November 2004


Ji Jang Bosal

Early this morning (early evening South Korean time), Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, died peacefully of heart failure while surrounded by his students at Hwa Gye Sa temple in Seoul.

I, like many other practitioners in the Kwan Um School, heard the news via email and was stunned. Dae Soen Sa Nim (“Great Honored Zen Teacher,” a title by which he was known by his students) had battled diabetes, heart trouble, and various other serious health problems for years. The School would regularly distribute email updates on DSSN’s health: now he’s in the hospital, now he’s recovering, now the doctors are doing more tests. There had been several times in the past when we’d all expected the worst as DSSN faced a serious health problem that would have surely killed a weaker man, and in all those cases DSSN bounced back and continued teaching, an Energizer Bunny for the Dharma.

After this morning, though, Dae Soen Sa Nim is no more.

I can’t begin to explain the sense of loss I felt upon hearing the news. I was never close to DSSN; although I’d seen him give public Dharma talks on several occasions, I’d never been personally introduced to the man. Whenever he came to the Cambridge or Providence Zen Centers, he was surrounded by an entourage of monks and Zen teachers, and I was a lowly student entirely outside that loop. Although I’ve read and often recommend Seung Sahn’s books, I never directly studied with him: instead, I’ve been taught by American teachers he appointed, making DSSN my spiritual grandfather of sorts, the teacher of my teachers.

Given that I didn’t know DSSN personally, it seems odd that I’d be so saddened by his passing, but it is true. This was a man who singled handedly founded an international network of Zen Centers and groups, including branches in China, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Poland, Israel, Brazil, and 20 U.S. states. If it weren’t for DSSN, there would be no Cambridge Zen Center, where I lived for 2 1/2 years, and no Providence Zen Center, where I’ve often gone on retreat. Without DSSN, there would be no Southern NH Zen Group; without DSSN, I probably wouldn’t be practicing Zen at all, for I would have probably been driven from the Dharma by my Christian leanings and personal discomfort with “breathy” New Age teachings.

A thoroughgoing sceptic, I’ve never had much patience for guru-worship. I appreciate the guidance of a wise teacher, but ultimately I recognize that my spiritual path is my own: no teacher can do my work for me. Although there are some folks who worship DSSN too reverently for my taste, DSSN himself never encouraged such personal adulation, keeping a firm boundary between himself and students who would let the cult of personality distract them from their practice.

When I first started practicing at the Cambridge Zen Center and as I became more deeply involved in the Kwan Um School, one of the things that impressed me was the variety of American teachers DSSN had appointed to spread his teaching. Rather than being yes-saying, imitative clones, these teachers are all very different from one another and from DSSN himself. Instead of trying to emulate DSSN and his personality, each of these teachers has used Zen practice to become more deeply and authentically themselves. The world is filled with copy-cats, and DSSN was that rarest of breeds: a true original who encouraged others to be originals as well.

The closest I ever came to interacting personally with DSSN occurred at a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center some years ago. During an introductory talk, a monk had mentioned how DSSN had been raised as a Presbyterian and had studied Western philosophy in college until a Buddhist monk encouraged him to study his own Eastern treasure. When the time for questions and answers came, I mustered the nerve to ask a question. If DSSN began studying Zen and Buddhism out of a desire to understand his own Eastern treasure, shouldn’t Western students study their own Christian treasure rather than dabbling in Eastern practices?

It took some “translating” of my question by DSSN’s attendant before the Zen Master understood what I was asking: “You study Eastern treasure; why not Western students study Christian treasure?” Once he comprehended the question, DSSN didn’t bat an eye; he simply uttered one in-your-face sentence:

“Christianity has no treasure!”

The assembled crowd and I burst out into raucous laughter. Here was a monk who had spent his adult life teaching people from all backgrounds, including cloistered Christian monks who had dedicated their lives to understanding their own Christian treasure. And yet DSSN’s answer struck to the heart of my question. Sitting on a meditation cushion in a Zen Center, I had no business worrying about Christian treasure; right there and then, Zen was the path where I found myself, so I should devote myself to that practice with no looking back.

(I later asked a Trappist monk a similar question during a Christian/Buddhist retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center, and he answered in nearly the same fashion. When I’d asked him what a good little Catholic girl like me was doing in a place like this, he’d replied that I was there because God put me there. “Don’t second guess what God has wrought,” he implored. “The Catholic church has lost sight of its contemplative tradition, so you have to find it where you can.”)

Christian or Buddhist, Eastern or Western, Dae Soen Sa Nim never lost sight of his treasure. My life would not be what it is today without the practice that he taught the teachers who taught me in turn, and countless people around the world are trying to find their true selves and save all beings because of the endeavors of this one particular man. When’s the last time you brushed elbows with greatness? When’s the last time you encountered a single person who changed the world? Dae Soen Sa Nim was a great man not because he signed a multi-million dollar sports contract, landed a hit single on the Billboard charts, or had his face plastered on magazine covers along with the rich and famous. No, Dae Soen Sa Nim was a great man because he believed that returning to the present moment and cultivating a mind free of preconception is a challenge worth a lifetime; he was a great man because he believed we all carry the seeds of greatness, a great potential waiting to be awakened. Today the world is sadder, emptier place because of his passing, but the torch he passed to his students, my teachers, continues to burn on regardless.

Rusty bulkhead

If you’ve been watching my NaNoWriMo progress on my blog sidebar, you’ve already seen the good news: I finished and thus “won” my write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge, logging in late last night with a whopping 50,311 wretched but oh-so-gratifying (now that they’re oh-so-over) words. Can somebody please pinch me?

In my Zen school, there’s a famed phenomenon called the 90-day giggles. During the winter and summer months, monks, nuns, and motivated lay-people have the chance to sit a 90-day intensive retreat that involves a 4:00 am until 9:45 pm schedule of sitting, walking, and chanting meditation. During the entire 90 days, retreatants keep silence; consume no meat, sugar, or caffeine; and are encouraged to refrain from making even eye contact with other retreatants. This rigorous regime is designed to clear the mind of all mundane distractions so meditators can focus whole-heartedly on their practice for the duration of the retreat.

Keene State window decal

By the time the 90th day rolls around, something quite remarkable happens. After ridding the mind of distractions and slowing down to enjoy the minute details of life, retreatants are completely in-tune with the universe and themselves. And in response to this remarkable feat, people on the final day of 90 days of silence often, typically, get a massive case of the giggles…the so-called 90-day giggles. After sitting in silence staring at a hardwood floor for three months, nearly everything seems gut-wrenchingly, side-splittingly, fall-on-the-floor-laughingly funny.

Although I’ve never sat a full 90-day retreat, I’ve sat week-long chunks in the winter and three-week-long stints in the summer. After 21 days of silent retreating, you do get somewhat slap-happy, the simple phenomenon of eye-contact being enough, at times, to send you over the edge of silliness. First one person starts giggling, then another, and another…before you know it you have Zen Masters slapping their knees and monks rolling in the aisles. It’s simply natural, I think, to need some sort of physical, emotional catharsis after the intensity of doing nothing but concentrating for 7, 21, or 90 days, and a good senseless giggle fest is as good an emotional enema as anything.

Sidewalke with tree

So last night, after hitting the Wall of Despair around word 43,000, I experienced a nearly terminal case of the 50,000-word giggles around word 46,000.

Writing a novel in a month is very similar to sitting a long retreat. When you sign up for a Zen retreat, you have visions of how relaxed and enlightened you’ll become after spending a concentrated amount of time meditating without distraction. Once you’re actually sitting a Zen retreat, however, you inevitably reach an “oh shit” moment where you realize or remember that Zen retreats really, really suck. Your knees hurt, your thighs ache, and your back is screaming for mercy. Your mind is either wildly racing with distractions, neuroses, and obsessions or you find yourself literally bored to tears. You find yourself madly craving pizza, beer, and chocolate, and you have elaborate fantasies of seducing, slapping, or simultaneously doing both to whomever (man or woman) happens to be sitting next to you. In a word, your mind goes completely and entirely nuts when you spend massive amounts of time doing nothing, and the tricks it comes up with to entertain itself make you want to run out of the room screaming.

Threshold

And in a word, that’s pretty much what the act of writing a novel in a month feels like. When I began NaNo’ing, it sounded like such a cool writing exercise: what better way to kick-start my writing and kill my Internal Editor by diving head first into a massively insane writing project? Partway through actually doing the damn thing, though, I experienced that aforementioned “oh shit” moment where I realized writing a novel in a month really, really sucks. I’d lost all sense of plot (not that I had any to begin with), I lost all sense of characters (not that I had any to begin with), and I lost all sense of sanity (not that I had…oh, never mind!) I ran out of words to say but continued writing anyway, taking the storyline in directions that were entirely unbelievable, adding sex scenes that were entirely unnecessary, and having characters do things that were entirely out of character. Around about word 46,000, I was tired, thoroughly sick of the horrid crap that was masquerading as “my so-called novel,” and completely slap-happy.

As Gary, who finished his NaNo novel yesterday afternoon, can testify, last night I could barely speak I was laughing so hard at the utterly awful sentences I was writing. In the end I killed off a handful of my characters in a shoot-’em-up blood bath; had one character speak from beyond the grave to talk about how she’d died; featured a rhapsodic sequence where rocks, trees, and Mother Earth herself derive a so-called moral from this tawdry sequence of events; wrote a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards in a cheap attempt to pad my word count; and transformed an otherwise innocent, idealistic female character into a lurid seducer who beds (in absurdly comic and astonishingly acrobatic fashion) nearly the entire male population of her college campus.

So, what did you do over your Thanksgiving weekend? Now that it’s over and my ribs are slowly recovering from the 50,000-word giggles, I’ll proabably be crazy enough to try the whole NaNo insanity again next year. But I won’t be able to say then that I didn’t warn myself now. No shit, Sherlock: writing a novel in a month really, really sucks, so maybe next time I’ll try to start off with a plot, a couple of characters, and an ounce of sanity in my head. Or then again, maybe not…and maybe that’s what’s the funniest of all.

Knowing full well how many of you visit Hoarded Ordinaries looking for the lastest word on fashion, let me be the first to tell you. The hottest look on the runways of Keene (hotbed, we all know, of high couture) is, yes, blaze orange.

Yesterday I walked the dog at the Dillant-Hopkins Airport in nearby Swanzey, NH. Keene’s municipal airport is one of my favorite places to walk during the winter months. Although the runways themselves are fenced and thus inaccessible to walkers, the mile and a half stretch of road leading from the terminal parking lot to the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant offers a relaxing there-and-back stroll overlooking the airport runways as well as surrounding fields, marshes, and woods. Closed to vehicular traffic on weekends and holidays, Airport Road is a favored place for locals to jog, roller-blade, walk, and let dogs run off leash. So although I haven’t (recently) strutted my stuff on any high fashion runways, yesterday the dog and I walked near some runways.

It’s currently deer hunting season here in New Hampshire. Although you might think that a nature lovin’ Zen Mama like Yours Truly would be an adamant animal-rights touting, anti-hunting (and anti-gun) zealot, let me be the first to set you straight on all counts. Although many of my Zen-friends are vegetarian, I eat meat, and I have no illusions about where beef, chicken, and pork come from. Even when I was a vegetarian, I never condemned hunting per se: predation is a natural aspect of any balanced ecosystem, and it doesn’t make sense to condemn people for doing something that comes naturally to wolves, mountain lion, bobcats and the like. Mother Nature herself makes no qualms about killing, so neither do I. Responsible hunters and so-called “gun nuts” love nature just as much as tofu-eating Zen-heads: in fact, many of my citified, eco-sensitive Zen friends know substantially less about the actual wild than do even neophyte hunters.

So these days when I’m driving on the outskirts of Keene and see trucks and SUVs parked on the side of the road, I don’t rail against their drivers’ butchery. Instead, a part of me wishes I had the time, know-how, and wherewithal to pull over myself, striking out into woods and fields without heed for established trails and parking lots. (For the record, this is one time of year when I don’t believe in trespassing: when the signs say “Posted: No Hunting” or “Private Property: Keep Out,” that’s a signal to be heeded regardless of whether you’re toting a gun or not.) These days when I see a group of hunters hefting a deer into a pickup truck or field-dressing a deer strung up in a tree, I don’t shake my fist in anger or exclaim “Ewww! Gross!” Instead, I’m savvy enough to know that eating and, yes, killing are a part of survival, and for many Granite Staters, deer season is one way to cache an inexpensive stockpile of food for the winter.

Instead of condemning hunters and hunting, I try to be smart and prepared. Although the municipal airport itself is closed to hunters, the surrounding fields, marshes, and woods are fair-game. On Friday, Reggie and I took a quick jaunt up Pitcher Mountain, the first time we’ve been hiking anywhere remotely “wild” since the start of hunting season. Seeing other hikers in their blaze orange stocking hats, vests, and ball caps, I came home afterwards and dug out my orange hat and the dog’s orange vest. It’s easy to forget to be prepared…but it’s just as easy to keep season-appropriate togs in the car, close-at-hand for any impromptu walk.

None of the two other walkers, their black long-haired German shepherd, or the lone jogger I saw on Airport Road yesterday was wearing blaze orange…but the pair of walkers I talked to mentioned they’d seen hunters down the road, and they wished they’d thought to wear orange as well. As the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. On the trek back to the car, I heard a rapid-fire succession of gunshots coming from a distant field: here’s hoping someone bagged this winter’s stockpile. And after hunting (unsuccessfully) for the beavers responsible for this fierce bit of arboreal predation, I spotted an equally wild sight: two bow-hunters in full, head-to-toe camouflage gear returning to their parked trucks on bicycles. Dress for success is the law of the wild, it seems. If you know there are hunters afoot, wear blaze orange; if you know deer and turkey lurk in a place where you can’t drive your truck, break out your bicycle. It’s smart to be prepared no matter what color your cap.

Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Prosperity. In the belief that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, I took these photos at a local antique shop. Enjoy!

Church Street

Sometimes one picture makes an entire day worthwhile.

That isn’t to say, of course, that Thanksgiving, 2004 wasn’t “worthwhile” in its own merits before I got dressed (finally) and walked the dog around the Square around lunchtime. After all, every day is intrinsically worthwhile, and some would argue that red-letter holidays are by nature more “worthy” than so-called Ordinary Time.

All I know is that it’s been rainy and overcast these past few days — yesterday I didn’t walk the dog (a rarity for me) and only left the house to do three loads of laundry at the laundromat down the street. So today when I took the dog on our usual jaunt into and around downtown Keene, I was somewhat desperate for blog-worthy photos. Would Happenstance happen: would the Remarkable spontaneously shine through?

Initially, things didn’t look good. Although I had thought yesterday’s perpetual rain had stopped, when the dog and I left the house this morning, it was drizzly and windy, exactly the type of weather that makes walking with an umbrella impossible. As soon as you put up your umbrella, the wind blows it inside out. As soon as you give into the wind and take your umbrella down, the drizzle turns to downpour. Needless to say, this makes for less-than-ideal photographic conditions: not only did I have to worry about my digicam getting wet, on today’s walk I fought a perpetual battle against a windblown umbrella on one hand and an antsy, tugging dog on the other.

Authorized vehicles only

So I wasn’t expecting Serendipity to show up as I turned the corner onto Church Street; in fact, the only thing I was looking for as the dog and I turned the corner was a trash can in which to deposit a fresh baggie of “business” that Reggie had done while I stood, again, playing tug-of-war with the wind and my umbrella.

New England in general and New Hamsphire in particular is known for its fickle weather, and today was not atypical. As I hurried the dog down Church Street toward the trash receptacle I knew was at the corner of Church and Main, I saw something unexpected. Sudden sunlight. It shone over the roof of Hannah Grimes Marketplace and onto the building across the street, bisecting that facade and the line of trees before it neatly in two, a perfect line between light and dark trailing off into the vanishing point. Geometrically, it was perfect, full of the lines and angles I love. Visually, it was stunning, a glimpse of light in an otherwise overcast scene. And temporally, it was fleeting: as fumbled with the umbrella, leash, doggie-doo bag and camera, I knew that in a snap second the clouds would shift and that sudden sunlight would be gone. Act now — supplies are limited.

This way

I took two pictures of the sudden sunlight on Church Street: the first is the image you see at the top of this entry, and the other is one I deleted. In the span of time between my first and second shutter-snaps, the sun had vanished and a suddenly sunlit brick facade became ordinary again. Now you see it, now you don’t.

I firmly believe that grace is like serendipitous sunlight, sneaking in when you least suspect it to catch you unaware. Today for the first time in my life, I’m spending Thanksgiving alone, turning down a last minute dinner invitation to spend instead the day in stretch pants eating comfort food and lounging with the dog. I don’t think I’d want to spend every Thanksgiving alone, but this year, it feels just right: a chance to contemplate this past year with its monumental comings and goings — first a PhD earned, then a 13-year marriage ended — in a spot of intentional solitude. When I stop to consider what I have to be thankful for this year, I don’t know where to start or stop: although I have regrets about things I have done or left undone, I can’t think of a single thing in my life itself that I would change.

Last week on the drive home from meeting with Tim over tea in the afternoon and my friend “A” (not her real initial) over beer and burritos in the evening, I saw a shooting star drop toward the western horizon. Given the chance to wish upon a star, I didn’t know what to ask for since these days I feel I have everything I could want or need. Although it’s bad luck, they say, to speak your wishes before they’re granted, I’ll share with you my shooting-star wish: trusting the Universe knows exactly what I need, I asked for another year of serendipitous surprise.

The weather reports say it will be a brown Thanksgiving here in Keene: in fact, the forecast calls for high winds, rain, and scattered thunderstorms with temperatures well above freezing. Still, it’s good to know my neighborhood laundromat (of which you’ve seen photos before) is ready for winter with a handy stash of rock salt and sand right by the door. In northern New England, it’s always best to be prepared.

Safe passage to everyone who’s traveling for the holidays. Here at Hoarded Ordinaries, we’re hunkered down (and doing laundry) while the weather blows in and out. And I guess that’s something to be thankful for, too.

    As Kathleen would say, “mad props” to everyone who got the musical allusion in this entry’s title. Nothing like ringing in the holiday with a little gospel optimism.

It should come as no surprise that the woman who has a rubber ducky shower curtain also has red flannel puppy pajamas. Here in New Hampshire, flannel pajamas (and flannel sheets if you’re a true sensualist) are a necessity. (If you don’t believe me, go ask Amy about her monkey pajamas.) I switched from regular to flannel sheets back in September, and today I bought a new pair of flannel pajamas: red glow in the dark puppy pajamas. Okay, I wasn’t exactly sold on the “glow in the dark” part: who knows what kind of radioactive element is responsible for that. But I needed new flannel pjs, and I couldn’t resist the cute doggies…

After teaching the last of today’s classes, I’m on break until next Tuesday, so I’ll be spending a lot of time in my pjs this week. I’m looking forward to my own private pajama party: I plan to spend my time writing in pjs, blogging in pjs, reading papers in pjs, cleaning the house in pjs… In fact, apart from walking the dog, I just might spend every moment from now until next Tuesday in my apartment in my pjs. So, don’t mind me and my glow-in-the-dark doggies: we’re nestled down, snug and comfy for the night, the week, and on through the weekend.

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