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Inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine Print

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:

"Buddha's Daughters"

ANDREA MILLER on why this issue of the magazine shouldn't be considered special.


Pema Chödrön on 4 Keys to Waking Up

On retreat with Pema Chödrön at Omega Institute, the Shambhala Sun’s Andrea Miller explores these four essential ways to walk the walk.


The Bearable Lightness of Being

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.


Being Love

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 helps.


A GPS of the Mind

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 wholesome road. 

Strike! Dance! Rise!

Fighting domination, finding love, connecting with our bodies—feminist leaders and meditators Eve Ensler & bell hooks in dialogue. 

Plus: When I Enter the City of Joy

In war-torn Congo, Eve Ensler learns what love can really do.


The Work of the Moment

When we and our work are one, says Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and beautiful.

Plus: Pat O'Hara on how to Make All Your Work Meaningful


Under the Volcano

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.


Thanks to Yoko

Performance artist Lisa Carver celebrates Yoko Ono, who taught her to do what “isn’t done.”


other voices

Empty Graves and Empty Boats

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.


Show Up Exactly As You Are

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.)


Losing Katherine

She was the kind of person who might suddenly ask, “How do you know love?” Natalie Goldberg on loving and losing a special friend.




Review: Lying, by Sam Harris

Reviewed by Karen Maezen Miller


Books in Brief 

This issue’s roundup features books on conflict resolution, yoga, stress reduction, ecology, and more.

About a Poem

Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi

Shambhala Sun
, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 4.

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Books in Brief (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Books in Brief


Healing from Suicide and Loss

By Robert E. Lesoine with Marilynne Chöphel

Parallax Press 2013; 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Longtime Buddhist 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.


The Life of Ikkyu

Story by Ven. Miao You, art by Yan Kaixin

Buddha’s Light Publishing 2013; 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Buddhist Light 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.


Finding Serenity 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, and relationships.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Environmental 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 Diamond

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 Hamilton
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.


Tales of Compassion and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child—to Delight and Inspire
By Dharmachari Nagaraja
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.

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

Thanks to Yoko (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Thanks to Yoko

Everyone, it 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 of empathy.”

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.

Conceptual and 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 off running.

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 did. 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 wants.

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.)

Buddhism whispered, “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.

William Burroughs, 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 yearalong 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.

Next, a 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.

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

Editorial: Buddha's Daughters (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014


Buddha's Daughters

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, 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

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

Losing Katherine (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Losing Katherine 

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 helpful.

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 around us.

“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. Traditional Japanese.

“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 Zen Center.

“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 answered.

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 mind.

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 placard.

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 out.

“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 love her.

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.

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

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