Roko Shinge Roshi and Jane Hirshfield
A few years ago, the American poet Jane Hirshfield was invited to define Zen practice in seven words. As a young woman Hirshfield spent eight years in full-time Zen training, three of them in a Zen monastery. “That experience,” she has said, “and its continuing life in my life underlie everything I have done since.”* How might Hirshfield’s deep, experiential understanding of Zen, which she views as a path parallel to that of poetry, be articulated in seven words?
To appreciate the daunting nature of Hirshfield’s task, even for a writer of her abilities, please take a minute to try it yourself. Choose something you know well and have known for a long time. Then try to define your subject in seven words. An anonymous Roman writer, who chose the brevity of life as his or her subject, wrote the motto ut hora sic vita, which became, in English, “As an hour, so is this life”. That was a feat of rhetoric as well as a distillation of insight. And it illustrates, not incidentally, that in comparison with Latin, English is a rather wordy language. To say anything of substance in seven English words is itself a worthy challenge.
For the writer who would define Zen, three additional obstacles present themselves. Considered singly, they demonstrate the limitations of any proposed definition. Taken together, they illustrate the paradoxical nature of Zen practice.
To begin with, the tradition known collectively as Zen has changed dramatically over the centuries. Zen is thought to have originated in the sixth century CE, when the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor of Zen, brought the practice of dhyana, or meditation, to China. There it mingled with Confucian and Taoist elements and became known as Chan, the Chinese word for dhyana. When Chan arrived in Japan four centuries later, it became Zen, the Japanese word for Chan, and it acquired a distinctively Japanese character. In its subsequent migrations through Asia and, more recently, Europe and North America, Zen has continued to adapt to its changing cultural contexts. How can a practice so fluid and protean be defined in seven words?
A second obstacle lies in the interdependent relationship of Zen to other fields of human endeavor. In its rites and rituals, formal Zen resembles a religious order, though it’s also been called the “religion before religions”. As a rigorous physical discipline, requiring one-pointed concentration, it has something in common with the martial arts. As a form of inquiry that aims to relieve human suffering, it shares common cause with psychology, particularly cognitive therapy. And as an aesthetic, embodying principles of harmony, simplicity, and directness, it has influenced artistic pursuits as diverse as architecture, painting, tea-drinking, and landscape gardening. How can a practice so interconnected with others be isolated in a simple definition?
And last, though Zen can be readily identified by a noun, it is not really an entity. It is not a solid thing. Rather, it is an activity—a continuing practice of mindfulness. As Eido Shimano Roshi reminds us, “Zazen is both something one does – sitting cross-legged, with proper posture and correct breathing – and something one essentially is. To emphasize one aspect at the expense of the other is to misunderstand this subtle and profound practice.”** But whether one emphasizes does or is, both are verbs; both point toward an evolving practice, not a static form. How can a definition, which assumes some degree of stability, be applied to a practice that is inherently vibrant, unpredictable, and ever-changing?
Jane Hirshfield found her own way. “Zen pretty much comes down to three things,” she wrote. “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention”.
*Atlantic Unbound, September, 1997.
**Eido Tai Shimano Roshi, “What is Zen,” http://www.amacord.com/taste/essays/zen.html.
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