Browsing Category "Books"
4 May
Posted in: Books
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Lighter. Freer. Happier.

I cleared my calendar this week so I could stay home and take care of my back. (Which, by the way, is recovering nicely.) One of the side benefits is that I’ve been able to really get into reading Guy Armstrong’s excellent new book, Emptiness: A Practice Guide for Meditators, which just came out this week.

“Emptiness” may not sound very appealing. But the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” means something quite different than “void,” or “vacancy,” or “nothingness.” It’s actually the fundamental property of everything that appears in our world. It’s what allows us to change and to grow. It’s what lets us be free!

As Guy writes, “When we see that this is true in every facet of life, it changes us deeply. We become less bound to the past and able to live more in the present. The heart can let go of what it has tried to store up. This shift comes as a great relief. We feel lighter, freer, and happier.”


If you like Guy’s talks, you’ll LOVE this book. (In fact, quite a lot of his recent talks — especially the ones he gave at the February retreat at Spirit Rock — are directly from this book.)

2 May
Posted in: Books, Poems
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Soon Enough

One of the benefits of having to lie flat on my back for most of the day, which is my tried-and-true method for relieving my back (along with stretching exercises and anti-inflammatory meds), is that I can listen to lots of different kinds of on-line dharma, including this Tricycle podcast of an interview with Andrew Ostaseski about his new book, The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, in which he recites (by heart) this end-of-life poem written by one of his hospice patients, Suno:

Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray.
Soon enough the seas will sink your little island,
So while there is still the illusion of time,
Set out for some other shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
So give away all of your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don’t be afraid,
Someone knows you are coming.
An extra fish has been salted. 

21 Apr
Posted in: Books, CDL, Earth, Travel
By    Comments Off on Contemplating with Fascination

Contemplating with Fascination

In honor of Earth Day (tomorrow) and in support of the March for Science scheduled to celebrate the occasion on the National Mall, I offer this selection from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, (which I always consult before leaving home, as I am about to do, to complete the final segment of the Community Dharma Leader training program):

Cities & Eyes  3

After a seven days’ march  through woodland, the traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city and yet they have arrived. The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds support the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests and, when the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that falls on the foliage.

There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect is so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence. 


Note: In a spirit of inclusivity (heightened by my participation in the CDL program), I have changed the gender pronoun of Calvino’s traveler above from “he” to “they”.

Also note: I’ll be back in Dharma Town, ready to post again on Monday, May 1. (May Day!) Check back then.

13 Apr
Posted in: Books
By    Comments Off on Wow.


As a “welcome back from retreat” gift, one of my dharma friends gave me a copy of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I have just finished reading, and all I can say is: WOW. (And: thank you, Christy!)

This is a novel, so of course it’s not meant to be read as an instructional text in Buddhist “doctrine” — and I have no idea whether George Saunders identifies as Buddhist or not — but it is a FABULOUS read, and clearly informed by insightful reflection on the nature of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkah), and not-self (anatta).

The term “bardo,” by the way, is not found in the Theravada tradition. It’s a Tibetan concept that refers to an intermediate state between death and rebirth.

“But more generally,” according to this article in Lion’s Roar, “the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional [Tibetan] texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditation, and even the bardo of this life–which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death.

“We actually experience bardos throughout our day. When you finish reading this article [blog post] and look up, there will be a tiny gap following the end of one activity and preceding the start of another. If you notice them, these brados of everyday life are places of potential transformation.

“As it says in the London subway, ‘Mind the Gap.’ In meditation practice, you can notice the simple, non-conceptual awareness in the gap between thoughts. The bardo between death and rebirth is considered [in the Tibetan tradition] a particularly good opportunity for enlightenment.

“Bardos are spaces of potential creativity and innovation, because they create breaks in our familiar routines and patterns. In that momentary space of freedom, the fresh perception of something new and awake may suddenly arise.”


The next time you find yourself in an everyday “bardo” — pick up this book!

11 Apr
Posted in: Activism, Books
By    Comments Off on Carry What’s Beautiful into the Troubled World

Carry What’s Beautiful into the Troubled World

[Sorry for not posting yesterday. I had to spend more time than expected with plumbers. Oh, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of a nearly 100-year-old house!]

Now for today:
The May-August issue of Spirit Rock News just arrived and it includes a great article by Jack Kornfield, adapted from his new book, No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom and Joy Right Where You Are.

Here’s a sample:
To find freedom amid challenging times, we have to start where we are. How do we manage our own bodies? If our limbic system is activated into fight, flight, or freeze mode, we lose ourselves in survival consciousness. The reptilian brain takes charge, and the neocortex is limited to rehashing the past. Tidal waves of worries swamp our thoughts about what lies ahead. In difficult times, these tides of angst and fear can flow back and forth. We wonder, are things getting worse or are they simply getting uncovered? And how can we respond?

“Just start there. Tune into your heart. That is where love, wisdom, grace, and compassion reside. With loving attention, feel into what matters most to you. Yes, there are anxious thoughts, and there is grief and trauma, but don’t let your heart be colonized by fear. Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart. Go out and look at the sky. Breathe in and open yourself to the vastness of space. Sense the seasons turning, the rise and fall of dynasties and eras. Breathe out and dwell in loving awareness. Practice equanimity and steadiness. Learn from the trees. Become the still point in the center of it all…

We are in the midst of something vaster than any of our social and political dynamics. We are in the midst of the evolution of humanity. And we each have a role to play in this….

“Like the Tao, let yourself be still until the moment for right action. Be strategic. Make yourself a zone of peace. With the courage to be true to your heart, you can act…

Remember, change always starts with a small number of people. In 1787, Thomas Carlson and eleven other men started a thirty-year campaign to finally force the English parliament to outlaw slavery. In 1848, Elizabeth Lady Stanton and four other women met in upstate New York to begin the seventy-year suffrage movement that led to women’s right to vote. When you are strong in yourself, you can act with courage, dedication, and directness. When you become strategic, you join with others, choose the most important problems, and bring the most creative solution. You know what is needed. The most powerful nation on Earth must foster a vision of peace and cooperation, not spread weapons of war. The richest nation on Earth must provide health care for its children, its families. The most productive nation on Earth must combine trade with justice, sustainable development, and protection for the environment.

You can contribute. You have your heart, your voice, and your spirit. Be strategic and strong. Remember how Barbara Widener started Grandmothers for Peace. Sometimes it takes only a little loving awareness at the right moment. You can do it….

“You know the right direction….

Do not just shake your head and frown when you read the news. Do not be fooled into believing that you cannot change things. As Thomas Jefferson says, ‘One person with courage is a majority.’ You can make a difference.

“And remember, a person with courage never needs weapons, but they may need bail…

“Your family is all of humanity, all the animals, all beings on Earth. Your family includes Greens, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, and all the in-betweens. Include them all in your heart.

Live with gratitude. The times ask for a change of consciousness — a shift from the fearful, separate consciousness, the consciousness of us versus them, to the consciousness of connection and interdependence. You are already part of this shift. Now each of you, in your own way, is invited to find a freedom of spirit no matter what happens and to carry what’s beautiful into the troubled world.

(click here to read the article in full)

27 Jan
Posted in: Books, Retreats, Travel
By    Comments Off on You Already Know

You Already Know

I will not be posting again until after I get back from the 2-month retreat at Spirit Rock. The retreat ends on Mar 25th, but it will take me a while to get my “land legs” back. Check again on April 3.

In the mean time, I leave you (as is my custom) with a selection from my favorite guide book for travelers, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

Cities & Eyes 5

When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers.

If this is not your first journey, you already know that cities like this have an obverse: you have only to walk in a semicircle and you will come into view of Moriana’s hidden face, an expanse of rusting sheet metal, sackcloth, planks bristling with spikes, pipes black with soot, piles of tin, blind walls with fading signs, frames of staved-in straw chairs, ropes good only for hanging oneself from a rotten beam.

From one part to the other, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images: but instead it has no thickness, it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other. 

12 Jan
Posted in: Books
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Can’t Put It Down

Last week I posted that I was starting to read Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson. I had been reluctant to read it at first because as much as I was impressed and inspired by Johnson when he came to the CDL training retreat last fall, I wasn’t sure that I was really up for reading a “slave narrative,” no matter how intriguing the premise:

“One night in the antebellum South, a slave owner and his African-American butler stay up to all hours until, too drunk to face their wives, they switch places in each other’s beds. The result is a hilarious imbroglio and an offspring — Andrew Hawkins, whose life becomes Oxherding Tale.

Through sexual escapades, picaresque adventures, and philosophical inquiry, Hawkins navigates white and black worlds and comments wryly on human nature along the way. Told with pure genius, Oxherding Tale is a deliciously funny, bitterly ironic account of slavery, racism, and the human spirit; and it reveals the author as a great talent with even greater humanity.”

Anyway, I went ahead and started to read…and now I can’t put it down!

This is not “just” a slave narrative. As I posted earlier, it’s also based on the Zen Oxherding Pictures, which are a metaphor for the search for enlightenment, liberation — FREEDOM (thus, the “slave” narrative!)

I am loving this book. And I would love to discuss it with dharma practitioners.

I leave for a 2-month retreat on Jan 28, returning Mar 25. When I get  back, I’m going to pick a night for anyone who’s read the book to come to my house to discuss it. It’ll be in April. If you’re interested….read the book! (And send me an email here, if you want me to notify you of the date.)

3 Jan
Posted in: Books
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What I’m Reading Next

Last night at our KM Dharma Book Group, we started talking about what we’d like to read next. One of the titles I mentioned is Oxherding Tale, by Charles Johnson, which is (as he describes in the introduction) “a slave narrative that in its progress parallels the Ten Oxherding Pictures depicting a young man who believes he has lost his ox (a Chinese symbol for the self), searches for and finds it, then–in the final, startling panels–the ox (self) disappears, leaving only the young man who returns to the village ‘with bliss-bestowing hands.'”


The book begins begins like this:
Long ago my father and I were servants at Cripplegate, a cotton plantation in South Carolina. That distant place, the world of my childhood, is ruin now, mere parable, but what history I have begins there in an unrecorded accident before the Civil War, late one evening when my father, George Hawkins, still worked in the Big House, watched over his owner’s interests, and often drank with his Master–that was Jonathan Polkinghorne–on the front porch after a heavy meal. It was a warm night. An autumn night of fine-spun moonlight blurred first by Madeira, then home-brewed beer as they played Rummy, their feet propped on the knife-whittled porch rail, the dark two-story house behind them, creaking sometimes in the wind. My father had finished his chores early, for he was (he says) the best butler in the country, and took great pride in his position, but he wasn’t eager to go home. He stayed clear of his cabin when my stepmother played host for the Ladies Prayer Circle. They were strange, George thought. Those women were harmless enough by themselves, when sewing or cleaning, but together their collective prayers has a mysterious power that filled his whitewashed cabin with presences–Shades, he called them, because they moved furniture in the cabin, destroyed the laws of physics, which George swore by, and drove him outside to sleep in the shed. (Not that my father knew a whole lot about physics, being a slave, but George knew sorcery when he saw it, and he kept his distance.)


I’m not sure this is the right book for the KM group. But I’m going for it!

15 Dec
Posted in: Books, Groups, Practice
By    Comments Off on To Pass from Entanglement to Peace

To Pass from Entanglement to Peace

The topic for tonight’s “Let’s Talk” Dharma Discussion is Wise Intention, which doesn’t get a lot of “air time” at drop-in meditation groups, probably because what it means is to cultivate the intention to practice Lovingkindness, Compassion, and Renunciation. Just mentioning the word “Renunciation” is often enough to send people heading for the exit! (Mentally, if not physically.)

But here’s what Bhikkhu Bodhi has to say in his excellent little book, The Noble Eightfold Path:
Desire is to be abandoned not because it is morally evil but because it is the root of suffering. Thus renunciation, turning away from craving and its drive for gratification, becomes the key to happiness, to freedom from the hold of attachment.

“…To move from desire to renunciation is not, as might be imagined, to move from happiness to grief, from abundance to destitution. It is to pass from gross, entangling pleasures to an exalted happiness and peace, from a condition of servitude to one of self-mastery. Desire ultimately breeds fear and sorrow, but renunciation gives fearlessness and joy

“When we methodically contemplate the dangers of desire and the benefits of renunciation, gradually we steer our mind away from the domination of desire….

“Real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things still inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective on them so that they no longer bind us. When we understand the nature of desire, when we investigate it closely with keen attention, desire falls away by itself, without need for struggle.”


People always want to talk about giving up chocolate when the topic of Renunciation comes up, but I don’t think it’s about giving up something delightful because someone says it’s not “good for you.” What I’ve found instead that it’s about letting the shackles fall away when you realize that what you’ve been doing (thinking, saying,…OK, eating, etc) is not really working for you!!!

5 Dec
Posted in: Books
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Joy to the World


I’ve just started reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, which documents a week-long conversation (actually a love fest!) between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond TuTu. It’s delightful. And Inspiring. And Encouraging. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Here’s a sample from the Introduction:

“The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop are two of the great spiritual master of our time, but they are also moral leaders who transcend their own traditions and speak always from a concern for humanity as a whole. Their courage and resilience and dogged hope in humanity inspire millions as they refuse to give in to the fashionable cynicism that risks engulfing us. Their joy is clearly not easy or superficial but one burnished by the fire of adversity, oppression, and struggle. The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop remind us that joy is in fact our birthright and even more fundamental than happiness.

“‘Joy,’ as the Archbishop said during the week, ‘is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.’ This state of mind–and heart–is much closer to both the Dalai Lama’s and the Archbishop’s understanding of what animates our lives and what ultimately leads to a life of satisfaction and meaning.

“The dialogues were about what the Dalai Lama has called the very ‘purpose of life’–the goal of avoiding suffering and discovering happiness. They share their hard-won wisdom of how we can transform joy from an ephemeral state into an enduring trait, from a fleeting feeling into a lasting way of being.”


It’s in bookstores now. Why wait till Christmas!