The author of Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, Karen Maezen Miller describes herself as an errant wife, delinquent mother, reluctant dog walker, and expert laundress. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Two of Karen’s teachings are found in my anthology Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West, and you’ll find her article, “The Heart of a Garden,” in our coming, July magazine. I recently had the good fortune to interview her.
Andrea Miller: I appreciate how your teachings are really profound, yet they’re totally grounded in day-to-day life.
Karen Maezen Miller: That’s all we have. That’s all there is. Everything else is imagination. Imagination is a wonderful tool but we really shouldn’t confuse ourselves with it. The path to wisdom is the path that’s right in front of you. The discipline of true practice is always staying right here. We can grasp the concept that life is ephemeral and changing, but can we really live with things as they are, with our life as it is, with ourselves as we are? Can we stop looking elsewhere? Can we stop thinking that profundity is a product of contemplation? It’s not! Profundity is the state of mind that experiences things as they are without a shred—without an iota—of conceptual understanding.
Andrea Miller: Did you gravitate to Zen right away?
Karen Maezen Miller: Well, that depends on what you mean by right away. I really was not on any kind of a spiritual quest. It was a process of kind of falling down to my lowest point, and then looking up and there was Zen! But I can tell you that before then it was probably a toss up between astrology, tarot cards, palm reading, and antidepressants! And liquor! I gave them all a shot!
Andrea Miller: Wow, that’s really quite a mix.
Karen Maezen Miller: My first retreat, which was the first time I actually encountered anything that was three-dimensional Zen—you know, the practice of Zen rather than just the poetry of Zen—I was scared straight, far beyond any comfort zone, but I also had an immediate trust in the teacher. He was someone who was unlike anyone I’d ever met before.
Andrea Miller: That was Maezumi Roshi?
Karen Maezen Miller: Yeah. And he was profoundly strong and yet very tender. Very kind. And, you know, when you sit a sesshin, you really do sit it. It’s really not about anything except sitting, which is very difficult and remains difficult. Just doing that practice itself engenders self-respect and respect—aspects of everyday life, which are sorely lacking. So I think that—even after that encounter—I was still inflicted with a case of tourism. I still didn’t want Zen to be an organizing principle in my life. But I could not avoid that it was one thing that seemed to improve my life, and when you get a taste of setting down a little bit of trouble, just setting down a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of your neurosis, it’s really attractive! Such a relief! It’s the difference between the burden of life versus the sweetness of life!
Andrea Miller: What your thoughts are about the role of women in the contemporary Zen world. Do we have a long ways to go?
Karen Maezen Miller: Well, we don’t have any longer than anybody else has to go and once you realize that you don’t have far to go at all. I have to say I’m not concerned with institutional or historical roles of women. All institutions are the same. I can’t point to a particular era in human history that was matriarchal, and institutions—I think—are inherently patriarchal. But what’s radical about Zen is that it really calls us to go beyond the organization.
I have never found in my life that my gender holds me back in my own practice. No one and nothing holds me back in my own practice except myself. On a bad day, my feelings might be hurt by what I see is the trivialization of women in the dharma. But I have to say—in my long life—I have spent time in academic institutions, in commercial businesses, in entrepreneurship, and there’s not a single one of those places where the role of women isn’t trivialized.
I think when we come together and practice together—really practice together—all these divisions and distinctions dissolve.
Andrea Miller: Do you mean when men and women practice together?
Karen Maezen Miller: Yeah, all people! I mean, I love people that I practice with. I love them—and that’s not a conscious act. That’s a product of samadhi. If I stand on the sidelines and turn it into an academic or historical or intellectual discussion, that’s where divisions occur.