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RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the clearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” Continue Reading »

       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.

Continue Reading »

141. A laughing matter

             Hotei    Kano Takanobu, 1616

Hotei
Kano Takanobu, 1616

Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.

Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life. Continue Reading »

140. No thank-you

Gratitude monumentOne day last summer I decided to go for a swim. It was a hot afternoon, and I needed both the exercise and relief from the heat.

Upon arriving at the university’s spacious pool, I observed that most of the lanes were still open. I chose lane one. As I prepared to enter the water, I noticed a pair of tiny pink flip-flops at the poolside. Someone’s little girl had apparently left them behind.

The water was chilly but refreshing. Pushing off, I swam a leisurely lap, breast stroke up, crawl stroke back. I hadn’t been swimming in quite a while, and I’d forgotten how pleasant the experience could be.

Upon surfacing, however, I was greeted by a little girl in a pink bathing suit. She was sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling her legs in the water. She wore a frown and looked perturbed. Continue Reading »

139. Ordinary things

  Dai Bosatsu Zendo      Meditation Hall

Dai Bosatsu Zendo
Meditation Hall

If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.

At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life. Continue Reading »

138. Being right

Thomas Brackett Reed       January 2, 1894

Thomas Brackett Reed
January 2, 1894

“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.

“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”

That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane. Continue Reading »

800px-Labyrinth_28Exert yourself. Whether conscious or unrecognized, that imperative underlies our everyday experience. Our livelihoods and indeed our survival depend upon our exertions. If we are to compete, achieve, and contribute to the common good, we must exert ourselves. Even the pursuit of happiness, as it is called, requires exertion. No rest for the weary, and no mercy for the slacker.

Yet even the highest achievers need their rest. The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz was once asked how he managed to play so many notes so quickly. “I relax between notes,” he cheerfully replied. As Horowitz well understood, rest and relaxation are essential, both before and during performance. They make strenuous exertion possible.

Quite often, people in need of rest and relaxation find their way to Zen practice. Viewed from a distance, the practice offers the prospect of unruffled calm. Yet, as newcomers soon find out, it is not always easy to rest or relax, even in a meditative setting. For those accustomed to multi-tasking, hyperconnectivity, and busyness generally, the simple act of stopping and resting can be as challenging as the most demanding activity.  Admonished to sit still, the body rebels. A shoulder aches; a knee hurts; a foot wants to fidget. Efforts to correct one’s posture or relieve one’s unease often result only in new forms of discomfort. Wedded to incessant movement, the body wants to do, not merely to be. Continue Reading »

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