Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

In this story, the two monks are arguing about the movement of their temple flag. The first contends that it is the flag that is moving. The second insists that it is the wind that is moving. Into this heated dispute, Eno intervenes. “It is not the flag that moves,” he informs them. “It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.” The quarreling monks, so the story goes, are “awestruck” by Eno’s observation.

In most commentaries on this story, Eno’s pronouncement is understood to be a correction, if not a rebuke. Katsuki Sekida, an authority on Zen koans, interprets Eno’s observation to mean, “Your mind is moving; don’t let it move.” This admonition, he adds, is “the warning of all Zen.”*

Perhaps so. But moving–generating thoughts–is what human minds do, twenty-four hours a day. Kosho Uchiyama, a twentieth-century Zen master, describes thoughts as the mind’s “secretions,” suggesting that the process of thought-creation is both natural and irrepressible. And broadly speaking, what Zen teachings discourage is not thinking per se but excessive thinking, which distracts us from present realities, and delusive thinking, which brings suffering upon ourselves and others. To counter both, the Zen tradition offers numerous teachings and practices.

Foremost among these is the practice of zazen (seated meditation). The classic posture of zazen, in which the two knees and the sitting bones form a triangle and the body a kind of pyramid, fosters stability of mind. To enhance that stability, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid.” By so doing, we cultivate a feeling of solidity, emotional and physical.

In similar fashion, the practice of chanting reinforces a sense of stability. Zen practitioners chant from the lower abdomen. Sometimes accompanied by a wooden drum, the act of chanting unites the body, breath, and mind. In the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, we precede our sittings with the chant “Atta Dipa,” which is said to incorporate the Buddha’s last words: “Atta Dipa / Viharatha / Atta Sarana / Ananna Sarana // Dhamma Dipa / Dhamma Sarana / Ananna sarana” (“You are the Light / Rely on yourself / Do not rely on others / The Dharma is the light / Rely on the Dharma / Rely on nothing but the Dharma“). In this context, “Dharma” may be interpreted as “the laws of reality,” particularly those of impermanence and interconnectedness. By chanting “Atta Dipa,” we declare our intention to rely on direct experience and remain grounded in things as they are.

Chanting and zazen are useful practices–“skillful means,” Zen calls them–but it’s important to remember their larger purpose, which is to situate ourselves in full awareness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has observed, awareness is “infinitely available,” and it is unperturbed by our changing states of mind:

Have you ever noticed that your awareness of pain is not in pain even when you are?. . . Have you ever noticed that your awareness of fear is not afraid even when you are terrified? Or that your awareness of your depression is not depressed; that your awareness of bad habits is not a slave to those habits?

Extolling its power to transform pain, Kabat-Zinn likens awareness to a “basket for tenderly holding and intimately knowing our suffering in any and all circumstances.”** Our awareness is not angry when we are angry or sad when we are sad. It allows all things but is limited by none. In contrast to the forms that pass through it, awareness is formless and immovable.

“The enlightened mind,” writes Sekida, “does not move.” All too often, however, our not-yet-enlightened minds resemble that wind-blown flag, flapping this way and that. At such times, we can restore our equanimity by returning to the posture of meditation and resting in open awareness, which is never far to seek. On the contrary, it is readily accessible and reliably present, wherever we may be.


* Katsuki Sekida, Two Zen Classics (Weatherhill, 1977), 97.

** Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2006), 88.

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Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

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Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. (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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Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Fahri during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Fahri concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Fahri has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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