Thursday, September 25, 2008

"the heart was strangely open"

walking home this evening with the first chill of fall on a breeze beginning to coax the turning leaves from the branches, a melancholic sweetness fills me. i experience a momentary mingling in that deep sea where laughter and tears together reside...sensing a brisk aliveness in my being as the crisp mountain air tousles my hair and simultaneously the transience of it all. no matter what, in this life, it seems that death is always a hairbreadth away. impermanence, the grand trump. absolutely no evading it and hence, a fierce invitation to live with full presence and an open heart, from moment to moment, with exactly what is. a reality that i drift to and fro again and again in consciousness. remembering seems to come most vividly in nature...through poetry...and music. the reason for this is no mystery to me.

"last night they came with news of death
not knowing what i would say.

i wanted to say,
"the green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat."

i wanted to say,
"the apple blossom flakes like ash
covering the orchard wall."

i wanted to say,
"the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead."

they asked if i would sleep that night,
i said i did not know.

for this loss i could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when i said, "he is no longer here"
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief."

"news of death" by david whyte
from his book "where many rivers meet"

oil on canvas "autumn breeze" by jeanette james

Sunday, September 21, 2008

only trying to outrun the noise

the calling
by: mary chapin carpenter

"deep in your blood or a voice in your head
on a dark lonesome highway
it finds you instead
so certain it knows you, you can't turn away
something or someone has found you today

genius or jesus, maybe he's seen us
but who would believe us
i can't really say
whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling
you follow it knowing
there's no other way, there's no other way

there are zealots and preachers
and readers of dreams
the righteous yell loudest
and the saved rise to sing
the lonely and lost are just waiting to hear
any moment their purpose
will be perfectly clear

and then life would mean more
than their name on their door
and that far distant shore that's so near
they'd hear the calling
and stumbling and falling
they'd follow it knowing
there's nothing to fear
nothing to fear

i don't remember a voice
on a dark, lonesome road
when I started this journey so long ago
i was only just trying to outrun the noise
there was never a question of having a choice

jesus or genie, maybe they've seen me
but who would believe me
i can't really say
whatever the calling, the stumbling and falling
i followed it knowing there's no other way"

Friday, September 19, 2008

de-stressin' at the pig house

a friday night out with some of my students from last semester. they took me to "the pig house!" samgyupsal (a small piece of grilled pork wrapped in a lettuce leaf with grilled garlic, onion, mushroom, sesame leaf and "special sauce") is one of the only ways i will do pork. that and a good ol' BLT!
all three of them are studying hard to pass the TOEIC exam this fall so they can apply for foreign exchange student programs in the u.s. and canada. the competition is steep. after dinner they headed off to more english classes and study groups. on a friday night. it amazes and disturbs me what stress the students go through here in order to get ahead.

i'm in the middle of listening to an interview with dr. esther sternberg on the radio show, speaking of faith. she is a rheumatologist and researcher, author of the book, "the balance within: the science connecting health and emotions." i highly recommend giving the interview a listen for an insightful look at stress, perception, the stress response and the impact on the mind/body. the connection between the nervous system and the immune system, i found fascinating. with the frantic pace that is becoming the lifestyle of so many people worldwide, it seems that many of our illnesses now and in the future will be traced to inappropriate stress response, staying in flight or flight for too long or not long enough, which apparently has A LOT to do with perception."the brain and the immune system continuously signal each other, often along the same pathways, which may explain how state of mind influences health."
-from esther sternberg and philip gold's article, "the mind-body interaction in disease," published in scientific american

Monday, September 15, 2008

the underbelly of buddhism

after throwing off my monk's robes and fleeing the zen retreat from hell, some insights wake me this morning.

the actual practices of chanting, bowing, sitting and walking in silent meditation are tried and true gateways to a clear, calm mind, a sense of well being and ease, and the cultivation of compassion and wisdom. in many other contexts i have experienced most of these forms to be extremely powerful. ultimately, when i discovered buddhist teachings and began to practice meditation and mindfulness five or so years ago, it changed my life inside out. i have deep respect and affinity for the dharma and the practices.

however, at this particular monastery in korea, the practices i know very well and love felt oppressive. the purity and richness sucked right out. i was to bow down to a particular man, even while chanting. i've experienced chanting as a beautiful door to becoming one with sound, experiencing interconnected being. however, the purity of this practice was tainted by having to do prostrations at the feet of a man who demonstrated not a hint of humility or wisdom.

as a woman, i was to enter buildings separately from men and follow behind them in walking meditation. while sitting in meditation the head monk periodically walked behind us with a stick and if we wanted to be hit, we were to signal him with a bow and then a loud "WHACK" echoed throughout the hall. violent and startling to say the least. for the first time, i personally experienced the patriarchal, misogynistic roots of buddhism. my place as a woman within that traditional form was crystal clear. and at this particular temple, a man who held horrifyingly simplistic, sexist values was to be my master, my guide, my teacher.

it is possible that this form of buddhist thought would attribute the domination and higher privileges of men over women as karmic. those humans who are born female in this lifetime deserve all the ways they are subjected to the power of men because of some negative karmic doing in the past. those who are born male, on the other hand, must have completed magnificent karmic deeds and accumulated great merit to be granted such holy status and power in a lifetime. humans who suffer from poverty, illness, or war are in that position simply because of their negative karma. i see how this way of thinking could enable a person to say, "don't think dualistically, things are the way that they are for a reason. transcend. pray to be born a male in your next life." that is an awfully convenient logic for those who are privileged and powerful. no responsibility taken. no measure of effort given to change the conditions that cause such great suffering in the world.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

three strikes and i'm outta here

why do you have two eyes?
where were you before you were born

these are the "don't know mind" questions the zen master abbot asked me in my interview with him during the meditation retreat i attended this weekend, or should i say, half a meditation retreat i attended. my friend and i fled in a taxi this morning at 7am when no one was looking.

more on the zen master abbot later.

after visiting many temples in thailand last january, i felt a pretty strong disenchantment with buddhism in asia. this weekend, we broke up.

my friend and i arrived at the temple yesterday morning at 9 am. it was a three hour journey from where we live. we checked in, were given our monks' robes and then shown to our rooms. thankfully, it didn't appear that it would be a repeat of the buddha's birthday temple stay at unmunsa last may, where there were piles of women crammed into one room like sardines. there were only about 15 lay participants in this co-ed retreat. i shared a room with three other women. we slept korean style with each our own mat and a blanket on the floor.

orientation began right off the bat. no warm welcome, we just got right down to the nitty gritty details. it seemed that the monk who was leading our retreat may have been in the military at some point. orientation took all morning. the number of details we were given to remember and later demonstrate was downright insane for a two day retreat, especially with the level of rigidity and reprimanding that went along with mistakes. the formal meal process alone was enough to make me sweat, not to mention the chanting ritual etiquette, how and when to do the different prostrations, very particular sitting and walking form, etc... i felt like a jr. high school student again: clumsy, insecure, terrified of being scolded in front of others by the almighty authority figure. it was not pleasant.

our first formal meal was lunch. i almost started choking to death on some red pepper paste that got caught in the back of my throat. and i ended up making a massive mistake during the meal. i drank the water that was meant to be saved for the after-meal offering. oh holy jesus. when i realized what i had done, my heart stopped beating. the head monk noticed my faux paux, got up, and came over with the kettle to pour me some new offering water. he did not have an air of compassion or lightheartedness. it was serious business and it was pretty clear that i now had a score of strike 1. at least he didn't hit me with a stick.

the abbot (a westerner who has been a monk in korea now for 20 years) gave a sleepy, hardly coherent dharma talk before we began practicing sitting and walking meditation in the afternoon. instead of getting restless and judgmental immediately, i decided to just sit with the feeling of being bored and see what might be underneath, but all there seemed to be was more and more boredom and a whole lot of judgments about this guy's lack of intelligence. i felt really irritated that he was the abbot of this monastery, that i had to bow down to him, and be subjected to his dull and repetitive thoughts.
the one part of the dharma talk that caught my attention was the stick he kept waving around and bumping into the microphone cord, creating a lot of extra noise. it seemed so odd to me that this "mindful" zen master didn't seem to be aware of his surroundings, however, by the time i left the retreat, i wasn't so sure that mindfulness was part of this particular tradition anyway. we were to scarf down all of our meals within 5-10 minutes. we cleaned our dishes as fast as humanly possible. the last person to finish was always stared at by the head monk and abbot as if they were about to be sent to the corner with a dunce cap. frightening. and we did walking meditation in a single file line as briskly paced as mall walkers. i have never experienced such an approach within buddhism. but, then again, this was my first retreat outside of northern california!

it occurs to me that perhaps i should not speak negatively of the abbot of a monastery. i'm sure i'm breaking some rule. however, my first impression of him energetically was very negative/creepy and my experiences to follow were quite disturbing.

during the afternoon sitting and walking meditation, my adolescent fear came to fruition. i was scolded in front of the class! after three hours of silent sitting meditation, i felt as if a knife was stabbing me between my shoulder blades. so, during walking meditation, to relieve some of the tension in my upper back, i clasped my hands behind me, resting them on my low back. the correct form is to walk with your hands clasped on your upper belly. the ex-military monk saw my posture and said in a gruff, loud voice, "put your hands on your stomach." strike 2. i did as he commanded, but a holy hell of rage unleashed itself inside.

after dinner, i had my interview with the abbot. the head monk chose me to go first. i was instructed to enter the room and do a full prostration at his feet. bowing down on my hands and knees, forehead to the ground. it was all i could do not to vomit in his lap.
after the prostration, i sat on a cushion facing him and we had an alpha stare down. i felt not an inkling of fear or intimidation. i did not look away. i don't think i even blinked. finally, as he broke eye contact he said, "so do you have a question?" i asked, "do men and women have equal rights and privileges in this particular sect of buddhism?" he asked me to clarify what i meant. i thought i'd stated it pretty clearly the first time. i think he was groping for time to figure out his answer because i've never seen a monk fumble so uncomfortably. when he could finally get the words out he said that monks and nuns in this form of buddhism could be compared to the priests and nuns in catholicism. he said that men do have privileges that women don't have. then he went on to defend the inequality by saying that "mens (yes, "menS") can do things that womens (yes, "womenS") can't do and womens can do things that mens can't do. "for example," he said, "womens can cook, clean and sew better than the mens. have you ever been to a women's monastery? it's much cleaner. and mens may be able to get a higher paying job while womens can have more security in the home. and womens get to have motherhood. mens can't have children." i just stared, jaw hanging half way open. appalled. disgusted. a volcano of seething, hot rage inside. this zen master went on to encourage me not to think in opposites, not to think dualistically, as it will only keep me from experiencing a calm mind, which is my true nature. he urged me to have "don't know mind', to have clear mind, to accept what is. finally, i stopped him and said, "so, are you saying that patriarchy, the oppression of women, is acceptable just the way it is?" he had nothing new to say, he only repeated his spiel about not thinking dualistically.

then he asked me the two questions that i posted above under the first picture. all that i could muster was a half ass "hmmmph," all the while continuing to look at him with bewilderment and disdain. he ended by telling me to just be here in the moment, right here and now. i did the closing bow and then left. my entire body was shaking with anger. instead of going back upstairs to the sitting meditation, i went outside. i wanted to throw myself down on the earth and sob. pretty soon the ex-military monk came outside and told me to get upstairs to finish the meditation. strike 3. i didn't move. i just stared at him. he stared back. finally, he turned around and went back inside. after a couple of minutes i went in and took a seat on my cushion.

the following two hours of sitting silently were like a wild and crazy dream. i felt out of my mind with madness. murderous rage. at certain points, i wanted to jump up off my seat and run. to run and keep on running far away from there. memories from all stages of my life of times when i felt captivity and a desperate need for freedom passed through my mind. my thoughts were moving quickly but with intense clarity. it began to feel as though the anger was burning through my body and mind, purifying it, cleansing, like a forest fire burns away so that new growth can emerge. finally my mind began to settle into a clear stillness. that is when it became 100% apparent that i really did have to leave the retreat. i could not stomach bowing down to that abbot one more time. i could not follow behind men in walking meditation anymore. i just could not. and i knew what i had to do.

that evening in the dark, outside of earshot, my friend and i devised our plan of escape, as we both felt similarly about the oppressive energy of the place and the attitude of the head monks.

we awoke at 3am and took part in the chanting ritual and then were to do 108 prostrations. i probably only did about 60. my quads are still quivering. after that, we did sitting meditation. i left halfway through and went back to bed until 6am. according to the escape plan i thought it best for me to disappear for awhile during practice time so that my complaint of being ill would seem more realistic. after breakfast, i found a nun and told her that i was sick....diarrhea and a migraine! she took me to a medicine cabinet and began gathering all kinds of korean medication for me to take. suddenly, i realized i would be in a predicament if she wanted me to ingest the medication then and there, so i stopped her and said, "i really just need to go home." she told me i had to get the head monk's permission.

so, i found him. i told him my situation and at first he wanted me to go to the hospital. i told him "absolutely not, i don't go to hospitals unless i'm dying. i have medicine at home to treat this." he agreed but wanted me to wait two hours for the office to open before leaving so that they could try to rebook our train tickets. when i went back to tell my friend, she said, "i don't have a good feeling about that. let's get a taxi now, go straight to the train station and rebook our own tickets." so, we found a woman who spoke korean and she called a taxi for us using her cell phone. within ten minutes we had thrown off our monks' robes, packed our things, and slipped out down a backwoods path to catch our ticket to freedom.

our grand escape was accompanied by immense feelings of liberation!

and three discoveries from this weekend:

1. my longing to someday experience a monastic life has been given a serious reality check
2. my dharma path most certainly includes the continued fight for women's rights and liberation
3. a state of absolute fearlessness

Thursday, September 11, 2008

black beans, mad men, and backlash texas

here i thought i'd have so much free time this semester! hah! i had ecstatic visions of spacious weekday mornings to do yoga and meditation, piles of time to call friends and family back home, head off to school at noon for class and return for long and quiet evenings to read, blog, work out, practice strumming my guitar, study korean, experiment with new recipes and all the whole foods' treasures i lugged across the ocean in my suitcase. this beautiful life actually looked like a possibility on paper. after the first week of classes, however, it was clear that it had been a case of wishful thinking. sad to say, i may become a once-a-week blogger.

due to the change in plan, i have had to prioritize. difficult for a gemini rising, but being the cancer sun that i am, cooking landed in the front seat. so, two weeks ago, i purchased a rice cooker and have made brown rice every few days that seems to go fantastically with pretty much anything else i create. i steam or bake fish regularly and make gorgeous salads with a colorful array of organic veggies from EMART! i baked banana bread that was almost vegan, except for the egg.
being that i could eat black beans and salsa every day, neither of which can be found in korea, i packed my suitcase full. well, yes salsa can be found, but it's imported from belgium and has a frightening consistency, like hair gel. since returning to korea, i have learned to make black beans from scratch. a long soak and lots of cumin seem to be the secret. it's breakfast burritos every morning and i'm the happiest camper!

i can't believe it took a year of living abroad to figure out how much it would contribute to my sense of well being and health to be able to cook nutritious meals for myself. so, quite a bit of my free time right now is devoted to planning and preparing my daily epicurean experiences! reading michael pollan's book, "in defense of food," over the summer, inspired me to revamp my eating habits and my relationship with food while in korea. berkeley poses no problem in this regard, but here the task can feel daunting.

other than cooking, i've been focused on doing at least some yoga every day and practicing chords on the guitar. i find that playing music, even in the simplest way, is deeply nourishing and fun! i used to play the piano when i was young. or shall i say, i was forced to play the piano. i don't really ever remember enjoying my lessons. i always wanted to be somewhere else...outside climbing trees, riding bikes, playing volleyball against the side of the house, reading in my room, working on my "novel!" once my mother organized a piano recital to take place in our home. i had to wear a long, flowing, yellow gown with not a single long, golden lock of hair out of place. i vividly recall the sense of dread. i think i also had punch-pouring duties.

sometimes when i am watching the current television series, "mad men," the time period feels strangely familiar, even though it takes place during the tail end of the 50's and early 60's (before the revolution), and i grew up in the late 70's/early 80's. this may have something to do with the fact that we lived in backlash texas during the reagan years and attended bible studies and fundamentalist revival churches in people's homes at the ends of long dirt roads. deep in the heart of texas, a girl with long blonde hair and nice dresses, piano playing fingers, and the ability to speak in tongues were a sure combo for success. as often as i could, i bolted out of the house in my bare feet, a ratty, old t-shirt and shorts and ran wild in the woods till dark. those barefoot times are the most vivid of childhood memories that i have where i felt a true connection to who i really was, underneath the long flowing garb, perfectly combed long hair, one too many hallelujahs, and a knot in my stomach over the fact that i couldn't speak in tongues.

a funny thing happened the other day that led me down this particular memory lane. i caught site of my reflection in a store window and a voice in my head exclaimed, "damn! your hair is so SHORT! it's so you. and this is who you've always been."

it was one of those moments of deep recognition.

and i saw then and there how over 25 years of long, blonde hair had surely done a number on me. way too much projection and biblical "hair is a woman's beauty" bibble babble bull. way too much weight to be carrying around. and i felt so grateful for that day about 4 years back when i marched into the hair salon and said "cut it all off." and she did.

recently, i took these photos of a pond on campus with the first few lotus blossoms of the never ceases to amaze me, the vibrant aliveness that can manifest itself from the mud.

Friday, September 5, 2008

with hope on my shoulder

the backpack i carry everywhere i go wears a button with this image of barack obama.

a picture of hope.

a symbol of change.

countless koreans have noticed and with enthusiastic delight say, "OBAMA!! BARACK OBAMA!!"

this button has received not a single speck of negative feedback and continues to inspire excited conversation about the future of the u.s. with almost everyone i meet.

it puts a bounce in my step to discover how many people abroad are hopeful (and desperate) for a regime change in november '08.

Monday, September 1, 2008

perhaps we are like stones...

as i settle into this quiet, drizzly monday evening, the first day of fall semester coming to a close....i take down a book from the shelf. "a chorus of stones: the private life of war" by susan griffin.

"the soul is often imagined to be feminine. all those qualities thought of as soulful, a dreaminess or artistic sensibility, are supposed to come more naturally to women. ephemeral, half seen, half present, nearly ghostly, with only the vaguest relation to the practical world of physical law, the soul appears to us as lost. the hero, with his more masculine virtues, must go in search of her. but there is another, older story of the soul. in this story she is firmly planted on the earth. she is incarnate and visible everywhere. neither is she faint of heart, nor fading in her resolve. it is she, in fact, who goes bravely in search of desire."

in my opinion, susan griffin is one of the most brilliant and exquisite writers of our time.

through her stunning use of poetic prose, she explores the nature of war and gender, examining the interplay between private suffering and public tragedy.

"i am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the natural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. for perhaps we are like stones, our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung."

susan griffin illuminates the long, long legacy of both personal and collective denial that many of us surely know so well...each family, each nation with its own measure of secrecy and hidden truths.

"how old is the habit of denial? we keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know. the public was told that old dresden was bombed to destroy strategic railway lines. there were no railway lines in that part of the city. but it would be years before that story came to the surface.
i do not see my life as separate from history. in my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. nor is my life divided from the lives of others. i, who am a woman, have my father's face. and he, i suspect, had his mother's face."