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Let’s not go there

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.

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

 

 

 

 

800px-Red_River_of_New_Mexico_Picture_2010For more than four decades Joseph Goldstein, an internationally known teacher of Buddhist meditation, has practiced mindfulness of the body and mind. First as a monk in the Thai forest tradition and later as a Western practitioner, he has trained himself to be aware of what is occurring, within and without, in any given moment.Yet one afternoon, while walking along a river in northern New Mexico, Goldstein slipped on a wet rock and hyper-extended his knee. At the time, he was conducting a retreat, and later on that day, after giving a talk in the cross-legged position, he found himself unable to stand or walk. For the next few hours he berated himself and worried that he would not be able to complete the retreat. But in the midst of his anguish, he reports, a “sort of mantra” arose in his mind: Anything can happen anytime. To his surprise, that “mantra” provided a great sense of relief. Since then, he has found it “amazingly helpful in accepting change with a deepening and easeful equanimity.”* Continue Reading »

148. Making whole

Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara

“Do not lose yourself in the future,” Buddhist teachings advise. “Look deeply at life as it is in this very moment.” Under most circumstances that is sound advice, but it can also be devilishly difficult to follow. It is human nature to dwell on the future, especially when the future is replete with uncertainties.

So it was not long ago, when I learned that I needed minor surgery, and I met with my surgeon for a pre-op consultation. A seasoned professional in his sixties, he explained the nature of the procedure, including its history and technical details, and outlined the stages of recovery. During the first week, I would be laid up and managing pain, but by the second I would probably be feeling “fifty percent better.” By the end of the third, I might well be free of pain, though patients sometimes report “nuisance discomfort.” Six to eight weeks out, I would probably be able to resume my customary activities.

That forecast was reassuring, but by their nature forecasts focus on the future, and they leave open the question of what the patient, his eyes on the horizon, should be doing in the meantime. In a recent article (Prevention, January, 2014), Sister Dang Nghiem, MD, a Western-trained physician and a Buddhist nun, offers this prescription: Continue Reading »

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. Continue Reading »

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. Continue Reading »

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 »

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