Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey..... ”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Running Back Into the Fire

On March 14, 2020, just after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency, meditation teacher and activist Shelly Tygielski wanted to find a way to support her community in South Florida. She decided to create two simple Google forms: one to give help and one to get help. She shared both forms on social media. The next morning, each form had over 500 responses from around the country. As more requests for help kept pouring in, the mutual aid organization Pandemic of Love was born. Since Pandemic of Love’s conception, the organization has connected over 2 million donors with individuals and families in need and has responded directly to global crises including hurricanes, mass shootings, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, distributing over $150 million worth of supplies and resources to Ukrainian refugees in Poland and surrounding nations.

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen and co-host Sharon Salzberg sat down with Tygielski to discuss her work in Ukraine, the history of mutual aid, and the radical power of just showing up. Read excerpts from their conversation below, and listen to the whole episode here.

On the power of communities of care

I started getting involved in mutual aid incredibly informally. Through working as a community organizer and meditation teacher in South Florida, I got to know a lot of the people in our community. I saw that a lot of these individuals had unmet needs, sometimes financial, sometimes something as simple as a ride to meditation on Sunday mornings. I also realized that there were people in our community who could fill those needs. If I could be the matchmaker and then step out of the way, we could start to create communities of care, where we bring people together, create safety nets, remove the stigma of asking for help, and build and live in a community where we recognize that every single person, regardless of their socioeconomic status, has something that they need and something that they can give. As our community continued to grow, we were able to come together in the face of tragedies including hurricanes and mass shootings simply by creating these direct connections. Rather than creating a nonprofit organization or a formal charity, we found a way for people to connect, to have conversations, and to form strong, sustainable methods of being in community together. 

On the evolution of Pandemic of Love

As of May 2022, Pandemic of Love has over 4,000 volunteers in close to 300 communities across 20 countries, and we’ve connected over 2.2 million individuals who have transacted directly over $62 million. It’s a staggering number. And it reminds me that a lot of people doing a little bit really makes a huge impact—if we’re all committed to doing even one thing, then it can make a big difference in the world and in people’s lives. I think that Pandemic of Love has taken off because people recognize how important human connection really is, especially during the time of the pandemic. Being able to connect with others is a necessity for our survival as human beings. At a time of forced physical disconnection, having a way to connect with somebody in a meaningful way was a very powerful thing. Picking up a phone and asking a person in need in your community, “What do you need? And how can I help you?” is such a powerful act that goes beyond paying someone’s utility bill. In the process, you’ve helped someone feel seen and heard, which is not something we should take for granted.

Photo courtesy Shelly Tygielski


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Uncovering the Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas

For over a thousand years, the Sakya Khon family has trained both its sons and daughters as great spiritual teachers. Though many of the men within the Khon family are well known, the stories of female adepts are rarely shared. Known as jetsunmas (venerable women), these women begin studying Tibetan at the age of six and train with the highest lamas of their time. They have played a pivotal role in the development of the Sakya tradition within Tibetan Buddhism, and yet they often remain nameless in historical accounts of the Khon family lineage. 

In the new book The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas, scholar Elisabeth Benard brings the stories of these women to light. This multigenerational collection of biographies is the first book written in English about the Sakya jetsunmas, and it draws extensively from archival research, oral histories, and interviews with living members of the Khon family. 

Tricycle sat down with Benard to discuss the extraordinary lives of these women, including two contemporary jetsunmas who are still practicing today; how the jetsunmas have grappled with histories of persecution and exile; and how they’re shaping the future of the tradition.

What is a jetsunma, and how does someone receive the title? Jetsunma is the feminine form of the word jetsun, and it means “one worthy of worship” or “venerable woman.” There are very few women who have this title, and there are two ways to receive it: either someone is born into a particular family and is given the title at birth, or a community or a lama recognizes them as a great practitioner and confers the title. The second case is more common, as there are only a couple families that pass on the title at birth, the Sakya Khon family and the Nyingma Mindroling Trichen family.

Can you share a little about the Sakya Khon family and what’s unique about the Sakya jetsunmas? The Sakyas are a spiritual family that began in the 11th century in a place in Tibet that is now known as Sakya. Sakya literally means “pale earth,” as the earth in the area is noted for its pale gray color. The founder of the Sakya school, Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034–1102), had a vision that he had to build a temple on Sakya’s pale earth, so he decided to build Sakya Monastery. When the great Indian pandita Atisha first saw the land of Sakya, he prophesied that there would be emanations of the different bodhisattvas of compassion, wisdom, and power born there. This all coalesced in the Sakya Khon family. Indeed, many of the male members of the Khon family are considered to be bodhisattvas, either of compassion, wisdom, power, or a combination of all three. The jetsunmas, on the other hand, are usually considered to be emanations of the goddesses Tara and Vajrayogini. What is unique about the Sakya family is that they’re committed to train both their sons and their daughters to become great religious practitioners and, if they have the abilities and the interest, to become great lamas.

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Tricycle’s Highlights From the Week: New Film Club, Dharma Talk, and Short Guided Meditation

Nothing is permanent, everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—at Tricycle and in the Buddhist world this week.

June’s Film Club: The Wisdom of Trauma 

In Tricycle’s monthly Film Club selection, The Wisdom of Trauma, renowned physician and author Dr. Gabor Maté explores how true healing becomes possible once we learn to embrace our deepest wounds. Before July 1, watch the film here

June’s Dharma Talk: “You Can’t Be Yourself By Yourself: Overcoming Structural Selfishness”

June’s Dharma Talk with UK-based Ordinary Mind Zen teacher Malcolm Martin explores the relationship between personal suffering and the suffering of all beings. Overcoming “structural selfishness,” he proposes, can transform the quality of care we show to ourselves, each other, and the world. Watch the talk here.

An Interview with Playwright Sarah Ruhl About Her New Poetry Collection, Love Poems in Quarantine

Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Sarah Ruhl’s new book, which came out May 31, documents the mundanity and weight of the first few months of the pandemic. Read an interview with the playwright here.

A Practice From Meditation Teacher Joseph Goldstein on Working with Fear

Photo by Ben Warren

Joseph Goldstein explains how we can slowly train ourselves to relax and open when we arrive at the limit of our comfort zone during meditation. Read the article here

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The Wrinkle in the Mat

Dressed in a novice Zen monk’s formal robe, my bowing mat folded over my left arm, I stood with one other monk before the monastery’s ceremony hall entrance. Through the doorway, I could see splashes of royal purple, gold, and chocolate brown—the dress robes of the senior monks at the monastery. In a few moments, the ceremonial drum would sound, and I would walk through those doors, the eyes of the entire community upon me. I was about to begin my hossen, a coming of age ceremony for all new trainees at the monastery. 

The concrete floor was cool beneath my feet. As I shifted from one foot to the other, I picked up the faint smell of pine incense—and a hint of something else. 

It’s the laundry soap I used yesterday to scrub my bowing mat.     

As thoughts arose, I let them pass—they were just clouds drifting through a clear sky, and I wanted that clear sky.   

After well over a year as an anonymous novice monk, I knew my ability to stay still in the purity of the present moment was about to be tested. I cocked my ear toward the door, waiting for my cue to enter, the first beat of the big drum.   

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A Conversation with Kōan Brink

Housed inside a maple box and bound together by a thin red string lies poet Kōan Brink’s newest poetry collection, What Sleeps under Lacquer. Describing the unconventional art object, Brink (who uses the pronouns they/them) says, “The idea for the ‘book’ is that the poems are printed onto wood cards and housed in a box, like tarot or incense sticks. The materials and design are connected to Minnesota, where I grew up—flame maple, photos I took of Lake Superior, ice, etc. printed on wood. I imagine the poems ‘arrive’ in a kind of order, but can be shuffled like a deck over time, or even lost.” The collection will be published this fall by the Austin-based publisher NECK Press

Brink is also the author of the poetry chapbook The End of Lake Superior, published by above/ground in 2021. They received their MFA in Poetry from Columbia University, and they studied Buddhist texts and social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Brink is also a lay ordained Soto Zen student practicing with teachers at Brooklyn Zen Center, where they lead a monthly Queer Dharma group. 

Tricycle spoke to Brink about their creative process, establishing a sense of place, and the fruitful relationship between poetry and Zen practice. 

Your name is Kōan. Can you share the story behind that? I’m assuming that it’s a name that you received from a teacher. I went through a lay ordination process with Brooklyn Zen Center in 2019, so it’s a lay ordination name that was given to me by my teacher. I chose to start using it for a number of reasons. One was around identifying as queer and having such a fluid gender identity in my twenties. It felt really good to have a name given to me by someone who knew me on a much different level and capacity than my parents did. I felt very seen by my given name, and I’m not mad at my parents for having named me Anne. But I don’t particularly identify with femininity in my body and personality. I use non-binary pronouns, and I prefer gender-neutral language. My lay ordination name actually felt better in my body. 

When you receive ordination and a new name in Soto Zen, you take vows and precepts. Having my name said out loud by me and having other people use it just reminds me of my vows on a daily basis. It brings me back to having gone through the ceremony and the commitments I made as a Zen student, not just to Brooklyn Zen Center, but to a deeper Zen lineage in Japan, and it helps me honor those ancestors there. 

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