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Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years?

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism regards dignity as an innate and defining quality of human beings. It is the birthright of every living person. In his essay “Giving Dignity to Life,” the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it this way:

For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings . . . stems . . . from the exalted place of human beings in the broad expanse of sentient existence. . . . What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi goes on to say, human dignity is both an inborn potential in human beings and a quality to be cultivated through disciplined effort. Through daily meditative practice and the exercise of our unique capacity for moral choice, we can “actualize our potential for dignity.”*

In Buddhist meditation, as in other Eastern traditions, mind and body are seen as inextricable. And in practice, the cultivation of dignity can begin with moment-by-moment awareness of the body, including its positions, movements, and anatomical parts. Significantly, the four basic positions of the body–sitting, standing, walking, and lying down–are known in Buddhist teachings as the Four Dignities. And in systematic practice, each of the Four Dignities becomes an object of mindful awareness. When Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, advises practitioners to “sit in a way that embodies dignity,” he is echoing the Buddhist origins of his secular program. Similar admonitions accompany the practice of walking meditation, as when Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to “walk like a free person,” and Jack Kornfield advises us to walk slowly and with regal dignity, as if we were royalty out for stroll.

Beyond this attention to posture and movement, the quality of dignity can be cultivated through silent contemplation. We can become what we contemplate. Of the many objects of contemplation available to the practitioner, two are of particular importance.

The first of these is the contemplation of impermanence, not as an abstract concept but as an immediate reality. It is one thing to affirm the proposition that “everything changes.” It’s quite another to accept the reality of unrelenting change, especially when a loved one is involved, and the change is catastrophic. Yet, if we can truly accept the darker side of impermanence, our acceptance can lend dignity to our lives.  Sakyong Mipham, a teacher in the Tibetan tradition, explains:

No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. It means we have more freedom and appreciation, because we can relax into the ebb and flow of life. Understanding the meaning of impermanence makes us less desperate people. It gives us dignity.**

As Mipham’s observation suggests, there is a direct connection between awareness of impermanence and the realization of personal dignity. The one engenders the other.

And just as a deep acceptance of impermanence can foster dignity of heart and mind, so can the cultivation of the mental state known as upeksha, or equanimity. The most exalted of the “Four Immeasurable Minds,” equanimity might be defined, in simplest terms, as a quality of balanced awareness when encountering life’s vicissitudes. Not to be confused with indifference, the mind of equanimity is engaged, warmly and compassionately, with whatever occurs, but it is not overwhelmed. For Westerners who might wish to contemplate an image of equanimity, I would suggest Robert Frost’s sonnet “The Silken Tent,” in which Frost likens his wife to a silken tent “loosely bound / By countless ties of love and thought” and supported by a “central cedar pole.” “Strictly held” by none of her obligations, she “gently sways at ease.” Frost originally titled the poem “In Praise of Her Poise.”

With stories of warring states and terrorist atrocities dominating the news cycle, it often seems that dignity is in short supply. Indeed, the concept of human dignity is most often invoked in the context of human rights–and gross violations thereof. But in our everyday lives, as in our interactions with others, dignity is not only a possibility but a living presence, however neglected or obscured. Like a secluded garden in a noisy, violent city, it has only to be tended.

* Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Giving Dignity to Life,” Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010.

** Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally (Riverhead, 2003), 150.

Photo: Fragrance Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, by Daderot.

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Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind. (more…)

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Allan Lokos

Allan Lokos

In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.

I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover. (more…)

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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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: (more…)

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