Karen Maezen Miller is an errant mother, delinquent wife, reluctant dog walker, expert laundress, and stationmaster of the full catastrophe. Author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, she is a priest and dharma holder in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Roshi at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in the Shambhala Sun, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches and the anthology The Maternal is Political. She also blogs at Cheerio Road.

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — The Big Question

How is your daughter? How is your husband? How are your in-laws? How is your job? How is your boss?

How is your dog, your fish, your garden, your laundry, your dishes, your life?

How do you answer?

It’s easy to think that Buddhist practice is about the big questions. Birth and death, cause and effect, form and emptiness, delusion and enlightenment, attachment and non-attachment, and whether a dog has Buddha nature or not. I just hope you’re not actually thinking about any of that stuff. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — Un-American Buddhism

Shortly after my husband and I moved into our house with its old garden, we invited the experts and academics over tell us what to do. Some would say that our backyard is Southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, dating from 1916. Some would say that it isn’t; that by virtue of geography, topography, plant selection, and cultural anthropology, it can’t ever be Japanese. We were twisted into a fit by these and other debates about the right way to care for the place. Heaven forbid we make a fraudulent move when we were already paralyzed by ignorance from the get go! Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — How to put out a fire

la-fireLiving in the foothills north of Los Angeles, and being — yet again — surrounded by wildfire, SunSpace blogger Karen Maezen Miller has seen with her own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires.

Here’s what she’s learned, and what it might mean for our practice.

Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — Plain & Simple

I seem to recall that Maezumi Roshi said something like, “People misunderstand Zen because it is so plain.” Maybe he didn’t say it. My memory doesn’t always serve me because memory doesn’t keep things plain and simple. Perhaps I remember it this way because it serves my purposes right now. That’s what memory usually does: whatever we want it to do.

Even if he didn’t say it quite like that, we can see right away that it is true.

Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — Coming Home

laundryLast week I attended a retreat and came home infused with quiet calm and well-being. Then I glanced at the headlines in the newspaper and was shocked anew at the unimaginable depth of pain in this world. The scope of suffering is inconceivable. How can we respond in the face of this?

Where do we begin to do good? I will tell you the only way I know to begin. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — Doing Nothing

nondoingThere must be something in the connotation of the word “being” that makes it seem like the opposite of “doing.” I say that because I’m sometimes asked how, as an avowed meditator, I ever get things done. Perhaps they picture me curled up in a corner.

A regular meditation practice is the last thing that prevents me from totally engaging in activity. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — Eight is Enough

jonkate2The momentary fascination with the reality TV train wreck “Jon & Kate Plus 8″ has me wondering if the sad saga of family striving and dissolution is beneficial as a morality tale. Does the failed couple’s melodrama teach a real-life lesson about balancing careers, money, self-image, household responsibilities, individuality and passion post-parenthood?

Yes, there’s a lesson, in the same sense that wildfires teach us not to throw matches and car accidents teach us not to text behind the wheel. The damage, however, is so dear that it’s hardly redemptive unless we can change the course of our own catastrophe. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — The Teacher is In

lucyObaku said, “I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.”

This is a living teaching by one of the most influential Zen teachers you’ll ever encounter, even though he lived 1,100 years ago. Obaku (d. 850) was the teacher of Rinzai, founder of the school of Zen that bears his name and still flourishes, particularly in the West. His words are useful and relevant because they point out the obvious. The Dharma is self-realized and self-actualized, and you have to see it for yourself. No one can do it for you.

That being said, you really need to have a teacher, the kind that keeps telling you to open your eyes and see it for yourself. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — The Unhappiness Gap

Happiness is my new pet peeve. Just the idea of it makes me cranky.

We’re suddenly steeped in happy talk. Research and theories, projects and workshops, books and blogs on nothing but happiness and how to find it. Happiness is a new industry. But then, every industry is a happiness industry, and all pursuits are pursuits of happiness.

The other day I googled “ways to be happy” and the articles on just the first page of results enumerated 129 ways to be happy. If someone had the free time to look up and do those things you’d think they’d be plenty happy already. Yet even with all the advice, a lot of us say we are less happy.

A couple of years ago researchers made headlines out of what they called a “happiness gap” between men and women. These days, men say they are more happy and women, less so. Social critics on all sides have had a field day with it. Some blame inequity at work and home. Others see the failure of feminism. Reasons abound on either side of the argument, but I don’t put much stock in reasons. I wonder instead if the answer lies in the question itself. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line”: Wanting what’s right

My daughter comes to me after watching TV:

“Mom, I know what I want to save my money for. A laptop or a cell phone.”

She’s nine years old, and the money she’s talking about is her weekly allowance. As long as I’m her mother, she won’t be fulfilling either desire any time soon, but that doesn’t resolve the problem for me. I perceive it as something far bigger, more menacing and upsetting. Something not right.

Those insidious commercials! Our consumer-driven culture! Our insatiable kids! Those inexhaustible desires! How I want to put an end to them! Specifically, how I want to put an end to hers!

Or so we chant in the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

Desires are inexhaustible
I vow to put an end to them

What exactly do we mean by that? Have no desires? Want nothing? Is that what we really want? After all, it is desire that brings us to the dharma, desire for truth, and desire that brings us back to practice again and again.

My teacher Nyogen Roshi recounts a comment once made by Maezumi Roshi in response to a student who professed to having no desires. Continued »

Karen Maezen Miller’s “The Laundry Line” — What is dharma?

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as a mother and writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood.

We’re very happy to tell you that Karen will be writing and interacting with readers regularly here on SunSpace. Here’s the first installment of her new SunSpace blog, “The Laundry Line: Everyday Dharma.” Welcome, Karen!

A monk asked Gensha, “How do I enter the Way?” Gensha replied, “Do you hear the murmuring stream?” The monk answered, “Yes, I do.” Gensha said, “Enter there.”
— Zen koan

Karen Maezen Miller

“What is dharma?”

That was my one of my first questions in one of the first dokusans, or interviews, I had with a Zen teacher when I started practicing 15 years ago.

I’d been drawn to a remote mountain, to the scent of sandalwood, to the hush of the pine trees, to the rustle of the robes in the dim light of a zendo, and to an inscrutable Japanese teacher. I’d been driven by despair, by a broken heart, and by disgust with the same old same old me.

It helped that the setting was so exotic and the words so foreign, because I was romancing the hope of finding something altogether new. That word in particular, dharma, was an enticing mystery. But like everything that has been told to me in dokusan in the years since, I don’t remember the answer I was given. Not remembering is what saves me, because it encourages me to keep asking, and to keep forgetting what it is I think I know.

This is the very question that brings us to practice and sustains it. What is it? What is the truth? What is the Way?

For your benefit, I’ll tell you how my current teacher defines the word. With a capital “D,” Dharma refers to Buddha’s teaching. With a little “d,” dharma is all phenomena, all things. It is also universal truth, or cosmic law. The point of practice, for me, is to see that none of those definitions is different from the other. How could they be separate?

Only by my intellectual discrimination.

To carry the self forward and realize the ten thousand dharmas is delusion. That the ten thousand dharmas advance and realize the self is enlightenment. — Dogen Zenji

When I wrote about dharma for the first time in the Shambhala Sun, in an article titled “The Dharma of Barbie,” someone complained that I wasn’t reverential enough, arguing that Buddhists should not water down the meaning of dharma.

As a wife and mother, I’m up to my elbows in water most days. The only way I can dilute the dharma is by adding one less capful of soap to a full load. If I don’t see the dharma in a laundry pile, then my practice isn’t working for me.

I can’t pretend to discuss or debate this, but I can pretend to practice it. Our practice is always a kind of elegant pretense, the effort of no effort, and the meeting of all our unmet expectations.

“Practice as if you are enlightened,” Maezumi Roshi used to say. And so most days, I practice the dharma of laundry.

Where do you practice? Where do you find the dharma? I really want to hear the murmuring stream.