REFLECTIONS on Water and Life

We’re in a bookshop perusing the stacks – always a pleasant way to pass the time. Here’s the Eastern Religion section, which is mostly books about Buddhism. Casting my eyes right and left across the shelves, I feel at home here. A row of books by the Dalai Lama is as long as my outstretched arm and many books bear the familiar logo of Shambhala Publications. The Boulder, Colorado publisher goes back to 1969 with authors like the controversial Chögyam Trungpa, whose 1973 book, ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ was a bible for legions of spiritual seekers in the 70s and 80s.

Today I zero in on titles by certain authors, titles that trigger a cascade of reflections…

1.

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Here’s a book by the woman whose dog ate my pet cockatiel. She wrote eloquently about Zen in America, among other things. Years ago we shared an apartment near the Zen center where we studied and practiced. One day I came home to find the headless body of the pet cockatiel that I hadn’t even named yet lying on the living room floor. My roommate was duly mortified; I was secretly relieved. The bird had been given to me by a misguided friend who thought the distraction would help me pull through my grief. A few months before, on a warm summer Saturday, I had watched a close friend’s body drift deep into the dark river water. I’d tried to rescue him. I didn’t know he would panic halfway across the river, didn’t know his flailing arms would be too much for my slight frame to control. In the shock and grief that followed, Zen practice helped me more than the burden of caring for another being could. I didn’t feel that I was very good at caring for other beings just then.

Of course, the drowning reverberated through my life. Thousands of ripples emanated from it, some as clearly outlined as the daily struggles with tears, others more obscure. And strangely, my friend’s dog made life a little easier.

*

2.

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Over there is a book by a man who, with his wife, embodied a gentle path. They came to live in our New York City Zen community for one year. The reasons for their temporary transition from a flourishing California Zen center to a smaller, more urban Zen community were complicated but their practice was not. Friendly, straightforward in their practice, and intelligent, they grappled with getting their sons into new schools, adapting to the east coast lifestyle, and working with a new teacher. Ever graceful, they helped when help was needed but never appeared overwhelmed by our somewhat frantic pace. Our teacher had ambitious plans that his students either embraced or refuted. Perhaps because they knew their time in the community was limited, the west coast Zen family usually remained above the fray. There were times when they functioned as islands of sanity for me, especially during my pregnancy.

I imagine they returned to their community as stronger people after their year in New York. Looking at what they’re doing now – writing, teaching, leading a Zen foundation, sitting on the board of an interreligious organization, keeping up with kids and grandkids, there’s no doubt in my mind that they have remained true to themselves and to the dharma.

*

3.

Here’s a book by the man who warned me not to marry L. It was a subtle warning, a question posed almost in jest as we passed each other on a back stairway the day of the wedding. He performed the ceremony a half-hour later with the appropriate solemnity. What other course should he have taken when his old friend had asked him to officiate at his wedding, even if he knew how unstable the man was? Their friendship went back to the 70s and was fostered over hard work on ice-cold mornings at a new Zen monastery in the Catskills. The traditional Japanese temple buildings still sit elegantly above the lake that punctuates the end of a dirt road like the dot on a question mark. The two monks shared a long history so one did a favor for the other and we had a proper Buddhist ceremony. We crossed our T’s, dotted our i’s, and lurched down a path with more bumps than a freshly plowed field on a damp spring day.

That brief encounter on the stairs echoed for ten long years, buzzing in my head from time to time like a premonition. For a long time, I wished he would have refrained from sharing his reservations with me, even if it was in the form of a lighthearted jest. But the remark was like the touch of a branch tip to the water underneath it: a passing ping that rippled far out to unseen corners of the lake.

*

4.

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There’s a popular, well-reviewed book by a man who was a great raconteur but maybe not such a great husband. My then best friend had a chapter-sized affair with him one year when he lived for a month at the sprawling old Huson River mansion where we practiced Zen. During the practice intensive, my friend was tasked with helping him edit his next book. Their seduction was clearly mutual. The more sotto-voce stories my friend told me, the more I lost respect for both of them. We were supposed to be practicing Buddhists, making an effort to uphold the three pure precepts: ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others.

We were (and are) so imperfect!

I still admire the man’s writing.

*

5.

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Here’s a slender volume by a man who had an incalculable influence on the shape of Western zen, according to at least one reviewer. A distant, formidable figure to me, he convinced my teacher that it would be best to place me in the role of cook for the community. For several years I was actively involved in developing the business that supported our community. Then I got pregnant. Families did not fit into the picture at this particular Zen community. There were no allowances or plans for childcare and since I needed to care for my baby, it only made sense (to them) that I should stay back and cook each day while everyone else went to work. We worked because work practice played a central role in our Zen practice. I had no problem with that – integrating study and practice into daily life is crucially important. But I would be running the kitchen, ordering and receiving the community’s food, and making lunch and dinner for 15 to 20 people each day while caring for my baby, a challenging position that isolated me from the exciting work the rest of the community was doing. If I felt removed from my teacher’s teacher before, now I was angry. Although lip service was played to the importance of the cook, or tenzo, in reality, the jobs that supported the business that maintained our community mattered more than what the tenzo did.

In spite of my disappointment, I knew my reaction was excellent grist for the mill, another piece of life’s turmoil that I could reflect on and work with, deepening my practice. What could be more valuable?

*

6.

*

Above that book is one by someone whose path took the form of a benefactor, touching thousands of people’s lives. For about twenty years he hosted a free-wheeling radio show on New York’s favorite leftist independent station. He brought a cornucopia of spiritual teachers and other notable or obscure individuals to the airwaves – you never knew who would be on that show. Mother Teresa? Yes. The Dalai Lama? Check. Alan Watts answered his questions, too. His presence was like a bright, bouncing sun – passionate, intense, incisive. A month before I moved to the Zen community he appeared at my workplace near Columbia University on a rainy afternoon. He pulled me outside to the curb to meet the man who would soon become the most important teacher in my life. It was a gift. His boundless zeal was evident again one night when he initiated a few of us in a tantric rite that involved chanting and swallowing a pinch of a mysterious dried herb. Another time, also during his Tibetan phase, he and his wife asked me to drop by their house. They gave me a beautifully crafted bell and dorje and a set of beads in a simple act of shared enthusiasm. There was no hidden agenda.

He wasn’t afraid to shout out his opinions during community meetings but never held a grudge. One felt energized when he was in the room. He died too young but his books live on, right in front of me on the shelf, poised to ripple the shores of the next reader’s mind – and heart.

*

7.

*

Over here are two books by the man behind it all, my teacher. We had our ups and downs. He disappointed me deeply once but he also inspired me and taught me well. I am indebted to him for five years of life-transforming practice. Whether deep or on the surface, the ripples from what I learned during those five years always flow through my life. And if I find myself forgetting the teachings I can always pick up one of these books and let the words wash over me.

***


44 comments

  1. Darn, Amiga. I had to stop reading at #1 because I could not stop crying. Your words were a catalyst/ a release valve, I suppose.

    First I read this and sort of frowned – did I read that correctly? ” Here’s a book by the woman whose dog ate my pet cockatiel. ” Then I resumed. chuckled when I read that you were relieved… and then, oh. No. You dear and beautiful soul.

    “Of course, the drowning reverberated through my life. ”

    Of course it did.

    I will read #1 again before going to sleep – and I need the sleep – and will resume tomorrow with this beautiful post.

    You are one amazing, sensitive and quietly powerful woman. Toss in a mountain’s worth of talent as well!

    Love, Lisa

    Like

    • You’re very kind, amiga. I guess it’s not surprising that you’d be moved by that narrative. And of course, the first sentence was a hook to get the reader interested – I’m glad you chuckled – what an association, right? I know many people, perhaps most, would not go on to write about what I did after that but something compels me to write about important events, especially the difficult ones. Partly, it’s a way to understand one’s own life better, don’t you think? I’ll get back to your blog soon – looks like something very interesting happened recently! Thanks for your affection, Lisa.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’ was hard but everyone has difficult experiences and we usually get through them, one way or another. I know that many people wouldn’t choose to write so personally on a public blog and I have no interest in being a “true confessions” kind of writer. But it can be helpful to others who might feel alone in their pain, hopefully. Thanks for your comment, Jo, I appreciate it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this very personal post and insights in your life Lynn. The photos are well chosen and fit perfectly into your narratives. The death of your friend must have been a heavy shock, but I am glad to read that Zen helped you to cope with it! I can’t imagine how it is to live and cope with such strong feelings! There is a bit more of “grist for the mill” in your article I would say 😉 Things you afterwards question if they were right or wrong, but that is just the way life is, right? Like the death of an animal that can be a relief, when you are not ready for it. You had an exciting life, interesting encounters, lovely teachers that shaped your path. Funny, that you can find them all in that bookstore 🙂 Do you still practice Zen today or is it rather another way of studying it by reading books? I love your expression of “let the words wash over me”! So the ripples of water of that dark day transformed into ripples of understanding and love, of spirituality, of finding your way through the ups and downs of life. Thank you for being so open Lynn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I can count on you to think about the images and not just the words, Almuth. 🙂 Yes, life brings difficult times as well as great times and we have to figure out how to deal with all of it. Age makes you think more and more about what happened in your life. Writing it down helps to organize it all. It seems like there have been so many important experiences…and yes, it’s funny that so many people I knew from those years are writers whose books are on the shelves at my favorite bookstore. For years, whenever I went to a new bookstore I would look at that section and notice all the books by people I knew. One day this week it suddenly occurred to me that I could write about my experiences with these authors and provide a framework for some images I wanted to post at the same time. It was one of those nice “Aha!” moments that a sip of espresso can generate. 😉
      I’d like to say I still practice seated meditation but I don’t. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think and read about Zen – I certainly do. Originally I only read about Buddhism and I was skeptical about joining a group but living in a Zen community turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Thank you for a lovely comment, Almuth!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your reflections—visual and narrative—provoke admiration for your ability to reveal so much observation and pain. Your willingness to make yourself emotionally vulnerable is touching and can only make us feel closer to you. Peace, dear Lynn.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual, beautifully crafted, Lynn. The pensive images you have captured of light playing on the vibrating skin of the water frozen in time are made all the more poignant by the accompanying personal narrative… simply splendid.

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    • And your comment is splendid, my friend! Thank you very much. The photos were sitting in a draft post and I hadn’t yet decided how to present them. Standing in the bookstore, espresso in hand, I had a sudden inspiration about those books. Then I realized the idea could fit with the photos. It’s nice when it happens that way. Have a good week!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was interesting to read of all your connections related to the books you saw.

        We are having a mini heatwave here – not quite as hot as some other parts of the UK, but 30 C at 1 o’clock tonight will be plenty hot enough for me 🌡🔥

        Enjoy the rest of your week!

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  5. As the years pass by us, events and feelings, especially the difficult ones, begin to be faced with a distance that “breaks their contours” and, in a way, neutralizes feelings.
    It was perhaps this passage of time that allowed this post to be written in such a brilliant, profound and beautiful way.
    Magnificent photos of the game between light/reflections/water and nature.
    This is a post with “the sensitivity to the flower of the skeen”…from Lynn and from water!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So Beautiful Lynn. I am moved by your honesty. I do love these posts where I learn more about you, and your life, the experiences, the adventures. And I was drawn into the photos in a way I probably wouldn’t have been without the text that led me deeper and deeper in. Perfectly paired.
    I can’t even imagine the tragedy of trying, but failing to rescue a friend.
    I too would have been angry about being relegated to the kitchen, although I understand now how these kinds of experiences are grist for the mill. I wonder if it was because you were a girl, female. That idea makes *me* angry.
    Although I didn’t follow the Zen path I have many friends who did, and Alan Watts “Psychotherapy East and West” was an early eye-opener for me.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting observation about being more drawn to explore the images because of the text. I’m always interested in how text and image relate. It’s not easy writing so personally but I somehow feel compelled to do it from time to time – it’s risky to expose yourself like this and it’s good to know that it’s appreciated. Oh, that book! That’s from so long ago….I really liked it, too. I was very skeptical about joining any group but the opportunity to study with a great teacher came at just the right time. Thanks so much for your comment, Alison.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m so glad you were willing to share more of yourself. What a journey you’ve been on! I know what you mean about it feeling risky, but I found people generally appreciate it. I started doing personal posts quite a long time ago – even did one called, appropriately, Way Out On a Limb. The blog was born as a record of Don’s and my 5+ years of nomadic travel and I committed from the start to share the inner journey as well as the outer.
        Alison

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  7. You are an excellent writer, Lynn, and revealing your tragic experience of losing your friend laid the groundwork for the rest of your story about reflection and growth. That must have been a profoundly difficult time. The pet cockatiel story is somehow a fitting metaphor. Your images pair beautifully to the ripples in your life. The first and the fourth speak to me- like pen and ink drawings. Stunning post. 🤍

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane, thank you for reading. It wasn’t an easy time but most of us go through really difficult periods and writing about it helps put it into perspective. I think one’s ideas about and memories of certain experiences change over time so it can be valuable to revisit the memory. Your sensitive comments are very much appreciated (so maybe it’s OK to get that personal?) 🙂 And that pen and ink look is what I was trying to bring out, good!.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very creative post. I like how you combined the excerpts and zen-like images. I like the way in most of the images the branches seem to be lightly touching the water. I especially love 6 and that intriguing bit go green!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those branches did touch the water – I’ve photographed that lake quite a few times (which reminds me that back in NY once I photographed the same thing in ice so it wasn’t about the reflections but the ice connected the branch tips to the water- cool!). #6 may be my favorite, too. I wavered between pure black and white and a little color…tried to back off the contrast, too, to soften the reflections. Thanks for your thoughts, Denise.

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  9. I think the way you relate a deeply tragic event from your life intertwined with another incident that is also sad (but also somehow funny) is very skillful.  The failed rescue of your friend would have been difficult to put into words without this combination.  In addition, you embed both in the framework of the visit to a bookstore and thus put another cushion around the all too painful.
    Learning about people who were important in your life for a while and who shared your spiritual experiences, is what allows us your encounter with the other books.  These beings also came and went, albeit in a much gentler way.
    In most of these memoirs I also read about dealing with the influence spiritual male teachers have on their students.
    A bracket around everything forms Zen.  And for all (little) I know about it seems not only to form the core of these memories, but also to shine from the photos.
    You bravely and open-heartedly give us a deep look into your history, thank you for your trust.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are wise words about “cushioning” and the bookstore framework, Ule, thank you. And of course, I’ve thought a lot about the male teacher/female student dynamic but I didn’t want to bring that discussion to this post. Maybe another time, maybe not. This was personal enough! 😉 I really appreciate your recognition of the risks and trust implicit in this undertaking. In spite of all the trite, confessional self-absorption that permeates our world today, I still think there’s a place for sincere memoir writing.
      And it pleases me that you sense a kind of Zen influence in the images. Thank you SO much for commenting. It’s helpful.

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  10. The experience of seeing your friend drown and being unable to help must have been so difficult to reconcile. I can understand how that would stay with you for a lifetime. I don’t know that much about what Buddhism can offer in healing but imagine it was helpful.

    I admire folks like you who could commit to the exercises necessary to practice Buddhism. I just don’t have the discipline. The closest I came to Buddhism was not close at all. I had a friend who was partners in a small French restaurant in Northampton, MA. For a short time they shared their home with the Dalai Lama, I think it was shelter while he was in exile but am not positive, and I was supposed to meet him but that never happened. Who knows what effect it might have had on me but likely my own lack of pursuit of the mystical would have prevented there from being a serious change in my path. But who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

    • If there’s a type that commits to exercises, I’m not it! It’s hard. And I resisted the idea of joining any group for years because I generally don’t like organized clubs, groups, or religions. At a particularly tough time in my life though, I thought I would visit a zen center I’d heard about, just to give it a try. It was a good experience so I went back. It felt right and about 6 months later I moved in. It’s much, much easier to practice meditation regularly in a group setting than all by yourself. I know Northampton has a longstanding connection with Tibetan Buddhism but I wonder if it was a different Tibetan rinpoche that your friends hosted. The Dalai Lama fled India in 1959, accompanied by a small entourage. He was about 24 years old. It took them weeks to cross Tibet into India, where he’s been ever since, except for traveling. At least that’s the public information. But the question you pose is interesting. 🙂

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      • I am not sure what denominations were in existence in Noho since I was not involved. I am like you, or like you were, in not wanting to be part of any organized religion.

        There are so many “what ifs” during one’s lifetime. Although not at all under the same circumstances, I am in somewhat constant mourning and feeling guilty for an ex-girlfriend’s disappointment from many years ago. (One of my jokes is that my strengths is in disappointing women 🙂 She was not the only one. ) I was not mature enough to return the love she showed me and we morphed into friends. But I’ve always regretted and felt guilt for my cluelessness at the time when I could have been a better boyfriend. But…she ended up dying of brain cancer in 1998. We had not spoken in a while and I only found out in a newspaper obit. Not sure what I would have done but I certainly would have done something to offer her confort. At any rate, I would not have been avaialble when Mary Beth re-entered my life had our relationship worked and being paired with her is wonderful and all I could hope for in a partner. I would not say things worked out for the best but life certainly is better being married to Mary Beth than being a widower. And that statement is part of my guilt. Not sure this was the best place for all of that but in a way it is connected.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a tough thing to live with – how awful that you found out about her death in the newspaper. Guilt can be a hard, sticky companion, right?
          If one thing had been changed, maybe everything would have changed…maybe your marriage to her wouldn’t have lasted and you wouldn’t have been a widower, or she would have died much later, or, or….you never know. Thanks for being so open. Life!!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, guilt follows me everywhere I go. It just comes to me naturally…a talent I would prefer to not have in such profusion. It’s good to have a conscience though. Those ors keep me awake some nights. 🙂 Thanks, Lynn!

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