Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The End of the World as We Know It

Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. -from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

Koan: Someone asked the old teacher Dasui, “It’s clear that the fire at the end of time will completely destroy the universe. But tell me, is there something that won’t be destroyed?”

Dasui answered, “It will be destroyed.”

“It will go along with everything else?”

“Yes,” said Dasui, “It will go along with everything else.”

Last week, on a Saturday at dusk in early June, I went for a walk at a park in the hills near my house. When I arrived there the parking lot was almost deserted. It was a holiday weekend, but still it was unusual at the park to see only a single car. I checked to see if I had lost track of time and we were right on the heels of sunset, but no, sunset was an hour away. It was very, very still and quiet. 

Photo: Rachel BoughtonAs I walked my dogs into the hills, I talked on the phone to my sister. I was lonely that evening, which sometimes happens to me at dusk when I've been alone all day. I talked to her about nothing in particular. Suddenly I looked up from the ground where I had been concentrating, and out into the low sun, and I became aware of how stunningly beautiful everything was. The sun was coming through the high grass by the trail, some of it taller than my head. The grasses arched over the trail and everything was bright and golden, incomprehensible. I felt something sharp like longing, or nostalgia, or loss... but nostalgia for that very moment. I told my sister about it, how beautiful, how very tall the grass is this year, already, higher than my head and golden in early June. She said, yes, the huckleberries where she lives in Idaho were ripe, too. Ripe in early June. Though not the strawberries, which was some sort of comfort. 
photo: Rachel Boughton
Later as I was walking back, no longer talking on the phone, I heard the redwing blackbirds calling to each other over the marshy place on the way to the parking lot and noticed that the streambed was dry. Hadn't it been running with water just last week? Then I walked through a stand of very old valley oak trees who, at that time of evening, seemed to be eager to be alone again and unseen so they could shake their leaves and move about and speak to one another about whatever it is they speak of.

As I drove home the stillness and sense of the world waiting with an indrawn breath stayed with me. A pair of mourning doves flying side by side came right past my car, keeping pace with me for awhile. 

There was something that evening that made me feel the sense of the tender and exquisite beauty of this life. It felt oddly like the last moment of the world, the moment in the movie right before the meteor strikes. I knew at the time that my narrative was trying to catch hold of something I recognized, science fiction, to make sense of the frozen-in-time perfection of it all, and the poignant sense of loss I felt even as I was loving it. The Vonnegut line about eating and drinking and being merry, before we die, it came to me then. 

Most moments don't announce themselves like that. I know each moment is the only one of its kind, but I don't really feel it too often. Perhaps it was my noticing that evening the way life and the weather on earth are in the process of making a rapid and perhaps irreversible change that cued me. But it's always this way, always unutterably beautiful, and always gone away beyond any possibility of return in every moment. I guess that's the thing about loving things, you're always saying goodbye. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Drawing at the Zoo

The koan: "Who's a pretty bird?"

Long ago, when I was raising young kids, I took a class. The class was just for me, a whole morning every week, drawing. It was called Zoo Drawing and it involved going to the zoo and, well, drawing.

Drawing animals at the zoo is unusual and challenging. For one thing, the animals rarely ever hold still. What you draw has to be rendered quickly, or filed away in memory, things like where the of the grey crowned crane's beak goes in relation to its eye. It's a little like drawing people on the subway, but not really, because the people on the subway aren't aware of you drawing them. The most unexpected thing was the relationship that happened when the animals started to notice me looking at them.

Most people at the zoo move quickly from animal to animal. They often do this funny thing: To their children, or even if they lack children, they make an observation about how they think the animals are related to each other. "There's the Mommy and the Daddy and the baby" is mostly how it goes, even if all three animals are mature elephants of the same sex and unrelated genetically. It's satisfying, somehow, to know what you're seeing. And then they walk away to the next exhibit.
Mommy, Daddy, baby

But when I was drawing, I quickly found that I didn't know what I was seeing at all, at least not right away. I saw an elephant and I quickly drew an elephant but it didn't look like an elephant because the trunk isn't what I thought it was, where I thought it was. These were animals I'd seen many times, but I really hadn't looked. So, because I wanted my drawing to capture something particular about the animal I saw, I had to open my mind and find out what was there. And the more I looked without interpreting or fitting things into my old ideas, the more I just opened myself to what I was in front of me, the better the drawing looked. I could let my hand draw what my eyes saw without being filtered through my concepts of how it ought to look. Each revision to a drawing was exciting, each error was a chance to see something I had missed.

pretty bird
The second thing that happened, which followed the first, was that when I looked closely, in that way, the animal I was looking at sometimes noticed that I was still there, still watching. The teacher of the class made an observation: When you are looking at a bird, and you say, "What a pretty bird!" out loud, the bird really likes it. The bird might show you its wings and plumage, stretching and showing off. Even a vulture will do this. But you have to say "pretty bird" with admiration, you have to mean it.

Even animals I imagined would be completely indifferent to or unaware of the presence of a human, like a tiny poison dart frog on the other side of a thick glass window, would after awhile start to turn and observe me in return. The animals in the zoo were used to the people who came and went quickly, but someone who stayed was different. Perhaps my gaze was pleasant to them, I can imagine it was because their gaze was pleasant to me. It's nice to be seen. We were connected then, not separate as I had imagined.

This is like meditation. In meditation what I'm watching isn't only outside myself, it's also inside me. I'm watching the animals of my mind, and each one is unique and most of them shy and all thrive on my attention. If I stay long enough, and I'm patient, they come out of their thickets, step into a clearing. Sometimes when I'm meditating I try saying "pretty bird!" to myself and then I start to appreciate all of me, my plumage of all different colors, my iridescence. My chest swells, my wings spread, and I begin to fill the space I occupy.

I can appreciate all of the animals of my mind, and in doing so both the observer and the one observed begin to change. This is worth doing.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Tea Lady and the Fox

Women who ran tea houses in China appear often in Zen koans and stories. The tea lady often holds the role of the trickster, cleverly disguised as not-a-teacher, magically making certainty disappear.

There was a woman who ran a tea shop near where the Zen master Hakuin lived. She knew a lot about tea, he told his students, and her understanding of Zen was very good too. Many of them wondered about this and went to the village to see for themselves. Whenever the woman saw them coming, she could tell immediately whether they had come for the tea or for the Zen. Those wanting tea she served graciously. For the others, she hid until they came to her door and then she attacked them with a fire poker. Only one in ten managed to escape the beating.

I used to live in Seattle and one of my favorite places to go hang around was the International District. That’s what other cities call “Chinatown”. One day, some years ago, I wandered into a tea shop with some of my family on Chinese New Year’s Day and we ended up staying and tasting a number of different teas while the rain bedraggled the New Year’s dragons outside. It was a good time, and unexpected.

A couple of weeks ago I was back in Seattle for a few days visiting my daughter and step-daughter, and made a pilgrimage to the I-district. After lunch I found that the same tea store from years before was next door to the dumpling place, so I decided to drop in *briefly* and buy some tea leaves. It was a quiet time of day and there was no one there except the owner, a Chinese woman about my age. I asked for some black tea and she suggested a few I might like and asked if I wanted to try them. I told her I only had a few minutes, but sure, tasting would be good.

Tea tasting involves a small pot and tiny cups and lots of hot water on a slate slab that has a pond of tea in the middle of it. The leaves are measured out and rinsed once and then brewed many times in the small pot. Each cup tastes unique because what was in the last pot is different from what’s in the next pot. Each pouring washes something away and reveals something new. The tasting is a chance to be educated about the tea, narrated by the host. No one else was there that afternoon, though. So, although we started talking about tea, a very earthy tasting old Pu-er, our conversation started to ramble. I noticed that I really wanted to ask her whether it was a good life for her, because I realized this person sitting in front of me was an actual tea lady, out of the legends. Encouraged by all the tea, I asked, “Is it a good life?”, and then I told her about tea ladies and the old stories. She told me that she enjoyed keeping the shop, but didn’t really teach anything, she just learned a lot from the people who came in and talked to her. All different professions, she said, professors at the University, doctors, business people.

She asked me what I did and I told her. I said I’m a sculptor, that’s an easy one, so I said it first, but it’s a little embarrassing to me to say that I teach Zen. People usually shift uncomfortably in their seats. She was a good person to tell such a thing to, though. So I told her about about koans and she told me a few things she knew, like that there’s a word, a verb, for what a teacher and a student do with a koan. She said it was on the tip of her tongue, couldn’t remember it, and she had to call a friend for an animated discussion. The word, it turns out, sounds like “Chan-chan”. It’s a verb. To koan. Very cool. (Chan is Zen in Chinese, so maybe Zen-Zen?) We spent a lot of time with our phones trying to get our translations sorted out.

Then she asked me for a koan for herself and I told her one, a long story koan, about a person who is transformed into a fox for 500 lives. I wanted to give her a koan that would be short and pithy and what she might expect a koan to be, but this was the koan that presented itself, so that’s what I gave her. She took it in, very quietly, and kind of withdrew into herself for a minute. And then changed the subject to something less intense, like tea.

Then she asked me about unhappiness and we had a good time talking about our families. And we talked about the fox a little bit, too.

Suddenly the door jingled and a man stepped in. He was tidy, but with the dark sun burned skin and shiny dirt-polished clothes that people have when they live on the streets. “Do you have any work, like moving boxes? Because I really need a job, I need to make some money…” And my friend the tea lady said, “That’s a great idea!” and told him a place where he could get picked up for day work. He asked, kind of shyly, if that was tea we were drinking, and she said yes, would he like to join us? He came into the back of the shop and sat down on the gold brocade chair and drank a few cups of the Pu-er and told us how he really liked strong bitter teas. I believe what he was trying to say was the tea we were drinking tasted strong and bitter to him, but she took him at his word and brought out another tea, called “Bitter Tea” and made us some of that to taste. It was indeed remarkably bitter, bracingly bitter. After a few cups of that he said he had to go look for work and she made him a large paper to-go cup for the road, telling him that it was good for the liver and for alcohol and hangovers, too, and he could use the tea leaves all day.

So the man who had been turned into a fox for 500 lives came for a visit, and the tea lady gave him a hot cup of tea and ideas for a bit of employment. He came in right then, on cue. I think life may always be like that, full of magical events, it’s just that it takes something for me to be able to notice, perhaps it requires a tear in the fabric of what I had expected. People can do that for me, just by being people. Tea ladies are everywhere.

After sitting and talking together for an hour and a half I realized I really had to go. It had been a lovely afternoon. I brought home some of the Pu-er. I’m drinking it now.

Poem by Lu Yu in the 8th century CE (on the wall at Seattle’s Best Tea Company)

To honor tea I blocked my gate with leafy boughs

lest the noisy crowd disturb me

and I took my translucent cup to prepare the tea and savor it in solitude.

The first cup moistened my lips and throat,

the second banished my loneliness,

the third lifted the heaviness that oppressed my mind from so much study,

the fourth brought a light perspiration that dispersed through my pores all of
life’s afflictions,

the fifth purified me,

the sixth opened the kingdom of the immortals to me.

The seventh, oh that I could drink more

I perceived nothing more than the soft breath that swelled my sleeve

transported by that sweet breeze, I attained the heavens.


1. What do you know about the way the tea lady knew tea? What’s your Zen?

2. Who are the people you’ve met who have seemed wise without trying to be wise?

3. What’s something you do that opens up the world to you, that makes the world feel kind or spacious or wonderful?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Goose in a Bottle

Koan: A woman raised a goose in a bottle. When the goose had grown, she wanted to get it out, without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?

Once I bought a little tree at the store. It was the first tree I ever planted, at a new house when I had just started living something like an adult life. The tree was folded in half with the roots up next to the branches so it was short enough to fit, wrapped in plastic, in a basket with other little trees. The whole thing was about 2 feet long. I brought it home and dug a hole and planted it in the tiny front lawn in front of my house. Somebody told me I planted it too close to... something, maybe the fence or the window, but I didn't believe them. How can you anticipate that something will grow if you've never seen it? But it did, and it was too close, although it took a few years for me to see it.

When I was a kid we got a puppy, a bullmastiff puppy. He was really cute. Someone told me, "if you can lift the calf, you can lift the cow" and that made sense to me, how could this not be true? So I picked him up every day, but one day I couldn't pick him up anymore (he eventually grew to be 125 pounds).

I raised two kids, not exactly inside bottles, but with the best of intelligent intentions that only fit the baby I had in front of me, and the life and insights I had at the time. If they've come out well, it has probably been as much in spite of as because of  my plans for them.

I feel for the goose, I feel for the woman, I even feel for the bottle. I'm probably doing it again, right now, putting yet another small goose into a bottle that seems to be just the right size. What to do? Can I plan better? Can I make it not happen if I do it right? Can I be smarter than the woman? But most of all, what's the solution here?

Meditation, all by itself, the sitting quietly with myself, brings me face to face with my life as it is. Koans do other things as well.

  • a koan gives me a place to inhabit, a path to walk, a fairy tale to enter, and I find that something in my experience matches that, and that it's always personal to me.
  • a koan takes me to places I had decided not to look at, to places I dreaded or tuned out or were invisible to me.
  • a koan brings suffering into focus and shows it to be different than I imagined, more interesting.
  • a koan gives me transformation inside the present moment, right now.

This koan says, "how do you get the goose out of the bottle?" so I know it's possible because the koan says so. I trust that, and I also trust that it's not a trick question. There's no getting the goose out on a technicality, although I'm allowed to try in good faith to be sneaky or clever. And actually, with a koan like this, mostly there will be a lot of bargaining of that sort. Maybe I can just stop feeding the goose and it will get really thin. Or maybe the bottle was really really big and it's not a problem. Or else I might get frustrated and decide I've got to just break the bottle. Nah. Sorry.

So this koan doesn't let you jump over things. The first thing is to just be there. What's it like to be the goose, growing up there? getting big? What's it like to be the woman? How is this me?

Next thing, what's fragile, what's the thing I think I mustn't break? What are the prohibitions I've lived with all my life without questioning them? A few months ago I got really frustrated with my father. As he was acting more and more unreasonable (from my point of view), I became more and more calm and rational and distant. I couldn't tell him how I was feeling, I didn't want to break him. But finally, after trying all my familiar approaches without success, I began to tell him how I was feeling, without much daughterly restraint. Later I realized it was probably the first time in my life I had yelled at my Dad. Somehow I thought it wasn't allowed, but when I did, it helped a lot. The distance disappeared and we both talked about how we felt. We learned how to do something new. Nothing broke.

So this predicament happens all the time to everyone. A woman told me about raising her daughter in a world where a lot of kids get lost, girls get pregnant in high school or get involved in gangs or just lose momentum. She is trying to keep her daughter from growing up but she can see that this is a "goose in the bottle" moment. The bottle is her care and love for the girl, but also her identification with her. Maybe there is a way to let her daughter out of the bottle without breaking the love. As she talked she started to be able to imagine it.

The koan also lets me feel freedom. The goose out of the bottle, how is that? What does it feel like be free? As I sit with the koan I feel myself as a goose. I feel my heavy body, my strong feathery chest, my webbed feet on the ground. And then I feel my wings open, I bring them up, the air is strong against them, I feel the weight of it in my legs, and then I push down my powerful wings and lift up into the air. This too is possible.

The goose koan is about me, especially about me. I have imagined that I could live my life small, that I could be no trouble to anyone. I have hoped I could keep myself separate, but as I let the world enter me I can see I'm part of everything and I don't even want what I thought I wanted. Getting out of the bottle is just a matter of taking a step and finding out who I am in this wide open world. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

There's Nothing I Dislike

I'm talking to someone, our conversation has come to a stopping place, we look out the window. There is a koan we've been talking about but we're not talking about it right now. I look into the garden and see the scraggly early Fall lavender bushes. They look grey. I think to myself, lavender shouldn't be grey, the garden shouldn't be grey. And then I begin to wonder, are they really grey? I look again. No they are a pale purple color, really a quite beautiful pale purple. And the stalks, they seem to be yellow, no, glowing yellow inside, with a pale green outside. And I see that there are two different kinds of lavender side by side, the other is a powdery green, delicate. And under the powdery color is a deeper green, rich, also glowing. And its flowers, too, are lavender, but a different color. It's as if one by one, the characters in a play are stepping out from behind a curtain and shyly taking their bows. I'm amazed. It's not that I have looked harder, it's just that the world has stepped forward.

It's magic the way it does this all by itself.

There are a number of koans that have this flavor, that express and understanding that really, whatever I thought the problem was, it seems to have gone away. There is nothing I dislike. Thank you very much, I have no complaints whatsoever. Every day is a good day.

Danaid, condemned for all eternity
to carry water in a sieve.
When you meditate with a koan, all parts of it become pertinent, sometimes one at a time. For instance, the word "dislike" brings up all my familiar aversions. Possibly I am actively disliking this koan and its apparent coercive optimism. Maybe I'm just really uncomfortable in this chair, maybe I dislike myself or my job or someone who has behaved badly. Or maybe I'm thinking about something unassailably awful from my own personal history, or a particularly painful image I have stuck in my mind, an un-righted wrong, or something I've lost and I mourn. Sometimes I'm surprised at the variety of what I dislike, both the intense and the trivial.

Then there is the word "nothing", and the mystery of that. It's so vast, it covers everything, this nothing. There's nothing? Really? What could that possibly mean? In this way the koan seeds my imagination with two ideas that are almost impossible to hold at the same time. So it works on me in that way. It keeps me company as I go about my day and it takes apart what I thought I knew about the world. And what is underneath that edifice I had built is startlingly kind.

It happens sometimes that I can stop disliking something, but it's more deeply simply true, that there's nothing I dislike. Somehow I can tell, from time to time, that it's not possible to dislike anything or anyone. Everything, no matter what it is, shows me how it glows from inside. That's just the way the world is.

For You: Try it, find out what happens when you walk around with the koan, "there's nothing I dislike" ? What do you see? What reveals itself to you? Don't try to make anything happen, just watch the show. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Stop the War

meditation and koans
One day recently I noticed the koan "Stop the War" lying around in my mind, and I wondered what it was about. I had recently been thinking about how turning toward a difficulty changes things. But this day I became interested instead in the things I turn away from, the features of me or other people that I just think of as trash, useless, not worth attention. A few different friends had been talking about how they were drinking more that they thought was good for them. It seemed to be a comfort, maybe to help with some internal suffering even though the underlying suffering wasn't apparent. A few other friends were trying not to spend every waking hour on reddit (a news/social media forum with many links to click), one brilliant one lost his place at a prestigious university from spending time on the web rather than going to class. 

We are drawn to do things that both comfort and are cause for self loathing: drugs, sex with strangers, self-mutilation, shopping. I have my own comfort behaviors that cause me varying degrees of trouble. They have shifted over the course of my life, and my current ones seem trivial to the point of embarrassment, like cleaning the bathroom or checking the weather report, not at all the vices I associate with artists or tortured intellectuals. But I don't think that magnitude matters. Like everyone with a comforting behavior, I do these things at inappropriate times, when I could be doing something more useful or worthwhile, or when my attention is clearly needed elsewhere (I shouldn't check the weather while driving, perhaps). 

There's a feeling around these longings, a clawing need, a searing irritation that seems to only be addressable by opening another bottle, clicking on a link, by a razor blade or a credit card or an app. And the clawing doesn't stop on its own, it keeps screaming. It's inside me, I can't run away. I imagine that everyone in the universe has longings like these, even ancient zen teachers. And turns away from them. I was hoping to find a koan that would point to an understanding of this sort of thing and "Stop the War" came into my head. 

I rejected it. 

But "Stop the War" kept coming back, and became hard to ignore. 

Koans build a world that, without even noticing it, you live inside. They are autonomous and involuntary. You can also use a koan, wield it as you would your scimitar, to alter your thoughts, and that's interesting too, but beyond that you can trust the koan to be doing something that changes you without you telling it to. 

There are actually a lot of koans that have a similar form to "Stop the War": "Stop the sound of the distant temple bell," or "Put out the fire across the river," or "Save a ghost" to name a few. All of them have a verb at the front that seems to require an impossible task. But you know from working with koans that it won't be impossible. You also know from koans that your task, like the task of the heroine in the fairy talk, will become clear in the doing of it. And the effort required won't be the effort you imagined. The outcome will be a surprise. Even if we forget, we have always known that the impossible is to be expected.

One of the things about koans being autonomous is this: You can take them on, having no idea what they're about, and they will show you what they are. So I agreed to keep company with "Stop the War" for awhile. I'm meditating with it, and carrying it around with me. Or probably it's carrying me around. And this is what I see. 
  • There are little wars everywhere. I have way more wars than I'm usually aware of. There are wars with who I am and what I do and don't do. There are discomforts. My foot hurts and I think it shouldn't. As I sit in my chair I complain to myself about my posture. And it's a bit too cold, is that because I've been sitting still too long? When was the last time I cleaned this room, really? Or as I'm walking down the street I think that guy over there should be taking his meds, so he wouldn't be shouting at his demons. The store front I'm walking past assaults me, why is it so full of cheap corporate plastic things? I wonder if I should be somewhere else, doing other things. I feel vaguely guilty.  I feel vaguely guilty a lot of the time, or suddenly jolted by remembering something I'd forgotten. It's an endless series of wars, like scenes flying by outside a train window.
  • My wars are imaginary. The things I have a problem with are things I've not bothered to look at. My aversion to them keeps me jumping from thing to thing without any curiosity.  I don't know why I'm doing anything, I just make up my reasons. Even the biggest wars are just made up by a tired sad angry person, making up a world for other tired sad angry people to believe in, to fight until everyone gets worn out. And any war I really allow myself to consider or enter changes and softens and becomes mysterious and deep and worthy of my curiosity.
  • Wars can seem too huge or too small for consideration. I avoid looking at them sometimes because I think I need a more appealing, more dramatic, less horrifying, less shameful, different war than I have. But all wars are the same. 
  • I don't have to do anything at all to stop the war. Just seeing it changes it so completely that it's not the same war anymore. I become kinder, even reading the newspaper about all the wars everywhere, I don't push things away. 
  • This war is my life, the only life I've got. When I let myself be there and have what I long for, or have the pain of wanting, or have the clawing or the disappointment, I sometimes find that I'm satisfied. 
Embarking on a spiritual journey is just looking at my life as if it mattered, as if everything I've ever wanted is right here. I don't have to go looking for other lives, other people's tragedies or their faults or their virtues. I don't need to have any other life but this one. Stop the War is just this. It's wild, it's beautiful, full of courage and danger and trying things just to see what will happen. Insight doesn't mean getting the right answer, it just means asking the question.

Rachel Boughton

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Simplest Meditation Instructions Ever

Meditation can be as complicated as you want to make it, but here's a move in the other direction:

1. Pay attention to whatever you notice (inside or outside yourself, it doesn't matter) without thinking it's good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, wise or stupid, worthy or unworthy.

Actually there's only one step. That's it.

Sometimes the word "curiosity" will help you.

You can start anywhere, even in the midst of a judgement: "this sucks!" Well, what's it like? how does it feel? Explore it, its color, texture, emotion, sensation. What images come to mind? What is the interpretive dance that would describe it? If it were an animal, what would it be? Just keep yourself company. You can't do it wrong. When you notice you're back to judging your experience, putting it away in a box, just notice that. You can start again. You can start anywhere. Really.

There's a koan (any koan is helpful because a koan never makes things wrong or right) that goes like this: "What is it?"

That's it.