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SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that.

To begin with, the selfie underscores, as never before, a fundamental quality of the self, namely its radical impermanence. Posed self-portraits on canvas have been with us for centuries, and their earliest photographic counterparts date from the late nineteenth century. But the digital self-portrait, taken, as it were, on the fly, represents something new, insofar as it is a transitory image of a transitory subject. It can be deleted, whether by accident or design, in an instant and at any time. Our most basic misperception, Buddhist teachings tell us, is “taking what is not self to be self.” We mistake what Joseph Goldstein has called the “pairwise progression of subject and object, arising and passing moment after moment,”* for a lasting entity. We posit continuity where it may or may not exist, and we construct from successive moments the concept of an unchanging self. To that persistent habit of mind, the vulnerable digital image offers a potent corrective. It prompts us to inquire whether the self we assume to be solid and enduring may be no more substantial than the virtual image on our screens.

Even as it demonstrates the impermanence of the self, however, the selfie may also challenge our conventional notion of the life span: the personal self’s finite existence. As many users of social media have discovered to their chagrin, self-portraits posted on the internet can last far beyond their creators’ original intention. Their life spans, if such exist, are not always in our control. According to the Diamond Sutra, a fundamental text of the Zen tradition, the concept of a life span is itself an erroneous notion and a primary source of human suffering. “A cloud can never die,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “It can only become rain or snow.”* Nothing is annihilated, only transformed. And what is true of the cloud, the Diamond Sutra asserts, is also true of ourselves. Whether as stardust, a field of energy, a photo on a dresser, or an impression in a loved one’s memory bank, we continue beyond our dates of expiration. The enduring digital image, launched into cyberspace and winding up who knows where, can alert us to that eventuality–and prompt us to act accordingly.

Yet, lest the lessons of the selfie be restricted to the personal, it is worth remembering that the digital self-image also represents the interdependent nature of the conditioned self. The one includes the whole. However conformist or individualistic, conventional or outlandish any one selfie might be, its very existence exemplifies what the Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has called the “network of interdependent origination.” More concretely, it represents a complex network, at once electronic, social, and economic, whose components include the makers of micro-chips and smart phones, the creators and managers of social media, the purveyors of laptops, desktops, and mobile devices, and the eager consumers of such products. For all its elevation of the affluent leisured self, the selfie offers a context in which to  contemplate something beyond the self: the one, indivisible body of interconnected reality.

“To study the self,” Dogen went on to say, “is to forget the self; and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” Viewing a recent selfie, which features a muscular young man flexing his bicep in the mirror, I suspect that the enlightenment of which Dogen speaks may not be high among the photographer’s priorities. But it remains an ever-present possibility, whether its vehicle be a cup of tea, an ephemeral mandala, or yet another selfie.

——

* Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness : A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 36.

* Thich Nhat Hahn, Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way (Parallax, 2010), xiii.

Photo: Mogens Engelund

The Crown Bar Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Crown Bar
Belfast, Northern Ireland

“For Ben Howard, well met in Belfast, July, 2004.”

So wrote a gentlemanly Irish poet, whose work I had long admired, in the flyleaf of his most recent book. At the time, he and I were having lunch in the upstairs dining room of the Crown Bar, a storied old pub in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had come up on the train from Dublin to meet him.

Of the many inscriptions I have acquired over the years, few have proved as memorable as the one above, partly because the poet’s chosen phrase, faintly archaic but resonantly apt, sorted well with the Crown’s Victorian decor–its ornate tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, and dark-paneled “snugs.” Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting. Once the equivalent of “Nice to have met you,” that old-fashioned phrase evokes a singular event: two people meeting, in the fullness of human relationship, at a particular place and time. Continue Reading »

144. This

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Fahri during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Fahri concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Fahri has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. Continue Reading »

RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the clearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” Continue Reading »

       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.

Continue Reading »

141. A laughing matter

             Hotei    Kano Takanobu, 1616

Hotei
Kano Takanobu, 1616

Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.

Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life. Continue Reading »

140. No thank-you

Gratitude monumentOne day last summer I decided to go for a swim. It was a hot afternoon, and I needed both the exercise and relief from the heat.

Upon arriving at the university’s spacious pool, I observed that most of the lanes were still open. I chose lane one. As I prepared to enter the water, I noticed a pair of tiny pink flip-flops at the poolside. Someone’s little girl had apparently left them behind.

The water was chilly but refreshing. Pushing off, I swam a leisurely lap, breast stroke up, crawl stroke back. I hadn’t been swimming in quite a while, and I’d forgotten how pleasant the experience could be.

Upon surfacing, however, I was greeted by a little girl in a pink bathing suit. She was sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling her legs in the water. She wore a frown and looked perturbed. Continue Reading »

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