Photo by Karen Laslo
Lin Jensen is Senior Buddhist Chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California and founder and teacher of the Chico Zen Sangha in Chico, California, where he writes and works on behalf of nonviolence and in defense of the earth. Lin is a frequent contributor to Turning Wheel, Shambhala Sun, Mandala, and Tricycle magazines. He’s the author of six books on Zen. His first was Bowing to Receive the Mountain, followed by Uncovering the Wisdom of the Heartmind, which was awarded Best Buddhist Book by Today’s Librarian. Three of Lin’s Books: Bad Dog!, Pavement, and Together Under One Roof were each selected for Shambhala Sun’s Best Buddhist Writing in 2006, 2008, and 2009 respectively. Lin’s latest book, Deep Down Things, was released by Wisdom Publications in fall 2010.
Lin, a child of the great depression and WW II, has seen the best and the worst that life offers. He writes with the wonder of how love and beauty take root in even the most barren places. His consolation is that no matter how difficult life can be its sweetness is always with us.
Lin tells it this way:
You could divide my life into three more or less equal parts: the first as a child and young adult in family farming, the second as a college teacher of literature and writing, and the third as a Zen teacher. That makes up the seven decades of my life so far. To understand my view of things, you need to know how it was at the beginning because it was there that so much of what I have become first took shape.
The story begins on a Southern California turkey farm. Imagine a hundred thousand birds, acres of milling feet, the earth perpetually ground to a fine powder of dirt and dried manure that the wind carries up through the barns to the house. Everything in such a world is coated gray – the pickup parked in the driveway, the leaves of the sycamore trees, the lawn chairs, and even the lawn itself. Dust piles up on windowsills and insinuates itself into the house, coating tabletops and dressers and lying like talcum on the surface of the piano. And drifting feathers too blow downwind where they snag on every fence line and hedgerow and clump of weeds, and even wedge against the dog asleep in the shade of the barn. The acrid smell of turkey manure, where it piles up beneath the roosts, seeps into your skin and hair. The incessant cackling racket of the turkeys grates like the distant whine of a chainsaw or the droning motor of a kitchen refrigerator that never seems to switch off. The ever-present flies go after your breath and the moisture of your eyes.
We were a family of five. My father, a Danish immigrant whose parents had died when he just a child, leaving him to fend for himself, arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, penniless, ill, and with virtually no command of English. My mother was born somewhere in Montana of a mother who abandoned her as an infant, leaving her to be raised by the Goslees, an elderly couple who viewed the adoption of the child as insurance that they would be cared for in their old age. In time, the Goslees moved to city of Orange in southern California, and my father, having found his way there as well, met my mother when she was but seventeen. They fell in love and, before my mother’s eighteenth birthday, they married and proceeded to make a household for themselves and raise a family. Neither of them had ever lived in a functional household under the care and guidance of their own parents, and so they had no model for what they were setting out to do. Not only that but they began their lives together at the outset of the Great Depression of the thirties and were soon to know the added hardship of all poor and immigrant households. My brother, Rowland, was born within a year of my parent’s marriage. Then I came two years later, and my sister, Evelyn, six years after that.
Whatever my parents had hoped for in the beginning, our five lives together turned out to be a daily enactment of inadvertent cruelty and sudden love that we never quite managed to reconcile. But we were also a family whose hunger to love one another could not finally be refused. Understanding and tenderness would arise among us no matter how bad things got, and we found redemption in the very places we hurt most. Sometimes in the midst of the worst anger or accusation or threat, an unaccountable hush would suddenly settle over us. In the momentary reprieve of this unbidden quiet, the whisper of our five separate breaths could be heard rising to the high ceiling of the old farmhouse living room. Our chests rose and fell with each breath, and there was a wondrous tenderness in the moment that we all recognized and felt for each other
I guess you could say that the rest of my life has been something of a footnote to that beginning.