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Interview with Zen Priest and Author Karen Miller
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest, teacher, writer, and blogger who gained many fans (including myself) with her first book Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood. Now she's released her second book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. I interviewed her recently about how this book came about, the nature of Zen, the importance of teachers, women in Buddhism, marriage and many other topics. It was my great pleasure, and I hope you enjoy the interview. I wish I could offer a recording too, as Karen has a lovely voice and laugh - and she laughed often as we spoke.
Be sure to also check out my review of Hand Wash Cold after reading (and sitting with) her wise words.
Why this book? In Momma Zen you really focused on motherhood as practice, and that plays a role in Hand Wash Cold too, but really you cast your attention much wider here, and go back into your past, to points throughout your whole life really. What prompted you to do so?
We always ask ourselves this question, 'why?' And it's really very simple - someone asked me to write this book. I was asked to write a book about Zen in everyday life. And I was happy to comply. The truth is that that is really a summation of an enlightened life - to do what we're asked to do! To notice and follow the instructions that arrive.
At the same time, while I was delighted and invigorated by the idea of writing a book about Zen in everyday life, the only life I have to work with is my own. And that points to what is really distinctive about Zen, and Zen practice - that it points you always directly to the life that is before you. It doesn't deal in theology or doctrine or dogma. So really a book about Zen in every day life is not going to appear to be a book about Zen. It's going to be a book that appears to be about every day life.
That's how this book came about. What happens to us, what comes to us in life, is precisely what we need. It's exactly the steps we need to take in our path to self-awareness. So writing this book was a training for me. It helped me to reconcile a much longer trajectory of my life, of how I came to occupy this place in space and time right now. People often ask me how I ended up becoming a Zen Priest, and to me it seems obvious, because now it doesn't seem like I could have ended up anywhere else. But I realized sharing the trajectory that led me here might be useful to others.
You say it was obvious to you now how you have ended up where you are, but while you were writing this book did you have new insights about your past?
Oh absolutely. In fact, what I like to tell people is that for me it's in the writing itself that flashes of insight come - or in the cooking or the yard work or the gardening. It's in these that I realize how profound the teachings and the wisdom are that are available to us every moment of our lives. But I didn't know - no one ever knows - how it was all going to unfold. Every time I sat down to write words, I didn't know exactly what the story was going to be.
When I say 'story' I really mean that the experiences I wrote about were enlivened for me as I wrote them. What's unique about this book is that I had written part of it 10 years ago. It was the first time I had ever written about my own life in my own voice. I was trained as a journalist, and until then I had always written journalistically, often as a ghost writer or for promotional purposes. I had never written in my own name. Then about ten years ago I just felt seized with - some language, really. I just had to sit down and write it. And it was the story of the previous five or six years of my life that had landed me in this place.
After I wrote it, I set it aside and never picked it up again, until I was asked to write this book, and I realized I had something there that might be useful. Useful not because what I had written before was so wonderful, but because now I could re-live it with the eyes I have now. So that is really what this book is - those recollections, but expounded upon from the eyes I have now, from my practice now.
The big lesson for me was that everything in our lives is useful. Nothing is wasted. We just don't know how or when each experience is going to be used. I could not have written this book ten years ago. I couldn't have written this book until today. And I couldn't have written the end of this book until I passed through all the pages before it - the same way a reader is going to pass through those pages.
We write to ourselves. When I write, I am the only one here. And when you read, you are the only one there. It is a very intimate process. It was as valuable to me as to anyone else. I don't write what I know, I write through what I don't know.
Your writing itself, your voice, is unique. It is intrinsically Zen to me somehow, very koan-like. You are very good at setting something up - an idea or scene - and then pulling the rug out from under it, highlighting the assumptions or delusions at play. Did that voice evolve, or did it just come to you that first time you started writing about your own life?
You know, I don't know. But I will say that everything comes from the [meditation] cushion. Everything comes from my practice. And my practice is a classical practice, which means that I live with the Zen masters of old. I have studied, in an academic sense, their words and language. I also do koan practice - when I meditate I am working a koan. That means that I am putting in my body and my mind the words that were spoken by the ancients.
Zen is unique. The look and the feel and the sound of it are very - as my teacher Maezumi Roshi used to say - plain. That is not meant to be a disparagement. It is so simple. The truth is that I have a very agile, busy, clever mind. And my practice has streamlined everything about my life, including my thinking. I was very attached - and still am sometimes - to how elaborate my thinking is. This is what confuses most of us! We try and outsmart everything.
When I say the writing, the voice, comes from the cushion, I also mean that sometimes while meditating a phrase would come to me, and I would write it down as soon as I could. It really is this process of opening up, of escaping the labyrinth of our mind. When we quiet the mind then wisdom and poetry - everyone's wisdom and poetry - arises.
I'm glad you mentioned your teacher. In the book you portray yourself as an unlikely candidate to end up kneeling before a Zen teacher, but that's where you found yourself. That was one of my favorite parts of the book. What is the role of a teacher in your view, and how important is it?
A teacher is essential. The teacher can't give you anything, the teacher doesn't teach you anything. So you might logically say, 'well then how can a teacher be essential?' It's because there is one thing we are very, very good at - fooling ourselves. It's the only thing we're good at. We're not good at fooling others. But we will try forever to deceive ourselves.
We are all always trying to reach a 'comfort zone' - a place where we have everything just the way we want it. Even in our spiritual lives we feel that way - we'll say "I'm comfortable with what my practice is now, I'm not suited for this other kind of thing" or "I've never found a teacher that was as enlightened as I am", and that kind of thing. And all of it is just a deception to keep us ego-bound. To keep us in a place where we feel we are in charge! We're in control. And we’re stuck.
A teacher, even a tough teacher, is far more patient with us than we'll ever be with ourselves. Far more encouraging, and far more motivating. As my teacher used to say, it can be useful when you are walking through the dark to keep company with someone who has walked through the dark already. And who doesn't tell you instantly the way into the light, but who says 'alright, just turn to the right now, and take 3 steps forward, and then turn left.' It's like a guide, someone who recognizes the very places you are struggling.
So a teacher is vital on so many levels. Now when I say this I anticipate people thinking, 'Oh, you can say that because you have a teacher nearby' or 'You live this fortunate life where you can have this encounter with an enlightened being' or something along those lines. But what I say is, again, we are so good at telling ourselves the story of what we can't do, of what's not going to happen in our lives, the places we'll never go. We like to go on and on about our limitations.
But what if all of this expertly leads us to the way out? Our very seeking, our feelings of discouragement, our lack of fulfillment, is nothing other than a tug towards the way out. We have to listen. We have to take the next step. We only ever get anywhere one step at a time, little by little. If we don't heed that, what we might do, what we are conditioned to do, is to numb that feeling. Drown it, cover it up, in whatever way we do this. We might shop more, exercise more, change relationships, seek a different car, or house, or job. Whatever it is, we ignore our own internal GPS which keeps trying to get us to turn towards truth.
You just have to proceed, to listen, step by step. And trust that that uncomfortable feeling, your unhappiness, is actually a life-saving feeling. Your life crashing around you is actually a life-saving event. You have to pay attention.
That was beautiful. I'd also like to talk about women in Buddhism. Like all the major religions, and most institutions historically, Buddhism was a patriarchy - the lineages themselves were almost exclusively male. How have you dealt with this? As a modern women with feminist sensibilities, has this ever been an issue for you? Has it ever been an obstacle?
It has never been an obstacle. It would only have been an obstacle if I would have made it an obstacle, by my own habits of thought. The truth is, there isn't a single institution in this world of ours that isn't patriarchal. All institutions are patriarchal. There's a role for patriarchal institutions. Like in all things, there's a role for patriarchy, and there's a role for matriarchy. Do I agree with patriarchy? Absolutely not all the time!
I can't change the past. If I look around, I can see the patriarchy of our education institutions, our government institutions, our military, and I can see how bound and ignorant institutions can become. But that's the nature of institutions. And if you look at institutions you can see that sometimes there are enlightened individuals that occupy positions of power in institutions, and - more often than not - there are unenlightened individuals that do so.
How does that affect me? Well, it certainly has no bearing on my practice. I have never been excluded, never been barred, from the zendo. I think if we have an intellectual interest in religion, we can find lots of reasons to be upset. Ignorance exists alongside wisdom.
You probably remember that in the dedication to this book I have a dedication to my grandmothers. And then I also have a dedication to all my 'female ancestors whose names have been lost or forgotten.' I don't just mean my biological ancestors, I also mean my spiritual ancestors. Because there have been many. Their names have been forgotten, and I don't doubt, intentionally. But does that really hinder my practice? What is really standing in my way? Is it my sense of righteousness? My concern about equality? That's not standing in my way. Only I can stand in my way. I don't want my practice to be impacted by shadows or ghosts.
Yes, and I feel that in your writing. You don't write with an 'agenda', but because you are writing about everyday life, specifically your everyday life, you are bringing the dharma to a wider audience, particularly women.
Yes, I think many people are confused actually, about what the dharma is. If you think that what the dharma does is proscribe temple protocol, or that what the dharma requires of you is to live in a monastery, that's not it. Much of the Buddhism that we hear and read about is not Buddhism. Buddhism is a practice. It's a practice. And not that many people practice it. Far more people debate it, discuss it, read about it, argue it, and preach it than practice it.
It's a practice. And how is anyone ever limited or hindered from practice? Not possible. Only we can limit ourselves.
Just one more question - I just loved the chapter on marriage, and wanted to hear more about that. Was it hard to write?
Yes, it was hard to write. You know, people often have the misconception that I have a different kind of life, and that therefore I must know some secret about these things. When I wrote Momma Zen, I didn't really know I was writing a book - I just needed to write. And fortunately my husband was willing to read it, because I needed him to - I just kept handing him pages. I needed that reassurance. He always says 'Thank heaven I like her writing, because I could never lie to her.'
So I worked and worked on this book, and on that marriage chapter especially - I kept going back to it. Finally I finished the book and handed it to him one Saturday and left. He read all day, and when I got back he said, "It's really wonderful, it’s epic", and he was even teary-eyed.
And then he said, "There's just one thing - can you change just one thing in the marriage chapter?" That's the only thing he said. And instantly I knew yes, certainly I could change one thing. Because if I couldn't change one thing in the chapter on marriage for him, I didn't have a marriage.
So true! And exactly the kind of story I loved in this book. It's been a pleasure talking with you Karen.
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