Monthly Archives: January 2011


A Single Bow

A single bow can change a life.

The story goes that our teachers, Tony and Darlene, forty years ago, entered San Francisco Zen Center. On a staircase, they passed a Japanese monk. He stopped, and bowed to them. There was a presence, a fullness, an embodiment in the movement, a “now.” In that simple gesture, all of Zen tradition, all of the dharma was carried. Tony and Darlene knew this is what they wanted to learn, and to pass on.

The Japanese monk was Suzuki-roshi, and the bow is what began the path leading to the eventual establishment of my own lineage at Russian River Zendo.

Now, in this time of loss, priest Cynthia Kear reminds us we must trust our own Buddha-nature, our own bodhichitta, knowing our practice will continue. She said, “We are the recipients of Darlene’s dharma transmission; but now we are also the transmitters.”

Everyone has been living up to that expectation. It is not just newly dharma-transmitted priests Cynthia and Sarita Tamayo Moraga who have taken on the duties of our several sanghas. To give Tony time and space to grieve, senior students have stepped in, giving dharma talks and leading services for the past two months. People have been reaching out to each other with special zazen sessions, offerings of dokusan (private interviews), and plans of one-day sits.

Mostly, though, we have simply been available to each other. There have been many warm, heartfelt hugs, kind words, expressions of care. I have never once felt alone in this.

Darlene herself, the last time I saw her, said to those of us gathered there, that we could all be dharma transmitted. I have thought of that often. How do I, in my everyday life, in my words and my movements, carry the message of Zen? How do I pass on kindness?

If I were to bow, what would someone see?


Give Your Cow a Large Pasture

I have worked at the same job for the past nine years, and my boss has watched me along my Zen journey, from the initial steps, eventually to choosing Tony Patchell as my teacher, up through lay ordination this past August, and now through this period of loss as our sanghas deal with the death of Darlene.

She is a Presbyterian. Our other officemate is Catholic. One day, in the midst of a casual discussion about dealing with an interpersonal issue, my boss surprised me by saying, “You know, you are the most spiritual person I know.” I was dumbfounded. All my life, I had felt I was completely lacking in the spirituality department. When I asked what she meant, she said she didn’t know anyone else who incorporated a spiritual practice into their daily life as much as I did. This is what she had determined from hearing me speak about sesshins, sewing practice, meditating, and dharma discussions, all as they came up in the normal course of conversation in our very small office.

That was about six months ago. In early January, my boss was going through a lot of personal family stress. She came to me and said, “I think I need to start meditating. Can you tell me how?”

I explained in very basic terms the fundamentals of zazen, such as posture, breathing, and hand position. I also removed possible hurdles immediately: I told her she could sit in a chair and I said ten minutes at a time was fine to start off. She asked, “Am I supposed to make my mind blank?” I laughed and said, “Oh, no! You’ll never make it blank. Just try not to get attached to anything that comes up. When a thought arises, look at it, and let it go.”

The next week at Russian River Zendo, someone brought up that problem of “busy mind” during zazen. Fellow practitioner Dick Bates had a wonderful analogy to demonstrate how crucial “busy mind” is. He said in biology, most mutations are useless, not helpful or beneficial in any way to the creature they occur in. But, if all mutations were to cease, the organism would be deprived of those rare times when a profound, wonderful change occurs. Dick said in the same way, most of the stuff floating through our minds is pure rubbish. But nestled inside of those racing thoughts are the kernels of creativity. If we could, as we sometimes wish, completely control our thoughts, nothing new would ever be born again.

So, to new practitioners like my boss, the best advice is that of Suzuki-roshi, when he said to view your mind as a cow. Then give your cow a large pasture, and watch it.

(By the way – actually being inside of a very active spiritual community, I most humbly decline the title of “most spiritual” – but it was a pleasant moment hearing someone else could see that part of me I had been seeking for so long.)


One Loss, All Loss

The topic at each dharma talk I have attended in the last ten days has been grief. How could it be otherwise? It is staring all of us in the face. We are, every one of us, coping in our own way: numb or raw, crying or cried out, wanting only to sleep or insomniac, seeking the company of others or retreating into solitude.

Because losing someone we love rips open our world, turns everything upside down. And in this case, losing a teacher, it can have even greater ramifications. Because it begs the questions: Where do we go from here? What holds us together? How do we go on?

In a talk on Tuesday, priest Cynthia Kear spoke of Healing Into Life and Death by Stephen Levine, in which he referred to “one loss, all loss.” He meant that when we experience one death, it brings up every loss we have ever encountered – other deaths of those dear to us, failed relationships, betrayals, lost hopes and dreams. It is as if the death is a black hole that expands into a pit of despair over everything that has ever brought us feelings of sadness and loss.

I certainly have been experiencing this phenomenon over the past weeks. Six years ago, I lost my father to lymphoma. Many things make this time all too familiar. He was 64 years old, born the same year as Tony. My mother was born the same year as Darlene. When my dad passed away, my parents had just celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary – Tony and Darlene had been together 40 years. My father underwent treatment at the same hospital in San Franciso where Darlene was a patient. And he was gracious, brave and spiritual throughout his illness, making sure that all of us in the family would be taken care of in his absence.

Cynthia spoke of the death of her sister, and how it felt so crazy to have to do things like go to work and pay bills and take care of daily chores, when none of that felt important. I remember walking from the hospital down to a nearby coffee shop to get a latte for my mom. I was passing people on the street, and I thought, “Do you live here? Are you going to a job, or shopping? Or are you grabbing something to eat before you go back to the hospital, where your sister is dying, or your mother is having a liver transplant, or your daughter is battling cancer?” It felt so odd to see all these people walking around as if it was a normal day, when it was not normal. There was nothing normal about it.

Cynthia said gone are the days when we could wear a black arm band to let everyone know we are grieving, to let them know to treat us tenderly. She’s right – we have no way to indicate to the world, “I am suffering. I am in pain. Please, do not expect too much from me.”

I have been thinking about my father every day. Some of it is good – there are good memories, nostalgia and sweetness. But there is also much hurt, and loss, and a tightness in my chest, even though six years have passed. He died on a night with a full moon. Tonight there is a full moon. That always triggers a response, a deep longing in my heart.

And each thought of him circles back to Darlene. My first meeting with her, the words we shared, the journey we took together over the past four years. I want to write it all down, put it into a record. Don’t lose it, don’t lose it – there is an urgency to the feeling. In the same way that I struggled to hold onto my father, wanted to retain every memory of him.

“One loss, all loss” sounds like too much; it sounds painful. And, in truth, it does hurt. But, as the Leonard Cohen song says, having a crack is good – that’s how the light gets in. It is only broken hearts that can open to the compassion of the world.


Darlene Cohen,Oct. 31, 1942 – Jan. 12, 2011

Darlene Cohen, Su Rei Ken Po, Great Spirit Manifesting Dharma, passed away at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

I received word via email just as I was about to leave the house for work. The extended sangha planned to sit vigil with her body for the next day and a half.

I was heartbroken, because it was deadline day at the newspaper, and I knew I could not leave to go and be with her.

But after I arrived at the office, I received a second email, saying the vigil went through the night and until noon on Thursday, and people were particularly needed and wanted during the wee hours of the morning. So when I finally wrapped up the paper at 3 a.m., I drove to Guerneville.

I arrived at 4 a.m., to see the zendo softly lit up with candles. There were four of my sangha members there, sitting. Darlene’s body was laid out on a covered table. She was dressed in her priest’s robes, wearing her lavender rakusu that we recently sewed for her. Her body was covered with flower petals people had bestowed as offerings.

I came into the hushed room, bowed before her, and offered a few petals of my own. I touched her sleeve. It was as if her spirit was still in the room, as if any moment she would open her eyes and smile at me. It was only then I felt the rush of grief.

Moving towards the back wall, I selected a zabuton and zafu, and began to sit. A few more people came, and a few people left. My sangha members approached, and gave me hugs. It was beautifully silent, and the candles cast flickering light on the altar. A gentle rain began to fall.

After sitting for two hours with Darlene, I felt it was time to go. I had been up for nearly 24 hours straight, and still had an hour to drive home. The coffee shop at the base of the hill had just opened up , so a latte helped with that last stretch.

There is sorrow, but also a deep joy in my body right now, a profound gratitude. Darlene is no longer suffering in the body. She was able to pass on her lineage, and her sangha is pulling together in a wonderful way. We will get through this. And I feel privileged to have had her in my life, even for this brief time.

Farewell, Su Rei Ken Po. And thank you.


And Also Laughter…

Emotions are odd things. They flit about like butterflies. Even something that seems as heavy as grief cannot be held down long – before you realize it, a buoyancy appears out of nowhere, a lightness, and you find yourself laughing.

Haven’t you experienced this? When my father was ill with lymphoma, I remember well the times in the hospital, when I was so worried, so scared, and felt helpless. But my father was a man with a wonderfully glowing spirit, someone who paid attention to people, who listened and cared. I watched him interact with the nurses and phlebotomists and aides, as each came into his hospital room. He knew all of their names. He asked them about their families, their dreams and goals. His particular talent in life was in the area of financial planning. So during his weeks in the hospital, he helped one nurse figure out how to go back to school. He helped an aide find financing for a new home. He gave of himself, and because of that, his room was a place of hope and smiles instead of despair.

Our teacher Darlene is a sprightly, impish woman, with a spark of mischief in her eyes much of the time. Beata Chapman said when she visited her in the hospital, Darlene set about trying to “hook her up” with one of her nurses. She whispered with glee, “I think she has lesbian tendencies.” And then pushed the call button to bring the nurse into the room. Instead of lying in bed, thinking about death, she was playing matchmaker.

When a person is sick, they don’t cease to be themselves. They are still who they were before: funny, mischievous, intelligent, generous. Or cranky and obstinate. Being sick may occasionally exacerbate those qualities. But the basic person remains the same underneath. I think it is the people on the outside who change, the people who are grappling with grief, fearful of loss. We are sometimes so afraid that we treat the ones we love as if they are already gone. We act as if we must begin our mourning now, to prove that our love is true.

But no. There is both sadness and joy in grief. It is perfectly acceptable to sit next to the one you love and laugh long and hard, even if they are dying. There is room for everything. Allow each emotion to come as it will. Laugh when you can. There will be time enough for tears.


Metta for the World

A friend tonight thanked me for my recent blog posts, saying they were helping her to deal with the shootings over the weekend in Arizona. I, too, have been reading the headlines, and struggling to find sense in the random violence. Part of me has pushed it away, kept it apart, because there is already enough personal tragedy nearer at hand. Can I hold more pain? Do I need to embrace this, too?

Priest Beata Chapman, speaking on grief, encouraged us to “build the inclusion muscle.” She asked us to add to our experiences of the subtleties and nuances of grief as they arise, because they won’t always be what we expect. And I believe she would also tell us, in addition to mourning the losses and hurts in our own lives, to take in the deaths of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, to absorb the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Right now I feel I must simply say a Metta Sutta, a Loving Kindness Meditation, for the many people in my life who are in need of that extra support. And, perhaps as importantly, I am in need of giving it.

Metta for Darlene Cohen, my teacher. Her hospice nurse has told us her time of passing is only a few days away. She has completed her goal of giving dharma transmission to two of her students, and is spending her final days with her husand Tony Patchell. She told us on Saturday she is touched beyond words to see how her community of students is forming a dharma grid, even before her death.

Metta for Larry Kuzdenyi, the weather man for the Calistoga Tribune. An avid golfer and amateur rain watcher, Larry calls in the rainfall total for the newspaper every week. In the fall he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy. He is now recuperating. Tomorrow, he has a CAT scan to see if the treatment was successful. My thoughts are with him tonight.

Metta for Doris Muramatsu, a member of the band Girlyman. In her late 30s, two months ago Doris was diagnosed with CML, a rare form of leukemia. It is treatable, with a good prognosis. She is blogging about her journey of healing at Caring Bridge. The band will return to touring at the end of the month, with a modified schedule – including a gig in Sebastopol.

Metta for Mike Parsons. I just interviewed Mike a few weeks ago for an article I wrote on internet safety. He is a retired police officer, who worked on a special task force on internet crimes. In a note apologizing for not getting back to me with a photo, he explained that he’d been distracted last week, because he’d just been diagnosed with lymphoma. He was optimistic, saying the prognosis was good with treatment, but he still has four months of chemo followed by radiation ahead.

Metta for Pat, Ramona and Noah, who are dealing with their own personal pain and confusion. May you all stay safe, until everything can be worked out.

Metta for Gabrielle Giffords, and for the families of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and Christina Taylor Green, and for all the citizens of Arizona who are reeling from this loss. May our political hate-mongering come to an end, before any more lives are sacrificed.

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.

* * *
Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.


Going Into the Body

The danger, as is so often the case, lies in our heads.

In a dharma talk earlier this week, priest Beata Chapman spoke to us about experiencing grief as a body experience. Far too often, we disconnect, go into our heads, spin off into emotions that float unattached, when what we really need is to center ourselves in our physicality. A very Zen directive, exactly what our sitting practice guides us towards each day.

Beata said when we learn to witness our own suffering, by being present with it, it develops our capacity to witness the suffering of others. She said staying with the body sensations gives us the empathy for all the implications of existing in the form world – aging, pain, hurt, death. She admitted that what she was asking us to do was a paradox – expansively reach out right when our inclination is to close up and shut down. She refers to it as “opening the heart in hell.”

But paradox is exactly what Zen is all about. It is a practice of things which cannot be done, and yet, each day we vow to do them.

Beata said we speak of “taking refuge,” but for her, that does not mean “taking shelter.” Instead, it means going into the body, into the present moment. The “namu kie butsu” phrase we recite when doing our sewing practice of the rakusu, said with each stitch, translates as “I take refuge in Buddha.” But another translation is “I release myself into the now.”

Darlene is facing her death with grace and equanimity because she is staying in her body and in the now. I could see it in her face when I looked upon her yesterday morning, as it shone in her eyes. That is the latest teaching from her. I, too, must remember I have a body. I, too, must settle into the now, into this moment. As the grief comes, when it comes, I must allow it to sink down into this body of mine so I can experience it fully, and then release it, going on to the next moment, until it arises again.


Creatively Facing Death

I would like to write over the next few days about the topic I have been pushing away – the reality that has been consuming our extended sangha for the last several months.

Our teacher Darlene Cohen is dying. There is no way any longer to sugar-coat it, or hold onto false hopes. We will be losing her very soon. Grief is such a tricky emotion. It comes at each of us differently. And with each one of us, differently on each day. Because I have not been one of the people who has been able to see Darlene over the past two months, I have responded by absenting myself, both physically and emotionally. I have found excuses to miss my regular sangha, some real, some created – extra burdens have arisen at my job; more demands have come up in my personal life. I have avoided writing in this blog, because here it seemed I might have to address the impending loss.

Over all, I have felt mostly a numbness, a lack of emotion. This has been aided by my distance, and perhaps that was my real impetus. On Tuesday, I went to my regular sangha, and sat. Beata Chapman was the visiting doshi for the night. Just before her dharma talk, she asked if there were any announcements. Susan Spencer, our wonderful resident ceramicist/jizo teacher animatedly said, “Darlene is going to have a cardboard coffin, and on Thursday, I will be holding a workshop at my studio for people to get together and decorate it.”

I felt as if I had been socked in the stomach. All my careful avoidance tactics were stripped away in that one sentence. Decorate her coffin?

Intellectually, I understood this could be a healing act, a time of community gathering and mourning. But I was emotionally unprepared for the finality of visualizing a coffin, and everything that comes with that: death, funeral, cremation. I realized I was holding much more inside than I had thought.

Today, we held regular services at Russian River Zendo. We were told that Tony might be present, but Darlene would not see anyone. Cynthia Kear served as doshi, and I was the doan. Shortly after we arrived, Cynthia told me Darlene had said she would like to see all of us after the second sitting for about 10 minutes. By the time the second sitting ended, there were more than 30 people in the zendo. We all quietly went upstairs, unsure what we would find.

I had last seen Darlene at Frederika and Pete’s wedding on Nov. 28. I almost cried when I walked into the living room – she looked so tiny and frail. But her face lit up and she said, “Michelle!” And then greeted each of us by name. She was propped up on the sofa, and had us all gather around her, sitting on the floor. Although it was clear it took some effort, she spoke to us for a few minutes, as a teacher speaking to her sangha. And she sparkled with wit and love, even in her weakened state.

Later, in Cynthia’s dharma talk, she said that Darlene had shared with her about looking into Tibetan death practices, working on ways to face her own end. Darlene had said to her, “It’s amazing how creative I’m having to be around all this!”

It is time for me, as well, to creatively face this death. So I will write over the coming days about grief, loss, sangha, support, and other imponderables.


Comfort Zones

It is so easy to take things for granted, I find, when I move through the world. Without even realizing it, I establish comfort zones all around me, places where it is easy to be who I am.

A simple example. I have been a vegetarian for the last 20 years. My immediate family, and my closest circles of friends, all know this about me. So whenever I am in a social setting with them, they go out of their way to be accommodating. Even the book group that I have been a member of for the past eight years prepares vegetarian options for each dinner when we meet.

On Christmas, Sabrina and I were invited to have dinner with a dear aunt and uncle who had never before hosted us for that meal. My grandmother, another aunt and uncle, three cousins, two of their wives – all told, there were 13 of us, every one of who I had been with on many an occasion, but never exclusively, on their turf.

We sat down at the beautifully decorated table, and the food was brought out – and I realized suddenly that almost every dish had meat in it. The first course was soup and Caesar salad. Couldn’t do the salad – anchovies. Thank goodness, Sabrina and I had made the potato leek soup. But then, it was ham, pasta with shrimp, a bean casserole with bacon, deviled eggs . . .

The worst part is feeling that I will embarrass my hostess by having an empty plate. Luckily, there was a fruit salad, and mashed potatoes. I put the fruit salad in a bowl, and centered that on my plate to take up space, then ladled up a big dollop of potatoes. Then I picked up a dinner roll and some black olives, and ate as slowly as possible.

What I realized, at the end of the meal, was how much I have come to take for granted the fact that so many people in my life make my vegetarianism a non-issue. I wanted to go right home and write thank you notes to everybody.

Similarly, I move within the comfort zones of established social networks, a job that I have held for eight years, a marriage that is secure and nourishing, a sangha I can call my home. Who knows what else I’ve grown blind to?

Staying in familiar places has not always been my modus operandi. During my first 35 years of life, I averaged almost one address change a year. Before this job, I had never worked anywhere longer than two years. My longest relationship was five years, but the average was closer to 18 months. Permanency wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.

Back then, you may have been able to chide me for not having staying power, but you certainly couldn’t have said I was afraid of new things. So it is interesting, now, to be in this place in my life where I find that perhaps I have settled in so comfortably that it is time to readjust.

Maybe it is time to step out of the comfort zone a little more regularly.


RItual in Daily Life

In a dharma talk recently, Susan Spencer spoke about ritual in daily life.

She said the ritual we use in the zendo, from the roles of doan and kokyo, chanting and incense burning, stepping on our left foot as we enter the zendo, or bowing in front of the altar, are not mere rules. They create a container, a space within the community, so something else can happen. She emphasized it is not about being perfect, but about intention.

Outside of the zendo, ritual can be just as important. It is created, once again, by intention and consciousness. It can be formed by something as simple as pouring a cup of tea. If you pour the cup of tea with your full awareness, picking up each object with both hands in its turn, giving each step your complete attention, being absolutely in the moment – you will create a ritual. The person you pour tea for will feel the difference. It will become a spiritual act, a transformative moment.

Susan asked us to reflect on the rituals in our own lives in an exercise after the talk.

Frederika Haskell recalled watching a ritual her parents performed every day which informed her deepest beliefs about love and marriage. Each night, when her father returned home from work, he sought out her mother, wherever she was in the home. He went to her, took her in an embrace, said she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and kissed her. The routine of it, the trust and stability, gave a foundation to the marriage, and gave Frederika expectations about what a true relationship should look like.

Phil McDonel spoke about his morning ritual with his wife Barbara around coffee, an elaborate, two-pot, caffeineted and decaffeinated preparation, exacting in its execution, but more importantly, a time each day they spent together, before heading off in separate directions.

Each of us had our own ideas of how to respond to the query. I love ritual, myself. I adore the aspects of Zen that build familiarity with their routine. Chanting is my favorite, so any services are high on my list. I like memorizing the chants, so I can intone them without a chantbook in hand. My week at Tassajara summer before last was truly wonderful because of the extensive ritual at the large zendo – there were more bells, clappers, incense, chants, services, and a greater number of people participating, so it all felt marvelously other-worldly.

But even in my daily life, I adore creating ritual. I have rituals with my dog – rituals are great with dogs, because they love them, too. They crave routines, and look forward to repeated behaviors. I do many things a certain way – I turn my Coke tab a quarter turn. I line up the seam of my to-go coffee cup with the lid. I fold laundry precisely. My desk and work space are always neat and tidy, with everything just so. This may sound silly – my friends sometimes joke about my OCD tendencies (obsessive/compulsive disorder, for those of you not in the psych-term world) – but it is more than that. Each time I do one of these things, I am being present and aware. I am coming out of the ether into the moment, to touch the object at hand.

What I would like is to make into ritual some of my other activities. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote regularly or only when inspired. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Something to keep in mind for 2011.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved