The weir on the river Chew in Pensford
It has often been observed that time seems to go faster as we grow older. Our birthdays arrive with increasing rapidity. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to feel as if I were taking the garbage cans out to the curb every other morning. And with each ensuing decade this subjective sense of accelerating time, which a number of my older friends have also noted, has grown ever more prominent. It is as if we were afloat on a swiftly moving river, and each of those “important” birthdays, the ones that mark the decades of our lives, were another waterfall, whose drop and velocity have yet to be experienced.
Yet, from the vantage point of Zen teachings, neither birthdays nor waterfalls are quite what they appear to be. They are at once real and illusory. In his book Living by Vow the Soto Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has this to say about waterfalls:
A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only a continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. . . . We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process.*
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged aging, edwin arlington robinson, ichigo ichie, Okumura, thich nhat hanh, waterfalls, zen | 7 Comments »
There is nothing new under the sun, a revered text tells us. And while the latest inventions from Silicon Valley may seem to refute that proposition, it may well be true of rhetorical devices, those verbal and mental forms with which we construct our arguments and formulate our opinions. First identified by the ancient Greeks and Romans, those devices are still in use today, both in the public arena and in our private, everyday lives. And they can have a profound effect on the ways we experience the world, whether we realize it or not. Continue Reading »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged anthony weiner, elizabeth mattis-namgyel, frank bruni, ichigo ichie, michelle bachman, power of an open question, rhetoric | 3 Comments »
On Friday, June 14, my granddaughter, Allegra Rose Howard, arrived in the world, weighing eight pounds and twelve ounces. As I reflect on that glad event, I am reminded of a phrase from Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
The phrase is this precious human birth. Its source is the Chiggala Sutra, where the Buddha speaks of the chances of being born a human being. Those chances, he observes, are infinitesimally small. They are analogous to those of a blind tortoise swimming in an ocean as large as the planet, where an ox’s yoke is afloat on the waves. Every one hundred years, the tortoise surfaces. The chances of being born human are no better than those of the tortoise surfacing with his head in the yoke. Human birth is extremely rare and therefore most precious.
In the lojong system of mind training practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, phrases such as this precious human birth are known as “slogans.” Contemplated and absorbed during sitting meditation, they are subsequently applied to everyday life. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer explains, the best way to work with a lojong slogan is to develop it “as an almost physical object, a feeling in your belly or heart.” Once the slogan has embedded itself, you can work with it throughout the day, until it becomes “part of your mind—your own thought, a theme for daily living.”* Continue Reading »
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In a recent column Paul Krugman spoke of “fantasy posing as hardheaded realism.”* As might be expected, Krugman’s subject was economic, his theme political. But his well-wrought phrase has resonance beyond the spheres of politics and economics.
To begin with, it evokes the stereotype of the hardheaded realist—the seasoned, no-nonsense person who lives in the real world. At the same time, it suggests that realism may be little more than a pose. If, as Krugman implies, realism can be false, the opposite must also be the case. What is true realism, we might inquire, and what are its salient traits? Is it by nature hardheaded—and hardhearted as well? Continue Reading »
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For better or worse, the word surmise seems to be growing rare. I can’t recall when I last saw it in print, much less heard it in conversation. Like the landline phone and the handwritten letter, this old-fashioned word may soon be leaving our daily lives.
Far less endangered is the mental activity surmise describes. In ordinary human affairs, the act of surmising is not only habitual but also necessary for survival. Precisely defined, surmise means “to infer or conclude from inconclusive or uncertain evidence.” And if you have been up for several hours, it’s likely that you’ve already surmised a hundred times or more. Continue Reading »
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One afternoon many years ago, when my son and I were playing chess at our dining-room table, our conversation turned to a woman I’d recently met.
“She seems honest,” I cautiously observed.
“I would have said ‘straightforward,’ Dad,” Alexander replied, taking my rook with his knight. Although he was only thirteen at the time, he was even then a stickler for definitions.
As it happened, however, father and son were both close to the mark. The word straightforward is a relative newcomer to the English language. The first usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1806. Originally, the meaning of straightforward was primarily descriptive. The word meant “directly in front of or onwards; in direct order.” But by the end of the nineteenth century, straightforward had acquired a moral aura, as in the Rev. Griffith John’s characterization of one Mr. Wei as a “plain, honest, straightforward-looking man” (1875). If not quite synonyms, honest and straightforward had come to occupy the same moral universe. Continue Reading »
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