YOU HAVE TO ASK

The dogs have the living room on cold nights

I was preparing my talk for last night’s schedule in the zendo, when the doorbell rang. Friends usually walk right in.

I opened the door, Harry and Aussie jumping up in excitement, and there was a woman I knew from the local community, someone I’d met when we first arrived in Massachusetts in 2002. I’d visited her and her husband briefly at home that year and would run into her at local events. Her face seemed ravaged and it was hard for her to meet my eyes.

“Do you remember me?” were her first words.

I assured her that I did and told her to come in. Instinctively I invited her to sit on the couch rather than in our dining room; usually the dogs have free reign there during weekdays. I sat next to her, reminded her of past meetings, and she got to the point.

“This is horrible,” she said. “I don’t know where to start. Call it a mission of mercy.”

She then proceeded to tell me that her daughter, an only child, with two sons of her own, had lost her home in a fire that destroyed everything some two years back. “The insurance helped, but not much,” she said. They worked hard to get rehoused.

“And then my daughter died suddenly, in her sleep, five months ago. She was 51.” She looked up, almost forcing herself to meet my eyes. “I’m going to neighbors and friends asking for loans. We have to pay the funeral house for burying my daughter. I’m very embarrassed about this, but sometimes you just have no choice, you have to ask for help.”

She indeed was embarrassed. Her face had turned pink when she mentioned money. A moment after forcing herself to meet my eyes, she lowered them again.

For months she couldn’t find her feet under her, she said, she was in shock. Unlike me, who had the luxury of mourning the loss of a husband who lived a fairly long and rich life, she had to get moving. “What gets me going are my two grandsons; I try to be there for them. And then we have this large debt.”

I see her face in my mind now. I think of how sudden death hits people. There’s too much shock to even feel grief, no chance to take stock, to stay balanced. I’ve seen people plan catered memorials that they can’t afford. I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars on munificent caskets for a loved one who suddenly died, only to remember much later that the person really wanted to be cremated. I’ve seen people write long, laborious obituaries for the newspaper because they can’t think of another way to honor a son or daughter, only to be stunned by a subsequent bill for a couple of thousand dollars.

What do you say to someone who couldn’t afford to bury her daughter? She and her husband live 2 miles away. They have a house in the woods and wear the same clothes I do. They’re neighbors.

What most affected me was the courage it took to knock on the door and ask for financial help. In this rural area we see our way towards borrowing a cup of sugar or some butter, it seems to be the quintessence of what it is to be neighbors. But money?

I told her how moved I was by her ask. I remembered how the main part of a street retreat was asking for money.

“You have to learn to ask,” Bernie used to say.

Many of us, including me, were self-conscious because it was a street retreat, we weren’t truly homeless.

“It doesn’t matter,” he’d say. “Asking is asking. Always, always ask. Don’t look at the person’s face and assess whether they’re liable to give you something, ask everybody. Asking is the practice.”

My neighbor didn’t ask everybody, but she did ask me. And regardless of how much I gave her (I wouldn’t hear of a loan), she gave me back much, much more.

 

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TRUE PROPORTIONS

I was on a bus in Poland some 20 years ago, on our way from Krakow to Oswiecim, seated next to someone I considered an old friend. At some point he turned to me and said, “So are you hanging up your shingle?”

“What do you mean?” I thought the phrase referred to opening up a business and hanging up an advertising sign.

He made a funny noise with his throat, as if to say, Come on! “Well, you received dharma transmission, didn’t you? You’re now a Sensei.” He rolled his eyes.

Some 10 months before that I’d gone through a ceremony recognizing me as a Zen teacher and empowering me to teach. He knew that this kind of recognition usually comes after years of work. He may not have known how hard you work after such a ceremony, practicing and studying more intensely afterwards than before. Nevertheless, he talked about it as though I was opening up a grocery store or a restaurant, an accounting office.

Right then and there I realized he was no friend.

I have respect for accounting offices, one of which will be doing my taxes very shortly. I have even more respect for restaurants, and lots for local grocery stores that serve small towns like mine and are open for long hours every day of the week.

At the same time, I never thought of teaching as hanging up my shingle. I think of it as being a vehicle for disseminating teachings that are thousands of years old and that have completely changed my life. I don’t sell things; in fact, I downright discourage students from taking my word for it. Zen is about direct experience, not the reading of sutras or listening to inspiring talks and podcasts (though these have their place). If the Buddha advised his students to be lamps unto their own lives, always testing their life experiences against his teachings, I can do no less.

At the same time, when you’re listened to with depth and respect, when you lead retreats and receive bows, it’s all too tempting to think of yourself as something special, unique, and even important. When you study for a long time with any teacher you can see his/her failings and weaknesses, and you think to yourself: If I ever get to that position, I will never do any of that.

But often you do, because the very process of being a spiritual teacher, leading groups and teaching programs, contains egoic traps like anything else. I have been spared some of that because my group of students are incredibly dedicated and relatively few; I can’t imagine what would become of me if hundreds of people waited on my every word, I could well turn into a monster.

As the years go by, humility becomes more and more important to me, but I confess that it’s been an elusive quality.

On the other side of arrogance is insecurity (though the two are well connected). When the man sitting at my side on the bus said what he said, immediately my heart quailed: He’s probably right to make fun of me, who on earth do I think I am? It took me a while to see how this is just another form of self-involvement, another way to keep myself at the center of things. It’ll still come up on occasion, but when it does, I turn into an usher: Could we move along please? Your seat is H7, sit and pay attention.

Bernie helped me see things in proportion. He asked me to take charge of our large retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in November of 1999 with 150 people. I was woefully unprepared, felt lots of pressure, and at the end was sure I’d done a terrible job. When he heard that he laughed and said: “You really think you could ruin a retreat at Auschwitz?”

I never forgot those words. He pointed out my true proportions in that vast killing land, full of blood and ash but also strong healing energies.

He also told me later of a conversation he had with his Japanese teacher, Maezumi Roshi. They talked about the importance of creating new Zen teachers in the West, and Maezumi Roshi pointed out the challenges. He told Bernie that it’s hard to have dharma successors: They will be excited by the dharma but other things will happen. They will get a job on the other side of the country, or a new relationship in a different state. They will have to go to take care of their children or their parents. Life will call them elsewhere, or else they will die.

“You are just one of many things in their life, not the only thing,” he said.

And still, you take a vow to continue the Buddha’s teachings, to make sure they are not extinguished. I’m not sure that can happen; if they come to an end in one form, they will reappear in another.

So I will be teaching in Chicago a workshop alongside my dear friend, Zen teacher and hula master, June Tanoue, at Zen Life and Meditation Center starting Thursday evening and continuing through Saturday. I will also give a morning talk in the Sunday schedule.

And leaving Zen and entering the world of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan teachings help us work skillfully with emotions. My friend, Ngakma Yeshe Zertsal (known for many years to me as Wendy), a Vajrayana teacher in Nyack, New York, is offering a morning workshop on March 21 entitled: . Are you overly emotional? Have you been told you’re neurotic? I have been accused of both. The good news is that we can use our emotions to wake up. I can’t say enough about this approach, so if you’re anywhere around New York and are ready to invest 4 hours (there is no fee, just a request for donations), email: arozertsalling@earthlink.net. The names may sound strange, but emotions are emotions the world over.

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LOVING THE WORLD WITHOUT OUTCOMES

The goldfinches arrived today. I looked out the window to the left of my desk and there they were: one, then another, then another and another. In our house, at least, goldfinches are a sign of spring.

I can’t forget how we finally brought Bernie home after his big stroke at the end of February, having set up the downstairs office as a bedroom. Almost immediately hundreds of goldfinches arrived. I surround the house with birdfeeders and there were at least ten at each one. I’m not sure he noticed much at that early time, but everyone who visited him in the room ooh’d and aaah’d as the finches created a storm of gold dust as they flew by the hundreds up to the sky.

Maple syrup buckets have been around now for two weeks. Chipmunks and squirrels are hungry—this is the hungry season for many animals, just before spring—and I watch them as they tip the birdfeeders over, gather the seeds on the ground with both paws and gobble them up. They should be careful; last year Aussie killed three of them, the only dog I’ve had who could do this.

But Aussie has changed; she’s no longer such a killer, slinking behind the corner of the house and waiting patiently in ambush. I haven’t won her over completely, though I give her lavish treats and praise. Most of our outings work fine, but this morning she strayed far from me in the woods, and while I was checking the ice under my feet she vamoosed across the creek. By the time I looked up she was gone, only to arrive home two hours later.

It’s as if her life, once the life of a wanderer and hunter, is now split in two opposing directions:

Straight ahead: Boring but bountiful Eve.

Across the creek: Fun and games.

Going back up the slope when called: Discipline and training, rewarded by treats.

The other way: Great mishigas.

Two days ago, a friend arrived for mid-afternoon tea and both dogs slipped out through the open front door. Harry dashed up the driveway as if chased by a pack of coyotes: Free at last! Free at last! Free at last! Aussie was slower behind him, undecided.

“Aussie!” I called.

She actually paused. I’m thinking about it.

“Aussie, come!”

But temptation won over and she chased after Harry. I’m sure that if she had the e-collar on, with vibration and beeps for emphasis, she would have returned home. Eventually, she’ll come even without the e-collar, just not yet.

I went to Stone Soup Café several days ago, which feeds the community each Saturday with the best lunch in Greenfield. Each week they celebrate a different holiday from different nations and religious traditions. Take a look at the Indian menu celebrating the Lord Shiva that day:

Ginger carrot bisque (fabulously seasoned!)

Raita

Tadka Dhal

Vegetable Biryani

Curried Fish

Coconut Pie

It doesn’t mention the fruit drink, ice tea, water, coffee and hot tea available. It’s unlike any soup kitchen I’ve ever been in. The tables are set up with mats, napkins, cutlery, menus, and flowers. In the morning farmers bring their extra produce fresh from their fields.

Zen Peacemakers started this in Montague, but our location wasn’t ideal because people needed to drive to get there, so we’d be chauffeuring people back and forth. When Ariel Pliskin re-opened the Café in Greenfield, at the Unitarian Church, it took off. People could walk there from their homes, from the streets, from the shelter where they were staying.

Kirsten Levitt, who has served as Head Chef all these years, is now the linchpin for the Café (she’s also chief organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign in Western Massachusetts, leading the rally the evening I was at their gathering). Her cooking work done, she circulates among the people eating her food, calling them by name, giving them hugs. The Café not only serves some 130 people a day, they make enough food for seconds and for taking home. They require at least 25 volunteers every single week—and they get them.

It was so good to sit there after a long time being away.

Over the many years I worked with Bernie, we started lots and lots of things, and I learned that you never know which of your many plans and projects will work, and which won’t. Only a few seem to work right away; many take a long time to come to any fruition; and some don’t seem to come to fruition at all. But you never know. Someone once nudged me at a bookstore to tell me how much she loves Greyston cookies.

“Greyston hasn’t made cookies in many years,” I told her.

She never tasted them in Greyston in Yonkers, she said, she tasted them at a Trappist monastery where she did a retreat and was told that long ago Trappists had trained at Greyston to make cookies.

We think we know who we are, the body that defines us, the skin that closes us in, but in truth we don’t know how far we reach, much like the goldfinches that become a long, golden flying carpet when they swoop up to the sky.

The Zen teacher John Tarrant wrote: “We must love the world without knowing the outcomes, because it is the only world we have, and because we never really know outcomes, just our own hopes and fears.”

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PROPHETS AND KINGS

“Unable to love themselves, violent reactionaries fall in love with something they call America. But they don’t want to share her with blacks and Jews and bureaucrats. They want freedom in terms they can understand, not in all its wild unpredictability. They want to erase what can’t be erased; the messiness and contradictions of a democratic society, the unruliness of their own lives. They love America the way wife beaters love marriage.”

Sy Safransky, publisher of The Sun, wrote the above, and it was the last sentence that grabbed my attention. Men who perpetrate domestic violence on their wives want marriage and life on certain terms (usually with themselves at the center), and are unable to live with the subtleties of relationship, its crazy dark and light, ups and downs, all the mystery and lack of control you usher in when you live with another human being.

Safransky drew a parallel between that and violent reactionaries (mostly white supremacists), and their lack of tolerance for diversity and the large measure of chaos and unpredictability built into a society like ours. Even Europeans often shake their heads at the chaotic nature of American politics, the seeming lack of continuity and the many upheavals.

Now many  Americans shake their heads at the same thing, too, as if the end of times is upon us. Maybe it is. And maybe it is the death that precedes awakening, the fading that precedes renewal. I think the Buddhist equivalent to other traditions’ faith is our trust in impermanence. Not impermanence as in: I know I know, everything changes (groan groan!), but impermanence as in: Wow! What I thought was this isn’t exactly this at all. It’s this and it’s also something else at the same time, fluid and changing, a stream with an unknown destination. Well, isn’t that interesting!

It’s that flavor of curiosity that I carry with me into this political landscape. Yes, I see what’s now, and I’d like to do my part in the course correction we need. At the same time, I wonder what’s around the corner.

Massachusetts will have its primaries next Tuesday. The lawns here have many Bernie signs, but I’m pretty sure I won’t vote for Bernie Sanders. For me, he’s a prophet.

In Biblical times, Jews had their prophets and they had their kings. Each had his (it was usually, but not always, his) function. The prophet knew the truth because he spoke to God. He would tell this truth to the king, warn him that God’s wrath was upon him, that he would lose his throne, maybe even his life. For this reason the prophet often had to hide, but he would take any risk because that was his job; he was a prophet. He never changed his mind, he never compromised.

The king had to make it all work. He had to appeal not just to God but also to the people, he had to fight, to build, to lead, slay giants. He made lots of mistakes, promised one thing and often delivered another. He was all too human.

I think of Bernie Sanders as our prophet; I don’t think of him as president. “Truth is truth!” he asserted, waving his arms up and down in talking of his admiration for Castro’s Cuba. That’s the talk of a prophet.

Like so many people, I’m torn between idealism and pragmatism (knowing that the former may well be the most pragmatic of all in the long run). I will probably vote for Elizabeth Warren, our highly intelligent, fearless senator.

I continue to be deeply disturbed by the different standards women candidates are subjected to in comparison to men. They’re allowed to be passionate but not raise their voice. Nobody likes them when they interrupt to get more debate time, as do their male peers. The New York Review of Books referred to an article that noted, among other things, that “early broadcast mikes were designed for male voices and distorted the female voice so profoundly that women learned to alter their speech by lowering the tone, something Margaret Thatcher apparently did to project authority.”

If broadcast mikes have changed, the minds of many have not. Don’t be loud, don’t get technical, don’t dominate. What does it matter if you’re more intelligent than most, have put in the time to work out some good solutions to our problems, and feel ready to take on the world? That’s fine, just don’t show it, know what I mean? Don’t show off your intelligence. Be girlish rather than professorial, lighthearted rather than grave. Show how relational you can be. Learn from Bill Clinton (never from Hillary).

Above all, never be angry. Never raise your voice. Never grow indignant.

“Why are you angry?” my husband, Bernie, used to say to me in the middle of an argument.

For years I took that as a serious rebuke. I was aware of my tendencies to quickly get upset and impatient, to not listen. I was aware of the energy that anger brings up, the feeling of relief when this energy courses through your body and you feel in charge. And I was aware of the harm that can be done when we unleash that anger.

But in later years I’d pause and ask myself: Am I really angry? I care about what I’m saying, maybe even passionate. Am I remonstrating? Expostulating? Arguing? I must have heard Bernie remonstrate, expostulate, and argue many, many times over the 33 years that I knew him. No one ever said to him, Why are you angry?

 

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STILL GOING THAT HARD WAY

Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

“Hey Aussie, can you smell the deer?”

“You bet, Harry.”

“Then where are you going?”

“The Boss wants me back.”

“What’s happened to you, Aussie? We used to disappear for hours together.”

“You didn’t think it was that much fun the one time we ran off and stayed out all night. Did you ever complain!”

“After sleeping for two days everything was fine, Aussie. Anyway, I can feel the end of winter and the animals are calling, so let’s go!”

“Why don’t you go by yourself, Harry?”

“It’s not that much fun without you, Aussie. You’re the leader of the pack.”

“I think the Boss is the leader of the pack, Harry.”

“Boy, have you changed.”

Aussie has changed. In fact, change is in the air. It’s close to 50 degrees today, and while some areas, shrouded by trees, continue to be snowy and icy (like our back yard), others show brown earth covered by brown leaves. Who would have thought we’d welcome so much brown!

Maple leaf buckets have been dangling from the trees for over a week, but even before that the sun returned to New England; I greet it as I would a friend who left to the other side of the country and is now back.

And of course, Aussie doesn’t change alone; the whole pack changes with her. Without his elder sister leading the way, Harry, too, comes back quicker and doesn’t wander very far. I’m more relaxed and happier. There’s no changing alone; the minute you change, the world changes.

I’ve been thinking about love.

When Bernie had his disabling stroke, I often wondered about love and what happens to it when relationship changes from one of equally abled people to one where one of the couple is disabled, both in body and mind. An idea for a film came to me, a story of a couple who’ve worked together for many years, and he’s struck. She continues the work while taking care of him and ends up falling in love with another man. What does she choose? Where does she go?

More general questions came up, too: Where is love in an era of illness and old age? It’s different from when we’re younger, but our culture rarely shows us or promotes examples. What happens to sex? What happens to our self-image? When does one stop being a woman and starts becoming a nurse? How do you reconcile the two?

The lover in question is himself in a relationship with a much younger woman. How necessary is that for men as they grow older? I know what the biologists say, but in my vision the lover actually turns away from his much younger wife and falls in love with a woman his age. How plausible is that?

This idea never appeared to me as a book, always as a movie. So last spring I called an actor friend of mine and suggested that he make a movie about this:

“I know they say that it’s the much younger crowd that makes up the majority of movie theater audiences,” I told him, “but I think there’s an audience for such a movie. I think its explorations of love could be relevant to many people.”

He heard me out and said: “I agree with you. Write the screenplay.”

“I don’t write screenplays,” I told him.

“Write this one,” he said.

I thought about it. I was still very raw from Bernie’s death, unable to pick up other creative projects I’d been working on before he died, but this felt different. It would be my way of working out the many rich challenges we’d faced as a couple.

Adrienne Rich wrote:  “An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

Bernie wasn’t one of the few people ready to go that hard way, but the process didn’t die just because he died; in some ways it’s still left to me. And the only way I know to do that on my own is through story, invention, fantasy.

I’ve been working on this screenplay—something I’ve never written before—since then, returning to it now after a hiatus of some 2-3 months. I’ve made the couple radio astronomers, and the lover a high-tech computer guy. For me, the creative world is no less real than the melting snow outside and chipmunks feeding under birdfeeders. No less real than Harry’s conversation with Aussie:

“Do I have to change just because you’re changing, Aussie?”

“I’m afraid so, Harry.”

“You were once so crazy, so restless, so wild!”

“I changed, Harry.”

“I’m leaving home. Somebody has to.”

On another note, Buddhadharma, the Buddhist magazine, said this about The Book of Householder Koans: At every turn, the authors warmly urge us to reengage with our ordinary circumstances through an extra-ordinary lens. The book provides no pedantic solutions, instead offering itself as an open workbook with which to navigate the problems that come with being human.

I’m so glad they said there were no pedantic solutions. Amazon sends out its orders tomorrow, as do independent bookstores. I deeply encourage you to buy the book, preferably from your neighborhood bookstore so that it survives and thrives.

For those of you living near Chicago, I’ll be doing a workshop based on householder koans with Sensei June Tanoue from March 5 to 8 at Zen Life and Meditation Center.

I keep busy because it’s my nature, and also to provide myself with an income. I don’t have a vision for my blog, other than an effort to peel away veil after veil, come closer and deeper to what’s  inside. If I find nothing that’ll be more than fine. If you enjoy reading these posts, please consider making a donation. Any amount is welcome, monthly or one-time. You can do this using the bottom below, or else, if you prefer not to use PayPal, you can send checks or correspondence to:

Eve Marko

POB 174

Montague, MA 01351

Most important, thank you always for reading.

 

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WHO AM I IF I’M NOT A BALLOON?

“What’s your true nature, Aussie?”

“Being a balloon.”

“What?”

“My true nature is being a balloon.”

“For a while there, Auss, I thought you were a wild hunting dog. For months all you seemed to want to do was escape, run to the woods and chase prey.”

“Those were the days.”

“And then things changed. You’re not so wild anymore, Aussie. You don’t go out to sniff out holes in the fence—”

“You and Tim took care of that, didn’t you?”

“But you were different even before we re-fenced the areas where the wires were loose. You seemed more settled, Aussie, more at home in this home.”

“That’s because you fed me more, Boss.”

“Was that it? I can’t keep on increasing your food, Aussie, I don’t want you to get fat.”

“That’s going against my true nature.”

“Which is what, Auss?”

“I told you, being a balloon. That’s what I want to re-discover, my balloon nature.”

“Aussie, every Buddhist knows that our true nature is not being balloons.”

“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?””

“Aussie, our original nature is to be empty of an imagined self.”

“I mean, without clothes. Those jeans and sweaters hide so much!”

“Our original nature, Auss, has nothing to do with jeans and sweaters or the body underneath, and certainly nothing to do with what our brain tells us is us. That’s just an imagined construct.”

“Well, my brain tells me that in reality I’m a balloon. And I know that’s true.”

“How do you know, Aussie?”

“Because the more I eat, the better I feel. I’m becoming my real self, I’m growing into my real skin, bigger, better—”

“Fatter—”

“More beautiful. My real self is balloonness.”

“Define balloonness, Aussie.”

“The state of being a balloon.”

“Your true self is not balloonness, Auss. Your true self is empty—”

“A balloon is empty—”

“Not that kind of empty, Aussie. Emptiness refers to not having ideas about who and what you are, which restrict your basic freedom. So even insisting that in reality you’re a balloon already limits you.”

“A balloon flies in the air. Do you fly?”

“No, Auss, and neither do you.”

“I run a lot faster than you. A balloon is light as a feather. Are you light as a feather? Don’t make me laugh.”

“Aussie, your original nature is not balloonness.”

“I say it is. I don’t care what your books say, I don’t care what the teachers say. Aren’t you the one who says we should depend on our experience?”

“Let me ask you this, Aussie. Now that I feed you more, you say you’re a balloon. What were you before I fed you more?”

“Unhappy.”

“Not a balloon, Auss?”

“Not a balloon.”

“But your true nature shouldn’t change depending on circumstances, Auss, that’s what makes it true nature. We say it’s empty because everything else we can point to—being righteous, being a sinner, being a writer, even being a dog or a human—depends on circumstances. Right now you’re a balloon because you get more food and more treats.”

“Food and treats are my path to realizing my true nature.”

“If you keep on eating your true nature will be a busted balloon.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll get hip dysplasia and kidney disease, you’ll get arthritis. Believe me, Auss, it’s not worth it.”

“So what should I aspire to be?”

“True nature has nothing to do with aspiration. Be yourself, Auss.”

“Who am I if I’m not a balloon?”

“That’s your koan, Aussie.”

“Tell me the answer.”

“Can’t do that, Auss. Zen teachers never give answers. Answers are the death of our practice.”

“I don’t like this practice.”

“Where are you going, Auss?”

“To steal Harry’s food. He’s sleeping so maybe I’ll get away with it. Being a balloon feels a lot better than an empty stomach.”

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WHAT NOT TO DO

Bernie loved to tell this story:

He was at the 70th birthday of Swami Satchidananda, who founded Integral Yoga in this country. The two had served together as members of the interfaith Temple of Understanding, begun by Dean James Morton, at that time the dynamic head of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. There was a dinner honoring Satchidananda at Yogaville, Virginia, and at some point Rabbi Joseph Gelberman got up to speak:

“I have been privileged to know Swami Satchidananda, and because of him I have done a little yoga, but certainly not much. One day, Swami calls me over and says: ‘Joseph, I want to make you a yoga teacher.’

I was stunned. I stammered: ‘Me, a yoga teacher? But Swami, I don’t know what to do.’

Swami thought for a minute, then brightened. ‘No problem, Joseph. You will be a teacher of what not to do.’”

I myself met Rabbi Gelberman much later. As a young man he had left Vienna for New York just before the Nazis marched in, preparing to bring over his young wife and baby a few months later. They never made it. Fifty years later, when he told me the story, and even after building a new life in New York, he never forgave himself. Like Bernie, he liked to do interfaith work, often officiating in Jewish weddings where either the bride or the groom wasn’t Jewish. For a long time, and to this day, many rabbis won’t officiate in such weddings, but Rabbi Joseph saw only blessings in those couples.

I thought I’d write a little update about Aussie, who was clearly a teacher of what not to do for a long time, slipping through dog-made holes in the fence and running in the woods for hours.

I brought her to a trainer who had seen her when I first got her, and  she immediately remarked that Aussie seemed thin. “Maybe she runs away to hunt for food,” she told me.

I didn’t think so, I’m careful about my dogs not gaining weight and incurring problems. But when she mentioned this a few times I decided to feed Aussie more and take her to the vet. Almost overnight she seemed better. She didn’t have that restless and edgy—maybe hungry, I think now—look that she’d had before. To my surprise, the vet concurred. Aussie didn’t have parasites, but maybe in winter she needed more food. So Aussie has been eating more and putting on weight. She has clearly settled down more rather than staring out at the forest above our house as though that’s her true home.

Our fence was completely fixed again several days later. In fact, the last few times Harry slipped out he did it alone, Aussie standing in the doorway, watching him but not joining him. Tim covered up every place with old loose wiring that the dogs used to slip through, and the result is that they haven’t slipped through the fence in weeks.

Finally, Aussie was trained on an electronic collar. I resisted this approach for a long time, but realized that, with a hunter like Aussie, this may be the only way she’ll walk in the woods unleashed. After 4 days of training I took over. The collar has three settings, one a beeper, one vibration, and one electric shock. I turned off the electric shock completely, use the vibrator slightly (oh no, that word!) and only after trying it out on me, and use predominantly the beeper to get her attention. And it works.

Beep Beep! Eve to Aussie. That’s far enough.

Aussie runs back, tail wagging happily, to get the treat in my hand. You use lots of treats in these trainings. I watch her going off with Harry in the distance, and when I know that soon I won’t see her anymore: Beep Beep! Eve to Aussie. Come back where I can see you. Aussie doesn’t hesitate and bounds back joyfully.

That’s a sign for me, she’s positively joyful about being off-leash. She is happy when I put the collar on, knowing that a walk is imminent, and doesn’t seem to mind reaching the distant perimeter and then being alerted to come back—as long as there’s a treat in my hand.

I never use the beeper or the vibrator (there’s that word again) if she is out of eyesight; at that point I accept that she’s gone and I can’t correct her. That’s happened twice, my own fault, and after a while she came back.

As usual, when I train her I learn more than she does. I learned that she was much more content with more food. I also learned that Aussie is not some wild hunting dog who just wants to run. She can be very happy with fast one-hour walks off-leash, free to run in a very large space, sniffing the bushes all she wants, smelling the scents in the air and still staying with me. We’ve become a family. We enter the woods together, and we walk out together. This doesn’t disappoint her at all; she seems comfortable and happy.

She’s also happier with me. We had a few bad months and she must have sensed my anger and frustration. Those are gone, and she is sweeter and more loving than before. Probably because I am, too.

Finally, rather than being a teacher of what not to do, Aussie is teaching Harry what to do. He comes racing back with her when she returns to me. At first I could see he was puzzled—“How come we’re not running away?” But now he too likes to circle back to me and collect his treat.

“You know, Auss, hanging around Eve is not so bad after all.”

“Isn’t it amazing how she’s changed?”

 

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HARRY PRACTICE, AUSSIE PRACTICE

“Look at the yard, Aussie. It’s so big, it almost circles the house. You know what that means?”

“No.”

“It means that when somebody walks along the road we could bark at him from the shed, then run all the way to the other side beyond the laundry lines and keep on barking the entire time. Isn’t that fun?”

“We have a fence.”

“A yard by definition has a fence. I mean, there’s a limit to it, right?”

“That’s what I mean, there’s a fence.”

“Aussie, how come you see a fence and I see a yard?”

For a long while there I felt like Aussie, seeing constraints, limits, and definitions so narrow I felt I could hardly breathe. And there are my Harry times, when I experience space, cold air entering deep into my lungs, and the clarity of sky regardless of what color it is that morning. I could bark all day at the people walking up on the road.

Last Thursday I woke up in the morning and felt different for the first time in months. There was no anxious edge, no looking out at gray, threatening outdoors, and most of all, no fuzzy mind trying to recollect the day, the place, who am I. No weight of what’s ahead, of what I can’t do or won’t get to.

I wrote last week that I got a prescription for antidepressants. It takes a while for it to work, I was told, as many as six weeks for full effect. But Thursday morning, 9 days later, I could feel the difference. Confidence began to come back.

For most of my life, when challenges came up, I had the sense that if I wasn’t afraid to lean into them, I’d find a creative entry through the side door. Going through the side door has been my practice for quite a while. My brain instructs me on how to get in through the front door: Go down the path and up 3 steps, open the front door (the lock jiggles a little), shut it before the dogs run out, hang up your jacket and scarf, take off your gloves and boots, etc. Do this and then this and then this and then this.

Unexpected things take me sideways. They require a side-door practice, finding an opening which isn’t so obvious, has no path or steps, no big number on the door, no whining dogs at the entrance. Either you find it, or it finds you. Creativity’s there.

I go in once I find the side door. Maybe I’ll see a corner I hadn’t seen before, maybe I’ll crash into it. Probably,  I’ll dangle from it for a while. My feet will feel like they’re on air, I’ll miss the sense of solid earth under me. Dangling is an important practice.

In his later life, Bernie didn’t mind getting hung up by corners. During the Greyston years there were too many to bear at times, but later he seemed to enjoy them.

“I like a good heckler,” he used to say after giving a talk and someone would interrupt or ask sarcastic questions. It took him out of his spiel and into the moment.

I remember one heckler he didn’t enjoy so much. In the early Greyston years we attempted to get control of an abandoned school, School 6, and convert it into temporary housing for homeless families. The Republican mayor of Yonkers, Angelo Martinelli, was all for it, but local community leaders rebelled. So Bernie would go every evening to a different gathering in churches and auditoria to advocate for School 6. In the end community opposition was too much and we had to wait another two years to actually buy a property to develop into permanent homes for homeless families.

To this very day, School 6 is abandoned, homeless people sleeping against its asbestos walls, drug exchanges happening in the yard. The gray stone on my altar is from School 6, a symbol of what happens when people don’t find a way to work together.

He talked one evening in a school auditorium to a predominantly African American audience about our plans to build housing. Somebody started heckling him, calling our plans garbage and much worse. This went on and on, Bernie ignoring him, describing the plans, the arts center we wanted to open, the meals we wanted to share with the community.

Then the man yelled: “I know what you honkies want. You’re not giving anybody a place to live, you’re going to put the men to work in your bakery for no money, they’re going to be slaves!”

Bernie tried to go on, but the man wasn’t finished: “And you’re going to pimp the women coming in with their children, that’s what you’re going to do!”

Bernie lost it. “That’s f—ing bullshit!” he yelled back.

It was the only time I heard him curse in public. Even in private, you could count on one hand the number of times I heard him use a four-letter word. The same man years later sent his daughter to train and work at the Greyston Bakery.

The corner I really wanted him to get caught up on was our relationship, just him and me, the couple. He didn’t wish to spend much time there, which caused conflict at times. Now I think back to it and shake my head: Just how much did you expect from the guy? He had such a vast view of practice, was ready to include so much. Not just teaching or talking about the mandala of life but actually practicing in its different aspects. The corporate life, the service life, the political life—all these were practice realms. He wouldn’t denigrate any of them.

He could have just taught in a zendo. Instead he was ready to go sideways into different realms and get hung up on corners, searching always for the creative potential, developing new practices continually. He was like Harry, finding a big space in every yard.

“Most people out there think you’re crazy,” a Buddhist professor once told him.

He just listened quietly, didn’t say a word.

 

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WHYNNNN! WHYNNNN!

“Harry, why do you always whine in the back seat when I drive?”

“I’m not whining, I’m eager.”

“Eager, nervous, anxious, whatever it is, it sounds like a whine. Every time I take you for a drive you whine right into my ear and it makes me crazy. Nnnnn! Nnnnn!”

“It’s more like whynnnwhynnn. The first whynnn goes up and the second whynnn goes down.”

“Shut up, Aussie. You’re not much better, with your back paws on the back seat and the front paws up on the armrest between the passenger seat and me.”

“How else am I supposed to see up front?”

“Whynnn Whynnn! Whynnn Whynnn!”

“I thought that after a year you’d stop it already, Harry, but you just keep on. It’s hard to drive this way.”

“Whynnn whynnn! Whynnn whynnn!”

“It better change when you get older, Harry.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

Aussie’s right, you can’t bet on people or dogs changing. Change they will, but we have no say about when and how. I’ve made that mistake way too often.

I wake up at 3:30 this morning because my dry winter skin is itching. The humidifier in the bedroom doesn’t help much, nor does body cream or lotion. Half asleep, my fingers scratch my elbows, work their way down the arms to the wrists, go back up to the shoulders, and before I know it, I’m wide awake and wondering how I could reach my back.

Instantly I think of Bernie. “I don’t think you’ll ever divorce me,” he said. “You need me to scratch your back.”

Whenever we laughed at something while lying in bed, my back would itch and I’d ask him to scratch it. Even after his stroke, he would raise his unstruck left hand and stroke my back; by then he didn’t have the strength to really scratch it.

For years it was Bernie who suffered from dry skin in the winter, not me. I would buy the lotion and he put some on his skin if he awoke in the middle of the night. After his stroke I put CBD salve on his body every evening. What did my hands convey? Love? Sorrow? Tenderness? It was a sweet way to say good night.

Change comes in so many different ways, but practically never in the way you think it would or should.

I finally give up sleeping, go downstairs and open the front door. There’s a single-digit freeze, but a small moon hovers tall over the bare apple tree. Next to it lies what remains of the trunk of the magnificent oak that lorded it over our front garden, giving little light to the remaining plants. We finally had it cut down, the two of us sitting by the side gate watching the men wrap it in ropes as they coaxed it down away from the front of the house.

I think of that enormous oak tree and the apple tree that bloomed so fast in the ensuing light. In winter it looks scraggly, but come summer it will grow tall with leaves and fruit, and hover beneficently over the garden.

You think the other person will change. He’ll stop whining in your ear from the back seat. He’ll love you more, remember flowers and chocolate on Valentine’s Day. You think you will never stop putting CBD salve on his body in the evenings. Instead you’re the one now with dry skin in winter, as if he willed you his skin, his needs both filled and unfulfilled. You’re not two and yet not one, alone and intertwined all at the same time.

I look and look at the moon, the apple tree, and the shorn oak on the frigid, icy night. Virginia Woolf wrote: “Heaven knows why, just as we have lost faith in human intercourse, some random collocation of barns and trees or a haystack and a wagon presents us with so perfect a symbol of what is unattainable that we begin the search again.”

“Harry and Aussie, Monkfish emailed yesterday to say that The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments is rated No. 1 New Release in Zen Spirituality by Amazon.”

“Does that make it a New York Times Bestseller?”

“I don’t think so, Auss. What do you say, Harry?”

“Whynnn Whynnn! Whynnn Whynnn!”

 

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BOXES OF BOOKS

“Guess what, Aussie? The book came out! It finally came out, Aussie, here it is!”

No human was around when two cartons of The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments arrived at the front door. Harry was on a chair in the living room, resting after an icy excursion into the woods, but Aussie was on the futon under the fichus tree in my office and she raised her head, half concealed by leaves, as I dragged the boxes here, opened one up and took out a book.

I wasn’t happy at first when I saw the two cases. It’s one thing to labor privately over the koans of other people’s lives—How Heavy Is My Mother’s Diaper? Shadows, What Is Best for You, My Child? The Infinite Black Abyss, Blaming God—making each koan your own, each situation from someone else’s life your own, always asking: How do I practice with this? How do I live this?

It’s a whole other thing to see one day, after years have gone by, a case of books and you know it’s now out in the world, out in public. It’s no longer yours.

All my insecurities came up: Is this any good? Will other people wish to read it? The practice of Zen koans has been around for well over a millennium, comprising dialogues between monks. Some years ago (can’t remember how many) I heard in the zendo a mother describe a tough exchange with her son, and it hit me that these are indeed our practice fields, the situations we face at work and at home make up the soil and grit of our practice.

“Let’s produce a collection of householder koans,” I announced without thinking to the group sitting there that evening.

And I did, I thought to myself as I unpacked the books. We did. The inspiration behind it was genuine enough, but will it reach people? Will others connect with it and see their own lives in these koans?

At first, I didn’t want to open the box. Then I did. I picked up the top book and brought it up to my nose to smell the pages, the words. Looked at the gorgeous cover art generously donated to us by the artist Helen Berggruen. And thought of all the people who’d made this possible, and especially the many Zen practitioners who took my request to heart and sent me their stories of edges and heartbreaks they face day in and day out.

I had a manuscript of close to 100 pages when I approached Paul Cohen, at Monkfish Publishing, and he agreed to publish it provided I created more content. That’s when Bernie had his stroke. Time passed, we went to rehab centers, the Taub Clinic in Alabama, the months turned fuzzy and many things went by the wayside. What now? I wondered. Is this going to be another project that I won’t finish, another good idea that won’t come to fruition?

A good friend suggested: Find a collaborator. She reminded me, as I need to be reminded often, that I don’t have to do things all on my own.

I turned to Wendy Egyoku Nakao, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the motherhouse to so many Zen centers around the world. Egyoku took her time. She reviewed what I had, sent me some initial thoughts, thought and thought some more. Finally, to my surprise (I knew how busy she was), said yes. “But it’s going to take me time,” she warned. “I can’t begin to get to this till winter.”

Monkfish, to their credit, agreed to wait.

During the winter some terrific koans began to arrive on Egyoku’s desk from students at the Zen Center. “I have to reflect on them,” Egyoku said. “You can look at each one from so many different angles.”

She was thorough and deeply respectful of the lives shared with her. Slowly, she wrote her reflections. Phone discussions were held. I flew out to Los Angeles for a week of work. “How’s it going? ” Bernie asked me. “Slowly,” I said.

That’s what I remember now, how slow it all went, how much patience it demanded from a very impatient woman. Moi.

We make our plans and God laughs. What we thought was something we could leap into without hesitation or delay becomes something you fit in between calls to doctors, talks with rehab counselors and physical therapists, research on the latest remedies to major stroke. It slips from top 5 priorities to number 25 when you can only get to number 3 on any regular day before calling it a day and going to sleep. Wondering if you’ll ever get anything of your own done again.

And the truth is, no. Nothing of mine got done again because nothing is mine. No effort here was only mine, it took a world to make it happen, not just the world now but the world of long ago, when Chinese monks began to record quixotic dialogues between Zen masters and students (What is Buddha? A shitstick, or The cypress tree in the garden), talked of golden fish that pass through the net and pointed at wild ducks, wondering where they went.

The entire universe manifests when you plunge into your own life. As Dainin Katagiri wrote, “If you do something wholeheartedly, all sentient beings come into your life.”

You can buy The Book of Householder Koans on Amazon here. Please also consider ordering it from your local bookstore.

 

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