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—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
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.
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.
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.
Being Love (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
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.
I did not get
married to get divorced. I did not have children to subject them to the
confusion of split parents. I did not hold them in my arms on their day of
birth and say, “I am going to raise you to be resilient.”
No. I went into
marriage as deliberately as I went into motherhood. As deliberately as I went
into creating the house that has held us for almost fifteen years—a farmhouse
in northwestern Montana surrounded by a haven of meadows, ponds, marshes, rocky
cliffs, and thick conifer forests.
Yet now I find
myself in something called mediation. Mediation is where a professional
conflict-sherpa guides two people through—in our case—the dissolution of a
marriage. Two people who have been together for their entire adult lives. Who
know each other like old shoes. Who together have made every important decision
for the past twenty-five years.
sitting across from one another with legal forms and a middleman at the head of
a long table and a box of Kleenex, and we’re talking about things like who gets
Christmas morning, who pays for our kids’ soccer cleats, and where our children
will lay their heads at night—what pillow in what room in what house. And what
about the possibility of them losing their childhood house altogether?
To comply with
federal law we’re also going through a list of extreme parenting sins, as if we
would ever be those sinners. We’re setting rules—legal rules—about safety,
third-party interactions, and drug and alcohol consumption, all with the threat
of sheriffs arriving at the front door in the middle of the night. These aren’t
conversations that we’ve had to have before. Our focus has been along the lines
of organic baby food and whether we should go to Belize or Costa Rica for
spring break and whether or not we concur with the teaching styles of the
Suzuki method and Montessori preschool.
wonder: Is there heart language in such a trajectory? Is there a way to bring
in loving-kindness, forgiveness, surrender, and gentleness when we’re
discussing such pointed, laden subjects?
Laura Munson is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.
Empty Graves & Empty Boats (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
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? There’s no
one to blame when an empty boat rams into you, and in the end we are all just empty boats bumping against each other.
There are as many different kinds of anger as there are
waves in the ocean. When my older daughter gets angry, there is a deluge of
tears. As I watch, she goes limp and sobs into the floor with the unfairness of
it all. My younger daughter’s anger is a tornado of hits, kicks, and screams.
She can’t be comforted, reasoned, or carried out of the storm until it has run
its course. My partner’s anger is quiet and sullen, thick as the southern
Mississippi air. Only a slam of the door or a fist on the table occasionally
punctuates the silence. Me? I shake with a blaming, seething anger, full of my
own righteousness and ready to enumerate the faults of everyone around me.
I’ve always been a blamer. Sometimes, I blame World War II
for this. Our family’s survival was tenuous, the exception rather than the
expectation. If almost all of our relatives hadn’t been killed, then perhaps I
wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. Sometimes, I blame Western culture,
capitalism, sexism, and all of the institutions that keep us separated and
thinking we have to go it alone. Sometimes, I blame myself.
Growing up, I was pretty sure the world would fall apart if
I didn’t check that we had food, take care of my little sister, and make sure
the front door was locked. Our whole family’s survival felt like my
responsibility and mine alone. Even after I left home, whenever I got
overwhelmed in relationships or at work, my mind would return to this well-worn
path: “Why do I, alone, have to do everything?”
The Work of the Moment (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
The Work of the Moment
Like the monk who
strived so hard he couldn’t see the goddess right behind him, if we push too
hard for results we miss what is most intimate. When we and our work are one,
says ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound
Several years ago,
I was in the Catskills with a colleague, celebrating the completion of a
two-and-a-half-year project. It was summer, and it can get very hot in the
Catskills, so we were sitting on the veranda of my friend’s place with tall
glasses of iced tea and stacks of novels. We had worked really hard on this project, and we
were ready for relaxation. As we sat there, I kept looking to the side of the
house at a hillside entirely overgrown with shoulder-high tarweeds, the kind of
weeds with leaves that are sticky to the touch. They had so completely taken
over the hillside that they were killing all the other native plants.
even thinking, I rose up out of my chair, got some tools, walked up the hill,
and began pulling up and cutting away the weeds. I worked up there for the next
three days, covered in sweat and sticky pitch, my hands stinging because I
didn’t have any work gloves. My colleague couldn’t believe me; she could easily
have had her caretaker do it. However, I remember it as a time of rapture, of
enormous, satisfying pleasure. It wasn’t about “work” as we usually understand
the word; it was about my whole body and mind being fully with the smell of the
tarweed as I pulled and hacked away at it. It was about complete mergence with
that hillside, not thoughts of how it would look later, but a complete
at-oneness with what I was doing in a most profound and beautiful way.
That’s how I
experience intimacy with work, even when the work is challenging. Spreadsheets,
for example, are hard for me to understand and manipulate, and I find myself
butting up against the software, asking stupid questions, and so on. Still,
being immersed in that kind of work can also be a source of joy.
The word work is
apparently about five thousand years old, and from the beginning—in its
Proto-Indo-European version, werg—it simply referred to “something being
done.” How are we in relation to this something being done in our daily lives?
What is the heart of our work? What are the qualities surrounding our something
Work can mean our
career or simply how we make money; it can be our calling (our “life’s work”)
or simply our functioning in the world: cleaning the zendo floor, making the
beds, doing the dishes.
I like to think of
work as what we do; it is the activity of the life we live.
Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, ©
2014 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala
Publications, Inc., Boston. www.shambhala.com
Image(s) by Mark T. Morse
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