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.)


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.


Sitting Alone with Ourselves

The act of sitting alone with ourselves on the cushion is on the one hand so ordinary, so simple. It is quiet, no fireworks, little ceremony. A human being sitting still on a cushion in a hushed room, that is all.

And yet. At the same time, it is the most extraordinary thing in the world. It is precisely what so many of us spend much of our lives trying to avoid. We fill up our days with busyness and noise and social interaction, with drama and intrigue, aspirations and dreams. We are constantly moving and striving, reaching ahead or desperately trying to hold onto what is slipping away.

Beryl Markham, a female aviator who grew up in Africa in the early 1900s, lived a life of adventure and boldness. Her childhood was spent learning to hunt wild boar and other creatures of the African jungles with the Masai people. She also raised horses with her father, eventually becoming the first licensed female horse trainer in Africa to support herself at age 16 when her father lost the family estate after several years of severe drought. Soon after that, she learned to fly an airplane, and became a freelance pilot, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1936, she made a solo flight from England to Nova Scotia, the first woman to make the westward Atlantic crossing solo and the first person to make it from England to America nonstop.

In her memoir, West with the Night, Markham talks about the real challenge of that 20 hour flight. Surprisingly, it is not the fear of death, or the technical aspects of flying. It is the huge expanse of time that she had to sit alone with herself.

She said:

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents — each man to see what the other looked like.

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind — such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

The Atlantic crossing, really, was not simply a feat of a woman and a plane, a show of technical mastery and bravery. It was also, in a way, a grueling tangaryo, a 20-hour straight period of zazen, sitting upright in a very small plane, balanced atop fuel tanks, with much of the flight taking place in the dead of night, with almost no visibility. It was truly a meeting of oneself, the stranger.

And so, when we sit, we too are undertaking a hero’s journey. Crossing to the other side, whether it is to the other side of the Atlantic in a small plane, or to the other side of our own fears in our own rooms, requires a hero’s courage and steadfastness.

Rendering the ordinary extraordinary – and ourselves face to face with the stranger. No small task.


Letting in the Sun

Since sometime in late December, I have been struggling fairly continuously with a bleak and utterly dismal depression. It had nothing of the poetic to it. No grand internal explorations or even that oft quoted dark night of the soul. It was pure dullness, a lack of spark. It was simply a dreariness, an inability to find pleasure or yearning or even ache.

It was like the blanket of ash coating Iceland following the volcanic eruption. Perhaps, at its source, there was spectacle, lightning, fire. But for the farmers, those left with the fallout, there was only the dreary work of shoveling soot, tromping through foot-deep muck, trying to save livestock, calming the wild-eyed horses. And an eerie, unending silence, as if somehow the entire world had lost its ability to sound.

Moving about in my cloak of invisible ash, I have gone to work, taken care of my dogs, done the household chores most in need of doing. I have shown up when I needed to show up, for the most part, except on those days when the proverbial ash grew so heavy, that I could not even leave the house. But I cut out all of the extraneous things, the things I love (or used to love) that required too much energy – the book group I’ve been part of for seven years, the piano lessons, even my writing group. I conserved. I saved my strength.

I had been here before. The heaviness had come and gone in the past, and so, somewhere inside of me, I trusted that it would end again. And yet still, that trust wavered. The months grew so long.

On Friday, I walked out onto the deck and looked across the yard at our newly planted garden. It was the same garden that had been there the week before, with slightly larger young plants, true, but the same. No, not the same. It was resplendent with possibilities.

I breathed. I looked out across the valley. It was as if someone had scrubbed the very air with newness and light. Someone let the sun back in.

I went to sit zazen with my Healdsburg sangha for the first time in three weeks tonight. The light followed me into the room. It went in and out of my body with each breath. And then on, to the bodies of my sangha members sitting with me, supporting me. I was bathed in sunlight.

No judgment. Enjoy what is here now. Be ready for what may come. Trust. Sit.


Would I Need a ’49ers Jersey, Too?

We had an all-day sit at Russian River Zendo today. As is usual with such events, there were so many layers.

On the positive side: It was gorgeous, sunny and crisp, especially pleasant for our two outside walking meditations. There was a nice cohesiveness to the group, a coming together, a forming of sangha that felt very nourishing. Everyone put themselves wholeheartedly into their service roles, whether serving tea or preparing the noon time meal.

On the less-than-perfect side: I have had trouble sitting lately, and my hips have grown very tight. As the day progressed, I was in more and more pain. I had to shift and move and reposition frequently, each time more self consciously. I struggled with wondering whether or not I was doing the right thing to continue to sit on the cushion, instead of moving to a chair. Was I simply being stubborn? Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was the level of agony in my hips so severe that I was about as far removed as possible from any kind of mindful meditation?

I was acting as doan for the day, which made it both better and worse for me. Better, because I was able to look at the time and calculate when I could reposition so that I’d be able to walk when I rang the bell for kinhin. Worse, because I always feel that in such a role I should be setting some kind of example of steadfastness, and today I felt anything but that.

Somehow, though, I managed to get through the day in good humor. The pain, thankfully, only affected my hips, not my mood.

When I returned home, I called my grandmother, Gladys, for one of our regular check-in phone calls. I told her about my day, explaining that I had been at an all-day meditation retreat. I said I my hips had been hurting because I was sitting on the floor. She said, “You need to get some padded pants.” I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t exactly like that, it was more the position I was in that was uncomfortable. She listened, asking more questions. “So how long did you sit?” I said, “From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” She said, “All day?” I said, “Well, we have breaks. We have lunch, and tea, and take short walks.” She was quiet for a moment.

Then she said, “You know what you need. You need a pair of those football pants. With the pads built in.” I laughed and said, “I’m not sure that would look quite right.” She paused. “Well, you could wear them under your skirt.”

That visual just about did me in. Thank goodness for grandmothers.

We did continue our discussion, and came up with one other solution. Gladys is a seamstress, and she said she’d be happy to help me sew some support pillows. Not quite as fun as football pants, but equally full of grandmotherly love.


The Bull Transcended

(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

7. The Bull Transcended

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.

We chanted the Shin Shin Ming tonight at sangha, The Mind of Absolute Trust. It is the oldest poem from Chinese Zen, that serves as a manifesto of sorts for the Zen path. Reading the comments today (all is one law, not two; of fish and net, one path) reminded me of this chant, because it is filled with seeming paradoxes, putting two disparate things next to each other and then stating that they are one and the same.

Examples from the chant include:
One instant is ten thousand years.
The tiny is as large as the vast…the vast is as small as the tiny.
There is no self, no non-self.
The best you can say is not two. In this not-two, nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It seems to me that this is what has happened at this point in our story of the ten bulls. Up to now, there were two separate entities, the self and the bull. In seeing, catching, taming, riding the bull, there was always a sense of attainment, mastery, bending to one’s will, even using a whip and rope. Now, we have entered a new phase. The bull and the self are both resting. There is no need for the rope and whip. There is a merging, a changing of two into one, and in that paradox, which is called here “home,” there is time to rest.

When my zazen periods gift me with moments of grace, it is like this. Unbidden, I find myself at home on the cushion. I rest in a way that is active and alert while at the same time completely quiet and calm. And when I fall abruptly back into the world of differentiation, rather than berate myself for having an imperfect practice, I am attempting to train myself to smile. Good humor is nearly as restful as good zazen.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.


Taming the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls”)

5. Taming the Bull

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Comment: When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity. Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.

I’m not sure how successfully I am training the bull. I would venture to guess that the most sure-fire way to do so is to sit regularly, on good days and bad, when it is easy and when it is hard. I still struggle with this. Because things have been difficult lately, I have wandered away from daily practice. And when I do sit, it frequently feels rather pointless and frustrating.

One positive note, though: my recent questioning and self-doubt have not led me to the bigger doubt of wondering whether or not Zen is my path. That remains sure and true. I have committed to this, in a way that I seldom am able to commit. I have retained the most important aspects of my practice, as much as I have been able. Last Sunday, I finished sewing my rakusu, after four months of weekly sessions with my fellow sangha members who will be going through jukai. Since much of that four-month period I have been plagued with depression, it truly felt like an accomplishment, a sign of discipline, to have shown up week after week to sew.

I also have managed to continue with this blog, which has become part of my practice. Even though last month I wrote much less than the previous months – still, I wrote. I sat down in front of the computer and tried to find small truths that would help me get through each day.

On Saturday, I served as kokyo/doan (chant leader/time keeper) at Russian River Zendo for the two sitting periods and service that are held there weekly. I did not want to go; I had had an exhausting and physically challenging week. And my body was sore and uncooperative, making the periods of zazen difficult. But I did it; I showed up. Perhaps that is one way of “holding the nose-ring tight and not allowing even one doubt.” Because what this Zen story says proved correct; one thought arising from enlightenment led to other true thoughts. Showing up for my commitment helped me to reconnect to the sangha, and to push through my resistance towards sitting, and to find in-the-moment joy even in the midst of my difficulties.


The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.


A New Year, New Decade

When I was in highschool, watching the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time, that date seemed so far off in the future. I was sure we’d all be travelling around in Jetson-family-like hovercrafts, and taking one small pill every day to supply all of our dietary needs.

It never even occurred to me then that in 2010, I would still feel young.

New Year’s is a good time to reflect on the past, what has worked, what has not worked, and plan for the future. I tend to get a little carried away with self-improvement plans, though, and set unrealistic goals. So this year, I’m thinking maybe I’ll space things out a bit, tackle things one at a time.

First on the list: I’m embarrassed to say this, because it’s such a cliche. But I’ve got to get a handle on my food intake, weight and fitness. This is a huge stumbling block for me, one that I have wrestled with for many, many years. I’m trying to figure out how to frame it so I can really make a positive change that sticks. Something about healthy choices: food as fuel, exercise as daily maintenance. And throw in there some Zen awareness about each mouthful, so that I know I eat in the full presence of every bite, hoping that will eliminate all of the unnecessary calories.

Second: Continue on the path I am on towards jukai, and expand my knowledge of the Zen community. I feel firmly placed within my sangha, so this should not be hard. I would like to return to Tassajara again this year, and also, if possible, make time for some short stays or even day visits to City Center and Green Gulch, since I have never been to those places. I hope to expand my reading on Zen in particular and Buddhism in general, so that I can begin to get a grasp of the wonderfully rich heritage of this tradition. I also want to re-commit to daily sitting at home, since I’ve been somewhat lax about that lately.

Third: As a writer, I have made good progress in the past year. After attending a writing retreat in August, I was much more productive than I have been in ages. I have finally started writing short fiction (in addition to poetry and essays), something I had wanted to try for years, and I am enjoying it immensely. I have two strong writing partners who I can share my work with, and look forward to continuing to build those relationships. A focus this coming year will be on moving towards a more regular writing practice, and being brave enough to submit to journals and magazines.

Fourth: Read more! Of everything!

And that’s probably enough to work on, at least for now. There are a couple other big ticket items (like quitting smoking) that I hope to get to soon, but I want to try to get a handle on these first. At least get the momentum going, anyway. I’ll have to quit smoking eventually, if I even dream of being able to be the kokyo for the Full Moon Ceremony. No way I’ll have the lung capacity otherwise!

Anybody out there have some goals for the year? Care to share? We could form an online support group!



During this past week’s Rohatsu Sesshin (Buddha’s enlightenment meditation period), I spent many of my “thinking” moments planning how I would write about everything I was experiencing. Now that I am home, and back in the everyday routine, I find the opposite is true – I am resisting sitting down to the keyboard, wanting to hold onto visuals and sensory perceptions without reducing them to words on the page.

The five days held an entire lifetime of emotion, sensation, pain, suffering, energy and joy, all flowing from one to the other. The routine was simple: we sat, we did kinhin (walking meditation), we ate, we chanted services, listened to dharma talks, and slept. Most of the day was spent in either zazen or kinhin. Zazen typically lasted 30 minutes, and the three long days had 14 separate sessions of zazen. That’s a lot of time to be alone with yourself.

The first thing I noticed was heightened sensory awareness. The room we used as our zendo had flat industrial carpet, but over the center of the room, there were two large area rugs. As we did kinhin, I felt the plush, deep pile of the rug near my zabuton, followed by the thinner, more threadbare texture of the second rug, then the firm carpet. Each cycle around the room sent these sensations in through my feet and throughout my body.

The day was marked by the sounds of bells and clappers: the small bell to signal transition periods, the large deep toned bell used in service, the still bigger, bold bell calling us to sit first thing in the morning and after each meal, the clappers marking the beginnings and endings of meals and tea.

Added to these sounds were those of the elements. It was a wintery week, with mist, drizzle, and sometimes wild downpours and gusting winds. Sitting in the zendo and hearing the rain pummel the roof, and the wind buffet the windows, there was a connection to nature that felt profound and joyful. There was even one kinhin period outside where we got caught in a sudden torrent of water, drenching our clothes and faces. So the rain was not just a sound, but also a body sensation: cold, wet, clean.

And of course, there were all the gurgles and breaths and coughs of fellow practitioners in the zendo. Bodies spoke to each other; one person’s stomach would rumble, and then the stomachs near by would call out a response. Even the sound of swallowing was perceptible, ricocheting around the room from one seated figure to the next.

The long sit periods held challenges for each of us, as we coaxed our uncooperative and gradually tiring bodies into yet one more session of zazen after each strike of the bell. What kept me going was the incredible example being set all around me, watching and feeling those in my sangha sit and sit and sit in stillness.

I found myself, of course, running after my thoughts during these quiet moments. I covered a lot of ground for someone sitting still on a zabuton. When I realized that I had once again gotten lost in my mind, I would silently chant a short passage from the Fukanzazengi: Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

During dharma talks, Darlene Cohen told us, as the days wore on, that we would begin feeling a building energy from all of this zazen. She called this energy piti, which is a Pali word meaning rapture, bliss or delight, the pleasurable quality in the mind generated during meditation. She urged us not to squander this piti by succumbing to the desire to talk to our bunkmates, but instead to plow it back into our practice, putting the giddiness and joy right back at the center of our sitting.

I did experience piti – unbidden, a growing, irrepressible joy built up over the five days. I also felt a very deep and strong connection, to my sangha, to myself, to the ancestors and to Buddhist tradition. I experienced a profound awakening, or more accurately, a series of awakenings, each one building upon the last.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All human miseries come from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That is the challenge we set for ourselves – come face to face with all of our imperfections, the wayward behavior of our wandering minds, the rollercoaster ride of our emotions – and through it all, sit, just sit, and sit some more, in a quiet room alone.

My life was changed. Perhaps that was true for each of us. Perhaps that change will ripple throughout the world.


On Altars

Creating an altar for yourself is a beautiful part of the Buddhist practice. You can, of course, decide one day that you’d like an altar, and go out to purchase everything necessary. But what is far more satisfying is to let the altar evolve, so that each item on it has special meaning and relevance to you.

My altar is a collection of items on top of a square low table, one that I picked up at a garage sale. The minute I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted. It was the right height, and big enough that it could hold a wide collection of important artifacts.

At its center is a 16 inch tall wooden Buddha. I first saw one similar to it at a Indonesian dance performance in Santa Rosa. When I inquired, I was told they were sold at Gado Gado, an import store. There are numerous Buddha figures there, including the large wooden ones, with different mudras, or hand postures. The one I chose uses the mudra of reasoning.

Over the Buddha’s arm hangs a mala, or string of wooden prayer beads, that I purchased at a temple in Kyoto when I lived there 16 years ago. I have a second mala sitting in a stone dish – this mala is from my wedding to Sabrina last summer, where we exchanged malas as well as wedding bands as we recited our vows. I also have candle holders that were used in our wedding.

There are several small flower vases that I use to hold buds. One is from my sister Ali. Another is from a Japanese friend. I also have a bamboo plant in a vase, near the back of the altar.

A second, smaller Buddha figure is a token from a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Tibetan singing bowl was an anniversary gift from Sabrina. The incense bowl I found online at Shoyeido, the Japanese incense store.

And one of my favorite items is a small, hand-made purple tea cup, roughly shaped with imperfect edges. I bought it at a small roadside teahouse in Korea in 1993. It epitomizes the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, beauty in the imperfect. It now holds my used matches.

When I sit down in front of my altar to light candles and incense, I am pulling together the energy of my wife, my sister, my friends. I am joining the places of Japan and Indonesia and Cambodia and Tibet. I am uniting aesthetics with spirituality, art with practice.

When I sit down, I feel like I have just come home.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved