Posts Tagged ‘zen’

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible.

Janet, I fear, is not alone. Most of us, I suspect, have a Book of Janet–or Josh, or Frank, or Amanda. And many of us carry our books with us throughout the day, making choices and judgments based on that fictive text. According to the Book of Benjamin, for example, I will not be happy if I don’t begin the day with a pot of sencha, fukamushi, or gyokuro tea, fresh from Japan, brewed with pure water at precisely the right temperature and for exactly the right length of time. Reality may be otherwise, but that doesn’t stop me from believing the Book of Benjamin and acting accordingly.

“In my book . . .” we sometimes say, as well we might. Our self-constructs and attendant guidelines help us navigate our days. But by clinging to those constructs or strictly complying with their constraints, we limit our possibilities for growth and full awareness. And according to Zen teachings, the very existence of such constructs is based on two fundamental misperceptions.

The first is that the bundle of attitudes, preferences, and habits known as Janet or Benjamin is a solid entity, possessed of an intrinsic essence and impervious to time and change. Where infants and toddlers are concerned, the error of this perception is readily apparent. Our children and grandchildren are changing before our very eyes. But in the world of grown-ups, an apparent sameness rather than an underlying impermanence may be a person’s most salient feature, and a calcified habit may easily be mistaken for an enduring trait. Uncle Henry may be difficult, we say, but he is just being Uncle Henry. And if we turn the spotlight on ourselves, we may reach the same conclusion. How comforting it can be to define oneself as such-and-such (“I’m a purist”; “I’m an inveterate introvert”) and attribute our choices, blunders, and triumphs to our inherent natures. But constructed self-definitions are one thing and true self-knowledge quite another. Vivid and compelling though they be, our labels may have little to do with the fluid aggregate to which they so tenaciously adhere.

The second misperception, no less beguiling than the first, is that the self exists in separation from the rest of the world. In our culture of individualism, we are conditioned to view the self in this way. We are seen–and may tend to see ourselves–as on our own. Yet even an irregularity as minor as a winter power outage should suffice to remind us that our autonomous selves co-exist in dynamic, interdependent relationships with nature and our fellow human beings. Should we look more deeply into the matter, we may also be reminded that what we call a self consists of “non-self” elements: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume. And should we choose to examine our emotional lives, we are likely to discover what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called an “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which our states of mind and indeed our spiritual condition are bound up with those of other living beings. As the Zen priest Norman Fischer eloquently puts it, “my suffering and your suffering are one suffering,” and “that suffering is empty of any separation.”

To remain continuously aware of the impermanence and interdependence of all life, as Zen teachings advise, is a daunting task. Prevalent forces in our society, including the denial of aging and death and the glorification of the youthful self, militate against it. But we can begin by discarding the notion of an unchanging, separate self embodied in a twice-told tale. With steadfast intention and diligent practice, it is possible to see through that illusion and recognize it as the life-denying obstacle it is. By so doing, we can open ourselves to selfless awareness and assume our rightful places in the unending stream of life.


Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “Love + Wisdom = Buddha,” Shambhala Sun, January 2015, 58.

Photo: “Old Book Gathering,” by Remi Mathis


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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. (more…)

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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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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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       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.


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Bexley,_pond_at_Danson_Park_-_geograph_org_uk_-_972263Here in the village of Alfred, New York, many of us subscribe to our community newspaper, the Alfred Sun. And some us have discovered that the Alfred Sun, accompanied by a few well-placed squirts of Windex, can make short work of washing windows. The Sun is compact, maneuverable, and eco-friendly. Two full pages will suffice to wash a standard casement window. You can wash as many as three with a single issue.

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in that very task, but the work was not going well. Although I’d liberally applied the Windex and energetically rubbed it off, thick streaks remained. Repeated efforts produced the same result. Newsprint is effective for cleaning glass, I recalled, because the oil in printer’s ink repels the dirty water. Could someone have quietly switched inks? Should I try the Times Literary Supplement instead? (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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