Everything Changes

In a discussion this evening on the Three Marks of Existence, Tony Patchell focused on impermanence, the flux of life.

The Three Marks are (1) impermanence or inconstancy, (2) dukkha or suffering, and (3) non-self. A fourth mark is also frequently added, that of nirvana, or perfect composure, to round out the set.

Tony began with that most famous of quotes from Suzuki-roshi, when asked to summarize Zen: “Everything changes.” A full acceptance of that fact, of the absolute fact of transciency, goes hand in hand with the concept of selflessness – because what are you, if you change every moment?

Tony said that we as Zen students must first hear those words from a teacher, or read them in Buddhist writings. Then we must contemplate them, and analyze them, studying them until we can bring them to our own understanding. But even that is not enough. The final step is to meditate, to turn to zazen. Because it is only through zazen that we fully comprehend in our bodies what it means to be impermanent, to be always changing.

Impermanency – it is both incredibly terrifying and comforting at the same time. Terrifying for the obvious reasons. All the “good” things will go. When I think about losing those I love (my wife, my friends, my family members, my animals), it makes my heart clamp up. I’m a little less frightened when it comes to objects. I believe that I could recover relatively unscathed from the loss of my car, or my home, or other such items. But even there, I have vulnerable spots. I get frantic thinking about house fires, not only because I worry about all of my dogs and cats, but because I panic at the thought of all of my writings and computer files going up in flames. It’s my words that I’m attached to. Hah! Talk about impermanent!

So how, then, is the thought of impermanency comforting? When I am in a dark place, I know that it will not last. When my legs hurt while I sit zazen, I know that the pain is not endless. When I am frightened, or unsure of myself, or embarrassed, or lonely….everything changes. When I am exhausted, and hopeless, and burned out, pessimistic, angry, frustrated…these feelings pass. What an immense relief to know this is true.

Right now, I am wholly here. Now. And now again. Bam. Right here.

Pay attention. This is it.


From Suzuki Roshi’s View

More thoughts from “Zen Is Right Here,” stories of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi – a selection that represents some of the things I’m struggling with at the moment.

* * * * *
A student of Suzuki Roshi’s, a publisher of Beat poetry, saw his teacher of a year and a half in a private interview. He said that he couldn’t continue, that every time he sat zazen he started to cry. “I can’t take it,” he said. “I’m leaving. I can’t be here anymore.”
Suzuki didn’t tell him to stay. He merely said, “You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper.”

* * * * *
Once in a lecture Suzuki Roshi said, “Hell is not punishment, it’s training.”

* * * * *
On the fourth day of sesshin as we sat with our painful legs, aching backs, hopes, and doubts about whether it was worth it, Suzuki Roshi began his talk by saying slowly, “The problems you are now experiencing…”
“Will go away,” we were sure he was going to say.
“…will continue for the rest of your life,” he concluded.
The way he said it, we all laughed.

* * * * *
A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.”


Life Is Impossible

From Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories & Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki

During a lecture, Suzuki Roshi had said that life was impossible.
“If it’s impossible, how can we do it?” a student asked.
“You do it every day,” Suzuki answered.

For today, I have nothing to add.

(Thanks to Tony for introducing me to this wonderful book.)


Suzuki-roshi, Bodhisattva

Tonight at the Healdsburg sangha, we held a Bodhisattva ceremony, commemorating those in our lives, living or dead, who have helped light the way, and alleviated our suffering and that of others.

People brought photographs and placed them on the altar. I chose to honor Sabrina, my wife, who inspires me continuously with her generosity, compassion, and open heartedness. Darlene Cohen echoed my sentiments by honoring her husband, Tony Patchell, especially for his words years ago that gave her the courage to continue practice when her own spirit was flagging.

Tony brought a beautiful black and white photograph (shown here) of Suzuki-roshi, the Japanese priest who came to the United States and founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and later Tassajara, the first monastic Zen community in the country. Darlene and Tony (and so all of us, their students) are in the lineage of Suzuki-roshi, and Tony brought his image so we would all remember that without this man, we would not be together on this night.

At the recent Rohatsu Sesshin, student Roland Brown gave his “Way-Seeking Mind” talk, telling us how he came to follow the Zen path. In that talk, he shared this quote from Suzuki-roshi:

“Without Way-Seeking Mind, enlightenment is meaningless. With Way-Seeking Mind, even failure is enlightenment.”

Leave it to the great teacher. Somehow, this charming Japanese priest found just the right words, time and again, to calm our worries, to give encouragement, to challenge our smugness, to push us to new discoveries. I never saw him with my own eyes, but feel privileged to be meeting many people who did know him, and can share stories.

For anyone who is interested, a wonderful biography of Suzuki-roshi is available by David Chadwick, entitled “Crooked Cucumber.”


Calling the Ancestors

(Sorry for the delay — I fell asleep at the keyboard last night!)

At the Rohatsu Sesshin this last week, we of the Russian River Zendo chanted the names of our Buddhist ancestors for the first time as a sangha. These chants, intoned at daily services at Tassajara and many other zendos, go through the entire lineage of teachers, those who have brought us “the middle way.”

The first chant begins with “Bibashi Butsu Daiosho Shiki Butsu Daiosho Bishafu Butsu Daiosho Kuruson Butsu Daiosho….” down through “Eihei Dogen Daiosho” and ending with “Shogaku Shunryu Daiosho” and then, with barely a breath in between, on to the women ancestors: “Acharya Mahapajapati Acharya Mitta Acharya Yasodhara…” until finally coming to the last name “Acharya Chiyono.”

“Daiosho” is a Japanese term which means “great teacher,” a title which follows the name, in the same way “Teacher Tanaka” would be rendered “Tanaka-sensei” or, directly translated, “Tanaka teacher.” “Acharya” is a Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher, and it precedes the name.

We did the ancestor chants as part of our morning service, following the chanting of either the Metta Sutta (Loving Kindness Meditation) or Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, which tells practitioners how to do zazen.

I served as kokyo (chant leader) for the sesshin. When preparing for that role, the instruction I was given was to bring my full energy to the task, not being afraid to use a full, resounding voice. Throughout the sesshin, I worked closely with Joan Amaral, who was serving as doan (bell ringer and timekeeper). Joan has a wealth of experience with the “forms” or rituals of Zen, including many years of monastic life at Tassajara. She helped me fine-tune my chanting skills over the five days, working on pronounciation of the Chinese names, over which I stumbled some, and assisting me in setting the pace and rhythm of the chants, particularly the ancestor chants.

Our first attempt at the ancestor chants was a little rough – great spirit, but pretty ragged. But thanks in large part to Joan’s tutelage, I was able to step more firmly into my role as a leader, and as everyone in the zendo grew more familiar with the chants, we really rose to the occasion. By the final day, it literally felt as if we were calling each one of our ancestors into the room to sit with us.

Chanting kept me centered throughout the sesshin. I love the musicality, the repetition, the sounds of the bells. And I hear different aspects of each chant freshly each time, bringing my attention keenly in tune with one section one day, and another the next. Morning, noon, meal time, end of day – lifting our voices out into the mountain sky felt so celebratory. Serving as kokyo was such a delight, that I didn’t want the week to end at all. I wanted to go home and lead chanting services in front of my altar every morning.

But most profound for all of us, as a sangha, was the chanting of the ancestors. I think each one of us experienced the connection to our past, from India to China to Japan to the United States, in a way that we had never fully realized it before.

All the way to Shunryu Suzuki-roshi….who will be the next name in the chant?


Starting Out Perfect

Shunryu Suzuki told a group of Zen students: All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.

It’s a beautifully simple way to express a Buddhist truth – each one of us is a manifestation of Buddha nature. Yes, there are things we should work on: being more open hearted, practicing generosity, avoiding slanderous talk, calming the mind, taming aggressive thought. But don’t lose track of the grandeur of the forest while focusing on all the life-scarred trees.

In Pema Chodron’s lecture series, Practicing Peace in Times of War, she mentions this quote from Suzuki. Taking it further, in a conversation with her own Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chodron asks, What is the one thing you would recommend to Westerners pursuing this path? Her teacher’s reply: Guiltlessness.

Chodron’s teacher said Westerners get caught up in the shame cycle, which serves no one. He said we all act badly, repeatedly – but that is ephemeral, fleeting, impermanent. What is constant and true lies underneath all of that. Our innocent original nature.

It’s the old question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Does it matter how we frame the way we look at ourselves? From the pessimist’s lens, seeing a flawed human being with occasional moments of goodness? Or from the optimist’s lens, seeing a good person with moments of less-than-stellar behavior?

I think it does matter. I wish I had had a Shunryu Suzuki in my childhood, telling me I was perfect, while at the same time encouraging me to keep growing. It might have saved me many, many years of debilitating self-hatred and guilt.

However, that was not my path. I have learned, over the years, to appreciate the rough road, because of where it has brought me. The journey hasn’t been easy, but I am very grateful that I have ended up here. Because here, in this Zen community, hearing the dharma talks of my teachers, reading the works of other Buddhists, I am finally finding the comfort I had been seeking all of my life. Not the comfort of “no problems” – there is still plenty of room for improvement. Instead, what I have found is a place of refuge in sangha and dharma, an increasing willingness to sit still with what is painful, and an ever-expanding sense of connection and possibilities.

I am beginning to see my own Buddha nature. And as for the rest of my imperfect self, I am learning to live in the realm of vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.


The Four Rabbinim

A friend recently turned me on to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Most of you have probably heard of her – she is the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, which every woman seemed to be reading about ten years ago. I knew of her, but had never actually cracked the book. My introduction to her was through a set of CDs called The Creative Fire, dealing with myths and stories about the cycles of creativity. I am putty in the hands of a good storyteller, and she is a delightful master at it. So I decided to check out the book as well.

And there, I ran across this story:

The Four Rabbinim

One night four Rabbinim were visted by an angel who awakened them and carried them to the Seventh Vault of the Seventh Heaven. There they beheld the sacred Wheel of Ezekiel.

Somewhere in the descent from Pardes, Paradise, to Earth, one Rabbi, having seen such splendor, lost his mind and wandered frothing and foaming until the end of his days. The second Rabbi was extremely cynical: “Oh, I just dreamed Ezekiel’s Wheel, that was all. Nothing really happened.” The third Rabbi carried on and on about what he had seen, for he was totally obsessed. He lectured and would not stop with how it was all constructed and what it all meant…and in this way he went astray and betrayed his faith. The fourth Rabbi, who was a poet, took a paper in hand and a reed and sat near the window writing song after song praising the evening dove, his daughter in her cradle, and all the stars in the sky. And he lived his life better than before.

Okay, first I have to admit: I love this story because the poet wins! Not wins – you know what I mean. The poet is the one with the healthiest response, the most life affirming reaction to seeing paradise.

It calls to mind for me Zen teaching I have heard about moments of enlightenment, altered states that result from periods of zazen, or from mindfulness, or those that simply arise as gifts from the universe. What happens if we have one of those moments? Do we go mad? Do we brush it aside with cynicism? Do we intellectualize it to death? Or do we just use that beautiful insight, that moment of connection, to further enrich our own everyday, ordinary lives, penning a poem or writing a song, and then moving on to the next right thing?

In the book The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron tells of a student who has such an enlightenment moment. The student is standing on a street corner, and suddenly she feels no separateness between herself and everything else in her sight, and then that expands to a feeling of connection to the entire world. She is profoundly shaken by this, and rethinks everything she has ever believed. The problem came when she began to despair that she could not maintain this sensation all the time. Everyday life now felt dull and unpurposeful; all she wanted was to re-enter that state of blissful union. She became miserably unhappy.

Suzuki-roshi, too, lectures again and again about not becoming attached to enlightenment or special states. The message seems to be coming loud and clear from many directions.

I like the fact that the poet in this story has “right attitude” – for me, poetry has always been very Zen. It is a crystallization of the now, a nugget of beauty or surprise, a sigh, or simply one deep breath.

So, here is a breath for you, by Zen poet Saigyo:

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.


The Hummingbird

I’m not a nature girl at heart. Although I grew up in the country, and I currently live in the country in Alexander Valley, most of my adult life was spent in cities, and I am much more urban at my core. Because of that, I don’t regularly go to the woods or pasture or ocean to clear my head. It’s not my first instinct. Every time I allow myself to pay attention to that natural world, though, it cuts through to something true and deep.

Yesterday my partner Sabrina and I were sitting out on the deck having a smoke. (Yes, I’m a Buddhist who smokes. I know that’s almost as bad as saying you’re a serial killer in Northern California; let’s just say quitting is on my list, but a lot of other things are on the list, too. I’m working on it.)

Anyway, back to the deck. We have a hummingbird feeder off to one side, and we are constantly entertained by a pair of hummingbirds who swoop in for drinks, and chase each other off, trying to establish dominance over the territory. But as we were sitting out there, a tiny little hummingbird that we hadn’t seen before came flying up, and landed right near our heads, perching on a small mobile we have that is made of a red glass bottle with various baubles and wire. He was so close to us, we were practically holding our breath in order to not scare him away.

The little guy seemed plumb tuckered out, and even though we eventually moved slightly, he did not take off, which struck us both as unusual behavior. Sabrina finally stood up and approached him, and still he did not move. We realized he was just a baby. He looked like he was suffering in the 110 degree heat; Sabrina thought some of the sugar water from the feeder might help revive him. But it was across the deck, and the tiny bird made no move in that direction. He appeared almost too feeble to make the journey.

Then I said, “Why don’t you bring the feeder to him?” Sabrina looked at me like I was crazy. I knew she was thinking, “He’ll never let me come up that close!” But she shrugged, and went to get the feeder. I sat enthralled as she brought it back over, and directly to our little hummingbird. Not only did he stay put, he immediately began to drink out of the feeder. She was handfeeding a baby bird! He stayed for a few more moments, drinking several times, then, physically rejuvenated, he took off, fluttering tentatively across the yard.

It was only after he had gone that we looked in each other’s eyes, and fully realized the sweet little gift that had just been given to us. We had been completely wrapped up in that moment of watching, caring, and feeding. It was a direct experience.

Suzuki-roshi said, “When you study something with your whole mind and body, you will have direct experience.” And he reminds us, too, of what Dogen said: Mountains and rivers, earth and sky – everything is encouraging us to attain enlightenment.

Mountains and rivers, earth and sky…and baby hummingbirds.


Beginner’s Mind

The Zen priests that I study with, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, have asked me to start writing a blog affiliated with their Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, California. At first, I was at a loss as to how to respond to this request. I have been formally practicing Zen for only about three years. What could I possibly have to say that would be worth listening to?

But, Darlene quickly assured me that this is precisely why I should write. She said I have “beginner’s mind,” not because I have attained enlightenment, but because I truly am still a beginner. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi said in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, that the goal of practice in Zen is always to keep that fresh perspective. He said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

I first was exposed to Zen practice many years ago, when I studied aikido, a Japanese martial art, in Seattle. After we practiced, we would sit zazen together. I found it as challenging and invigorating as the martial art itself. It took me many years, and many twists in the road, to come back to this path. But I often reflect on that first experience, and remember my initial impressions.

In aikido, there is a similar concept of “beginner’s mind,” connected to the idea of attaining a black belt. When you begin practice, your belt is white. Over time, through sweat and use, the belt slowly becomes soiled. When it is completely black, indicating the years you have dedicated to the art, that is when others often recognize you as a master. But — soon after that, if you continue to practice, the top layer of the belt will actually wear away, revealing once again the bright, new white cloth. In other words, when meeting a martial artist wearing a white belt, there is no way to tell — is he or she a beginner or the head teacher at the dojo?

So, in the interest of full disclosure — I am no Zen master. I am just one of many who practice, and search, make mistakes, and try again. I invite you along for the journey.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved