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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 81 SHAVEN-HEADED MONKS in long black robes facing a white wall; perfectly-composed nuns drinking tea beside a vase of flowers arranged just so—these are the kinds of images we usu- ally associate with “Zen.” But in Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen, these romanticized views are left behind, and we enter into the practice of Zen lived in everyday family life. Gone are the teahouse, the monastery, the quaint handhewn temple in the woods—these are the images we usually associate with “Zen.” Instead, this retreat—an intensive period of mothering the child, and of mothering the true self—often takes place in the messy, chaotic, sleepless home, not for a weekend or a week, but for a good twenty years. Momma Zen practice is often the practice of feeling over- whelmed in the full catastrophe of cooking, washing dishes, and talking on the phone while the doorbell is ringing and at least one child is tugging on the apron—“Momma, Momma I need you, right now!” But really, this is no different than the Zen we practice in sesshin, letting go and coming back to this breath, this moment, over and over again. In the midst of chaos, Momma Zen comes back again and again to centeredness—to right now, with whatever is. Reading Momma Zen is like listening to an open, honest friend whose many years of Zen practice have given her wisdom. But in sharing the thoughts that many of us also have, Miller doesn’t come off as being “special.” She is our ally who says, “You are look- ing for answers, insight, and wisdom that you already possess.” She puts the infinite into child-rearing, offering an “invitation to enter eternity with your child, with everything, into the silence of intimate stillness.” Here at last is what we mothers have been waiting for: momma-hood held in equal respect to monkhood. Miller has a handle on her subject. Before her daughter was born, she spent six years on the meditation cushion. She takes quotes from the old masters—teachers who lived as far back as the sixth century—gives them a good dusting-off, and brings them right into our beds, making them relevant where we are nursing or attending to a sick child in the quiet darkness of the night. For Miller, the ultimate koan practice is the moment-to- moment-ness of the mother–child relationship. This is the study and practice of not-knowing—the mind that is before thinking, comparing, opposites, and images. Miller demonstrates that there is fun in not-knowing, and writes in a lighthearted way about how “thinking mind” doesn’t help us. She shows us that mothering includes discomfort, the first no- ble truth in Buddhism. And reading story after story of Miller’s “crooked path,” seeing her off-balance, knowing that she is a Zen teacher, we begin to get it—the Zen vision is not about being bal- anced all of the time. Rather, this is about Zen practice: coming back to balance over and over and over again. So while most of society is hiding behind the dream of GapKids and well-applianced dream kitchens, Miller shows us that pain and vulnerability are inherent in mothering. This is a challenge to com- mon notions of both mothering and Zen, and readers thus have permission to take a peek at their own trials. In this way, Momma Zen helps to take the isolation out of motherhood. Miller’s situa- tion is similar to our own, she understands, and her understanding shines forth as compassion. If she can do it, we can too. ➢ Zen Mommastery MOMMA ZEN Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood By Karen Maezen Miller Trumpeter Books (Shambhala Publications), 2006 174 pp.; $19.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY NANCY HATHAWAY REVIEWS PHOTOBYLIZAMATTHEWS NANCY HATHAWAY is a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um school of Zen. She founded the program “Being Present with Our Chil- dren,” through which she offers workshops, retreats, and coaching. She is the mother of two sons, now in their twenties, who were born and raised in a Zen temple.