You Have to Say Something

By Karin Ryuku Kempe

I feel that all of us are practicing pretty hard right now and much of what we are experiencing is our difficulties, our differences. We try to practice right speech, speech that is truthful yet respectful, timely and clear. It would be nice I suppose if our words could always soothe, support harmony and never cause pain. But there are times when even our most sincere efforts may hurt, even sow division, and when it appears that there is no way forward without potential harm – times when, as Katagiri Roshi said, “You have to say something.”

As a community, we are struggling with this now. Probably some of you, like me, can only sleep every other night. We second-guess ourselves, and even more, we second-guess our practice and this training path and where it leads. We may feel disillusioned, angry and reactive, or misunderstood, ignored. Where is our place of refuge, how do we hold our seat? You already know the answer. It’s right here, right in the flame where we find ourselves.

Dogen has a quote important to me: “When the truth does not fill our body and mind, we think that we have enough. When the truth fills our body and mind, we realize that something is missing.” When we think we have all the answers, especially if there is a subtle sense of being righteous, we need to ask, have we stepped off the path? And when we very much feel that something is missing, that sense that something may be incomplete or off? There, right there is our place to look with patience and trust, the place to question.

What is it we don’t want to see? What is fueling our strong opinions and reactions, the ones that arise with such immediacy that we are overrun? Is it grief, loss, an aching heart? A sense of injustice, estrangement or our own secret shame? Or just feeling overwhelmed? Is it possible to look with open eyes, become transparent to ourselves, so that we can see ourselves, even see the cloud of our own conditioning? This doesn’t mean that we are off the hook and don’t respond, that we don’t do our best to come forth in a difficult situation. But it does mean that we speak from a place which is open to possibility, filled with heart, respectful of life and of others.

This is the time to practice with great gentleness, with love. To let your posture be relaxed and receptive, maybe with open hands, to appreciate the many small beauties of each day, to be in contact with family and the friends you love. To reach out, if you can, to those who are suffering. And yes, to stay aware of the wider discussion. Because a community can only heal through upheaval by the doorway of kindness aligned with honesty in our relationships. Through remembering and risking to trust…and making amends.

Facing who and what I am, facing who and what you are, can be one of the deepest forms of exertion, because it asks of us to give up our limited labels and ideas about ourselves and about other people. Can we remember that, as John Welwood wrote, “We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human?”

Another teacher sent me a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye (from Words Under the Words), good for these times:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Awakening in Time

By Karin Ryuku Kempe

Some weeks ago my watch stopped working. Because I wasn’t able to get it fixed, it’s been in the top drawer of my desk and I’ve had a chance to be without it. Actually, I find I don’t need it, although at first I did check my bare wrist from time to time. After all, time measured out minute by minute, hour by hour, is an external construct, and there are plenty of clocks about the house if I need to keep track.

The experience of time passing, especially the tyranny of time, is something else altogether. During these weeks at home, some of us have had the sensation of everything slowing down; more of our life is unscheduled. Those of us who work online may feel keenly the difference between the rigidity of the virtual landscape, or even face-to-face demands, and those unfilled stretches which seem to unfold and fill themselves. And those of us who make our own schedules notice the tendency to fill the spaces with plans or maybe a conscious decision to let the day unfold organically. It feels a bit like falling.

The Israeli historian philosopher Yuval Noah Harari wrote in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that the Buddha “taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying…You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you.”

True…and yet we find we can be satisfied, we can be at ease. What makes that ease possible is our capacity to come to awareness, to be attentive, awake in the midst of this stream we call time. We might call it mindfulness, but that word implies someone who is being mindful of something, a pulling apart of that organic mix into a subject-object relationship. Maybe whole-hearted awareness lives more like a verb; we experience ourselves as what we are experiencing. I seem to remember a quote about Chao-chou: “Most people are used by the twenty-four hours; I use the twenty-four hours.” More like, “I am the twenty-four hours.”

One monk asked his teacher, “What is the everlasting reality?”


“When moving, what then?”

His teacher said: “Then you can’t see the everlasting reality.” (Book of Equanimity, Case 75)

Like diving into water without knowing its temperature, we are always jumping in. Remember learning to dive? You can’t hold on. Try taking off your watch for a bit. What then?