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The Mahayana Motivation Print

The Mahayana Motivation


Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on the bodhisattva path.

The great tradition of Buddhism begins with the simple experience of looking at our minds and seeing that we want some kind of contentment. In a way, it is no more abstract than that. We look at our mind and we see the turmoil and we say, “How am I going to get out of this situation?”

In the Buddhist path we respond to our experience of samsara, the painful cycle of endless existences in which we are caught, with revulsion. One morning we get up and say, “That’s enough. I’ve been doing this for a couple of billion lifetimes, and I think that’s enough. I’ve been the highest of the high, and the worst of the worst, and everything in between, and I think that’s enough!”

But in order to break from samsara, it is necessary to understand samsara. That is what the arhats have done, those who have completed the hinayana path of personal liberation. Those of us within samsara would view them as incredible, heroic beings, because they have dared to look at samsara fully. They have not just dared to leave it; they have dared to stop and really see what is going on. It takes tremendous courage to do that, because when we look at samsara we are looking at ourselves—it’s hard not to take it too personally. It takes a strong mind, a courageous mind, to look at samsara and say, “I will learn this lesson. I will not flinch. I won’t try to manipulate it. I will just look at it.”

However, from the point of view of the mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva, the arhats are taking only a small step. Certainly it is an heroic step, like the first step of a child, and a very important step that one has to take. But it is still said to be only a small step towards liberation.

The bodhisattva is different from the hinayana practitioner in several ways. First, the understanding of truth, of reality, is very different in the mahayana. According to the bodhisattva, the mahayana teachings are the real words of the Buddha. Because of the students’ capacity the Buddha mostly taught hinayana—and very sensibly so, because people were suffering—but he also asked, “Do you just want a release from suffering, or do you want to understand the truth?”

When we get to mahayana, it is the truth. The truth of the mahayana is the most profound truth there is. When the Buddha—the one who sees the whole of the truth—speaks, he speaks about emptiness and luminosity, form and emptiness, emptiness and form. As practitioners, we find ourselves going back and forth between hinayana and mahayana view.

The other key aspect that separates mahayana from hinayana is motivation. The hinayana practitioner feels the pain of samsara and says, “I can’t take it anymore. What can I do about it?” And having understood what samsara is, we can all sympathize with the hinayana practitioner. It is a worthy approach. We are not belittling it.

But the mahayana practitioner takes a much more radical approach. The mahayana practitioner wakes up one morning and realizes, “Sentient beings from endless time have been roaming in samsara.” Here, we not only understand the pain of samsara and how we have been involved in it; we are also able to see what samsara is doing to all sentient beings.

The person who has this motivation is called “the great bodhisattva,” the warrior with the mind of enlightenment. Why? Because that person has transcended their own painful experience of samsara and has woken up to how all sentient beings are suffering.

Mahayana practitioners are inspired not just by the idea of forsaking their own enlightenment so they can help others; they actually drop what they are doing so they can go help somebody else on the spot. When they see somebody who is hungry, they want to take the food they are about to eat and give it to them. The other person’s hunger is overwhelming, their sense of compassion overcomes them, and they want to give their own food away.

Through truly understanding the nature of suffering, the basic fabric of mind becomes loving-kindness and compassion. This is the mind of enlightenment, the basic core of enlightenment. Usually our first thought is, “What can I get for me?” But the mind of enlightenment is actually our fundamental nature. It is said that compassion and love are much more in accord with our true nature than jealousy, pride, and so forth. Therefore, developing compassion and love is an avenue to understanding reality.

Motivation is an essential factor on the bodhisattva path. Sometimes we become preoccupied with wanting to discover the true nature of things, the ultimate reality. But if you look at the writings of great teachers such as Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti, persons of great intelligence who have pointed out the nature of reality, you will see that they also wrote long and beautiful compositions about compassion. This was the inspiration behind their teachings on emptiness—to give bodhisattvas a way to go about saving all sentient beings intelligently. The bodhisattva doesn’t run around randomly trying to help everybody. Intelligence and wisdom are involved.

The bodhisattva says, “For the benefit of all sentient beings, I will achieve liberation.” It is for the sake of others that the bodhisattva vows to achieve their own enlightenment, because then they will be able to help sentient beings in manifold ways. Sometimes people think the bodhisattva vow means that all the other sentient beings should achieve liberation first, but that’s not really right. We do have the view that we want everybody else to achieve liberation; however, the most practical thing we can do to make that happen is to achieve liberation ourselves. The more profound our realization, the more we are able to help sentient beings.

But can all beings in fact achieve enlightenment? When we begin to do the practice of raising compassion, we inevitably come to a point where we ask ourselves, “Is it really possible for all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment?” After all, sentient beings are endless.

So we use our intelligence to look into it. In the beginning we are concerned with the diversity of sentient beings, not their ultimate nature. We contemplate how they end up in different situations through the nature of cause and effect. Then we come to understand that fundamentally all samsaric realms are the same, whether painful or pleasurable. We begin to see that the fundamental nature of all sentient beings is buddhanature—luminosity and emptiness. So of course all sentient beings can achieve enlightenment.

Having established that all sentient beings have the capacity for enlightenment, we contemplate whether we ourselves can liberate all sentient beings. We ask ourselves, “Can I—not anyone else—liberate all sentient beings endlessly?” That is really what the bodhisattva vow is about.

This is why the mahayana is called maha, “great,” because the conclusion the bodhisattva comes to is, “Yes, I can save all sentient beings. Even if I’m the last person left in the universe, I will work tirelessly. I will commit the rest of this life and every life from now on to saving all sentient beings—no holds barred, no insurance, no retirement plan.”
Mahayana is great in two ways. It is great in view, because we begin to see the true nature of things. It is great in motivation, because we dedicate ourselves to working tirelessly for all sentient beings. As a bodhisattva, our whole approach to life has changed. We no longer get up in the morning thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, we get up thinking, “I am a servant, a shepherd, a vehicle, a bridge for all sentient beings to cross over.” What started out as, “I need to get out of here,” has become, “I’ll be the last person here, no matter what.”

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche. He is currently writing a book on mindfulness meditation, to be published by Riverhead.

The Mahayana Motivation, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.

Ram Dass: Making the Best of It Print
Shambhala Sun | July 2000

Ram Dass: Making the Best of It

            Always at the forefront of change, Ram Dass led the baby boomers to psychedelic drugs, Eastern spirituality and social activism. Now he leads the graying boomers toward aging and sickness, using his experience of a stroke to proclaim old age a spiritual opportunity.

            The words are spoken slowly and carefully. “This stroke is wonderful.” It would be a surprising statement from anyone but Ram Dass, a man whose life has already taken so many surprising twists.
            From establishment professor (Harvard), to psychedelic guru, to America’s best-known devotee of Eastern religion, to advocate and example of selfless service, Ram Dass has for forty years been a shaper of the baby boom world. Now he talks to boomers from experience of the old age and illness to come, and how to find the spirituality in it. He is grateful for the opportunity to communicate the stroke has afforded him.
    “People can hear me,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I can talk about suffering, I can talk about aging and I can talk about illness. This illness has opened the hearts of many people, even people who didn’t like me. I tried for years to open people’s hearts, and I have never so accomplished it as with this illness.”
            The massive stroke he suffered in 1997 left him in a wheelchair with his right side paralyzed and his speech hindered. Now, the once loquacious intellectual searches to make the connection between the thoughts in his mind and the slow-coming words. “In my brain I have ideas,” he explains, “but I don’t have the dressing room that would dress them in words. So, I hunt for words. And that leaves me with a poetic use of words.”
            At his home in Marin, California, Ram Dass, now 69, lives a simplified life. Three hours a day he is occupied with what he calls “stroke stuff”: physical therapy, Feldenkreis, acupuncture, swimming, doctors. For another three hours a day, he visits with friends or people seeking spiritual counseling, and so forth. And for the remaining time he writes on his computer or works with his secretary. Still Here, his book on “Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying,” has just been published.
            “Prior to this I was a golfer and a sports car racer, a cellist, and a helper,” he explains. “Now, I’ve got to ring a bell when I wake up and when I go to the toilet and when I go to supper, I’ve got to ask, ‘Will you help me?’ That dependency is a no-no in our society. I am an addict about helping people, and now all I want is ‘Will you help me?’ So, that’s quite a change.”
            Yet he does not feel frustrated by his limited physical capability since the stroke. On the contrary, he says. “I feel as if the stroke opened up a new incarnation. I am staying home, I am learning quietness, silence, because the speaking is not so easy. I have given speeches to audiences since the stroke. I teach them how to respond to the silence. We all start to ride the silence, like surf. And we ride into our inner silence. Then we have a room full of aware people who are there, and who are resting in their inner silence.”
            Ram Dass has always been in the vanguard of the social changes identified with the baby boom, although he himself is of an older generation. Ram Dass, then Richard Alpert, was already a practicing psychotherapist in 1955, and by 1961 he held a prestigious teaching position at Harvard’s Center for Research in Personality. There he became fast friends with a fellow professor named Timothy Leary. Near Cuernavaca, Mexico, the two encountered psychedelic mushrooms, and then moved on to LSD and other hallucinogens. They actually got recognition and funding for their drug experimentation by calling it “The Harvard Psilocybin Project,” but finally, in 1963, they were kicked out of Harvard amid much media coverage. Aldous Huxley introduced them to the Bardo Thödröl (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), and with Ralph Metzner they rewrote it as a manual for tripping called The Psychedelic Experience.
            In 1967, searching for something deeper than the temporary experience of drugs, he traveled to India. There he met his guru, the Hindu master Neem Karoli Baba, and received the name Ram Dass, meaning “Servant of God.” He returned to America not just with a new name but a new message—bakhti, love. He taught seminars on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, sponsored visits from a number of Eastern spiritual teachers, and organized the famous “Be-Ins,” which featured Hindu-style chanting, singing and dancing in a festival-like atmosphere.
            In 1971 Ram Dass published Be Here Now, part memoir, part exhortation, part spiritual cookbook. It was a campus staple of the day and it inspired many thousands of people to look more deeply into Eastern traditions. Still remembered fondly by baby boomers for its wry yet sweet voice, if not for its profundity, it continues to sell to new generations, about a million copies to date.
            In the introduction to Be Here Now, Ram Dass wrote that he “returned from India floating about on an ocean of love carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve.” And his core theme—helping others—has remained essentially the same since then. Through the 1970’s, Ram Dass wrote and lectured on social service, working with the dying and in prisons through his own Hanuman Foundation. But it was with the birth of The SEVA Foundation in 1978 that Ram Dass’ vision of spirituality and social service found its most effective vehicle.
            SEVA, which means “service” in Sanskrit, was founded in Michigan by a group who had helped conduct the campaign to eradicate smallpox in Asia. Now they saw the potential to fight needless blindness in Asia, largely caused by cataracts. The foundation, according to its thirtieth anniversary report, “was dedicated to developing a model of ‘service in action,’ to helping others and deepening their own spiritual process.” SEVA’s original supporters and board members included Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy, and a number of other activists, spiritual people and medical professionals.
   SEVA led campaigns in India, Tibet and Nepal to restore peoples’ sight through cataract surgery. SEVA’s current executive director, James O’Dea, tells wonderful stories about the people he has encountered through SEVA, such as the ninety-year-old Nepali man who was carried to a remote clinic by his relatives.
   “The old man had cataracts in both eyes,” O’Dea recalls. “The cataracts were removed and when they took the patches off his eyes and he could see, he said, ‘Oh My God, Oh my God, what a miracle!’ Then he said, ‘Give me a STICK!! I want to beat my grandchildren, because they should have known, and they should have told me, that God himself had descended to the planet Earth, and given the gift of sight.’”
    “You learn about suffering,” says Ram Dass of work like this. “You learn how it is to grow up in cultures other than this one. Society, a spiritual teacher, a wise person, or a mother, are the incarnation [of God]. I don’t take the incarnation as my goal. I serve people as my path.”
            In 1986, SEVA expanded its work to include poverty-stricken Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico who had fled oppression in Guatemala. Six years later, SEVA team members escorted Mayans back to Guatemala and stayed with them there to protect them and help them rebuild.
            “I learned in Guatemala,” says Ram Dass. “A mother came up and talked to me. She had had her parents killed in front of her, and her husband killed in front of her, and her own son killed in front of her, and we looked at each other. We were eye to eye. With that suffering, she had a consciousness. Her consciousness was rare in human beings. She was very much like a Zen monk, or a lama, or my guru. She was quiet inside. All that suffering has prepared her to open up.”
            From 1978 to 1994, Ram Dass worked energetically as a SEVA board member and led cross-country fundraising marathons in which he explored with the audiences “the relation between service and spirit, compassion and action, and personal growth and social change.” He wrote two books on social service and spirituality: How Can I Help? (with Paul Gorman) and Compassion in Action (with Mirabai Bush).
            “Karma yoga—that is what I thought of that organization at that time,” he says. “We were Karma yogis. Working through SEVA in India, I learned the dedication in the hospital. The dedication of the staff, and they do it for their spiritual work.”
            Ram Dass’ vision of such spiritually-oriented service is actually a core Hindu practice. Karma yoga, or “selfless-service,” is spelled out in the Bhagavad Gita, as “one of the ways to reach God.” But although Ram Dass remains friends with SEVA and its staff, he feels that the organization has diverged from this view.
            “When I was in SEVA, it was spiritually-based,” he explains. “Now, it’s become a social action organization, like the Red Cross, or something like that. I’ve represented that rapprochement—the spiritual work with the social action—and I think that is my area. There are non-profits that are into doing good. SEVA is one of them. But doing good is not a motivation that will liberate you or the people you want to work with.”
            James O’Dea feels SEVA does maintain a spiritual perspective, but he says how that’s understood and applied must inevitably change. “Each generation has its way of interpreting itself,” he says. “This generation of SEVA is very much derived from the depth of spiritual intention of its founders, but interprets the needs and the ways to respond to that differently.”
            SEVA’s projects now are very big, and very bold. Last year, SEVA transferred to India the technology to manufacture the most advanced suture available. O’Dea calls this “an approach of compassionate capitalism,” and one can see why Ram Dass’ agenda of liberation through selfless service might not fit in with such modern, large-scale projects. His model of service is more personal, one-to-one, and he describes service as the ability to be with someone without “ego-involvement.”
            “I work with dying people,” he says. “That, to me, is one of the highest things that I do. I learn that I have to be a rock. I have to be a witness. It is how I see the person. I have to get out of my mind and be with the person.
            “If somebody has AIDS and I walk into the room,” he explains, “I can see ‘a person with AIDS.’ Then what happens is my consciousness will reinforce that person’s definition of themselves as ‘a person with AIDS.’
            “Instead I could see a fellow soul. A fellow witness of karma. Or they may be a fellow aware person. And I talk to them as if they are who I think they are. If I see them as a soul, then through our conversation they see themselves as a soul, and they don’t see themselves as a social category. Even when I am a ‘helper’ and they are a ‘helpee,’ we don’t have to characterize ourselves that way. We are fellow souls.”

Ram Dass: Making the Best of It, Stephanie Birk, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.


Woman to Woman Print

Woman to Woman

Sandy Boucher on her life as a student of Ruth Denison at Dhamma Dena.


Cultivate the healing power of the pure unattached mind.
—Ruth Denison

My spiritual practice was inaugurated twenty years ago in the Mojave Desert. A friend drove me there—ten hours south from Oakland, through the little town of Joshua Tree, and up the long desert slope to Copper Mountain Mesa where, halfway along a sandy dirt road, we came to a cluster of low buildings huddled under the killer sun. Here I first met Ruth Denison, a German-born woman trained in the Burmese tradition of Theravada Buddhism, whose flexibility and sense of what Westerners need in order to practice mindfulness had led her to a challenging teaching style grounded in traditional practice augmented with sometimes outrageously innovative techniques. She was known as an eccentric, who would employ any means to communicate her beloved “Dharma”; she was also the first Buddhist teacher to offer women-only retreats.

Another person would have approached meditation gradually, carefully, beginning with short sessions of a few minutes each day and slowly graduating to longer periods of sitting—the sane way to proceed. But I plunged in, signing up for a seven-day meditation retreat.

In the silence—observed by everyone but Ruth, who gave a talk each evening—I felt unseen, unacknowledged. At first this was excruciating, but as the week progressed, I found myself grateful to be experiencing my own livingness without the distraction of others’ opinions of me and responses to me. Sometimes a sadness would well up and I would feel warm tears running down my face; sometimes I felt a great wounded tenderness for myself, as if I watched a child struggling to accomplish a task too difficult; now and then an expansive peacefulness opened in my chest and I found myself smiling. The silence had become my friend.

Over the years, Ruth’s meditation center—named Dhamma Dena for a distinguished female teacher from the Buddha’s lifetime (Dhammadinna)—became the cradle in which my timid beginning attempts at awareness were rocked and nurtured. I learned that the practice Ruth taught, called Vipassana, or insight-meditation, came from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Theravada is known as the gradual path, involving effort made through many lifetimes toward the goal of liberation from suffering. It emphasizes “bare attention” and “choiceless awareness,” teaching a method for being wholly present to one’s own experience. Its practices lead to an apprehension of the three “marks” of existence: impermanence, suffering and the insubstantiality of the self.

Theravada Buddhism was brought to the United States mostly by Westerners, young people who studied in Burma or Thailand or Sri Lanka and brought the practice back to pass on to their peers in America. Ruth Denison, somewhat older than her counterparts, journeyed to Burma with her American husband, studied and practiced there, and received “transmission” from a noted Burmese Buddhist master. The teacher, U Ba Khin, told her to go back to the United States and teach meditation, but Ruth was modest, uncertain about her capacities. On her return to this country she steadily pursued her meditation practice, both alone and at Zen centers in Los Angeles (at that time there were no Theravada centers in southern California), but did not set out to teach. She and her husband hosted spiritual teachers in their Hollywood home, and were part of a circle of seekers that included Alan Watts and Timothy Leary. Eventually, students began to gather around Ruth and ask her to teach them to meditate. They followed her to the desert, and Dhamma Dena was born in several tiny buildings.
From the beginning of my visits to Dhamma Dena, the stark, spacious environment made a vibrant container for the practice. My memory holds many encounters with Ruth, like the morning in the early eighties when I was using the break after breakfast to hide away behind the work shed and write in my journal. (Reading and writing are discouraged at meditation retreats.) I was picking up my notebook and readying myself to leave when a long-skirted figure appeared from around the woodpile, her hair covered by a white scarf tucked up behind, her long-sleeved white blouse and tan skirt fluttering against her body in the wind.
“Ah, this is where you are hiding!” said Ruth. She came to sit across from me on an upended milk carton.
Adjusting my now-stiffening buttocks on my makeshift seat of piled boards, I looked over at Ruth, who had picked up a piece of rusted metal and was examining it with the shrewd eye of one who knows how to recycle everything. I was feeling grumpy and tired, having struggled through the early morning meditation session and afterwards castigating myself that I was not really a very religious or spiritual person. She, on the other hand, had always been drawn to religious practice; as a child in Germany she was always devout. She was even attracted to her husband because he was so “spiritual,” having been a monk in the Hindu tradition of Vedanta. We began to talk about how Ruth was led to offer all-women retreats.
“Certainly I am a woman who is not totally dependent on the man,” Ruth said. “Before I married I was very independent. I was a schoolteacher and a principal. When I married, I just took that wifely role for a while because I didn’t need to work. But as you can see, I didn’t stay in that role, so there is some blood in me. But I must say, I have one thing which is remarkable, which is, I have no need for revenge.” (She had told us about her experiences during the war in Germany, when she was raped and violently handled, but she obviously harbors no bitterness.)
Ruth squinted against the sun, and looked up at me from deepset thoughtful blue eyes. “In many ways I have brought good karma forces with me, with natural balance, with a sense of justice coming from a deeper soul or ground, and a great compassionate feeling. I have a love for life, hmmm?, which brings with it sensitivity and care, real care. So when you have that certain sense you cannot really charge back, no matter how wrong it was done to you. Because when you charge back, you see that you injure life. And the principle then is not injuring life.”
How to be present to life, to allow each life-form to realize its full cycle and potential. I felt something celebratory in this idea, some large and joyful possibility. Later I watched Ruth stride briskly away. In headlong flight, short, square-shouldered body tilted slightly forward, skirt billowing about her legs, little cap gleaming in the sun, Ruth looked like one of the factory women in a Käthe Kollwitz lithograph, someone sturdy and strong-armed and reliable, whose life is labor. I stood thinking about the concept she articulated: To promote life, to nurture and celebrate it. Even my own life—to get out of my way and enjoy the show.

I think about what I receive from Ruth. For some people I know, it has made sense to move from spiritual teacher to spiritual teacher, seeking out the yet-more-illumined guide who can take them the next step in their practice. For me, although I have sat with numerous teachers, it has made sense to stay loyal to one teacher, for I have understood over the years that a teacher is a mirror, reflecting one back to oneself. Staying with the same mirror over years has allowed me to see the patterns in myself and how they have changed. Ruth has remained herself, offering the teachings in the ways she has developed; I come to her each time experiencing her and myself differently, learning new things, going deeper.
When we first came to the desert—a ragtag band of young hippies, political activists, and fledgling healers in the early eighties—Ruth had emphasized dukkha, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering embedded in each moment of our human lives. I remembered learning that new word, rolling it on my tongue, and not wanting to admit its gritty truth. But over time, sitting in the small crowded zendo that was all we had then, I experienced the restlessness and anger and stubborn resistance that ruled my life, the insistence that things be other than they were, and I knew this to be dukkha.
Ruth taught us to redirect the urge to escape our suffering; she guided us into the sensations of each successive moment, trained us to bring our attention there and to simply watch our busy thoughts, our unruly emotions, and return again to attention to our sensory experience.
But for three years I resisted Ruth, realizing the value of what she taught but not yet ready to accept her guidance. I would sit in the meditation hall among the other meditators as she guided us, and I would argue with her in my mind. I criticized her, prayed that she would shut up and leave us alone, yearned for her to be more like other people and not so eccentrically herself. I would wait impatiently for her to do what she had said she would do, and when she did something unexpected instead, I would explode in an inner tantrum of rage and disappointment, as if she had personally betrayed me.
Even so, the truth she was offering pierced through to me, and those glimpses so drew me, with their promise of freedom, that I came every year and sometimes twice a year, to retreats at Dhamma Dena. From a worldly perspective it would seem that I was wasting my time in a particularly perverse way, but on a spiritual path there is no such thing as wasted time.
I was fighting Ruth in order to preserve the familiar, desire-ridden, out-of-control self that caused me so much suffering. It was a life and death struggle, for she threatened me with the death—in any moment—of my concepts and opinions and self-construction. I exerted all my power against her—and made myself miserable—to protect my little self-referential identity. I came to her because I could no longer bear to live in such a limited way, and yet I could not open to her. This existential struggle went on, as I said, for three years. The war raged in me, hurting me, stifling me, continually thwarting my efforts to concentrate and meditate and be simply present.
During those years I saw how much of my suffering is self-created; I experienced the tremendous power of my conditioned responses. Perhaps I could have continued my internal war for decades, if I had not found myself utterly without money as a retreat-session drew near. I telephoned Dhamma Dena and explained my predicament. Was there a way, I asked, that I could attend the retreat for free? Half an hour later someone called back to convey Ruth’s message that I was welcome to work for my room and board.
So I spent hours each day painting and cleaning and building, and I began to experience myself joined with my surroundings. I became part of the physical reality of structures, carpets, windows; I entered the energy of the place, promoting its continued existence, creating order. And I began to be wholly committed to each task, fully present in the doing of it, so that self was forgotten, and only the action of hand holding rag wiping wall was known.
One particular labor tried my endurance. I had to dig a hole for a latrine, bending over the shovel, lifting the heavy dirt, within sight of the zendo where the other retreatants sat peacefully in meditation. A cold wind battered me; the wooden handle of the shovel wore against the skin of my hands raising blisters; my back began to ache. In the performance of this task, at last the hard carapace of my resistance broke apart. After hours of shoveling, I entered the zendo and lowered my body onto my cushion. To sit still, to meditate, seemed a great privilege and gift in itself. And looking at Ruth at the front of the room, I saw her anew—not as my tormentor but as one who offered a precious opportunity. I saw that she was always gently pointing to the complexity and authenticity of this moment, suggesting a new way for me to be with my experience.
I surrendered utterly to her teaching, opening to receive her directions, no longer shutting my heart and mind to them but letting them enter me, and I was profoundly touched. In those few days, all the teachings of the previous three years that I had so vigorously rejected gelled in me. I felt myself enter a deep enduring life-force, expansive and sure, and full of a quiet joy. Not that I was totally transformed—even now my resistance will pop up to impede me—but there was a qualitative change during that retreat that left me much more receptive to and able to make use of Ruth’s teachings.

The spiritual teachers I have experienced use stories as devices to engage us, instruct us, and wake us up. At Dhamma Dena, Ruth Denison often weaves tales from her life, stories that will appear to wander and traverse many detours but always arrive at a moment that sticks in the mind, like an arrow pointing at something one has missed before, or has never considered. She is willing to offer up the moments of her life in the effort to give us ways to connect with ourselves.
On one particular morning, after several hours of sitting and walking meditation, someone had asked Ruth about difficulties with the breathing practice.
“If our mind is open and free of resenting or wishing, we can allow the breath to come to its own naturalness,” Ruth answered. “But somehow we can’t just do that! The problem is that our mind runs along on its own way. We have very little control over it. Who notices this?” A number of the meditators nodded. Ruth sat back, adjusting the chain that held her eyeglasses hanging on her chest.
“There was a time in my life when I experienced extreme states of terror and pain because of difficulties with breathing.” A deeper silence fell among us as she continued. “My difficulties had arisen from wrong practice. I had been too eager-beaver, I was concentrating too harshly, pushing it too hard in a determined way. Today I know why I had to experience that. It brought me into a great space of humbleness and respect for myself, and love. But then all I knew was that I had no power over the mind. It just roamed around and created pictures and fear. Some of you are psychologists or social workers—you have probably met people in this condition, hmmm?”
She peered out among us, nodding as someone indicated agreement. “My mind suffered tremendously, but I did not suffer doubt, because I could remember that this practice is good. So I trusted, and I began humbly returning to the lowest, most modest type of practice, to begin there, and I could gradually come back. That gave me wonderful ways of exploration that I can share with you now when I am teaching.”
She reminded us that the Buddha did not tell us to strive to attain something in breathing but merely directed us to observe the breath just as it is.
“This he did because he understood the healing power of the pure, unattached mind,” she said, “this correcting power which demands nothing and thus allows what you observe to come into its natural order again.” She adjusted herself on her seat, leaned back a little. “So if you feel difficulties and pain and congestion, don’t be too much concerned. Be only concerned that your mind is pure, not reacting. With a quiet, nondetermined mind, just observe what you are doing. Watch how you breathe. Can you discover something in it? It is all for one reason—to train the mind to stay here, to invite it, hmmm? To overcome some of the difficulties and give us more trust, to give us more confidence.”
Ruth finished slowly, bringing home the message. “You allow the mind to come in with its desires, with all its conditioning, with its compulsion to think, to strive, to resent, to want, and so on. And then you are really an explorer. You are noticing all this coming in and not forbidding it, not pushing it away but permitting it to live in the light of your attention.
“Remember this Vipassana mind, this witnessing, attending mind, is already part of your beautiful self. So if you can hold on to that in a modest way you can sustain that cool, you can provide again and again a beautiful condition for your practice.” She lifted her head, looking to the back of the room where I sat and inquiring briskly, “Does that make sense to you, Sandy?” I thought for a moment, not wanting to answer hastily. “Yes, it does,” I said. “Good.” Ruth gave a decisive nod. “I hope it makes sense to all of us.”

Sandy Boucher is a writer, teacher and editor with twenty years’ experience of Buddhist meditation. She is the author of seven books, including Discovering Kwan Yin, Opening the Lotus and Turning the Wheel. This article is adapted from her book, Hidden Spring: A Buddhist Woman Confronts Her Life-Threatening Illness, published by Wisdom Publications.

Woman to Woman, Sandy Boucher, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.

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Finding Joy Amid the Pain Print

Finding Joy Amid the Pain

Even while we suffer, says Darlene Cohen, we can experience joy in life by opening up fully to our experience, not closing down. Drawing on her training as a Zen teacher and her own long experience with chronic pain, she offers an awareness approach to living well with suffering.

Catherine was a highly successful financial consultant in downtown San Francisco, a young woman thriving in a man’s world, reveling in all the rewards business acumen can bring: luxurious condo, designer wardrobe, everything but disability insurance. After her car accident, she found herself living with and financially dependent on her mother again, just as she had been as a child.

Ricardo played soccer every weekend before he herniated a disk at work; soccer games had been the center of his social world and his prowess the cornerstone of his identity. He had been married only a year, but he could no longer make love to his energetic, vivacious wife. Forced into the role of househusband while his wife supported them, he was depressed and humiliated.

Two years after her adored sister died of cancer, Emily seemed to be functioning just fine. She worked, had a family life, pursued hobbies. But suddenly and unpredictably, she still burst into tears and cried effusively. It was as if her sister’s death had opened up some old, deep wound that would never heal.

Many of us in the course of living our everyday lives endure terrible suffering: grief or anxiety or depression or physical pain that won’t go away. I think of this kind of suffering as “mundane” anguish, affliction rendered bearable only because it’s part of our everyday lives, like drawing breath or doing the dishes. If we ever got relief from it, we would suddenly apprehend how dreadful it actually is.

It doesn’t even take a specific loss to experience mundane anguish. We humans suffer just because everything changes all the time. Having once achieved some goal, we can’t rest on our laurels. All of life’s circumstances are dynamic, ever evolving into something else. We clutch at security in vain.

I myself have had rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful and crippling condition, for twenty years, and the stress of the disease—the fear of the future and the despair at what has been lost already—is often worse than the physical pain that I am suffering at any particular moment.

How do we deal with the mundane anguish of our everyday lives? How do we continue to live under crushing stress? And even further, how do we not just get through these things but have rich, full, and worthwhile lives that we actually want to live—under any circumstances?

Our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for everything, including the mundane anguish of our lives. Just our awareness of our sensations, of our experience, with no object or idea in mind, is the practice of not preferring any particular state of mind. Such intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives. This connection—to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, other people—is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering. To me, our awareness of these things without preference is a meditation that synchronizes body and mind. This synchronization, the experience of deep integrity, of being all of a piece, is a very deep healing.

I’ve often heard people in pain say, “I know it would be better if I could accept my pain, and I keep trying and trying, but I can’t! I can’t accept it; I hate it!” I think many people have a skewed idea of what “accepting” pain is. If you have the idea that coping well should resemble serenity or equanimity, something like the proverbial “grace under fire,” then you think you should resign yourself with a big cosmic grin, no matter what horrors are being visited upon you.

Actually, “accepting” pain sounds to me too passive to accurately describe the process of successfully dealing with chronic pain. It fails to convey the tremendous energy and courage it takes to accept physical pain as part of your life. Truly accepting pain is not at all like passive resignation. Rather, it is active engagement with life in its most intimate sense. It is meeting, dancing with, raging at, turning toward. To accept your pain on this level, you must cultivate particular skills. After you have developed some proficiency, dealing with pain feels much more like an embrace, or the bond that forms between sparring partners, than like resignation.

What are the skills necessary for dealing with chronic pain, pain that you have day in and day out and probably will have for a long time? If you have chronic pain, your job is to (1) acknowledge that pain and its burden, and (2) enrich your life exponentially. This is coming at chronic pain from two angles: one is acknowledging it and understanding what it costs you in terms of suffering; the other is opening up your life, making it so rich that no pain can commandeer it.

Before you lose your creative energy to depression and before you are disabled by somatic manifestations of your anxieties, you can begin to live with your suffering in such a way that life’s frustrations and disappointments are part of the rich tapestry of living. In order to have such an attitude, you need to cultivate skills that enable you to be present for all of your life, not just the moments you prefer.

Acknowledging your suffering—exactly what it is costing you to live with your painful situation—is the first step on the path of penetration into the wellspring of your experience, and it holds tremendous potential for your liberation from depression and anxiety.

How do you learn to acknowledge your suffering? I think it lies in practicing respect for all your feelings. You must treat your anxiety, pain, or hatred gently, respectfully, not resisting it but living with it. When you do resist it, you need to treat that with respect, too. You must develop your capacity to appreciate each thing as it is now, while inundated with suffering. Nothing should be treated with more respect than anything else.

When you are able to give all your feelings your full attention, without believing that one feeling is good and another bad (even if you think it is), then compassion, irritation, pain, hatred, and joy are all sacred. When our way is very hard, we have an opportunity to use every flicker of our imaginative fire. This attitude gives us a tremendous sense of freedom and creativity. We feel as if we can imbue any situation with the richness of our own poetry.

After I was bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis, my mobility was so impaired that volunteers from the San Francisco Zen Center began cleaning my room, doing my laundry, and washing my hair. As my body got weaker and my pain greater, and I could no longer deny my situation, I realized that this is the life I have been given. This is the body I have to live the rest of my life with. Within my experience, this is my reality. Every day, I woke up and began to say, “What part of my body can I use today to do the things I have to do?” Strangely, I found relief in just being the suffering. Because I was so ill, nothing was demanded of me: no function, no performance, no self-sufficiency, no heroics. Just me living and breathing. This baseline life allowed me to live in a very simple, nondemanding way.

At first, my conscious life was all pain. Acknowledging the pain and its power eventually allowed me to explore my body fully and find there actually were experiences in my body besides the pain—here is pain, here is bending, here is breath, here is movement, here is sun warming, here is unbearable fire, here is tightness—something different wherever I looked.

My life began to be filled with sensation. Not just pain but sensation of all kinds: children’s voices outside my window; subtle changes in the shadows on the wall as the day passed; feeling my entire body when I turned over in bed; noticing the temperature differences in the various parts of my body, those inside and outside the covers; the contours of a familiar face. Rather than shrinking, my world was as intricate as ever, just on a much more subtle level. Because I was no longer goal-directed, sensation and feeling filled my consciousness. I kept telling myself this must be the world of babies and animals. Everything is fresh and fascinating.

Valuing these subtle experiences is very unconventional thinking; it is extraordinary to be willing to be involved with ordinary things, to be willing to live in the mundane. We don’t have a lot of role models for this kind of attention in our society. Thus, we are very deeply touched when they appear to us. It is so moving when it does happen that it can inspire us for years. When I was first very sick, lying in bed, I happened to hear a recording of Mississippi Fred MacDowell’s Delta blues music. He strums a guitar and sings in a rough voice. He plucks each string of his guitar as if it were his own heartstring he’s vibrating to express his pain. When I heard him, I felt that if he could manage to touch a guitar string that way, I could try to live as sincerely as possible.

If you are in great pain much of the time, it becomes absolutely necessary that you create a life for yourself that you can not only tolerate but love and enjoy. I am probably in more pain than most of the people I know, yet I see my life as one of the most pleasant ways of living currently available to human beings. I believe my life is enjoyable and satisfying because I take my pleasure as seriously as my pain. And what I take most seriously is living each moment of my life, to the extent that I am able to pay that much attention.

Another way to put this is that I try to do each thing for its own sake, to experience every motion, every endeavor, every contact, for what it is. Washing the dishes is not just about getting the dishes clean; it’s about feeling the warm, soapy water soothing my arthritic fingers and noticing the brief discomfort in my elbow joints when I lift a clean dish into the dish drainer. Folding the laundry is an opportunity for smelling its cleanness and luxuriating in the simple movements as a counterpoint to my complex life. There need be no better reason than that I am alive and doing these activities. This is engagement that arises out of a commitment to live as thoroughly as a human can.

When we concern ourselves with the problem of chronic pain, whether psychological or physical, we also need to talk about pleasure. If we are in great pain, often the first step is simply noticing that we have any pleasure at all in the midst of terrible suffering. Then we need to learn how to notice that pleasure is actually present in the experience of pain. Not that pleasure distracts us from the pain or chases it away but that it is able to send little tendrils of relief or comfort into the pain, in the same way that darkness interpenetrates light, that death interpenetrates life.

I think that if you are overwhelmed by emotional stress or physical pain, it is advisable to think about cultivating the ability to recognize pleasure wherever the potential for its existence may lie. I say this not because I am a thrill-seeking hedonist but because somebody has to say it. Not so many Zen lecturers or stress reduction teachers or arthritis doctors do, so I have to fill the breach.

It would be useful to first explore the relationship between pleasure and pain. Like a lot of pairs—light/dark, life/death, love/hate, sickness/health—pleasure and pain are interdependent. That is, they have meaning only in relation to each other. Our ability to perceive each of them is totally dependent on our understanding of the other. Their existence is so commingled in our consciousness that if we decide to concentrate our attention on one of them, the other comes into our consciousness eventually, whether we intend it or not.

Sickness and health are an example I use often, because I work with people who have chronic physical problems. When I began to recuperate from the worst ravages of rheumatoid arthritis, and spent more and more time out of bed, I climbed onto the ever-turning wheel of the sickness-health dichotomy. Every morning when I awoke, I’d think, “Am I better or worse today?” Because I was emotionally involved with the answer—I was repelled by my sickness and clinging to any signs of good health—I was either cast down and disappointed, or raised up and elated, depending on whether I was feeling better or worse.

So the problem with pain is aversion, and the problem with pleasure is clinging. The solution is to just live your life without getting tripped up by all these fixations, but “just” means living your whole life. It’s being alive for all the details of your life and not picking out the moments that you’re going to attend to and those you’re going to ignore. You can take care of your body simply because it yearns to be taken care of and you are alive, listening to its yearnings, flowing in and out of its intelligence, not making it into a separate being apart from yourself. You can attend to your relationships with friends and mates with a heart open to all their various characteristics, those you enjoy and those you find annoying.

There is an absence of struggle when you pay attention this way. What is really going on is that you are doing what needs to be done for your body and for your relationships; it’s not you against sickness or pain or your friends’ personalities.

When you do prefer one state of mind over another, whether it’s pleasure or pain, you lose your capacity to be present in the moment. When you’re making love, you’re taking time out to think, “Can we do this again before morning?” Instead of tasting every morsel in your mouth during the birthday dinner lovingly prepared by your friends, you’re thinking, “What’s the next course?” You’re constantly living somewhere else, in the past or the future.

If you do see your cycle of craving and aversion, and regard it with some humor or detachment, bemused at the fact that you’re always running after something or away from something, you can begin to practice the disinterested pursuit of pleasure. This is pleasure recognized and fostered rather than frantically and compulsively grasped at. You can cultivate pleasure in the same way that you eat sensibly or put on your jacket when it’s cold. This is just something you do for your and others’ wellbeing.

Why should you cultivate pleasure in this disinterested way? Recent research indicates that pleasure is good for you. Pleasure is biochemically better for your health than pain is; it produces a different blood chemistry than pain does. Pleasurable experiences make you breathe deeper, and some of them make your immune system function better. Pleasure relaxes your body, so that your muscles are more flexible and responsive. They can gently pull your joints apart as you move, keeping you from getting arthritis or easing the arthritis you already have.

The technique that many of us use to become more conscious of the fundamental elements of our lives is meditation, which can be defined simply as awareness. There is an infinite variety of things to be aware of: our breath, body sensations, thoughts, moods, physical movements; the animal presence of other people in the room; the sounds we hear—to name a few.

Learning how to pay this kind of attention can radically change the quality of pain or stress, because the kind of mind it produces is clear and focused compared to our usual churning, busy, jumbled mind. This lucid mind gives us a perspective from which we can set priorities in our lives based on our real values rather than mere habit. A great deal of our daily stress stems from confusion over what is really important to us. Do we actually need to get dinner on the table as fast as possible, or is that just a habit we could reevaluate? It is good to become conscious of our actual values. We might really believe that our well-being is more important than living efficiently, but we might have forgotten our beliefs in the crush of daily demands.

So how do you begin to develop this ability to pay attention and use it to cultivate your healing, your sense of ease, your capacity to discover the happiness that is already there?

Every day you can practice paying attention to the world in which you live this very moment. Sit still for twenty to thirty minutes and just notice your sensations, thoughts, and sense impressions. Practice noticing them without worrying about what they are. After some weeks of this sort of practice, you will find it easier to shift into this mode of attention whenever you wish. Even though the stress of pain or anxiety is very compelling, the more you practice bringing to it your full attention, the more skilled you become. When you become able to include this awareness in all your everyday interactions, you will notice that your life takes on a more wholehearted quality, as though you had more of yourself available for each thing that you do.

Another form of meditation practice is to focus your attention on just one thing, like your breath, carefully counting your inhalations and exhalations and noticing the pauses in between. Focusing on anything to the exclusion of everything else is called a concentration practice. You are developing your ability to focus all your attention on one particular thing and let everything else, no matter how potentially riveting, drop away.

When you are doing a concentration practice, you not only notice when your attention is steadily focused on the object you have chosen, but you also notice when it wanders away. If you are new to meditation, you will probably be amazed at how often your mind wanders away from the object on which you have chosen to concentrate. This wandering quality is a basic propensity of the mind. I call it “puppy mind,” a tendency to run about and sniff everything.

It doesn’t matter how many times your mind wanders away, perhaps thousands in a single half-hour meditation session. What’s important is that you notice that your mind has wandered, and specifically where it has wandered to, then you gently disengage from that diversion and guide your attention back to your chosen focus, whatever that is.

I think of concentration practice as developing the “coming-back” muscle. The more times your mind wanders away, the more opportunities you have to develop your ability to refocus your attention, to strengthen your coming-back muscle. Concentration meditation practice is not a matter of ruthlessly eliminating the random thoughts that tug at your attention; it is a matter of patiently and kindly, ideally without self-criticism or irritation, abandoning the side roads and turning your attention back to the object of your concentration.

The following is a good practice to build up your coming-back muscle:

1.Arrange yourself in a position that is both stable and comfortable.

2. Settle yourself and begin to notice your breath, specifically the inhalations and exhalations.

3. Without changing the rhythm or pace of your breath, begin to count the inhalations and exhalations from one to ten. An inhalation and an exhalation count as a pair. That is, the first time you breathe in, you say “one” in your mind; when you breathe out, you say “one” again. The next inhalation is “two”; the next exhalation is “two.”

4. When you get to ten, start over again, so that you are counting a continuous series of one to ten. Continue this throughout your period of meditation—say, for twenty to thirty minutes.

Whenever your attention leaves your counting, note specifically where it goes—for example, to what you have to do after this period of meditation, to a fantasy of what you’d rather be doing, to thoughts of irritation or agitation, to sleepiness, to a work project, whatever. It doesn’t matter where it goes; what’s important is that you gently return it to your breath and your counting. The counting is to help you notice that your attention has strayed.

What may be especially interesting to you is where your attention goes. You may notice obsessive patterns and habits of mind you weren’t aware of before starting this practice. No matter how many times you lose track of your counting, note where your attention goes, over and over again, and then gently bring it back to your counting. This exercise both develops your coming-back muscle and reveals your own particular habits of mind, the favorite places you revisit again and again.

When we become skillful at noticing our habits of mind and letting them come and go without disturbing us, we realize that each state of mind, including strong emotions, only lasts for seconds before being replaced by another one. Anger turns to sadness, which turns to melancholy, which turns to comfort, which turns to relaxation, which turns to enjoyment, and so on. We come to appreciate that the underlying nature of puppy mind is actually a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow of thoughts and feelings. When we understand this truth, we can choose to settle into the awareness of each thought or feeling as it arises and passes. In this way, we cultivate some freedom from the frantic imbalance created by each one.

In general, it is very important to be patient with yourself when you are beginning a meditation practice. You are attempting something that is inherently very difficult: breaking old habits. And these habits aren’t even as blatant as biting your fingernails or smoking cigarettes. They’re habits of mind. The rule of thumb is that it takes ten thousand times to notice that you have a bad habit, ten thousand more times to catch yourself doing it, and ten thousand more times to substitute an alternative behavior. The ancients who derived this dictum understood the coercive power of habit. With this practice, you will begin to as well.
©2000 Darlene Cohen. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.

Darlene Cohen is a Zen teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center. She counsels chronic pain clients and gives workshops and lectures in the Bay area on arthritis and living with pain. This article is adapted from her book,
Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain, published by Shambhala Publications.

Finding Joy Amid the Pain, Darlene Cohen, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.


The Midwest Zen Summer of 1983 Print

The Midwest Zen Summer of 1983


Natalie Goldberg remembers down-home days bringing Zen to the Plains.


A cold wet rain is falling, the fields are divided by barbed wire, and the slow Winnebago Creek is moving through the valley. I walk to dinner and see eight wild turkeys on the hill across from the kitchen. We are beginning to establish a monastery on these 240 acres in the southeast corner of Minnesota, one mile from Iowa.            

On weekends we go to the High Chaparral in New Albin. The owners, Herb and Ellie Mae, live in a trailer out back. Ellie Mae makes clear apple jelly, full of sugar, and as much fried chicken as you can eat on Saturday nights—with white buttered bread, cole slaw and cottage fries. All for $3.00, and the beer is 35 cents. We can sit there all night if we want, slowly losing our names or where we came from, who we loved and why.

When we first went to the High Chap on Friday nights for Ellie Mae’s fried cod, Greg, the head carpenter on the Zen land, whose father owned a similar place in Indiana and knows everyone here, asked me if I was ready to meet some real Iowa farmers. When he introduced me, they pulled him aside to ask where my people came from—Germany? Sweden? He told them I am a Jew.
They were stunned and crinkled their noses. Then in a magnanimous gesture, they said, “Well, everyone has to come from some place, I guess.”
Bob Stringer often sits at a corner table. Yesterday he showed me ten dead rattlers in his car trunk. He smashed in their heads behind the Gibbon’s farm, where he found them sunning on flat hot rocks. He pulled the biggest out of a brown paper sack and its fine spotted skin hung limp in his hand. He said he can collect bounty money for them.
One noon Larry Donahue came up to the Zen land to visit us and to give Greg some building advice. Greg was eating lunch.
Larry screwed up his face and pointed, “What the hell is that?”
“What does it taste like?”
“Here, try it.”
Larry put one alfalfa sprout in his mouth and Greg asked, “Well, what does it taste like?”
That night Larry told his wife Marie about the alfalfa sprout and Marie asked what it tasted like.
Two days later, Larry drove up in the middle of the afternoon. Greg came out of the kitchen to greet him, eating a rice cake with peanut butter. Larry sat in his blue pick-up, left arm hooked over the door, and stared. “Now! What the hell are you eating?”
“It’s made of puffed rice. Wanna try it?”
“Nope,” but all the while Larry talked about how Jim Larsen gypped us on the price of the generator, he watched the rice cake as it went from Greg’s hand to his mouth, as he chewed and actually swallowed it.
One morning Larry Donahue’s father, now in his sixties, picked me up walking from town in his red Oldsmobile on the dirt road. With his whiskey breath, his speech blurred, we wove down the road for a mile and came to a quick stop where I got out in front of the Solberg barn—tin siding slapped over gray peeling wood. Donahue’s wife went crazy in their big white farmhouse and killed herself ten years ago. Now Mr. Donahue wakes up early, like he did as a farmer, drives into town and drinks until ten in the morning. I point to the fields ahead and tell him they’re pretty. He looks: “I guess they are.”
I realize this place isn’t beautiful if you live here all your life. It’s deeper than that. The crickets fill your summer days, the hills turn brilliant in fall and white in winter. You don’t make payments on your own land; you have buried your parents on it.
Duane is the best pool player in the county, but says anyone from the city could beat him. He lives alone on the family farm and comes to the High Chap for company on Friday nights. The Zen students put quarters in the red flashing jukebox and country song after country song twangs out into the dark light of the bar. We get up in our jeans and sweat shirts, work boots—I am wearing Chinese sneakers—and dance near the pool table with no apparent partner or pairing of male and female. We dance loose limbed the way we learned in the sixties.
The three men at the bar, Herb behind the bar, and the farmer at the table with his pale wife and two children, watch us. The moon is almost full and for some reason it feels extraordinary that this night we are all here together. Duane, with pool cue in hand, joins us and dances a few excited, shy steps. For moments during “Sioux City Sue,” there is so much happiness that Greg kisses Duane, even though he’s just lost another game to him.
I smoke a thin stogie at our long table, where David eats french fries, then Ellie Mae’s peach pie a la mode. Everyone agrees that the High Chap is sophisticated tonight, with people from all over the country—New York, California—there’s even a Jew and a black person. Lots of Buddhists, a woman with a cigar, and a man kissing a man—and the people from New Albin even know our names and we know theirs.
Outside, Ford pickups with bumper stickers are lined up in the parking lot: DON’T CUSS THE FARMER ON A FULL STOMACH. Our Toyota is parked next to them with our bumper sticker: MY KARMA RAN OVER MY DOGMA.
Greg, Kevin and I drive home in the white flatbed truck Zen Center is renting. I walk to my tent. In the moonlight the Richter cornfield next door looks smoky blue, with high tassels swaying slightly in the breeze.
In a few days the new zendo will be completed. The carpenters, who spent their whole summer here without pay, are almost finished. Dana, whose family are rich grain merchants from Kansas City, tells us that if his mother calls, whatever we say, don’t tell her that he’s helping to build a Midwest Buddhist monastery—just tell her he’s out camping for the summer.
Two carpenters from San Francisco Zen Center have come to help. The blonde one repeats often: “This place has no culture! Only cows, corn and mosquitoes!” Paul has given him The Most Miserable Award—a one inch square piece of khaki canvas. We safety-pinned it to his shirt. The material was Paul’s from an earlier accident. One afternoon in June he found three big black and white neighbor cows standing in the middle of his collapsed tent. Deep yellow piss formed pools in the creases of the canvas and the cows mooed loudly.
Katagiri Roshi, our Zen teacher, drives down from Minneapolis near the end of September. Greg shows him around. He examines everything, bending down close to have a better look at a door knob, not saying a word, his hands clasped behind his back. The rest of us are hammering, sweeping, sanding, but breathless waiting for Katagiri’s response.
Finally he turns to Greg, “Thank you,” he bows, hands in gassho.
“It is a great honor,” Greg bows back.
During lunch Roshi hears about Kevin, who spent the last three weeks in an empty riverbed searching for perfect stones for the zendo entrance, and was stung twice by bees almost in the same place inside his nose.
Roshi grins, exposing a mouth full of teeth and says in English with his Japanese precision, “Very un-u-sual case!”
We all laugh and slap Kevin on the back.
The next day we sit our first seven-day sesshin in the new Hokyoji zendo. On the first evening a big harvest moon hangs in the dark sky and lights a silver path to our tents. The next night we listen to rain on the roof as we sit zazen, and then wake to a morning fog filling the valley. By afternoon I look up to see two hawks riding the cycles of air forty feet above our heads, and as I reach for a towel in the new bathhouse, I glimpse Napoleon, the ratty yellow cat we brought from the city, whom we thought we’d lost, dash by through the grass.

Natalie Goldberg’s new book is Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, published by Bantam. She is spending the next year teaching two practice periods at Clouds and Waters Zen Center in St. Paul.

The Midwest Zen Summer of 1983, Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.


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