In Kyoto. Longing for Kyoto.

Posted on Oct 31, 2013

On the first morning of the 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat that I attended this month at Spirit Rock in California, Jack Kornfield said, “one of the interesting things about spiritual practice is that each time you set out, you can’t know what you are there to learn.”  He was encouraging us to stay open, maintain a “beginner’s mind,” and approach our time on retreat without a set agenda.

This proved to be excellent advice.  Each day in the quiet, clear, air, my mind began to unfold in surprising ways.  What was also surprising, was all the ways that it stayed the same.  All of my tried and true mental habits seemed to relish new ground on which to transverse their walk of shame.  The real difference was that I had the space and time and spectacular teachers to help me see these patterns in action.

A few days into the the retreat I had the good fortune to meet with a sensitive young teacher named Matthew Brensilver.  I immediately started asking him what I should read and with whom I should study back in New York to extend and deepen the intense experiences that I was having in meditation practice.  He encouraged me to hold off on those questions.  He suggested that I keep my attention on the actual experiences themselves, rather than subtly moving away from them by wanting to “know” more about them.  As I was leaving he offered me what he described as a Zen expression: In Kyoto. Longing for Kyoto.

These five words became an eye-opening gateway into one of the most prominent habits of my mind and, for me, one of the most important lessons of the retreat.  I began to notice, for example, that I would take a few bites of something delicious at meal time and immediately wonder if there was more, or if the kind Boddhisatva cooks would be making it again.  Or, while taking a beautiful walk during the break periods, I would spend much of my time in the rolling golden hills reassuring myself that if I wanted ‘more” I could come back and take the same walk the next day.  Even during the insightful Dharma talks in the evening, just as I felt myself touched by the words, I would often, in the next breath, find myself, no longer really listening, but plotting how I might get to study with the teacher again some time in the future.

Does this sound like anything that you ever do??

It became so clear how “attachment” or “clinging,” in the Buddhist sense of these words, was getting directly in the way of the experience itself.  What a bummer.  You can be in Kyoto and yet be longing for it at the same time!  And you probably are!!

When I returned home and could finally just Google things, rather than have to actually live through them (kidding!), I learned that the expression that Matthew had offered to me actually came from a poem by Matsuo Bashō (1644 -1694):

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

Like many poems of this period, the meaning is open for endless debate.  Some have suggested that the poet was actually waiting for a courtesan named Kyoto.  I couldnt say. But I do know that I learned, through direct felt experience, that it is possible to miss the events of our lives (and even the people) through our own misguided attempts to hang on to them too tightly.  Indeed, for many of us, this habit is at least as powerful as the opposing tendency to push away and avoid what is uncomfortable.

Ultimately, both are recipes for suffering.

No wonder the Buddha received the name “Awakened One.”



  1. Susan, your writing is just beautiful – clear, direct, honest and insightful (no pun intended).
    Bows to you.

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

    • Dear Ann–you are so sweet and kind. Thank you for reading. Hope to see you one day soon… weren’t you going to come back to Lincoln Center? xo

  2. Susan, thank YOU so much for sharing this. I would of course like MORE hahaha! Talk about clinging am eager to hear it all.

    Much love

    • Thanks for reading Ramit! There will be more. Am eagerly awaiting YOUR show and tell. xoxo

  3. Susan, this is beautiful! I relate all too easily to your mind-habits! Thanks for sharing this view into you – and me:) Love and Namaste, Augusta

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read Augusta! Glad it resonated! Love to you.

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