Martine & Stephen



By Rev. Serena Seidner
Shasta Abbey, CA, USA


Buddhism teaches us that we come into this world as a result of unresolved and uncleansed karma from previous lives. These lives were not “ours”, nor are they separate from the life we experience now. The stream of karma flows on. Each new being who inherits this stream has a choice-to act on the habit energy of the karma, thus strengthening it and passing it along, or to cleanse and convert it.

We come to Buddhism for so many reasons, as numerous as the people who practice the Way. And yet, we all come for the same reason. We come because we suffer. We call it by many names and we describe it in an infinite variety of ways. Some of us think we know the cause, others of us only know that something is missing. We come, and we begin to learn why we suffer and how we can liberate ourselves by cleansing our karma. I would like to tell you about what I have learned.

If I were writing this in the weeks before I met Buddhism head on, I would have said that I had a wonderful life. My family life was warm and loving, I liked my job, I liked my co-workers, I loved hiking and sailing, reading, music, cooking. Everything was in its place, just as it should be. If you had asked me to describe myself, I would have told you that I was a calm, even tempered person who got along well with others, I was professionally successful and well liked and I was contented with my lot in life. I wouldn’t have thought to mention the bleakness I sometimes experienced, the overwhelming feeling that it was impossible to keep living this way, the yearning for meaning and for something that would take me ‘out of myself’. I wouldn’t have told you about the years of drinking. Nor would I have described the flatness of my emotional life-few tears, little joy-or about my belief that the tears and joys of others must be faked in some way, because I couldn’t imagine feeling what I observed. I wouldn’t have described how I felt around people, the uncertainty of being welcomed, the sense of being invisible, the perception of others as two dimensional beings. None of this would have fit into how I chose to view myself and my life.

I had no interest in Buddhism or in any other religion once I left the Baptist church in my early teens. Then, almost by chance, I encountered Rev. Master Jiyu. Through a series of ‘coincidences’ I found myself in one of her classes because I had an interest in meditation, but not the ‘religious’ kind. Within the first half hour my life turned upside down and I recognized without doubt that I was hearing the Truth, and that this person was telling me that I could know it too. Eight years later I became a postulant.

My religious name is Houn Serena, “serene woman in the Dharma Cloud.” The dictionary defines serene as “marked by or suggestive of utter calm and unruffled repose”. At first glance the name Serena might well describe the person I thought I was. After all, I had always been told how calm and collected I appeared. A religious name is given by the Master at ordination and it reflects not only what the Master sees in the disciple but also where he or she knows the disciple must train. My Master had seen far more of me than I had.

Like many who come to monastic training, I thought I knew what I was doing and what monastic life might be like. And like all the others who came before me, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Eight years of lay training had done a lot to soften me up but I still had not caught even a glimpse of the karma that propelled me up to the monastery gate. Early in my novice training my inner world began to crumble. Unaccustomed to the arising of strong and painful emotions, I often found myself in tears, a new and most unwelcome experience for me. I was easily irritated by the behavior of others, appalled by their rudeness and terrified by outbursts of anger. (Clearly I was not the only one experiencing the arising of karma) I felt intimidated by almost everyone around me, especially those ‘in authority’. Still, I was overjoyed to be a monk.

My early attempts to cope with all of the emotional turmoil centered on trying to be still, calm, quiet, unobtrusive, observant of the rules, prompt, and anything else that might help to avoid upset. I thought that by being ‘good’ my training would ‘improve’ and I would find the peace and contentment that I knew ‘should’ reward one who did all the ‘right’ things. Naturally my attempts did nothing to help me. Karma is experienced in feelings and emotions, a teaching that escaped my attention at the time, and karma was beginning to show itself, pleading for my attention. A year or two later I had an experience that really frightened me. I was engulfed in a bleak world filled with dull pain and I couldn’t find a way to escape from it. I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone, so I went out into the woods alone. I found a rock and I sat, for how long I do not know. The sun went down and it started to get cold and still I sat. What I experienced sitting there I can only describe as becoming thinner, fainter, weaker. And I welcomed it. I didn’t want to fight it. The entire world was gray and there was no reason to try to escape from it. I couldn’t think of anyone who really needed me; I felt completely isolated from humanity. There was no reason to get up. Soon it seemed that all that was left of me was my breath, and then it began to become weaker too. It would have been so easy to just let the breath die away. Fortunately, I was well saturated with the importance of keeping the monastic schedule and so I left my rock and went to evening meditation. However, this was not the end of the experience. It was the beginning.

As the years passed, the tears and upsets lessened, and I became more familiar with the arising of the gray bleakness. Sometimes days would go by with the bleakness waiting to greet me upon awakening in the morning and staying with me all day long. When the world was gray I lived in a kind of fog with little interest or true involvement in the people or activities around me. I found it very difficult to engage in conversation beyond that needed for daily activities. I was physically exhausted, dragging myself through the day, yet still carrying constant tension in my body. Nothing really mattered. A low level fear was always present, a kind of watchfulness as though I expected something to suddenly cause me more pain. Days were not always like this, but as time went by I could see that the grayness was appearing more often and staying longer. It was almost unbearable to live this way and the desire to escape sometimes became overwhelming. I wanted to disappear. It was clear to me that in my case, training wasn’t helping. I began to consider myself a spiritual failure. It wasn’t that I doubted the Teaching. I knew it worked for others, but clearly not for me. I had come to the monastery to prove true for myself Rev. Master Jiyu’s promise that I could know the Truth and the agony of the prospect of never knowing was horrible.

Fortunately, the Three Treasures were always present, trying to help, patiently waiting for me to remember where the true Refuge lies. Refuge is one of the most beautiful words I know. The dictionary defines it as “a means of resort for help in difficulty.” For a disciple the Master represents the Buddha Treasure and he or she provides refuge by holding out the Dharma Treasure to the disciple. My Master was no exception. Over and over he pointed, saying, “Look! Look at what you’re doing! Look, It is right there!” I couldn’t see. He would tell me to have faith and I would respond that I didn’t understand what that meant. I did not see or hear because I was too intent on convincing him of how hopeless I felt. Perhaps if he could see how really pitiful and miserable I was, he would do something to save me. Or I would do just the opposite, try to appear able and confident so that he wouldn’t know what a failure I was. Of course, he was doing what a Master does–offering me the tools to save myself. Caught up in my gray fog, I had no idea. I became even more discouraged.
Then my Master said something that caught my attention. One evening he said, “Bestir yourself, Serena”. At the time I was really annoyed. I had been very busy all day, it was late, and I had no idea how I could summon the energy to do anything more. What was he telling me to do? Couldn’t he see how hard I was trying? The moment passed, but I remembered his words. Then one day he said it again. And then again. I asked a question in spiritual examination and he answered by saying it again. It was just like being poked. What on earth did he mean? Finally I asked, something I should have done much earlier. He told me that I had the appearance of one who was moving through a bog. I was acting as though everything I did was a great effort. He was not telling me to move faster or do more. He was pointing at my mind, because it was my mind that was stuck in the mud. This time I heard and I had a glimpse of where I needed to apply effort. A small ray of light had penetrated the fog, but I still didn’t know how to bestir myself. The periods of gray increased from days to weeks at a time. It was the most painful time of my life that I can remember.

About this time I remembered something I had heard from, of all people, Miss Manners, the etiquette columnist well known in the United States. In her …Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Miss Manners answered a question from a reader with the following:
‘You wouldn’t want me to pretend to something I don’t really feel, would you? You don’t want me to have to put on an act when I’m feeling rotten, do you?’ Miss Manners is always puzzled by such questions. Her answer is, ‘Why, yes. Please.’

She went on to say, “Naturally, the more skillful the performance of false cheer, the more pleasing the effect is upon one’s public and on that private audience to whom one owes even more. It is also true that the semblance of happiness eventually, by some alchemy of the spirit, turns genuine.”1 What Miss Manners was telling her reader was “Bestir yourself”! She was giving her reader a practice to follow, a practice that would not only help others but would help the reader too. I decided to try to follow her advice. Some months later I was talking to my Master about how things had been going for me. I was still spending long periods of time in my gray world, getting stuck there far too often and not able to escape. He turned to me and said, “I think you will find that it will help you if you make a practice of saying to yourself on a regular basis, I fully accept what is arising. I am completely willing to let it go.”

I am ashamed to say that my first thought was something like, “here comes the ‘let things come and let them pass’ again”. However, there was something about the way the words beckoned, and I soon found myself sitting with them, listening to them as hard as I could. I was desperate and I sensed that there was a Teaching of great importance here for me. I resolved to understand it and to try to help myself.

I began by examining the words. Accepting what arose was often a struggle but I knew it was vital because my self condemnation was brutal. Pushing things away only invites them back with increased vigor. Willingness to let go was another hard one. The attraction of going over something in the mind again and again is a hard habit to break. Finally I reached the last two words, fully and completely, and I knew I’d found it. Fully and Completely. These two words are the key to the door of the gray world, the door that doesn’t exist.

At any time in my life if I had been asked what I would like most to change about myself I would have replied that I longed to be able to live without holding back, without having the constant sense of being the observer of myself. I wanted to be able to join in loudly at a campfire songfest or cheer at a sports event without feeling self-conscious or unnatural. I yearned to find something-a cause, a purpose, even a dream-that I could commit myself to totally without reserve. I envied those who could clearly rely completely on their faith since I saw myself as having none. The word wholehearted means “undivided in purpose”, and just the sound of the word could call up gut wrenching yearning. I longed to be wholehearted. And now this was my only choice. I had to learn to live fully and completely. In his book, The Gift of Well-Being, Ajahn Munindo writes, “Without real faith we feel like we can’t afford to really hope for anything, out of fear of being disappointed; and that is a great pity-it feels hopeless.”2 This is where I was starting-except that I had the beginnings of hope.

Early in my monastic life I was inspired by something that Reverend Master said in a Dharma talk. He urged us to sit like the Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree amidst whatever conditions might arise. That was what I wanted to do, how I wanted to be. When it was time for me to select a verse for the Head Novice’s Dharma Ceremony I found what has become one of my favorite lines from Great Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo :

Once you have given rise to the intention to seek enlightenment, even though you are spinning about through the six realms of existence, being born through any of the four modes of birth, the very causes and conditions of your spinning will become your heart-felt practice of enlightenment.3 I found my heart-felt practice of enlightenment in the last place I would have thought to look, right in the midst of the very conditions I had tried so hard to escape-the gray world of doubt and despair. And I have been fortunate enough to get a small glimpse of the causes of my spinning in that world.

I experienced the life of a woman who was suffering much pain and anguish at the hands of someone she thought of as “the tormenter”. His eyes were cold, but he spoke softly and gently, almost with love, as he did unspeakable and painful things. Once she saw an open door and he was nowhere near, so she quickly left the house and hurried up the hillside. When she got to the top he was there. He smiled and said, “I’ve been waiting.” She turned and walked with him back to the house. All she knew was pain and waiting for more pain. There was nothing else in her life, no attempts to escape, not even the hope of escape. She resigned herself to what she saw and her spirit despaired. We are taught that ‘memories’ such as this appear when we are ready to make use of the help being offered. Having the opportunity to feel the woman’s pain while knowing that the woman was only a shadow has made it possible for me to know that everything I experience in the gray world is also a shadow. What happened to her has never happened to me, yet I have spent years living in anticipation of her pain. I have believed in a self that lives in a world of limitations for which I did not accept responsibility. I thought it was the real world, the way things really are. Even while experiencing the despair of limitations I could not believe that there was anything else-at least not for me. From time to time I would look up and see what is really there and my spirit would soar. At those times there was only that certainty and I knew that nothing else mattered. Then I would remember to be afraid of being disappointed and I would look down again. Great Master Dogen says, At the time of this absence of wisdom the whole of the highest supreme enlightenment becomes something doubtful, and every thought and thing becomes something doubtful. At this time one misses one’s chances for ever so long by acting so.4

To cling to shadows is to recreate the ancient story of self seeing nothing but self, perpetuating karma again and again. To live fully and completely is to have faith in the Truth, even when It isn’t in sight, and to stop clinging to the shadows forever. It all comes down to making a choice, the choice of responsibility, the choice to see things as they really are. The ability to make this choice comes when we finally let go. I always wondered how letting go is done and when I asked, my Master would tell me, “Just be willing to let go”. All I know now is that when the time is right, letting go happens so naturally: ‘I’ didn’t do it.

The Dharma is the medicine for all suffering, and the more I looked, the more remedies I found. The Dharma is not a collection of concepts and ideas. It is literally the practices that lead to liberation. In order to liberate myself I needed to start practicing fully and completely and stop wallowing around in my misery. Here are a few of the practices that I find particularly helpful.

· Working Meditation-In order to find a way out of the fog I need to move-literally. Working meditation is a life saver. When I’m working, thoughts about my mental state naturally drop away. The task in front of me is all that there is and there is no room left for indulging in misery. Moving becomes effortless rather than a struggle.

· Mindfulness-I’m only beginning to learn just how little I have paid attention to what goes on around me. Too concerned with the interior details of self, I have looked and not seen, listened and not heard and drifted through the days.

· Vigor-Learning to move with purpose and with energy, both mentally and physically, goes a long way toward staying both mindful and bright.

· Precepts-There are two precepts in particular that need my attention. I am very prone to making judgements and comparisons, almost as though I don’t know where I am unless I create reference points to hang on to. Breakage’s of the Sixth or Seventh Precepts, “Do not speak against others” and “Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others”, take me straight into the discriminatory mind. For example, “I am the worst…” is a statement of pride. It says “There is no one who is more…than I am.” Speaking against others can be a way of trying to make myself feel better at someone else’s expense.

· Loving Kindness & Compassion-In community life we rub against each other constantly. An angry word, a look of impatience, anything like that can tip me off balance and back into self-imposed isolation from pain. I need to remember to respond in my mind with “May you be well and happy” rather than falling into hurt feelings and self pity. Because I tend to mentally isolate myself from others, it becomes difficult to recognize their suffering. When I am feeling distant from the rest of the world I can just plain not see when someone is having a difficult day. It is impossible to offer the wish, “May you be free from suffering” when I am blind to those around me. It is equally unlikely that I will offer the wish to myself.

· Giving-Making an offering is one of the best ways I know of acting on the statement “Buddha recognizes Buddha”. To genuinely offer something-a smile, a friendly word, a little assistance, an invitation for a cup of tea-helps both self and other and it is another way I remind myself that I am not alone.

· Making Vows and Resolves-I make vows and resolves when I see places in my practice that need extra work. For example, because I sometimes have difficulties believing that my presence is welcomed by others, I have promised myself that every day, at least once, I will challenge my doubts and act on faith by walking straight into a room or up to a group of people.

· Contemplation and Reflection-Spending time just sitting quietly with a cup of tea and a cat in my lap is a perfect way to quiet the mind. I find it extremely valuable to give myself opportunities to reflect on the thoughts and actions of the day. It’s a time for taking stock of how I’m doing and where more effort would be productive.
I’ve also learned that it’s vital to catch the arising of karma as early as possible. Here are a few of my early warning signals:

· Exhaustion-I don’t know if exhaustion causes a plunge into grayness or if being in a fog creates exhaustion. What I do know is that it’s important to pay attention to the exhaustion and, when possible, ask for some extra rest. The world looks completely different after a good night’s sleep and it short circuits what could be a long crawl back up to the light of day.

· Grumbling Mind-When I wake up in the morning with a mind that grumbles about everything around me, I know I’m acting from the defensive helpless mind that is afraid of being hurt, either by someone or by conditions. The simple recognition that I’m grumpy is often enough to start dissolving it away.

· Complaining-This is what happens when I don’t catch the grumpy mind, and it’s moved from thought into speech. Now I’m not just afraid of being hurt but I’m acting like a whining victim, another step on the way into the gray fog.

· The desire to be alone-We all enjoy periods of solitude, but this isn’t what I mean. When the feeling of isolation is creeping up on me it often begins with the urge to retreat to my room or to find work that takes me away from others.
The importance of vigilance can’t be underestimated and I continue to be amazed at the many chinks in my armor that are just big enough for the koan to arise.

After I had begun writing this article I remembered something I had read in Rev. Master Jiyu’s book, How to Grow a Lotus Blossom. She was describing one of her visions. This morning I visit a blue and grey hell. The people are all wearing blue robes and moses which cover them entirely from head to foot (faces included). Beneath the robe it is possible to see that they are carrying iron bars about: in fact, three or four carry them in front of their faces so that they constantly have bars before their eyes which they cannot see and which also restrict the movement of their feet. Some of them are sitting down with the bars standing on end on the floor in front of them, making one wall of a cage for them to sit behind. Everywhere else is greyness. The tragedy of this hell is that the great room, in which they are all walking or sitting, has no windows, only empty window spaces, and no doors in the doorway spaces. All the people have to do to get out of this hell is remove the bars from in front of themselves and the blue robes that hide their freedom from them.5

I don’t know what spiritual condition Rev. Master Jiyu was describing, but her words are so clear. All that is needed is to remove the bars. How may I do that? By opening my hands. Or to put it another way, all that is needed is to is stop creating the bars in my mind and see What is really there. It’s What I’ve always yearned for and there is one sure way to find it again, no matter how far I wander.
Meditation is the great river, carrying me and the whole universe. Sometimes the river encounters rocks or overhanging branches and It flows right around them. Sometimes when I encounter rocks and branches, I get banged up or knocked in the head, and, I must never cling to the rocks or grasp the branches. Just let go and keep going. This is my true aspiration. The serenity of Eternal Meditation.
When I cling to nothing I become empty, and the Wind blows through me.


1. Martin, Judith. Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
(New York: Warner Books, 1982), pp. 243-4.
2. Munindo, Ajahn. The Gift of Well-being (River Publications), p. 45.
3. Great Master Dogen. Shobogenzo (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press,
1996), p. 145.
4. Great Master Dogen. Shobogenzo, unpublished manuscript.
5. Jiyu-Kennett, Rev. Master P.T.N.H. How to Grow a Lotus Blossom (Mt.
Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 2nd ed. 1993), pp. 192-3.

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