Books in Brief (January 2013)
Books in Brief
By ANDREA MILLER
THE MONKS AND ME: How 40 Days in Thich Nhat Hanh’s French Monastery Guided Me Home
By Mary Paterson
Hampton Roads Publishing 2012; 256 pp., $16.95 (paper)
The Monks and Me
is the true story of Mary Paterson’s forty days at Plum Village.
Paterson’s lessons in the dharma take many forms, but I particularly
enjoy what she learns from her co-retreatants. Take Charlie, a
Newfoundlander who wears a Mexican poncho. “Killing the cats was fucking
killing me,” he says. Charlie used to be a neuropsychologist and his
work involved stimulating different parts of cats’ brains in order to
observe their reactions to fear, then killing and dissecting them. His
intimate relationships were stressful, too—he had three girlfriends at
the same time—and he had a mountain of debt to contend with. Then
Charlie took Thich Nhat Hanh’s five mindfulness trainings, most
significantly the first, reverence for life. This helped him quit his
job, solve his debt problems, and commit to a monogamous relationship.
Paterson’s colorful co-retreatants also include a shameless headphone
thief and a sad German with beige hair, beige skin, and beige eyes who
is driven out of the retreat by a fiery Brazilian.
BRIGHT MOON, WHITE CLOUDS: Selected Poems of Li Po
Edited and translated by J.P. Seaton
Shambhala Publications 2012; 224 pp., $14.95 (paper)
THE ART OF HAIKU: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters
By Stephen Addiss
Shambhala Publications 2012; 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
Po, the celebrated eighth-century Chinese poet, is most famous for his
drinking poems, full of pretty girls and jade vessels and hangovers. But
he is also well known for poetry reflecting his philosophical bent,
chiefly Taoist but also Buddhist and Confucian. In his introduction to Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po,
translator J.P. Seaton says, “There is often something almost
Dionysian, almost magically freeing, in [Li Po’s] poems, even moments
that sound like wobbly satoris. But (how like a Taoist!) he never uses
the Chinese words for satori, or sudden enlightenment, to describe any
physical, philosophical, or spiritual state he reaches.”
The Art of Haiku
is an extensive exploration of that poetic form, its corresponding
tradition of painting, and its related poetic styles. Haiku is
frequently described as a Zen art, but author Stephen Addiss points out
that the relationship between haiku and Zen isn’t clear-cut. While the
renowned Basho was a Zen practitioner, as were several of his followers,
most haiku poets didn’t study Zen. Some adhered to no religion; others
identified with Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, or other Buddhist
sects. The poet Issa, for example, was a devout Pure Land Buddhist. This
gem of a poem by him is one of the 997 poems included in The Art of Haiku: “baby sparrows / open their mouths to the plum tree— / a Buddhist chant.”
THE GREAT WORK OF YOUR LIFE A Guide for the Journey of Your True Calling
By Stephen Cope
Bantam Books 2012; 304 pp., $26 (cloth)
How can we get in touch with our true self and embrace our calling?
explore this question, Stephen Cope uses the wisdom of a
two-thousand-year-old Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, as a
jumping-off point. The Gita begins with Arjuna collapsing onto the floor
of his chariot because he’s conflicted over his vocation. What follows
is a philosophical discussion between Arjuna and Krishna, his divine
charioteer. According to Cope, “Arjuna is supposedly the greatest
warrior of his time, but really, he is just astonishingly like we are:
neurotic as hell, and full of every doubt and fear you can imagine.”
Nonetheless, over the course of eighteen ancient chapters, Arjuna
discovers and embraces his calling—and we can too. In The Great Work of Your Life,
Cope provides us with engaging examples of people finding their path.
Some of these people have so-called ordinary lives. Others are
well-known figures, including Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, and
Susan B. Anthony.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK Living with Wisdom and Compassion
By Thubten Chodron
Snow Lion Publications 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)
I started this book because the title made me laugh, but I kept reading it because of the insight on its pages. Don’t Believe Everything You Think
is an explanation of The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, a text
written by the Tibetan monk Togmay Zangpo in the fourteenth century. My
favorite part of the book is the way Thubten Chodron has peppered it
with the experiences—both the challenges and lessons learned—of her
dharma students. For example, she relates Togmay Zangpo’s verse on
betrayal to how her student Deborah has worked with being abandoned by
her alcoholic mother, and to how her student Maria dealt with a
collaborative art project taking an unhappy turn. Thubten Chodron, an
American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is the founder and
abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington state, as well as the author of Buddhism for Beginners and Open Heart, Clear Mind.
MOODY COW LEARNS COMPASSION
By Kerry Lee MacLean
Wisdom Publications 2012; 32 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
Moody Cow Learns Compassion
is a picture book for children ages four and up. When Moody Cow and his
friend Bully catch a garter snake, Bully feeds it a cricket. “Awesome!”
shouts Bully as the little guy squirms in the snake’s mouth, but Moody
Cow just feels sad. “You are such a wimp,” says Bully, and Moody Cow
stomps off mad. That night Moody Cow dreams he’s as tiny as a cricket
and a huge snake slithers up to him with its jaws open wide. “Don’t eat
me!” he screams. Obviously, this whole cricket situation has Moody Cow’s
thoughts super upset but he knows exactly what to do. He takes out his
Mind Jar, which is a jar of water he uses to represent his mind. For
being called a coward and getting mad, Moody Cow puts a pinch of
sparkles into the jar, and for knowing how it feels to be eaten alive,
he throws in three handfuls. His grandfather shakes the jar and the two
of them breathe quietly as the sparkles and the upsetting thoughts both
settle. By the time the water is clear, Moody Cow feels better and he’s
ready to have some compassionate fun with Grandfather and Bully.
About a Poem: Red Pine on Ch'eng Hao's "Casual Poem on a Spring Day" (January 2013)
About a Poem
RED PINE on Ch’eng Hao’s “Casual Poem on a Spring Day”
CASUAL POEM ON A SPRING DAY
The clouds are thin the wind is light the sun is nearly overhead
past the flowers through the willows down along the stream
people don’t see the joy in my heart
they think I’m wasting time or acting like a child
would be the kind of poem I would write, or wished I could write, if I
wrote poems. Ch’eng hao (1032-1085) was the most famous philosopher of
his day and one of the founders of a movement that became known as
Neo-Confucianism. His unique contribution to this movement was based on
his understanding that the world was the manifestation of li, or principle, and that neither li nor the world existed apart from the other.
was especially famous for his lectures. They were attended by thousands
of people and were recorded by his students and later edited for
publication by such famous Neo-Confucians as Chu Hsi. But, like all
Chinese scholar-officials of his day, he also wrote poems and this one
appears in the most memorized Chinese anthology, the Chienchiashih, or
Poems of the Masters. In this brief quatrain, Ch’eng leads us through
his world with stream-of-consciousness artistry and portrays his sense
of oneness with that world. Ch’eng’s philosophy is not merely an
academic or intellectual posture. He allows us either to stand outside
as his critics might have done or to share his experience so that we
might better appreciate the arbitrary separation of ourselves from our
I first read this poem, I was reminded of the story in which Chuang-tzu
was out walking with Hui-tzu and commented on the joy of the fishes
swimming in the stream under the bridge on which the two men paused to
enjoy their own spring day around 300 B.C. Hui-tzu said, “You’re not a
fish. How do you know if the fishes are happy?” Chuang-tzu replied,
“You’re not me. How do you know I don’t know the fishes are happy?”
Indeed, our knowledge of others is one presumption after another. Then
too, our knowledge of ourselves is only slightly less presumptuous. But
here, in this poem, presumption disappears. It’s a spring day a thousand
years ago in a heart full of joy.
An award-winning translator of Chinese poetry and Buddhist texts, Red Pine was born Bill Porter. In the 1970s he spent more than three years living at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. He then struck out on his own, working as a journalist at English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. His book Zen Baggage recounts a pilgrimage to sites in China associated with the beginnings of Zen Buddhism.
Love & Emptiness (January 2013)
Shambhala Sun | January 2013
Love & Emptiness
The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra
by Karl Brunnhölzl
Snow Lion Publications, 2012; 160 pp., $16.05 (paper)
Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra
by Dosung Yoo
Wisdom Publications, 2012; 254 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Reviewed by NORMAN FISCHER
All dharmas are empty: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form...
I was thunderstruck the first time I encountered the words of the Heart Sutra. Somehow, no eyes, no ears, no nose
made sense to me in a way I couldn’t explain, and I felt great relief.
As a child I had always suspected that the world I was raised in didn’t
hold up to scrutiny, and on hearing the Heart Sutra for the first time,
my childhood confusion was suddenly acknowledged and addressed, even if I
couldn’t explain how. It seemed intuitively to me that the sutra was
affirming that the world was indeed not the way I had been taught it
was. “No, it isn’t like that. It’s like this,” the sutra seemed to be
as it is on first hearing, the Heart Sutra won’t go away. You wonder
and ponder, perplexed and fascinated. “No eyes, no ears... nothing to
attain... no hindrance and no fear...” How? Why? It has taken me many
years of practice and study to begin to appreciate and understand the Heart Sutra’s words and put them into practice in my life.
one page, the Heart Sutra is probably the briefest of all Buddhist
sacred texts, and the most influential. Foundational to Mahayana
Buddhism, it is prized in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and in Zen,
where it is chanted every day in most temples and monasteries. But what
does it mean? Can it really be denying the existence of the very nose on
our face? And why is that so important to a religion that prizes
compassion over all other virtues?
of its central importance to so many schools of Buddhism, the Heart
Sutra has inspired a number of commentaries in English from scholars and
teachers of almost every tradition. Both the Dalai Lama (Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings) and Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamitta Heart Sutra)
have taught it, and a number of younger Western-trained teachers,
probably many more than I know of, have also written commentaries.
Two recent books of note add some new perspectives and details to an already full picture of this great text. The Heart Attack Sutra,
by Karl Brunnhölzl, a German Vajrayana teacher, enthusiastically
discusses the sutra from the standpoint of the Tibetan Buddhist
tradition, with its rigorous logic and philosophy and careful parsing of
doctrine. (The title comes from a Tibetan Buddhist legend that some
early Buddhists, on first hearing Buddha preach this sutra, went
apoplectic and had heart attacks.)
Tibetan scholastic tradition, the emptiness teachings are a major topic
for intellectual study, and Brunnhölzl has made this tradition
completely his own, discussing the various treatises and doctrines with
ease and considerable wit. This text includes a sadhana (a visualization practice) of dazzling complexity that is an interesting supplement to the teachings.
Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra is
by the Won Buddhist teacher Dosung yoo. a twentieth-century form of
Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism, Won Buddhism now has a strong presence in the
U.s., and Rev. Yoo is one of its most eloquent proponents.
Korean Buddhist tradition strikes me as admirably simple and clear, and
this text shines brightly in those qualities. Like many other
commentaries, it goes through the text line by line and in the process
discusses basic Buddhist teachings thoroughly, with a delightful ease
and lightness expressive of the emptiness teachings themselves. It
features a wealth of charmingly told Korean folk stories and old Buddhist tales. Using such tales to illustrate, with humor and magical
realism, the potentially abstract and philosophical teaching of the
sutra is one of the strongest features of the Korean tradition, and of
The key term in the Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit shunyata,
usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in
its opening lines, “All dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes,
ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects—and all
Buddhist teachings—are empty. In fact, the Heart Sutra
is a brilliant one-page summary of the entire edifice of Buddhist
psychological, epistemological, and soteriological teachings, which are
enumerated and then denied. A devout and passionate Buddhist, seeing the
text for the first time, may well read it as a dismantling of Buddhist
Orthodoxy (thus the heart attacks). Judging from the defensiveness you
find in other, longer texts of the shunyata literature, of which the Heart Sutra is
said be the pith or “heart,” many early Buddhists probably did object
to the sutra on exactly such grounds. But in fact, the Heart Sutra does
not deny Buddhist teachings. It is merely shifting the ground on which
the teachings stand—which changes everything.
The word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shunyata,
but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. In
English the words “empty” and “emptiness” sound bleak. An empty life is
not a happy life. It is flat, meaningless, hollow. Nothing inside.
Alienated war-weary characters in Ernest Hemingway’s short stories often
had “a hollow feeling.” T.S. Eliot, in the same period, wrote a poem
called “The Hollow Men” describing the lost spirit of the times. Hollow
is empty, lost. To be empty inside, to be empty of faith and values, is
to be nihilistic and despairing.
The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is
something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and
liberation. Commentators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of
what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty
of burden, empty of boundary.”
The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata,
used the character for sky. All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue,
beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a
cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart
Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all
limitation and boundary. It is open, released.
The Heart Sutra
is not denying the existence of the world we live in. It’s denying the
basis of the world’s sticky intractability. It’s denying the ultimate
reality of the basis of our suffering—our separate, burdensome self and
all that seems to exist apart from it, all that we think we need and do
not have. No eyes, no ears,
and so on doesn’t deny the physical; it redefines it. Things do
exist—only not in the way we think they do. And when the sutra lists and
negates basic Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t mean the teachings are
false or unreal. It means they are true in a freer, more expansive, less
literal and substantial way than we thought. The Heart Sutra
showed me from the start that I could hold and practice the Buddhist
teachings in a light, flexible, open-handed way. I didn’t have to become
pious. Piety is empty, the Heart Sutra says. Buddhism is empty. And that is why it liberates us.
other side of emptiness, or, one could say, its content, is connection,
relationality. When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound
inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I
place myself among them, as I must, I better do that carefully, which
is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others.
But when there’s openness, no boundary, between myself and others— when
it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me,
then love and connection is easy and natural.
Nagarjuna, the most influential of all Buddhist thinkers, seized on the emptiness teachings as the cornerstone of his Madhyamika,
or Middle Way, approach. It’s not that things “exist” (heavy, hard, and
isolated) or “don’t exist” (in despairing nihilism). The truth is in
the middle: things are empty of both existence and non-existence. There
are no “things” at all and never were. There is only connection, only
love. This, Nagarjuna argues, is not a new doctrine; it is what the
Buddha was pointing to from the start.
This is why the emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra,
which seems to be rather philosophical and dour, is the necessary basis
for compassion. Emptiness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as
transaction—me over here, being compassionate to you over there—is
simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to
receive your suffering and do something about it, and if I am going to
make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I
will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundarylessness of me and you,
and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering,
and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or
ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate
and loving, without limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time
and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful,
heartfelt path worth treading.
Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute
and relative compassion. absolute compassion is compassion in the light
of emptiness: all beings are empty, all beings are light, all beings
are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the
sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also
empty. Everything is inherently all right and taken care of—even the
pain. reality is inherently merciful. It’s okay to suffer, because
through that very suffering we find release. The old adage “time heals
all wounds” is more profound than it sounds: time, every moment,
actually is release, freedom, and healing. in the light of absolute
compassion, reality itself already is compassion. Nothing more is
point of view sounds nice at first but could also be quite monstrous.
Carried to its logical conclusion, it might inspire us to ignore wars,
natural disasters, illnesses, and deaths: since everything is perfect as
it is in emptiness, what’s the point of grief, sorrow, or helping? But
this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth
and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute
compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless
work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad
view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either
view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a
wonderfully connected and sustainable life. Two sides of a coin, two
wings of a bird.
This is what I sensed without knowing it on first hearing the Heart Sutra.
And I am not the only one: many others have told me they too have
experienced this uncanny sense on first hearing the sutra. Its
matter-of-fact strangeness, even absurdity, seems to invite such a
response. It’s what I sensed as a child was missing in the world around
me. Life simply couldn’t be as small, as difficult, and as dull as it
seemed. Somehow I was sure there must be another way.
But the Heart Sutra
is more than an inspiring vision or understanding. It is also a
practice, a course of action that relieves suffering and transforms
lives. Practicing the Heart Sutra
is training in the feeling for life that arises when we have fully
internalized its teachings into our body and emotions. The
emptiness/boundlessness of all dharmas is not only something we would
like to believe; it is also a way we can hold our lives lightly and
joyfully, a texture we can palpably feel at the center of our awareness.
is the legendary founder of Zen. Once, his disciple Huike begged for
his help: “My mind is in anguish, please help me find peace.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind.” After some time of practice
Huike said, “I cannot find my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “Then your mind
is at peace.” Once you feel in your bones and throughout your awareness
the emptiness of your mind, you are at peace. Even when problems and
difficulties arise, there’s still the thread of peace woven in at the
heart of them.
Zen practice, zazen (sitting meditation) is training in emptiness. The
practice is simply resting alertly in the feeling of body and breath,
letting everything come and go, without denying or latching on. Sitting
this way day after day, retreat after retreat, year after year, Zen
practitioners learn to hold things lightly: respecting them,
appreciating them, attending to them when the time for that comes, but
also letting them go as they naturally will— because they are empty.
Everything exists in time; time is existence. Time is empty; everything
comes and goes. In fact, coming/going is the reality of each moment.
Sitting, you feel the truth of this as your own immediate experience of
body and breath.
teachings internalized become a way of being fully and easily present
with what is—a passing, flowing, empty, ongoing stream of living and
dying. At my first long Zen retreat, in the deep snows of Upstate New
york, I wandered for hours in the woods above the retreat center as snow
fell, my tracks disappearing as I made them, until everything
disappeared into a soft uniform whiteness, the trees, the ground, the
sky—no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.
The Heart Sutra
is also practiced by chanting. Since it’s so short, it’s easy to
memorize, and anyone who has lived in a Zen temple for any length of
time will automatically have memorized it. Having such a text, as they
say, “by heart” is an experience increasingly rare in our culture, which
makes it all the more precious. A mind that can, at any moment, begin
vocalizing, in trance-like fashion (the syllables tumbling out of the
mouth even before the brain registers them), the familiar words of the
Heart Sutra is a mind that has at its disposal the means for its own
pacification and expansion. I remember many dark moments of confusion or
despair when I chanted the sutra over and over for comfort, the words
lifting me out of the rut I was in, opening up new vistas.
long ago, visiting my parents in a crisis moment when my life seemed
vague and directionless and i didn’t know what to do, my mind raged with
troubled thoughts I couldn’t share. It was autumn, and leaves were
falling from the many oak and maple trees that lined the streets of the
small Pennsylvania town where they lived. I walked through the leaves
for miles, chanting the Heart Sutra
over and over, until the thoughts dissolved and joy arose, my ears full
of the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, my heart grateful for the
strangeness of the passing of time.
chanting went in deepest of all at my mother’s hospital bedside, just
after her death. Everyone had gone and I was alone with my poor
bewildered mother’s body. Not knowing what else to do, I chanted and
chanted the Heart Sutra as tears filled my eyes. I was sad and not sad at the same time. The words of the sutra never seemed truer or more comforting.
We Need to Be Warriors (January 2013)
We Need to Be Warriors
The world needs people who are wholeheartedly engaged with life, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. That takes bravery.
days I am struck by the speed of life. As we get speedier, we do things
in half steps. Therefore, the practice of wholehearted engagement is
important. How can we be steady and complete, and what kind of wisdom
does that bring? In Shambhala warriorship we practice being on the spot:
we do things precisely and thoroughly. In meditation, our mind and body
are joined and we access and protect our wisdom mind by being present.
Then we extend our training into other aspects of our life.
is the key instruction in the Shambhala teachings. This is why these
teachings use the image of a warrior: when confronted by great
challenges, warriors rise to the occasion. When cowards are confronted
by difficulties, they withdraw. The challenge of being brave points to
one specific instruction—that we stop cowering from our basic goodness.
be brave is to actualize our nature as an offering to others. In paying
attention to the details of our daily lives in relation to each other
and the environment, we proclaim our worthiness to be alive and to
inhabit this planet. We empower our relation- ships with presence and
appreciation, because when we see the goodness in ourselves, we
recognize it in others. This form of warriorship builds and creates; it
does not destroy. Being brave enough to fully embrace our humanity is
how we will accomplish good things.
process of engaging life with bravery has an outer level, an inner
level, and a secret level. In terms of the outer level, fifty percent of
it is being there, showing up. Whether it is showing up on the
meditation cushion, showing up at work, or showing up in a friendship,
relationship, or family, how we show up is important. The most important
element is care—having respect for what we are doing. Without respect
for our own mind, we are not fully engaged, and even the act of
meditating becomes hollow. When we pay attention to what we are doing,
we naturally care.
of all the distractions and trauma in the world these days, it is
getting harder and harder to show up for the present moment and engage
in our lives. Our kindness and care are on the wane. Our culture tends
to lull us into a sense of false security: we think that somehow life is
going to get easier. It is like the idea of retirement—we work hard and
then there is a lull when we can flop and let everything hang.
path of engagement does not get easier, and there is no retirement. But
when we surrender to the reality that we have to keep showing up to
make progress—and that being present takes effort, discipline, and
dedication—then we discover a sense of delight. In the language of
Shambhala warriorship, this is called trangpo—steadiness,
resolve, not having a lot of ups and downs. That steadiness is one of
the basic qualities of a warrior. It means that once we have decided to
be present and engage in our lives with awareness, we stay with it.
In this culture we are constantly flip- flopping—mentally, physically, and every other way. That is anti-trangpo.
So many distractions and obstacles have the power to drag us away from
the spot—it is easy to feel helpless, overwhelmed by traffic on the
highway or the Internet. The process of truly being on the spot takes
energy: we have to surrender our habitual pattern of wanting to escape
to the past or the future. Right now the world needs steady people who
can show up for the present moment. It is the only time we can touch our
basic goodness, which requires wholeheartedly being here.
is the inner aspect of the practice of bravery. These days, when people
pursue a spiritual journey, they can be very enthusiastic at first. But
at a certain point they want to just shelve it and revert to their
comfort zone. We seem to want a spiritual path on our own terms. Wanting
to be on a path is really just the beginning. To become true warriors
and practitioners, we have to repeatedly come back to being present when
our attention wanders. This sense of steadiness reflects our decision
to hold the view of basic goodness.
secret aspect of engagement is the inherent strengths on which we draw.
Humility is at the top of the list, for boasting about our patience,
discipline, or generosity diminishes them. It’s the same with talking
too much about our practice. As we mature in our practice of warrior-
ship, we grow as individuals, and there is a quality of richness, both
internally and externally. This is the ripening of our protector
mind—something we need to guard as it develops. Bandying that about in
conversation is like opening the door of a sauna: the heat gets out and
the intensity dissipates.
at this time, there is a tendency for us to become sloppy, lazy, and
discursive. Even as we practice the dharma, it is easy to have little
places to which we escape, becoming comfort- or cocoon-oriented.
Personally, the more my path unfolds, the more I see the need for the
kind of discipline, structure, and paying attention that keeps us on the
spot: how we dress, how we speak, what we do, and how we engage with
others. Without that sense of discipline, we are always looking in the
back of our minds for our retirement. The training of warriorship helps
us to be precise in those neutral and uncomfortable moments. Being on
the spot pushes us into a profound form of practice. Even smiling at a
stranger can bring us into the present moment, which contains our own
should not shy away from this tradition of enlightened activity of
being on the spot. As warriors, engagement is our main buddha activity, trinle.
This Tibetan word means that when we are in the process of engaging, we
are actually giving our body, speech, and mind to the world. Whether we
are meditating, riding the bus, or doing our daily work, we can attain
great depth and profundity through engagement. With precision and
thoroughness, we also waste less time.
Shambhala and Buddhist teachings contain examples of enlightened
activity in the warrior-king Gesar and the yogi-saint Milarepa, as well
as the Shambhala sovereigns. In looking at their lives, we see that they
were trained and pushed all the time. That’s what made them great: they
all faced challenges. Recently I was looking at the memoirs of Yung-lo,
emperor of the Ming, who was a great warrior-bodhisattva king and
patron of Tibetan Buddhism. It is amazing to see how early his day
started, how late it went, and how he went through the process in a
dedicated and exalted way.
kind of role we are in, we have the potential to bring to it that
quality of being there and giving. That doesn’t mean burning ourselves
out. We will go through different phases of life, but whatever the
phase, we can enrich it with a quality of steadiness and presence.
No Gap: Writings from The Under 35 Project (January 2013)
No Gap: Writings from The Under 35 Project
The Under 35 Project, spearheaded by Shambhala Publications and now a regular online Shambhala Sun feature, is where Buddhism's next generation gathers to share their experiences. Click here to read more of their fascinating stories and learn how you can contribute your own.
Drinking to Distraction
know that moment when you realize you are scared or anxious but don’t
know why? You might check your wallet, confirm the oven is off, or scan
your calendar for forgotten appointments. Maybe you retrace the
rapid-fire sequence of your thoughts, searching for the origin of your
discomfort, but can’t identify anything in particular. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly calls it the “mean reds”: suddenly you’re afraid, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of.
used to have these moments all the time. At first I thought it was just
my crappy job or that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But
even when I changed my environment, the feeling persisted.
as a child, I had a recurring sense of impending doom. I began drinking
at thirteen and excelled at it. By early adulthood, my drinking became
more socially acceptable and more frequent. I could avoid the mean reds,
if only temporarily, by picking up a bottle of wine on my way home.
soon as I walked through the door of my apartment, I’d be in the
kitchen, peeling back the foil, easing out the cork, and pouring a glass
of wine. My favorite moment was when I raised the glass to my lips,
before even taking the first sip. In that moment, there was calm and
problem was, that moment never lasted. The relief I sought was always
just out of reach—maybe with the next glass?—or already in the past—why
didn’t I stop at one? Before I knew it, the bottle was empty. Another
was the party girl who was always up for a cocktail, the advocate of
red wine as part of the Mediterranean diet, the foodie who never failed
to pair a tasty morsel with its appropriate adult beverage. It all
served the same purpose: to distract me from the anxiety and uncertainty
of the present moment.
wondered if I was an alcoholic and assumed I had two choices: identify
as an alcoholic and stop drinking or not identify as an alcoholic and
continue down this path. Eventually, I realized I had a third choice:
stop drinking even if I never identified as an alcoholic. Four years
ago, I decided to try life without alcohol.
became very challenging. Most everything else remained the same, only
now I was facing it unmedicated, feeling the discomfort I had always
tried to avoid.
I began to peel back the layers of other accumulated distractions. I
took a year off from non-essential shopping, began to ask myself whether
I was eating out of physical or emotional hunger, and questioned
my tendency to turn on the idiot box and zone out. I acknowledged my
most familiar and disturbing distraction: obsessive, neurotic,
discursive thoughts about the past and the future. These were an
addiction in their own right.
After a few years without drinking, I decided to try meditation. Susan Piver’s The Wisdom of a Broken Heart
helped me break through my resistance, addressing the surprising power
inherent in heartbreak and how meditation can help stabilize things.
first, my meditation practice consisted of short five- to ten-minute
sessions. It seemed impossible to maintain awareness on the breath; I
was inundated with swarming thoughts. Finding a meditation instructor
proved essential. Her concise instruction and intuitive guidance helped
me be gentle with myself, accept whatever arose on the cushion, and
continue returning awareness to the breath. Gradually, I worked up to
15- and 20-minute sessions.
the cushion, I began to notice small differences: situations in which I
would have immediately reacted angrily or defensively provided an
opportunity for reflection and thoughtful response. I felt more open,
empathetic, and vulnerable.
this practice, I have learned to allow some space into my life without
needing to fill it with things that might have short-lived surface
appeal but actually distract me from what is happening right now. I have
also learned that the predictability I sought in a bottle is no more
likely to be found on a meditation cushion. But it is possible—and
perhaps the most important skill one can learn in life—to become more
comfortable with that discomfort.
Hollenstein is a writer and nutritionist living in New York City. She
explores the themes of addiction, awareness, Buddhism, and meditation on
her blog, Drinking to Distraction.
Lost and Found
is no denying the spiritual power found within the Buddhist path. But
what about the dips, those times of uncertainty when moving toward
enlightenment feels like not moving at all? Feeling as if you have lost
your path can be devastating, especially when you thought you’d found a
spiritual practice that might provide you with unlimited peace and
become profoundly disappointed in my experience with Buddhism at times.
But I’ve also realized that that’s just a story, something I tell
myself when my fantasy of Buddhism has run into the brick wall of
was the time I went to my first really big Buddhist ceremony and felt
lost, alone, and unprepared. Or later, when I had joined a different
Buddhist group even though I didn’t feel a connection to their form of
practice. I’ve had issues dealing with sangha drama, and I’ve faced a
more internal drama where I’ve had to decide which side of a spiritual
argument I wanted to support. In each of these cases, it felt horrible.
I have to admit something. Over all those years, I didn’t really have a
practice, at least not a strong one. I was too involved in the books,
the beads, the titles, and the labels, consumed with trying to get
somewhere. Trying to achieve enlightenment and peace. I had expectations
about myself, my sangha, and the various lineages to which I felt
attached. I had it all wrong.
practicing Buddhism, in whatever form or lineage you choose, there is
going to be loss and disappointment. As Dogen writes in his Genjokoan,
“Flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up amid our antipathy.”
Looking back at my patterns now, I see this “loss” of mine a little
differently. now, I practice. I don’t wear beads too often. I still have
books, but I read them instead of carrying them around for
my head, my story used to be about how I would lose my dharma practice
over and over again. But now “losing” seems more like shedding, and that
shedding has revealed something so much better. So I never really lost
my dharma. I just lost some trappings. And I hope you lose yours, too.
Ben Hutchison is a husband and father who lives in Cincinnati. He sits zazen daily.
Metta for a Mom
daughter, Anjali, had just been born. I was standing by the sink with
her in the next room, sobbing because of exhaustion, sleep deprivation,
and crashing hormones. My shoulders ached from nursing (it seemed so
much harder than I had imagined!) and I was feeling sorry for myself.
Then, spontaneously, the metta prayer arose in me silently: May I have compassion, and may I be free from suffering.
prayer has been of help to me in all sorts of situations. After
maternity leave, I was fortunate to be able to work part-time. But doing
so as a professor proved difficult. Constantly playing catch-up and
bogged down by responsibilities, I was unable to enjoy what time I did
have with my little one. I remember the evening after months of internal
deliberation when, on a walk by the pond, a version of the prayer
arose: May I be happy, may I have peace, and may I have an easeful heart. I decided to leave my job at the end of the year and pursue a more skillful livelihood for myself.
the metta prayer has been helpful in the most difficult of moments:
when my daughter has been sick. The last time she had an infection she
cried incessantly, inconsolable after a heavy dose of antibiotics. It
hurt to witness her pain, to be unable to help her with her diarrhea and
discomfort. I said the prayer for both of us: May we have compassion,
may we be free from suffering.
first time I said this prayer to Anjali, she was so tiny. I was not yet
used to having her on the outside of me! The prayer allowed me to
acknowledge that she was an individual, of me but not me. I was there to
love her, but I could not control everything for her. All I could do
was my best, and trust that that was enough. Having metta in my heart
gives me the steadiness to go on through the difficult times with
compassion and kindness. In doing so, our practice becomes our life,
every moment, every day. We come home.
Subha Srinivasan lives in New Hampshire with her husband and daughter and is the author of The Year of the Rose: Reflections of a New Mother and Lessons in Mindfulness and Loving-kindness.
A New Chance
On Valentine’s Day, 2004, my brother wrote on his
blog: “Bitterness is a huge waste of time. That’s right, I said it! But
goddamn, goddamn, is it hard to abandon. Peace, peace is where it’s at. I
started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Creating
True Peace, and on a lot of issues the dude is right on. So I’m creating
peace in my life, ending violence inside myself, enjoying breathing.”
Two months later, just shy of his twenty-second
birthday, he hanged himself.
My mother had sent him the Thich Nhat Hanh book in
early 2004, a few weeks before he posted about it. She sent me a copy too, but
I didn’t read it. I’d settled, at twenty-four, into a comfortable discomfort. I
figured the anger and fear that had plagued me for years, the waves of emotion
that drowned me almost daily, were part of my personality.
I was haunted those
first years after my brother’s death. We had both struggled with depression
during adolescence, and we both attempted suicide in our teens. It looked like
I’d come through it: I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, got married,
moved across the country, and started a career. But after my brother’s suicide
I viewed my sanity as a taut thread, capable of snapping at any moment.
I couldn’t admit how afraid I was, not even to
myself. My grief was a live thing, strong, dark, and foul. I was sure that, if
I turned to face it head-on, I’d be devoured.
I sat down to meditate, for the first time in my
life, two years after my brother’s death. My practice began as an exercise in
stress reduction stripped of spirituality—a successful way to lower blood
pressure, the book I was using promised—but it felt like more. After a
childhood of turmoil and doubt in the Church; after an adolescence of anger,
depression, and atheism; after an early adulthood of anxiety, fear,
agnosticism, and heavy grief, was I capable of peace?
in I know we both suffer. Breathing out I want us both to have a new chance...
Our suffering, A new chance
Breathing in I want to be happy. Breathing out I
want you to be happy... My happiness, Your happiness
in I see us happy. Breathing out that is all I want... Our happiness, Is all I
The first time I read these words of Thich Nhat
Hanh’s, I pictured my brother and I sitting cross-legged, facing each other and
holding hands, breathing in and out. Something inside me shifted, and soon I
could turn and face my grief.
I began to understand that peace wasn’t what I’d
thought it was. Peace didn’t mean escaping my feelings—it meant cultivating the
ability to acknowledge and honor them.
Even now, nearly a decade later, I still think of
my brother when I sit. I picture him across from me, with a smile easier than
the one he wore in life, and I know that both of us have found some peace.
Kelley Clink is a writer and amateur photographer
in Chicago. She is currently working on a memoir about her brother’s suicide.
It’s a windy October Wednesday afternoon in 2011,
and I am heading down to Liberty Plaza to meditate at the occupation of Wall
Street. I feel an ache in the center of my chest and a lump in the back of my
throat that I can’t swallow away. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts. The one I
loved and trusted has kicked me to the curb:
“This is not working for me. Please don’t take it
My pain is real, but this Occupy movement is also
real. So I’m taking my aching heart, my eyes puffy from tears, my ambition, my
yearning for unity and justice, and I’m hopping the 4 train to the Financial
District in Lower Manhattan. Who knows what will happen? It’s a daring
escapade: opening to what is, to reality, to the dharma of the here and now.
It’s magic and it’s heartache, sharp, tangy, sweet, spicy, and real.
Why do I go? Because I care. How do I know? Because
it hurts. Tears spring up for the 99%, for the 1%, for myself, for humanity,
for farm animals, for lonely companion animals, for endangered wild animals,
for fish in the sea, for birds free and captive, for the planet. Our world is
tender, raw, hurt, and angry, and yet remains unconditionally loving in this
magnificent present moment.
We are all in this together. There is much to be
done, and somehow that actually feels encouraging.
Margarita Manwelyan is a yoga teacher and writer
who lives in New York with her dog, Hershey. She is a member of the OWS (Occupy
Wall Street) Meditation group.
How May I Help You?
Thank you for calling. How many in your party? I’ll
need your insurance information. Our special today is lemon cream custard. Do
you have an appointment? Your photos will be ready in an hour. Let me know if
you need another size. Blush and foundation are on sale through Monday. These
shoes have clearly been worn outside. Are you saying that you’re upset because
you had to listen to someone speak Spanish before you reached a representative?
My name is Sophia. I’ll find you a clean fork. How may I help you?
The twenty jobs I’ve had since I was fourteen had
one thing in common: customer service. Early on, it never crossed my mind to
offer compassion to the people approaching me for help. I saw each individual
calling in, checking out, or asking a question as just another needy customer.
On bad days they were annoyances, rocks in my shoes as I tried to get through
another day. Then there were the truly angry and rude customers.
As I matured, it dawned on me: without these
people, I would not have a livelihood.
Until then, my customers weren’t quite real to me.
“Have a good day” was just an easy nicety that made ending a phone call or
seeing a guest out of the office a little less awkward. Work is, after all,
different than other basic human interactions. We can spend day after day, for
years and years, serving strangers rather than ourselves or those we know and
love. Where are we supposed to find all the compassion, empathy, and under-
standing that a fifty-hour workweek demands? How can we be sure there will
still be enough left for ourselves? reminding ourselves how lucky we are to
have a job isn’t always enough.
Sitting on my meditation cushion, I’ve discovered
something that I did not expect: each individual calling to lodge a complaint
or trying to return a worn pair of shoes is an occasion to simultaneously give
and receive. They present the opportunity to plant the seed of compassion while
replenishing the supply in the same exact moment.
Suddenly the question, “How may I help you?” has a
new meaning, and a new answer: I can offer you what any creation truly needs
And, of course, I’ll be happy to get you a clean
Sophia Aguiñaga lives in Portland, Oregon, and now
works as an editor for a private foundation.
Captain Hook and
My first heartbreak happened at the tender age of
thirteen. I had a crush on Captain Hook, aka Zach, in the school play. My role
was Indian #2, a nothing to a celebrity like Zach. I pined after him, imagining
myself as the Tiger Lily to his Captain Hook.
When the play was over, I decided to announce to
him that I liked him. I locked myself in my bedroom with a phone and called. He
had absolutely no idea who I was. I quickly mumbled, “never mind,” hung up, and
I remember this middle school rejection distinctly
because my dreams were epically unrealistic. I somehow hoped that 1) Zach knew
who the hell I was and 2) he secretly loved me back. Ten years later, I worry
that I’m still that way when it comes to love. I was recently very interested
in someone. Let’s call him Joe. We were both Buddhist, had graduated from the
same college, and were teachers. I imagined us raising social activist,
politically radical (yet humble) Buddhist babies. We started spending time
together, and I dared to wonder: Had I finally convinced some unsuspecting
fellow to date me?
Nope! According to him, we were Good Friends. We
would never be a Buddhist power couple. The disappointment was crushing. Was I
being naive? Did I not put out the right signals? Were my hopes as epically
unrealistic as they had been in middle school?
Ultimately, I realized that my pain, insecurity,
and disappointment were the results of attachments to unrealistic expectations.
I use “attachment” here in the Buddhist sense, which means a futile attempt to
hold on to what is impermanent. When we do this, we suffer.
Now, with Zach and Joe in mind, I try to date
without any expectations. I tell myself, “If we date, great. If we are friends,
great. If you are a therapist who can help me overcome my fear of slugs, great.
If we never see each other again, then I am at peace with that too. I will
enjoy the present moment, whatever it brings.” If I maintain that clarity, then
not-dating will not feel like rejection. Not-dating is simply another possible
outcome of the interaction of two people.
When I was thirteen, I wasted time fantasizing
about how things could be different with Zach. Instead, I should have just
introduced myself. Maybe then, when I called, he would have known who the hell
I was. And maybe, just maybe, he would have loved me back.
Susan Yao is a middle
school history teacher in New York City.
We Love Them
I work as a respiratory therapist at a small
community hospital nestled by the ocean in southern California. Most of our
patients are elderly, and serving them can be difficult. My dharma practice has
Dementia is rampant in the elderly community and it
can be ugly. The patients can be very mean and sometimes physically abusive.
When patients rear up to hit me while I am stopping them from getting out of
bed, I use my calmest voice and try to reorient them to where they are. I see
them as confused individuals who don’t mean to hurt anyone. They are victims of
a disease that causes them to act out. I use compassion. I will hug them.
Sometimes the simple act of telling them that you understand, and touching them
lightly on the arm, brings them back. Sometimes not. I just try every time to
treat them with love, patience, and compassion—as if they were my Grandpa or my
Grandma, but confused and scared. We all need a little love.
Last week I had a patient who has Parkinson’s come
to me for an outpatient arterial blood draw. It was a really bad day for her:
she was shaking all over and having a hard time walking. Embarrassed and
nervous, she kept apologizing for her Parkinson’s. Instead of getting
irritated, I used my practice of mindfulness and really talked with and
listened to her. She smiled and her shaking eased a bit.
This lady was afraid of having her blood drawn. I
tried to get the sample, but she was shaking and crying so hard that I missed
the artery. I helped her focus on her breath and come back to the moment.
Successful, I wheeled her back down to the lobby and helped her into her
husband’s car. She reached for my arm and pulled me close and hugged me and
kissed me on the cheek, thanking me for being so kind to her.
That practice of mindfulness and compassion shines
through in everything I do. I love every patient in my care, and often get to
call them Grandpa or Grandma. They love it. I love it. They feel comfortable
and happy, even in the coldness of the hospital. The patients will comment that
everyone who works at the hospital really acts like they love them. I tell them
it is true. We do love them! Even the hard-to-get-along-with ones. They’re
just confused, scared, and sick. Patience, compassion, mindfulness,
understanding, and love: I use them at work, at home with my fourteen-year-old
son, and with my friends and family. It all helps me get over hurdles with
grace and dignity, letting love shine on others and making their lives a little
better. Be a shining sun. The light will keep moving and growing. It’s
contagious. Try it.
Stacy Chivers describes
herself as a thirty-four-year-old single mom and medical worker with a Buddhist
heart and punk-rock rebel soul.
Heart On Fire
Brian Otto Kimmel
When I came to Buddhist practice I thought I needed
to put on a good show, to be the perfect practitioner. Growing up surviving
trauma, before I even heard about Buddhism, I believed that by sacrificing my
own needs, by thinking only about others, I would be freed. I believed that if
I thought about myself, I would let the mysterious disease of sexual abuse
destroy me. It nearly did.
I was eleven years old when I finally told. I was
thirty pounds underweight, anorexic, severely malnourished, and as psychologically vigilant as a deer feeding in an open field. I watched for predators
and was startled at the tiniest touch or sound.
I testified in court against my stepfather when I was twelve. I believed
it was another opportunity to serve. The grown-ups around me, including parents
and the prosecutor, said my testimony would help save other kids. In many ways
my testimony did help, but left unattended was the little child inside of me.
In my twenties, I took ten years off from school
and worked to heal myself through psychotherapy and Zen meditation. I depended
on family and friends financially and sometimes lived on the streets. I was
told by close friends and teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, that I needed to
love myself first before I could really love others. I did not understand what
that meant and questioned it whenever the advice appeared.
In my late twenties I ordained as a lay member of
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Our order is composed of monastic and
non-monastic practitioners dedicated to a life of service through compassionate
listening, applied mindfulness, and ethics for a healthy life and society.
I began to witness the deep effect of personal
transformation. When others find out I am a survivor of abuse, queer, a
musician, and an activist, they often ask me questions. Many are curious about
how I found Zen at a young age, what allowed me to stay for so long, and how
the practice and tradition has affected me. As an Order of Interbeing member, I
have learned skills in being more fully present for those with questions and in
answering from my heart, from the depth of what is true for me. Because the
object of practice, says Thich nhat Hanh, “is to grow our hearts big.”
I came to Zen with my heart on fire. The more
afflictions I burn up, the more beings can take refuge in me. After everything
I have experienced, others can look toward me as a model for change. If I can
do it, so can you.
Brian Otto Kimmel is a
non-monastic member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Professionally,
he works with individuals and groups seeking an integrative approach to
contemplative practice in daily life.
Radegast Beer Hall, Brooklyn, on a Friday night in
February: twenty- and thirty-somethings are three bodies deep at the bar.
There’s the roar of conversation, enormous steins of beer being hefted and
emptied, a big smoking grill in the corner covered with bratwurst and
kielbasa. A chaos of people having a good time.
I was there with friends who were on a mission to
hook me up with someone—anyone—after a bruising split with a long-time
girlfriend. They located a girl who seemed a little shy (good for me), and she
was pushed forward like we were at an eighth-grade dance. I remember thinking
she looked a little like a young Amelia Earhart (also good for me). “She has a
boyfriend but he’s in France,” one of her friends shouted in my ear. And even
though I wasn’t looking for anything but drinks with my friends and an early
bedtime, I accessed that familiar hook-up mindset, dusted it off, and got to
I went through my checklist: She’s into fashion
(negative); she lives in the East village (positive, geographically
convenient); she’s a student at FIT (neutral); she enjoys reading Tom Clancy
(unexpected, intriguing). I was flirting, sending and receiving energy, but I
felt lifeless inside. The reason was simple: I was still in love with my ex.
When I first moved to New York, it seemed like
everyone had come there for some particular creative or professional pursuit
and had an agenda, and that energy could carry over in to matters sexual and
relational. I’m from Indiana, where if you liked someone you simply kind of hung
around until attraction, time, and communication got you laid. Not so in New
York. You just want to... “get to know me?” the girls seemed to say. Seriously?
And for a while I tried to fit in with this culture.
Finding a Buddhist community helped change that. I
realized it was possible for me to be genuinely myself and be attractive. It’s
not a coincidence that around the time I started meditating and wrestling with
self-acceptance, my love life began to pick up.
On the subway during my morning commute, I sometimes
daydream about threading my way up misty peaks and contemplating the dharma as
a wandering mendicant. But right now I am a practitioner in an American city. I
have a job, obligations to friends and family, a social life. I’ve had to ask
myself: Is it possible to be mindful and genuine in such a chaotic and sexual
environment? And if you take this Buddhism thing seriously, is it possible to
practice right conduct and still play the game?
When I took the Five Precepts as part of my refuge
vow, the third was, “Abstain from sexual misconduct.” That can mean no sex out-
side of a committed relationship, but is it practicable in a modern, urban
context? Young people hook up. Sex happens. In taking refuge I was asked to
approach the third precept from an intentional perspective: refrain from using
sex to mislead or manipulate, to distract from loneliness or suffering, or to
fill an addiction or craving.
But back to the beer hall and Ms. Earhart. I was,
in fact, breaking several precepts that night: drinking hard to keep up the
charade, saying a bunch of untruthful stuff (“I think you’re really great,”
“Fashion is awesome,” “I’ll call you”), and engaging in the kind of sexual
misconduct that is intentional rather than literal. I missed my girlfriend terribly
and there was still grieving to do. My flirting had arisen out of a place of
suffering, misleading Amelia and doing a disservice to my own broken heart.
It has been a year since that night in
Brooklyn—time enough to sit with a broken heart until it’s mended. As I return
to New York’s dating scene, I’m trying to see it not as a minefield but as just
another part of practice. In intimacy and sex, we transcend the little walls we
construct around our hearts and bodies, and Buddhist practice can help us come
to each new encounter as an opportunity to be more honest, embodied, and
Stillman Brown is a
writer, producer, and adventurer who lives in Brooklyn.
Read more from The Under 35 Project on Shambhala SunSpace here. And to submit your own work, click here.
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