In his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*
Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct.
In Zen practice, ethical behavior is inextricable from present awareness. Each supports the other. Correspondingly, the rakusu is not only a reminder of the precepts but also a symbol of a quality of mind, namely that of continuous, wholehearted mindfulness. In its secular applications, mindfulness is sometimes equated with heightened sensory awareness–being fully present for the present moment. But in its deeper, monastic context, the practice of mindfulness also embodies a moral dimension. Truly to be mindful is to remember the precepts and one’s best intentions in every thought, word, and deed. By so doing, we live in harmony with things as they are, and we avoid doing harm to others and ourselves.
In his book Training in Compassion, the Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer explains concretely how training in mindfulness can forestall harmful behavior. Focusing on our “default habits,” those “unsuccessful yet compelling attitudes, thoughts, and actions that seem to keep coming back, over and over again, despite our best intentions,” Fischer identifies three “difficulties” associated with changing destructive habits of mind.
The first difficulty is to recognize the habitual impulse whenever it arises. The second is to let go of the mental habit, however compelling or gratifying it might be. And the third is to let go of the habit yet again, the next time it arises. This can be especially difficult because of the “habit energy” that has driven the thought or attitude or action, perhaps for a lifetime.
But how, exactly, is one to “let go” of ingrained patterns of thought and action? Broadly speaking, Fischer recommends two methods, the first to be employed during sitting meditation and the second to practice in everyday life. The first consists of recognizing unwholesome states of mind arising, and upon doing so, returning to “the feeling of the breath and body.” By practicing in this way, we become aware of such states as anger, fear, and jealousy at their moment of inception. By returning to the breath and body, we decline to nourish those unwholesome states.
The second method consists of this “three-step program”:
Step 1: notice when habitual negative thinking arises. Step 2: stop. Literally stop for a moment: if you are walking, stop walking; if you are thinking, stop thinking. Step 3: take a breath. Return to awareness with that breath. This simple three-step practice is surprisingly powerful.
In presenting this practice as a three-part formula, Fischer does not minimize its complexities. On the contrary, he acknowledges that “mostly the training will proceed from failure to failure.” But by stopping, taking a breath, and “then with a breath returning to positive intentions,”* the practitioner can gradually replace harmful habits of mind with beneficial ones, while also gaining strength in the practice.
“Let’s not go there,” my wife sometimes cautions, when our conversations drift toward some painful episode from the past, or I express a negative, all-too-familiar view. Like Johann’s broadfall trousers, her admonition reminds me to be aware of persistent, corrosive habits of thought and feeling, even as they are arising. Whether I or anyone can internalize that external voice, however, and heed it when appropriate, is quite another matter. An aspiration worthy of concerted effort, it is also a formidable challenge of meditative practice.
* James Silas Rogers, Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2014), 57.
* Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2013), .
Photo by Gadjoboy