Ogres and Goblins

The  sounds from my kitchen as I am sitting here at my kitchen table. The sun to the east beating down on my left side, demanding my attention despite my resistance. I see my partial reflection in the window in front of me, my left side mostly. Left black eye glass frame, left nostril, left ear. Hair tussled. An oak tree stands behind my reflection.

But the sounds.

First, a bird.

Second, a plane – far off in the distance – miles away; Yet, it’s sound waves find my ear drums.

We really are connected.

Third, a car engine starting up, then driving off.

The birds silence for a few moments after that. Now, a few minutes later, I hear the birds again, their confidence returning. I hear the humming of the I-580 in the near distance.

A door closes downstairs.

The shadow of a micro flying insect darts over my journal, then disappears just as quickly.

The sun accents my gray hairs. Grays protruding, matched with subtle blondes.

I’m getting older. An aging butch.

To have patience with myself is to relieve suffering, according to Roshi O’Hara in the Fourth Talk on the Prajna Paramita, The Heart Sutra, recorded in the Village Zendo during a 2010 winter sesshin.


She also tells the story of travelers in the woods late at night who are trying to protect themselves from ogres and goblins. They become separated. One finds a hut and goes in for the night, but becomes fearful when he hears something pounding on the door. So he pulls the door towards him, keeping the ogre out, as the outside ogre fights to push the door in. All night long, they battle at the door. Then, at sunlight, the one inside pauses to peek through the crack only to learn that the outside ogre is his traveling companion.

Why are we afraid of ourselves?


An orange pumpkin to my left, on my window sill, catches my eye. It appears more vivid this morning.

The sun is relentless, almost shocking now, even for October.

The sound of a airline passenger ebbs and flows, catching a sound wave for only a moment, until it dissipates.

A car drives by.

A smaller plane flies over – loud engine, silencing its small ancestors in the branches of the oak tree.

Leaves fall from the oak, naturally – unheard – a silent death – a sacrifice.

My left ear feels hot from the sun, though really it is on fire from the life of this moment.




Buddha in a Hoodie

I am still feeling raw around Trayvon Martin’s death, but also the way some people are still in denial that his death symbolizes the inherent racism that still exists in this country. The challenge for me is to not stay in the anger around his death and the denial I am seeing around his death. I work with kids like Trayvon. Trust me, they are discriminated against because of the color of their skin and because of the clothes they wear. My buddhist practice teaches me to look at things exactly as they are, even if it is uncomfortable. And this is uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. So rather than stay in the anger, I will continue to talk constructively with my students about racism, justice, and compassion. And I will share with my readers the Metta Sutra, also known as the Loving Kindness Meditation. It has been around for over 2,500 years. These words are over 2,500 years old, but still hold meaning today. I chanted them aloud today. Feel free to absorb this sutra however you deem fit.

For Trayvon Martin and his family, and for George Zimmerman and his family.


This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, Who seeks the good, and has obtained peace.

Let one be strenuous, upright, and sincere, Without pride, easily contented, and joyous.

Let one not be submerged by the things of the world.

Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.

Let one’s senses be controlled.

Let one be wise but not puffed up and Let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family.

Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.

May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety, All living beings, whether weak or strong, In high or middle or low realms of existence. Small or great, visible or invisible, Near or far, born or to be born, May all beings be happy.

Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother at the risk of her life Watches over and protects her only child,

So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things. Suffusing love over the entire world, Above, below, and all around, without limit, So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, During all one’s waking hours, Let one practice the way with gratitude.

Not holding to fixed views, Endowed with insight, Freed from sense appetites, One who achieves the way Will be freed from the duality of birth and death.

Like a Massive Fire


I am a firekeeper for L, a beautiful sage in Lake County who runs sweat lodges. Also known as Grandmother to her community, L is a resident at Harbin Hot Springs, my hippie getaway place for the past 15 years. This is only my second season serving as her firekeeper, but I have had a relationship to fire for many, many years. I was trained by AB, a Navajo medicine woman back in the 90’s in New Mexico. Although I have lost touch with her, I have never lost touch with my respect and relationship with the fire. I recall AB saying, “Fire is important. Try living without it.”

It is a massive job, being a firekeeper. The heat gets intense, and you are required to carry the hot heavy rocks from the fire over to the sweat lodge. (You use a pitchfork). It sometimes feels like an 8-hour workout. Sometimes, the days go smoothly, while other ties you are fighting to keep the fire going (when it rains, we still have sweatlodges; it’s just the firekeepers who are stuck in the rain).

I must say that yesterday felt like a challenging fire for me. I’ve been feeling a lot of stress at work, so it was difficult for me to focus on the fire. And I think I was phsyically tired too, which added to the challenge of the task. Fortunately, the weather conditions were great, and the women who were involved in the sweat were all in a good space. (Sometimes, as you can imagine, a lot of emotional stuff comes up during sweats). And L, who apparently used to be “controlling” with her firekeepers, expecting things to be a certain way, has mellowed out over the years. She was very patient with us. The truth is that the other firekeeper, M, and I looked like Frick and Frack out there yesterday. And the fire demanded my attention more so than usual, jumping out at me with its awesome heat. At one point, I had to walk away from it and almost took off my pants for a second because I could feel the heat (not the flames, but the actual heat), penetrate right through my jeans onto my thighs. M, at one point, singed her eyelashes. I suppose if I were a fire being asked to serve as a fuel to the stone people who were being asked to serve as conduits to heal the women in the sweat lodge, I would demand the attention of my keepers too. I’m convinced the fire is in cahoots with the wind at times, as they join together to get my attention.

One of my favorite zen readings comes from the Song of the Samadhi Jewel, which says that zazen is “like a massive fire – don’t touch it, don’t turn away from it…”

Respect it, but don’t fear it.

The reward, of course, is the dip in the hot springs at the end of the day. Nothing like water to cool down the flames, even if the temperature is hot. There’s always the cooling bath water that follows the hot bath to bring balance to our bodies.

And isn’t that what we’re all striving for – balance?

Here are a few pics of the day…

Like a massive fire...

The altar

M hosing down the surrounding area

Look closely for the deer grazing in the background to the right...

Our own grazing table...



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What I appreciate about western buddhism is that it continues to grow and transform with each new generation of western buddhists. I like what Thich Nat Hahn says about buddhism – how it basically needs to adapt to the social and psychological structure of the culture it enters. It need not be so regimented as it travels from country to country. Here in this country, as I continue to learn more about western buddhism, I am seeing that feminism has played a strong role in how buddhist practice is manifested. For example, women can be zen priests in this country (and Japan), but only nuns in more traditional buddhist countries. I couldn’t imagine belonging to a religion (here in my own country) where women are limited in their roles. A prefect example of this western belief played itself out at the Zen Center this weekend.

They had the Mountain Seat ceremony, which only happens every few years. The Mountain Seat basically means it is the changing of the guard with the abbot position. My teacher, Paul Haller, stepped down after nine years as the abbot. He has been replaced by Christina Lehnherr, an out lesbian, which I personally appreciate.

While I was sitting in the Buddha Hall yesterday during the Descending portion of the ceremony, I looked around and took in all of the diversity that the Zen Center really does have. I know that it has been criticized in the past for being Japanofiles and not very warm, but the truth is, there is room for everyone there. Sure, anyone who is anyone was in attendance for this auspicious weekend, but the ceremony itself invited great warmth and humor.  This says a lot about Paul’s tenure as abbot. He held strong to the dharma during his tenure, but also welcomed diversity and an old-fashioned appreciation for the simple joy of zazen. Christina, a seasoned practitioner herself, will offer a lot to the Zen Center. Her clarity, focus, and deep appreciation of the dharma will transmit out to the entire community.

I helped in the kitchen all afternoon. It was a bit of a zoo, but all of us “animals” for the most part seemed to enjoy ourselves. Special shout-outs go to Dana Velden, who made a lovely dessert, but more importantly, maintained this sweet calmness during the hustle and bustle of all of the kitchen’s activities. And I heard her apple crisp dessert was the talk of the veining! (I chopped some of those apples!)

A friend of mine recently shared on her Facebook page that she is feeling a bit of a p ersonal crisis around the church she is raising her children in (also, the same church that she was raised in). She has received some very contemplative and compassionate feedback from friends, which has been refreshing to read.  It makes me appreciate what I have in my life these days in my own buddhist practice. For example, my job has been very challenging lately. I almost did not go into the Zen Center to work in the kitchen yesterday because I was not sure I had the mental energy to “chop vegetables” amidst the intense preparations for the Mountain Seat ceremony. But standing there in the kitchen, chopping onions, crying from the chemicals being emitted, I just had this moment of gratitude for being a part of a larger sangha, deeply supported by the 2,500 year old dharma. Then, while hearing everyone share their gratitude toward Paul during the actual ceremony, and hearing him joke about how he felt like he was at his own funeral (he later joked with me that in Ireland people don’t speak nicely about you until after you died),  my heart just filled up. Make no mistake, my heart felt pain again today as I drowned myself in the misery of my self-suffering over my current job situation, but my job is not my sole identity. Thank God!

Religion is a tricky thing. It is personal, it is political. It is simple, it is complex. The permanent impermanence of my life continues to unfold as I grapple with work, chopping onions, and showing up for life.

Today on our hike, my dog caught a scent of something off trail and burrowed her way into a thorny bramble. She actually abandoned her favored pine cone with the hope of finding a treasure at the other end of the new scent. I kept calling her back to the trail, but she was relentless in her search, until all of sudden, it got very quiet. I thought maybe she found a dead animal and was quietly feasting on it, but when I got over there, I saw that she has basically nestled herself into this bramble, and gotten so cozy that she just lay there for a few seconds, perfectly content in her newly discovered nest.  It was the cutest thing. But it also got me thinking that we should all live like that. Letting go of our attachments (her pine cone obsession), be curious to new scents, and appreciate the comfort of novelty in the moment. Within moments, she jumped up, hopped back onto the trail, found her pine cone cone, and continued down her path. (She lost the pine cone moments later, never looking back…)

Or, as Hoitsu (Suzuki Roshi’s son) shared with Paul in the ceremony yesterday, “The thing about climbing down a mountain, is when you get to the bottom, yo will see that there is another mountain waiting for you.” We all laughed at this. Because it’s true.

There will always be mountains.

Christina Lehnherr, Zen Center Abbess

Paul Haller, former abbot

Sadie in her mountain

Bones and Marrow

One of my hawt femme friends, H, texted me recently – in her usual dry tone, though sprinkled with her usual flare for drama, “D is getting top surgery. I’m having a meltdown”. D is H’s partner. They have been together for 11 years and are firmly established as a self-identified butch/femme couple. D is also equally hawt, but thankfully, not at all as dramatic as H. This is why they work as a couple. H can do her drama and D can be the pragmatist. H, knowing this, does whatever she can to support her partner. So when the topic of what to do with the little bit of extra cash they would get from their upcoming refinancing came up, H threw it out there.

“Well, you could get top surgery. You’ve talked about this for years.”

Then, much to H’s surprise,  D was quite moved by H’s suggestion. H later told me that this IS something that D has wanted for years, but they have been so busy raising their three kids and focusing on careers and family matters, that D’s own need to express her true self was put on the shelf – as is the case with many couples who have kids.

But this isn’t something like wanting to lose that 50 pounds (projecting my own stuff here) or taking that trip to Tibet. This is about one person’s identity – one person’s desire to live out who she truly is – to be in the body that she feels most suitable to her.

The “meltdown” that H was experiencing relates to the underlying questioning of her own sexuality identity.

“I thought I was a lesbian, but all of these trans men seem to be coming into my life these days.” (H’s ex-partner went through the female to male change six years ago, and H has also had fun, appropriate flirtations with a transman this past year. Remember how in our 20’s we got jealous when our girlfriends developed crushes outside of the relationship? In our 40’s we welcome it! My girlfriend has a crush on her daughter’s 20-something butch softball coach. It’s adorable…)

Anyhow, it did bring up an interesting conversation between H and I. I mean, are we attracted to the gender or the person? Sure, we all fall on the spectrum somewhere, right? I mean, I identify as “butch”, but if you put me next to some butches, I would look like a pussycat. Yet, I haven’t worn a dress in 19 years. Seriously. The last time I wore a dress was at my father’s wedding in 1993. My new stepmother, who already had my number, said to me (at the wedding), “Caren, do you think you’ll wear that dress again? Because I could have it brought up a few inches and it would be a great New Year’s Eve dress for me…”

The day after the wedding, I gave her the dress, and I never looked back.

Of course, looking back, I can now say that this was a pivotal moment in my life. I mean, I was 24 years old and I was still going along with the “game”, the heterocentric expectations. I think I had literally just come out to myself as a lesbian that year, but not to my entire family, let alone identifying as a butch. I can empathize with “women” today who do not want to identify themselves as “women”. Although I have no interest in having anatomical surgery, I certainly understand that gender is a bit more complex than we make it out to be. It’s not just pink or blue, and it certainly is not what is between your legs. Rather, it is what is between your ears. What gender is your brain?

Ever since I have become a Buddhist, H, a progressive Jew, asks me about the “Buddhist perspective” on things that she is struggling with. After reminding her that I am just a layperson and know very little about Buddhism, I then go on to share with her what little I do know.

What I do know is that for the past two years, every day, I have been chanting the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra. The very first time I chanted it was when I was a guest student at the San Francisco Zen Center. It blew my mind to chant these words in a group because it spoke to me so clearly. Prajna Paramita, which means “perfect wisdom” is something that Avolokiteshvara was meditating on when she had an awakening. Avolokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, better known as Quanyin. The Dali Lama is said to be the incarnation of her. This sutra (“sutra” is Sanskrit for thread; hence “suture”) expresses the “heart” of Buddhist practice, which is about how form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. (Chronic contradictions within Buddhist texts). It expresses that all five aggregates (our senses) are empty. It’s quite challenging for a layperson like me to explain this concept of “emptiness”, which is why I will not go any further in explaining it. I will say, however, on a personal level, that as a butch who has struggled with what society expects a “woman” to be, or for that matter, what is even expected within the butch/femme/transgender community of “us”, I experienced great relief when I first read these words aloud (and felt them deeply in my body and mind) that morning at the Zen Center. Here are the first few lines:

 “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajña paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering… Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this… All dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajña paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear…”

There is no fear. Those are the words that really rung true for me, and still do. Imagine life without fear? Because when you think about it, fear is one of our driving forces. It is what motivates us, for better, for worse, and leads us down a path that can often be self-destructive. Many people in the transgender community have lived in fear their whole lives. When I was managing a group home for LGBT teenagers in Los Angeles back in the mid-1990’s, one of my residents, a 15 year-old bio-female who I will refer to as Jo, called me up from school one day, in a silent panic. (She was the “baby butch” of the house – the calm, cool collected kid). When I arrived at Jo’s school, I learned that she had been passing as a boy at school. It was during a weapons check when the assistant principal discovered that “he” was a “she”. The poor kid was not only mortified, but terrified that (s)he had been outed, and called me to get her out of there. Fortunately, the assistant principal was a young guy and very open-minded, but the damage had been done. The girl Jo had a crush on rejected him, and he had to work very hard to go back to that school every day. He continued to identify as a boy, which we supported (as did the school), but he lived with that cutting duality of both freedom and fear on a daily basis, walking the campus as an out tranny. This kid had known his whole life that he was not a girl, even though he was born in a girl’s body. I recommend that anyone who has any hesitation or judgments about kids being too young to know what gender they are, to watch the 2007 Barbara Walters 20/20 episode, “My Secret Self: A Story of Transgender Children”. (She earned a GLAAD Media award for this episode). Click here to watch the first part, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utpam0IGYac.

I firmly believe that there is a spiritual component to gender and sexuality. The North American Native Americans have celebrated their “two spirit” brothers and sisters for centuries (until recently, anthropologists referred to these “two spirits” as “berdache”, which is a derogatory term). These “two spirits” are people who dressed as their opposite gender because they felt called to. Many of them were warriors, many were spiritual leaders. They were respected members of the tribe – until the Europeans began to influence their patriarchal Catholic values onto them – and are currently working very diligently to reclaim their place within their tribes today.

The challenge of us having a mind is that we can complicate the bleep out of things. This is why I meditate; to un-complicate things. And of course, the human body – this “skinbag” that we have been given, according to some ancient zen masters – can theoretically, serve as a source of self-identification. But can it really? Are we that limited?

I will end on words from Dogen, the 13th century zen master who founded Soto Zen. In his fascicle Body-And-Mind Study of the Way, in the Shobo-Genzo, Dogen, wrote:

The true human body is the bones and marrow of the realm beyond consciousness and unconsciousness. Just raising this up is the study of the way…”

Bones and marrow have no gender.




I’ve been meaning to start this blog for several months, but I keep finding all sorts of fancy excuses not to: work, too tired to write, “when I have time”, yadda yadda yadda. But rather than waste another sentence on my brilliant procrastination skills, I’ll just move on and share with you the purpose of this blog. This is, after all, my first official post, so I’d better make it good, right? Though now that I’m actually writing, I’m seeing that perhaps I have been stalling this process out of fear of this actually being my first post. It’s that “first timer” syndrome, which is quite silly when you really think about it. Because that would suggest that I’m attached to my ego, and considering that the objective of this   blog is to share with the world my everyday happenings which I experience through the lens of a butch buddhist, one might suggest that  I should have NO attachments – let alone attachments to my ego. Ah, but there lies the dilemma. What I should be doing and what I am doing are quite often two different realities.

With that being said, allow me to introduce myself and my blog. Like the blog title suggests, I identify as both a butch and a buddhist. I’m not one for labels, but I am one for contradictions (much like buddhism, and on a bad day, much like butchism). I had a previous blog that I maintained for two years, which tracked my midlife crisis, which ultimately led to my residency in the San Francisco Zen Center for one year. But that period of my life is over, and now I am moving forward – back in the marketplace. Things feel a lot more clear to me these days compared to two years ago. On October 1st, I took what is called jukai, which is basically a lay ordination ceremony in the zen buddhist tradition. It means I have formally taken the precepts, which are guidelines to living (things like “I vow not to kill”, “I vow to maintain right speech”, etc.). I am – hoping – that this blog will help me maintain some accountability, though I am leery to set myself up for disappointment. Perhaps “accountability” is too strong a word; rather, my intention is to maintain a weekly commitment to check in with myself in this bog. To look at my week and “observe the observer” as my teacher likes to say. To explore on a deeper level how I am truly applying these precepts into my daily life.

When I moved into the Zen Center in the spring of 2010, it felt like I had come home. The daily zazen, the chanting, the ritual, the intimacy of the sangha life all felt very intuitive to me. But what really popped out to me in a glaring way was a question I had about western buddhism, which is “What exactly is western buddhism?” The Zen Center is criticized by some as being a bit to Japanafile, but a healthy argument to that could be that its founder is from Japan (Suzuki Roshi), and his young American followers back in the 70’s were simply following directions (which is something young Americans tend not to do). The monastic life, even in the west, nurtures the soul and disciplines the mind. It is something I may return to some day, but I am compelled to be out in the world these days, full speed ahead, precepts in motion, so to speak. I can chant until my tongue falls out of my mouth, but if I can’t get along with my colleagues, my father, my girlfriend (take your pick) then how true am I being to my practice? How able am I to apply these precepts? How effective am I as an educator (I am a teacher by trade). How am I navigating my way through this thing called life now that I have embraced the precepts?

Ideally, I would love to use this blog as a forum to explore everyday buddhism in the west. But, more importantly, I would like to use this as a forum to explore how we all navigate our way through this thing called life. Do we need precepts to thrive? What is it that motivates us to show up each day with pure motives? Where do we draw our energy from? How do we pull up the bootstraps on a bad day? Or are there even bootstraps to pull up?

Let me give you a sprinkling of where I’m at these days. This week, I went to the Zen Center to stay there as a guest student for two days. (I moved into my own place in June because I wanted to get my dog back, who is one of my greatest buddhist teachers). I went to the Zen Center because this past semester was an extremely long, tiring semester. I needed to decompress. After using my brain for the past 4 months, I wanted to get back into my body. Sweeping floors, chopping vegetables, and waking up at 5 a.m. to meditate with the sangha is my way of relaxing. It was also wonderful to see some familiar faces. My intention was to stay for three days, but by the first day, life on the outside beckoned me. My girlfriend, who was graciously watching my dog (who is on antibiotics and reluctantly wearing a paw bootie from a recent injury) was having problems with her back, so I had to cut my stay short. As I was walking around the temple saying goodbye to everyone, the tenzo (the person in charge of the kitchen), Rose, who was carrying some persimmons, looked at me, then looked at the arm full of persimmons, and said, “Do you want a persimmon?” It was just so simple, so sweet, and so pure of her to offer whatever she had in that moment to give to me. She completely met the moment, which really captured my heart. This is the season of gift giving. In buddhism, there is the story of how a young girl named Sajatya fed the buddha who was starving to death because he thought he had to be extreme and not eat. But the truth is once he got a little bit of nourishment in him, he was able to build up the strength to sit under the bodhi tree until he finally reached enlightenment. Today, during oryoki (formal meals), one of the meal chants that we use refers to “the giver, the receiver, the gift”.

So, on this shortest day of the year – I want to wish you peace and joy. Enjoy a persimmon – enjoy giving, receiving, and being the gift.

Blanche (Senior Dharma Teacher) and me

My buddhist name - Ryuki Myosho - Dragon SPirit Miraculous Blossoming (Photo by Shundo David Haye)

Me, Virginia, Paul (my teacher), Cynthia, and another Cynthia (Photo by Shundo David Haye)

Paul presenting me my lineage papers (Photo by Shundo David Haye)

My awesome girlfriend (Photo by Shundo David Haye)