Sunday, March 16, 2008

Emptying... Beginner's Mind... Spirit Bowls... Sangha...

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

~ Ancient Zen story ~

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. ~ Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind ~

I am becoming, once again, the empty cup. Returning to my Zen studies and daily meditation, I feel the overflow spilling out and I can breathe again. In, out, in, out, I breathe to the sounds of the mindfulness bell meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France, the bell's resonating gong sounding every few minutes to bring you back to your breath when your mind has wandered. Even my animals go to sleep or close their eyes when I meditate. They feel the calm. 45 minutes in the morning, 90 minutes before bedtime, listening to Zen audio books/lectures/retreats throughout the day from many of my great teachers, some whom I have studied with in person, some I have studied for thirty years through their books, tapes, videos and more. I listen while I do my fiber work, with short meditations built into the sessions along with my teachers. I am finding emptiness, my heart is opening, I am feeling calm, peaceful, contented ... I am finding grace.

Among my most important teachers are Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Ram Dass, Shunryu Suzuki, Jack Kornfeld and Natalie Goldberg. I studied with Natalie twice, once for a long weekend a year after Writing Down The Bones came out in 1986, 22 years ago, and for a week-long retreat in Taos, New Mexico in 1990. I hadn't planned on that one but Natalie called and asked me to come and it was a pivotal time in my life in many ways. I fell in love with Taos, with New Mexico. I walked around as if in a daze, touching down on something deeply spiritual I was awestruck and silent as I drank in the beauty of the mountains and mesas and even the mud. In 1990 the workshop/retreat was in February and it was mud season. I lived in the country and knew to bring my mud boots. The mud was so deep and rich and delicious it almost sucked the boots off of my feet, but I was entranced. On our time outs I would walk alone, down the lane from the Mabel Dodge Luhan house into the little town of Taos. I wrote in cafés, walked up and down streets where hitching posts for horses still stood in front of old stores, stopped in bookstores to buy postcards to write to family and friends with beautiful pictures of this majestic land, and as many books on New Mexico as I could carry. I have longed for New Mexico ever since. It is my spiritual home.

About now you may be asking, why Natalie Goldberg? Isn't she a writing teacher? Well, yes, and a very good one at that, but, well, my experience was a little different. I had been teaching journal writing classes for several years that were very like Natalie's Bones, and had been a professional writer for many years, but never had I fallen so in love with a book, never has a book (and I've read thousands by now...) had as great an impact on me as Bones did. And the reason was, not just because it is a magical book on writing, and Natalie a wonderful teacher, but I remember Natalie saying that she wanted to write a book about Zen, but the only way she could do it was writing about it through a venue she knew, writing. I was a writer, and after reading Bones I knew, I understood so much more about Zen than I had as a single practitioner for many years because I never lived in a town with a Zen center anywhere close. I read and studied everything I could get my hands on, listened to tapes, but Zen writings are very esoteric, enigmatic, and while starting you on the path of enlightenment, a single
kōan can take you a lifetime to grasp, if even then. I still grapple with "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I've thought I had it figured out countless times, but like looking through a kaleidoscope, when one slight turn renders a whole new view, a kōan, at different times and places and spaces brings up possible answers, different answers, all the time. I will likely die one day still wondering about that kōan, and so many others, and I love them.

So Natalie has been one of the great teachers of my life, and she taught me a wonderful new way to look at writing, and a whole new understanding of Zen because she wasn't esoteric, she wrote in a simple yet profound way so that in the end I was a better writer and a better Zen student. I came home hungry for more, and spent the next six months studying with Charlotte "Joko" Beck every Monday night in hour long phone sessions. She would leave me with a question that I would ponder, meditate upon, and write about for the week, and we would discuss it the next week. She, too, wrote two very wonderful, down to earth books on Zen that helped me along enormously. I am still writing today with these two teachers at my back, as I keep my pen moving across the vast expanse of the notebook page.

Zen and writing are now inextricably interwoven for me, and it has permeated my whole life. I live Zen, I breathe Zen, my fiber art has become more and more Zen as I move more and more back into Beginner's Mind, and as an intuitive artist who never follows a pattern but is led by the work itself, all of my fiber work is one-of-a-kind, and quite often nobody is more surprised than I with what comes out. I love what Natalie wrote in Bones about Beginner's Mind...

When I begin teaching a class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey and with no maps.

And so it was that in the last several month when I returned to meditating and studying Buddhism more deeply again, my heart opened up wider, my work became more intuitive and the pieces, piece to piece, vary in shape and form and meaning, and, as in the title of Natalie's follow-up book after Bones, Wild Mind, my writing, my fiber art, my life, have cracked wide open and like a shooting star taking off like a rocket, as my mind flies after ideas, trying to keep up. This has been the case with the new piece I am almost finished with, what I call a Spirit Bowl, and have begun to think of as a meditation bowl. Empty, it is beautiful. Often people gaze at a lit candle to focus on when they meditate. These bowls I am making can be a focal point as we empty our mind, so that our mind can stay focused on our breath and the empty bowl before us, bottomless, empty, silent. The teacup does not overflow, and we open, once again, to a whole new wide open way of looking at the world, our work, and the world around us.

Here is a picture of the Spirit Bowl in process. If you look back through several entries you will see the process of me handspinning the nubbly yarn, plying it, and starting on this piece. Now, it is almost finished, and then I will felt it for durability, and it will last far beyond my own lifetime.

This Spirit Bowl is made of my own handspun yarn and
pink/purple boucl
é handspun and kettle-dyed yarn by village
women in Uruguay. The wonderful hand-carved sunflower
crochet hook was made by Noreen Crone-Findlay. I use her
hooks exclusively because they not only feel good in the hand
and are wonderful to crochet with, but the hand-carved wood
lovingly made by an incredible artist, makes me feel closer
to the earth, more rooted. I am an earth-mother at heart. I
live as close to the Earth and her creatures, plants, nature
as I possible can...

Finally, I have been thinking a lot about Sanghas. A sangha is a spiritual community, and important in the Buddhist traditions where, coming together with your teacher and fellow students you learn, you study, you meditate together, you communicate, and as in the fellowship in many churches, the community gives one a sense of belonging.

My solitary practice, by default, has fit my life very well in these years past the raising of my three children and the end of my marriage when I have come into my fullness and true purpose and essential being. I live very like an anchorite, seldom leaving the cottage, but working from early morning until late at night. Where then is my sangha?

My sangha begins in the cottage with the dozen animals I live with, six parrots, four dogs, and 2 beta fish. It extends to my family, my dear friends, those that read my writings and buy my fiber art. The people I know in animal rescue are part of my sangha as are all the countless people I have met over the internet and formed deep friendships with that I didn't know was even possible. Beyond that it extends to the wider world. The whole world is my sangha, even if I seldom ever leave my humble abode.

I believe that in the coming years I will venture out into the world a little more because when I took the name Maitri, legally, in 2005 after my divorce, I pledged to live a life of loving-kindness and compassion, in my work and in my life. It is a life of service, whether getting my animals fresh food and water first thing every morning, to sharing my heart through my writing, my fiber art, and my relationships. The time is coming when I will venture out, just a little bit, to do my work and spread loving-kindness beyond my little cottage world.

I am beginning now, in very small increments, by beginning to go, perhaps a couple of times a week, to a caf
é to write on my new laptop, a wonderful gift from a dear friend in support of my writing as I write the book about life at Dragonfly Cottage, both the website started nearly a decade ago which set me on a path somewhat like Alice through the looking glass, and the cottage that I live in which would grow in unimaginable ways, and become the center of my life, my work, my peace, my happiness.

Too, I plan for a simpler life, and that, too, will be a lifetime journey, but I am a simple woman at heart. A hearth tender, gardener, wanting only the small life that I have created. I live in a kind of child-like joy, even on my worst days, there are glimmers. Today it was picking the first tiny narcissus that now perfumes the whole room. Life is best lived with simple pleasures at the core. Here is my little narcissus, a farewell gift to you...

Even the tiny flowers are part of my sangha...

So I bow to the divine in you as I say Namast
é to one and all, and if you are here, reading, you are part of my sangha. I send you love and blessings from my home to yours.

I bow to you with my little sangha of 12 animal companions all around me. I wish you well on your journey...



'Zann said...

What a lot of lovely thoughts - thank you for sharing. Funny that I came to read your blog just minutes after I had written this in my journal:
"...Nothing makes sense these days. Nothing seems rational.
What is my response to that? To let go of the rational....of the desire for the rational at any rate.
To reduce my world to small, sensible things. Tiny pleasures. Little moments. Simple, simple, simple.
And now, now, now...."

I like being in your sangha, dear Maitri!

Judith HeartSong said...

what a beautiful post... thank you for sharing.

Hyla Waldron said...

Beautiful blog! Very well done!

tangled stitch said...

Hi Maitri! What a beautiful post and a reminder of just how much good journaling does for the soul. A great big thank you. Your fiber bowl is extraordinary. Inspired by Zen!

footiam said...

Need to empty my cup now! Thanks for reminding!

lui lakbayera said...

thanks for allowing us to enter your sangha, maitri! as i read your post, i felt like going on a meditative walk with you, so calm, focused and silent. namaste!

Daisy said...

Awesome post... Ram Dass had a tremendous effect on me in my youth, also. :)

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