Books in Brief (July 2014)
Shambhala Sun | July 2014
Books in Brief
ANDREA MILLER's roundup this issue features books on yoga, parenting, and our connections to animals, plus the new novel by Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick
THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW
By Matthew Quick
Harper 2014; 304 pp., $25.99 (cloth)
In her final days, Bartholomew’s mother believes (or
pretends to believe) that he’s Richard Gere. And being a mama’s boy wanting to
make his mama happy, Bartholomew pretends right back. But the contrast is
stark. Unlike the celebrity Buddhist, Bartholomew has never slept with a model
(or anyone, for that matter). He isn’t passionate about any cause; he doesn’t
even have a job. Then his mother dies, and as Bartholomew is putting aside her
lightly used undergarments for the local thrift shop, he finds a form letter
from Gere urging the boycott of the 2008 Olympics held in China. In his grief,
Bartholomew writes to the movie star, sharing his deepest, saddest secrets and
his spot-on observations about faith, power, and propriety. Gere never writes
back but letter by letter Bartholomew creates a life for himself and—along the
way—has a host of quirky adventures. The Good Luck of Right Now is a
charming epistolary novel by Matthew Quick, the author of The Silver Linings
Meditations on the Wild Animals Among Us
By Tai Moses
Parallax Press 2014; 272 pp., $14.95 (paper)
In becoming a backyard farmer, Tai Moses found herself at
odds with nature. Although chickens are supposed to like eating slugs, the
three she’d bought preferred corn and yogurt, so slugs were free to voraciously
chew her garden. Weeds, deer, caterpillars, and raccoons were likewise a
constant threat. One day, spying a deer nibbling her irises, Moses realized
that they were not actually hers. Wild animals had always lived on this land,
but now they were hemmed in by streets. While she had other means of getting
food, they did not. Moses gave away her chickens, pulled up her vegetables, and
set about turning her yard into an informal animal sanctuary. As she explains
it, the world is rife with problems that we cannot solve, but we can all
plant our backyards, balconies, and community gardens with native plants, which
can in turn support native insects, birds, and animals. And while these plots
of land may be small, they add up to something big. Zoo Burbia—a book
woven through with Buddhist teachings—is a heartfelt collection of first-person
essays about the relationships between humans and animals.
A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally
By Krissy Pozatek
Wisdom Publications 2014; 200 pp., $17.95 (paper)
MISADVENTURES OF A PARENTING YOGI
Cloth Diapers, Cosleeping, and My (Sometimes Successful)
Quest for Conscious Parenting
By Brian Leaf
New World Library 2014; 240 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist sage, once remarked
that in order to protect our feet from injury, we can either try covering the
whole Earth with leather or we can simply put on shoes. According to the
licensed clinical social worker Krissy Pozatek, the most prevalent parenting
style today is analogous to option one. With all of the best intentions, many
modern parents attempt to shield their children from any and all difficulties.
Unfortunately, cushioned from discomfort, these children do not acquire the
life skills they need to be self-confident, adaptable, resourceful, or
emotionally resilient. Brave Parenting is about how to give kids a pair
of proverbial shoes. The first step, Pozatek counsels, is to teach children how
to experience difficult emotions, such as sadness, anger, and failure, without
reactivity. And to teach that lesson, she says, we first need to learn it for
The memoir Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi takes us
into the home of Brian Leaf, a father of two who is attempting to integrate
parenthood with his spiritual life. He concludes that, though little kids look
awfully cute doing cobra pose, they don’t need yoga, as they are already
relaxed and present. Yoga, however, does help him open his mind and see his
kids as they are, rather than how he’d like them to be. While Leaf is a dad of
the ultra “granola” and loving variety, he has a sense of humor about it.
Paying $400 for used cloth diapers, planting the placenta under an oak tree,
and wrestling babies into car seats are all opportunities for him to poke
LIVING WITH A WILD GOD
A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Grand Central Publishing 2014; 242 pp., $26 (cloth)
Growing up in a staunchly atheist family, Barbara Ehrenreich
became a non-believer, a rationalist, the sort of person who always asked
“why.” Nonetheless, as a teenager she had a series of what might be called
“mystical experiences,” which she had no framework for understanding.
Ehrenreich clearly remembers the first one. She was at a horse show with her
family and, feeling bored, she wandered off. Then, without warning, she found
herself under the pale late summer sun, staring at a tree, but with all
meaning, inference, association, labels, and words erased. The word “tree” was
gone, she says, “along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated
in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.” Yet, she
continues, “even with all human attributions—the words, the names of species,
the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and
capillary action… there was still something left.” Now some fifty years
later, Ehrenreich explores her “dissociative” episodes through the lenses of
science and psychology, philosophy and religion. And she does so with an
exquisite use of language.
Life and Poetry of Lotus Moon
Translation and biography by John Stevens
Echo Point Books & Media 2014; 182 pp., $14.99
Rengetsu is widely considered to be one of Japan’s most remarkable
female poets. Sadly, her life was marked by tragedy. She was born in 1791, the
love child of a courtesan and a samurai, and was given up for adoption. Her
first marriage was to a womanizer and drunk, while her second marriage—a happy
one—ended with her husband’s untimely death. By the time she was forty-two, all
of her children, plus her adoptive mother, father, and siblings, were all dead.
Rengetsu ordained in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, but in Japan there were
virtually no nunneries so she was forced to fend for herself. While she was an
accomplished Go player and martial artist, being a woman without means, it
wasn’t possible for her make a living using these skills. She settled on making
and selling pottery, which she incised with original poems, and her work proved
to be both compelling and distinctly her own. This new volume presents a moving
sampling of Rengetsu’s poetry and art. “Listen closely,” she wrote. “At this
mountain temple, / The sound of the wind in the pines / And the whistle of a
kettle / Are the voice of Buddha.”
ZEN AND THE SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
By Ruben L.F. Habito
Orbis Books 2013; 237 pp., $25 (paper)
Íñigo Lopez de Loyola was the sort of man who swaggered
around in tight hose and boots with a dagger at his waist. He got into duels
and flirted with court ladies. Then, at age thirty, he was badly wounded during
a battle and suddenly understood the pointlessness of his old pursuits and
thereby dedicated himself to God. Íñigo Lopez de Loyola became St. Ignatius,
the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. The
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a systematic program of contemplative
practice, that is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality, but these exercises
can also be embraced by people from other spiritual paths. As a former Jesuit
priest who is authorized as a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, Ruben
L.F. Habito is uniquely qualified to unpack the Spiritual Exercises from a Zen
A Punk Looks at Fifty (July 2014)
Shambhala Sun | July 2014
A Punk Looks at Fifty
Crummy cars, a wall of guitars, and a whole bunch of meditation: not exactly the American Dream, but Zen teacher BRAD WARNER is good with that.
I recently turned fifty. Happy birthday to me! It’s an
annoying age: you’re not old enough to be considered wise but you are
old enough to be considered old. I’m too old to be a prodigy but too young to
be venerable. Nobody cares what fifty-year-olds think.
But then, as my dad says, “It’s better than the
alternative!” At least I don’t look fifty. Must be all that Zen.
Things change. Watching TV, I saw a Cadillac ad that used
“Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” by the Ramones as its soundtrack. That
song was the first track on the first Ramones album I ever bought, End of
the Century. I played that album until the grooves were gone. It’s still my
favorite Ramones record. And now the Ramones are being used to sell Cadillacs.
That’s what it’s come to. I suppose that’s what happens.
But I don’t want a Cadillac. I don’t want a swimming pool.
I’m not the “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believer” another Cadillac commercial
says I should be.
I guess the Ramones are supposed to be the music of my
generation, but that’s not how I remember things. I remember being just about
the only one in my school who liked the Ramones, then watching with a kind of
incredulous fascination as, many years later, the same weasels who’d made fun
of people like me for liking the Ramones pretended they’d been into them all
Which is not to say I’m a Zen monk who only owns a robe and
a bowl to beg for food. I’m somewhere in the middle, maybe slightly more toward
the robe-and-begging-bowl side than the Cadillac-and-pool side. I’ve never
owned a house. I’ve never owned a car I couldn’t pay for outright. Which means
all my cars have been kind of crummy. I do have a number of guitars because
that’s what I buy whenever I come into any cash. And then when I’m strapped for
cash I sell ’em. I’ve gone through dozens that way. It’s fine.
When I was young, I saw the folly of the things so many of
my peers believed were worth pursuing. The mass media was lying, and that was
plainly obvious. Whatever they said was valuable, I was sure was not. So I
started looking for new kinds of value. I found it in meditation and in a
philosophy that encouraged me to question deeply. I’m happy with that choice.
And I’ve never grown up.
That annoys a lot of people I encounter. It’s one of the
reasons that most of my friends are ten, twenty, even close to thirty years
younger than me. People my age are often angry at me for not being an adult in
the way they think I ought to be. I get emails all the time telling me, “You’re
almost fifty,” followed by a list of adult ways the person thinks I should be
Now they can remove the word “almost.” It still won’t work.
See, the fact is I’ve paid my own rent and my own taxes for
thirty years. I’ve done most of the things I dreamed of doing when I was a kid,
and I’ve done plenty to qualify as an adult. I’m pleased as punch with the life
I lead. Money is a problem and probably always will be. But when I look at the
guy in the Cadillac commercial—our culture’s notion of the ideal fifty-year-old
man—he doesn’t seem to be living the kind of life that would make me happy.
Since I write books about Zen, Zen has sort of become my
thing. Which is weird. Because in my own impressions of what I am, Zen is a
relatively small thing. It’s a practice I took up in my late teens because it
felt good and because its philosophy made real sense. I stuck with it and ended
up being ordained and becoming a teacher, not because I actually desired to
ordain and become a teacher but because my teacher thought I should, and I
trusted him. But I don’t read a lot of Zen books, and I don’t hang out with Zen
people most of the time. I don’t self-identify as a “spiritual person” or
consume the lifestyle-enhancing products spiritual people are supposed to
I practice this Zen stuff because it’s been the key to
happiness for me. It has surpassed anything else I’ve ever tried. It has taught
me how to enjoy life thoroughly. It’s given me the ability to see the
negativity we all encounter in life for what it really is. Which is, nothing.
The powers that be want you to believe that you can’t do the
things you want to in this life. They’re lying. All you have to do is step out
of “yourself” enough to see what it is you actually want, rather than the crap
they’re telling you that you want, like Cadillacs and pools.
It might sound like I believe in The Secret or
something. But that’s not quite it. The Secret encourages you to
envision your ideal life and try to psychically attract it to you. What I’ve
found is a bit different: it’s that the life you’re living right now is already
your ideal. Which doesn’t mean you can’t improve it. It also doesn’t mean
things are always good in the ways that we usually define as “good.” It just
means our ideas about what’s ideal are wrong. They’re created for us by people
who wouldn’t know what true good was if it came up and sat on ’em.
I’m fifty, and I’m fine with it. I’m living with the love of
my life. I’ve done stuff I was told never to believe I could do, and I’m
planning to spend the next fifty years continuing in the same vein.
Go ahead, punk. Tell me to act my age.
Illustration by Peter Bagge.
The Heart of a Garden (July 2014)
Shambhala Sun | July 2014
The Heart of a Garden
The pond in her garden isn't like those decorating fancy homes and magazine covers. In time, however, KAREN MAEZEN MILLER discovers the right view of her muddy water: they’re not always pretty, but
they are beautiful.
May we exist in muddy water with purity like the lotus.
— Meal Gatha
We weren’t doing the work all by ourselves. We had a yard
The yard guy introduced us to a tree guy, and the tree guy
suggested a sprinkler guy. The sprinkler guy knew a fertilizer guy whose
brother-in-law was a fence guy. Before we did anything, though, we talked to a
Japanese garden guy and asked him what we should do.
He said, “Spend twenty thousand dollars.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Not for a long while.
The cost of real estate in California can render anyone
poor. We had been lucky to get in at the bottom of the market, buying the house
for a little more than half of what it had sold for ten years earlier. But it
was still a squeeze, and my prospects for work seemed slim. With twenty years
of experience, I was overqualified for the few jobs out there and
underqualified for the job right here.
This was upsetting. I thought I knew how to get things done, but I was at ground zero and already over my head. The roof needed
replacing and the house needed to be repainted. There were creeping signs that
the shower stall leaked. The air conditioner broke on a day when it was 115
degrees. I knew everything was old, but did it have to be so old ?
Neither was the garden quite what it looked like on that first innocent
encounter when we’d viewed the house with the real estate agent. Junipers had
been left to wither, their arms outstretched in rigor mortis. Aging azaleas had
massed into a thicket of nearly bare branches. The pruning had been botched.
The hardiest plants were ones that weren’t supposed to be in a Japanese garden
at all. Here and there were the errors of someone’s misguided intentions—a
Mexican palm, a pink rose bush, a baby apple tree. In our eyes, the offenses kept
People gave us picture books about dreamy Japanese gardens,
and we tormented ourselves with comparisons to the gems of Kyoto. My husband
bought flats of delicate mosses at the nursery. He tried to coax them into our
sandy topsoil. But the sun was too hot and the irrigation too uneven. It took
two or three tries before we conceded. What was it exactly that made a garden
Japanese? We decided it wasn’t us.
Like the ocean to the earth, ponds covered three-fourths of
the backyard. So we let the horticulture go for now and decided that what we
really needed was a pond guy. The fish guy referred us.
We took him into the backyard and waited for the diagnosis.
He walked the circumference of the ponds, inspecting the waterfalls and the
pump-activated stream that fed them. He stood back to get a sense of it all. He
kneeled low to peer into the water. He put his hands on his hips and asked,
“What did you say your problem was?”
We answered, “They’re muddy.”
Ponds are the heart of a Japanese garden, or so the literature
told us. Kato, the long-dead landscaper, shaped the four interconnected ponds
into the form of the kanji character for heart, after the pond in
an eighth-century temple garden in Kyoto. I wouldn’t recognize a kanji
character if it was tattooed on my ankle, let alone shaped out of a puddle on
the ground. Looking at the ponds all day through my kitchen window, I couldn’t
see any semblance of it. Of course I understood that water really was the heart
of things—the essence of life. At least on this plane of existence, water is
life’s source and sustenance.
The problem is what we put into it. Everything ended up in
this water: leaves, seed pods, and branches from the messy sycamores; acorns
and pollen from the oak; pine and cypress needles; redwood bark, bamboo leaves,
palm fronds, spent blooms, mosquito larvae, tadpoles, turtles, bird feathers,
fish poop, and virtually anything that could be loosened by the gusting
easterly winds. (Everything can be loosened by the gusting winds in this part
of California.) A family of raccoons romped in the water nightly, dining on
frogs and koi and leaving parts behind. One morning the tables turned, and we
had to fish a raccoon out of the pond. It had expired from some unknown cause
in the night, a reminder of how little we knew about what was happening under
our noses. Traces of these—and other mystery ingredients—would stagnate, sink,
and ferment into the thick sediment at the bottom.
Our ponds were muddy. The water was an ugly brown, laced
with bright green strings of algae. It didn’t look like any koi pond we’d seen
in a better homes magazine. We thought it was sick, and that the few fish
swimming in the murk must be terribly sick too.
“This is the most perfect example of a naturally purified
pond that I’ve ever seen,” the guy finally said. He was awestruck.
Then he showed us the hidden elegance in the whole rotten
mess. The large surface area supplied ample oxygen. The stream and waterfalls
were natural filters. The mud balanced the water’s chemistry, keeping plants
and fish alive. The algae was seasonal, triggered by temperature changes, and
easy to manage. The precise science of pond scum was beyond my grasp, but the
bottom line was this: ours wasn’t like the designer fishponds decorating fancy
homes and magazine covers. This was the real deal. It would always be
trouble—ponds are a shitload of trouble—but it wasn’t a problem. Skim the
leaves. Circulate the water down the stream and falls. Let the mud settle, and
the pond will purify itself.
He didn’t do anything that day—except give us the right view
of the water. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s beautiful.
We never needed to call him again.
In Japanese there is a single word that means “heart, mind,
and spirit”: shin. Japanese is not like English, in which we divide into
opposing concepts things that actually share the same indefinable essence. Like
the ponds in my backyard: they look separate but are interconnected. Open the
tap at the source, and the water from one pool swells into the other. Soon the
illusion of separation disappears. The fish come to the surface and leap.
The word for a Zen retreat is sesshin, which means
“unifying the mind.” Ironically, Zen types argue about the meaning of the word,
which is also defined as “gathering the mind” or “touching the mind.” The
differences don’t matter. In the actual doing, the definitions of sesshin
blend into one true thing: your life right here and now.
The mind we bring to a retreat is marvelous and fully
functioning. As with water, the problem is what we put into it. The debris of
old pain and resentments. The weight of grief and loneliness. The cloud of
judgments. The poison of jealousy and anger. The anxious, internal
rat-a-tat-tat pelting the present calm like a storm of stones. Buddha called
these kinds of disturbances “upside-down thinking.” By the time we come to sesshin,
we feel as if we are drowning in a muddy flood, unable to breathe, see, or slow
down. We can’t imagine the deep stillness that lies beneath the waves.
A pond doctor enters the room with a reassuring smile and
says, “You are a perfect example of natural purification.” His medicine is
nothing more than zazen, the way of sitting. He reminds you that you can
inhale an infinite supply of oxygen without mechanical intervention. He tells
you to follow the movement of your breath to clear distractions, and use your
own senses to refresh your awareness. Naturally, disturbances occur, but you
can right yourself again. Sit still, just sit still and let the mud sink to the
bottom. Your life rises up on a sturdy stalk and blooms on the surface like a
What goes into sitting isn’t pretty, but after a while it
Now, what did you say your problem was?
Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight, © 2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library,
Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com
Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold,
Momma Zen, and most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. She’s also a Zen Buddhist
priest, meditation teacher, wife, and mother.
Let Your Confidence Shine (July 2014)
Shambhala Sun | July 2014
Let Your Confidence Shine
Through the practice of meditation, says SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE, we discover an unconditional confidence that transforms our lives and benefits others.
We are all leaders. We have no choice. Each of us is leading
our own life. We are making decisions every moment, even if it’s just whether
to butter our toast. To lead our lives well, we need to be intimately involved
with our own journey.
Practicing meditation is a way to lead our lives with
vision. We take the proper posture, let ourselves be, and get in touch with the
unconditional health of the mind. That is meditation.
Even in the beginning, as we struggle with thoughts,
emotions, and sense perceptions, we experience a glimmer of inherent
nonaggression that allows us to be at peace. Meditating is an unbiased way to
strengthen our confidence in this feeling of space and accommodation.
Confidence in our inherent nonaggression cannot be acquired,
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s most recent book is The Shambhala
Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure.
Editorial: Just Like That (July 2014)
Shambhala Sun | July 2014
Just Like That
Buddhists talk a lot about cause and effect (i.e., karma)
and interconnection, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand that
everything you know, as you know it, could completely change. Just like
For Allan Lokos, the NYC-based meditation teacher I
interviewed for this issue, that truth came down hard. A family
vacation—intended to be just another positive episode in a fruitful and often
comfortable existence—was turned upside down, just like that, when a routine
flight turned into a disaster that nearly took Lokos’s life.
It’s a harrowing tale, but not really unique: loss and
difficulty, just like birth and joy, are simply the stuff of life. Not that a
near-fatal accident is the kind of thing anyone can be ready for. But we
can, at least, be somewhat prepared.
What’s the difference? It’s subtle, but it has a lot to do
with why Buddhists practice meditation the way they do.
This issue offers you the opportunity to explore the full
variety of Buddhist meditation techniques. These not only help us develop a
less agitated, more focused mind in the day-to-day, but also provoke us toward
actionable clarity about what vexes us on a more existential “lifetime” level.
Buddhist practices and teachings lead us to question and ultimately face the
sources of our long-held passions and aversions, our morality, our mortality,
what reality is and isn’t, and how we’re participating in it. (Or, aren’t).
As we come to terms with these things, we’re becoming more
prepared: to enjoy life’s easier moments, yes, but also to be more present and
at ease when things don’t happen as we want them to, when others are facing
trouble, illness, and death, and when we are facing them ourselves. Again, the
stuff of life.
It’s gratifying work, but—why sugarcoat it?—it can take a
lot of effort, especially if you’re not feeling up to it. For an incalculable
number of people, though, it’s felt to be quite worthwhile. I’m one of them, as
are so many of the others behind the production of the Shambhala Sun.
Now, I’m in no way saying that we’re all adepts—another thing we can’t
sugarcoat—but we do share the conviction that Buddhist meditation has truly
benefited our lives and those of the people around us.
We explore the whys and hows in this issue’s special
section, “Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation.” After “The View,” a newly
available teaching by our founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, about why
Buddhists meditate, we then dive into the how. You’ll learn the basics
(posture, breathing, and so on); how to develop goodwill and compassion for
others and for yourself; to sit in Zen’s bare-bones “nothing extra” mode; to
investigate the true nature of mind, and more. All of it comes by way of
thoughtful, artful teachers of diverse ages, backgrounds, and voices. Which
makes sense: there are so many kinds of Buddhist meditation because there are
so many kinds of people, so many different needs. So why not try them all, see
what fits for you, and what happens if you keep at it?
Perhaps, in the end, you’ll be enlightened. Perhaps not. But
don’t be surprised to find yourself better prepared for whatever comes. It can
happen bit by bit—or just like that.
—Rod Meade Sperry, Associate Editor
PS: For lots more meditation guidance, be sure to
visit ShambhalaSun.com. Also available is the new Shambhala Sun book, A
Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, featuring teachings by Pema Chödrön, the
Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so many more.
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