A common root.

Zilverschoon_plant_Potentilla_anserinaThere’s been talk recently on the Vine of Obstacles, the online sangha I’m a member of, as we have been trying to put into words what we share, and what has been created by Dosho Port, our teacher, in collaboration with all of us.  Partly this is due to an article Dosho shared with us he’d written on Cybersanghas, and partly the sense we all have that it has gathered strength and intensity during this practice period. Dosho says it is not quite the same as monastic life, or even in an urban center, where the metaphor used is “polishing stones.”  Like in a rock tumbler, the process of practicing together rubs off our rough edges.  Until we come out smooth and beautiful.

The fact that we share our struggles and challenges without an expectation of response reminds me a little more of a 12 step meeting, where the rule of thumb is “no crosstalk.”  Some people have trouble with this approach.  They are either the kind who love giving direction or advice, or the ones desperate to receive it.  I finally realized that in my life, the people who have helped me the most are the ones who never tell me what to do, but instead remind me it is up to me to decide, up to me to act, and up to me to experience the consequences of my actions.  As some Zen teacher has said, you can’t even exchange a single fart with someone else.

And so I was reminded in trying to put words to what the vine and this practice period is like for me, of my experiences in those 12 step meetings.  Some people new to the program who have trouble with the idea of a higher power are told, “That doesn’t have to be god.  It can be the universe, a doorknob, or the group that you come to at your meetings.”  I did have troubles at first with that idea, but was able fairly quickly to fit it into a Buddhist framework.  So because I never had to struggle with it, I also never had to take the group as my higher power.  It was only after years of coming to sit in those meetings with others, where people met to discuss life or death issues for them (for that’s what addiction is; maybe that’s one reason we see so clearly the benefits) that one day while sitting there I awoke to the realization that the group was a source of strength and truth higher than myself or anything else I had in my life at that time.  I could be stronger, more honest, more open, because I really could take strength and honesty from what the other people shared there.  I didn’t need to be told what to do, because they helped me to clarify who I was and what I wanted in my life, and the needed actions were clear once the rest was clear.  And though I might not feel strong or smart, I could take the strength and intelligence from the group.

And that is what I’m finding with the vine as well.  When I don’t want to go sit at night when I’m tired, I remember that all the others are doing that, and it becomes easier to take my cushion.  When I feel I can’t be honest or open in an interaction at work, I think of what someone else on the Vine shared about their efforts to do so, and I find the courage also.

Years ago we had a plant in our front yard.  It was a Dutchman’s pipe that took over a whole garden.  It was like other plants I have dealt with in gardens, a stoloniferous one.  That means you might appear to have a garden or yard full of different plants poking out from the soil, but it was really one gigantic root system.  The plants are joined by a series of horizontal roots called stolons.  So in reality it is just one massive plant.  That allowed it to survive when a few of the shoots were not doing so well.  It also made it a bear to try to remove when it had overgrown and was threatening other plants!  But I’ve taken it as an image for what this world is like: we’re all shoots from that same great, deep root.  We pop out, look around, and think we’re separate and unusual.  But in the same way I doubt any flower comes forth and thinks that of itself that way, it’s important to remember the strength we come from below the soil.

I think the way the Vine is set up allows us to find that common root we all share, and to take strength and purpose from what we have in common, not from how different I may think I am.

Hmmmm…”a garden of stoleniferous plants. “ Just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “polishing stones.”  But it does seem to go well with the name “Vine of Obstacles.”  We are a vine ourselves too.


Show your work

We began the 6th week of the practice period yesterday.  Today is the 37th day of the 100 day training period.  As I thought of those numbers I was all set to break that down into the smaller fractions, but damn!  It’s a prime number.  The percentage is easy enough….37%.

It used to drive my dad crazy when I’d mow our one-acre yard.  I’d break it into numerous little sections, doing one, then the next: the area at the bottom of the hill.  The parallelogram between the pine trees and the road.  The nice flat square on top of the front yard, a perfect croquet pitch.  He was a trigonometry and calculus teacher, he actually carried pencils and a slide rule in a pocket protector in his white shirt.  Like most of us in the 60’s who didn’t want to be like our fathers in any way, at the age of 14 I quit taking any more math once I’d completed geometry and didn’t need to do any more required classes.

But as I find in so many ways, no matter how fast I run from it, one day we all become our parents.  And though I left off with math in 8th grade, I still inherited his head for figures.  I can do equations in my head.  I can figure fractions and percentages without much effort.  (As I’m writing this I thought of an article I just read that gave the advice that the first 10% of any written piece is all “throat-clearing,” and should be deleted so that we get to the meat of the story.  And I’m already wondering if I’ve reached the 10% point and can delete this yet.)

For years when I’d sit zazen by myself and didn’t have a good timer, I’d have to keep checking the clock to know how much longer I had to sit.  And in the same way a watched pot never boils, when I kept checking the time it never seemed to arrive at the end.  In fact it was something like Zeno’s paradox, posited by a Greek philosopher, where an individual wants to go from point a to point b.  The person must first travel half the distance, then half of that distance, then half of that, with the outcome being one never arrives at the end.  And in the same way when I keep checking the time, each time I’d look, half of the time remaining from when I’d checked before was always gone.  So it seemed too I’d never get to the end.

I’ve also always had an ability to know what time it is, within 5 minutes or so.  Which doesn’t help me in long sitting periods.  Even when losing track of time, I find it’s easy to start figuring based on “my legs are just starting to get numb which usually happens about 20 minutes in…” Times when I was the doan for sitting periods at the zendo, I’d keep glancing over at the clock incessantly.  Fearing always that I’d go over the time period.  Because when someone else was keeping time, I’d be certain some periods they had gone over and in my frustration, become incensed at him or her for making us all sit longer.  Ok, just for making me and my aching knees sit longer.   So if i was the timekeeper I’d not want to incur the silent wrath in all the minds of the people who I was forcing to sit longer than scheduled, and keep looking every few minutes.

I think I broke the task of mowing up because I didn’t like it all that much, and it let me keep feeling I was making progress.  And accomplishing small tasks each time I’d finish up the little area.  Oddly enough, we’re told that is the way to tackle big tasks, to break them down into smaller parts so they’re not so overwhelming.

But for me it’s not even about doing what I don’t like.  I do the same thing when I’m doing something I enjoy, thinking, “oh this movie is wonderful, and it’s already half over!”  Which seems to me to be part of what is the dukkha in even pleasurable things that Buddha spoke of.

And though I’m to the point of settling in to the practice period now, and really enjoying it, I still do that figuring in my head….”37%, already more than 1/3 of the way done, only 73 days left…”  Like the figure in zeno’s paradox, I never arrive at the goal.  The goal for me is this present moment, and I’m always only halfway there when I’m counting.

I’ve been reading “The Flowing Bridge” by Elaine MacInnes, a book on mu and the miscellaneous koans. And I’m struck as I think about my discursive mind’s obsession with measuring and counting, that there are quite a few koans that deal with that very thing.  “Count the stars in the sky.”  Another speaks of “one who can count the grains of sand in the sea.”  Yet another of “the one who can survey land.”  Another version of the last one has it, “Why is it one who fences off land can’t leave that enclosure?”  I laugh as I think of how I fenced off land in my own mind as I mowed.

At the same time I’m on the section in Genjokoan on wood, fire, and ash.  And I don’t think that what Dogen is aiming at is not for me to try to figure when the wood is halfway on the way to being ash.   Letting things be fully what they are at the moment they are existent in is what we aim for.  When I can put the clock aside during my zazen (thank god for the timer apps now, so I can put that aside and forget about it.) I am able to more fully enter into what is in front of me and around me.  When I am always counting or figuring, I seem to be keeping the ten thousand things (there’s that counting again) at arm’s length (and measuring again!)  When I fence off things, I am fencing myself off.  I keep on dividing what can’t be divided.  Counting what can’t be counted.

Perhaps the teaching of my father can serve me well here.  When he mowed, he simply started at the edge, and worked either back and forth, or in concentric circles growing smaller and smaller until the last blade of grass was cut.  No dividing what is indivisible.  No measuring, no figuring, no looking to the end–just him, the mower, and the lawn, until there was nothing left.  Just the fullness of the moment, and the smell of the sweet grass.

Approaching love

Driving to a meditation group this morning, I heard a report on the radio about the Beatles.  It was 50 years ago today…the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  They played the live version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” and suddenly I was right back in those days.   Even if those days mean being 8 years old for me.  Still, even at that age I can remember the first time I heard that song, the sound of those chords, the high pitched ooooh, and the lyrics.  How they promised that moment of love, seeing her standing there, taking her hand, “my heart went boom.”  Much gets said about the clichés of love songs, how they paint a picture that’s unattainable, and fantasy.  But something that the Beatles could do so well was to encapsulate that simple idea of love, a pure expression of it.  Love is all you need.

They were such poets of the truth and mystery of love.  And love may be a cliche, may be a crock and a created fantasy, and whatever else we choose to call it.  But it’s also something very real.  We know it when we see it, like they also say about pornography, oddly enough.  The world might be just fine without the word, but without the thing itself?  It’s one of those words like God, or Zen, or beauty–hard to define, and yet so important.  So useful precisely because it’s so big, and can hold so much.  And the way they were able to speak of that truth to me makes them sort of the Rumi of rock and roll.

So all this went through my head in just the time it took the song to play.  The thought that love is a good metaphor, or a good substitute for what we’re looking for in Zen practice, or in any spiritual search.  It’s a way to be in the world.  I remember years ago my teacher Dosho Port giving a talk that began with his saying “I’d like to talk some about love today.  It’s not something we mention very often in zen.“  I laughed out loud at that truth.  “See, Phil knows what I’m saying” he added.  And further back I remember the only other time I heard it mentioned…a lecture when Richard Baker was at the Zen Center in Minneapolis, and talked about the power and magic of Zen practice, of the search for enlightenment.  “It’s more compelling and important than any love affair you might chase after,” he said, making me feel ashamed for the love affair I was in the middle of, and my thoughts of perhaps moving away from the Zen center to pursue it.  (Of course not that long after we’d learn of the love affairs he pursued at the expense of an entire Zen Center.)

Dosho told that day of the story of Yuan Wu’s enlightenment:

A thousand years or so ago, Yuan-wu had a glancing encounter with the ancient mirror, but his teacher Wu-tsu felt that it was too slight and that if Yuan-wu took this to be a true awakening he would be prey to deep self doubts later – blown about by any passing wind, at the mercy of the words of others. So he told him to stay with his koan. Yuan-wu took this as a snub and left his teacher in a huff, but before he departed Wu-tsu said to him, “Remember me when you are ill with fever.” Years later, Yuan-wu indeed did become desperately ill and finally decided to return to his teacher. Wu-tsu sang him a little song popular at the time:

“She calls to her serving girl, ‘Little Jade’

Not because she wants something

But just so her lover will hear her voice.”

And said, “That’s very much like Zen, isn’t it?” and Yuan-wu awoke to her calling. Listen! Listen! She is always calling – not because she needs anything but only so her lover will hear. And you are her lover when you ask, “Who is hearing?”, or “What is Mu?”, or “What is the source of consciousness?”, or return to one in your breath counting, or open to the night sky and the rain shaking the trees, or to your dry tongue. She calls unceasingly to let you know she is near. Better than near, actually! Much better than near?

The metaphor of the lover calling to her maid so her beloved knows she is there is lovely and ripe.  It contains so much regarding love….the call and response, the joy in another’s presence, one might even say the dependency and need?  For that’s the quality those of us in a practice, or soured and cynical, use to pass our judgment on love…it’s attachment, dependency, selfishness.  And yet, and yet….

The important stuff I find is always in that “and yet, and yet. “  I think of another earlier Rumi of popular song, Ira Gershwin.  Unlucky in love himself, yet possessed of a unique and beautiful understanding of it, and the ability to communicate it as well.  And perhaps what those like Lennon and McCartney and Gershwin can do, that sets them apart, is their ability to hint at more, what is behind the cliché of love.  What is calling from the other room.   Gershwin set out to write a love song that never mentioned the words love, and gave us “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”  A song that catalogs seemingly small, minor things about the beloved.   The way she wears her hat, holds her knife, sips her tea.  The essence of love, it seems, is as the essence of Zen has also been described.  Attention, attention, attention.

One could say that to be enlightened, or to be at least fully present in the midst of the world is to be in love and relationship with the ten thousand things.  I love that one of the words we use for describing that relationship with the world, with dharmas, with our teacher and the ancestors, with our koan, even with our body and mind, is intimacy.  That word (another big enough to contain all kinds of meanings) that is a euphemism for sex in our day, and a metaphor for love too.

Love goes both ways of course.  Much like how Dogen talks about the two ways of being: the 10,000 things advance and enlighten us, or we advance toward the ten thousand things and enlighten them.  And perhaps both can occur at once.  It is a dance.  It takes two to tango.  There may be nothing harder than unrequited love, and the ideal is when there is the yin and yang of loving and being loved back.  For to be loved is to feel at home in the world.  To feel that one is understood, known, that one can stand naked before your lover and still be accepted and wanted.  It is to be supported and wanted in this world.

And to be in love with another–that love may or may not transform the other.  But it certainly transforms us.  There is a poem, Gate C22, by Ellen Bass.

Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport

a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed

a woman arriving from Orange County.

They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after

the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons

and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,

the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other

like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,

like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped

out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down

from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.

She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine

her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish

kisses like the ocean in the early morning,

the way it gathers and swells, sucking

each rock under, swallowing it

again and again. We were all watching —

passengers waiting for the delayed flight

to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,

the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling

sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could

taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back

and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost

as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,

as your mother must have looked at you, no matter

what happened after — if she beat you or left you or

you’re lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix

not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you

as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.

The whole wing of the airport hushed,

all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,

her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,

little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up. 

So what I want to ask is: Would you rather be the woman, or the man waiting at the gate?  The poet says pretty clearly, that she thinks everyone wants to be the woman.  But I read it and thought, I want to be that man.  And maybe thinking one can only have one or the other, be either the lover or the beloved, is a faulty question, though in this human realm it’s usually true.  But how wonderful to be seen as she is seen, as the mother sees the child.  We can feel that kind of love sometimes for another, and maybe it’s as rare and unlikely as having someone feel it for us.  But I know I’ve felt it in my life and when you feel it, it fills and warms your heart so, that perhaps you don’t even need to feel it back.  To feel it is to see the whole world as new, it’s a kind of enlightenment, it is for that brief moment to be as God.  And realize even God often looks at his or her creation in total amazement and wonder.  One of the lessons of love is not necessarily about being loved back.  Again, it is about what loving does to us.  How it can transforms us.  And the whole world as well.

Before leaving for that meditation group this morning, I’d walked out to warm up the car.  There’d been and still was some heavy winter fog, leaving thick hoar frost on everything.  And a seemingly happy and stubborn chickadee on a branch right next to me refused to be scared off as I walked by, standing his ground and singing his heart out to me.  I tried to answer him, but could not match the beauty of his song.  I had to settle for my croaking whistle, and he didn’t seem to mind.  And I felt the joy both of love for the trees and the bird, but also as though they were loving me too.  I mean, after all, the trees had put on their finest gown of white for me.  And the bird, well, I can choose to believe he was singing to me, can’t I?

Driving through more beauty, I arrived at the building where the meditation was.  And there, on a dry erase board someone had drawn a wild drawing, 4 feet high with a heart in the middle and filigree all round it, and in the center the single word “Love.”  What do they say?  That love is finishing each other sentences?  It seemed on this day the world had the same thought as I did.  Which can only happen when we are one and the same.  To love is to not know where I begin and the other ends.  Which sounds a little like enlightenment also.

One could pick a worse teacher and a worse path.