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Student talk Finding my way to Ordinary Mind Parnel Wickham February 18th 2023

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I trace the origin of my interest in Buddhism to the year 2002. I was already 59 years old, so I was no kid looking for answers to life’s big questions. I was just looking for friends. I was looking for a community. I had gone through a really painful divorce, I was low on money, my son was in college, my house on Long Island was rented out. So I took a sabbatical from my academic position and I went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where my daughter was living.

One day I went to the public library in Chapel Hill, and there on a bulletin board was a notice: Duke University was looking for participants for a clinical trial in the treatment of depression for the elderly. And you know how these notices that you see in public places have little strips to the side with phone numbers to call? I tore off one of those little strips of paper, put it in my pocket, went back to my daughter's house, and called the number. To make a long story short, I was accepted into the treatment and I began a new adventure.

Some of you will recognize this treatment as Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I received medications, I received weekly therapy, and I attended a mindfulness meditation group. There were about eight of us in this group. All the rest of course were southerners, and there was me. We had two leaders, two teachers. I took to mindfulness. I liked it.

I had been brought up in a Presbyterian Church where I sat through countless sermons and prayers, and all that kind of stuff. My mother was the organist. We went every single Sunday, so I was familiar with the discipline. When I turned thirteen I went to a Quaker boarding school which is right down the road from my home now, and I learned to sit quietly in Friends Meeting, over and over and over, and I could do that.

The treatment lasted six months, and I can’t say that my mood improved significantly, but looking back, I can see that I was launched. My therapist mentioned once that he attended the Chapel Hill Zen Center, so I’m thinking, What’s that about? So at the end of the program I paid a visit to the Chapel Hill Zen Center, and I went back five times, six times, never met a single person. It was just one of these places where everybody is tending to their own business, looking at the floor, or looking at the wall, marching around in circles. I had no idea what they were doing and by the time a few weeks went past, I didn’t care. One day they were all marching around, the line went out into another room, and I thought, where the heck are they going? And I just went straight out the door into my car and I never went back.

At the end of that year, at the end of the summer, I had to return to my job on Long Island. I had to teach my classes, and I did that. And then the next summer I had to rent out my house again, and I rented out my house every year in the summer for about 15 years. I had to get lost when I did that, so most of the time, in all those years, I went up to the Boston area.

I had a research project, and honestly, I did work on that. But mostly what I did was I visited every single Buddhist organization within driving distance of Boston. I visited insight meditation centers, I was invited to attend a Sri Lankan Theravada Center, but I had to wear white, I didn’t have an all-white costume and I didn’t want to buy one, so I backed out of that.

I went to Shambhala in downtown Boston, but the people attracted to that particular group were young. The teachers were young, and it wasn’t a good fit for me. I did the Tibetan gompas. Oh, the Tibetans were fun. They’re very colorful, they have their remarkable initiations, all kinds of celebrations, the food. One especially memorable teaching was evoking Green Tara out your head, up into the air, then back into your head, into your body. And I said, Oh I love this! Green Tara is my girl! Until I had a falling out with the Lama. He was eager to come visit me on Long Island, and when he took one look at my house, he thought it would make a great retreat center, and there was something in it for him that I had no interest in.

Finally, I gravitated back to Zen Buddhism, and there were a lot of Zen Buddhist organizations around Boston because James Ford was teaching – he was preaching and teaching. He was a Unitarian-Universalist minister in the Boston area and he was also a Zen Master, and he was encouraging people at that time to develop small sanghas in church basements.

One of those that I went to had been started and was run by Bob Waldinger. Some of us on the google group had some conversations about Bob Waldinger. He’s a wonderful teacher, a very kind and warm man. He wasn’t quite as old as I was, but getting up there as were the other members of his sangha so I felt comfortable in that place. They greeted me when I came in. It was friendly, and I liked Bob very much. He was a very good teacher.

At the end of one summer I asked him if we could continue to email, and he said, Sure. He said, Let’s discuss by email Uchiyama’s “Opening the Hand of Thought.” And I thought, Ah! This is great! Just what I wanted! So I would email Bob once a week with a question or a comment, and he would respond, and we did this for a year until we finished the book.

When I went back the following summer, I asked Bob, “Would you be my teacher?” because I was catching on. I knew that was a tradition in all the Buddhist sanghas, so I asked Bob if he would be my teacher, and he said he would like to very much, but he was not yet authorized, he was not in a position to take students. So I said All right, I’ll find out who his teacher was, and I would go there.

His teacher was in Worcester, Massachusetts, and by now I was back on Long Island. So I went up to Worcester to see her. She was the abbot of a big temple, as they called it, although it was actually a really huge old dilapidated house in Worcester. And their temple was operated as a quasi-monastic outfit, with a hierarchy of priests and some lower on the scale, the teachers, and then the ordinary sangha people.

This was something new to me, this kind of structure. But I got up my courage and I asked the teacher if I could study with her. She was quite stern, but she said yes, and there were four conditions. First I had to ask her three times. Well, I could do that, and so I asked her three times. Then I had to write out a spiritual biography, and I knew I could write. I had no idea what to put into it, but I did that. Then we had a written covenant that we had to sign, and I signed my side of it, and I waited for her to sign, but she said No, my position speaks for itself. That made me stop and think. It made me uneasy.

But I carried on. The next step was the shoken ceremony, where I went up to the temple, we lit a candle together, we lit a stick of incense, and we said some vows back and forth. It took five minutes and I was on my way back to Long Island. I had formally become a student.

I had a very important learning experience in the temple’s kitchen. During one sesshin I was assigned to the kitchen crew and I was supposed to prepare vegetables for the lunch and dinner. The cook, the tenzo, was a very quiet, kind man, a young man, and we were all to stand in front of him in a semicircle, and he would bow to us and we would bow to him, and he said, Would you please. . . . He turned to me, Would you please prepare the carrots? Next person: Would you please prepare the potatoes? and so on. Then he showed us our stations in the kitchen, showed us the huge, dangerous knives, showed us where the vegetables were. He showed me how to peel and cut carrots silently, carefully, respectfully. There was no sound in that kitchen while we were cutting carrots, potatoes, turnips, all the kinds of things we would chop up at home. It was a wonderful teaching, something that has stayed with me this whole time and I’m very grateful for it.

The rest of my time at this particular temple was not as rewarding. I started to study koans there, and the koan system at this place consisted of a curriculum of 30 preliminary koans that we were to take in order. We would take the koan we were assigned to one teacher, then to the next, then to the next, then usually by the time we got to the fourth teacher – this is all in dokusan during sesshins – by the time we got to the fourth teacher they would pass us on to the next koan.

Well, I knew nothing about koans, but my readings suggested they could be kind of fun. They looked like they could be a very effective teaching method, but that didn’t happen here. Didn’t happen for me. Part of the response in their koan study was to portray the image that was represented, so, for example, to perform being a bell, to perform being a rhinoceros or a fox, or whatever. You get the idea – literally, to perform what these things were.

You have to understand, for one thing, all the teachers except for the abbot were men, and I was 73 years old by the time I got there, so portraying a rhinoceros – I’ve got to tell you, was super embarrassing. I made it through. . . Well, actually one day I did not make it through. One day I got unbelievably angry at one of the teachers during dokusan. The only other time I’ve been so angry was the day my husband told me he was leaving. So you can imagine I was on the same scale as that. And then of course I was humiliated that here I was acting out, this old lady acting out like this with a teacher in dokusan, no less. So I went to the abbot and I confessed, I felt so terrible, and she was not happy, she was not happy with me, and I could see the end was in sight.

By this time I had bought a little condo in Cambridge, which has the most wonderful used bookstores. I had picked up two of Barry’s books, $5 for one, $6 for the other – what a bargain! I took them home, I read them, they made sense, they put my experience into some kind of perspective. I went back to my teacher at the temple, and I said, May I have your permission to visit Ordinary Mind Zendo? She thought about this for a while, and then she said, Yes, you may visit, but do not study koans with Barry Magid.

Well, that was all I needed to hear! Next Saturday I was on the bus on my way into Manhattan. I hadn’t been to New York, probably for 25 years, I was totally unfamiliar with it. I did find the zendo on 74th Street. I arrived just as Barry was arriving from the other direction. I was thinking that’s Barry Magid, but as I said, I only knew him from the pictures on his books, which, shall we say, were printed a few years earlier. We both entered the zendo at the same time, and there was Claire at the door. She welcomed me, she showed me where to sit, and I’m thinking, I can do this. This will work.

Barry gave his dharma talk, then he gave dokusan, I met him in dokusan, poured out my heart, you know, like we do, he sat there calmly listening, soaking it all in, and after taking too long – I know I held up the dokusan line – I was so relieved.

After the program, after discussion like we have here, Barry hands me a book, and I’m thinking What's this? I looked at the title: “Moment to Moment” by David Budbill. It’s a book of poetry. I’m thinking Oh no! I haven’t read a poem in fifty years! What am I going to do with this? I opened the book at the bookmark: Bugs in a Bowl. Then I’m thinking, what have I got myself into? This is wild!

So I went home, I ordered the book right away of course. I kept going back to the zendo every Saturday. I was through with that outfit in Massachusetts. I just went to the zendo regularly now on Saturdays. One day in dokusan I asked Barry, What do I need to do to be your student? And I’m expecting this long rigmarole. He just looks at me quietly and he says, Show up and be honest. Ah – I was so relieved! I said: I can do that!

I went back every Saturday, showing up and trying to be honest. A few weeks after that I showed up at the zendo and Barry wasn’t there. He had to be away that weekend, and he didn’t tell me! Oh poor me! I’d made this trip in, and it was all for nothing. So I’m sitting there seething. Should I just go home? Or shall I stick it out? Well, of course, obviously, I stuck it out.

Chris was the resident then, he rang the bell, I’m getting my stuff together, I’m getting ready to go home, and some of the people turn to me, and they say, Come with us, we’re going out for lunch at Lenny’s. And I said, Well, my bus leaves at 2:00 and I don’t think I’ll have time. And they said, Come on! I said, Well, maybe I can take a later bus. So I went to Lenny’s. I made friends, and I had lunch with my friends for many many weeks until the pandemic. It was a wonderful thing. Since then of course I’ve made friends on zoom I never imagined, and now I have friends where I live at Crosslands, friends to sit with there as well.

That’s what I was looking for: friends and a community and a teacher, and I feel so very fortunate that I have found them. Before I close, I want to read a poem to you. It’s called “Bugs in a Bowl,” and it’s by David Budbill.

Bugs in a Bowl

Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled
Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day
going around never leaving their bowl.

I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.

Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.

Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry moan, feel sorry for yourself.

Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.

Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

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