Reflections: The Dharma of Joni Mitchell

by Sessei Meg Levie

In 2015, Joni Mitchell had a brain aneurism, and had to learn to sing, play the guitar, and walk again. Here she is at the Newport Folk Festival in July, playing her first full set in almost two decades.

Listening to her now at 78 singing “Both Sides Now,” I hear the Dharma: How easily we can spin with the questions, Am I up? Am I down? What’s real? What’s illusion? I remember Sengcan saying that the Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. And Dizang’s famous phrase, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

If you missed this when it came out, enjoy. If you’ve seen it before, I invite you to listen again, deeply.

[maxbutton id=”3″ url=”″ text=”Watch” ]


PS – “Big Yellow Taxi” is fun to listen to right after.

Reflection: Finding a Way Through

by Sessei Meg Levie

Early in Patricia Wright’s career as a primate researcher, her professor dared her to go to the forests of Madagascar to find a species of lemur that was thought to be extinct: the greater bamboo lemur. She found it, and a new species as well, but as she was camping there in 1987, she woke up to a 300-foot tree crashing down near her tent. The forest was being logged. When the government told her they had no funds to create a park or nature reserve but would help if she could raise the money herself, she went from village to village asking people to stop cutting trees and building houses in the forest, and what they wanted in return.

Health clinics, they told her. Education, money to grow more rice, and soccer balls. When she received a $250,000 MacArthur Fellowship for her research and conservation efforts, she gave most of it to the villagers. Eventually she received $4 million from USAID, and used it to create trails and other infrastructure in the forest, leading to it becoming  one of Madagascar’s most visited national parks and a source of employment for villagers. 

In Joseph Campbells’ exploration of the hero’s journey, obstacles on the path of growth can be see as threshold guardians. Places where others seem to stand in our way; when we meet difficulty and voices of fear or doubt and it would be easy to give up, as when the forest you’ve just discovered comes crashing down around you. But these also are the places that open us; that require us to connect with new allies; to tap into deeper wells of courage; to find a creative way through. In the challenges of these times—personal, local, and global—Zen practice can help us to be present to meet the moment. To pay attention and not collapse. To ask the question: “What’s needed now?” and find a way. 

You can read the whole story here. 


A Reflection on Interbeing

There’s a Zen meal chant that says, “Innumerable labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.”

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine having a salad for lunch. You could ask, “What did it take for that lettuce to appear on my plate?” Of course, there’s the sun, and the soil, and the water, and the clouds. That’s all right there in the lettuce. But also, who planted the lettuce? How did that person get to work that day? Where did the rubber on the tires of the truck come from? Who cooked them breakfast? Where was the cotton of that person’s shirt grown and who chose to dye it that particular blue?

The weave of interrelatedness is far more complex than any story our minds could tell. And everything is like this.

If you’d like, try looking around you and choosing one thing in your environment and imagining its story. Where did it come from and how did it get there? This is the Buddha’s teaching of dependent co-arising, or what Thich Nhat Hanh called interbeing. How could we ever say that anything is separate?

Learning to See

by Sessei Meg Levie

Chagall-like, a long-limbed man and woman swooped suspended above a village, holding aloft a hen, an ear of corn. I looked around and took it all in: images full of trees with small hearts dangling from the branches; a feminine-faced sun and moon; a melancholy mermaid crowned with a wreath of stars; in one small painting a dense, color-full interweaving of spirals and leaves and tucked here and there an eye, the head of a bird just visible.

I walked over to the photo of the artist on the far wall of the restaurant gallery. His name is Pedro Cruz Pacheco, and he is from Oaxaca. According to his website, Cruz Pacheco started working as a brick maker as a young boy: “Surrounded by . . . suffering, I looked to nature and spirituality for . . . comfort. As a child, I was always watching every detail of the world. I loved the colors of the earth, the fine dust that comes from tree bark, the sand for making bricks and the faces of the ancestors that can be found in the thick adobe walls of my town. When I was working, I began to trace the faces and figures I saw in the humid earth as the heavy molds were lifted from the bricks.” 

Imagine what that might have been like: to spend years making bricks, and then suddenly to see, through the eyes of your childhood, colors swirling in the brick dust. To not be a painter and then feel compelled to start painting. To open to the refuge of nature and spirituality in the midst of great suffering and as an adult have it come alive on the canvas and reach across borders and cultures.

I thought of our own Soto Zen tradition, and of Eihei Dogen writing in 13th-century Japan: “Trees and grasses, walls and fences expound the dharma for the sake of ordinary people, sages, and all living beings. Ordinary people, sages, and all living beings in turn expound the dharma for the sake of trees, grasses, walls, and fences.” 

Right now. The trees outside your window, the walls of your home–expounding the dharma. And we in turn write and read and take in these words, expounding the dharma, with the support of all beings, for the sake of all. 

I re-read his words, slowly. In the midst of so much suffering, if we settle and open to the magic of the living world, what might we see?


The art is on display at Viva Mexicana at 841 Gravenstein Hwy S in Sebastopol.

To see more of his art:

Reflection: Juneteenth in Texas

by Sessei Meg Levie

Last year, President Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday. June 19, 1865 was the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Texas, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has been a holiday for the Black community in Texas since the 1860s. But even though I grew up in Texas, I didn’t know about it until my 20s.

In 1993 I was home in Texas for the summer, and my boyfriend at the time, Mark, had come to visit me. I read that a Juneteenth celebration was happening at Riverfront Park in Beaumont, about half an hour away. Until then, I didn’t really know about Juneteenth. It wasn’t taught in my seventh grade Texas history class, and nobody talked about it. This was a small Southern town, with one public school system, everybody all together but still following many of the map lines of social segregation laid down long before. 

We drove down to the place and parked, and as we stepped out onto the grass where the crowd was, we realized we were the only white people there. If I had been by myself I might have turned back, but I had a friend.

Mark was encountering Texas and the Deep South for the first time. He grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in the East, was Jewish and an American studies major. He brought just the right mix of outsider-ness, sincere curiosity about all aspects of the human experience, keen awareness of history, and general amiability to create an opening for stepping across unwritten social rules of who belonged where. 

What I remember: a sunny day on the grass by the sparkling water of the Neches River; people being curious and open and welcoming us, inviting us into a big crawfish boil; someone showing Mark how to shell the crawfish; a six-year-old boy onstage giving it his all singing gospel; the feeling of festivity all around. 

I continue to feel grateful for that day, for the entry into something that had surrounded me all my life and I didn’t know was there, didn’t know how to appreciate or support. 

The next year I was back home by myself. I wanted to go again, but hesitated. I asked my mother if she wanted to go, but she expressed doubt that we would be welcome. I ended up getting in the car and going down anyway. It was in a new location, at the fairgrounds. When I got there, I drove by but I found I didn’t have the courage to stop. So I turned around and went back home. 

Now Juneteenth is a national holiday. I’m glad that someone like me growing up in Texas doesn’t have to wait till she’s in her 20s to learn about it. And may it bring awareness to the work still left to do.


PS – Just as I was publishing this, someone sent me this rare footage of a 1925 Juneteenth parade in Beaumont, Texas.