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Books in Brief (July 2014) Print

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

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 Playbook.


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 Resilient Children

By Krissy Pozatek
Wisdom Publications 2014; 200 pp., $17.95 (paper)


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 ourselves.

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 gentle fun.


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 (paper)

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.”


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 perspective.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

A Punk Looks at Fifty (July 2014) Print

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 along. Uh-huh.

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 behaving.

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 consume.

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.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Illustration by Peter Bagge.

The Heart of a Garden (July 2014) Print

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 guy.

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 growing.

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 lotus flower.

What goes into sitting isn’t pretty, but after a while it becomes beautiful.

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.

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.

Excerpted from the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Let Your Confidence Shine (July 2014) Print

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, only uncovered.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s most recent book is  The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure.

Read the rest of this article inside the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Editorial: Just Like That (July 2014) Print

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 that.

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 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.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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