Category Archives: Prose

Does a Stone Have Buddha Nature?

My kids don’t often come with me to the Temple. Given its significance in my life, I often regret that the place and its people feel a bit foreign to them. Yet they looked comfortable as I watched them run ahead of me down the old brick path on the grounds early this afternoon. I would have expected an impulse to quiet or calm them, but it never arose. I caught up and we walked the twisting path together.

We were there so that I could install a piece of stone sculpture that I had done for an upcoming art exhibit. The rain was falling softly on a day that felt too chilly for late April, which made the early green of the spring seem even deeper and richer.

Working in stone is a new creative endeavor. For the last year, there have been piles of it lying across the ground in front of our barn as I have constructed a stone wall along one side of our property. As I shaped a few pieces for the wall with a chisel and point last summer, it occurred to me that perhaps I should shape a piece for something more than utility.

I began to carve a bowl out of a large piece of granite that had an almost glass-flat top. With everything I have felt the need to accomplish, there was really no cause for taking up a project with such a long timeline and that would result in, well, still having a rock sitting on the ground.

Often, as I coaxed out small pieces of stone, the bowl didn’t seem to get any bigger. Perhaps for a moment it would, as a chip or flake flew, but then the shallowness of the bowl would predominate in my attention. I worried that even if I were able to approximate the right shape, I wouldn’t know how to finish the job, know how to smooth the inside to match the image in my mind of how it should be.

Yet I kept working well into autumn. When winter approached and snow began to fall, I rigged up a small sled out of an old barrel cover in order to slide the stone into the barn; it is too heavy to simply lift and move. While I moved it because I had intentions of continuing to work the stone during winter, it sat in the barn mostly idle, between the chicken coop and the kids’ bikes stored for the winter.

I passed by it often and began to wonder if it would always sit there, unfinished.

The first time I tried to pull it out of the barn this spring, I used the same sled on which it had moved across ice and packed snow in the late fall. On the dry barn floor, though, there was too much friction, and the sled only tipped up as I pulled on the rope, sending me backwards to fall hard on a body that has been feeling suddenly older.

As I looked up from the floor, the stone simply sat – and I began to realize that that is what it does. It accepted my dissatisfaction and sat with me.

Days later, when I did manage to move it out of the barn into a pale but warming spring sun, it sat with me there, too, reflecting my growing acceptance that the bowl might never be exactly what I expected.

Sitting outdoors in a hard spring rain, the emerging bowl filled with water and overflowed. A small stick blown by a blustery wind came to rest in the bowl, and the stone didn’t question its arrival.

It listened as my daughter and talked about what I might do next to shape it, or how on earth I was planning to move it, and received them.

It sat still yesterday as I alternated sandpaper, water, and a blowtorch across its surface, and allowed me the space to work without knowing the effect of my efforts.

The stone became my teacher.

Its Buddha nature is clear and bright. For what else is our Buddha nature, but our receiving and reflecting of what the universe has to offer?

Right now, it sits at the edge of a path at the Temple, in the company of wet ground and early-spring growth. Drips from the trees above are falling into its bowl, and it is welcoming each of them. When the sun rises, it will receive that light and grow warm.

As we left the installation, I wondered aloud to my youngest as he shivered why he didn’t put up his hood. My children argued gently about who would have the chance to roll the dolly (which had carried the stone to its resting place) back up the brick path, and I introduced them all to a beloved sangha mate.

“You’ve got your whole crew here, huh?” he said, eyes bright and laughing as we hugged.

“I do,” I responded as my children and I walked back through the rain to head for home.

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Sitting and receiving on the Temple grounds

Touching the Heart Mind

In a few hours time, I’ll be seated on a zafu and zabuton at the Temple, where I will sit for sesshin until Monday, rising for dokusan, sleep, kinhin, and to serve meals.

Outside, the sun will set and then rise to shine through autumn-colored leaves while small animals collect winter food. Cars and trucks will move down the road in front of the Temple as people inside them tune radios, make phone calls, and converse with friends and family.

Farther away, my wife and children will shuttle back and forth to soccer games and gymnastics, laughing, running, probably arguing too. We may take tea at the same time, not seeing but perhaps knowing.

Each of us will chase thoughts before stumbling upon moments of rest. We will cry. We will take breaths and release them, feeling the air around us, shouting and whispering.

Pride, Love, and Putting the Bucket Down

I was never more proud of my son than I was that day, just a few weeks ago. Thank goodness that has worn away, so I can keep loving him for who he is.

My wife and I have been working on a landscaping project at the house, converting a thousand-square foot area from grass to perennials and herbs. Grass never grew well in this south-facing area, and I am excited about having even more fresh flowers to cut in future years. As a part of the project, I decided to replace a section of fence with a dry stone wall and to install a border of paving stones between the driveway and this new garden.

A couple of weeks back, the day’s work involved digging a trench for the pavers, sixty feet long and about a foot wide. Being next to an old asphalt driveway laid on top of New England clay soil, there wasn’t much easy digging. As I went, I worked to save the small rocks that came out of the ground, since they would make good fill around the base of the stone wall. This meant sifting out the dirt and sorting the stones into different piles. One foot at a time, on a very warm August Saturday.

My son shuffled towards me relatively early in the day. Can I help, Dad?

I thought for a second about what he might be able to do. My initial reaction was that he wouldn’t be able to help. The pick axe is too heavy for him, I thought. The weight of stones themselves, while small, would add up quickly, and they needed to be piled a good fifty feet from where I was working. The wheelbarrow is too big for him to manage.

Sure, I said, still thinking. Go get a bucket, one of the big ones. And put some good shoes on.

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No Need to Pretend

A co-worker and I stood in the office kitchen this morning as she searched for a spoon. We joked about how she might eat her cereal with a fork, how it might be easier if it were cereal and yogurt. My voice was clear and my laughter sounded easy. But my heart was somewhere else.

What is the toll, I wonder, from laughing, from pretending and projecting that all is well, when the reality is something different?

My wife and kids have been away for a few days, visiting family now that the school year has ended. I stayed home, with a few meetings this week that I could not miss. Last night I returned home close to midnight after one of those meetings and went out to close up the barn. Five of our six chickens were perched up on their roosts, with the sixth lying very still and awkwardly on the floor. I propped her up on some fresh hay for the night, but this morning she was less responsive and clearly dying. By now, she’s certainly passed.

My son was devestated this past fall when we lost our cat, a dear member of the family who the kids had grown up with. I was so deeply moved by his reaction as we buried her that a story poured out of me that night; that story became the inspiration for this blog.

The chickens were a present for him for his eighth birthday in April. He said it was the best birthday present ever.

I grew up raising chickens, along with sheep and rabbits. I remember the first spring flock that I was responsible for, and my dismay when we lost most of them to an intruder in the coop, likely a fox. I like to tell people that growing up around animals was a good experience, that I learned at an early age about caring for others, about life and death. My original Tibetan Buddhist practice, too, spoke of the value of coming to understand death as a part of our lives.

I’m not so sure this morning about either of those stories.

My son will come home today and learn about this new death. I’ll want to make everything all right for him, knowing at the same time that is not possible. I could look at this experience as a gift. But it’s hard. And what will I do when the death in our lives is closer?

I can’t share any of this with the people around me. I move around the office pretending that this is just another day. I pass by co-workers and talk jovially about this and that.

A little while ago I closed the office door to call my wife and let her know about the chicken, what is awaiting her at home. In the course of that conversation, I learned that the emails I have been sending to her over the last few days, reaching out to make a connection, have gone to an account she can’t access away from home. I hung up the phone feeling more isolated, then went to sit in a meeting and discuss the ramifications of the end of the fiscal year.

I didn’t realize it when I began, but my spiritual practice has taken shape as an effort to drop pretense, to live my life as it presents itself. In some respects, I have begun to realize this through Zen. At the Temple I can sit wth the complexity of fatherhood, marriage, love, joy and sadness, or share with a friend in the sangha after the evening practice has ended. I’ve been striving to do this at home too, with my wife and children, and it has allowed me to experience both joy and sadness more fully, more intimately.

At the same time, I am more accutely aware now of the places and times that I cannot. I worry about the cost.

When I get home this afternoon, I’ll hold my son and tell him it is okay to wonder why this has happened again to an animal he loved. I will tell him it is all right to be sad, to cry, to deeply feel whatever arises. I’ll tell him there’s no need to pretend.

Dukkha and the Essence of Fatherhood

A few years ago I attended the funeral for the father of a good friend and colleague. My friend’s father had been an important public figure, serving as a Justice on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Many speakers at the service described his important contributions to civic life.

When my friend stood up to speak and remember her father, though, she talked about dinner. While her father held an important position, she noted, and worked almost fifty miles away (no small distance in Massachusetts traffic), he always came home for dinner. She described how he always seemed to make it to his children’s sporting and school events – and my friend has nine brothers and sisters. I came away that day and in the years since thinking a lot about his example, about the effort he had made in his life to be present for his children and family.

Days like today, I feel like I have utterly failed to live up to that example. My son has a t-ball game tonight. But here I am, at work, waiting for a meeting. Not there.

Again.

I’ll arrive home later and find him asleep, his glove tossed aside on the front porch, his uniform crumpled in the dirty clothes hamper. In the morning, I will ask him how his game was, but I will feel a certain emptiness when I do. Then I will drive off to work as he pours cereal at the kitchen table.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had made different choices, pursued a career that would allow me to be more present, to be home with my wife and children. But maybe this isn’t simply about my career choice. I am reminded of my friend’s father; he was a Justice on the state’s high court, after all.

So I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

There is a possibility that the answer to this question is quite simple: nothing. This nagging wish that my life were different is real. It is raw. It exemplifies the dukkha, or suffering, that Buddha taught comes from attachment and that characterizes so many moments of our lives. My impulse is to try and fix it, to take it away, to do something about it – and perhaps I still can make different choices in my life.

First, though, my Zen practice reminds me to meet myself right here and now. Zen reminds me of the possibility of sitting with this disappointment, this regret, with the wish to be something or be somewhere for my children that circumstances prevent.

Perhaps, in the end, this regret and disappointment are simply the essence of fatherhood.

Not every moment, surely. But right now, behind my desk, imagining my son reaching into his glove to throw the ball he just caught, his determined grin cast in a direction that I cannot see.

Mother’s Day Tea

Last Thursday, my son woke up early and called to me in his still-morning voice, Daddy, this morning at eight forty-five is Mother’s Day Tea!

It is unusual for him to be excited about something like a Mother’s Day Tea. Special events tend to bring out what shyness he has, and he is not nearly so keen as his older brother on wearing a collared shirt and tie. But sure enough, he had even picked out a special sweater to wear and laid it on his bed.

My wife has been to a lot of these Mother’s Day Tea events over the years as our children have attended the same preschool in turn. Our youngest son is now five and starts kindergarten next year. This year’s Mother’s Day Tea was the last.

Later that same afternoon, I sat with my son on his bed while he showed me some of his new library books and told me about the cookies he had at the tea. He had changed out of his formal shirt and tie and was wearing a dark blue t-shirt emblazoned with pictures of different small whales and the words Nos Amis les dauphins. I love this shirt, and like our preschool and annual Mother’s Day Teas, all of our children have passed through it. One day soon, though, there will be a final wearing as our youngest grows out of it.

We don’t have another child to grow up and go to the next Mother’s Day Tea, or grow into the dolphin shirt. This realization has been arising much more frequently lately, and usually with it the impulse to turn my head to the side and close my eyes, as if turning away from something I would rather not witness.

At first, I was upset with myself for feeling this way. I would take it as an indication that I wasn’t living in the moment. I would scold myself for not being fully present with my children and instead worrying about how we would change as they grew older. Yet as I sat with my son on his bed that afternoon, my deep sadness about this phase of my life changing and receeding was quite real, very much the essence of the moment.

If Zen has begun to teach me anything, it is that the present moment encompasses all of my experience – all of the universe. This includes the desire not be in that moment, or the wish for it to go on forever, despite being fully aware of its impermanence.

I started out my spiritual searching looking for, desperate for, something that would make everything all right. I’ve come to realize, though, that everything isn’t all right – at least not in the way I had hoped.

There was something exquisitely joyful about those moments with my son. And something painfully sad, too. But all of it is my life. The deep intimacy of my life with my children, and the loneliness that comes from knowing we are all of the nature of change. All of it.

Recognizing and being grateful for all of that, that’s what might be all right – and maybe, just maybe, what I have been longing for.

Touching the Heart Mind

Later today I will drive to the Temple in a likely swirl of emotions. I will leave my family behind for a four-day retreat, an opportunity that is a great gift. Yet I will be driving away from goodnight kisses, baseball and t-ball games, and chalk drawings on the driveway. Away from faces asking me why I have to go. I’ll leave behind my wife to pick up these pieces with grace and great generosity.

Sesshin, the name for extended retreats in Zen, translates as touching the heart mind. When I returned home from an eight-day sesshin last summer, the weight of this touching was almost too much to bear, too much to express. I wrote these words for my wife:

opening the door,
seeing each of you,
touching each of you,
tears not from missing you
[though how I did] --

but rising from a heart
once, twice, innumerably papered over
by each and every part
of our rushing lives.
a heart stacked upon
by ten thousand necessities
pressing down
on a space deep inside.

a heart now broken
open
so that the tears
streaking down my cheek
contain my whole life,
falling onto the rise of your shoulder.