Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

I vow to not gossip maliciously.
– 6th Bodhisattva Vow

Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.
– Henry Fielding, Love in Several Masques (1728)

Who doesn’t approach a vow like a project? Or a project like a vow?

I sat with the vow to not gossip maliciously in preparation for the Ceremony of Taking Refuge in the Bodhisattva Way. For months I lived with all sixteen vows, meditating and working with my teacher, trying to discern what was true for me in each one. What was true, whether an image or a poem or an intention, would be the core of a response I would speak out loud during the ceremony.

Sometimes I felt like I was speed-dating the vows. Except I always ended up going to sleep with one at the end of the night. And hoping that I’d wake up pregnant with a poem or idea.

What does it mean to not gossip maliciously?


“Gossip,” by Britta Kathmeyer (2013). Ink on smoked paper, 9″x15″.

Let me tell you a few things. And ask a few questions, too.

I sit at the confluence of two winter streams, a third tumbling down a steep rift ahead and to the left. I listen to the rushing rills as they gather force and gossip about the oaks and the early shooting stars that they passed on their way towards meeting. The longer I sit here, the louder and more clear and more fabulous their gossip becomes. I don’t really understand it, but I listen.

This sixth Bodhisattva vow took me by surprise. It lingered even when I had moved on to slumbering with numbers seven, eight, nine and ten. It took me and shook out my expectations, assumptions. I want to be a good Buddha, right? Not a backstabbing, deceitful, toxic Buddha. I want to be good. So cut out the gossip. (What’s the deal with that word maliciously?) Gossip is mean (pinched, mediocre) at best, and polluting, impure at worst.

But watch the dark flowering of my memory inside of meditation. Once upon a time an acquaintance in college, someone who had known me in high school, told me I was very near the top of a fraternity’s list of “girls who were easy.” I remember this moment. I still feel it in my bones. It is dark though I’m sure it was day. I am falling in front of her while standing up. Her small shoulders slope pathetically away from her pale oval face, and in the silence after she speaks I feel my secret world becoming visible, sliding down around us.

She was neither mean nor polluting. Nor was she pure. She was an impetuously flowing stream, a storyteller. She was human. She was not really my friend, but she was a companion on my way, no less than the delicate blue-eyed grass that I tried to avoid crushing on my walk through wet grass this morning. I see now that in the devastating crumble of that moment I began to step towards something new, something more clear.

I stand at the outside edge of a gathering of women, when one of them starts talking about how much she dislikes gossip. To illustrate her point, she tells us about another woman who always tries to gossip with her. I watch, and listen, and am fascinated by the fact that she is inadvertently yet undeniably gossiping about a gossip.

Here’s another moment from meditation with gossip. I am sitting in my bedroom, with the ingredients of a homemade altar in front of me: little bodhisattva figures, a bleached antler, stones from the beach, all perched on top of my secondhand dresser. But I am also sitting again in the Stanford library, with a blue ballpoint pen and piles of xeroxed academic articles on the table in front of me. In my body I feel a leaning in, a sense of relief, to learn some juicy things about the history of gossip. Women and gossip.

While studying for my graduate examinations I learned that in early modern England the word “gossip” became both a noun and a verb, and heavily gendered. The word derives from the Old English godsibb, from the term for godparents of one’s child or the parents of one’s godchild, generally very close friends. It is thus a term rooted firmly in a web of intimate relationships, and included both men and women. Eventually the word’s use and meaning narrowed, to convey the busy, intimate chatter of female neighbors gathered at the scene of childbirth. By the sixteenth century, the word had contracted even further, to indicate a woman who engaged–nay, delighted–in idle talk and the spreading of rumor.

What did we lose in this contraction? And what intimacy remained?

You are too caught in the social web, Thoreau once told Emerson. He believed that his friend and mentor could not take a crucial, final step of freedom beyond convention. When I think of that exchange, I feel a tenderness for Emerson, trying to hold on to so many threads, to be a radical individual and to also stay connected.

Gossips, historians say, provided “vital networks of sociability, exchange, support, and relief” inside of patriarchy. “The threats posed by an abusive or thriftless husband, by a male sexual aggressor, or by a slanderous insult could all be countered through the support of gossips,” I read. “In addition, such networks…established women’s authority in the moral policing of their communities.”1

In other words, gossip helped (helps?) women survive.

For my daughter’s ninth birthday we took a day-trip to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform at UC Berkeley. We made our way through the rich clatter and chatter of the lobby to our seats, and watched the curtain rise on dance like she’d never seen dance before. Before the final act, a performance of Ailey’s famed “Revelations,” I whispered to her that it was choreographed in 1960, at the very beginning of the civil rights era, and could she watch it with that in mind? That is, with an awareness of the radical, courageous nature of this dance that put the strength and beauty of black bodies and history and spirituality literally at center stage, at a time of suffering and upheaval and hope. She’s only nine, but we talk about these things, albeit in simpler words. With every section the audience gasped or whooped or clapped more loudly, and she kept leaning over to say, “That was my favorite.” And then the first two women of “Move, Members, Move” walked on with their church stools, straw fans, and golden yellow dresses and hats. As they reached center stage, they flapped their fans at one another and clearly, defiantly gossiped. In this final piece of the ballet, Ailey offers a view of gossip in all its cultural glory–its rightful, bright, electric grace.

In other words (or in words, since Ailey uses none), gossip can boldly bolster and build legitimacy, beauty, and humor in the face of persistent oppression. Gossip can be cathartic, and daring.

Studies show that people retain visual impressions longer after being showered with negative social information about what they are seeing. “Hearing that a person stole, lied, or cheated makes it more likely that a perceiver will consciously see that structurally neutral, but purportedly villainous, face… What we know about someone influences not only how we feel and think about them, but also whether or not we see them in the first place.” After reading that, I walk through the day in wonder at the ways we are still such animals. We have evolved to avoid danger, and gossip is one of the ways this happens. “Whether delicious or destructive, gossip is functional. It provides human beings with information about others in the absence of direct experience, allowing us to live in very large groups.”2

I live in a collectively-owned community. Recently one of my neighbors expressed a desire for a “clean process” around moving people towards becoming owners. We have to make decisions in the open, on the up-and-up, “because anything else is gossip.” Gossip–messy. Pollution. Maybe it’s a good thing our community is pretty small.

There are days when my mind is so tired I can only handle fragments of narratives, shards of conversation. I suspect these are the days when I am most prone to to eavesdropping, aural gleaning, and the passing on of incomplete snippets of rumor and hearsay. But there are also days when I’m tired not from fatigue but from the disjointed, multitasking nature of our lives, and I just want a really juicy story, over a cup of tea or a half-tilled garden bed or a glass of wine. “Gossip is religious storytelling,” says feminist Biblical scholar Marianne Bjelland Kartzow, and I don’t know about the religion, but I sure do know about the story. “But,” Kartzow also says, “gossip uses dialog techniques that ordinary stories lack: it is always unfinished and constantly interrupted, and it is questioned and evaluated by the listener. The audience is included as participants and co-creators in the story.” Gossip, she says, is “a publicly available social consciousness,” with “creative and destabilizing potential.”3

So when does malice make its entrance, if even destructive gossip has a purpose, and stories are just the way we talk to one another, the way we live?

I’m sure this is related. Trust me. I’m sure I heard somewhere that it takes seven instances of witnessing kindness to match the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing just one instance of violence. Just one instance. Bring on the kindness! Shower my children with visions of kindness! Now!

On Facebook someone I know posted a passionate plea for people to stop gossiping! In essence, he asked his Facebook friends to take a vow alongside him: “Gossiping is one of the most toxic social energies in our communities. Why do people feel such a need to spread their own stories and judgments about others for the purpose of making them small or wrong or bad? I’m making the commitment to never believe the gossip people tell me about others and to always enter relationships with an open heart.” He ended with an exclamation that reminds me of Dogen’s commentary on the vow to not misuse drugs—Don’t bring them in. “Don’t bring your gossip to me! I won’t bring any to you!” The comment thread was swiftly filled with thank you’s and gossip is toxic! and even Amen! I carried the thread around with me for a while, and thought about it. Later that day, I replied and told him about the word “maliciously” in our vow, and I shared a little about those early modern women who came back to haunt me. “I think it’s possible to love and embrace the exuberant, comic absurdity of human nature,” I wrote, “and also set an intention to act from the most open and loving parts of ourselves.” And to to also love ourselves when we fail.

Someone tells me that the Dalai Lama, when asked what he really does for fun, answered with a playful whisper: I gossip! But when I search for this story on the internet, that veritable hive of hearsay, I can’t find it. Is it true? Can I repeat it here? How dare I gossip about the Dalai Lama? (I write with a smile.)

Is it possible to gossip about ghosts? A friend tells me about ghosts in her workplace. She works in a facility to help the developmentally disabled, which occupies the former home of a controversial asylum. Decades ago, the director was dragged out and hung, and now his ghost hangs around the office, seriously unhappy, reputedly even making people ill. There’s another ghost, too, but she, my friend informs me, is playful. Both, though, clearly have unresolved issues. By telling these incomplete stories about them as we hike along a springtime trail, by gobbling these ghostly rumors up, are we helping to keep these figments half-alive?

Another piece in the Alvin Ailey performance gave my daughter shudders, not joy. “Awakening,” a piece by Robert Battle, is filled with shocking noises, bodies costumed in uniform white clothing, and choreography of stark dissonance and longing.

“Why were they all wearing white?” she asked me later.

“To make the group seem like the most important thing,” I told her. “Did you notice how that one man kept trying to reach away from the group, and kept getting pulled back in? Did you notice the frantic movements they would make sometimes, almost as if they were not thinking about what they were doing?”

Enter malice.

For longer than I care to admit my daughter told me stories about suffering and anxiety at school, the result of some low-level bullying. Her friends did this, she told me, and said that.  I failed to clearly hear her, I failed to recognize the situation for what it was, and then I failed to engage, because I was worried about getting too involved, and I didn’t know whether or what to believe. Was she just gossiping? Sometimes it felt like her complaints could take up the whole damn room. I saw my deep desire to let the group close the curtains and keep everything hush hush. Don’t upset the apple cart. I let maliciously slip from the Bodhisattva vow.

I have a friend I don’t seek out much anymore, because she frequently seems to be playing out a story of being wronged. She tells tales about her ex, her mother, her housemates. But there’s an ending that she’s looking for, a side she wants you to take. Which means her gossip is not dialogic, and not at all fun. There’s no sweetener in this social tea.

Another friend has recently been telling me that she’s feeling the same pressure to prop this woman up and pick sides. I nod. I remember. I try not to blame or get too involved, but rather to keep my energy focused on my own boundaries and perceptions. I am trying to be realistic about my own ability to engage with the endless layers of narrative in any concentric circle of friends (I find my own narratives exhausting enough.) But I also feel selfish in my attempt to disengage. Where is the tipping point between walking centered in your own experience, and becoming isolated or isolating? Separation is an illusion. But words have power. When do we go too far in denying the exuberant social web in which we are vividly caught?

The Ceremony of Taking Refuge occurred at the end of a week-long retreat, which I dipped in and out of in between school carpools and laundry. At some point that week, sitting in mid-afternoon light, the lines of a poem clearly came to me, and I knew it was finally my response to this vow, a response I had struggled to find. But it was a strange poem, more daring than what I usually write. I did not recognize, and even feared a little, the place it came from. All day on the day of the ceremony I tussled with this poem. Could I speak it out loud? Should I keep it to myself? Was it too this or too that? too glam? too inexplicable? too good? All through the Refuge Vows, the Three Pure Vows, and the first five Bodhisattva Vows, I was aware of an uneasiness, a lack of resolution. When the sixth vow arrived, I opened my mouth and the poem did not come out. This is what I actually said:

There is a crowd of mean girls in the corner of my mind.
When I listen to their chatter, I feel fearful, clenched.
I am trying to keep them company.

The next morning, at home, I rose early to meditate while the retreatants did the same on the other side of town. My five-year-old son, who had been at the ceremony with my daughter and husband, woke soon after me, and came and sat between my knees in the quiet. He did not know it, but inside I was stewing, feeling all torn up about the vow, wondering whether I did the right thing, berating myself for not being able to read the strange and vibrant poem in front of a crowd. He began to mumble quietly and talk to me.

Finally, I leaned down and asked, “Did you like the drumming?”

“I liked everything,” he answered. “Well, except for the parts that were boring.”

I laughed, and then he laughed, and then, reaching his small hand up to my head, he said, “Remember? I’ve got mean girls in the corner of my mind?” He waggled his fingers. And I laughed a bright laugh of surprise that this is what he remembered, and then I started crying.

For in that moment I saw that the response I gave was what was true for me, and until my small son dispelled them, the mean girls were still there, still chattering away inside my mind. The vows first and foremost are about how we treat ourselves. I vow to not gossip maliciously about myself, even when I am relentlessly gossipy. Layer upon layer of comic beauty and grace.

Is it even possible to gossip about people you do not at all know? Or when you gossip, are you always not-knowing in some way? 

When we first met, and maybe all the way up until we had children, my husband and I used to talk endlessly about the fate of the world. In effect, we gossiped about humanity: Who was to blame? Who was not doing enough? He was fascinated by peak oil. I was fascinated by the exercise of power. Our fascinations drove us into passionate argument and equally passionate awareness (paranoia?) about the effects our daily actions were having on both the planet and the underprivileged. We rode bikes, we bought foods in bulk, we went to protests about Palestine, hanging chads, the looming Afghanistan and Iraq wars. We attended workshops on bioregionalism. We invested time and money into a nonprofit documentary project on U.S. imperialism, which took me to the still-colonized U.S. Pacific Islands. And then we had children.

Last week we went for a hike in the early evening, and the hills and valleys were so still it felt like we were inside a green and breathing picture postcard. At the crest of a steep incline I paused and said, “It’s so unnecessary. All the suffering in this world.” And that’s it. He ran his fingers over the nape of my neck. I told him it felt good. He said, “We should get back to the kids.” And we walked away quietly. On the descent the silence struck me, and I realized how little we gossip about humanity anymore. We have opinions, try to stay informed and act in good conscience, and we often feel like we don’t do enough. But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it. Sometimes I feel it’s too frightening, even humiliating, to send children out loud into the bright abyss of resource-depletion, economic desperation, rising oceans of anger and acidified seawater. I think also we are just too tired. And I think also we blame ourselves less these days. We are each, in our own way, finding space inside the desperation, finding a tenderness and slowness we did not know before.  And in blaming ourselves less, I think we are also softer towards the world.

We still gossip, but mostly about things right up close to us, as a way to stumble through the dilemmas of community, of parenthood, of shifting weather patterns and dreams. Our little network of gossip feels more intimate, less boastful, these days.

Today, my husband crosses the room and hovers over my right shoulder as I type these words.  That incessant human need to know what’s going on. “What are you working on?” he asks me, his words a distant 19-year echo of the very first he ever spoke to me, as I sat behind a pile of history books in a Palo Alto cafe. Then I gladly answered, entering into the river of human relationship: tentative friendship, hikes in the Santa Cruz foothills, rides to the grocery store during a drenched El Niño winter,  then sex, love, marriage, children. Relationships multiplying themselves, thickening the social web. His friends becoming my friends, my family becoming his family. Tonight, all these years later, I wish I could answer simply, “I’m writing about gossip.” Instead, I tip down the laptop screen and ask him why he needs to know. That incessant human need to be private.

Right now, the rain is pattering on the roof, telling me about dissolution. 
The oak trees shake their broken fingers at each other and the deep gray sky.
How wonderful, in this world, that there is so much to glean, so much to keep quiet, so much to say, and so much to not quite understand.


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