Dr. Friederike Boissevain is a German oncologist and seasoned Zen practitioner. By her own admission, her meditative practice is imperfect—or “crooked,” as she describes it. Rather than remain focused and fully aware of the present moment, she finds herself wandering off into the “land of dreams and worries.” But, crooked though it be, her practice has supported her daily work with the sick and the dying. “The most important thing I ever did,” she reflects, “was to sit down once.” That act set “something in motion that cannot be stopped. This is not because of trust in something but because of experience. . . The snow of dharma covers everything, whether we see it or not.” (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘Basho’
In his essay “Reading Oneself,” the writer and teacher Sven Birkerts describes the experience of encountering a long-forgotten page of his own prose. As Birkerts tells the story, he agreed to read the book manuscript of a student whom he had taught many years before. When his former student arrived at their meeting, she brought both her manuscript and Birkerts’ written evaluation of her work, which she had saved from her days in his course. Typed on the Selectric II he was using at the time, Birkerts’ prose seemed foreign to its author:
And suddenly there’s this feeling, I’ve had it before—more and more in recent years. I am reading something I’ve written and I not only don’t recognize the sentences—they’ve gone from me—I also don’t quite map to the mind that produced them. It’s very much like catching your shopwindow reflection for a split second before you realize it’s you. Almost always, the shock is negative. I look like that? With these sentences it’s the opposite. My eyes catch sight of what my hand did. Reading, I actually admire the images, the figures of speech, the confidence of the rhythm. Not the rhythm I would write in now. But I feel it as distinct.
For Birkerts this encounter with his younger self was comparable to contemplating an old photograph. “The looking,” he observes, “is mainly about taking in the differences.”* (more…)
For many people, summer is the season for travel. And for those who practice a contemplative discipline, travel can be a catalyst for spiritual growth. The seventeenth-century poet Basho, master of haiku and author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, believed that “nothing is worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes”. His extensive travels freshened and enlarged his vision. Thomas Merton had similar experiences in Asia, as recorded in his Asian Journal.
Yet for those whose primary discipline is Zen meditation, travel can also present a formidable challenge. Insofar as the practice of Zen requires us to sit still, and travel requires us to be on the move, Zen and travel appear to be at odds. How might the one support the other? How might the practice of Zen be integrated with the experience of travel?
To begin with, the practice of meditation can alleviate the anxiety of travel. One of my friends told me the story of being in an international airport on a day when many flights had been canceled. People were berating ticket agents, yelling into their cell phones, and experiencing general misery. Then, as it happened, the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh arrived in his brown robes, accompanied by the monks and nuns of Plum Village. Silent, gentle, and slow-moving, their presence transformed their environment. People quieted down.
Not everyone, of course, can be so fortunate as to have a troupe of Zen monastics on hand to relieve the fear of travel. But meditative practice, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, can calm the fearful mind. As he explains in his book by that title, we can lessen our anxieties not by drugging them with Valium or Johnnie Walker but by honestly acknowledging them and bringing a kind attention to their presence. “Breathing in, I am aware of my anxiety. / Breathing out, I bring kind attention to my anxiety.” Over time, this simple practice can help to diminish the anxiety of travel.
So can the practice of sitting still, even when surrounded by incessant movement. Meditation is often described as a way of “stopping” and “coming home”. By sitting still and following our breathing, we return to the stability of immovable awareness. We restore our equanimity. To be sure, it can be awkward to stop when everyone else is moving or to sit perfectly still in a public place. But we can find ways to sit still without calling attention to ourselves. And more often than not, passers-by are too preoccupied with their own affairs to care whether we are moving or sitting still.
Beyond the maintenance of personal balance, Zen practice can also deepen the experience of travel. In an earlier column I described the exercise of asking “What is this?” and regarding the things of this world as if we were seeing them for the first time.* When traveling, we really are seeing things for the first time—and quite possibly the last. By asking “What is this?” we become present for whatever we are seeing, be it a glacier in Alaska or a cathedral in Madrid. And the places we see, in turn, become present for us. Later on, we can learn their names and study their histories. But by asking “What is this?” we open ourselves to our immediate experience.
Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen, cautioned against unnecessary travel. “It is futile to travel,” he advised, “to dusty countries, thus forsaking your own seat”. But Dogen was hardly one to talk, being himself a traveler who sojourned in dusty China and brought the practice of Chan back to Japan. And for the resourceful practitioner, travel can become a form of “skillful means,” complementary to sitting meditation and consistent with its purpose.
May your travels be safe and your flights on time.
* Column 34, “What is This?”