Living and Dying: Reblog from a Zen Master

A reblog, courtesy of Zen Master Wonji Dharma.

Living and Dying

I started practicing Zen in the nineteen eighties and learned much from my teachers during these early years. Consequently, as I progressed with daily practice, I can remember a few specific instances that occurred in the early nineteen nineties that changed my opinion and set the course for the rest of my life. One of my close mentors in those days was a Senior Dharma Teacher named Bridget Duff. She had started practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972 in the very early days in Los Angeles. Prior to meeting Seung Sahn, Bridget had spent some time also studying with Jidu Krishnamurti and experienced some very transformational life changing events. Bridget was one of the original members of the Los Angeles group and was close to Seung Sahn for the rest of his life.

Bridget is the daughter of two rather famous (or infamous) parents of the nineteen fifty Hollywood scene. Her mother was Ida Lupino and her father was Howard Duff. Her mother was considered the most powerful woman in Hollywood next to Lucille Ball in the late fifties. Bridget grew up as neighbors of the Ronald Reagan’s and her best friend growing up was Patti Davis (Reagan) who was the same age as Bridgette.

In August of 1995, Bridgette had told me that her mother was dying. I had never heard much from her about her relationship with her mom or what was going on between them. Over the next few weeks she told me that her mother had really alienated her relationship and wanted nothing to do with her daughter. However, due to her advanced colon cancer, she had reconciled with Bridgette and they got to try to reconcile about twenty years of problems over the course of two weeks.

Sometime, about a month later, I was in Reno, Nevada where I had arranged a retreat with Zen Master Bonsoeng (Jeff Kitzes), and a group of students who had been studying with Eido Roshi. I had been practicing with this group as my job had me in Reno at least three or four days a week at that time. I had brought up four of the residents of the Ocean Eyes Zen Center with me to attend this retreat and support the local Reno Sangha. During this retreat Jeff gave a Dharma talk which discussed his alienation with his father when he decided to follow the Buddhist path.

Bonsoeng was brought up as a Jewish child in California and his father had hoped that he would follow in a banking or business path and support his father’s sense of family values. Bonsoeng grew up in the late sixties Berkeley environment and decided that Psychology and Buddhism was a much better path for him. Bonsoeng said that his father never forgave him for this. He then relayed that follow diagnosis of a terminal illness, his father was given only a few months to live. Bonsoeng said that he decided to transfer his clients and spent as much time as he could in his father’s last days. Jeff said that the closeness and openness that his father expressed were moving and allowed the two of them to reconcile lifelong differences.

Following these two experiences, I looked at my own life and came to some deep realizations. I realized that I was very distant in relationship with both my father and my mother and decided that I didn’t want to wait until a few weeks or months before their deaths to have a good relationship with them. I took to heart the teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn and applied his teaching of correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. I was distant from my parents and we were not very affectionate nor did we communicate on a very regular basis.

I wrote a very detailed letter to my mother following these two experiences discussing our differences and seeming distance. I told her that she might be uncomfortable but I was going to be a good son, I was going to start hugging her (this had never happened before) and I was going to kiss her (this too) and tell her that I love her (this was a big deal for me so I decided to take the lead.) She responded well to my letter and from this our relationship began to grow and bear fruit.

We grew stronger in our relationship and I was firm on celebrating all the major holidays with my parents and my family. We had great celebrations for Thanksgiving, Christmas etc. every year without fail, this was my commitment to my family. My mother was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2002 and took her life in 2003. I was with her holding her hand when she took her last breath. I can also say that there was nothing left unsaid between the two of us. We had the eight years to sort everything out about our relationship and our history.

I was worried about my father when my mother died and thought he would take a turn and just give up. He didn’t and we became close friends and spent some tremendous time together. He became frail a few years later and I spent as much time as I could with him, sometimes months at a time. He lived in the Bay Area and I was living in Los Angeles. I got five years of great time learning and exploring with my father before he finally succumbed to emphysema. I was also blessed to be holding his hand during the final moments, as I had with my mom.

So, what does all this mean? I studied many teachers and psychologists and looked for insight where I could find it during these years. I found great direction with the Zen Hospice Project and the teachings should be looked at as precepts for living and not precepts for dealing with dying people. Please take these points to heart. We have a very short time on this planet; we can only make changes in the present, so please follow these precepts to allow your lives to flower.

Five Regrets of dying people

  1. We wish we hadn’t made decisions based on what other people think

When we make your decisions based on other people’s opinions, two things tend to happen. We make a poor career choice. There are too many of us out there who studied for a degree we regret or even spend our lives pursuing a career we regret. Whether we are seeking parental approval or pursuing pay and prestige over passion, making a poor career choice is a decision that will live with us forever.

We fail to uphold our morals. When we get too caught up in what our boss thinks of us, how much money we think our spouse needs to be happy, or how bad we will look if we fail, we are at high risk of violating our own morals. Our intense desire to make ourselves look good compromises our ability to stay true to ourselves and, ultimately, to feel equanimity.

Laozi said, “If we seek for the approval of others, we become their prisoner.” The best way to avoid falling prey to the opinions of others is to realize that other people’s opinions are just that — opinions. Regardless of how great or terrible they think we are, that’s only their opinion. Our true self-worth comes from within.

  1. We wish they hadn’t worked so hard

Working hard is a great way to impact the world, to learn, to grow, to feel accomplished, and sometimes even to find happiness, and this becomes a problem when we do so at the expense of the people closest to us. Ironically, we often work hard to make money for the people we care about without realizing that they value our company more than money.

The key is to find a balance between doing what we love and being with the people we love. Otherwise we will look back one day and wish we had focused more on the latter.

  1. We wish we had expressed their feelings openly

We are taught as children that emotions are dangerous and that they must be bottled up and controlled. This usually works at first, and boxing up our feelings causes them to grow until they erupt. The best thing we can do is to put our feelings directly on the table. Though it’s painful to initiate, this forces us to be honest and transparent with ourselves and others.

For example, if we feel as though we don’t make enough money at work, schedule a meeting with our boss and propose why we think we are worth more. As a result, they will either agree with us and give us a raise or disagree and tell us what you do need to do to become more valuable. On the other hand, if we do nothing and let our feelings fester, this will hinder our performance and prevent us from reaching your goal.

  1. We wish we had stayed in touch with our friends

When we get caught up in our weekly routine, it’s easy to lose sight of how important people are to you, especially those we have to make time for. Relationships with old friends are among the first things to fall off the table when we’re busy. This is unfortunate because spending time with friends is a major stress buster. Close friends bring us energy, fresh perspectives, and a sense of belonging, in a way that no one else can.

  1. We wish we had let ourselves be happy

When our life is about to end, all the difficulties we have faced suddenly become trivial compared to the good times. This is because we realize that, more often than not, suffering is a choice. Unfortunately, most of us realize this far too late.

Although we all inevitably experience pain, how we react to our pain is completely under our control, as is our ability to experience joy. Learning to laugh, smile, and be happy (especially when stressed) is a challenge at times, but it’s one that’s worth every ounce of effort.

Bringing it all together

Some decisions have repercussions that can last a lifetime. Most of these decisions are made daily, and they require focus and perspective to keep them from haunting us.

Five precepts for living:

Welcome everything, push away nothing.

My first Zen teacher Seung Sahn Dae Jong Sa was quite fond of saying, “Put it all down,” which was his way of saying “welcome everything, push away nothing.” In Zen, we also say things like; “live in the moment” or “be mindful.” Pema Chödron, who is a teaching lineage holder of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, says it from the opposite perspective, “Abandon all hope.” This means to give up our ideas that things will change other than what they are. Abandon the idea that the outcome of a given situation is other than what it is, right now. Face this life with full awareness. Suzuki Rōshi once said something to the effect of: “it’s like going to a restaurant for lunch, and when your lunch is served you say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t have come to this restaurant, I should have gone to some other restaurant. This restaurant is not so good.’ The truth of this situation is that we can only be here now. I still have a little card my first psychology professor gave me from a class on “transactional analysis” I took in 1980 which says, “Even if you don’t like the way it is, it still is the way it is.”

Bring your whole self to the experience.

This means to live our lives with our whole bodies and souls. To be completely present and to pay attention to ourselves as much as we pay attention to others. We have to feel ourselves in each situation, feel our own tension, our own fear, our own apprehension. We need to love ourselves in each moment, especially in times of stress and anxiety. If we pay attention to our inner self we can relax into the moment and it will be easier to be present.

Don’t wait.

Waiting implies something is going to happen by itself. It also implies that perhaps it can be done in the future. The reality that Buddha taught was that the only moment we have is now. Krishnamurti, who was one of the greatest sage’s of the twentieth century, talked a lot about this point. He said, “We delude ourselves in thinking that we can change some behavior in the future. It is through our discursive thinking that change can happen in the future. The only moment we have to change anything is now.”

Find the place of rest, in the middle of things.

This means that we must find that place of calm in the middle of the storm. The storm of our lives, the storm of work, the storm of getting our kids ready for school, the storm of someone who is close to us that is dying. It means that within each activity we can find a place of peace and then we can see the truth for what it is.

Cultivate don’t know mind.

Suzuki Roshi called this beginners mind. In the mind of the beginner possibilities are endless, in the mind of the expert, possibilities are few. An ancient once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” This is being here without expectation or idea. This is our essential practice.

Written/Posted 3 days ago by Wonji Dharma


Tranquilized

Poem of the Day: Advertisement

BY WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA
I’m a tranquilizer.
I’m effective at home.
I work in the office.
I can take exams
on the witness stand.
I mend broken cups with care.
All you have to do is take me,
let me melt beneath your tongue,
just gulp me
with a glass of water.
I know how to handle misfortune,
how to take bad news.
I can minimize injustice,
lighten up God’s absence,
or pick the widow’s veil that suits your face.
What are you waiting for—
have faith in my chemical compassion.
You’re still a young man/woman.
It’s not too late to learn how to unwind.
Who said
you have to take it on the chin?
Let me have your abyss.
I’ll cushion it with sleep.
You’ll thank me for giving you
four paws to fall on.
Sell me your soul.
There are no other takers.
There is no other devil anymore.
Wislawa Szymborska, “Advertisement” from Poems New and Selected. Copyright © 1998 by Wislawa Szymborska.  Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Source: Poems New and Collected(Harcourt Inc., 1998)

WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA

Biography
More poems by this author

Retrieved and reposted by Poetry Foundation website.


The White Orchid

A poem by Lightning Heart

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The White Orchid

Remember when you offered it to me,

It was after Shiva touched my shoulders and

Sent seizures through blood, skin, and bone

You came with a lion’s mouth and nose, stringy haired,

Downed in frayed gossamer.

I would not accept it at first out of

Fear for what it meant

 

Dew lived on its petals, even in the desert

Its yellow mouth, frozen in a seductive smile

They say never to accept an orchid

If it is in bloom,

Something about shocking its system,

Stagnating its growth

 

Then again, I’ve never been a rule-follower

Now that it is here, I stare at it,

Obsessively,

Especially that face–

like butterfly wings suspended on a corkboard

 

only the pin does not kill it,

for there is no pin

Not this time.

The clay pot is too small

It has to break someday

when tubers burst through

. . .or better yet. . .

When they devour the pot with new life

 

–a poem by Lightning Heart


Edge of the roof. . .

Almost a year ago and the edge of the roof is back again, this time in a different form. When will you jump? Well, I’m waiting.

Total Prana

That night. . .in the desert. . .I jumped off the roof.

edge

“I don’t like it here, I want to go back.

According to the old Knowers

If you’re absent from the one you love

Even for one second that ruins the whole thing!

There must be someone. . .just to find

One sign of the other world in this town

Would be enough.

You know the great Chinese Simurgh bird

Got caught in this net. . .

And what can I do.  I’m only a wren.

My desire-body, don’t come

Strolling over this way.

Sit where you are, that’s a good place.

When you want dessert, you choose something rich.

In wine, you look for what is clear and firm.

What is the rest? The rest is mirages,

And blurry pictures, and milk mixed with water.

The rest is self-hatred, and mocking other people, and

bombing.

So just be…

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Top of the Mountain

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I hiked at Phoenix Mountain Preserve on Good Friday with quail, lizards, saguaro, and chipmunks. At the top of the mountain I sat on the ground and waited for nothing.

A man and his two children –teenager and a tween—soon arrived.

What did they say when the reached the top of the mountain?

“Nice job, buddy,” the man told his son. “Alright, we’ll chill for a minute.”

They posed for photos of themselves against the cityscape: selfies, group shots, never turning to view the side that held no streets. What did they capture inside their camera?

I heard the flies buzz, felt the sand against my palms.

“Okay, let’s go down, we’re done,” said the man after three minutes.

A middle-aged couple soon came to the top.

“Is this it?” said the woman, disappointed. She searched for a higher point, found it, and led her husband to the next crest. I watched them climb and once they reached that peak, they immediately turned for the descent.

What did they find at the top of the mountain? More rocks and sand perhaps. Something they climbed for, but could not name and could not touch; something always there, but unseen, untouched, unheard, un-experienced by sleepwalkers.

What do you find at the top of the mountain?


Teaching of Jane’s Bamboo

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In Paradise Valley I have a neighbor named Jane. Jane’s bamboo plants creep into my patio area, dropping dead leaves onto my rock garden.

Each week I clean the dead leaves from the rock garden; sometimes twice a week, sometimes more.

Within half an hour after each cleaning, a slight breeze blows and more dead leaves fall from Jane’s bamboo.

Jane’s bamboo carries a great teaching about the impermanence of all things.


Captive of linguistics

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“The core teaching of the Buddha always has been that all things are dependently arisen, hence fundamentally devoid of any independently lasting substance. All that’s happening in the phenomenal world is an interplay of form and energy that creates a transitory phenomenon in time and space. In our ignorance, we continue to interpret this interplay as real-in-itself. Moreover, as captives of linguistic formulations we even interpret our conceptual thinking to represent something real.”

–from Mu Seong’s The Heart of the Universe


Maya – Illusion


Powwow at the end

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The Powwow at the End of the World

BY SHERMAN ALEXIE
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Nothing softer than water

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Much water imagery lately, in journeying as well as meditation; in dreams as well as in synchronicities of everyday life. What does it all mean? In the wise words of an old man by the fire, “It doesn’t mean anything.” Reading the Teachings from the Huainanzi today, this was the message:

“Of all the things in the world, nothing is softer than water. Water is accommodating and yielding, but its depth cannot be plumbed and its boundaries cannot be measured. Rising to the sky, it becomes rain and mist. Falling to the earth, it becomes springs and underground lakes. Life cannot exist without water, and crops cannot be cultivated without it. Water benefits all and has no favorites. It nourishes the smallest insect and the largest mammal and does not expect gratitude. It enriches the world and does not begrudge those who use it.

“Water is soft yet strong. Strike it, and it cannot be injured. Pierce it, and it cannot be punctured. Grasp it, and it cannot be held. Its strength can wear down stone and metal. Its sustenance can nourish the whole world. It can float in the sky as clouds, squeeze through narrow valleys as streams, and spread across wide-open plains as lakes. It takes from the earth and gives back to the earth. Unbiased and nonjudgmental, it does not have notions of first and last and does not distinguish between us and them. Everything is equal in its eyes. Separating and merging, it blends with its surroundings and is at one with the sky and the earth. Not conforming to the left or the right, it can be straight or meandering. Not restrained by space and time, it can be present at the beginning and the end of all things.”

-teachings from the Huainanzi, The Natural Way, translated by Eva Wong

It means nothing. It means everything. Such is the Dao.

–Cheolshim Prajna