Monthly Archives: October 2010


Susan’s Shuso Blog: A Chance Encounter

I sit in a cafe working on a presentation for our Wednesday night class on foggy mind. On the table is a copy of Reb Anderson‘s book, Being Upright. A woman enters the cafe. She is silver haired, like me. She wears a t-shirt that advertises the Fiddlehead Cafe in Hancock, NH. The t-shirt is often-washed green. She sits at the next table with her back to me. When she gets up to leave, she turns my way. She looks at the book. It is clear to me that she is curious about it. I say, “This book is about the Zen precepts. It is about how to find freedom and liberation in practicing them. “Yes,” she says shaking her finger. “They are not about commandments.”

I ask her about the t-shirt. “My cousin gave it to me.” she says. “I love wearing it because it reminds me of her. My cousin lives in New Hampshire.” I say, “My son lives in Concord. I have spent a lot of time in that beautiful state over the years.” We speak of leaves turning color and falling, yesterday’s rain.

She turns to leave. Her silver hair streams down her back almost covering the Fiddlehead Cafe sign.

She points to the book again. “That bodhisattva vow is so difficult – vowing to bring others across.” As she opens the cafe door, she turns and says, “Kindred spirits.”

I smile.


Finding Compassion for Those Who Hate

I have always allowed myself to feel justified anger for unforgiveable acts – things like blatant acts of racism, or homophobia, or sexual violence. It has been a hard, bitter place in my heart, where there is no room for opening.

Talking with my teacher Tony about this, he gave me a challenge one day. He invited me to try to extend metta or compassion to the homophobe and the skinhead. I mulled it over for quite a while. I was willing to try, but I wasn’t very convinced that I could be successful.

As long as I can remember, I have been plagued by nightmares. There are many recurring themes, lots of things that I have examined and probed. And sometimes the dreams cycle towards healing, taking me to new places. Then they go back into deep hurt and terror, like that proverbial onion, always peeling one more new layer of fear and pain.

Recently, though, I had a dream that gave me an experience that I had never had before: a moment of grace.

Here is the dream:

I am a teenager, sitting with another teen on top of a car near the entrance to an alley, which leads to a path that heads to a park of some sort. We are sitting and talking, when we hear a sound. We look up, and see a man walking down the main street. He is kicking rocks, ping, ping, ping, slamming them up against people’s cars. I call out, “Hey, that’s not too bright!”

He ignores me. He turns in at the alley. I know there are dogs that live at the house at the corner, and I have a bad feeling. I see him continue to kick rocks. He hits one of the dogs with a small rock, then gives a half-assed kick to one of the dogs, then a stronger kick to the other dog. I yell at him to stop, but he ignores me.

I jump off the car, and grab my cell phone. I am going to call the police and report him, so they can pick him up somewhere in the park, and arrest him for animal abuse. Then I see him approach a stray dog. He grabs it, and starts to beat the hell out of it, kicking it and hitting it, just going and going and going. The dog is cowering, not trying to fight back at all. I start screaming as loud as I can. I wake myself up screaming, “No! No! No!”

I am sitting straight up in bed with my arms stretched out in front of me. I get out of bed, and I am sick to my stomach with the feeling of that man, beating the dog. I am standing up, but lay my head down on the bed. Sabrina woke up when I screamed, and she reaches out to me.

For some reason, I remember a Pema Chodron CD I just listened to, about putting yourself in the shoes of a person doing a horrible act, and I think of what Tony asked me to do, loving the skinhead or homophobe. And right in that moment, standing upright, with my forehead touching the mattress, I allow myself to feel what that man must feel like inside, to want to beat the dog. I am filled with an incredible sadness. It sweeps through my entire body.

It is not forgiveness, exactly, that I found. The experience has not erased that hardness I have. But it did give me one tiny glimpse into the possibility of compassion, in a place where I least expected it.


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Halloween Costume

Sometimes things just come together. How could it be that the right person, the right thing, the right place come together in a synchronicity that can’t be explained or understood?

I need a costume for Halloween. I will be on retreat at Black Mountain Retreat Center in Cazadero. ( On Halloween Eve we will have a traditional segaki ceremony. This is the time when Buddhists unmask themselves. They approach the altar and call in their demons. The demons are recognized, invited in for tea, and asked to behave themselves until Halloween comes around again.

I want to be Kuan Yin. She is the archetype who hears the cries of the world. She is known for her boundless compassion. She has 10,000 arms and eyes to help her.

I know it is impossible to be literal but still, I can’t imagine how I will create a costume that represents Kuan Yin.

I go to the Legacy. This is a shop near my home that sells recycled craft and sewing supplies. Proceeds from sales benefit the Sebastopol Senior Center.

I enter not knowing what I am looking for. I see a bolt of gold fabric. I don’t know what I will do with it but I know it is exactly what I need. I give the volunteer sales person $3.00 for the fabric and I return home with it . I call my friend Peggy. “Help,” I say. “Can you help me be Kuan Yin for Halloween?”

She comes right over. She brings her sewing machine and a kimono pattern. She sews and I paint.

The back of the costume shows Kuan Yin riding a dragon. I paint eyes and hands on her sleeves and sash. My friend Corlene drops by. She shows me how to make a turban out of a piece of the gold fabric.

It takes many hands and eyes to make Kuan Yin come alive.


Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 26-31

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 26
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Friday, Oct. 29 – Sunday, Oct. 31
Sesshin at Black Mountain Center to end Fall Practice Period

Saturday, Oct. 30
RRZ Closed for sesshin

Sunday, Oct. 31
Practice Period participants reconvene at RRZ:
1 p.m. Work period
1 :30 p.m. Ceremony Rehearsal
3 p.m. Shuso Ceremony


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Be Kind to Animals

A girl scout is kind to animals. This vow springs to my mind as I hear Beata, a Buddhist priest and a good friend of mine, speak about her experience with animals on the roadway.

One time she stopped for a duck who was stranded on the median strip of a freeway. She managed to shepherd the duck to the side of the road amidst speeding cars and angry drivers.

“I probably wouldn’t do that again,” she tells me. “It was truly dangerous, but there is something about cars and animals, dead or alive, that evokes a need in me to stop and care for them.” In Buddhist practice we speak of this need as an awakening of bodhichitta, the desire to love and be present for all beings.

This morning on the way to Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, Beata sees a dead deer in the middle of the road. Because she is driving with a friend she doesn’t want to inconvenience, she chooses not to stop and move the animal to the side of the road.

She says she is in a lot of pain. She wishes she could go back and move the deer out of the way of oncoming traffic. For years she has always stopped to help animals in distress. This time she didn’t’ stop. But she did renew her vow.


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Anger

Last night our precepts class was about anger or not harboring ill will. There are those in the Buddhist community who believe it is possible to abolish anger and all the other defilements.

In Mahayana Buddhism we believe that growth lies in getting into the thick of things. Let the branches of the thicket cut and scratch until you are willing to let go.

Even with awakening, there is always more to do.

I told a story about being part of a practice period at Green Gulch Farm in 1998. I was in kindergarten Zen. I felt overwhelmed by the schedule. I was confused about where to be when. I had difficulty keeping track of chants and vows. I did know, however, when my toes were stepped on. I could recognize anger in myself, but I didn’t know what to do with it.

I have volunteered to do a job. It was something mundane and seemingly unimportant, like passing out questionnaires. When I notice a young man passing them out without consulting me I am furious. “That is my job,” my inner voice yells. What do you do with fury when you are on a silent retreat?

I go to the practice leader, Reb Anderson. He tells me to go sit on my cushion until the anger burns up. Last night I tell this story. I also tell people about the ring of fire Reb describes in the book Being Upright. “There is pain around every Buddhist’s meditaton seat,” he tells us . . . “It forms a ring of fire.”

Around the inner ring is an outer ring of fire composed of anger . . . aggression . . . hate . . . ill will and violence. It is the outer ring of defenses that needs to be broken through in order to see the pain within.


Susan’s Shuso Blog: I Meet a Neighbor

I am on my way down the path to my car. A woman comes toward me. “I am your neighbor,” she says. “Oh,” I say, “I wonder why we haven’t met before.”

She tells me she lives in the trailer park behind our property. My home is separated from hers by a field and a fence that is covered by blackberry bushes. Robert Frost said: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Fences also shield us from one another. They keep us apart.

The woman’s name is Marilyn. She is on a mission. She has been adopted by a Persian cat and she wants to find the owner. She tells me she learned to move a photo of the cat from IPhoto to document to email. She is a woman of late middle age (or early old age, depending upon how you look at it). She is my age, an aging woman. She is alive, vibrant, and engaged with the world.

Marilyn loves animals. She is also a master gardener. We talk about plants. She wants to divide her phlox and her penstemen and she wants to give me some of them.

Her neighbor is an elderly man who is often depressed. She tells me he would love to have some of my canna lilies, should I be willing to divide them.

I say, “Of course, I will give him some.” I will divide the cannas, walk up my street to the highway, go a block or so south, go east through a construction zone to the trailer park road. I will continue on the road until I find her place.


Susan’s Shuso Blog: The Cider House Rules

I like to pick up films at the video store that are adaptations of books I have been meaning to read. Last night I chose The Cider House Rules which was made from a novel by John Irving. I think it was written in the ’50s. I say that because I am curious about the values it presents. . . Where do these values come from and were they acceptable at the time? It raises questions about lying. Is it acceptable to lie when the lie can lead to a greater good? Do we lie to protect the feelings of self and other and do we get to decide when another person needs protection from the truth?

I am reflecting back to the 1950’s when I was a young adult, married with young children. I remember being a part of a “don’t tell” culture. Often people were not told, even by their doctors, that they had cancer or that they had only a few months to live. I had a friend who became ill with Huntington’s Chorea. She didn’t want anyone to visit her. She didn’t want to discuss it. This was a more painful time than it might have been if her illness could have been out in the open.

I think of this history while I watch The Cider House Rules. Rules are pasted on the door of the cider house where the workers live. They decide the rules are not for them because someone else made them. They tear them down. Who makes the rules and who gets to decide whether they are followed or not?

The story begins in an orphanage in Maine where the doctor/administrator performs illegal abortions for the health and well being of the mother. The morality of his actions are not considered.

The same administrator falsifies documents so that a protegee of his can succeed him after he retires.

One of the orphans dies because of breathing complications. The children are told he has been adopted by a good family.

One of the precepts we are studying in our Russian River Zendo practice period is Not Lying. The cider house rules are an entry point for further discussion.


Susan’s Shuso Blog: Grief

Today I will blog about the grief I feel. This grief bubbled out of the depths somewhere hiding but felt. Today it wanted out and I began the morning by working in my small sketchbook collaging images and painting watery figures bent over like willow branches weighted down by days of rain.

I experience layers of grief. Grief is never about one thing, one person, one path of suffering. It is many layered. There are layers I can’t know. Layers that will never be uncovered. Layers that want attention and layers that want to lie low .

Sometimes, in the midst of joy, grief lies in wait. It knows that we are about to lose something precious and beautiful. It anticipates the change we know is coming. Grief invites us to feel and face our losses. It can bring us fully into the moment if we let it.

Yesterday there was a celebration at Russian River Zendo. Our teachers, Darlene Cohen and Tony Patchell were presented with ceremonial robes that had been hand sewn by many people from several different groups. After a brief and beautiful ceremony about fifty of us saw Tony and Darlene wrapped in shades of lavender and maroon.

During a pause in the rain we enjoy layers of chocolate layer cake on the patio. The cake has been decorated with two monks wrapped in robes of lavender and maroon.

All is as it should be. We know that soon we will lose Darlene to cancer. This is part of what is. This is what brings grief up for me this morning. Soon I will lose Darlene. I will lose all I hold dear. It is the human condition. This knowing is basic to Buddhist practice.

There is suffering in life and there is a way through and out of suffering. I move, I cry, I sit, I laugh, I breathe, I play in my sketchbook. I try to be present with all of it; moment by moment.


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Coffee

Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. coffee is offered for $1.00 a cup at the roaster’s shop at the top of my street. The price is enough incentive for me to throw on my clothes, stride up the street, and take my chances on the 116 crosswalk.

This shop opened a day before Starbucks came to town. It is located in the next clump of shops. It is sandwiched in between a dry cleaner and a laundromat.

The young people who own it have created an outdoor sitting area out of wine barrels and ropes. I admire their spunk. How many people would have the temerity to open a coffee shop next to Starbucks?

I am a coffee hound. I admit it. During the day I have a hard time going by a coffee shop without going in and ordering a latte. I say give in because I am truly trying not to drink so much coffee. I know that one cup a day should be enough.

Yesterday I was brought up short. I go to Whole Foods to pick up flowers for Russian River Zendo. I think I will order my favorite coffee drink. “We don’t make Jamoca’s anymore,” the young woman tells me. “The ingredients in them are not consistent with our policy of offering only healthy, nutritious drinks.”

I take this news personally. Clearly this woman thinks I do not eat properly. She sees through me into my fridge and my pantry. She must know that I don’t always buy organic food.

I drive away feeling shamed, angry and deprived.

I think I will figure out how to make the coffee drink in my home blender. Then I realize that the allure of the 4 p.m. Jamoca is that even though I pay for it, it feels as if someone else is treating.

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