Friday, December 9, 2016

Ghost Ship Fire - Oakland, December 12, 2016

Interior music space at the Ghost Ship Art Collective
After the great fire in the 1374 at the Engakuji Temple, scholars came to see what had happened to the great library. The teacher, standing amidst the ashes and rubble, said that nothing had been destroyed. When queried further, he held up his hand and said,

"The covers were burned but you can still hold the teachings in your hands." 

We can also say it this way, you can still hold the music and the people who played it in your hands and hearts. And that doing that is important, is imperative. The warehouse fire that killed so many young artists and musicians, and destroyed what was by all accounts an absolutely wonderful, unique and beautiful art space in Oakland last week is still burning in my imagination. I feel the depth of the grief and shock. This kind of world is inherently fragile. Artists often live on the edges of things. Like Zen, art isn't something you tend to choose so you will become rich and comfortable. And art is also the creation of a moment, relying on an environment that changes all the time. It survives because it is made over and over again. 

We're living in a time when we need more artists, not fewer. We need more spontaneity and freedom, more experimentation, more heart. Art and music are the greatest forces for social change that we have. We need for artists and for people who are on the edges to be seen and appreciated and have a home in the world. Safety is difficult to assure, but we can do better. The people at the party at the Ghost Ship Warehouse... I'm struck by how much they are my people. 30 years ago, as a composer and multi-media artist in the East Bay, I might well have been at that party. I would certainly have had friends who died there. 

We've had a lot of shocks recently, and we're not at an end of them. How to respond, is a question. Here maybe the answer is to let ourselves feel the world as deeply as we do, and do the work that's important to us. We can be as generous as we know how and love our friends and appreciate strangers and treat them with kindness. We can also make art, play music, write poetry, dance together, laugh and cry together and enjoy our communities. This is the practice, our lives as they are, lived with courage and creativity.   

Rachel Boughton
Pacific Zen Institute


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

There is No Future. Really.

Be here now. -Ram Dass (and about a million other people)

This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way. -Santoka

There's no future. I don't mean this as a grim forecast. I mean this as the way things are.

Yesterday I noticed how strong and real my expectations for the outcome of the election have been, before suddenly everything went the other way. I had been anticipating with some satisfaction how I would savor and perhaps even gloat gently to myself, and perhaps with others... that my world view was shared and had prevailed by a landslide.

woman sadly drinking tea in the wreckage of her home in London during the Blitz
My Future
Instead I got an outcome that I was in no way prepared for. I found myself frozen, awash in anxiety, with black and white images of bombed out cities from WWII playing inside my head whenever I closed my eyes. Mean and dangerous people in uniforms were walking among the rubble. Fear and hopelessness. Nothing much I could do about it.

When I got up this morning (I would say, woke up, but that would imply that I slept), I had to get to a class, assuming that schools still existed, so I got myself dressed. When I went out, the sun was up. That was encouraging. I looked around at the gulls by the lake and felt blessed by them. I hoped that their ecosystem would survive climate-change denial. I also noticed that I was really fond of the people around me. I felt a lot of love and appreciation, like after a natural disaster. The day was full of conversations with people, questions, dismay, incomprehension, but also just what passes between people, something like comfort.

There's a mystery here. While I believe that there is a future, and I plan for it, and dread it, or anticipate it with pleasure, it's not actually real. While it's convenient to think of linear time, past present future, as real, and our minds are set up to understand things that way, there's really no future. There's only ever now. And even if I'm afraid or sad, I always know what to do. I put one foot in front of the other. Even if I'm frozen, that's my life at that moment. I've stopped, I'm waiting, to see what appears.

What I'm noticing, time after time, is that when I stop wishing I could feel some other way than this, I can trust myself, trust us all. I will thrive where I'm planted. I will see my way through, like we humans do. And when I pay attention to it, I can tell how much I care about my fellow humans. Sadness and disappointment bring me back down to the place I'm standing. When I stop telling myself stories about a mythical future, I can have confidence in this time, this place, these companions.

And I can even start to feel hopeful, that the future will be much like the present, something I can handle, something I can love. And that's not to say there isn't work to be done, stands to be taken, and something internal that I need to be loyal to. It doesn't try to overlook how, for every person, there are things that are required that we really have no idea how to do, it's just that they will be done, and we are enough.

Lake Zurich with peaceful waterbirds floating on the top at sunset
The Present
Questions: How is it for you right now? And how does it change if you don't think you should be feeling something different?

Rachel Boughton, Roshi

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.