Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself – Zen Saying
In the pursuit of knowledge, something is added every day. In the pursuit of enlightenment, something is dropped every day. – Lao Tzu
To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. – Chuang-tzu
As a treat for my faithful blog readers and e-mail list subscribers, I have a very special code for you to receive a free copy of my latest edition of One Hand Killing.
One Hand Killing is my first book in the Alex Sullivan Mystery Series, and I’m pleased to announce, the second edition, Killing Sacred, has already been written, and will be released this year!
Enjoy this prologue from One Hand Killing, and beneath, the code for your free e-book edition!
“The uniforms had already strung the yellow tape. Alex couldn’t go past the shoe room into the basement, which included the lounge. Where is everyone? Where the hell is the dead body? And who the fuck is it?
She spotted Muin beyond the barrier and a sigh of relief that it wasn’t him swept through her. Their eyes locked. Muin spoke to the guy in blue with a Smith & Wesson 357 strapped to his hips. She was given access. He must have played my detective card. I have to see the body before Wolfe gets here, and he’s right on my tail. He’ll kick me out, as he should. But this is my place and I have to see it for myself, damn it.
Muin pointed to the boiler room. She made her way through the narrow door and into the small dark space. There the body was elegantly laid out on the floor next to the furnace. In his robes, hands clasped and resting on his belly. With a tree branch between his teeth, as if he’d been hanging on for dear life.
Her detective’s mind clicked into high gear. She remembered a koan about a man in a tree. Then she noticed his freshly shaved head. He hadn’t been a monk, but everyone knew it had been everything to him. Had Roshi denied him that path forever? Did that have something to do with the returned rakusu and the line from the heart sutra? Didn’t Sonja say Roshi had reconsidered? Did he kill himself? The questions came fast and furious, and with them Wolfe.
“Who let you in here?” Wolfe growled.
Alex said nothing as she walked past him and out the door lost in thought. How long has he been there? Was he there this morning when I stood next door in the lounge drinking coffee? Did the noise in the hall last night have anything to do with it? What’s with the tree branch?
Alex hadn’t had time in the boiler room for her turning-in-place crime scene ritual, so she did it on the other side of the tape. At the end of it she was willing to bet that the basement wasn’t the scene of the crime. And that it was murder, not suicide.”
One Hand Killing on Smashwords!
Coupon Code: WP57K
“I am full of shit!” These are the five words I wrote in the middle of my shift at the hospital a few weeks ago, after conducting my first meditation/relaxation group in the Psych ward. On the way in that morning I listened to Pema Chodron talk about shenpa, which helped me to feel centered and prepared to handle whatever the day might bring. I’ve been “teaching” meditation for almost twenty years, I’ve known many people with mental illness who have been helped by meditation, and after witnessing J conduct a session with patients the previous week, I thought: “I’ve got this!”
Well, I did not “have” it. There were about six people who came, some came late, a couple left before the session was over, came back and then left again. One patient was very aggressive and kept interrupting the guided meditation section of the half hour. Two people, who had sat through the whole period last week, left this week because they were getting anxious. By the end there were two people left. I felt like I hadn’t helped anyone. I felt like a failure. I felt out of my depth trying to bring meditation to unstable psych patients. I had great doubt. Why did I offer to do this?
I thought if I had only said the right words, used the right tone of voice, been more like J, it would have been easier. So I did some research, listened to some guided relaxation/visualization videos, and brought some music with me the following week, which had me feeling a little better prepared. When I arrived on the floor, I was told that the room my group was supposed to meet in was not available. In fact, there was no empty room. They asked if I could come back in the afternoon. I couldn’t. Then it was suggested I do it in the day room/cafeteria. They would turn off the TV and ask those who weren’t going to join the group to leave.
Some stayed but didn’t participate. People, including staff, kept coming in and out of the room during the half hour. It was a bit chaotic, as that floor can be. In terms of numbers, it was about the same as the previous week. Six, with four coming and going, a couple not understanding English, with two left at the end. I did my best and maybe I helped someone.
This week was different yet again, but I’m beginning to leave all my expectations at the door, and am learning to have a new outlook on what “meditation” truly is and can be. It is definitely not one way fits all. And next week and the next and the next will be different yet again. So, I will just keep showing up and trust the dharma. As for trusting myself, well, there’s been a little more of that lately too.
Some of this was born from an experience I had at a recent weekend retreat. While doing something that I had been asked to do by the facilitators, I was addressed by one of the teachers in a very angry and abusive tone. It was quite shocking. While I understand that we can all become sensitive and vulnerable during sesshin, and the precepts can be breached without intention, it did not feel okay for a teacher to direct anger, perhaps meant for someone else, at a student and then not make amends. I do know the difference between a Zen wake-up shout and an abusive one. I’ve experienced plenty of both. It felt as if the Buddhist teachings that we were all there to practice together were meant only for the students and that the Zen teaching “no head higher than any other” was violated. After consulting with a few of my spiritual mentors, and reflecting about it in light of the precept about not speaking of other’s faults, there was no doubt left with this matter for me: this teacher behaved inappropriately.
Shunryu Suzuki’s words on the practice of bowing come to my mind when reflecting on this experience. “Bowing is a very serious practice. You should be prepared to bow even in your last moment. Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered desires, we have to do it. Our true nature wants us to … Sometimes the disciple bows to the master; sometimes the master bows to the disciple. A master who cannot bow to his disciple cannot bow to Buddha. Sometimes the master and disciple bow together to Buddha. Sometimes we may bow to cats and dogs.”
This “teacher” who directed anger at me was clearly unable to bow to me as student. On the other hand, this experience was probably just what I needed to help confirm for me what kind of teacher and caregiver I want to be. It was somewhat akin to the sound of a bell, or the shout of a word, or the call of a bird that triggers the moment of enlightenment in many old Zen stories. And it is always something like this that reminds me: in pointing my finger there are always three fingers pointing back at me. And so, though wary, I am grateful for the “teaching” and will keep digging in and going deeper toward self-forgetting. Which reminds me of one of my favorite prayers from St. Francis of Assisi.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace—that where there is hatred, I may bring love—that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness—that where there is discord, I may bring harmony—that where there is error, I may bring truth—that where there is doubt, I may bring faith—that where there is despair, I may bring hope—that where there are shadows, I may bring light—that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted—to understand, than to be understood—to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
“I am full of shit!” may not be the most eloquent way to express the doubt I was having about my ability to lead a meditation session in the Psych ward. But it did help to wake me up to the fact that it matters to me to do my best and there is always more for me to learn. I liken it to Hakuin’s great doubt, without which we cannot awaken. So this exhortation to myself was my inner Zen master shouting at me to wake up, pay attention to the shit, and take advantage of it. You are not a piece of shit, but now that you notice its presence, allow it to fertilize your heart-mind. Or, as Thich Nhat Hahn would say: “There is no lotus flower possible without the mud. There is no understanding and compassion without suffering.”
I am glad I am often full of shit. For how else would I be able to cultivate such a lovely garden?
When the weather won’t let up, stay warm by baking a delicious pumpkin bread! This delicious recipe comes at the perfect time for you to surprise your loved ones this Valentine’s Day!
Heat oven to 350º. Lightly oil (or butter) two large loaf pans or three small ones.
1 cup honey
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup oil
I use a mixture of olive and canola. And if you don’t want to use so much oil, substitute some of it with unsweetened applesauce.
1 15oz. can pumpkin
¼ cup water
3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup nuts or raisins or chocolate chips/chunks.
You can use up to 1½ cups of a combination of these. I usually use a 4 oz Ghirardelli 100% Cacao baking bar and ½ cup walnuts.
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the honey, maple syrup, eggs, oil, pumpkin, and water.
2. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.
3. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet with a rubber spatula. Don’t over mix. Fold in the nuts and chocolate pieces.
4. Pour the batter into the pans. Bake for about 60 to 70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry.
5. Set the pans on a rack to cool for 10-15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool some more.
As with many of the sweets I make and love—with no refined sugars or flours—this can be cut up and frozen so that there’s always a treat waiting for you.
Download a printable version of the recipe here: Myochi’s Pumpkin Bread
“If it has to be winter, it might as well snow.” This is something I say every year and I love it when the weather complies. We’ve had plenty of the white stuff and the forecasters say there is more on the way. And if the groundhog is right, we’ve got six more weeks before spring. As beautiful as it all is, spring will be most welcome when it arrives. The quotes for this month are Japanese Zen folk sayings from A Zen Harvest, a favorite of mine.
Between this and that:
Even a snowman was only
So well made-up
They don’t look like themselves:
Plum flowers on a
Everything has its
The pine is green,
Snow is white.
The bamboo, fallen,
Will stand again, while
The snow that
Bends it down
Scatters and is gone.
For the last few weeks it has felt as if I know less and less each day, and much less than when I started the Buddhist Contemplative Care course. I’ve walked away from more than a few patients thinking that I didn’t do enough, didn’t say the right words, couldn’t relieve them of even a fraction of their suffering. Even thinking of it now as I write this, sitting in a tubful of hot water, it brings tears to my eyes: to witness people suffering, to be let in, to be afraid for them, to be with them—all of that right now feels like such an honor. While I’m with them I don’t think much, I just try to let myself be.
I cry now for my mother and family as she lies in a rehab after being moved back and forth to the hospital today, getting weaker from recent gall bladder surgery and almost ninety years of life. I see how my siblings (there are seven of them) want her to get better and to live more—she has become the conduit through which we all come together and perhaps they wonder as I do if we will drift apart when the glue of mother is gone. I want to instruct them, save them, relieve them of their suffering and I can’t. I have been so matter of fact about my mother’s condition and that she may be near the end, I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me, if I have no empathy, no compassion, no feelings for my mother’s impending death. As I sit here and weep I am grateful for the release of deep feelings. I probably would have got to them eventually, but am grateful they are here now.
One recent experience I had with a patient might have been a turning point and could have been the catalyst for why I felt so incompetent the rest of the month.
She was a patient in the Psych ward, and when we met she was sitting with an uneaten breakfast, but very chatty. She had an issue with weight loss, so I decided to leave her to her meal and return later for a visit. When I got back to her, she was steeped in anger. Someone had told her to wait for the floor to dry before leaving the dining room. They did not want her to slip and fall. She spewed vitriol, called people names, stereotyped the staff in a demeaning way. I tried to speak rationally to her, calm her anger, combat her ugly comments with reason. Of course, none of it worked. I should have just let her be angry! It was so hard to sit there and listen to her, but I see now that my comments could have further fueled her anger and there was no way I was going to convince her that what she was saying was insensitive, cruel and “wrong.”
Then there was a patient who had cancer and was very scared. He didn’t want to talk and said he was more interested in distracting himself from his issues. He did ask me about Buddhism, but once I started talking he wanted to be left alone. He wasn’t interested in prayer, meditation, relaxation, or the calming, meditative TV channel. He wanted me to go. I felt incompetent the rest of that day. I couldn’t find the right words, or entry in. I witnessed a lot of suffering and felt completely powerless.
Then there was another patient that a social worker asked me to visit even though he wasn’t in my assigned unit. His sister was there with him. He was weak, in serious condition and clearly distressed; I saw panic in his eyes when his sister said she would be returning home to another country the next week. I decided to try a relaxation/visualization exercise. Once I started speaking in a soft tone with some comforting words, the sister began to cry and left the room so I could be with him. I don’t know if I helped, but I felt like I wasn’t saying the right words. I couldn’t take away his pain, fear, and suffering. My heart was full, sad and bursting when I left. How much people carry!
There were also many highlights and gifts in my caregiving this past month. I introduced three young women in the Psych ward to meditation and they were grateful. I helped a patient—who was agitated and antsy, who couldn’t talk but was open to me being there, who was worried about her young child—with a relaxation meditation, a body scan and a light prayer. She totally relaxed and was ready for sleep when I left. It felt like I did something good.
Our assigned reading for the month was 9 Essays on Buddhism & the 12 Step Model of Recovery, which turned out to be a very helpful reading. I was given a copy of this some years ago, but I resisted reading it, thinking that my Buddhist take on the 12 steps was sufficient. So I was a bit surprised how the essay on the 7th step really opened up my heart and gave me a new perspective on no-self and humility: “beings who are joined to other beings.” Using the words connection, communion or community, as it suggested, in place of humility was almost a white light experience. I exaggerate here, but not too much.
For many years I did get the idea of service and how necessary it is for sobriety and a meaningful life. What opened up for me in reading this was the idea of vowing “…to be rid of whatever cripples our efforts to … be in communion with our fellows.”
I get the idea of being a worker among workers, a peer among peers and not holding any head higher than any other. But I have experienced a deeper realization of this lately. One of my learning goals is to be in communion with my peers, though I hadn’t actually phrased it that way until I read this essay; plus I wasn’t even sure who my peers were. But I’ve been making efforts to engage with the students in the Contemplative Care course and other Pastoral Care students who are in the hospital when I am, and to socialize and converse with the other students when we’re together even though my instinct is to isolate. It has been an uplifting and rewarding experience. It still doesn’t come easy, but I am committed to doing more of this. The result is that I feel more alike than different, I like myself and others more, and I gain confidence. But just like everything else that is worthwhile, it is a practice. So my New Year’s vow is to stay committed to being of service and to deepen and nurture the new connections that the course has delivered to me.
One thing I have learned this past month is that to be an effective caregiver I often have to do less rather than more. And so is it with words here in this blog. This has been a very full month of inner growth and learning for me and there is so much more to say, but if I add anything more, it will just be, in the immortal words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Words, words, words!
Sesshin—a silent meditation retreat—has always been a time of renewal and reflection for me. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll gain some new insight. The sesshin over this past weekend was the same, but different. There was more free time than I’m used to and I got more sleep than ever, which is quite unusual. But it was just what I needed, even if I didn’t actually know it at the time.
I took many long walks in the surrounding woods and they quickly became a second zendo. The ice atop the Hudson river: one day flowing upstream, the next day flowing down. The weather: one day clear and cold, the next day snowy and magical. A maze of fallen trees, a clear pasture, an icy pond, a patch of green bamboo, a wooden bench to stop and rest, a wolf darting through the trees on the crest of a hill in the distance.
If we can imagine not being separated from anything or anyone all we need do is look to or be outside in nature to realize the ever changing, flowing nature of the world and know that our mind is no different. Trying to stop our thoughts or control our nature is like trying to change the course of a river.
Posted in Expect Nothing
Tagged Garrison, Meditation, Nature, NYZCCC, Sesshin, Silence, Silent Retreat, Snow, Winter, Zen, Zendo
The journey of writing my first mystery novel One Hand Killing, about murder in a monastery—which I thought would be easier than any other work of fiction, Ha!—has been long and enlightening. I think I started writing it sometime back around the turn of this century (it’s so weird to think of it that way!) and had the idea much before that.
I’ve had so much help along the way including a writing class, a writing group, literary agents, editors, designers, and countless friends and readers, I can’t even begin to imagine how I could ever have done this alone. They say writing is a lonely art, but it definitely can’t be done in a vacuum.
During this time, the manuscript sat in a drawer for a few years after the book industry went through a metamorphosis and my agent couldn’t find a publisher. Then a couple years ago I decided to self-publish it, which had then become all the rage. After completing the second installment of the series last year, I worked with a new editor, rewrote One Hand Killing once again, and hired a new cover designer. So, finally, the latest and what I hope is the final version of this book is now available in e-book form and will be in paperback sometime soon.
I’ve learned a thing or two along the way about writing fiction and the second in the Alex Sullivan Zen Mystery series, Killing sacred, will be published in March. And I already have the third one brewing in my mind.
I owe so many of you a huge debt of gratitude. Thank you for being there, for being interested and for your contribution to my life and my writing. Even if you don’t think you helped in this effort, trust me, you all did. Deep bows to all.
Purchase your copy of the newly edited version of One Hand Killing:
Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.
There’s nothing quite like a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter night. A warm wedge of cornbread to go with, and a salad on the side will make for a complete and easy meal.
Maybe it’s the southern in me (my mom—and the cooking I grew up with—is from South Carolina) but I absolutely love cornbread with almost anything. I’ve found though that many cornbread recipes, and certainly any store bought variations, are often too sweet for my taste and sometimes very dry.
I have two favorite cornbread recipes that I use all the time, one from the original Moosewood cookbook, which is chock full of rich dairy products (organic of course!) and one from The Modern Vegetarian Cookbook, which is vegan. The dairy one I make without any adjustments to the recipe. It is quick, easy and delicious. And because of its fluffy nature and rich color, it’s also the first to be eaten by guests when I serve both together.
The vegan one is just as good, but more subtle. I’ve always made it without the jalapeños and scallions, so using those would certainly change the look and taste, but it is delicious even without those ingredients. I often can’t find unrefined corn oil, so I’ve used olive, canola and a mixture of both to good effect.
So, choose your favorite soup, make a quick cornbread, and enjoy!
Moosewood Corn Bread
Vegan Corn Bread
The beginning of each New Year is a perfect time for reflection and looking forward, whether or not we’ve made a New Year’s vow, so that we might return to the present moment with gratitude and peace. Here are a few short poems to contemplate and carry with us as we breathe each breath and take each step into 2014.
Day after day,
Day by day,
Dust of mind collects:
Be sure to wash it away
And find your original Self.
The fragrance of blossoms soon passes;
the ripeness of fruit is gone in a twinkling;
Our time in this world is so short,
better to avoid regret:
Miss no opportunity to savor the ineffable.
If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth:
Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you.
As fish dart through the water, they are forgetful of the water; as birds fly on the breeze, they are not conscious that there is a breeze. Discern this, and you can transcend the burden of things and enjoy natural potential.