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The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible.

Janet, I fear, is not alone. Most of us, I suspect, have a Book of Janet–or Josh, or Frank, or Amanda. And many of us carry our books with us throughout the day, making choices and judgments based on that fictive text. According to the Book of Benjamin, for example, I will not be happy if I don’t begin the day with a pot of sencha, fukamushi, or gyokuro tea, fresh from Japan, brewed with pure water at precisely the right temperature and for exactly the right length of time. Reality may be otherwise, but that doesn’t stop me from believing the Book of Benjamin and acting accordingly.

“In my book . . .” we sometimes say, as well we might. Our self-constructs and attendant guidelines help us navigate our days. But by clinging to those constructs or strictly complying with their constraints, we limit our possibilities for growth and full awareness. And according to Zen teachings, the very existence of such constructs is based on two fundamental misperceptions.

The first is that the bundle of attitudes, preferences, and habits known as Janet or Benjamin is a solid entity, possessed of an intrinsic essence and impervious to time and change. Where infants and toddlers are concerned, the error of this perception is readily apparent. Our children and grandchildren are changing before our very eyes. But in the world of grown-ups, an apparent sameness rather than an underlying impermanence may be a person’s most salient feature, and a calcified habit may easily be mistaken for an enduring trait. Uncle Henry may be difficult, we say, but he is just being Uncle Henry. And if we turn the spotlight on ourselves, we may reach the same conclusion. How comforting it can be to define oneself as such-and-such (“I’m a purist”; “I’m an inveterate introvert”) and attribute our choices, blunders, and triumphs to our inherent natures. But constructed self-definitions are one thing and true self-knowledge quite another. Vivid and compelling though they be, our labels may have little to do with the fluid aggregate to which they so tenaciously adhere.

The second misperception, no less beguiling than the first, is that the self exists in separation from the rest of the world. In our culture of individualism, we are conditioned to view the self in this way. We are seen–and may tend to see ourselves–as on our own. Yet even an irregularity as minor as a winter power outage should suffice to remind us that our autonomous selves co-exist in dynamic, interdependent relationships with nature and our fellow human beings. Should we look more deeply into the matter, we may also be reminded that what we call a self consists of “non-self” elements: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume. And should we choose to examine our emotional lives, we are likely to discover what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called an “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which our states of mind and indeed our spiritual condition are bound up with those of other living beings. As the Zen priest Norman Fischer eloquently puts it, “my suffering and your suffering are one suffering,” and “that suffering is empty of any separation.”

To remain continuously aware of the impermanence and interdependence of all life, as Zen teachings advise, is a daunting task. Prevalent forces in our society, including the denial of aging and death and the glorification of the youthful self, militate against it. But we can begin by discarding the notion of an unchanging, separate self embodied in a twice-told tale. With steadfast intention and diligent practice, it is possible to see through that illusion and recognize it as the life-denying obstacle it is. By so doing, we can open ourselves to selfless awareness and assume our rightful places in the unending stream of life.

___________

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “Love + Wisdom = Buddha,” Shambhala Sun, January 2015, 58.

Photo: “Old Book Gathering,” by Remi Mathis

 

155. O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. Continue Reading »

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Continue Reading »

153. Not two, not one

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: Continue Reading »

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention Continue Reading »

151. Yeah, whatever

Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. Continue Reading »

Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn 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. Continue Reading »

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