Posts Tagged ‘zen’

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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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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Chickadee feeder 2012-06-25 005One spring morning five years ago, as I was watching chickadees flit around our backyard feeder, it occurred to me that those nimble little birds might appreciate having a trapeze on which to perch. When my son was a child I built him a trapeze, and he enjoyed it. Perhaps the chickadees would as well.

Construction was simple. Rummaging in the garage, I found a remnant of 3/4” flat screen molding. From this I cut two six-inch pieces for the top and bottom bars. These I connected with a central, four-inch dowel. Using wire-cloth staples, I fastened two three-inch lengths of cuckoo-clock chain to the ends of the top bar, joining them at the middle with a handsome brass S-hook. My trapeze thus completed, I hung it from a branch of our pin oak tree. Ready for occupancy, it swung invitingly in the wind. (more…)

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Pruitt Taylor Vince(Rub Squeers in Nobody's Fool)

Pruitt Taylor Vince

If you have a good memory for movies, you may remember Nobody’s Fool (1994). Set in a declining town in upstate New York and based loosely on Richard Russo’s comedic novel, Nobody’s Fool stars Paul Newman as Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a feckless, sixty-year-old handyman who, in Russo’s words, has “led a life of studied unpreparedness.“ Although he is blessed with humane instincts and a generous heart, Sully’s devil-may-care attitude and his boyish penchant for mischief have too often sabotaged his better nature.

Sully’s sidekick and fellow bungler of odd jobs is a garbage collector named Rub Squeers, who plays a role in Sully’s adventures comparable to that of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote’s. Rub is just over five feet tall. His large head sits “like a medicine ball precariously balanced on his thick shoulders.” For most of his life Rub has seldom paid attention to much of anything. He finds attentiveness “hateful and exhausting,” and he considers inattention “normal human behavior.”

What Rub does do is wish, habitually and frequently. During a lull, when he and Sully are out of work, Rub wishes that “we’d just start up again like before.” Later, when they do find work, Rub wishes “we were all through with this job and sitting in The Horse eating a big ole cheeseburger.”* Wherever Rub might be, he wishes he were elsewhere. (more…)

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