Inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
Look inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
FEATURING: Pema Chödrön's 4 Keys to Waking Up; bell hooks & Eve Ensler on fighting domination and finding love; Sylvia Boorstein's "GPS for the Mind"; Lisa Carver on Yoko Ono; Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Goldberg, book reviews, and more.
Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.
this issue's editorial:
ANDREA MILLER on why this issue of the magazine shouldn't be considered special.
On retreat with Pema Chödrön at Omega Institute, the Shambhala
Sun’s Andrea Miller explores these four essential ways to walk the
When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten
up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says Pema
Chödrön, is enlightenment.
Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, Laura
Munson practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it
The GPS in our car tell us the best route to take, but what
helps us navigate life? Sylvia Boorstein shows us how to stay on the
Fighting domination, finding love, connecting with our
bodies—feminist leaders and meditators Eve Ensler & bell hooks
In war-torn Congo, Eve Ensler learns what love can
When we and our work are one, says Roshi Pat Enkyo
O’Hara, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and
Vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, Judy Panko Reis
suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the
darkest violence a new life can emerge.
Performance artist Lisa Carver celebrates Yoko Ono,
who taught her to do what “isn’t done.”
At her grandfather’s grave, Rachel Neumann’s anger
erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? We are all
like empty boats bumping against each other.
Taz Tagore, one of the two founders of New York City's Reciprocity Foundation, on taking
kids from the streets to a new life. (It starts inside.)
She was the kind of person who might suddenly ask, “How do
you know love?” Natalie Goldberg on loving and losing a special friend.
Reviewed by Karen Maezen Miller
This issue’s roundup features books on conflict resolution,
yoga, stress reduction, ecology, and more.
Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi
Shambhala Sun, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 4.
Books in Brief (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Books in Brief
Suicide and Loss
By Robert E.
Lesoine with Marilynne Chöphel
Parallax Press 2013; 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)
practitioner Robert Lesoine was at the dentist with his mouth full of equipment
when his cellphone rang. It was his best friend’s ex-wife calling, but she was
screaming and crying so hard that she was incomprehensible. Finally Lesoine understood:
his best friend had killed himself. For two years following this loss, Lesoine
kept a journal to help him work through his profound grief—the shock and
disbelief, the rage and sorrow. Unfinished Conversation incorporates
moving sections from the journal, plus writing prompts, meditations, and other
practical suggestions for finding support in the wake of a loved one’s suicide.
Lesoine’s collaborator, Marilynne Chöphel, is a marriage and family therapist
who specializes in the treatment of acute and relational trauma.
WIND AND RAIN
The Life of
Story by Ven. Miao
You, art by Yan Kaixin
Buddha’s Light Publishing 2013; 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Publishing is translating a series of Chinese graphic novels telling the life
stories of great Buddhist monastics. Wind and Rain is the biography of
the Rinzai Zen monk and poet Ikkyu. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of
Emperor Go-Komatsu, he was a fifteenth-century vagabond who is celebrated for
attaining enlightenment at Lake Biwa when a crow cawed. Wind and Rain is
the sanitized, all-ages version of his story. There’s no mention of his
notorious consumption of alcohol or his late-life lover, Mori, a blind singer.
The emphasis is instead on Ikkyu’s deep commitment to justice. From a young age,
he criticized the corruption he saw in both the aristocracy and Buddhist
institutions and he sought out teachers who, like him, shunned material wealth
and titles. Amid the hardships of war, he organized relief for the poor and
helped create and rebuild temples. Ikkyu passed away in his eighty-eighth year
in the middle of autumn.
BUDDHA’S BOOK OF
and Peace with Mindfulness Meditation
By Joseph Emet
Tarcher 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)
The first noble
truth in Buddhism is dukkha, which is most commonly translated as
“suffering.” But as Joseph Emet points out, some leading translators are now
rendering this Pali word as “stress.” Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction
begins by exploring the stressful impact of our to-do lists. The average
toddler smiles six hundred times a day, but as we grow up our focus shifts from
the present to future goals, which limits our happiness. Emet is not suggesting
we throw away planning or any of our other adult life skills, but he is
recommending that we take more time to enjoy the present moment, even in the
face of the need to get things done. Emet goes on to address the myriad
elements of stress, such as past wounds, worry, irritation, anger, fear, work,
LOVE LETTER TO
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)
activists get a bad rap for being dour. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, however, is
anything but. Instead of finger-pointing and calling for austerity, his
solution to our environmental crisis is mindfulness. Through mindfulness, he
says, we realize that the Earth is not simply the ground beneath our feet—we are
the Earth. Every cell in our body comes from the Earth and is part of it. “We
are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet,”
he says. When we know this, we fall completely in love with the Earth, and as
with anything we love, we naturally do whatever we can to take care of it. I
particularly appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s heartfelt description of seeing for
the first time photos of the Earth taken from space. He saw a glowing jewel and
recognized the Earth’s fragility. “Dear Earth,” he thought, “I didn’t know that
you are so beautiful. I see you in me. I see me myself in you.”
The Art of Transformation
Edited by Debra
Smithsonian Books 2013; 328 pp., $55 (cloth)
Yoga: The Art of Transformation is the sumptuous catalogue of a recent
exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A
visual feast, it also offers essays by scholars tackling the convoluted history
of yoga. In today’s yoga studios, it’s commonly believed that the earliest
evidence we have for yoga is a third-millennium BCE clay seal from the Indus
River Valley. According to scholar David Gordon White, however, this depiction
of a figure seated in a cross-legged posture is not conclusive evidence
that yoga was practiced at that time. After all, images of figures in this very
same posture also hail from ancient Scandinavia and other locales. Additional
thought-provoking angles covered in this book include the fact that European
bodybuilding influenced modern yoga, and that yoga is not just connected to
Buddhism and Hinduism but is also deeply connected to Jainism and Islam.
Indeed, Muslim interest in yoga dates back a thousand years to the scholar
al-Biruni, who translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras into Arabic.
A Zen Approach
to Conflict Resolution
By Diane Musho
Shambhala Publications 2013; 218 pp., $16.95 (paper)
When she was
growing up, Diane Musho Hamilton’s extended family had parties at her
grandmother’s house. By 9 p.m. the conversation was always lively, but by 1
a.m. arguments were brewing and soon someone was storming out the front door.
Hamilton was sometimes at the heart of the fray, at times an ally in the fight,
and at other times an unbiased observer. Curious about these different roles,
she went on to study mediation, and Everything Is Workable comes out of
her many years of work in that field. This book offers readers a new way of
thinking about conflict. It unpacks what Hamilton believes are the three
personal conflict styles and the three fundamental perspectives in any conflict
situation. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, Hamilton teaches, and if we try
to eradicate it in one area, it will simply manifest elsewhere. What we can
do—what we will ultimately find more useful and satisfying—is to accept
conflict and integrate it into our spiritual path.
APPRENTICE AT BEDTIME
Tales of Compassion
and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child—to Delight and Inspire
Watkins Publishing 2013; 128 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Some monkeys had a
penchant for stealing the king’s peaches and plums, and they were so wily that
the gardener was never able to catch them. One day, the cook’s daughter
suggested laying an enticing trap of cake. Sweets, she said, would make the
monkeys sleepy, and sleepy monkeys would be easier to catch. The shoemaker’s
son also had an idea: he’d make dazzling high heels, which the vain monkeys
would be unable to resist. It’s difficult to run away, he said, when wearing
impractical shoes. A few days later, the monkeys slipped into the orchard and
found a cake stand weighted down with cream-filled cupcakes and tree branches
hung with pumps. Indeed, the monkeys could not resist. They ended up trapped in
the king’s zoo and it took them a good long while to escape. “The Monkey
Thieves” is just one of the stories from the children’s book The Buddha’s
Apprentice at Bedtime. Like every story in the collection, it’s a modern
retelling of a Jataka Tale and it exemplifies a principle of the noble
eightfold path. Do not be greedy or vain is what this story teaches.
Thanks to Yoko (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Thanks to Yoko
seemed, liked to tell LISA CARVER what she couldn’t do: it wasn’t proper, it
wasn’t art, it wasn’t done. But Zen koans and Yoko Ono—now eighty-one—turned all
that upside down.
Decades before the
dark and angry performance art/No Wave scene of the late eighties and early
nineties, Yoko Ono was creating radically unconventional conceptual art. Raised
Buddhist and Christian in an upper-class family in Tokyo, Yoko was expected to be
peaceful and pretty without any anger, without revolt. “I was like a
domesticated animal being fed on information,” she told the Evening Standard
in 1968. “I hated it.”
Her goal as an
artist was not to train her audience. She wanted to untrain them. When she
showed up at an art gallery and stood there screaming and moaning with no
context, no introduction, no band, no melody, who of the shocked attendees
could have guessed she was a classically trained musician and opera singer?
Yoko’s pieces are a
kyosaku to the noggin. She’s not afraid of fear. She does not avoid lust
or rage. She acknowledges and respects them. In “Revelations,” she sings,
“Bless you for your anger. It’s a sign of rising energy. Bless you for your
greed. It’s a sign of great capacity. Bless you for your jealousy. It’s a sign
Many commenters on
YouTube say about Yoko’s singing things like “She hurts my ears!” and from that
they deduce she is insane. (I’m not exaggerating; go look!) In its natural
state, though, pain is for teaching, not dominating us. It’s only when we’re
forced to believe—or pretend to believe—what is not true, that pain hurts: when
your abuser tells you This is love, when your forced-memorizing school
tells you This is learning, when pyramid-scheme social structures tell
you This is family order.
performance art and unorthodox singing and experimental film and writing employ
the pain of confusion, of shaking things up, to expose and fight the pain that
is already there, accepted. In the moment of disarray, art, like Buddhism, says
to you, “Is ‘That’s just how it is’ really how it is?” That question can turn
walls to windows, just large enough to crawl out of. . . and then you can set
In 1985, when I was
sixteen years old, having so far only lived with one parent or the other in
small towns, and without even a visit to an art museum, I bought a
twenty-five-cent used copy of a Yoko Ono record. When I lay the needle down on
the spinning disc, a disjointed cacophony rose up and filled the room with
angles and senselessness and the raw. All I had known before was Scooby Doo
and Columbo on TV, songs by Bread and Anne Murray on the radio, and
assigned reading at school. None expressed the sort of preexistence struggle I
heard in Ono’s voice. She sounded foreign, but also not categorizable by
foreignness. I thought, “Why on earth would anyone make music like this?!”
That question led
to others, ending with this one: “Why don’t I make music?” And then I
That led to a ten-year career in studio and stage in six countries.
In that first
moment with her record, I wasn’t aware of what Ono was doing for me: opening
everything up, unwrapping my tight little life. The Why not? decisions I
was starting to make felt like my own thoughts spontaneously erupting. And they
were. Ono did not (and still does not) try to impose an ideology. She doesn’t
try to make something, anything, in particular happen. She doesn’t even fully
score her music, because she wants the musicians to make it different, their own,
an accurate reflection of the moment, each time. Throughout her career, she has
demonstrated a remarkable lack of ego, most notably in encouraging her
listeners/lookers/readers to find whatever they want, not what she
Around the same
time I first heard Ono, I happened upon a book of Zen koans at the library. At
Protestant Sunday school I had been admonished, “Who are you to question the
Lord?” So it was hard at first for me to believe that Buddhism really did want
me to ask questions, much less decide for myself which answers I believed.
Similarly, in my blue-collar upbringing it was accepted, about any art, film,
or music that did not conform to formula, “That’s not art!”
It amazes me to
realize now that in the thousand or so times I’ve been interviewed in the
nearly thirty years since then, I’ve never once mentioned Zen Buddhism’s
catalytic role in the performance art, “unlistenable” music, and “unwatchable”
short films I went on to create. What Zen did was remind me to gently ask,
“It’s not?” when everyone around me was saying, “That’s not real music you’re
making” or “That’s not a real marriage” (my husband and I lived in separate
countries more often than we did the same one) or just, “That’s not how people
live!” (Like, with no furniture in one of my apartments.)
“It’s not?” in my ear and supported my every crazy endeavor. Ono did, too, as I
began to read about her unorthodox views on family, women, work. She almost
never brought Buddhism up either, though its that’s-not-a-wall-that’s-a-door-why-not-walk-through-it?
influence is apparent in just about everything she does.
I guess that makes
sense: Buddhism doesn’t draw attention to itself as the thing that matters.
Rather, it’s a vehicle to get you to the thing that matters. Or back to.
At seventeen, I
moved to California and at nineteen, I moved to Paris. I sought out any
goes-too-far weirdo looking to destroy the current order so they could create,
if just for an hour at a show, a new world. As I got to know some of these
artists, I realized we all came out of abusive and frightening childhoods,
occasional forced psychiatric “care,” hypocritical relationships to religion
and status, and lots of sexual exploitation and substance abuse.
In short, nothing
was as it seemed. With our art, we tried to remove all the “seemed” and
spotlight instead the chaos and the ugliness hidden beneath. Some of us did
shock operas on stage. We said, and showed, what one doesn’t, shouldn’t, can’t.
What we were aiming for, crudely, was to elicit that split-second realization
that anything is possible, that anything you were told may be a lie, and that
anything you haven’t thought of yet may be the truth.
We wanted to shake
things up. For us, peace had to come through violence. Emotional,
social, intellectual violence would do. It was our native language. We’d never
had serenity, so how were we going to learn it from serene art or literature or
relationships? Those things were unrecognizable to us. They didn’t look
real. Gentleness had to be explained to us in the language we already knew,
which was a rough one. If you come from a world of repressed and hidden hate,
the next step isn’t necessarily to love. Instead, it’s to expose the hate that
has always been there, to meet it face-to-face and come to love it, or love it
inside you. Then you love you. Then you just love. That’s how messed-up people
do it, from what I’ve seen.
that murdering junkie, was a big influence for a lot of us. He said, “We must
learn by acting, experiencing, and living; that is, above all, by Love and
Suffering. A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from
his being in order to avoid suffering has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege
comparable to castration. You were given the power to love in order to use it,
no matter what pain it may cause you.”
For me, public
speaking is pain, because I have stage fright. But in my mind, for an audience
to have to sit through the reading of something already written, often years
earlier, is like diners being force-fed already digested meals. So I try to
come up with something interactive when I tour in support of my books. For my
book on Yoko Ono, Reaching Out with No Hands, I traveled up the West
Coast attempting what may have been the world’s first conceptual-art cover
band. The audience and I reenacted some of Yoko’s pieces, or “instructional
poems”—as made famous in her 1964 book, Grapefruit, whose sequel, Acorn,
appeared just last year—along with her film Up Your Legs Forever.
Her “Wall Piece” consisted,
in entirety, of this instruction: “Hit a wall with your head.” So at a club in
Oakland, I told the crowd, “Hit a wall with your head.” Nothing happened.
People went on talking, drinking, and waiting for the show to begin. I didn’t
mind. If ignoring me was what they did with it, then that would be the show.
Then one girl said, “Okay.”
She bashed her head
really hard into the wall, slowly and deliberately, maybe five times. She
looked all starry-eyed after and she was smiling. She said, “That felt good.”
I’d never hit a wall with my head, either. This wall was cement. I touched my
forehead to it hesitantly. Then harder. It did feel good! It felt concentrated.
I felt everything right there at the top of my face and nowhere else in my
body, as if all sensation had drained upward. It was cool. I had a tender
feeling; I felt fragility. Most of the time you don’t feel your head and face.
You see out of them, so you can’t see them—only images or reflections of them.
We have such a floaty life, gelatinous. If there is no boundary between self
and universe, as some practices or philosophies conclude, then what do we even
have these bodies for? The sudden contact of head to wall delineates it. It is
a uniquely satisfying sensation.
Harvard-educated attorney said, “I’ll do it.” That was a precious brain she was
bashing! Her boyfriend said, “No, thank you. I’m good” and remained in the
semi-dark on the club’s couch with his un-throbbing head. It was like any other
night for him.
Up and down
California on that tour, people hit their heads, “watched” a choreographed
dance in total darkness, and walked on treadmills naked. Or didn’t—and had the
experience of being the one who would not take off their clothes, and
having that feeling.
Some remarked that
it was their first time being naked as an adult around other adults without
having sex. It’s kind of strange how steadfastly we cling to covering. We spend
so much money and time and heartache focusing on this body, changing it,
starving it, operating on it. We hide and abuse it, allowing our shame to keep
us from simple things we feel like doing, like go swimming or dance funny,
because someone might get a glimpse of us, of our underneath; someone might not
like this body. But who are these someones?
When people got
naked on my “Ono covers” tour, nothing happened. Nobody reacted. I was really
curious and wanted to ask the naked people what it felt like, how they saw it.
I’m a journalist and I probe. But Yoko never does that, so I never did that,
all tour long. It hurt me to not ask.
Finally, at the
next-to-last show, I realized that asking others about their experience, their
perceptions, was how I protect myself from immersion (and fear of drowning) in
my own. Journalism had provided me with the sensation of being in control of
the situation; if I was feeding on and exploiting information, that meant I
must not be filling the only other role I’d known: that of the exploited.
That winter in
California, forced by my own choosing out of what was comfortable for me, I got
to experience what it feels like to stay in my own skin. It felt pretty cool.
Thank you, Yoko.
Editorial: Buddha's Daughters (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
At the retreat I report on in this issue, Ani Pema Chödrön
talked about a dream she once had. In the dream, she was in the country,
perhaps at a monastery, and everyone there was busily preparing for the arrival
of Khandro Rinpoche, one of today’s preeminent women Vajrayana teachers.
“Ani Pema,” Khandro Rinpoche said when she finally arrived.
“Did you see the sunrise this morning?”
“No, Rinpoche, I didn’t. I was too busy.”
Khandro Rinpoche laughed and laughed. “Too busy to live
life?” she asked.
Since having this dream, Pema Chödrön says that whenever she
finds herself getting all caught up and habitually, compulsively doing
something, she thinks, “Too busy to live life? Too busy to be there for the sun
coming up or to notice anything?”
Did you happen to notice anything unusual about this issue’s
table of contents? That is, did you notice the names of the contributors? From
Ruth to Rachel, Laura to Lisa, they are all women. But we’re actually hoping
that you didn’t notice. Look at the cover—we haven’t made a big deal out of
there being only women on these pages or otherwise touted this as a “special”
issue. As we see it, the presence of women’s voices shouldn’t be something
special. It should be normal, and we’re treating it that way.
The reality, though, is that the publishing industry still
has miles to go in terms of gender equality. For some truly eye-opening
statistics on how many men versus women are published in magazines or have
their books reviewed, visit www.vidaweb.org, a website dedicated to women in the
literary arts. Spoiler alert: Women are given significantly less ink than men
in America’s magazine heavyweights, including Harper’s, The Atlantic,
and The New Yorker.
And this gender inequality in the publishing world is emblematic
of a wider problem. I’m thinking about violence against women, an issue that’s
addressed in bell hooks and Eve Ensler’s conversation “Strike! Dance! Rise!”
Ensler, a rape survivor herself, has spent seven years in Congo working with
women who’ve been brutalized and sexually assaulted. She and hooks grapple with
such complex questions as: How can white people help people of color without
reinforcing the framework of white privilege? How can trust grow between those
who have privilege and those who don’t? And after suffering violence and
trauma, what practices can help us come back to our bodies?
This issue also features teachings by three of America’s
most remarkable women Buddhist teachers, each practicing in a different
tradition. In “The Work of the Moment,” Zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara asserts
that it doesn’t matter if we’re a garbage collector or an engineer; all work is
valid and meaningful. If we’re hung up on the status associated with our job or
the results of doing a particular activity, then we miss out on the opportunity
to fully experience the joy in the task at hand.
In “A GPS of the Mind,” Insight Meditation teacher Sylvia
Boorstein offers a fresh, modern take on classic Theravada wisdom for
choosing—moment by moment—the route to wholesome states of mind. If you’re a
Gen Xer like me, the word “wholesome” might come off as a little too unironic,
but keep in mind that wholesome is what makes us happy, while unwholesome is
what keeps us suffering. And, irony aside, who doesn’t want to be happy?
Following the article about my retreat experience with Pema
Chödrön, there is a teaching by her on shunyata, or emptiness. She says
that letting your thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they’re gone is
a way of experimenting with shunyata. “This is actually the essence of
mindfulness practice,” she continues. “You keep coming back to the immediacy of
your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad,
good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you
come back again to the immediacy of your experience.” When we experiment with
shunyata in this way, we discover the open, boundless dimension of being.
If you enjoy the many varied voices of women in this issue,
you might wish to check out Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are
Shaping Buddhism in the West. This anthology, which will be released on
April 8, has been created in partnership between the Shambhala Sun and
Shambhala Publications. It features teachings by Khandro Rinpoche, Pema
Chödrön, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Sylvia Boorstein, plus nineteen other remarkable
women teachers. In the Buddhist tradition, women have diligently practiced for
the last 2,600 years, often without recognition. We hope this anthology, as
well as this all-women issue of the Shambhala Sun, will serve as an
inspiration for today’s women practitioners.
—ANDREA MILLER, Deputy Editor
Losing Katherine (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Fearlessly direct and endlessly curious, Katherine was
the sort of person who might suddenly ask, “How do you know love?” NATALIE GOLDBERG recounts what she learned from loving and losing this special friend.
After two days in Paris, still jet-lagged, we rent a car to drive
down to the retreat center where I will teach. The estimated travel time is two
and a half hours. But at the Orléans exit an hour south of Paris, I veer off
the highway. I want to see the town whose name is referred to so often in
Paris, as in: Porte d’Orléans, a subway stop; Velodrome d’Orléans, for cycling
races; the clock at the Musée d’Orsey inscribed Paris-Orléans; and the dock
called Quai d’Orléans.
I and my assistant, Saundra, who is a longtime student, the
wife of a rabbi, and a Ph.D. in art history, will have some fun. I keep
repeating that word, strange to a Jew, but I consider it important. This is it.
This one great life. Let’s take some pleasure, even when we discover that this
Orléans turns out not to be much of anything—bland streets, one cathedral, and
a nasty tea shop, the only one open at 3 p.m. But we make the most of it: we go
to their one musée des beaux-arts that has a Gauguin, a slab of raw animal meat
painted by Soutine, and a quiet Corot we forget as soon as we pass it. But
still, name a town in North Dakota that has anything equal. And there are fresh
peaches in the market, not to be seen till August at home in New Mexico.
The problem is that we can’t manage to drive out of the
town. Around and around we go with no map. Forget the GPS on Saundra’s iPhone. You
are here, a metallic female voice repeats when we face a dead-end street at
the edge of a river bluff. You have arrived. Very Zen of her but not
At least I am relieved of the burden of planning—this
retreat has been in the works for almost two years. Justine, a longtime
student, has a French grandmother who has a retreat center, which her uncle, a
conductor in Paris, developed for musicians. They’ve taken a barn and made it
acoustically perfect for concerts. We will use it as a zendo. Justine’s father
was a serious Zen practitioner under the famous teacher Taisen Deshimaru, and
he is delighted this is happening on his mother’s farm.
Saundra and I manage to arrive at Villefavard twelve hours
late, just before the nearby Protestant church clangs out twelve midnight
gongs. The lights are out and we tramp up the steps, dropping into a sleep
disconnected from country or the twirling Earth.
Two nights later, about to begin the course, I am met at the
bottom of the steps by a burly, ponytailed man who has studied with me before.
His name is Steve and he’s the nephew of a dear friend of mine, Katherine
Thanas. The twilight is casting a yellow glow on his face and on everything
“I just spoke to my brother back in California. Aunt Katie
is in the hospital,” Steve blurts out. “She hit her head and lay unconscious
for eight hours before they found her. Her blood was thinned by the pills she
took for her heart condition and it seeped into her brain.”
I grab the front of his shirt and lean into his chest.
Katherine is eighty-five, insistently independent, and lives alone in her own
apartment. Bloody tissues were found upstairs—it seems she tried to administer
to herself. When she came downstairs, she blacked out.
A black chasm opens in front of me: we are losing her.
Through sobs, I muffle out, “Any chance?”
“None,” her nephew chokes on that single word.
I’d seen her last in early January. I had brought her bright
red, blue, and black striped wool socks.
“Katherine,” I said, “we need to jazz you up.” She wore
white cotton toe-fitted ones for the zendo’s high shined wood floor.
“These won’t fit,” she laughed. “I’m size eleven.”
We ate at a Japanese restaurant. For three years, she’d been
on an absolute no-fat diet, not even olive oil. The doctor said it would help
her heart. He also said no one could follow such a stringent protocol. But she
turned her heart around. No open-heart surgery. The doctor was amazed.
I think the first time I met Katherine was in the late
eighties, around the time my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, was dying. She
visited him in Minneapolis because he’d been one of her teachers when he first
came to America to help Suzuki Roshi in the early years of the San Francisco
“He was not a good example. He was too perfect.” She lifted
her elbows to show how erect his gassho was.
Or maybe I met her first after Katagiri Roshi died and she
asked me to do a benefit for her small community. The money they made from the
writing workshop would build a bathroom for the zendo, previously a Chinese
laundry. She picked me up in her Honda and we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge en
route to her shoulder of the Peninsula. My only memory of the drive is of her
energetic foot pouncing on the shift pedal.
Five years later was my true meeting with her. I had taught
writing for a week at Tassajara Zen Monastery and was given a week on my own in
exchange, to soak in the hot springs and stay in a new stone guesthouse. I was
teaching myself to do abstract paintings. Form detached from meaning, meaning
expressed in color. I had six cheap oil pastels and an even cheaper packet of
8" x 11" sheets of paper.
Katherine was there that week leading a Zen and yoga
retreat. She had lived at Tassajara for many winters, after the summer guests
had left. Winter was when Zen students faced the wall for long hours far away
from city distractions, settling deep into remote silence.
She leaned over my shoulder as I sat on the dirt path
looking up at the waterfall. “Not quite abstract, not realistic, either.” She
pointed her index finger along the blue line.
“What was it like to study with Diebenkorn?” I asked her.
Richard Diebenkorn was a preeminent Californian ab-stract painter.
“I knew I couldn’t be great. I was pulled to Zen,” she
That week I sought her out. I practiced Zen with all my
heart but loved writing and painting. At that time, Zen and creativity were
still opposing each other. Katherine knew about both.
“I like this line.” She came up behind me on the third day.
“But you don’t have it yet.”
“Why don’t you paint anymore?” I asked her.
She laughed and said nothing.
A year ago she visited me in Santa Fe and popped up after
each meal to clear her plate.
“Don’t wash the dishes,” I told her. “You’ll make more of a
mess. You can relax and let me do the work.”
“I want to be useful,” she said, always the Zen
practitioner: when you can no longer work, you can no longer eat. We were
brought up on the raw edge of ancient Japanese teachings, transmitted through
great human effort, challenging all adversity.
On that last visit, she brought me a gift of not only Oe’s A
Personal Matter but also a memoir by Oe’s English translator, John Nathan,
whom she knew. “I wish John had written less about his life and more about what
it’s like to translate,” she tapped the cover. “But interesting just the same.”
It was typical of her, not only the novel but a fresh slant
on the translator. She read widely and it showed in the curious bent of her
I can hear her voice. Whenever she picked up the phone there
was delight in it, ready to take on any person on the other end. No small talk.
She joined you in any challenge, always wanting to understand what it is to be
human. The last time I saw her, she said, “I don’t understand relationships.” A
jaunty sigh and a headshake. Nothing ironic. And then she asked the most
surprising thing: “How do you know love?”
We call the States the first night, the second night.
Katherine is still in the hospital.
We gather wildflowers in the French countryside to make a
fat bouquet, planting it in the middle of the retreat circle with her name on a
Steve tells us, “Aunt Katie sent me Rilke, Charles Olson,
Laurens van der Post, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer. My whole childhood she
sent me books. I am a writer today because of that.
“She had a great sense of humor. Just three years ago, I
wanted to see her zendo. She showed me around, then in front of the altar she
jumped up kicking her heels together, ‘I’m the abbot, I’m the abbot,’ she sang
“But,” Steve continues, “she could also be tough. I wore a
weird long multicolored coat and she told me straightaway it looked terrible,
that I didn’t need to freak people out.”
I smile. Katherine had told me in detail about that
conversation and had worried that she hadn’t handled it well.
Three days into the retreat, they take her off life support.
Miraculously, she keeps breathing. Her students convince the hospital to let
her be in hospice at home, surrounded twenty-four hours a day by people who
Each night, after the last class session, Steve and I stand
in the stone courtyard next to plane trees, near tall grass pastures and clumps
of brown Limousin cows in the distance, and we try to call California in its
early morning, almost half a globe away. Often our cellphone can’t make
contact. We stand in the darkening shade, hearing electric noise, clasping the
small metal phone to our ears.
Katherine was the only one in the dharma world, who after
reading my memoir about my Zen teacher’s sexual indiscretions, called me and
directly said that she didn’t like it. After our call, Katherine and I did not
see each other for four years. I was sorely aware of that rift and, from a
distance, calculated her aging. Then one day the phone rang. “Younger students
have been reading your book and telling me, ‘It’s really good.’ I thought: Am
I not a Zen teacher? I must be open-minded. I reread it. I got it all wrong
the first time. I was blinded. When can we see each other?”
Once I asked her to conduct a three-day meditation retreat
in the solar adobe zendo I’d just built in Taos.
Each day she gave a lecture. “I rented a car at the airport
in Albuquerque,” she said. “Getting to Taos was fine—only one highway pointing
north. Then I had to follow Natalie’s directions on these back dirt roads and I
got lost. I realize now that when I’d listened to her over the phone, I
pictured in my mind what she was saying. But when the markers appeared in
actuality—for instance, the right at an abandoned adobe—the markers weren’t how
I pictured them, so I ignored them and went looking for what matched my vision.
Isn’t that how we also work in our life? We don’t see reality.”
The last evening of the retreat, just before the students
break silence, Steve comes up to me and whispers in my ear, “I just spoke to my
brother. Katherine let go.”
I nod and proceed to the zendo in a trance, unable to recall
anything I say or teach that night. So many times this has happened: I am
teaching while something important to me is happening somewhere else. But that
night, after the ending ceremony and festivities, in the long early hours past
midnight, alone in the third story of a French farmhouse, I fall into grief.
The next morning, still in my clothes, I hear a hesitant
knock at my door. “It’s past breakfast and class is in five minutes,” Saundra
says through the crack she opens in the door.
“I can’t do it. You teach,” I growl.
A flicker of hesitation. Then she sees my face. “I couldn’t
be with her,” I cry.
When I leave the retreat, I walk for seven days in the
Dordogne Valley, through fields of corn, walnut trees, sunflowers, and at the
edge of a wide, swollen, meandering river. So much in bloom.
We are no different than a flower, I think. It gives off its
radiance—then dies. We don’t expect that same flower to come back next June.
Another takes its place.
But there must also be something else. My rambunctious
friend, where are you now? Wherever you are, there was still so much to say.
Bright pink zinnia
my friend Katherine
one candle burning
Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the Bones and The True Secret of Writing. In 2014, she will be leading
two writing retreats in France.
Photo: Natalie and Katherine with a photograph of Katagiri Roshi. Courtesy of the author.
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