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ZEN SUN WEEKLY newsletter | since March 2020

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Here's an untitled poem by Joanne Kyger, from her book Again: Poems 1989-2000


          It's so quiet

  you can hear

the wasps sipping water

    in the courtyard fountain

                                  JANUARY 25, 2000 | PATZCUARO         


That's pretty quiet. Kyger was a Zen Buddhist practitioner (as well as an influential and beloved poet). That quiet she refers to: is it just the quiet of the courtyard? Or might she be referring to her mind, enlivened and still, open to the smallest wonders of the world around her?  


When the mind's machinery stops, even momentarily, distinctions between ordinary and extraordinary disappear. Distinctions between self and cosmos disappear. How could anything be mundane? What is there, really, but the onrushing blaze of the new? 


It's one of the great questions. Who are you? Who am I? 


It's a question we might ask silently in the middle of the night, momentarily armor-free, looking out the window at the moonwashed yard. If you have the courage to linger, you might find sister questions waiting to be opened like gifts: Why is there something rather than nothing? What's the point of anything? Why is there so much suffering? What is all this and where does it come from? 

If we're lucky, we find a path that values the transformative power of questions. In the Zen tradition, this is the function of koans. 


One of the introductory koans in our tradition, Where does a flame go when it's put out?, invites us to play with the question of death and dying: the flame's death, and also our own. Where do we go when we're put out? Is there a me that goes somewhere? 


It might feel like the koan is mocking us or like it's some kind of existential Rubik's Cube. But if we hold it lightly and allow it to accompany in our zazen and throughout the day, we see that there's no dilemma about the fate of the flame—but that "thinking makes it so" (Shakespeare). Expressing such an insight with words, however, doesn't quite reach it.

In working with a teacher, we find that we can demonstrate an understanding of the koan without uttering a word, creatively coming forth, free from concepts and philosophy. 

Like the medieval Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu, who writes here of her lost love, we find that we have the capacity to be at home with our animal heart, where there's less need for certainty, and where wondering is its own sovereignty:

Watching the moon

at midnight...

I wonder

whose village

he watches it from.
(from The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield)

An answer here would be beside the point. It's the wondering itself, the openness, the capacity to be vulnerable that enriches us—and in this case, that creates art and enriches others. 

This is one of the things that shifts if we can practice with patience, diligence, consistency, imperfection, and, hopefully, humor: we increasingly find ourselves, wherever we are and whatever we're doing, in a place of spaciousness and possibility. 


Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu, "What is Buddha?"

Ma-tsu said, "This very mind is Buddha." 

To the extent that this life is a pilgrimage, it's a pilgrimage to the heart of the ordinary, the right-here-ness of it all. That's the Zen Buddhist perspective, anyway. We're not trying to ascend to some higher plane or bring back a magic feather from another dimension. 

The practice is to grasp the ordinary so deeply—this breath, this fresh slice of apple so perfectly a fresh slice of apple, this gargling raven circling overhead—that "ordinary" loses all meaning. Or we might say that the practice is to allow ourselves to be replaced by this ordinary moment. And then this moment.

So you begin to see that self and cosmos share the same branch. The naked fact of your fleeting existence is as astonishing as any comet or supernova. 

How could anything be ordinary? How could anything be boring? 

This very mind is Buddha, says Ma-tsu in the exchange above. The one who asks is Buddha. The one who responds is Buddha. The question is Buddha. This sitting here is Buddha. "If you want to see the Buddha," says John Tarrant, "look at your hand." There's no Buddha outside, apart, or separate. 


The gift of meditation is that we don't have to believe anything. Better not to believe, actually. Because we can experience this vastness for ourselves. It's as though we unlock some Paleolithic function of mind here in the 21st century. The silence, we see, is complete and also vivid with possibility. The morning birdsongs are fleeting and also eternal. 


It's a pilgrimage with no departure and no arrival yet philosophy, language, and opinions get left behind. 


At the Zen Center of Denver there is a statue of a leaping salmon, a symbol of the spirit of this practice: jumping upstream, against the grain of habitual thought, swimming against the riptide of narratives keeps us half asleep and dreaming.


If we hang in there, we become reacquainted with something elemental, healing, and nourishing—something prior to all narratives—a spacious and inherent aspect of heart and mind. It's not something we conjure or imagine. 


But it's equally important to remember that our practice will fall apart and go to hell sometimes. It's not a neat, linear progression. 


We discover early on that practice is not a matter of simply easing into a Jacuzzi of cosmic one-ness.

We will likely encounter profound resistance and find all sorts of ways to talk ourselves out of sitting. We might feel worse and more confused than we did before we started practicing. Or there may be a kind of stuckness where we can't sit consistently and yet we can't entirely abandon sitting either.


All we can do is welcome that experience of falling apart and going to hell. Bless it and sit with it as though it were a beloved, injured animal.


You can say "welcome," quietly or silently, when anything difficult arises. Welcome, knee pain and boredom. Welcome, unsettling memory. Welcome, vague longing to be elsewhere. Welcome, recurring sense of impending doom.


What else can we do? I suppose the other option is to return to the confetti parade of private 

speculation, but that's usually what brought us to practice in the first place.


In this open-armed approach we find that the dojo windows are open, the sun is burning, and the music of the crickets has no problem mingling with the sounds of traffic.

How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish.

Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters,

And surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair?

How we squander our hours of pain, 

How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration

To see if they have an end. 

Though they are really seasons of us, 

Our winter enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape, 

Where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home. 

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Tenth Duino Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell)



I've been thinking about sangha—the community of fellow practitioners—and those of us who come together on Zoom each morning, or some mornings, and also those who don't drop in but are perhaps sitting on their own for good reasons or are perhaps in a time zone that makes it difficult to participate. And thinking about how, for millennia, people have gathered to sit together to inquire into this great matter of being alive in this unrepeatable moment in an unrepeatable life.

And how even the deer that come and eat the birdseed, and the people who seem indifferent and content at the top of the food chain, and the full moon rising above the trees—that's all sangha too. 

And how easy it is to lose track of this intimacy unless we're practicing, how sangha deepens practice and practice deepens sangha. In Japan, the terms intimacy and enlightenment are often used interchangeably. What is intimacy after all but no self apart? 


Here's a good koan about intimacy: When the sound of the temple bell fills the valley, who are you? How might you present an understanding of this koan?


Sitting together is an act of trust and vulnerability, even on Zoom, because we're not just sitting with pure light and smiley faces. We're sitting with private anguish and uncertainty and self-doubt and back pain and aching joints and fear of death and longings and all the ongoing precincts of discomfort that come with being human. In sitting together, the experience becomes not so much about me and my shortcomings or my ideas about what kind of clarity I should be having. It becomes more about the vastness waiting to be encountered in each place and each place having light and value.


And it turns out that each face in the dojo, familiar or unfamiliar, is beautiful.


One of the very oldest meditation teachings goes like this: when inhaling, be aware that you're inhaling. When exhaling, be aware that you're exhaling. When walking, sitting, lying down, or standing: be aware that you are walking, sitting, lying down, or standing.

Can you notice when you drift away in thinking and then just return to the breath without self-judgment?


In this way we step free from the sharp edges of clock-time to align with a kind of subterranean rhythm. There is no other inhalation to inhale than this one. There is no other exhalation to exhale than this one.


There is no other life to live than this one, the one you have. The open-prop airplane drones in the distance and the UPS guy plops a package outside the door. That's it! 

This is the news that stays news: each moment is utterly complete and also utterly brimming with possibility, and you're not apart from any of it. 


We're sitting in a flame-lit cave at midnight. The bison etched on the wall breathe as we breathe. Each breath, each thing, and each moment is always just beginning.


There seems to be a strong correlation between feeling lost in our own mind and feeling lost in the world and estranged from each other.


At such times, we're like the mythological minotaur, wandering in a labyrinth of our own making, revising old operas and brooding over lost treasure.


But when we choose to sit still and allow the stillness to find us, even a little, the old stories begin to settle down and we can taste the inklings of a new spaciousness.


It requires patience and diligence but it's like discovering a kind of sanctum or shrine that's actually just this ordinary carpet, just this ordinary sitting here, just this ordinary and very loud magpie on the roof.


We see that everything's inside the tent and nothing's outside the tent. And so there's less compulsion to insist that we're lacking in some way or that events and people need to conform to our expectations.


Busy mind, still mind, dark thoughts, brilliant thoughts, good days, bad days, bodily aches, bodily ease. 


No need to banish these guests nor detain them. There's plenty of room.

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