Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

To begin with, the selfie underscores, as never before, a fundamental quality of the self, namely its radical impermanence. Posed self-portraits on canvas have been with us for centuries, and their earliest photographic counterparts date from the late nineteenth century. But the digital self-portrait, taken, as it were, on the fly, represents something new, insofar as it is a transitory image of a transitory subject. It can be deleted, whether by accident or design, in an instant and at any time. Our most basic misperception, Buddhist teachings tell us, is “taking what is not self to be self.” We mistake what Joseph Goldstein has called the “pairwise progression of subject and object, arising and passing moment after moment,”* for a lasting entity. We posit continuity where it may or may not exist, and we construct from successive moments the concept of an unchanging self. To that persistent habit of mind, the vulnerable digital image offers a potent corrective. It prompts us to inquire whether the self we assume to be solid and enduring may be no more substantial than the virtual image on our screens.

Even as it demonstrates the impermanence of the self, however, the selfie may also challenge our conventional notion of the life span: the personal self’s finite existence. As many users of social media have discovered to their chagrin, self-portraits posted on the internet can last far beyond their creators’ original intention. Their life spans, if such exist, are not always in our control. According to the Diamond Sutra, a fundamental text of the Zen tradition, the concept of a life span is itself an erroneous notion and a primary source of human suffering. “A cloud can never die,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “It can only become rain or snow.”* Nothing is annihilated, only transformed. And what is true of the cloud, the Diamond Sutra asserts, is also true of ourselves. Whether as stardust, a field of energy, a photo on a dresser, or an impression in a loved one’s memory bank, we continue beyond our dates of expiration. The enduring digital image, launched into cyberspace and winding up who knows where, can alert us to that eventuality–and prompt us to act accordingly.

Yet, lest the lessons of the selfie be restricted to the personal, it is worth remembering that the digital self-image also represents the interdependent nature of the conditioned self. The one includes the whole. However conformist or individualistic, conventional or outlandish any one selfie might be, its very existence exemplifies what the Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has called the “network of interdependent origination.” More concretely, it represents a complex network, at once electronic, social, and economic, whose components include the makers of micro-chips and smart phones, the creators and managers of social media, the purveyors of laptops, desktops, and mobile devices, and the eager consumers of such products. For all its elevation of the affluent leisured self, the selfie offers a context in which to  contemplate something beyond the self: the one, indivisible body of interconnected reality.

“To study the self,” Dogen went on to say, “is to forget the self; and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” Viewing a recent selfie, which features a muscular young man flexing his bicep in the mirror, I suspect that the enlightenment of which Dogen speaks may not be high among the photographer’s priorities. But it remains an ever-present possibility, whether its vehicle be a cup of tea, an ephemeral mandala, or yet another selfie.


* Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness : A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 36.

* Thich Nhat Hahn, Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way (Parallax, 2010), xiii.

Photo: Mogens Engelund

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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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In a recent column Paul Krugman spoke of “fantasy posing as hardheaded realism.”* As might be expected, Krugman’s subject was economic, his theme political. But his well-wrought phrase has resonance beyond the spheres of politics and economics.

To begin with, it evokes the stereotype of the hardheaded realist—the seasoned, no-nonsense person who lives in the real world. At the same time, it suggests that realism may be little more than a pose. If, as Krugman implies, realism can be false, the opposite must also be the case. What is true realism, we might inquire, and what are its salient traits? Is it by nature hardheaded—and hardhearted as well? (more…)

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124. Cooked carrots

800px-Sliced_carrotsBeing retired now, I cook most of the meals in our home. And of late I have become a connoisseur of my wife’s responses, spoken and unspoken, to what I put on our table.

Let us say that tonight’s menu is Rotini with Lemon-Asparagus Sauce, a side of cooked carrots, and a Martha’s Vineyard salad. After a few bites, Robin may comment on what she has just eaten, or she may not. If she is silent for very long, I begin to get curious. “How do you like it?” I venture to inquire. (more…)

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Dennis O' DriscollPhoto by Kim Haughton

Dennis O’ Driscoll
Photo by Kim Haughton

“He gave the art a good name,” remarked the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney of the Irish poet Dennis O ’Driscoll, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve at the age of fifty-eight. Dennis was the author of nine collections of graceful, civilized verse and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Irish letters. I am saddened by his early death, as are many of his fellow writers, Irish and American, who remember him as a true gentleman and a generous friend. (more…)

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2012-03-11 002 2012-03-11 012Dr. 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…)

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William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

According to a recent report on the NBC Nightly News, American police have been running stop signs and causing serious accidents, so distracted have they become by the computers in their cars. To address the problem, the Fort Wayne, Indiana police department has installed devices that freeze the computer’s keys whenever the patrol car’s speed exceeds fifteen miles per hour.

This situation may be uniquely ironic, but the underlying problem is hardly peculiar to the police. On the contrary, in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, distraction has become endemic. With so many objects summoning our attention, where shall we direct it? On what objects should we place our minds? (more…)

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