Monthly Archives: December 2010


Winning Millions, Needing Little

On Dec. 28 at Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, Dale Valentine hit the jackpot. He was on the slot machine for the state-wide California Megabucks – and he won $8.4 million.

Dale is a retired firefighter from San Leandro who owns a vacation home in Lake County, where he and his wife spend much of their time, and he’s been a regular customer at Twin Pine Casino over the past 15 years.

In the press release issued on Wednesday by the casino, Dale said he plans to put some money in the bank, make a large donation to Hospice, and to learn how to ride a Harley.

His wife said she would like a larger bathroom and a closet in their house.

When I read that last line, I laughed out loud. Mrs. Valentine didn’t say she wanted a fancy new house. She wasn’t looking for anything spectacular. Just a larger bathroom and a closet.

Oh, if we could all be satisfied by such simple desires!

The cynics out there are probably thinking that the Valentines will be changing their minds soon, finding more expansive ways to spend their millions. But I prefer to believe they are going to hold on to that home-spun goodness, that basic feeling of already having almost enough. If so, they may be among the lucky jackpot winners who actually have money in the bank 10 years down the road, instead of blowing it all on extravagant toys.

It’s New Year’s resolution time again, and I can never resist the urge to examine my life and set out goals, priorities, and aspirations for the coming calendar year. Even though I inevitably fail to live up to most of them, it is a deep-seeded tendency of mine – so much so that I do it throughout the year, not just on Jan. 1.

My main problem is that I make lists that are too long. I never choose just one thing. I want to exercise more, lose weight, stop smoking, practice the piano, brush up on my Japanese, write more regularly, meditate every morning, learn to be a better cook, send my work out to be published, put in more hours volunteering, spend more time with my grandmother, be a better listener, stop negative thinking . . . you can see where I might run into difficulties feeling successful.

But, regardless of past experience, year after year, I make these resolutions, and I draw up charts and diagrams and lists. I set up schedules, and try to follow them. For a few weeks, maybe even a month, I am as disciplined as a Marine. I cannot be swayed from the course. Inevitably, however, something jostles me, bumps me off track, and I gradually veer off into a staccato pattern of start-stop, start-stop, start – and then the final, gut-wrenching, slamming crash.

I am not, at heart, driven much by material goals. So the immediate analogy to the slot machine winner might not be apparent. Having $8.4 million would be nice – but only in that it would allow me 24 hours a day seven days a week to work on all of those other things I just mentioned.

The real connection, I think, is in the simplicity of the wishes given by Mrs. Valentine. She didn’t call out a laundry list of desires. She started with something small and attainable, something she knew would give her pleasure, but at the same time, was not grand in any way.

I have a quote from the Dalai Lama written on a large sheet of construction paper up on my home office wall. It says:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

What if, in 2011, instead of making a list of “Fifty Things I Need to Improve About Myself,” I decided to read that quote every morning? Because if I could focus on that one thing, I would feel better about myself, better about other people, and better about the world – which would make for a pretty good year.


Always Tony

A gentle nudge from one of my fellow sangha members sent me back to my last blog post, where I discovered that I had inadvertently misstated something.

In speaking of the dharma transmission process, I said that Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear will be carrying on Darlene Cohen’s lineage, and leading Russian River Zendo. What I neglected to say is that Tony Patchell will continue to be the main priest at RRZ.

I can explain this egregious oversight quite simply: Tony is in my mind so continually, so constantly, that I sometimes forget I have to mention him. He is my dharma teacher, my “heart” teacher, the one I have connected to most strongly on this path. From the beginning, I knew he was the one who would guide me on this journey.

Over the past months, as we have all struggled with Darlene’s progressive cancer, I have found myself grappling with how to provide support to Tony. He has given so much to me – now, it seems, it is time for me to give back to him. My basic urge is simply to be close to him. When our sangha meets, during dharma talks, I place my zafu next to his. It may sound silly – but that physical proximity seems one way of showing that I care. And since we are both e-mail junkies, we send messages back and forth regularly, just small notes of connection. Sometimes the notes are about what is going on. Sometimes they are about completely unrelated topics. Either way, they are a way to stay in touch.

Tony remains at the center of Russian River Zendo, with Darlene. And in Darlene’s absence, it will be Tony who guides Sarita and Cynthia in their new roles.

And always, always, he remains my heart teacher. Even when I am not speaking his name.


Passing the Torch

Tomorrow our teacher Darlene Cohen begins a week-long dharma transmission ceremony with priests Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear. For those of you unfamiliar with this, dharma transmission is the step which transforms a priest into a teacher, giving her the right to pass on the lineage, and to have her own students.

Darlene has been in the hospital for the past week with pneumonia, brought on by her weakened condition from chemo and blood transfusions. She has returned home knowing that her time is short, yet determined to go ahead with this last step in her own role as head teacher.

There is a large support team gathered at the house, to cook, give massages, provide comfort, and help with the ceremony. Tony, Darlene’s husband and our teacher, is of course the main source of strength and stability. But there are many people from Darlene’s past, old friends from her years of Zen practice, who have come now to be with her. The house is also filled with flowers and cards from all of us in sangha who are with her in spirit, even though we cannot be there in person.

When Darlene is gone, Sarita and Cynthia have the task of carrying on her work, of leading Russian River Zendo and the Healdsburg sangha and the other groups Darlene has formed, of continuing the ties of the family of practitioners she has created. Both are wonderful women, who will make wonderful teachers. I know that both wish that their dharma transmission was taking place under different circumstances…but life is what it is. And there is no more powerful example for all of us to follow than that of Darlene herself.

I wish I could be there, to watch the process. Instead, I must wait in the background, like many of my fellow sangha members, sending good thoughts, and continuing my own practice. Living upright – that is my task, the best way that I can help. I trust that my opportunity to do more will arise, and that I will recognize it when it comes.


Hurtful Words

When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.

I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.

After Barney’s death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: “Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery.”

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing “nobody in town” line – as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.

All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman’s rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child – Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.

But it made me wonder – why was I so easily unsettled by this woman’s unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?

And I also wonder – what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn’t mind the damage she causes along the way?

The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, “Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?” My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.

She never replied.


Lives of Grace

In Tuesday night’s dharma talk, we discussed the koan of Haykujo and the Fox, Case No. 2 from “The Gateless Gate.”

The story is that whenever Master Hyakujo delivered a sermon, an old man was always there listening. Finally, he approached him, and asked who he was. The old man said he used to be a priest on that same mountain, also known as Master Hyakujo. But when a monk asked him, “Does a perfectly enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?” this man answered, “No.” And then he was condemned to live as a fox for 500 lives.

The man asked Hyakujo to “say a turning word” on his behalf and release him from the body of the fox. The man again asked the question, and Hyakujo said, “The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured.” And the man was deeply enlightened. He asked Hyakujo to perform priest’s burial rituals for him – and Hyakujo took his monks behind the mountain, where they found the body of a fox, and performed priest’s rituals for it.

The sense here is that those lives as a fox were a curse, a punishment, something which the old man was very ready to be rid of. And yet, when you read on in the accompanying text, you find these words. (All of the “Gateless Gate” koans have a “Mumon’s Commentary” section following the actual “case.”)

Mumon’s commentary:
Not falling under the law of cause and effect – for what reason had he fallen into the state of a fox? The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured – for what reason has he been released from a fox’s body? If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

So what I came away with, hearing and reading this koan and these words, was that we, all of us, at whatever degree of enlightenment we may find ourselves, are subject to the laws of karma, of cause and effect. There is no place of rest. I cannot hope to attain a level of equanimity in this realm that will put me beyond pain, fear, desire, hope, suffering. Some might throw up their hands in despair, and say that we are all condemned to live the lives of foxes.

But then I read that final line: If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

Five hundred lives of grace. Despite the hardship, the worry, the challenges. If I choose, this day, each day, I can live in grace. Even as a fox.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved