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.

Street Corner Challenges

Today in Calistoga, two young men set up a table at the corner near the post office with political propaganda. They were there to speak on behalf of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. All well and good. But their main signs were two large face shots of President Barack Obama, with a drawn-in Hitler moustache.

The post office is just next door to the Tribune office. All day, people stopped in to vent, speaking in outrage about their reaction to the use of Hitler as an image. We explained that we were aware of the men, that they had been present in Calistoga the previous year and we had run a story on them, and we were choosing not to cover it this year – because that’s precisely what they want, more press coverage.

Still, it was making my own blood boil. I hated the fact that they were out there. At lunch, my boss Pat and I decided to hop in the car and drive out to Home Plate cafe for grilled cheese sandwiches (me) and fish and chips (her). The stop sign out of the parking lot put us directly alongside the men at their table. One young man stepped clear of the sign, gestured towards it with his hand, and looked up at me with an inviting expression.

And I calmly flipped him off.

He wagged his finger at me, equally calmly, with a “Tsk, tsk” look, and then we drove away. As soon as we left, I regretted my reaction. What made it even more ironic, even comical, was that on that very morning, on the way in to work, I had been listening to a book on CD by Thich Nhat Hahn called “True Love” about the practice of awakening the heart. He spoke extensively about calming the mind before action, so that one can reach out with love. I don’t think he meant to be calm while giving someone the finger!

It gnawed at me for a couple of hours. Finally, I walked over to the corner, and apologized. I said, “Earlier, I flipped you off, and I wanted to say I’m sorry.” The young man said, “Oh, I don’t remember you. There have been a lot of people who have flipped me off.” I then said, “What I have a problem with is…” And he said, “It’s the moustache, right?” And I said yes. He then proceeded to go into a nonsensical political diatribe equating Obama (and every other president since Kennedy) to Hitler because they are “budget cutters,” saying their policies of “depopulation” are the same as genocide. I listened for a few moments, attempted to explain how Hitler should never be used in any comparision, then realized it was fruitless. I wished him luck with his free speech, and turned to go.

In the end, then, I accomplished little in the way of communication. No minds were changed on either side. But I did, at least, clean up my mess by acknowledging my bad behavior. And that left me feeling much more at peace than I had after the moment in the car.


Hard News

As a small-town community journalist, much of the time I cover events and happenings which range from the tedious (school board proceedings and planning commission deliberations) to the repetitious (annual fundraisers, parades, benefits and other activities). There are also many feel-good stories: new businesses opening, personal profiles of remarkable citizens, tales of unusual pets or hobbies.

The Calistoga Tribune is a serious, dedicated little newspaper, and we take our job to heart. We do not flinch from the real news. So we also deal with the tensions that do arise, when conflict breaks out in the city council, or economic woes plague local businesses, or budget crisis threatens to bankrupt the city coffers.

For me, though, as a journalist, the toughest stories are the accident and crime stories. When two teen-agers driving drunk are killed on the Silverado Trial when they veer in front of another driver, and they are all local residents, or when, like last year, a young man is gunned down in his car, the first murder in Calistoga in decades. Or when a local school board trustee’s daughter is stabbed to death in a nearby city, or a Calistoga mother accidentally runs down an elderly pedestrian in a crosswalk, killing her instantly.

These are the painful stories. My job as a reporter is to call the people involved, to find out the facts, to get the news. But the last thing I want to do is to interfere in any way in these moments of shock and grief. I feel like a horrid parasite, an intruder. What I have to do, to get myself through it, is remind myself if I can do it well, I will be doing the person a favor, letting them tell their story with as much grace and honesty and dignity as possible – always respecting any request for a comment that is “off the record” during the conversation.

A few weeks ago, three elderly women were housesitting for an artist in town. Returning to the house after dinner at a local restaurant, they interrupted a burglar. The man indicated he had a gun under his shirt, and said if they didn’t cooperate, he would shoot them. One managed to escape to the back yard and call 911. After some time, the other two were able to get away and lock themselves in a bathroom. The burglar (now kidnapper) fled, stealing a pickup from a neighboring property. A SWAT team, sheriffs and police arrived, but were unable to locate him. It turned out later he had left his cell phone plugged into an outlet near the studio. With that information, they identified him, and put out a bulletin. The next week, the man called police and turned himself in.

It turns out that the brother never did have a gun – it was only pretend. So this terrible burglary gone bad has now turned into something very serious because of an imaginary gun – three counts of kidnapping, two counts of elder abuse, one count of abuse, plus the count of burglary.

Initial reports described him as itinerant, but I heard he had at some point lived in Calistoga. He was a Latino man, and his name was unusual. I asked our former city councilmember, a sort of Latino ambassador, if he knew who his relations were. He said he was pretty sure he was kin to a local restaurant owner. I know this restaurant owner, so I went over to speak to him. I asked the hard question: Is this man your brother? The answer was yes. The weight and heaviness showed in his body. This man, this good man, has carried so much. He lost his teen-age son to cancer when I first started writing for the Tribune. He has another young son who has been in a lot of trouble lately. He has been struggling with the restaurant, trying desperately to keep going, putting in long hours, never taking a day off. And now this.

He told me the brother had been in an accident 18 months ago, run over by a car. Since then, the brother had “not been right in the head.” He had been making poor decisions, unable to determine right from wrong. Still, this restaurant owner, my friend, was making no excuses for him. He said, “He must pay for his mistakes.”

When my friend told me all of this, I knew as a journalist I should be writing it down, preparing to put his words into my next follow-up story. But in that moment, I could only see his eyes, his sadness, the terrible burdens he carried. I walked up to him, and said, “I’m so sorry.” And I gave him a hug.

He needed that hug much more than the community needed the facts.


Walking with a Busy Mind

Our teacher Tony sent us an e-mail last week saying he noticed that our kinhin (walking meditation) could use some work. He asked us to watch a nine-minute video on YouTube to pick up some pointers.

The video is by a priest living in Japan. He has numerous instructional clips online, covering a wide range of topics. The format is very simple – just a priest in his robes, alone, standing in a tatami mat zendo next to a scroll, in front of a video camera.

His offerings about kinhin are very basic. He says to walk following the rhythm of the breathing, feet slightly apart gently in alignment with the hips, talking small steps roughly equivalent to half a step forward at a time. When reaching a place where you must turn, make the corner sharp, not curved. The gaze is to be focused one meter ahead, just as in zazen. He says, “There is no need to look anywhere, because in kinhin, we don’t go anywhere.”

He says to make the walk very simple, almost casual. “The feeling of dignity is not achieved through great self-awareness.”

But it is the comment right at the end of the video that really spoke to me. He said kinhin is tricky, because as soon as the body moves, the mind moves. “That’s why kinhin is very, very stormy.” He said to simply be aware of it, come back to this presence, and go on.

I was so relieved when I heard him speak those words. All along, I thought it was just me. From early on, kinhin has been the most challenging part of my sitting practice, because my mind goes romping through the room, creating all kinds of chaos. I struggle to keep my gaze focused. I do things like count the number of people in the room, look at everyone’s socks, plan the upcoming service.

At one of my first all-day sits, kinhin nearly did me in. Each time we went for walking meditation, I found myself embroiled in the most relentless criticism of everyone I was sitting with. I was critiquing everyone’s haircuts, their clothing, the way they walked, the sounds they made when they breathed in the zendo. My head was filled with seething negativity. It was horrid. During dokusan, I spoke to Tony about it, and he said, “Wow. You’re the first person who’s ever told me something like that.” I looked at him in shock and embarrassment. Then I realized he was kidding. Obviously, I was not the first.

Over time, now that I have been practicing a few years, I have managed to calm my kinhin, and make it more of an extension of my zazen. It is still a little edgy, but no longer filled with criticism. Sometimes it is even meditative.

What a relief, though, to hear these words by this priest. That kinhin creates a stormy mind. Now I know there is a biological connection – when the body moves, the mind moves. Knowledge is power. Insight can be a balm to a troubled spirit.

Now when I walk with a chattering mind, I can catch myself, come back to the present, and take another step. Just like zazen. Return to the breath.


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.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved