Tony Patchell


Not Knowing

Our teacher Tony Patchell shared with us tonight a famous koan or Zen teaching story.

Teacher Dizang asked the student Fayan, “What is your journey?”
Fayan said, “I’m going on pilgrimmage.”
Dizang said, “What do you expect from pilgrimmage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Tony explained that words in these stories are always multi-layered. Here, “journey” is not only literal. It can also refer to Fayan’s Zen practice. Or he could be asking, “What does life mean? Why is it a mystery?”

In Zen, “intimacy” is often used in place of the words “enlightenment” or “realization.” Many of us come to practice originally hoping for a sudden shift, an awakening, a moment of clarity that will change everything – something more akin to the Japanese word “satori.”

Tony said he prefers the word “intimacy” because it has less baggage. We slowly get closer to our Zen selves; it rarely happens like a stroke of lightening. Suzuki-roshi famously described it as walking in the fog – you eventually get wet without realizing it.

In the same way, we become intimate without fully understanding how that takes place. Tony said when we know something, we tend to lock ourselves into it. It’s like the military axiom – we’re always fighting the last war. When we don’t know things, we are open to new experiences, and ready to see people and circumstances differently.

In my own life, I immediately thought of my experiences with trauma. As a child and young adult, I learned to respond to dangerous, unhealthy situations in a certain way. At that time, they were the only options I had, and although they did not keep me entirely safe, they at least allowed me to function at some level.

I am no longer in those situations. Yet, my first impulse is often to respond in the same old ways. Such is the nature of trauma. My mind and my body yell out: “I know!” and set themselves into rigid patterns of behavior and response. It requires great courage to say, “I don’t know.” And intimacy. Because the moment I say, “I don’t know,” I have to actually look at the person in front of me as a unique individual, instead of as a representative of a class or group. I have to open myself up, and look into his or her eyes. It is a very intimate act.

Perhaps that is not exactly what Dizang meant when he spoke those words. But they certainly resonate for me.



Our sanghas have, in the last weeks, completed the final ceremonies in farewell to our teacher Darlene Cohen. On Feb. 25, her funeral was held at Green Gulch, and on March 1, we conducted her 49th day service at the Healdsburg sangha, the day signaling her spirit’s departure from this world to the next.

I had never been to Green Gulch Zen Center before. The zendo is a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged building, with a large Buddha at the center altar. The room was packed with people. I learned later that nearly 300 people were in attendance. Tony told me he had only seen the zendo that crowded on one other occasion – when the Dalai Lama came to speak. That gives you some idea of the far-reaching appeal of Darlene, the number of lives she has touched.

The service was surprisingly simple, despite the 20 or more people involved in the opening procession, and the large number of priests in black robes. We ended it with a group shout for Darlene – of joy and of grief – which felt entirely appropriate.

I was surprised to find myself unemotional. I think it was too big a group, with too much going on. I tend to shut down in those kinds of situations.

On March 1, we had a more private service, for the 49th day recognition. I acted as kokyo (chant leader), and we offered chocolate, tea, and incense, as I then chanted these words:

Through the power of your wisdom and compassion,
aid Darlene at this time of transition. She has taken
a great leap. The light of this world has faded for her.
She has entered the vast presence, borne
by her karma into the ocean of all existence.

Compassionate ones, care for your daughter, Darlene,
with the endless merit of your great vows. May she
together with all beings be completely enlightened.

It was at this service I felt tears in my eyes. Because this is my home sangha, the one where I imagine Darlene sitting next to Tony, giving a dharma talk. It is here I was looking directly at Tony, seeing his pain and loneliness. Here, I was feeling our mutual loss.

May we all find strength and comfort with each other.

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.


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.


We Need Our Own MASH Unit

This past weekend, we went up to Sea Ranch to spend four days at a rental property with family, who had been visiting for my grandmother’s birthday celebration. Sabrina and I were very much looking forward to a mini-vacation; we had hired a pet-sitter, cleaned the house, packed our bags, and headed for the coast, ready for some down time.

It was a little more than we bargained for. Throughout the weekend, there were people coming and going, with anywhere from two to six children, ranging in age from two to fourteen. At one point, there were four under the age of eight. Let’s just say it was lively, especially for two people who are childless.

But still, we were having a good time. It was great visiting with my sister and brother-in-law from New York, who I had missed a great deal, with their little guy Ty, my special nephew, and spending time with my sister and her three boys from Tennessee. We ate good food, had a gorgeous view of the ocean from our dining room table, and when it got too crazy, I holed up in my room to read or take a nap.

The trip got cut short, though, on Saturday afternoon, when Sabrina stubbed her toe on a coffee table. What? I know, what’s the big deal, right? Well, she broke that toe, and she did a doozy on it. It was sticking out at a very weird angle. We ended up helping her out to the truck, and I drove her to Kaiser in Santa Rosa, where x-rays confirmed what we suspected. Today, she had to go in to see a podiatrist, because the toe was not aligned properly, so they had to yank on it to try to get it lined up. She’s now in bed, after being in terrible pain all day, barely able to walk with a cane.

Geez. This is getting ridiculous. In the past nine months, we have had a chipped beak (Barney the parrot), lens luxation/sudden onset glaucoma leading to loss of an eye (Houla the dog), thumb surgery to correct arthritis (Sabrina the human), two heart attacks (Barney the parrot), a scratched cornea (Michelle the human), a leg infection leading to hospitalization (Gladys the grandmother), and now a broken toe (Sabrina the human). Each incident above necessitated a trip to the emergency room, either at the veterinary hospital or the human hospital – some of them required more than one trip. (I think there were actually a couple of other incidents, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.)

My teacher Tony, upon hearing about the broken toe, said we needed our own MASH unit. I think he’s right. Remarkably, throughout all of this, everything has turned out OK. No loss of life, no debilitating damage. My whole family is still in good health, functioning, and doing the best we can to deal with each one of these challenges as they come our way.

Sometimes, in the midst of all this, I bemoan the fact that I have no time to practice Zen. I have had to miss my Tuesday night sitting a number of times, and will have to again tomorrow, as I want to be at home to help Sabrina prepare some dinner after being alone all day while I am at work. Even though I know this is what I must do, part of me chides myself for being a “bad” Zen student for being so caught up in these day-to-day crises. Then I ran across this story:

From “Zen Is Right Here” by Suzuki Roshi:

A woman told Suzuki Roshi she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a housewife. “I feel I am trying to climb a ladder. But for every step upward, I slip backward two steps.”
“Forget the ladder,” Suzuki told her. “In Zen, everything is right here on the ground.”


No Permanence, Joyful Open Eyes

To quote Dainin Katagiri, in “Each Moment Is the Universe

When you see in the proper way, what do you see? You see the true nature of time. In Japanese we say mujo. Mu is “nothing” and jo is “permanence,” so mujo means “no permanence” or “impermanence.” Seeing impermanence is not to face a kind of nihilism that leads to despair; it is to become yourself, as you really are, with joyful open eyes. Thinking in the proper way is not to understand life through your intellect; it is to contemplate deeply how to live every day based on wisdom. When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair. That is the basis of a complete way of human life.

The true nature of time. That is definitely something I am grappling with at the moment. One of my co-workers, in my small, four-person office, has announced that she is leaving on Aug. 11. We will be hiring a replacement, but probably not until mid-October. Three of us can put out the newspaper, but it means that no one can be out on vacation, or sick, or not carrying their weight. Since I had not taken any vacation time yet this year, and saw that my opportunities were fast disappearing, I rapidly requested a week off, just to stay at home and regroup.

My plan for this week was to catch up on sleep, do some reading, spend time on my own writing, move organically through the days. Too quickly, though, I found myself distracted by chores and “have to” items, with the sense that I was not getting the indulgence I deserved. I ended up harried and dissatisfied, instead of relaxed, exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for.

Reading this Katagiri quote, which my teacher Tony Patchell shared with me a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I was going about the whole thing in the wrong way. Well, wrong might be too strong a word. How about “misguided”? Instead of trying to create perfect days where nothing interrupts and everything goes my way, I can find much greater satisfaction in facing each moment of every day, no matter the challenges, with humor, wisdom, and presence.

Clinging to the idea of a perfect week off, or even an ideal afternoon, brings up those feelings of despair. Where is my life going? What am I doing with myself? Where do the days go? But when I focus instead on this moment, the task right in front of me, my breathing slows. My sense of harmony increases. I hear the Mozart playing in the background as I type. The brain quiets, and wisdom creeps in. It actually becomes possible to see with joyful, open eyes.


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.


Baking a Cake, Finding Sangha

Tomorrow, members of our sangha will be meeting to bake cakes for Buddha’s birthday celebration, which will be held on Sunday. Our sangha has a tradition of preparing Boston cream pies, using Darlene Cohen’s mother’s recipe.

This year, I will not be among the cake-baking team, having been given a reprieve by Tony Patchell because he knew I’ve been swamped at work the last couple of weeks since my boss is out of town. I will instead be spending the day taking a much-needed rest and relaxation break with my partner Sabrina.

But I will miss being part of the cake crew. I have participated twice, and both occasions proved fertile ground for stretching myself.

The first year, I had just started to attend Zen sittings in Healdsburg. I was a sporadic attendant, very hesitant about my participation, and unsure about whether or not this was the place for me. I showed up at the cake baking day, held at Phil and Barbara McDonel’s house, with the same half in/half out mindset. At that point in my life, I was terrified of cooking. I was able to do very simple baking, by myself, like chocolate chip cookies. But something complicated, like these cakes, was way beyond my comfort level. And to do it in front of other people? So, what I did was watch. There were seven or so people there, and so no shortage of hands to help. I pretended that no one noticed that I wasn’t actually doing anything. I just moved from one side of the kitchen to the other, chatting, munching on the snacks that were out, watching. But I didn’t do a single thing to help.

The second time I went to bake the cakes, I was much more firmly entrenched in my practice. I was sitting regularly, and had begun to feel a part of the sangha. I had also begun to teach myself how to cook. From the moment I arrived, I was a part of the team, instead of just an onlooker. I was assigned to make the cake batter.

For those of you not familiar with a Boston cream pie, it consists of a layer of cake, a layer of pudding, topped by another layer of cake, all of which is covered in rich chocolate frosting. Because we were expecting a big crowd at the party, we were going to make two cakes.

I was right in the middle of the action, doubling the portions, making enough for two cakes. But somewhere along the line, I missed the concept, and didn’t realize that each completed cake had, essentially, two cakes inside it, so that there would be four cakes total to bake. I made all that batter, and poured it into two cake pans, and popped it into the oven. We were all watching it expectantly, to see how it was doing. And I said, “Wow, it’s really rising high.” Eventually, somebody figured out that I had poured two cakes’ worth of batter into each cake pan — oops!

Initially, I panicked. I had been feeling so much a part of the group, so good about belonging. And then, feeling that I had screwed up, all of my old fears about inadequacy and rejection, etc. came up. I wanted to disappear. I began to make another batch of batter right away.

But then, a funny thing happened. We got creative, and we started thinking our way out of the problem. It turned out that the cakes still baked okay, all the way through. And we found that we were able to slice the mushroomed cap off the top, salvaging it as a separate layer. The whole thing ended up working after all. And through it, there was humor, and forgiveness, and community.

That was the first day I understood what sangha meant.


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.


Don’t-Know Mind

The late Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, in “The Compass Of Zen,” said:

If you keep a don’t-know mind 100 percent, then your demons can‘t find you. Suffering cannot find you. Karma, problems, …. coming and going, good and bad –– nothing can touch you when you only keep a don’t-know mind. This don’t-know mind is your most important treasure; it can do anything. It is not dependent on God or Buddha, (Theravadan), Mahayana or Zen. It is not dependent on life and death.

Tony Patchell used this quote in a recent dharma talk. It called out to me. I think the call came because I have, by default, a “must-know mind.” I must know exactly how to act in every situation. I must know when my depression will be over, and my life will return to some semblance of normalcy. I must know the difference between right and wrong. I must know in what way to appropriately express love, and fear, and anger. I must know what will happen tomorrow. I must know what you think of me. I must know everything.

I must know that all of this “must know” is going to cause unrelenting grief and suffering.

Don’t know. Forever a beginner. Always open. Never the same. What freedom lies in those simple words!

I am struggling, struggling, fighting, flailing. I am falling through open air. I am headed for the rocks, and I don’t know if I will crash, splintering, or if I will suddenly sprout wings and fly away in another direction.

Don’t-know mind is not dependent on life and death. It is not dependent on waking or sleeping, on grasping or letting go. It is not dependent on anything, because it is dependent on everything. Emptiness is full; fullness is empty.

One drop, a torrential rainstorm. A single thought, the beauty of the ten thousand things.

How do you hold onto not holding on?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved