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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.

In this story, the two monks are arguing about the movement of their temple flag. The first contends that it is the flag that is moving. The second insists that it is the wind that is moving. Into this heated dispute, Eno intervenes. “It is not the flag that moves,” he informs them. “It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.” The quarreling monks, so the story goes, are “awestruck” by Eno’s observation.

In most commentaries on this story, Eno’s pronouncement is understood to be a correction, if not a rebuke. Katsuki Sekida, an authority on Zen koans, interprets Eno’s observation to mean, “Your mind is moving; don’t let it move.” This admonition, he adds, is “the warning of all Zen.”*

Perhaps so. But moving–generating thoughts–is what human minds do, twenty-four hours a day. Kosho Uchiyama, a twentieth-century Zen master, describes thoughts as the mind’s “secretions,” suggesting that the process of thought-creation is both natural and irrepressible. And broadly speaking, what Zen teachings discourage is not thinking per se but excessive thinking, which distracts us from present realities, and delusive thinking, which brings suffering upon ourselves and others. To counter both, the Zen tradition offers numerous teachings and practices.

Foremost among these is the practice of zazen (seated meditation). The classic posture of zazen, in which the two knees and the sitting bones form a triangle and the body a kind of pyramid, fosters stability of mind. To enhance that stability, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid.” By so doing, we cultivate a feeling of solidity, emotional and physical.

In similar fashion, the practice of chanting reinforces a sense of stability. Zen practitioners chant from the lower abdomen. Sometimes accompanied by a wooden drum, the act of chanting unites the body, breath, and mind. In the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, we precede our sittings with the chant “Atta Dipa,” which is said to incorporate the Buddha’s last words: “Atta Dipa / Viharatha / Atta Sarana / Ananna Sarana // Dhamma Dipa / Dhamma Sarana / Ananna sarana” (“You are the Light / Rely on yourself / Do not rely on others / The Dharma is the light / Rely on the Dharma / Rely on nothing but the Dharma“). In this context, “Dharma” may be interpreted as “the laws of reality,” particularly those of impermanence and interconnectedness. By chanting “Atta Dipa,” we declare our intention to rely on direct experience and remain grounded in things as they are.

Chanting and zazen are useful practices–“skillful means,” Zen calls them–but it’s important to remember their larger purpose, which is to situate ourselves in full awareness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has observed, awareness is “infinitely available,” and it is unperturbed by our changing states of mind:

Have you ever noticed that your awareness of pain is not in pain even when you are?. . . Have you ever noticed that your awareness of fear is not afraid even when you are terrified? Or that your awareness of your depression is not depressed; that your awareness of bad habits is not a slave to those habits?

Extolling its power to transform pain, Kabat-Zinn likens awareness to a “basket for tenderly holding and intimately knowing our suffering in any and all circumstances.”** Our awareness is not angry when we are angry or sad when we are sad. It allows all things but is limited by none. In contrast to the forms that pass through it, awareness is formless and immovable.

“The enlightened mind,” writes Sekida, “does not move.” All too often, however, our not-yet-enlightened minds resemble that wind-blown flag, flapping this way and that. At such times, we can restore our equanimity by returning to the posture of meditation and resting in open awareness, which is never far to seek. On the contrary, it is readily accessible and reliably present, wherever we may be.

___________

* Katsuki Sekida, Two Zen Classics (Weatherhill, 1977), 97.

** Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2006), 88.

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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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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 (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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.”* (more…)

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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: (more…)

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