Exert 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 »
Posted in 1 | Tagged Dogen Zenji, Eihei Dogen, Francis Dojun Cook, gujin, ichigo ichie, Vladimir Horowitz, Zen practice | 4 Comments »
Seamus Heaney, 1984
Alfred, New York
As the world knows, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died last month at the age of seventy-four. On the day of his funeral, former Irish Senator Maurice Hayes, father of the actress Margaret (“Maggie”) Hayes, recalled that Heaney brought a handwritten poem to Margaret’s christening. ”I must put that away,” Hayes said to himself, “because by the time she is getting married he will have the Nobel prize.” Regettably, the manuscript eventually went missing, Hayes’s best efforts notwithstanding. ”I put it away so carefully,” he ruefully reflected, “that I couldn’t find it.”*
Something similar happened here in the village of Alfred, New York, though the circumstances were rather different. Seamus Heaney visited Alfred University in January, 1984 to give a reading. He stayed in the home of Carol (“CB”) Burdick, an adjunct professor of English who frequently hosted visiting writers. At the time, Seamus was suffering from a toothache, and for most of his reading he kept his palm pressed to his cheek. Early the next morning, he assuaged his pain by writing a piece of light verse, a self-ironic poem modeled after William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” (1508). As he was leaving, Seamus thanked CB for her hospitality and presented her with the handwritten manuscript. Continue Reading »
Posted in 1 | Tagged digital obsolescence, ichigo ichie, Lament for the Makers, literature, Maggie Hayes, Maurice Hayes, Noli timere, seamus heaney, Timor Mortis conturbat me, W.D. Snodgrass, Walter Kennedy, William Dunbar | 2 Comments »
Here in the village of Alfred, New York, many of us subscribe to our community newspaper, the Alfred Sun. And some us have discovered that the Alfred Sun, accompanied by a few well-placed squirts of Windex, can make short work of washing windows. The Sun is compact, maneuverable, and eco-friendly. Two full pages will suffice to wash a standard casement window. You can wash as many as three with a single issue.
A few weeks ago, I was engaged in that very task, but the work was not going well. Although I’d liberally applied the Windex and energetically rubbed it off, thick streaks remained. Repeated efforts produced the same result. Newsprint is effective for cleaning glass, I recalled, because the oil in printer’s ink repels the dirty water. Could someone have quietly switched inks? Should I try the Times Literary Supplement instead? Continue Reading »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged Alfred Sun, clear seeing, Five Hindrances, meditation, pema chodron, Simple Green, still water, washing windows, zen | Leave a Comment »
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.*
Continue Reading »
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 »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ichigo ichie, lojong, loren eiseley, norman fischer, this precious human birth, Tibetan slogans | 8 Comments »
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 »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ichigo ichie, Noble Truths, Paul Krugman, thich nhat hanh, Zen realism | Leave a Comment »