I don’t know why I was born with this belief
in something deeper and larger than we can see.
But it’s always called.
Even as a boy, I knew that trees and light and sky
all point to some timeless center out of view.
I have spent my life listening to that center
and filtering it through my heart.
This listening and filtering is the music of my soul,
of all souls.
After sixty years, I’ve run out of ways to name this.
Even now, my heart won’t stand still.
In a moment of seeing, it takes the shape of my eye.
In a moment of speaking, the shape of my tongue.
In a moment of silence, it slips back into the lake of center.
When you kiss me, it takes the shape of your lip.
When our dog sleeps with us, it takes the shape of her curl.
When the hummingbird feeds her baby, it takes the shape of her beak
carefully dropping food into our throats.
There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.
Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.
— Thomas Merton
“Matthew, can I visit you?” Sr. Marijo was on the other end of the line.
“Sure, Sister! I would love that.”
A flood of wonderful memories crossed through Matthew’s mind as he told me that we were going to have a visitor. He remembered this quote from Thomas Merton, who has largely influenced his life:
I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.
Sr. Marijo introduced Zen to Matthew almost 40 years ago. With a small group of friends, they would regularly visit her and sit in meditation together. Needless to say, it was a life changing experience for them. Since then, Matthew shares to me how Zen has helped him deepen his Christian faith and how it has helped him cope with the challenges of life. (see this blog post: A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen).
I really enjoyed listening to their animated conversation and as Matthew describes it, “It’s as if the conversation just stopped for a while and we took off from where we left off.” I guess these are just the stuff that real friendships are made of.
This year, Matthew and I were quite busy. We became godparents to the highly energetic and lovable son of Alex and Robe Ann. We were also able to attend the 50th Golden Anniversary of our godparents, Tito Peter and Tita Dory. It was so much fun to meet and catch up with many people we’ve not seen in a long time.
Also, this year, our endeared godparent Tito Tony passed away. We are saddened by the loss of one of the most generous persons that we have ever known. Thank you, Tito Tony for everything.
Of course, we cannot end this letter without mentioning our blog. Now on its eighth year, we have grown to have 319 followers and have reached a whooping 404,265+ hits! We are happy because people are visiting our blog, liking our posts and our cyber community continues to grow.
May the blessings of Christmas be with you. May the Christ Child light your way. May God’s holy angels guide you, and keep you safe each day.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.
Matthew and Jojang
A few days ago, Leonard Cohen, one of the finest poets and songwriters of our times, passed away at the age of 82. But just before he died, about a month ago, David Remnick of The New Yorker interviewed him.
I was shocked and saddened by the news of his death. I didn’t know that he was very sick, because he wanted to keep his illness private, until today when I listened to David Remnick’s interview.
At one point in the interview he said:
I’m ready to die. I just hope that it’s not uncomfortable.
Poignant though the interview was, it was always accompanied by Cohen’s self-deprecating humor.
Cohen always found comfort in his religion; he was a practicing Jew. Since he was a child, he always carried within himself a sense of God’s presence. And he felt that, every now and then, God spoke to him. At one point in the interview, Cohen said that God was still speaking to him. But he was no longer the harsh, judgmental and vindictive God of his youth.
Towards the end of his life he found a compassionate and merciful God.
Since the early 70s he also practiced Zen meditation. In the mid-90s he stayed in a Zen monastery. He only left the monastery 7 years ago when he found out that his manager defrauded him of his lifetime savings. Left with almost nothing for his retirement and his kids, he decided to work again. He published his first book of poems after 20 years. Then proceeded to tour, performing in sold-out concerts for the 4 next years.
At any rate, he suffered from debilitating pain due to his illness. Unable to take his pain killing medicines, his Zen practice came in handy. He was able to cope with his pain through meditation, enabling him to work on and finish his last album, You Want It Darker, which I consider his parting gift to each of us.
If you’re interested to listen to David Remnick’s interview please click this link:
I have been reading about freedom in confined spaces. How a prison cell can become a practice ground. I have never been to a prison and somewhere in my mind I have an image of a cell as a stark, empty place, a place of isolation and silence. It does not seem a far leap to link the word “cell” with a monk’s quarters.
Paradoxically, the most vivid the world has ever been to me was during a sesshin, a week-long Zen meditation retreat. No television, no books, no writing, no eye contact, no radio, a strict schedule and limitations everywhere.
All of a sudden the empty world around me was alive – a teacup filled with magenta, a colour my eyes had never witnessed, the syllables in the chant book leaping off the page, each one distinct and embodied with life. I wonder what this space of silence is, where what seems to be empty is in fact very full and what feels like a prison can be a vast open space? With this in mind, I go to meet Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Sister Elaine lives in a modest house on a crescent in a residential, east-end Toronto neighbourhood. This is the main house belonging to Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949. It looks as if it could be an old people’s home or a retirement community; nothing spectacular here. On the inside there isn’t anything obviously religious about the space – just a communal kitchen with a long counter, a living room with large windows looking out onto a ravine, violets growing in the windows, a sofa and some modest chairs, a coffee table with a doily, a calendar on the wall. Not a cross or icon in sight.
Sister Elaine MacInnes has been on the phone all morning. At eighty-two, things are not really slowing down for this Roman Catholic nun who is also a Zen Roshi. She was talking to the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, where she was director for seven years. Next she had to handle an incident involving sex offenders in one of the Canadian prisons where she sends yoga and meditation teachers now. It seems that some of the teachers are uneasy working with pedophiles. Sister Elaine does not distinguish between sex offenders, murderers, political prisoners, young offenders or lifers – they are all people she can offer help to and bring a little more freedom into their trapped places. “We hold out a little hope for people in doing meditation when they are in that state,” she says confidently.
Sister Elaine has led a truly extraordinary life. When you look back, it appears to have been guided. Originally from a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after studying violin at Julliard in New York. While training to become a nun, she read the writings of St. Francis Xavier and was struck by his experience of attempting to encounter a monk on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in Japan. She made a secret vow that where he had not succeeded she would.
As fate had it, in 1961 Sister Elaine’s first missionary assignment was to Japan. Not only did she climb Mt. Hiei and meet a monk, she went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, where she lived for eight years. She then practised zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study in the Sanbo Kyodan order in Kamakura under the tutelage of Yamada Koun Roshi, from whom she received transmission in 1980 as a Roshi or “old teacher.”
In 1976, Sister Elaine was transferred to the Philippines during the worst years of the Marcos regime. It was through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila that she ended up teaching meditation to political prisoners. Her work in prisons would become her vocation.
Wearing all black clothes, the only splash of colour a cloth flower in vivid hues of orange and red attached to her lapel with a clothespin, her eyes shining as bright as the day she was born, she does not look like a monk or a nun, a Buddhist or a Catholic. Her voice has its Maritime lilt still intact despite the forty-three years she spent abroad, testimony to how vivid and true her personality is.
She may have had “the bottom fall out in a most spectacular way” when she experienced satori, but the “no-self” or “extinguishing of the self” that Zen points to has led to the much more vivid human being. No spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on. And perhaps that is her greatest majesty and greatest mystery. Sister Elaine seems ordinary, someone you might encounter on the street in a small town, a warm-hearted neighbour, and yet it is quite clear that she is the real thing, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met: a true mystic.
Surprisingly, Sister Elaine does not consider herself to be a Buddhist. In Kamakura, she studied with a unique teacher from the Sanbo Kyodan order, a mixture of the two dominant schools of Zen (Soto and Rinzai). He was a teacher who did not draw lines of division between lay people and monks, men and women, or even between religions. “You know, there is no separation. We make separation.” She describes the Sunday talks that her teacher Yamada Roshi would give, and said they were filled with Buddhist references.
“I was never moved to be a Buddhist,” she says. When people in Japan asked her about it, she would say, “Look, I was just brought up in Moncton, New Brunswick. I can’t all of a sudden say I have had a hundred lives beforehand. I was born on March 7th in 1924 and I was fresh and clean and I have my own personality. I’m not another hundred thousand people behind me.” When her teacher noticed her first breakthroughs in Zen practice, he simply said, “Now you go out and be a better Christian and a better Sister.”
Sister Elaine speaks of Zen as being about direct experience, not words or objects. “There was never anything but the right now, right here.” Even the Buddha requested that his words not be recorded. He taught from experience and it was these practices that were later to be the basis for Zen teachings, but the terms themselves and the religious elements of Buddhism were recorded later. “Scholars say the Buddha grew up in a Hindu country so that he just went back to the religious matrix of his time.”
Of her own teaching Sister Elaine says, “I have Jewish people and I have Muslims and I have people with no religion and it doesn’t bother me at all. I just try to use quite a few different terms so that people won’t get stuck on one. We don’t find it necessary to impose a god on you, we just ask you to sit down and keep quiet.” She laughs heartily at this.
“My teacher in Japan used to say ‘we are all born to be mystics.’ And I say that goes for each of us. There were twenty-four lifers who had all committed murder in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in England and I went around to each one and I said, ‘that means you’ and there wasn’t one snicker.” When Sister Elaine talks about the prisoners she works with, it is with a great deal of love and an incredible dose of optimism. “There is no guile there, you know, and they’re lovely, lovely to work with.”
In 1992, Sister Elaine was invited to become the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, UK, whose patron is the English actor Jeremy Irons. She set up a network of yoga and meditation teachers who go into penitentiaries across the UK and Eire, teaching simple yoga postures and breath-centred meditation to prisoners who voluntarily come to the classes. The idea behind the Prison Trust is that the space of a prison cell can become a practice ground, not unlike a monk’s cell.
My first image of a prison cell was perhaps a little off. Sister Elaine tells me that most of them are filled to the brim with “fifteen or twenty pictures of all kinds of different girls, a teapot, cups, all sorts of mementos…My experience working with people is that the more they go into Zen the less they need accoutrements.” So an empty cell only comes later, with an empty mind. It is also a constant struggle to find silence in a prison; they are noisy, bustling places “full of society.”
The yoga and meditation taught are a practice of “silent body, silent mind,” and apparently it works. By the time she retired from the Trust, Sister Elaine had set up eighty-six teachers in prisons across the UK and they receive thousands of letters each month from the inmates. “I would say our discipline is therapeutic and that is why it is so important for prisoners.”
The kind of zazen they teach is Shikantaza. “‘Shika’ means ‘only’ and ‘ta’ means ‘to hit’ and the ‘za’ is squatting on the floor. It is something that will hit the mark.” Simple counting of breath is emphasized, as well as correct posture. “The bottom line of meditation for a teacher is that you’re bringing people to a deeper state of consciousness and that involves something very, very touchy. There is something in practising silence the way we teach that is very safe, and to my knowledge it has never been known for anyone to crack up.”
In her prison programs, Sister Elaine felt it necessary to balance meditation practices with yoga instruction. Yoga Outreach, a charity organization based in Surrey, BC, was asked to implement a yoga program for the correctional institutions in Canada. The yoga postures taught are breath-centred to facilitate a link between body and mind.
The practice of yoga and meditation brings a space of silence to the prisoners, and with this seems to follow discipline, productivity, a sense of purpose, an alleviation of depression, a reduction in violence, and in the long run, a reduced rate of recidivism. This approach fits in with a paradigm shift slowly being introduced into the judicial system called Restorative Justice.
One of the most moving letters Sister Elaine ever received was from a nineteen-year-old prisoner: “As long as I can remember I have had a pain in my chest. When I got to prison it got worse. For one month I have been doing just what you say and I want you to know that not only is the pain better now, but for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark within myself that I can like.”
Initially, it was her experience in the Philippines that convinced Sister Elaine of the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as tools for working with prisoners. When sent to the Philippines during the Marcos regime to open a zendo (Zen meditation hall), she unwittingly attracted many dissidents into the practice.
“Boy” Morales, a renowned rebel who headed the New People’s Army against the dictatorship, asked her to come and teach meditation at the Bago Bantay detention centre, where he and nine other political prisoners were being held and tortured. It took the protection of the Canadian Embassy to ensure her safety – General Verr, the head of Marcos’ army and Intelligence, happened to owe them a favour. And so, in spite of her fears, Sister Elaine went to teach meditation to political prisoners. “I couldn’t have said no. And it was an eye opener for me how a person can change from an angry, enervated, depressed person into … I saw them come out of all their jerkings (from the shock treatment) and they became productive. But you need a lot of sitting if you want real results. In some ways you can say there are no miracles in Zen.”
Because of that work, Sister Elaine became director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. When she returned to Canada she decided to set up a similar organization here. It is called Freeing the Human Spirit and in spite of initial resistance from the Canadian prison authorities, she has managed to place yoga and meditation instructors in prisons across Canada. “You don’t find much openness toward anyone in prison in Canada, do you? There is no death sentence here, so a lot of them are going to be back on the streets again, so it is to our advantage to rehabilitate them. Prisons don’t work, that’s the first thing we have to remember.”
Even though Sister Elaine sees the flaws in our penal system, she continues to run Freeing the Human Spirit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, and she does it because it works for the prisoners. “I suppose everybody in a position like mine goes through a time when they try and get more justice in the system.” Sister Elaine recognizes that the work she does is separate from a political struggle for change. She says that if she were to take that up, it would only build a dichotomy between the officers and the prisoners. “I am staying on the prisoners’ side,” she tells me. “Other people will try and get a better idea going. I don’t know what that idea is, but Restorative Justice is a very good step.” In 2001, Sister Elaine was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
When thinking about Sister Elaine, the image I am left with is from a documentary film made about her life and work called The Fires that Burn. The image of an inmate – shaved head and tattooed arms, his muscled body suddenly looking very fragile as he holds himself in Plank pose. I have never seen anyone do yoga with such tenderness and fear before. This is clearly fertile ground – the space for things that are broken to mend in silence.
Note: Almost 40 years ago I had my first sesshin in 1978, that is, a Zen retreat, with Sr. Elaine Macinnes. Thanks to Sr. Marie Jose Garcia who introduced me and some friends to Sr. Elaine. (By the way, Sr. Marie Jose visited I and my wife yesterday. I was so happy to see her. It was almost 20 years since I last saw her).
On my first dokusan or interview with a Zen teacher, Sr. Elaine gave me the Mu-koan. It took me 20+ years before I could have some insight on the koan. But it was worth it. It happened when I attended a one-week Zen retreat with my 2nd Zen teacher, Sr. Sonia Punzalan. I wrote an account of what happened to me during that retreat in this blog post — A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen.
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
But it’s not a crime you’re here tonight
It’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah
But baby I’ve been here before
I know this room and I’ve walked this floor
You see, I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah
There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Note: Leonard Cohen’s classic song Hallelujah, since it was released in 1984, has become one of the greatest songs of all-time. Various singers, like Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Bono, Willie Nelson and Celine Dion, have their own versions of the song. To date, there are already more than 300 versions of the song. This is what Bob Dylan has to say about the song:
it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.
Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.
–Yamada Koun Roshi
After a three-month stint in the Bay Area, during which time I smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of beer, and sat a total of twice at San Francisco Zen Center, I returned to Koko An  in early October 1971 in order to participate in a seven-day sesshin, the intensive monastic-like seclusion that is presided over by a Zen master…
The sesshin was to be led by none other than “Mr. K.Y.,” the Japanese businessman whose thunder-and-lightning daigo-tettei (Great Enlightenment) account in The Three Pillars of Zen I had by now reread at least a hundred times. His initials stood for “Kyozo Yamada,” and we would come to know him as Yamada Ko’un Roshi (Ko’un being his Zen teacher name). Since he was reputed to have experienced a depth of kensho [awakening] unprecedented in modern times, a few in the Diamond Sangha, myself included, began referring to him from time to time as “the most enlightened being in the world.” I sometimes thought of him simply as “The Master.”…
Yamada Roshi had written to Bob Aitken a few months earlier, formally committing to leading this sesshin. Bob, who had come over from Maui Zendo, became noticeably excited the day he received the letter and exclaimed after evening zazen, “There are roshi and there are roshi, and we now have the best!” He then told of having met Yamada some years earlier and how he had come away greatly impressed by his bearing, personality, and almost palpable depth of enlightenment. From that point on, all of us redoubled our dedication to our practice in preparation for the retreat.
The morning Yamada Roshi arrived was one of scurrying bustle. I had no idea as to how to interact with a personage who had experienced the awesome-sounding daigo-tettei, and the butterflies in my stomach multiplied with each passing hour. Would this “best” of roshis be free of allergies and asthma attacks, unlike Bob? Would he “walk through the marketplace with arms hanging loose”? Would he have “forty undivided and very white teeth” and “eyelashes like that of a cow” or any of the other “Thirty-Two Marks of a Buddha”?
I heard him before I saw him. As he sat in the passenger seat of Bob’s car, he loudly cleared his throat, a trademark habit we would hear frequently over the coming week and beyond. He emerged from the car and moved resolutely to the trunk. From my timorous vantage point on the porch about thirty feet away I beheld a heavyset man with a wide, impassive face, about 5’5” tall, with a full head of steel-gray hair combed straight back. He was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, his gray suit jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and looking like an ordinary Japanese businessman on a hot day. Seeming to take delight in all the tropical trees that surrounded Koko An, he chuckled lightly to himself before reaching toward the trunk of the car to retrieve his luggage, but Bob tut-tutted him away and lifted the bags out himself. The small party then made their way to the tiny cottage in which Yamada Roshi would stay for the entire week of sesshin, coming out only for brief exercise walks around the block, and to deliver teisho, the formal Zen Buddhist dharma-talk given each day at 2 p.m. during the retreat.
After Yamada Roshi was settled into the cottage, Bob Aitken escorted him out onto the zendo back porch, where we had a lunch prepared. I still couldn’t muster the courage to introduce myself, so I just hung back on the fringes and tried to look as Buddha-like as possible, keeping my eyes focused on the rice, tofu, and vegetables in front of me and fixing on my face a solemn Zen Man demeanor. We all bowed to our food, and lunch proceeded with a little conversation among Aitken, Yamada Roshi, and some of the residents who were not as intimidated as I was. At one point during the meal, my brother Paul asked the Roshi if he ever ate meat. “Yes, of course,” he replied. Whereupon several hardcore vegetarians at the table choked on their tofu. He also mentioned that his tastes in music ran more to Beethoven than to anything traditionally Japanese, which he said he found too simple.
Over the previous months, an ethos of almost ascetic restraint had developed at Koko An. Thus, when Yamada Roshi reached into his pocket after lunch and extracted a silver cylindrical object, I lightheartedly imagined him awarding it to the sangha in acknowledgment of the purity of our practice: “On behalf of Zen Buddhists everywhere, I wish to thank you all so much for the example you are setting here in America. And as a token of my appreciation for your efforts, I now present to you—the Silver Buddha-Wand of Diligence.”
But instead, he unhasped the cylinder, took out a thick black stogie, and struck a match, asking of no one in particular, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?”
For months I had taken great care to wash up thoroughly after smoking a single cigarette so as not to offend overly sensitive noses, and here was our new Zen master, “the best roshi,” asking if we minded if he lit up! Someone scurried inside to retrieve a decorative clamshell that was pressed into service as an ashtray, the cigar smoke’s blue tendrils rising into the mango-scented air and a look of pure nicotine-bliss crossing the Roshi’s face. Jared Aiona (not his real name) and I, the zendo reprobates, took one look at each other and then reached into our own pockets for our packs of Kools and Marlboros, and before long the air was thick and fragrant with Sir Walter Raleigh’s revenge…
After dinner that night I finally mustered up enough courage to introduce myself. I tried to meet his eye as directly as I could, since I had read in one of my books that Zen masters always look for this kind of straightforwardness, and instead of extending my hand, I made an awkward bow, just to show him that I was savvy about at least one aspect of his culture. But he extended his own hand and said, “How do you do?” in accented but completely understandable English.
I nervously turned over in my mind the possibility that he was testing me in some way: “How do I do what?” And how should I respond if he then examined my spiritual attainment with something even more koan-like such as, “What is your original dwelling place?”
“Where are you from?” he then asked. I shuddered at my own prescience.
“New Jersey,” I replied tentatively, wondering if I should have said something more mysterious, like “The Void.”
“Ah, yes, New Jersey. My daughter is living in Hoboken.”
Over the next few days before the sesshin began, we learned more about this man who had taken several weeks out of his busy life to come lead us in our practice. He was universally recognized in Japanese Zen circles as one of the most accomplished Zen masters alive, even though he was a layman and had never spent more than a sesshin’s time in a monastery. He was also a highly successful businessman who ran the Kenbikyoin Clinic, a private hospital in Tokyo. His wife, Dr. Kazue Yamada, was one of the first female physicians in modern Japan and oversaw the medical side of things at the hospital, while Mr. K.Y. himself was its CEO. From all appearances he had completely integrated the practice of Zen with the ordinary demands of family and employment life, an integration wholly congruent with one of the major themes of his teaching—”Zen is the practice of nothing special or extraordinary.”
 Honolulu Zen center founded by Robert Aitken (1917-2010)