August 28, 2010

Another Kansas Poem

Stories of pioneer women amaze me. I look at the luxury of heat and light I live with today and feel I don't know what it is to sacrifice. I can't imagine what they went through in the journey west. We have people living today in brutal situations because of natural disasters, and it will be a long hard time before they recover. Their stories too are compelling and instructive because they show us how we are destroying ourselves, physically and spiritually, through the endless need for comfort.

By popular request, another poem about a Kansas woman pioneer.

Mary Roberts

Spring Creek

August 1, 1874

The summer was going well. You came of age, sewed the green gingham bonnet you wore in the hazy sun that first August day. You walked hand in hand with young Jeff in the wheat and oat fields the straw color of your hair swaying with pasture grass, cattle idle and fat beside the low slung barn.

When you noticed the cloud, you both ran home, not believing the white, glistening

approach of grasshoppers that filled the horizon like a massive sudden snow coating fields five inches deep with green hunger.

Your father already at the plums with your sisters and brother grabbed the still hard fruit

to save what you could. You rushed the buckets into the house listening to the thud of insects land like stinging hail destroying your crops.

The watermelon field disappeared, twigs eaten, the merest sprout devoured. A branch of the cottonwood snapped from their weight.

Your mother rushed bed sheets to cover vegetables near the house, but green clouds landed and ate through the cloth, leaves vanishing in minutes. Only pits left hanging on the peach tree like stranded red bumps - onion skins left as paper shells gobbled from the inside - house curtains shredded, handles of hoes and rakes, harnesses and furniture eaten through.

Your little sister Betsy screamed in fear when insects invaded her hair and climbed into her clothing along her back. When you went to help they landed on your hat and ate through before you could get inside.

For two days your family fought them off and slowly they left when they’d finished the land.

Water in the pond, every fence post, gully and crevice oozed with green excrement.

Chickens, turkeys and hogs swelled from eating grasshoppers off their backs in the hopeless battle, their meat made inedible from the stench. Every bit of food gone for the year.

You stuck fast to the soil and hoed, the family gathering into itself, weathering that long, bleak winter, your young heart releasing and holding to what might come of your life, and your love in that wind swept land.

The following spring on a quiet morning, the loamy earth began to tremble with a pale imperceptible white, as eggs from the summer before, emerged and hatched, opening into daylight and sky, a green lakeof hind legs instinctively jumping.

Again, again, before your dispirited hearts,

the creatures swallowed with elemental vigor

the whole of God’s terrain and your

family’s backbreaking toil.

August 24, 2010

At Palolo Zen Center, Honolulu Diamond Sangha, Hawaii

I offer brief thoughts on the Memorial Service for Aitken Roshi last Sunday at Honolulu Palolo Diamond Sangha. Hundreds of people came from all over the world to bear witness to Aitken Roshi’s life and teachings. The Zendo and all the surrounding rooms were shoulder to shoulder with people in the soft Hawaiian breeze that filtered through as the service proceeded. The service included Zazen, music by Beethoven, a Dharma talk by Michael Kieran, Aitken Roshi’s successor, chanting, offerings of words speaking directly to Roshi, and offerings of flowers by his grandchildren, special friends, and representative of the Hawaiian nation. It was a deeply moving experience to be present for this taking leave.

Lunch was served afterward. Awhile later, about 60 people gathered for several hours in a circle in the Zendo to share their special stories and memories of Aitken Roshi. The stories were deeply personal, sometimes very funny, and always demonstrated Roshi’s love of Dharma and his ways of teaching.

A tribute to Aitken Roshi will take place in the Bay Area, California on October 30. Time and place are yet to be determined due to the potential large numbers who would attend on the mainland.

Aloha Aitken Roshi out there on the moon. Aloha everyone. I leave the Island tonight. With farewell to this grand blue/green ocean that heals and caresses the body, the sun blazing with healing rays. Gratitude to the Hawaiian people for their beautiful hospitality and allowing the waves of people to share in the bounty of light. Mahalo.

August 15, 2010

When in Brooklyn

I was in New York when word of Aitken Roshi's death came. For many years I'd considered myself a friend to him, corresponding occasionally, sending post cards from my travels, receiving much comfort and growth from his teachings. He was 93 when he died. Lucky he was to have lived a long life and to have so many years to influence the world with wisdom and insight. I'll go to his Memorial Service on August 22nd and be away for about five days. This time I'll bring my computer and write a report to the blog from there.

New York was a personal trip, a journey to find out where I came from and to see where I've been in the meantime. I had a wonderful time.

(The photos compress differently from the draft to the published version. They are parts of my neighborhood and I can't tell the order : the old Savoy movie theatre; Bedford Avenue with the original Loehmann's at the center in the distance; the street leading to St. Teresa's church towers; my high school, Bishop McDonnell Memorial.

The first four days I spent alone, staying at the Herald Square Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The plan was to visit my old neighborhood in Brooklyn and go to places I'd been in my youth. I simply wanted to experience the streets where I'd been as a child and to see how it looked. Traveling in New York is really easy. Public transportation is exceptional and one can get around the city and go from one borough to another quite easily with a Metro Card, a train/bus ticket which you slide through a slot which reads the metered amount. The subway stops are stifling hot, but once you board the train, they are all air conditioned. It's quite pleasant.

My neighborhood, which I hadn't seen in 50 years, looks the same except that the cultural mix has changed. In my day it was a mix of Irish, Italian, Jewish, African American. Today it is all African American and Haitian. I was an anomaly in the neighborhood, the only white person walking deep into an area where I appeared strange and perhaps threatening to some. Clearly, I was on alert, but I was not frightened. It amazed me to see the buildings all the same and some improved with the stone and brick having been washed clean. There was no graffiti to be found. The streets were swept. The shops had all changed with different owners and different wares and interests. My school and the church remained although the stucco was peeling from the church building. The convent stood exactly the same. It was ghostly to see it without the life in it that I had remembered. Friends apartments were intact, my own apartment a bit changed because a gate had been built around the entry. On Google Earth, the apartment had been an evangelical church, but that too has gone. It's simply an apartment building. The walls where we played ball were still there. All of it there. It was remarkable. But, I could not take photos in that area as I was truly an outsider and it would have been threatening to go around taking photos. But, no matter. It was my own mind and memory that I wanted to experience and no photo can really do the job of first hand witnessing. I may go back again another time to see it to tell me more about my life and where I've been. That is the real thing, I think. That sometimes we have to go back in order to find out where we've traveled, where we've been, what road we took and why.

Next: more events in Brooklyn and Manhattan

Back Home

I haven't written here since traveling to San Francisco and New York. On both trips I had not brought along my computer and thus it made it very difficult to write any sustained words onto this blog. My iPad is wonderful for incoming information, but it's very difficult to do any meaningful writing.

There were two reasons to go to San Francisco. One was to attend a meeting of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists at Sokoji in Japantown, and the second was to visit my grandchildren who were visiting from Zurich. The family rented a house in the Castro district since they were staying for three weeks. The house was a grand and spacious Victorian with a lovely back patio for dining or sunning. Yes, the sun did come out although the temperature was quite chilly most of the time. I was glad of the sweater and scarf I'd brought. Summer can be bitter in San Francisco and this year it is downright disheartening.

I went out and about with the kids, through the Castro and up and over Dolores Park with a fabulous view of the skyline downtown. The kids are troopers, sophisticated in their acceptance of the varieties of peoples found on the streets of San Francisco. This is quite different from what they experience in Zurich where the people are generally far more conservative in dress and demeanor. The grandkids seem to flourish in the freedom of expression they find here and felt they didn't want to leave when it came time to go home. They were both born in San Francisco and remember living there before they moved to Europe. Still, as children, they have more freedom of movement in Zurich. They can go out alone to the playground in Zurich. Julian walks Esther to her ballet lesson. When out shopping, the kids can wander alone in other departments or stores. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen today in the U.S.

The day the folks were leaving for Switzerland, I went on to my hotel for the ASZB meeting. It had been difficult to find a room in Japantown, thus I got a budget hotel within walking distance but right at the edge of the Tenderloin at Geary and Polk. Holy moly. I live in sweet little Olympia and although I'm from Bed-Sty in Brooklyn, I haven't seen such sad life in a long time. I went out to find a snack shop after dark and walked along Polk street for two blocks to a convenience store. The pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers were all out. The streets are narrow in that area so you can't avoid close contact. To let you know they are available, as you walk by they simply say, "Hey" in a quiet tone. I'm certainly not frightened by any of this, just I'm so out of place in my looks, I must have seemed very comical to them. I wonder what they thought when they saw me. Did they think I was innocent and foolish? Do they wish they had another life? I know that when I see their lifestyle, I am intensely grateful for what I have. Any of us could wind up on the streets for a variety of reasons. Any of us could be born into dreadful poverty and hopelessness. For them, this is how they know to make a living. This is how they survive.

The meeting itself went well and I enjoyed the company of my peers. We're all getting older and we wonder how the next generation will flourish in the Dharma. We wonder how the tradition will go forward and how it will be changed in and by the American culture. We have many concerns and these are discussed in our interactions at such meetings. It is tremendously helpful to feel supported by one another and to feel the depth and strength of other teachers.

So, a report on my New York trip is the next blog before I pack and get ready to go to Honolulu to Aitken Roshi's Memorial Service which will be held on August 22.

Tribute to Robert Gyoun Aitken Roshi

Robert Gyoun Aitken Roshi, beloved teacher and founder of the Diamond Sangha and teacher to a vast number of students and teachers worldwide, died on August 5, 2010, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was 93 years old. In his final years, despite numerous health challenges and bound to a wheel chair, Roshi remained active in his writing and teaching, and in his presence in practice at Palolo Zen Sangha.

A complete biography of Aitken Roshi can be found at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha website:

After he retired, Roshi continued to publish, each book seeming to be his last. Several years ago, Roshi declared he was writing his final book, a personal one-copy book to his grandchild. Four books were to follow. His fourteenth book with the working title, RIVER OF HEAVEN, was underway when he died.

Roshi died peacefully not long after entering the hospital with the condition of pneumonia. His Memorial Service will be held at Honolulu Diamond Sangha, Palolo Zen Center, on August 22nd.

A memorial service expressing gratitude for Aitken Roshi's life and his teachings which have influenced and sustained us in many ways, will be held at Olympia Zen Center on Wednesday evening, August 18th, beginning with Zazen at 7:00 p.m.