brand new, right now.” He urged us to set aside what we have learned, all that knowing, and to be ready and open to be met in this new place, the now. Before the thought arises, the labeling, the classifying, the “what did I do or see or think last time?” habit — make yourself fresh and receptive, ready to be just here. It is only through this practice of “don’t know mind” that we free ourselves from suffering, demons and karma. It is only through this lens that we can really see the tree, the person in front of us, ourselves.

So it was not a time to say, “How did this one-day sit compare to the last one I did?” Instead, just sit, for one day, as if I have never sat before. It is not my task to ask, “Will I be able to hit the bell correctly?” Instead, I am to hold the bell in one hand, the mallet in the other, and see and feel only the bell, only this strike, this one pure sound. It is not relevant to wonder whether it will rain on the drive home. Instead, look up into the trees and feel the sun on my face. When it rains, I will feel rain. Right now, feel sun.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved