spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily - blog
spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
 
PictureZenkei Blanche Hartman (Google image)
I did not go to to pay my respects when I learned that Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Senior Dharma Teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, passed on May 13. But I did send my condolence to Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt, who received dharma transmission from Blanche and who was my teacher at that time. Responding to my email, Liên included this thought: “May I be able to transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.” The “I” in the email was Liên but could just as easily have referred to me. 

Blanche was one of the first women to lead a Zen training temple outside of Asia and was revered and loved for her kindness, wisdom and service. She was the chief sewing instructor for the formal robes to be worn by those becoming priests and lay leaders, an important part of Zen practice. She instructed me when I was Liên’s student and tried to assist Liên in sewing consistent and even seams on her robes prior to receiving dharma transmission from Blanche. In this official ceremony wherein one becomes a priest, Liên would follow in Blanche’s lineage from Shunryu Suzuki, and I would assist with ritual tasks.

It is partly because Blanche has died and a lot because of Liên’s deep loss and her expressed wish to transmit loving kindness that I cry while meditating. And I also know some shed tears are tears of regret for my short and imperfect career as a Zen student in San Francisco. It’s silly to blame Liên for my failure to do better in the Zen tradition, but I do think she imagined me, her first student, farther along, more highly developed given my age and less reactive than I actually was. I can’t explain not following her instructions, so that unlike Lien’s other students I would not qualify to sew my rakasu, the traditional Japanese garment worn around the neck by those who have completed the precepts class to become lay ordained.

Blanche would not be instructing me while other students, who followed directions and didn’t miss classes or fail to do the homework and successfully completed the precept class, would get those instructions on piecing together strips of cloth into a brick-like patterned bib in preparation for their jukai or ordination ceremony. I’d like to think if I were again to choose a Zen path I would not argue with my teacher, but graciously take instruction. It is true that in the years since Liên and I agreed that I should not be her student, I have become more curious about and less resistant to other people’s points of view. Perhaps accepting people and things as they are will continue to be a lesson and gradually the judgmental self will settle down, and I will be less defended and more willing to have an “Oh?” attitude rather than try to foment an opinion and defend it.

 In a 2001 Dharma talk reprinted this month in the Buddhist magazine “Lion’s Roar,” Blanche  said that when we see that life is impermanent, we may wonder, “Well, if my life is a gift, how shall I use it, how shall I give it back, how shall I express my appreciation for it, or completely live this life which is wonderful and evanescent?” I hear Liên’s words as a skillful answer to Blanche’s question. “… transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.”
 
 
 
 


 
PictureFoxiebeaux sitting in the morning sun
Although I try to keep a close watch on my one and only, there’s a lot I don’t see and some of what I do doesn’t make sense. Of course, being this small limits my perspective. And it's true that what I see depends on if I am on ground level or being carried chest high, which would be about five feet off the ground. My one and only claims to have been three inches taller a few years ago, but she says she is shrinking. 

One thing I don’t understand is why my one and only would choose to name the animals in her life and omit the names of people in the short autobiography she wrote to be distributed on New Member Sunday when the minister introduced new members of the UU Fellowship in SLO. This seemed very strange to me. If she wants people to know about her life, she has a funny way of saying so. Why call attention to Otto and Leeloo, two previous pitbulls who belonged to her son but spent time with her And this was years ago? I think more people would be interested in knowing her if she at least summarized her years in therapy with a round number rather than refering to two pitbulls.

And she did go on about me, concluding that new member autobiography with this paragraph: “Two highlight of my recent life have been Foxiebeau, the rescue Chihuahua terrier mix who is an assistance dog and can go everywhere I go, and practicing Buddhism, although presently I am exploring nonduality as part of my meditation practice. I keep in touch with friends and acquaintances in the Bay Area with visits and through my blog, spiritflowsthru.com, which is currently being guest-written by my dog.”

Notice how I got the full formal spelling of my name (sans le chien) whereas she didn’t name her sons, nor grandson and granddaughter. Nor her sister and brother for that matter. And she has a niece. Not only did she leave out the names of four beloved sitters in sangha, she skipped over the many SF UUs she misses. Of course, to go on about the kindnesses that were part of being a UU in SF, especially her part in Small Group Ministry and her years reflecting from the lectern as a Worship Associate would have taken up a lot of space and been a long look back. Maybe she was thinking that detailing the past isn't much use, seeing as it is behind. And that is just the recent past. In farther back pasts were all the beaches she called home while living in Southern California, her 11-year marriage followed by 66 years of mixing and mingling without a lasting match. Just to say. I also have to point out that mentioning our blog at the very end of her autobiography smacks of product placement. Did she really want everyone reading that new member autobiography to proceed directly to spiritflowsthru.com? What's that about?

 
 
 
 


 
PictureFoxiebeau loves the new rug
About a week ago, my one and only drove her car, the little orange one that can’t carry much, into an intersection when it wasn’t her turn, and a gardener’s truck knocked the car sideways. Although I wasn’t in the car, she did have two eight-year olds she picked up from school in the back seat, wearing seat belts. Although not hurt, they were really scared by their very first car accident. They saw the window on the passenger side shatter and fragments of glass fly into the car. The sound of the little car smashed by a truck was terrible for them. It would have been for me. Luckily I wasn’t there because I'd have been in the passenger seat.  Despite the small size of the car, it could still be driven even missing its window and with a door caved in.

Once her son came to pick up the girls and after she had exchanged information with the Spanish-speaking truck driver, my one and only drove home her broken car and called the insurance company. The closest repair place would be a 44-mile drive mostly on a freeway the next day. I hoped my one and only would not want my company because the wind could blow into the car and as the CHP who pulled her over said, glass might blow in her eyes and she could kill herself and others.

The mishap with the gardener’s truck and the Scion IQ occurred at 4pm, but by 5:30pm that same day, my one and only was navigating a blue minivan borrowed from her son to a scheduled meditation in the UU church in SLO. My one and only, though upset, said she had to meet this obligation. Despite letting my one and only go out again on the road in a car of his within an hour of this mishap, you can imagine my one and only’s son, freaked out, scared and angry!

In fact, my one and only is currently on Grandma Probation. She has lost transporting privileges. For how long I don’t know. Right now, we are driving a big white car that is a rental car. It has doors to the back seat as well as doors to the front seats. Nevertheless, when my one and only is requested to take her grandchild to school or go get her, she has orders to climb the hill, thread her way along dirt trails through a grove, head around the campus and pick up and deliver through whichever gate is opened. I think it is good that my one and only has forgiven herself. It may take the others longer.

As for me, I faced my own Central Coast trauma this week, spending part of a day at Happy Tails, a doggie day care and boarding facility in SLO. I didn’t know of this plan to leave me with professional strangers and lots of small dogs – I only like Cooper and he’s in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the morning we went there in the rented four-door big car, a girl walked me to a spot away from my one and only, took off the leash and left me sitting by a wire fence with other small animals. A dog near me looked like Cooper, white and fluffy. Half a day went by before my one and only came back. I got good marks for not attacking other dogs. I suspect my good behavior has earned me other stays at Happy Tails, especially if my one and only wants to be gone longer than a few hours.

This past week has been intense! My one and only continues to work on her equanimity as well as her driving. I had a bath, and we took delivery on a bright new rug. Oo bla di oo bla da. Life goes on.







 
PictureThis Scion IQ can't carry much. So no retail therapy for us.
Recently, my one and only has been singing the relocation blues. If it weren’t for the Warriors winning 73 games, passing the record set by the Chicago Bulls, and playing well despite Steph’s injuries, my one and only would have one less diversion to count on. She’s backing a winning team, so why this sadness? It’s not where we’re located. My one and only loves Los Osos /Baywood Park; she loves being in nature and taking me for walks. We travel the red marked habit trail from east to west and back. We see mountains, the ocean at the estuary. We hear birds and commune with trees, each in our way. She even likes the sound and feel of wind. We are getting used to the down side of rural living – that no stores are within walking distance. Buses are limited and, of course, no BART. But we don’t have traffic congestion like we had in the Bay area. And we don’t have the noise. It’s been no comfort for my one and only to be reminded that moving rattles everyone who does it. Our last year and a half has included many moves, but this one is definitely the most radical. And not just because we aren’t city dwellers any longer.  

My one and only takes comfort in having made good on her wish to create meditation groups so she could sit with others. That happens three evenings a week. One evening, she sits in the six o’clock semidarkness of the UU Fellowship’s sanctuary in SLO. We pronounce it “slow” instead of saying San Luis Obispo every time. And we say UU so we don’t have to say Unitarian Universalist.

What could increase her sense of wellbeing? I suppose she might try shopping. That works for a lot of people and it makes sense; after all, we moved from a studio to a three-bedroom house. Our blue mailbox across the street fills up with coupons from local stores welcoming us to Central Coast and promising deep discounts. But so far my one and only has stopped by at the fitness center to redeem her coupon for one free smoothie. A drawback to hitting Costco, Home Depot or Target to redeem other coupons is her small car. We just can’t race out, coupons in hand and fill up the back seat with furniture and gadgets. The back seat is so cramped it can’t comfortably carry two regular people who don’t fold up. We have accommodated meditation practitioners in lotus position. Without passengers, we mostly keep the seatbacks flat to comfortably carry two bags of groceries. When we did go to Couch Potato to buy a dining room table and four chairs, we had to rely on my one and only’s son and his promise to pick up the furniture once it made it from the warehouse to Morro Bay. This youngest son lives not far, owns a truck and a minivan, but his fetches and carries are limited by his full life.

From my point of view, we need to readjust our expectations. Maybe get rid of them. My one and only moved here in part because she wanted to be near her son and granddaughter in case the eight-year-old needed an ally as she adjusted to the possibility that her father might remarry. She told herself she was that person. She could move into the neighborhood and make herself available and important. Didn’t happen that way. Even before the movers arrived at the start of March, relationships in Los Osos had been working out, so by the time she arrived, frazzled but intent, adjustment had taken place; the woman her son will marry had moved into the house with her son and granddaughter, and everyone seemed satisfied. They were repainting, redecorating and readjusting.

Foolishly, my one and only took it hard and personally when her son asked her to return the duplicate key he had long ago made for her. As a result, I see her sitting with her eyes closed many times a day these last several weeks. Not just the three nights, she set up for meditation practice with others. I trust that in all those sits she practices sympathetic joy for her son’s happiness, more of the same for her granddaughter’s growing love for the woman who will marry her daddy as well as some SJ for the woman who will soon be part of our family. Hopefully, before the wedding, my one and only will stop it with those relocation and readjustment blues, which I have been told sound a lot like all the blues she’s ever sung. “Waaaaaaah: What about me?” Meanwhile the wind blows, the fog rolls in and birds sing.

 
Picture
My one and only pops dharma talks the way some people pop sleeping pills. Those Buddhist teachings are meant to awaken meditators, not put them to sleep. But my one and only is not sitting lotus-like on a cushion. She is in bed. Possibly she meditates; after all, she is aging and will someday do her final meditations lying down. But now, she is restless an hour or two too early for us to get coffee, or do anything, unless we want to do it in the dark. When I see a faint light and hear a voice other than my one and only’s in the bedroom, I know she has tuned her iPad to a dharma talk and wants it to put her to sleep.

At three in the morning, who teaches doesn’t matter. It’s a special voice she’s after. Not too soporific nor too soprano. If a giggly monk cracks dharma jokes, that’s no good either. There’s a Spirit Rock speaker she likes in person, but emanating from the iPad, his voice is a monotone, and she can’t sleep. One teacher from a Redwood City sangha is really smart, but he often clears his throat, and she finds this won’t do. As a rule, she never chooses foreign voices, although once she did fall asleep to a French woman’s heavily accented, giggly voice. But that happened only once. The topic must have done the trick.

When I am restless or upset at an unreasonable hour, I too like a soothing voice. Kind tones calm me unless I am really riled up, then wrap me in my comfort coat and tighten those Velcro straps. Maybe dharma talks issuing from just the right voice are my one and only's electronic comfort coat. The dharma of the Buddha thus spoken could assure her she is on the path awake or asleep. The soothing voice is school at its best at three in the morning when the path is not obvious. About five in the morning, we will awake for coffee and a walk; and once settled back at the house, she will sit for awake meditation. Kudos to my one and only. From the first three singing bowls through the last, she stays focused and aware of whatever arises even as I wrestle an orange and blue lion plus kong with a squeak for a roar. In the picture you see me toy in mouth during meditation.
 



 
Picture
Up the hill just past Paso Robles Street we can see Quan Yin.
Picture
About six doors down, this truck lives in the driveway.
​While living in the Bay Area, we thought a lot about diversity. Not just the different sorts of dogs that went up and down the elevator in The Grand where we stayed on the 14th floor. All manner of people lived and worked in this apartment building of 23 floors. Now we are in Los Osos, where people are predominantly white. But when we walk on 14th Street, we are still aware of diversity. For example, I see that many houses on the block sort of look like ours, but not as cared for. Others may have once looked like ours, but owners have gone to a lot of trouble to glitz up the yard. These houses please my one and only, especially if she sees a plaster Quan Yin. Buddhist statuary in the yard reminds her to send Metta to all beings, whether or not they study the dharma or put money and effort into their property or if they have multiple RVs parked in their driveways, or even if they don't have a driveway, having graveled the entire front of the lot.

I, on the other hand, like the undergrowth, or weeds as they are called. I like that the street and the neighbor hood is dotted with empty lots where tall wild flowers whip around when the wind blows hard. Why I like dirt and untended plant life is obvious. As for our weeds, the previous owner of this house did what he could to give this house curb appeal, so weeds have not sprouted to excess and do not detract from our clean lines. Of course, we haven’t been here long enough to take blame or credit for anything. It is my opinion that my one and only's son will do his best to make this house a very good house for us. Clearly, many different needs are being met up and down our street.

While my one and only was excited to capture the image of Quan Yin in the yard on our morning walk, I urged her to snap the cheese truck. Cheese is one of my favorites, so I am watching for this truck to leave the driveway and head in our direction. It is only about four doors down the hill from us, and if I am alert, we can signal it before it gets out of sight. So far it has not moved. I am sending Metta to the cheese people.
 
PictureFoxiebeau is intimate with his toy.
I’m curled up on the couch. We’ve been out for our morning coffee at Los Osos Starbucks and it’s still early. My one and only is sniffling. It sounds like she is crying. I don’t know if she is happy or sad or both or something entirely else. She is sorting through notes from lectures taken over long periods of time; they’re strewn across the wide counter that separates and joins the kitchen and the dining room. We don’t have a table yet, so this counter is it. I sense there is a connection between the sounds she makes and the writing on those papers.

Suddenly she proclaims, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” “Dogen Zenji” she finishes, maybe so I will know she is saying someone else’s words. I don’t know Dogen Zenji. His name starts with a sound I recognize as what she calls me when she explains to strangers why I may not like them. “Foxie is a “rescue dog.” Dog. En. Zen. Ji. No disrespect intended. You could say that as a dog, I am enlightened. I practice intimacy with all things. Sniffing is intimacy, isn’t it? Liking one person and not another shows me being true to my nature. That is the nature of this dog; perhaps not all dogs. I have heard some people say about their dogs, “She likes everybody. She will jump on you. Down, Clownie; off, Thistle. A big difference between enlightened animals and unenlightened other species is how easy it is to explain our behavior. 

I digress. My one and only stumbled across these study notes from past Buddhist classes as part of her pawing through papers not yet assigned to a file folder or crumpled for recycling. To my way of thinking, this ongoing style of creating order is highly disorderly. She’ll head in one direction, double back, take time-out to play Letterpress or watch a basketball game because it’s March Madness. When once again she looks at the material, she becomes engrossed in its wisdom. It is this, I believe, that produces the sound I heard earlier. A sigh of recognition for the truth, for the remembered experience of receiving the handout or scribbling the words of wisdom during a workshop or class at the Zen Center, at Spirit Rock, or at the East Bay Meditation Center. Could be tears for not having the teachers close at hand as she recalls their energy, the tone of their voices, the way one of them peppered her dharma talks with profanity.

As for profanity, my one and only is using less recognizable profanity since our relocation to Los Osos. It’s because her granddaughter has issued a list of words for which substitutes must be employed. Fargo is at the top of our list these days when the eight-year-old is within earshot. Crab, Shiitake—these other words sub for the standards. With no minors within earshot, my one and only may revert.

As for this morning, we are following Dogen Zenji and practicing empathic attunement to our own experiencing. This means that we listen without judging, and we meditate so as to bring an open, noncritical, intimate listening, seeing, and feeling back to our life again and again. I am not really doing any of the above. I am lying in the sun part time, drinking water, playing with toys, and practicing low growling when I hear people in the neighborhood. Thus am I true to my nature.

 
PictureChewbakka in the grip of Foxiebeau!
This guy I'm chewing on is Chewbakka. I chose him at the pet store. Once I got my teeth into him, he couldn't be pried loose. Growling at the young saleslady and at my one and only as well, I stood my ground. You can't take me into a dog store and expect me to come away with nothing fun. I may need useful junk like a harness, leash and a raincoat, but I am not attracted to the displays. I would have liked a Warrior's sweater or hat but the NBA must not have licensed the store we went to to sell Dub stuff. Sad, really! I left the store with Chewbakka gripped tightly by its fur. I think we are enough the same color that people on the street thought one of us had two heads. Whatever... they smiled at us.

I was left alone briefly the other day while my one and only went downstairs to pay her last rent. She was smiling when she came back. She told me the ladies who take the money said they would miss her and me. I was surprised to hear that in the past year we have lived here no one complained about my growling and snarling, about how I try to lunge at other animals, sometimes so hard I slip right out of my faux fur coat. With me gone, this place will be safer for the other animals. I am sorry about that.  My one and only said she was bragging about me, exaggerating my specialness. She told the ladies who work here that I take selfies for my blog. Obviously I can't do that. Maybe brag is a synonym for telling a lie.

Sometimes after a refreshing nap, I think about the book my one and only says she wants me to write. One day when I woke up with this thought, we went for a walk around the block and stopped in at Creative Growth. This studio is for artists with disabilities who sculpt, weave, draw, construct, paint and make flower pots. My one and only calls it heartwork and asked the working lady if it would be okay to find pictures for my book. Was there a policy on using the pictures? We did not get an answer that day, so we need to hurry back and follow up. Even if the lady says we can use the heartwork, my one and only hasn't decided who would read the ramblings of a rescued chihuahua-terrier? She think having the answer to that question could help us choose what to show.  I wonder if my one and only isn't finding another excuse for avoiding the joy of taking dictation from me!  If I could avoid her entirely, believe me I would! As for pictures, my suggestion is to really show my perspective and feature photos of various grasses and plants I see as we walk around. Tree bottoms too.  Now that is honesty. What do you think?



Vow Now? How?

1/20/2016

 
PictureFoxiebeau considers a vow
Do dogs resolve to improve? Because I don’t get along with other animals except Cooper and birds, I can’t ask other animals if I should vow to be better or other than I am. I know every chance they get and especially when there’s a beginning, two-leggeds promise themselves and others to improve. Here we are weeks into the new year and I am still mulling over the ifs and hows of vows.

What is a vow anyway? I know it’s a small word and small words can have big meanings. A word like “sit” for example. I notice that when I am told to do it and then do it, happy results ensue. Pats on the head, treats, pride and approval from my one and only, especially if I sit when and where others can see me. My one and only beams and I sense an increase in her self-regard. Almost as if she, herself, had done something noteworthy like plop down on cold tiles when told.

“Yes” is another small word with big impact. As is “no.” People with more no in them may want to sprinkle more yes in their daily interactions. Yes folks could be overextending themselves and need to dig in their heels with a “no” or “not now.” I am not really responsive to either word, so I can’t do more here than repeat what I imagine my one and only would say had I asked her for an opinion.

It has come to my attention that another word for vow is promise. Said like that, I know I am not one to promise anything. My basic animal nature prevents much frontal lobe activity. And that’s the spot from which promises get made. Animals are more about the limbic system, wouldn’t you say? Animal equals amygdala.
I believe those who train performing cats and dancing dogs use food to get desired results. Food would work for me, but my one and only hasn’t the patience to teach me. I have seen TV ads with highly trained dogs turning over because, and only because, their trainer gave them enough treats. And I wager months of dieting had to pass before those dogs looked fit enough to be filmed for the commercial.

I have biblical permission to skip vowing altogether. Better not to make a vow than to make it and break it. (Ecclesiastes 5:5) How clever of me to become better in this new year by not vowing! Wow.
    


 
PictureHappy New Year 2016 / Flickr
Awake from his New Year’s nap, Foxiebeau could see his one and only sipping tap water from a paper cup, water she’d measured with the eight-ounce measuring glass kept next to the one-cup Keurig. The methodical nature of her current water consumption, her counting the swallows as she downed each cup looked to Foxie’s untrained eyes like a habit in the making. Moreover, she was marking small straight lines on a discarded envelope. He could only suspect his one and only of embarking on a New Year’s resolution without telling him.

Suddenly competitive, he felt an urge to set some intention for 2016, although only a few times in the past year could he recall falling short of ideal pet behavior. Growling at sounds and reactivity toward other dogs or pant cuffs in a hurry was too far out of his control for correction. A Chihuahua mix, especially a rescue, had to play the genetic cards dealt him. Or so he had overheard.

However, it soon became even more alarming to Foxiebeau to notice that he was now appearing in wwwspiritflowsthru.com in the third animal singular. No longer in the “first animal” pronoun, “I,” he had been replaced by an omniscient narrator! At least he could be cheered that whoever was now in charge rarely referred to him by the generic “dog.” With a sigh, he recalled how his commission to blog had, in fact, begun as an act of rescue. His one and only said she felt mired in her own “non-sense” (her word) and sought a perspective slightly different from her own. That she had been rescued by her much loved dog was just good luck.

But how explain this further distancing? Did his one and only see it as an improvement that Foxie had been demoted from first animal singular to third animal singular? Wouldn’t this change of narrator affect her place in the chain of command? Would being seen from a greater distance rather than directly from a devoted pet’s perspective, which is how it had been until today, make her lose agency? Sure, a more extensive vocabulary would be in play, but Foxie wondered if that was a good thing. And he wondered if his one and only wasn’t pulling an Olive Kittredge on herself. Oh how he wished to reclaim his first animal singular point of view and rescue her once again! But who knew when or if that could happen? After all, he was no Saint Bernard, or was he?