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Posts Tagged ‘ichigo ichie’

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.

The posture of meditation is a good place to start. Generally speaking, that posture should be upright, aligned, and resilient, whether one is sitting on a cushion, bench, or chair. Even when we are sitting upright, however, the parts of our bodies may or may not be in a neutral state. That is why the standard instructions for Zen meditation direct us to rock in an arc from side to side and backward and forward until we find our neutral center. Once we have done so, we can then check the positions of the spine (upright, but following its natural curvature), wrists (gently curved, not angled), shoulders (neither slouched nor stiffly pulled back), head (chin tucked in; head not tilted up or down), eyes (neither closed nor wholly open), and other parts of our bodies. As the last step in this process, we can determine whether our general physical state, which in Zen teachings is likened to a lute string, is neither too tight nor too loose but at a neutral point in between.

As with the body, so with the mind. Here is how Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays describes the state of mental neutrality, as experienced in zazen (sitting meditation):

In zazen, the restless activity that separates us from everything-that-is settles. Boundaries dissolve and we become light and transparent, completely receptive. Heart and mind become clear and open. Then each breath is the sacred, original breath, moving across the face of the earth. Sound, light, and touch are the play of existence arising endlessly out of emptiness. There is nothing lacking, nothing to ask for–except that everyone else be able to experience this perfect ease.*

In this neutral, non-judgmental sate, Bays goes on to say, we become aware of “the continual gift, of the outpouring of all that exists, from the bottomless font of the unknowable.”

The state of mind which Jan Bays is describing (and which she likens to prayer) is that of an experienced Zen practitioner. A beginner’s experience might be very different, as might that of even a seasoned practitioner on any given day. As anyone who undertakes this practice will soon discover, obstacles abound. From early childhood we are conditioned to be active and productive. Resting in awareness is easily perceived, even by ourselves, as laziness or a culpable passivity. As a result, both body and mind resist the neutral state. They want to be doing something. They want to accomplish something. And most of all, they want to be gaining something, whether it be immediate release from stress or eventual enlightenment. Merely to sit in a neutral, attentive state, aware of “everything-that-is” and open to it all, is a discipline to be acquired and a skill to be practiced. For many people, especially at the beginning, the state of neutrality can prove as elusive as it is beneficial.

All the same, anyone with the will to do so may experience a taste of this liberating and restorative practice. If you would like to try it, may I suggest that you choose an habitual activity–something as routine as reading your e-mail or making breakfast or cleaning your kitchen counter. In the midst of that activity, stop. Return to your breath and your body, allowing your engines, as it were, to idle. Observe the immediate effect on your senses, your feelings, and your state of mind. After a period of a minute or two, resume your normal activity, noting any changes in your attitude, your distance from or intimacy with your surroundings, and your performance of the task at hand. Continue this practice several times a day for at least a week, and observe its impact on your daily life.

________

* Jan Chozen Bays, “The Paradox of Prayer,” Buddhadharma, Fall 2014, 39.

Photo by Trekphiler

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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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Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. (more…)

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SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that. (more…)

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The Crown Bar Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Crown Bar
Belfast, Northern Ireland

“For Ben Howard, well met in Belfast, July, 2004.”

So wrote a gentlemanly Irish poet, whose work I had long admired, in the flyleaf of his most recent book. At the time, he and I were having lunch in the upstairs dining room of the Crown Bar, a storied old pub in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had come up on the train from Dublin to meet him.

Of the many inscriptions I have acquired over the years, few have proved as memorable as the one above, partly because the poet’s chosen phrase, faintly archaic but resonantly apt, sorted well with the Crown’s Victorian decor–its ornate tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, and dark-paneled “snugs.” Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting. Once the equivalent of “Nice to have met you,” that old-fashioned phrase evokes a singular event: two people meeting, in the fullness of human relationship, at a particular place and time. (more…)

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