Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.


Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.


When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?


Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.


The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Memorial Drive near MIT

We’ve had a relatively snow-free winter so far this season, but on Saturday we had a weekend nor’easter that dumped about five inches of snow on the Boston suburbs before changing to rain. I had a meeting at MIT on Saturday morning, so I took the T into Boston, then I walked over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge. Usually, there are plenty of pedestrians crossing the Charles River, but on Saturday morning it was just me, a few intrepid cyclists, and a handful of Lycra-clad runners muddling through the unshoveled snow. The mid-river view of the MIT skyline veiled in snow and fog was worth the walk.

MIT from Mass Ave bridge

At my meeting, most folks from the outlying suburbs–people who would have had to dig out their cars to drive into Boston–had stayed home, leaving those of us who could get to MIT by T, foot, or both. On the T ride to and from Boston, I noticed the wide range of winter footwear: rubber rainboots, leather hiking boots, quilted nylon boots with fur or flannel linings, and steel-toed work boots. The people riding the T on a snowy Saturday seemed to realize their own two feet are their most dependable all-terrain vehicle and dressed accordingly.

MIT snowman

After a relatively snow-free winter, we’re now hunkered down for a blizzard that could bring one to two feet of snow. It looks like the enterprising undergrads at MIT will be well-equipped to engineer more and bigger snowmen.

We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Head of the Charles regatta

Several weekends ago, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we had lunch then walked to the Charles River to watch the Head of the Charles Regatta, which every year attracts rowing crews from around the world. This is the third year J and I have watched the Regatta: today’s photos, in fact, come from last year’s race. J and I don’t know anything about rowing, but we’ve learned from experience there’s nothing more relaxing than walking along a river in mid-October when the weather’s brisk and the foliage is turning.

Head of the Charles regatta

Annual events like the Head of the Charles are one way we keep time here in New England. If it’s April and the daffodils are blooming, it’s time to watch the Boston Marathon, and if it’s October and there’s a nip of chill in the air, it’s time to watch the Head of the Charles. In either case, it doesn’t really matter if you know much about the competition you’re watching: all you need to do is show up, mingle alongside other spectators, and enjoy the show. With both a marathon and a regatta, you can’t possibly cheer for every participant at every stage of the race, so instead, you cheer for whoever happens to be running or rowing past right now. It’s the epitome of an in-the-moment activity where you show up and enjoy whatever floats past.

Head of the Charles regatta

On our T ride home from Harvard Square, J and I struck up a conversation with a fellow from North Carolina who was visiting Boston with his girlfriend. They’d come for the weekend to see Clemson play (and, unfortunately, beat) Boston College in football, and in the course of their tourist wanderings, they encountered a fellow in a Navy sweatshirt who was on his way to watch his son compete in the Regatta. “Right then, we knew we’d have to check it out,” the fellow from North Carolina said. “Folks come from all over the world to see this race, and we just happened to be in town the same weekend!”

Head of the Charles regatta

The river of life has many twists and turns, and typically it’s helpful to know what’s ahead of you as you navigate those movements. But sometimes, the river of life throws up a surprise, and you just have to roll (and row) with it. J and I are lucky to live in a place where world-renowned athletic events happen to happen within an easy T commute away. Other folks come from afar to row the river that wends through our lives every single day.

This is my Day Three contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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