When I Look at my Cat

When I look at my cat

I see the many cats I’ve known before

Our black cat who spoke in its own sentences

The marmalade tabby our neighbor took on walks

The fearless stray whose face folded in on itself

The sweet hunter arranging dead birds on our back step

I see the fictions of others

Alice’s Dinah, the first story read to me

Kipling’s cat who walked by himself

The bold rhymer who travelled to London 

I see my own search for stillness

For purity and purpose in action

I see my fear of things being different

My starting suddenly over noises

Insisting loudly on my own hunger

And I realize his calmness is a mask

That he lives in restless search of the things

I imagine he already has

And I find myself looking at him

Envying what I am trying to be

When it is not even there to begin with

And that is when I know 

That when I look at my cat

I see everything

But him

Diamond Sutra Fall 2020 practice period: notes, chapter 2

(These won’t be in-depth explications of each chapter – just comments on what in each chapter resonated the most with me and Zen practice.)

In Chapter 1, we got a glimpse of the Buddha just doing, being himself. Unremarkable, and yet by the very nature of its simplicity, shining like a beacon in a struggling world burdened with real and imagined complexities.

In Chapter 2, Subhuti asks the Buddha: “If a noble son or daughter should set forth on the Bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?”

In other words, maybe: “You’re walking the walk like a boss every day 24/7. I want a piece of that. How do you do it?” Like I used to wonder about Mister Rogers, or random other people throughout my life who seemed to be totally, authentically themselves and yet left no empty wrappers on the ground or other messes to clean up in their wake, no trace behind them.

I remember the tendency for me in the early years of Zen practice was to act Zen. I call it “walking on eggshells,” when I would walk around slowly and carefully, answer people with a smile or a knowing expression and maybe a few choice selected wise words. Eventually, usually within an afternoon, something would happen and I would immediately collapse back into my default reactions of anger, annoyance, worry … it wouldn’t take much to throw me out of “acting Zen,” which is what our daughters would call it when they spotted me doing it.

Perhaps one of the big hints as to how it’s done is in Chapter 1: “… he turned his awareness to what was before him.” No regretting a potentially better past, or restlessly struggling with wanting to get this out of the way and get to the next thing. Just paying attention. It’s so rare to find someone fully paying attention in our society currently, someone who is really listening to you or mowing their yard or washing their dishes or reading a book. Someone just paying full attention to what needs to be done right now, and then the same with the next thing and the thing after that.

Or maybe solving the world’s problems and relieving the suffering of billions of sentient beings isn’t just about paying attention. Maybe that’s a bit glib.

It’s not a bad place to start, though. Which is why, maybe, Zen teachers want us to spend so much time on the cushion, returning to your breath over and over when thoughts or other distractions arise. A simple but highly effective laboratory in paying attention. And perhaps everything flows from that simple exercise. Everything flows from the cushion.

So, mystery solved? And yet the Buddha and Subhuti discuss Subhuti’s question for 30 more chapters. I figure they have their reasons, and it’s likely to be interesting. So I’ll keep going, and turn my awareness to what they put before me.

But Subhuti also did something else important. He had a question. He didn’t think, ‘this is probably too stupid/naive/basic and I don’t want to waste the Buddha’s time.” He had a question, and he asked it. That’s as much a part of being a student as listening, or sitting. Not to think about the asking, but ask. Don’t set the question on a stand, walk around slowly and criticize it. Become your question, become your doubt. Ask with your whole body.

“Always helps to clear the air,” one of our teachers, Dosho Port, said once.

”Lead with the body,” another one of our teachers, Tetsugan Zummach Osho, reminds us.

Like right now. I’m just writing. Trying not to see the writing as something separate on its own, as something that needs editing or shape or a conclusion. Just being writing.

Diamond Sutra Fall 2020 practice period: Thoughts on chapter 1

To view Chapter 1 of the Diamond Sutra from a conventional literary perspective, it might be considered an introduction to the sutra itself. Or It could be viewed as the sutra itself – with, as Ed Gōshin said, the remaining 31 chapters serving as commentary.

The part of Chapter 1 that resonated very strongly with me was this:

“One day before noon the Bhagavan [the Buddha] put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.”

It’s all just so simply and clearly told, so quiet. Just one little thing after another. I’m reminded of children’s books, of a mother telling a bedtime story to a child. I’ve read this passage over and over, and it never seems to lose its gentle allure.

When I was a boy, I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and later in life rewatched it with our two young daughters. The same things always struck me: how simple and right Fred Rogers’ life seemed. The right torso covering, hanging neatly in his front closet by the door, for every occasion: a jacket, a sweater, a windbreaker, a rain coat. Sneakers for casual wear, leather shoes for daily chores, galoshes for wet weather. How even feeding his fish was done attentively: just the right amount of food, always a moment to spare to wonder at the small miracle of fish.

And I would wonder – admiringly and a bit jealously, as a young parent pressed for time, my attention drawn in a dozen directions at once – how does he do that? How could I do that?

I realize these shows were scripted, and that “Mister Rogers” was a fictional creation. But it was no less mesmerizing and inspirational for all that. And in some way, I am certain that the jealous admiration I harbored for Mister Rogers helped lead me, decades later, to Zen Buddhism. I wanted to be Mister Rogers.

And so it was, I think, in the Buddha’s lifetime, when people would see him walking the streets, eating, or sitting in meditation. Most of us live life as a continual quiet struggle, constantly stubbing our toes – literally or metaphorically- and cursing, constantly wanting to get to the next thing, hurrying to our next mistake and then running away from it. When there was this guy who did nothing remarkably, and yet looked remarkable doing it – because it was so rare to see the unremarkable. The rest of us, stumbling theatrically through life, and this one little bald-headed guy who, without thinking about it or calling attention to it, seem to be improvising a sort of ballet.

And some people began asking: How does he do that?

How a life is lived can be it own inspiration, a teaching. And the inquiry, which is dropped in Chapter 2 and leads into seemingly infinite vistas of time, self, and space, begins.