Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

Sponsored by the University of Eastern Finland, this study of 1449 subjects with an average age of 71 found a striking correlation between high degrees of cynical distrust and subsequent incidences of senile dementia. Those who looked at the world though cynical eyes, the researchers discovered, were three times as likely to develop dementia than those who did not. * “If that’s really true,” a friend in his sixties quipped, “I’m going to be babbling any day now.”

To be sure, the Finnish study has yet to be replicated, and it only demonstrated a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship. But whatever its validity, this disturbing study might prompt us to examine elements of cynicism in our own outlooks–and, if we so wish, to cultivate a counterbalancing alternative. And toward those ends, the practice of Zen meditation has something substantial to offer.

When we practice zazen (sitting meditation), we sit in an aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture. Bringing our attention to our breathing, we feel the life force within and around us. Depending on our method, we may choose to count our breaths, recite a mantra, explore a koan, or merely rest in “choiceless awareness.” If our mind drifts into worries and dreams, we bring it back to our breath. If we begin to slouch, we correct our posture. After ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes of this practice, we may notice that our breathing has deepened and our minds feel clearer. In classical Zen teachings, this process is likened to mud settling to the bottom of a  jar, leaving the water still and clear.

Should we direct this poised clarity of awareness toward the external world, we may find that our vision of the day’s events, global, national, and local, has also become more balanced, impartial, and inclusive. Reading or watching the news, we are likely to encounter reports of petty and large-scale violence, corruption, greed, exploitation, and inhumanity generally. Far from shielding us from those social realities, the practice of meditation may make us more aware than ever of what Zen teachings call the “three poisons” of craving, aversion, and ignorance and the suffering they engender. But by deepening our outlook, meditative practice can also make us acutely aware of the complexity of human motives, which include not only greed and hatred but also loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Resolved to “welcome everything” into our awareness, while putting our preferences in abeyance, we may be less inclined to reduce the human condition to a single, cynical view.

By the same token, if we bring a balanced awareness to our inner lives, we might discern a complex amalgam of thoughts, feelings, motives, and habits of mind. If one of those components is an habitual cynical distrust, we might look into what the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “roots and fruits” of that attitude. Snide comments and cynical posturing can be entertaining and win us social approval. Could a desire to entertain or gain social acceptance underlie our expressions of cynical scorn? Or might their origin lie in our life experience–in some deep hurt or emotional trauma, which our cynicism serves to mask? Merely by bringing awareness to the roots of habitual cynicism, we can mitigate its power. And even as we examine the foundations of cynical distrust, we can also contemplate its “fruits”: its probable effects on our own lives and those with whom we come into contact. If we habitually say “Yeah, right” to any sentiment that expresses optimism, or hints at a vulnerable naivete, what impact is our attitude having on our fellow workers? Our friends and family? Our children and grandchildren? And what, in the long run, is its legacy likely to be?

Cynicism is sometimes viewed as the obverse side of moral idealism. Idealists, as they age, become bitter and caustic cynics. In contrast to other aspects of the aging process, however, such a change is not inevitable. If a cynical outlook is harmful to ourselves and others, why cherish or nourish it? With the help of meditative practice, there are changes we can make, and salutary things we can do.


* Neurology, May 28, 2014.

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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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Thomas Brackett Reed       January 2, 1894

Thomas Brackett Reed
January 2, 1894

“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.

“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”

That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane. (more…)

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The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

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.*


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