Monthly Archives: March 2010


Upcoming Schedule, March 30-April 3

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 30
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Beata Chapman

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, April 3
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
Garden Day
noon to mid-afternoon
A work day in the garden, plus spring cleaning of the zendo.
Bring work clothes, gloves, sun hat, garden hand tools.
Lunch prepared by Darlene Cohen.
Please RSVP to

(will be canceled in case of rain, or if too muddy)


Would I Need a ’49ers Jersey, Too?

We had an all-day sit at Russian River Zendo today. As is usual with such events, there were so many layers.

On the positive side: It was gorgeous, sunny and crisp, especially pleasant for our two outside walking meditations. There was a nice cohesiveness to the group, a coming together, a forming of sangha that felt very nourishing. Everyone put themselves wholeheartedly into their service roles, whether serving tea or preparing the noon time meal.

On the less-than-perfect side: I have had trouble sitting lately, and my hips have grown very tight. As the day progressed, I was in more and more pain. I had to shift and move and reposition frequently, each time more self consciously. I struggled with wondering whether or not I was doing the right thing to continue to sit on the cushion, instead of moving to a chair. Was I simply being stubborn? Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was the level of agony in my hips so severe that I was about as far removed as possible from any kind of mindful meditation?

I was acting as doan for the day, which made it both better and worse for me. Better, because I was able to look at the time and calculate when I could reposition so that I’d be able to walk when I rang the bell for kinhin. Worse, because I always feel that in such a role I should be setting some kind of example of steadfastness, and today I felt anything but that.

Somehow, though, I managed to get through the day in good humor. The pain, thankfully, only affected my hips, not my mood.

When I returned home, I called my grandmother, Gladys, for one of our regular check-in phone calls. I told her about my day, explaining that I had been at an all-day meditation retreat. I said I my hips had been hurting because I was sitting on the floor. She said, “You need to get some padded pants.” I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t exactly like that, it was more the position I was in that was uncomfortable. She listened, asking more questions. “So how long did you sit?” I said, “From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” She said, “All day?” I said, “Well, we have breaks. We have lunch, and tea, and take short walks.” She was quiet for a moment.

Then she said, “You know what you need. You need a pair of those football pants. With the pads built in.” I laughed and said, “I’m not sure that would look quite right.” She paused. “Well, you could wear them under your skirt.”

That visual just about did me in. Thank goodness for grandmothers.

We did continue our discussion, and came up with one other solution. Gladys is a seamstress, and she said she’d be happy to help me sew some support pillows. Not quite as fun as football pants, but equally full of grandmotherly love.


Should You Return the Wallet?

In our Precepts class today, we discussed sticky ethical situations, places where there was not an easy right or wrong answer.

Let’s say you find a wallet, stuffed with bills. Should you return it to its owner? Most of us would say yes. That’s what I was brought up to do — and I have done it, when the situation has arisen, as it has in my life.

But — consider this scenario set out by Tony Patchell, our priest. Say you’re a med student, who’s putting yourself through school moonlighting as a cab driver. One night you’re flagged down by a loud, ostentatious Texan with two women. They get into the cab, and the Texan spends the entire ride belittling you, putting you down, in some sort of attempt, apparently, to impress his two lady friends. When you arrive at their destination, he pays the fare, and then says, “Here’s your tip,” and flicks a nickel right into your face. After the door slams shut and he disappears around the corner, you look into your rear-view mirror and see that the man has left his very fat wallet lying in the back seat.

Now what do you do? Tony says that his friend took the money, and chucked the wallet into a U.S. mailbox, leaving it to the government to route it back to the Texan. There definitely is a certain feel-good justice to that solution. But was it ethical? Was it warranted?

Does the “right” thing to do change when someone has treated you badly? Or, conversely, when someone has treated you well? (As in, would you help someone cheat because they were really nice to you, or they had done you a favor?)

One student said for her it’s about flow. Were she to find a wallet, she would think: Do I need this money? If so, she would take it. Does a friend of mine need this money? If so, she would give it to the friend. Does the person who lost it need this money? If so, she would return it.

Priest Darlene Cohen reminded us that the Precepts are not absolute rules, but simply guidelines, since Zen is, in its essence, a belief in “nowhere standing.” There are no absolutes. There are no firm answers, things that are always correct, unfailingly dependable. Each situation must be addressed for its own merits, in the moment, and judged accordingly.

Going back to the wallet — I know that I have left my wallet lying on a countertop in a convenience store in the Mission in San Francisco, and gone back 30 minutes later to find it safely stashed underneath the till, with all the bills inside. I do not remember how much money was in the wallet. What has stayed with me is that human connection, the enormous smile on the face of the clerk behind the counter when he greeted me in Spanish, and said, “Senorita, you came back!” In that simple transaction, we built a bridge of trust that was so much more valuable than anything that could have been taken out of my billfold.

So I return the wallets.


Cleaning House

Some days it’s just time to clean house.

I have been feeling low energy, barely getting the “absolutely must get done” things done. My partner Sabrina had surgery last week on her right thumb for arthritis, so she’s in a splint (which next week will be replaced by a cast), and although she’s an incredible trouper, managing for the most part to completely take care of her own basic needs, there are still many things she can’t do. Little things like picking up the big water bowl for the dogs to refill it, or sweeping the floor, are simply two-hand jobs – there’s no getting around it.

So when I step into the house after work, I toss my messenger bag on the counter and immediately do the basics: fill the water bowl, open the cat food cans, refill the parrot’s dishes, take out the trash and the recycling, start a load of laundry, make at least a half-hearted pass at the accumulated dog hair on the kitchen and living room floors.

But I haven’t had time to really get much beyond that, until today. Finally, there was a break, an afternoon without appointments or social obligations, and we were just at home together. I replaced the filter in the air purifier, changed the sheets, washed all the throw blankets (our dogs and cats have “blankies” scattered about the house just like a bunch of toddlers), vacuumed all the carpeted rooms, cleaned and relined the bird cage. I even emptied the wading pool on the deck (the dogs’ pool), which was full of rain water, and starting to collect mosquito larvae. Kenji the kitten wasn’t thrilled by all the activity, as he is terrified of the vacuum cleaner, hiding behind furniture whenever it appears. He recovers, though, given enough love. Eventually.

There is something so deeply satisfying about walking through the rooms of a clean house. I love seeing the just-vacuumed lines in the carpet, smelling the fresh sheets, seeing the neatness and order everywhere.

I live with five cats, three dogs and a parrot, in addition to my partner. It will only be clean for approximately five minutes. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful five minutes.

It’s an exercise in living in the present moment, because the tidiness doesn’t last. It begins to be undone almost immediately. It is in the creation of cleanness, though, that the satisfaction comes. Not in its longevity. (Although, of course, I must admit that occasionally I fantasize about laminating the entire house and locking everybody outside.)

For now — clean sheets, and fresh dreams.


Bad Tire Karma

Last night, I was traveling home on Highway 128, a twisty two-lane country road that is scenic in the daytime but can be somewhat treacherous during stormy weather. Rounding an ess curve, I came upon scattered softball-sized jagged rocks, brought down from the recent rain. Sure enough – thump! I hit one of them.

This is not my first experience in this rock slide area. Four years ago, in exactly the same spot, I was driving with my dog Ripley and encountered a rock slide, with bigger rocks. That time, it shredded my tire on the spot. I barely squeaked over to the side of the road – there is no shoulder, and it was too dangerous to stay in the car. So Ripley and I crossed to the other side. And of course, there’s no cell phone reception there. At least it was during the summer, and it was still daylight. A nice mom with kids stopped and gave us a ride to a nearby ranch with a phone, we called AAA, and then we sat by the road to wait. A UPS driver who came by to deliver a package even gave Ripley a cookie, leaving her with the distinct impression that the whole thing was just an unusual way to go about getting a treat.

Since then, whenever it rains, I try to remember to be alert as I approach that section of the road, to slow down enough that I have time to run through the rocks like a downhill ski slalom course. But, eventually, the habitual nature of the drive wins out, and I go into auto pilot, listening to books on CD or music, zoning out, until BLAM! There’s another damn rock.

Somewhere in my past lives, I’ve decided, I must have pissed off one of the tire gods. I have blown tires travelling at 65 miles per hour on the freeway. I have blown tires late at night on elevated on ramps in cities, where I had to get out and walk in the dark for over a mile because it wasn’t safe to stay in the car, even though I knew walking didn’t feel very safe either. I have spent three days meditating at a Zen retreat center on Skyline Boulevard, and then, completely blissed out, returning home on a two-lane, twisty country road, hit a rock on a blind curve and blown a tire, just as the skies opened up and the rain started to pour down.

I live in constant fear that my tires are going to go flat – that the air is slowly leaking out, that a nail is stuck in them, that the tread is worn to a point that they will just disintegrate. This regardless of the fact that I faithfully replace my tires. I am also terrified of putting air into them – I am afraid that I won’t know when to stop, and that they’ll overinflate, and explode, and fly off into outer space. Thank goodness for Cloverdale Automotive Services, where Butch, Andrea and Jeff know my name and my quirks. I’d be lost without them.

But back to last night. I have learned a few things. Now I know – if it’s a bad place to stop, keep driving, even if your tire is flat. If you ruin your rim, you can replace it. Bearing that in mind, since I had a flat tire, it was the middle of the night, there was no shoulder, no cell phone reception, and no one nearby, I kept driving for another mile and a half. I finally pulled into a driveway, safely off the road. Part of me was secretly hoping that I had just dinged the tire, that it wasn’t really flat. But as I slowed down, I could hear the thwacka-thwacka-thwacka. And when I stopped, I smelled the rubber.

My Zen calm completely left me. I was simply annoyed. I got out of the car and danced around for about one minute swearing at my bad luck. But then I called AAA, pulled the donut tire out of my trunk, called Sabrina to let her know what had happened — and believe it or not, 30 minutes later, I was back on the road, none the worse for the experience. (If you don’t count the bill for the new tire.)

Either I’m getting close to paying off this karmic debt, and this is one of my last flat tires, or I’m destined to deal with this particular frustration for the rest of this life, and maybe even the next. No matter which is correct, all I can really do each time, is fix the tire.



Yesterday I sewed the envelope for my rakusu, the final step in my sewing process. All nine of us were present yesterday, coming together one last time specifically to work on the envelopes, even though many in the group are not quite done with the rakusu themselves. But all are so close – so close!

Our teacher, Tony Patchell, came to Sebastopol to pick up the two completed rakusu, Debi Papazian’s and mine. Our sewing teacher Connie Ayers had set up a small altar just outside of our sewing studio. She lit a candle and incense. Debi and I took turns passing our rakusu through the incense smoke three times, bowing to the altar, and then turning and bowing to Tony, handing him the rakusu. It was official. We were done!

Sewing the envelope was especially fun because we got to be a little bit wild. The rakusu itself is pretty traditional, with its staid navy blue. The only deviation was that we were allowed to choose our color of thread. I chose a shimmering green. The envelope is made of the same navy blue on the outside, but on the lining, anything goes. Generally you use silk, something with some stiffness to help the envelope stay flat. But colors, patterns – go for it! I chose a green that matches my thread, with dragonflies.

Jukai is now five months away. So after pouring myself into this sewing for the last six months, I have now just given it away, and I won’t see my rakusu again until August. And then, the blank white silk on the opposite side will have my new Buddhist name, and I will be taking refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. Five more months.

Upcoming Schedule, March 23-28 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, March 23
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and discussion of “Trust in Mind” by Mu Soeng

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, March 27
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30-2 p.m. Precepts Class

Sunday, March 28
8:45 a.m.-5 p.m. One-Day Sesshin

Saturday, April 3
Garden Day
noon to mid-afternoon
A work day in the garden, plus spring cleaning of the zendo.
Bring work clothes, gloves, sun hat, garden hand tools.
Lunch prepared by Darlene Cohen.
Please RSVP to


All the World in One Day

In the Hsin Hsin Ming, there is a line that says “one instant is ten thousand years.” Today felt like that.

I seem to have covered the entire range of human emotion and experience through my connections with family and friends, all in a single day. First thing this morning, a friend called to say she’d just been released from the hospital after a dangerous alcohol-induced diabetic reaction, finally acknowledging that drinking was a problem. Another friend called just an hour later seeking advice, because her teen-age daughter was suicidal. I was hit hard by both phone calls, pulled deep into emotional response, feeling helpless and scared.

But the day didn’t stop there. We had a full social agenda. My best friend was celebrating her 40th birthday in the afternoon, so we went to congratulate her, socialize and meet up with other acquaintances.

Then, right on top of that event, we had to race to Santa Rosa to a special event at the senior living complex where my grandmother resides, where they were hosting a special open house in her honor. The two-hour event, with champagne and desserts, was a celebration of her years of service in the community. They had asked a member of the family to write something about her, and I, as the family writer, was designated. The previous night, I had written a one-page tribute, and I read it aloud to a packed dining hall of strangers. I am used to reading to audiences, since I often do it as a writer. But I have a hand trembling problem. A podium is what generally saves me. I can lay the pages on the podium, slip my hands into my pockets, and no one is the wiser. But tonight, there was no podium. I was standing up in front of this crowd holding a single sheet of paper in one hand and a microphone in the other. Two paragraphs in, my hand began to tremble so badly, I couldn’t read the page. My partner Sabrina came to the rescue, pushing a high-backed chair out for me to lean the paper against, and I was able to finish the presentation. Despite my self-criticism, annoyed that it was not perfect, the piece was well received and drew smiles, laughs, and compliments. Grandma, who will be 100 in August, was in high spirits, loving the attention, and all in all, the evening was a success.

So now I am at home, sitting down at the computer, after not posting for four days, trying to wrap my mind around this vast universe of a day. Celebration and loss, medical scare and longevity, emotional pain and family support, nerves and confidence, empathy and bewilderment, friendship and fear…this last day seemed to encompass the entire human condition, in some way or another.

And I have come to no solutions about any of it. The only answer has been to keep showing up: answer the phone, return the message, bring flowers to the party, write the tribute. I guess that’s what I’ll keep doing.


Just Me

Sometimes I read back over my blog entries and think, “Why me? Who do I think I am? Who am I to profess to know about Zen?”

I know, at the very outset, I made a disclaimer. I am a beginner. But on some days, the tone of my writing seems to take on a sense of authority, as if I have some special insight, or knowledge of this practice. As if I were attempting to teach something to you.

Really, what I am doing, is trying to figure things out for myself by means of my most effective thinking tool — putting words down on the page.

In a lecture on Buddhism by Prof. David Eckel of Boston University, he tells a story about a talk he heard by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama went off on a fairly extensive, complicated explanation of Buddhist philosophy. But at the end, with a little grin, he said, “And who is it that is telling you this? Just me.”

“Just me” when said by the Dalai Lama has some hint of irony, of course, since he is probably the most well-known Buddhist figure in the world today. But his message was meant for all of us. Buddhism is about “no self.” There is no permanent thing that is you or me, only a series of moments. And so, given that, there is no ultimate font of wisdom, no source of answers. It might just as well have been you, or me, standing at the podium that day, talking about Buddhism, suffering, and emptiness.

So I guess the more pertinent question is: Why not me?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved