The Bell Rings


Sitting. Still. Mind wandering.

Thoughts come and go, space in-between.

Adjusting form, swishing cloth. A cough.

Stomach gurgling, like a trumpeting crane.

Spine straight, thumbs lightly touching.

Tires crunching gravel, muffled radio from within.

A raven croaks, “Good morning.

I am here. I am awake.”

I am all of this, suchness.

It is all me, ephemera.

Narrow chasms open to wide spaces.

The bell rings and I bow.


Vast and Shining


Here are some poems that I wrote after participating in a weekend zen retreat that left me feeling settled, gathered, animated and awake:

Bright as a drop of dew in dawns first light
Clearly shining in all directions
Like an explosion of a newborn star
Inconceivably vast, subtle and serene; exquisite in all seasons
Returning to the source, forgetting who
I am at ease, curious and full of joy.
Clearly shining
Infinite and vast
Flowing everywhere
How can there be any lack?
Clear and bright, vast and shining
The subtle source radiates in all directions
I laugh out loud, returning
To cool air and a steaming cup of tea.

The Illusion of Significant Improvement

Wheat Field and Poppies, Amghas, Morocco
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
~Dongshan Liangjie (China, 807-869)


I just got Mark’s last letter in the mail. It’s been almost two years of knowing him, 18 letters in all, a strange relationship that has been at once both distant and intimate. I guess that comes with the territory; letters can be so intimate because we assume that no one else will read them so we give voice to things we may not otherwise say. There is also the intimacy or understanding of two Buddhists conversing with one another. It was also distant because, well there is distance involved – both the literal distance of miles of separation and the figurative kind born from leading two very different lives. He inside, me outside although in reality there is no inside or outside.

There wasn’t much in this last letter – just saying that he was still alive and getting out in June. Getting out of what you may be wondering. Through the San Francisco Zen Center’s Prison Pen Pal program I have been corresponding with an inmate in a maximum security prison and he will be out on parole next week. In the letter he says that he is “very stressed out” because he is getting out. At first glance it seems strange to be apprehensive about getting out of prison but I think I can relate. Not to getting out of prison after many years (7 or 8 this time around for Mark) but the stress of such a huge change in one’s life. Don’t we all experience this kind of intense stress when going through a dramatic change? Haven’t we all felt this at some point in our lives? There is the excitement and anticipation of something new but also trepidation and fear of the unknown. Of course in actuality, everything is unknown or at least unknowable.

In a letter written by another inmate, with whom Mark thinks I should correspond, there is a quote from Alan Watts that says, “The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from left to right on a hard bed.” That struck me as related to Mark’s stress particularly, and to our lives in general.  Is he feeling stressed because of the uncertainty of what he will do on the outside and the fear of doing the same shit that got him locked up in the first place. I would guess that inmates are both afraid and incredibly excited by the possibilities of a better life. But the reality is probably much like flipping over on a hard bed – the other side only seems comfortable in contrast with what you have been lying on. Both sides are hard, damn hard and no amount of flopping around is going to change that fact. So while getting out of “hell”, as Mark has described prison, offers a world of possibility, it is no panacea for one’s ills. Wherever you go there you are and life, your life, is there to meet you. When we attach to ideas of happiness, like I will only be happy once I am out of prison, we set ourselves up for disappointment and great suffering. Our attachment to a future state that is unlikely to be exactly how we want it to be anyway is the root cause of much of our anguish. In this ever-changing world we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness when we hold on to anything too strongly. This doesn’t mean that we cannot hope for a happy life or for something to be a little different; what it does mean is that we need to find a way to be happy regardless of what happens, irrespective of the outcome. A qualifier like “I will only be happy if” sets us up for disappointment because life is constantly changing and we really cannot know what is going to happen next. We really cannot know if an outcome is good or bad because each new outcome sets in motion a whole new set of conditions. What we can do is to practice equanimity, whereby we are okay with whatever happens. Without qualifiers we have the possibility for a boundless life, one in which we can be happy and content, most of the time, regardless of what happens. No “if” statements, no caveats and no qualifiers. No looking for significant improvement by turning over on a hard bed.

I don’t know what prison was like for Mark and I can’t know what it’s like to be released after so many years. What I do know is that we all go looking for happiness somewhere else, outside of ourselves and beyond the conditions of our lives. We wish for something else, someone else and think that only then will we be happy. In fact, we all the possibility for happiness right now, right here. So perhaps Mark found some contentment or happiness in prison and that he can take that practice with him into this dusty world of ours, outside of the walls of prison.  I wish for him a happy and (mostly) satisfied life where he feels like he is positively contributing to society. I know that is his intention but now he will have to do the difficult work of realizing that intention. And when he inevitably flips over on the hard bed of life, I hope he understands that there is no significant improvement over the present moment and that just this is enough, whatever this is. I hope this for myself too and for all of us.

The Alchemy of Ceremony

…and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions…
~Red Pine (from “The Heart Sutra”)


Walking through the final set of doors, opened remotely by someone watching us closely, we exit through several layers of razor wire and electric fence and find ourselves on the outside in a parking lot heading towards our car. I would predict that I would feel a great sense of relief leaving the prison behind with its dour gray walls and its foreboding sense of danger. Make a wrong move and something bad could happen is an easy assumption to make. Instead I feel a bit sorrowful, which is how I usually feel leaving the prison walls behind and quite frankly I don’t understand this reaction.

It could it be that I feel guilty for being able to so freely walk out of this horrid place, while the men return to their incarcerated life in their tiny cells. Certainly there is some of that guilt in my sorrow but that isn’t all of it because there is also something about Pelican Bay that leaves me settled and serene in a way that I only experience after meditation retreats or backpacking trips into the mountains. I find it strange to say these words but the melancholy I experience after Pelican Bay has a similar flavor to what I feel after a Zen retreat. I learn a lot about myself when I am in there and the men inside share so much. Inside those walls for a brief period of time, walls come down and openness prevails. And I wonder how I can ever repay them for their generosity and kindness, in welcoming me into part of their world and letting me leave again at the end of the morning. It may sound strange to talk about generosity and kindness about men who are incarcerated in one of California’s “worst” prisons, but then again, Pelican Bay is a strange place.

We are all imprisoned by someone or something is what I have learned inside Pelican Bay. Our narrow views, self-centered thoughts, and uncontrollable desires constrict our lives in ways  similar to prison walls and strictly enforced rules. And what is left of our freedom is obliterated by any fear that we may have about who we are, who we might become, and where this is all going. We seem so willing, or perhaps we do it unwittingly, to give up our freedom by holding on too strongly to opinions and making real something that isn’t – namely our narrow sense of self or who we think we are. While these men are literally locked behind bars and thick concrete walls, I too am stuck behind walls of the mind that I have helped to create. What I learn in Pelican Bay is that we really are not very different from one another and that we all have the same desire: to be freed from our self-imposed shackles in order to live an authentic life. How we do that is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step or perhaps each step is the thousand-mile journey in its entirety.

There is something about the time in Pelican Bay that is a different sort of time despite the fact that there is a large wall clock in the chapel where we meditate that tick tocks its way round and round, ceaselessly.  Sesshin or Zen meditation retreats are like that too in that they have a kind of timelessness about them. We sit and settle our minds by being silent, still and awake. We try to leave our baggage at the door, as we cross the threshold, and to see what is actually there (here, really) when I let thoughts, opinions and preconceived ways drop away. Somehow a trip to meditate with the men at Pelican Bay is the same way. I leave both sesshin and the prison behind and I feel both serene an exhausted, settled and agitated. It’s an otherworldly feeling resulting from a settling of body and mind to the point of no longer being in lock-step with life on the streets. I am like an autumn leaf that is about to drop from the twig I have been attached to for several seasons, ready to flutter to the ground, except that I, unlike the leaf, hold on tight and remain firmly attached. To what I wonder?

Another paradox of Pelican Bay is that going into one of the worst prisons in our country is like going somewhere sacred. Despite the fact that the chapel’s low ceiling and thick, windowless walls are anything but sacred, we create something utterly different for a few hours on Saturdays twice a month. The ability to create sacred space amidst such intense incarceration, amidst so much fear, speaks to the power of intention, especially when it is collective and communal. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, says, “Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” And this is exactly what is done by the Buddhist men of Pelican Bay – fear and constriction are transformed into something spiritual and beautiful, transcending the profane to reach something very close to profound.

As our car glides down the Redwood Highway, lined with towering conifers, I think about all this and remember the individual men I had just interacted with on the inside. I recall one of the men telling the group that he does not regret being in Pelican Bay because without being there he doesn’t know if he would have ever found his way to a place where he can practice with such diligence, selflessness and compassion. Stunned by these words, I cannot help but be encouraged to drop my petty complaints and narrow-mindedness for something broader, something boundless. If he can do it in there, surely I can out here. But breaking down the walls of the mind, the false dichotomy of inside there and outside here is the very gift that they are giving me. Going inside those walls give me the chance to practice breaking down a few of my self-created walls. There gift to me is clear but what, if anything, do I give them in return? Perhaps jus this is it – I carry in the freshness of the wild Pacific air that clings to my clothing as I enter the prison where we together once again use the alchemy of ceremony to turn our attention into intention, breaking down a few walls in the process.