She used to get a bit of a twinkle in her eye, you know. An impish, wondrous twinkle. "They're all going to be jealous," she said, speaking of all the other grandmotherly zen teachers in her circle, "when I tell them my sangha has a baby!"
And she warmly welcomed my baby, just a bit over a year old at the time and very (rambunctiously) mobile, into the very intimate group we had that met on Tuesdays at Healdsburg Yoga Studio. Darlene shared his free spirit; you could tell that she, too, was in love with the world. This open, clear penetration was evident in everything she did, in the way she made you feel. All at once I was warmed by her, mystified by her, and a little intimidated. (You don't come into contact with that kind of clarity without feeling a wee bit so.)
I've always known she would die. She spoke openly about her experience with chronic pain and cancer, as these very points were the cornerstones of her own practice. Yet it was a shock to read that she had died, just yesterday, while here in Boston the snow was flying. The glorious snow was flying, our neighbors were sharing a laugh and a grumble in a shoveling extravaganza, and life was going on. Life and death juxtapose so strangely on some days. Do you laugh? Do you cry?
"You do both," she'd say. For it was from Darlene Cohen that I finally learned to accept all of my emotions, and understand them as vital parts of myself, and vital to my own practice. "Nothing is pushed away," she'd say. "Not one thing needs changing. Except maybe your orientation to it."
On her birthday, which was a day shared with the Halloween holiday, she'd come to sit zazen with us in full costume. On other days, she'd sport the most amazing earrings... oh, her collection of earrings, you would not believe some of these bits of artful extravagance! Nothing is pushed away. Darlene sat with her whole self, warts and pain and all, and in this her gift to us was an attitude of complete acceptance-- of who we were, of how we were, joyfully.
I left California, and our little sangha, in September of 2008. I daydreamed of returning to share the women's retreat with Darlene and my teacher, Angie, at Grace Schireson's Empty Nest Zendo. I daydreamed of the letter I'd send Darlene and the sangha in the meantime-- or at least, the birthday card that I meant to send this year. Always life flares up and always, these precious intentions are left on the back-burner.
Turns out, that's precisely where our zen practice cooks the most: the back-burner of intentions, wishes, hopes and best-laid plans. Things we'd like to ignore, things we pray will change... we can push any number of things, sure; but the truth of it is, they do not go very far away.
Thank you, Darlene, for reminding me to stir that pot.
Always a tricky question to answer simply, it may be best to remember that Zen is not an "is" so much as it is a "does". The word zen is actually Japanese rendering of the Chinese word chan, which in turn is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit dhyana. However you say it, Zen most directly means "meditate"; and in the Soto lineage of Zen, emphasis is placed upon the practice of sitting meditation above all else. It is viewed as the direct expression of enlightenment-- which our founder Dogen Zenji noted is not something one must attain, rather something to be directly expressed through the practice of zazen. In Soto, we face the wall as our ancestor Bodhidharma faced the wall of a cave. Our practice is supported by our posture: Erect spine, soft gaze, hands folded in the Zen mudra, legs solid, and breath continuous in an effortless effort.
What is Zen? The answer is one best experienced directly through one's own practice.