Posts Tagged ‘zen’

Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well.

“What we’ve got here,” remarks Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke in the movie by that name, “is a failure to communicate.” In the present case, what was lacking was a context, a verbal frame around the naked fact. But as Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer, has observed, what is often needed in our efforts to communicate and connect with other people is not more words but fewer. What is needed, he suggests, is the dimension of silence, which he figuratively describes as the “silence around the words.” Absent that silence, much of our speech amounts to very little.

In Fr. Rohr’s view, silence is more than an absence of sound. Silence, he asserts, possesses an “ontological identity,” which is to say, it is a being in its own right. Most of our speech, for good or ill, is “ego-based.” The ego uses words to get what it wants, employing argumentation, judgment, and analysis toward that end. Used in those ways, language is innately dualistic; it emphasizes preferences and differences. By contrast, silence “absorbs contradictions.” It is a “wholeness of being” that “holds the contraries in a way that words cannot.” When silence is absent, “words take over,” producing a barrage of language whose purpose is to explain, sell, charm, persuade, punish, and the like. But when silence is present, “chaste, well-chosen words” can arise from the silence, words with silence around them. No longer based in a dualistic, “either/or consciousness,” such words “open a portal to a deeper connection,” both with the world of things and with other people.

Fr. Rohr’s evocative description brings to mind a four-line poem by the Irish poet Michael Longley. Its subject is the poet’s youngest grandchild:

                                    MAISIE AT DAWN    

                                    Wordless in dawnlight

                                    She talks to herself,

                                    Her speech-melody

                                    A waterlily budding.

In these lines an attentive grandfather listens to the inarticulate sounds his granddaughter is making. Hearing them as a melody, he likens that melody to a waterlily on the verge of flowering. Just as Maisie’s “speech-melody” has arisen out of the quietude of early morning, her first words are soon to emerge as the flower of language. Longley’s haiku-like poem is at once a loving study of a child and a contemplation of the mystery of silence, sound, and language. By leaving much unsaid, Longley’s spare words evoke the silence around them.

Zen has been called the study of silence. The practice is more than that, of course. But by sitting still, even for the space of twenty minutes, we can allow our minds to settle and our inner chatter to diminish. Resting in open awareness, we can sense the eternal silence beneath the onrushing images, memories, and other mental phenomena. By making that silence the object of contemplation, we can witness the arising of thoughts and their emotional subtexts from the depths of silence and the ocean of consciousness. And should we then choose to speak, our words are far more likely to connect us with nature, ourselves, and other people, whether our subject is the appetites of Baltimore Orioles or the murmurings of an awakening child.


Father Richard Rohr, “Finding God in the Depths of Silence,” Festival of Faiths, May, 2013.

“Maisie at Dawn” is used by permission of Wake Forest University Press and the Random House Group (Jonathan Cape).  The poem appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell (Wake Forest University Press, 2014).  The Stairwell was originally  published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Cf. Michael Longley’s poem “Private Ungarettti” in the same volume: “We / Hear the din of battle / In the white silence / Around his words.”

Photo: “Baltimore Oriole Eating Orange,” by John Kees.

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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. (more…)

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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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