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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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:

Concepts such as high and low, one and many, coming and going, birth and death, are all important in everyday life. But when we leave the realm of the practical to meditate on the true nature of the universe, we must also leave behind these concepts. For example, when you raise your eyes to look up at the stars and moon you say that they are “above.” But at that very same moment, for someone standing on the opposite side of the planet, the direction you are looking is “below” for them. When looking at the entire universe, we have to abandon all these concepts of high and low, and so forth.

Abandon all such concepts? As Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, our “way of thinking and speaking makes it difficult to penetrate non-dualistic, non-discriminatory reality, a reality which cannot be contained in concepts.”

Of all the dualities we employ for our survival, none is more fundamental than that of “self” and “other.” We learn that duality early on and apply it ever after. At the same time, our ordinary concept of “self” is often narrowly defined, and from the vantage point of Zen teachings, it is largely illusory. Broadly speaking, we tend to think of our “self” as something solid or at least continuous from decade to decade. And because our personal experiences differ from those of other people, we tend to view ourselves as separate from everyone and everything else. Our culture of individualism fervently supports that view.

Yet reality teaches otherwise. If we take “the backward step that illuminates the self,” as Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) enjoins us to do, what we are likely to observe is a swift-flowing stream of information, impressions, memories, judgments, opinions, fantasies, and other mental phenomena, from which we construct and defend a coherent “self.” We may think of that construct as akin to a stone, but in reality it more resembles a whirlpool. And far from being separate, it co-exists in a dynamic, interdependent relationship with the web of life, natural and human. In her book Mindfully Green, the environmentalist Stephanie Kaza describes that relationship in this way:

Each of us reflects the day’s weather and the mood in our household. We act from the legacy of our parents’ values and the deeply familiar psychological habits of our families of origin. We speak from our knowledge of woods and streams or oceans and beaches. We offer an opinion as a member of a company or agency. Looking closely at our situation, it becomes obvious: we don’t exist apart from those systems.

Viewed in this light, the simple duality of self and other loses much of its meaning. Like any one part of our bodies, the so-called self possesses a recognizable identity, but it also co-exists in an ever-changing relationship with multiple systems and the one body of undifferentiated reality.

“The mind divides,” Zen teachings tell us, “and the heart unites.” Can we keep the mind and heart in balance, knowing that our true self is inseparable from the one, indivisible body of the world? Perhaps not all the time. But as an effort in that direction, we can remind ourselves that “self” and “other,” in the language of Zen, are “not two, not one”: two in conventional, relative terms, but one with respect to the unity of all life.

__________

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (Parallax, 1988), 45.

Stephanie Kaza, Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking (Shambhala, 2008), 44.

Photo, “Inside Looking Out,” by Colin Kinnear

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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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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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