For the duration

thumbnail_Recruitment posterEarlier this year, our family doctor departed for pastures new. Like many other members of the Alfred, New York community, I found myself looking for a suitable replacement. Last week, I finally met with my new primary-care physician. Shortly thereafter, I remarked to my wife that this doctor might well become my caregiver “for the duration.” When she glanced at me as if I’d newly arrived from another era, I realized that I was showing my age. On further reflection, however, I also noted that this evocative expression, however dated, sorts well with three of the main tenets of Zen Buddhism.

“For the duration” originated in England during the First World War. Volunteers enlisted in the “New Army” for two years, three years, or “for the duration of the war.” Those who did so were known as “duration men” and were sometimes looked down upon by career soldiers. By 1917, “for the duration,” the abbreviated form of the original phrase, had passed into the common language. By 1920, it had begun to appear in the newspapers, as in the headline “Interned for the Duration” (The Shields Daily News, January, 1920). Almost from the start, the phrase carried negative connotations. Cognate with “endure,” its operative word echoed Samuel Johnson’s characterization of human life as a “state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.” And as the phrase gained ground in peacetime usage, it sometimes took on an ironic tone, as when a married man or woman spoke of being “in it for the duration.”

Zen teachings do not explicitly refer to “the duration,” but the stark realism conjured by the term has much in common with that of the Zen tradition. In his new book Enlightenment is an Accident (Shambhala, 2023), Zen teacher and author Tim Burkett speaks of “surrendering to what is,” reprising a familiar theme in Zen literature. Elsewhere, he defines Zen practice as being “about accepting reality as it is”—a reality that includes not only “birds and the sky and thestars . . . but also the backwaters and the swamps.” With this acceptance of reality comes an acknowledgement of limitations as well as possibilities, as when the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer, referring to a temporary illness, speaks of “living within [his] condition.”

“Your cup is already broken,” an old Zen saying reminds us, pointing to a second tenet of Zen practice, namely the recognition of the impermanence of all conditioned things. In classical Buddhist teachings, anicca, or the law of impermanence, is one of the three “marks of existence.” To speak of something lasting “for the duration” is implicitly to acknowledge its temporary nature. However painful or felicitous present conditions may be, they will eventually change, to be replaced by other conditions. Implicit in this reminder is the admonition to take the long view and cultivate a patient attitude. Less oracular in tone than such phrases as “This, too, will pass,” “for the duration” quietly asserts that even the most unhappy circumstances are, like the best of times, subject to change.

“All my teaching,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “is about suffering and the end of suffering.” Although that suffering may be mild or extreme, depending on circumstances, it is not solely an individual matter. Suffering is a part of the human condition. In this respect, “for the duration” calls to mind a third tenet of Zen teaching: that of radical interdependence, known in Buddhism as “dependent origination.” Whatever our individual preferences, we are all in the same boat. We are in this together, whether “this” be the now-receding pandemic or the ever-rising incidence of mass shootings in our culture. Though neither as specific nor as fatalistic as the French phrase “C’est la guerre” (“It’s the war”), “for the duration” acknowledges shared external conditions over which most of us have little or no control. Whether we elect to deny, resist, or accept those conditions, “for the duration” bows to their continuing existence, even as it elevates our personal suffering to a collective level.

Zen teachers speak often of the Great Matter, by which they mean the transience of life and the certainty of death. At the end of the day in Zen monasteries around the world, monastics and lay practitioners chant these resonant lines:

Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us strive to awaken—awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Intoned in a darkened zendo at the close of a long day, this chant may or may not be welcome. “Did you really need to remind us?” we might silently inquire, having spent the previous twelve hours engaged in mindful work and intensive meditation. But, welcome or not, the Night Chant enjoins us once again to honor and appreciate, for the duration, each fleeting moment of our finite existence: what the poet Mary Oliver memorably called our “one wild and precious life.”


Not long after I retired from college teaching, at least a half dozen friends and acquaintances, meeting me on the street or in the supermarket, asked me whether I was keeping busy. My practiced answer: “Busier than ever,” which seemed to settle the matter. Common to both the question and the answer was the unstated assumption that keeping busy is a good thing. Busyness is a virtue.

Which quite often it is. Busy people get things done. Whether those things are worth doing is an open question. But if nothing else, keeping busy structures time and keeps the blues away. And for those who might be tempted to wander off the paths of righteousness, keeping busy can be an effective deterrent. I learned this lesson at the age of ten, when I went around our neighborhood peddling plaster-of-Paris crucifixes I had crafted and painted all by myself. “Good for you, young man” said one elderly lady, as she reached in her purse for her wallet. “Satan finds some evil for idle hands to do.”

Taking issue with this conventional wisdom, one classical Zen teaching offers a contrasting perspective. In Case 21 of The Book of Equanimity, a foundational collection of Zen koans, a monk named Yunyan is earnestly sweeping the ground, giving this mundane task his wholehearted attention. Observing him hard at work, his brother and fellow monk Daowu challenges him by remarking, “Too busy!” To which Yunyan replies, “Brother, you should know there is one who is not busy.”

Like most Zen koans, this riddling anecdote admits of multiple interpretations. One of the most illuminating is that of Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012), a renowned Zen teacher in the Soto lineage. “The one who is not busy,” she explains, refers to a “quality of mind” that may be described in three ways. It is the “awake mind,” the “not-knowing mind,” and “the mind of readiness.” Together these terms define the “one who is not busy.”

Of the three “minds” to which Thanas refers, the “awake mind” is probably the most familiar to meditative practitioners. The awakened mind is present for the present moment. At once alert and relaxed, concentrated and calm, it is neither lost in the past nor preoccupied with the future. It is focused intently on what is at hand. Beyond that, the deeply awakened mind has taken what Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called “the backward step.” It has shifted its general orientation from the changing conditions of the present moment to immovable awareness: from the successive acts of attention that create the contents of mind to the broader field of mind itself, which embraces those multiple acts of attention. This broadened perspective is roughly analogous to a shift on a TV screen from the play-by-play action of an NFL game, narrated by an attentive sportscaster, to the view from the Goodyear blimp hovering above the field. In this analogy, the sportscaster is our cognitive consciousness making sense of what it sees. The blimp (or its pilot) is the “one who is not busy.”

“The mind of not-knowing,” Thanas’s second term, refers to another dimension of this all-encompassing view. The mind of not-knowing is open to whatever occurs. Free of cognitive filters and tolerant of uncertainty, it meets the expected and unexpected alike on their own terms. Unburdened by prejudicial attitudes, fixed ideas, and self-fulfilling prophecies, the mind of not-knowing (also known as “beginner’s mind”) respects the unprecedented, unrepeatable nature of each new circumstance. Adapting to changing conditions, physical and emotional, the mind of not-knowing is nimble and courageous enough to engage them at close range. The Zen adage “not-knowing is the most intimate” epitomizes this aspect of “the one who is not busy.”

Last and most important for the conduct of everyday life is the “mind of readiness,” which includes and implements the qualities just discussed. Capable of both the immediate and broader view, continuously aware of both the contents and the field of mind, the mind of readiness is unhindered by ego-centered frameworks and limiting preconceptions. Also known as “the mind that alights nowhere,” it is ready to respond, flexibly and effectively, to whatever may arise. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi likened the mind of readiness to a frog sitting at the edge of a pond, calm and relaxed but poised at any moment to throw out its tongue and catch a fly. For my own part, I would liken the mind of readiness to the red fox who showed up one morning in our backyard. Sitting quietly on his haunches, as if he had nothing else to do or nowhere else to go, he was ready for whatever threat or prey might come his way. Beautiful in his own right, this visitor from the natural world was also a befitting emblem of the “one who is not busy.”


Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35.

Photo by Ben Howard

Uninvited guests

Thinking about small

“I like my thoughts,” a student once told me. She was not alone. Our passing thoughts can entertain, console, and inspire us. They can be the seeds of future creations. But our thoughts can also burden and oppress us, especially when they become repetitious or obsessive. And all too often our thoughts can deceive us, creating a delusive filter between our minds and things as they are.

Zen teachings address this issue in various ways. The most basic instructions for Zen meditation direct us to sit upright and still and pay attention to our posture and breathing. To assist in doing this, we can employ a variety of methods, such as counting breaths, repeating a mantra, or reciting meditative verses. Such methods foster concentration and stability of mind. They slow our non-stop thinking by creating gaps between successive thoughts. Beyond this basic practice, however, we can also learn to release our thoughts, even as they arise.

If you are interested in exploring this practice, may I suggest you try this three-step exercise:

1. Fill a small cup with a favorite beverage. Sit upright, aware of your breath and posture. Pick up the cup with the fingers of both hands, pressing firmly against its sides. Take a sip of its contents, savoring its taste. Now put the cup down and release the pressure you applied. Feel the sense of release.

2. Place a valued object (real or imagined) in the palm of your hand. Clutch it tightly and extend your hand in front of you, palm downward. Imagine that you are holding your extended arm over a deep, open well. If you open your hand, the object will fall. Experience the impact of that imagined outcome on your body and your state of mind. Now turn your palm upward and slowly open your hand. Feel the sense of release. And note that the object is still fully supported.

3. Summon from your trove of memories a strongly held view. It might be a political opinion, an inherited moral absolute, or a perception of a person you like or dislike. Let the thought and its emotional coloration come clearly into view. Now, with each exhalation, gradually shift your mental orientation from the foreground to the background of your mind: from the contents of your thoughts to the field from which they’ve arisen. Imagine that your mind is an open sky, and your thoughts are clouds. Allow them to stay or drift away.

If you are new to Zen meditation, you may find the first two steps of this exercise relatively unchallenging. By contrast, the third may feel difficult or next to impossible. Should that be the case, two metaphors from twentieth-century Zen teachings might be instructive.

The first comes from the Japanese Zen master Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998), who admonished his students to “open the hand of thought.” As Uchiyama observed in his eponymous book (Opening the Hand of Thought; Wisdom, 2004), the production of thoughts, one after another, is what the mind naturally does. Thoughts are the mind’s “secretions.” Rather than try to repress them, Uchiyama recommended we train our minds to release them. Opening the cage of our clenched hands, we allow them to fly away.

More playfully but with the same intent, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi advised his Western students, many of whom were heady intellectuals, to think of their thoughts as guests and themselves as hosts. “Leave your front and back doors open,” he urged. “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”

Embodied in this saying are two cardinal principles of Zen practice, the first being an attitude of openness to the moment, whatever it might bring. The second principle derives from the Diamond Sutra, a foundational Zen text, where we are enjoined to cultivate a “mind that alights nowhere.” Rather than engage with our thoughts or protract them by dwelling on their implications, we allow our uninvited guests to come in the front door of our minds and leave by the back. And, rather than construct fearful, future-oriented scenarios, we permit the next moment, unhindered by conceptual blockades, to present itself to our awareness.

Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, encapsulated this practice in a resonant phrase: “Think non-thinking.” The exact meaning of this phrase has been much debated, perhaps because it is so abstract. In my experience, if we wish to practice “non-thinking” it is helpful to employ one or both of the exercises outlined above, and from there to transfer the physical experience of release into our mental and emotional lives. If we like our thoughts, so much the better. But whether we do or don’t, the practice of releasing them, time and again, can not only relieve our overburdened minds. It can also prepare us for the next moment, whatever pleasures or pains, discoveries or disappointments, that moment might entail.

Image: “Thinking about Small,” by Freddie Alequin (CC)

The friction of self


Imagine, if you will, that it’s 10:30 at night, and you are dog-tired after a long and stressful day. Climbing the stairs to your second-story bedroom, bearing your glass of water, you feel the fatigue in your legs, ankles, and feet. Reaching the landing, you are about to enter your bedroom when you notice, out of the corner of your eye, that something is amiss. You have left a living-room light on. The glow is unmistakable. There is only one thing to do: go back downstairs and turn off the light. But something impedes you from taking this immediate, appropriate action.

The Zen teacher Christian Dillo has coined a name for that impediment. He calls it the “friction of self.” Like the friction in an unoiled hinge, a knee joint, or a complex engine, the “friction of self” obstructs, delays, and sometimes precludes our responses to the situations we encounter in everyday life. It generates heat; it causes unnecessary wear. A subtle form of suffering, this obstruction in the flow of life can be minor, as in the present case, but it can also have serious consequences. To understand it, and to meliorate its effects, it can be helpful to examine its multiple layers.

At the most obvious level, the “friction of self” can take the form of a spontaneous, involuntary utterance. Depending on the circumstances, that utterance may be as innocuous as “Oops!” At other times, it may be an unprintable, four-letter expletive. For the most part, such utterances are not in our conscious control, springing as they do from our earliest conditioning. Years ago, my then Zen teacher, who was raised a Roman Catholic and later took up Zen practice, visited a religion class at Alfred University, where he engaged with students in an informal question-and-answer session. No sooner had he sat down at the front desk when an earnest student in the front row eagerly raised her hand. “When,” she pointedly asked, “was your first satori?” “Oh, Jesus!” he replied. Despise decades of training in silence, stillness, and non-reactivity, this honest, unfiltered reaction had arisen from the depths of his early experience.

Such reactions are often colorful, amusing, and revealing, especially when they are hopelessly anachronistic. (“Jeepers Creepers!” my wife is fond of exclaiming). Of more consequence, however, is our emotional resistance to unwelcome situations. Confronted with conditions we wish were otherwise, we resist them with various forms of denial, literal or rhetorical (“I can’t believe I left that light on—again.”). But even when we remain, however tentatively, in touch with unpalatable realities, we may busy our minds with constructing alternative scenarios, in which we made the wiser or more intelligent choice or paid attention to the factors we have unfortunately overlooked. “If only I’d been more mindful,” we might complain, “and noticed that the light was still on.” Or, if our minds are operating more fancifully, we might refuse to take responsibility for what has occurred, as if our latest misfortune had just happened to us, and we were not the immediate cause. As a last redoubt, we might mount our ego-defenses and adamantly refuse to act. “Oh, ____ it,” we might declare, silently or out loud.  “Let the____ light stay on. It will only cost a few pennies, at most. What difference does it make?”

If this last response seems rather on the risible side, it may be because it so clearly illustrates the machinations of the ordinary, egocentric mind—the one that places the fiction as well as the friction of self at the center of every situation, impeding what Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, calls the “undivided activity” of the universe. Rather than assume our natural, dynamic place in that activity, we elect to set ourselves apart from and against it. We become the stone in the stream. Whether we choose to berate ourselves (“What an idiot I am”) or, in a healthier manner, laugh at our human foibles, we devote our energies to dramatizing our imperfect selves. Rather than attend to the situation at hand, we play out our internal dramas. Meanwhile, we stand on the landing, and the offending light stays on.

An integral aspect of Zen practice is becoming aware, gradually or suddenly, of the “undivided activity” of which Dogen speaks and our human tendency to deny it, resist it, or construct in its place an alternative reality, creating strife for ourselves and everyone around us. With diligent, daily meditative practice, however, we may come to acknowledge and accept the “friction of self” as native to the human condition. Like a faithful but annoying companion, it will ever be with us, reflecting, moment by moment, our intractable human nature. “Hello, Reactivity,” we might say, or “Good evening, Resistance”—and do what needs to be done.


Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness: A Contemporary Zen Approach to Awakening Body and Mind (Shambhala 2022), 207.

Image: Katy Tresedder, Coefficient of Friction (CC)

268. A north star

North StarLast month, an Alfred State College student, who was working on a project concerning “spiritual life in the Alfred area,” contacted me to request an interview. Although I am hardly an authority on such matters, I agreed to speak with him. His questions, submitted in advance, struck me as serious and provocative. Foremost among them was the question, “Why do you think it is important for students to explore spirituality while in college?”

However well formulated, that question contains a debatable premise and an ambiguous abstraction. As it happens, I would concur with the underlying assumption: that exploring “spirituality” while in college is important. But I would note, first, that the abstract concept “spirituality” may or may not be linked to organized religion. Non-competitive swimming, for example, can be experienced as a meditative activity. Likewise cooking, writing, drawing, gardening, and other human pursuits. Second, I would suggest that “exploring spirituality” will be of limited value if it only involves adopting a set of beliefs but doesn’t integrate a regular practice into the practitioner’s daily round. With those qualifications in mind, I reinterpreted the question as, “What might be the benefits of exploring a spiritual practice during a student’s college years?” To that re-framed question, I offered three responses.

A Refuge

During my years of teaching at Alfred University, I was often aware of the pressures, emotional and intellectual, to which conscientious students were being regularly subjected. Most obvious were the academic pressures, especially on those whose scholarships were based on maintaining a high grade-point average. Many of those same students were working part-time jobs; most were juggling academic demands with social obligations and extra-curricular activities. Beyond that, all were navigating a path toward a promising but uncertain future. Along the way, they were responding to the multiple and sometimes conflicting expectations of their parents, their peers, their professors, and their fluid personal relationships. Little wonder that many suffered from chronic anxiety.

From all such pressures, a spiritual practice can provide a welcome refuge. In times of crisis, it can afford solace and support. And even on ordinary days, it can provide a young person with a “home from home,” as the Irish say, and a way of reconnecting with his or her inner life. Beyond personal restoration, a daily practice can also introduce the practitioner to the silence, the stillness, and the mystery at the heart of being. And over time, it can acquaint the dedicated practitioner with what the Zen priest Norman Fischer has called “that which is beyond [ourselves] and holds [us] in its embrace.”

A Path to Maturity

It is sometimes assumed that as we grow older, we become more mature. Comforting though it is, that assumption is not always borne out by experience. In most spiritual traditions, including Zen, it is understood that the qualities of a mature person do not magically manifest of their own accord. They must be cultivated. Among the most salient of those qualities are the strength to face difficult and sometimes painful realities; the courage to accept responsibility for one’s words, deeds, and even thoughts; the realism to acknowledge one’s personal, physical, and temperamental limitations; the empathy to temper egocentric desires with regard for other people’s feelings and needs; and the discipline to restrain hedonistic impulses in the service of the common good. These and other qualities of a mature person can be developed through regular, systematic spiritual practice. Attaining full maturity—becoming fully human—is a continuing challenge at any stage of life. To undertake a spiritual practice during one’s undergraduate years not only nourishes the practitioner’s evolving maturity. It can also provide a sound basis for future development.

A North Star

It is fair to say that American college students come from a wide variety of moral backgrounds. Their ethical training may have been narrow, strict, and rigid, on the one hand, or vague, lax, and virtually non-existent, on the other. A daily spiritual practice, if conducted in a spirit of openness and flexibility, can provide a moral compass somewhere between those extremes. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh placed great importance on the ethical framework of Zen practice, which he often likened to a North Star. Rather than view the “precepts,” as they are called in Zen, as an inflexible code of conduct or a set of moral absolutes, he saw them as an ethical destination. By keeping the precepts firmly in mind as we speak, act, and make crucial decisions, we can stay on course toward that distant destination.

All the great spiritual traditions rest on moral foundations. By studying, absorbing, and thoughtfully interpreting those foundations, students can learn to respond to each new situation in a manner consistent with both the particulars of that situation and their deepest moral intentions. That, alone, is reason enough to “explore spirituality” during one’s college years, when life-decisions are being made, and untried graduates are poised to enter the wider world.


Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up (Harper/SanFrancisco, 2003), 121.

Image: Polaris, by steviep87 CC

267. A quiet aliveness

Bonnard Tree Alley“We rarely contact this simple moment,” wrote the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer (1927-2013). “So used to constant input and excitement, we lack fine-tuning into all the subtleties of this instant, the ability to register a quiet aliveness without the stirring of expectation.”

In this otherwise straightforward reflection on the place of meditative practice—or “contemplative inquiry,” as Packer preferred to call it—in contemporary Western culture, the word aliveness may give us pause. What, exactly, is “aliveness,” and what has it to do with meditation, a practice conventionally associated with quietude and calm?

In his book The Path of Aliveness: A Contemporary Zen Approach to Awakening Body and Mind, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo employs two striking metaphors to characterize his primary subject. “Aliveness,” he asserts, “is the buzz that can be felt from head to toe,” the “buzz of basic aliveness.” It is “the feeling of the body being filled with a liquid continuously releasing champagne bubbles.” More prosaically, he defines aliveness as “the always-present background”—what elsewhere he calls the “field of mind”—to any and all sensations,” the “here now through which everything appears.” In Dillo’s view, to become consciously aware of the aliveness of one’s body and mind, and to cultivate that awareness, is a central objective of meditative practice.

In his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers a perspective congruent with Dillo’s, but he places emphasis less on cultivating the quality of aliveness than on appreciating its abiding presence in our bodies and minds. In his discussion of zazen, or seated meditation, Fischer notes that in Japan this practice “is called ‘just sitting’—in other words, simply being present with the fact of being alive, breathing, in the body. It is such a simple thing, yet so profound, to appreciate directly that we are living, breathing bodies. Mostly we take this for granted and occupy ourselves with what seem like more significant concerns. But, in fact, there is nothing more significant than being our bodies.” Through the daily practice of zazen, we can become more cognizant and far more appreciative of our breathing, physical presence. And as our practice matures, this fundamental recognition can lead to a deeper awakening, as we come to see that “we are not atomized individuals separate from and opposed to the world.” By becoming acutely aware of our living bodies, we also become aware of “that which is larger than [ourselves], which holds [us] in its embrace.”

Yet another view of aliveness animates the Zen teacher Susan Moon’s collection of essays Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch. In her essay “Knowing How to Be Satisfied,” Moon recounts the harrowing experience she had while riding on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from Berkeley to the San Francisco airport. Upon reaching her destination, Moon discovered that her carry-on bag, which contained her IDs, credit cards, cash, address book, appointment calendar, and teaching notes, had been stolen. Shocked and disoriented, she felt “stripped of everything.” Barred from boarding her flight without an ID, but still in possession of her round-trip train ticket, Moon took the BART back to Berkeley. And on the way home, she had a startling revelation. Whatever else had been taken from her, she suddenly realized, she still had her life, her body, her family, and her friends. “I touched my own knees in amazement,” she recalls. “I wanted to jump up and down in the train, shouting, `I’m alive! I’m alive!’ The theft was a strange kind of gift. I lost some objects, yes, and I gained a sense of gratitude for my life that is still with me. I often forget how amazing it is to be alive, but if I concentrate, I can open a drawer in my mind and find the memory of that BART train ride: I’m alive! I’m alive!” By periodically reliving that pivotal experience, Moon can also rekindle her sense of aliveness, restoring it to its rightful place in her hierarchy of values.

It bears noting that in Toni Packer’s formulation, it is not only the “constant input and excitement” of contemporary life that prevent us from registering our “quiet aliveness.” It is also the “stirring of expectation,” with its attendant speculation, anxiety, and sometimes dire scenarios. But, as Fischer reminds us, the daily discipline of seated meditation, in which we contact “this simple moment” in all its plenitude, can prompt us to appreciate our living, breathing bodies and to recognize once again the precious gift that we’ve been given.  And over time, this renewed awareness can awaken our infinite gratitude.  


Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 54, 122, 218.

Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places  (Harper, 2003), 119.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), 122.

Image: Pierre Bonnard, L’allee d’arbres. (The Tree Alley)





Twenty years ago, as an integral part of my Zen training, I attended a sesshin, or five-day meditative retreat, at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills. In keeping with Rinzai custom, we sat in facing rows in the darkened zendo.  Across from me sat a line of longtime practitioners in their black robes, most of them gray-haired men in their fifties and sixties. The head monk struck a gong. And for the next forty minutes, these veteran practitioners sat perfectly still.     

During the long hours of sitting, one forty-minute period following another, I kept my eyes half-open, as Zen teachings prescribe. This way of practicing afforded me ample opportunity to observe the erect figures in my wider field of vision. Over time, these august presences came to resemble a human mountain range, austere and imperturbable. And their utter stillness became more than the absence of movement. It was itself a powerful presence, embodying what the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck has called the “dignity of stillness.”

That quality of body, heart, and mind is hardly unique to Zen practice. It can be experienced in other settings, such as a Quaker meeting or a public memorial service. But in Zen, the maintaining of absolute stillness, together with absolute silence, is at once a condition and a fruit of long-term practice. For newcomers, sitting still for more than five minutes can pose a daunting challenge. But for those who persist in the practice, this mode of being can come to feel as natural as it is rewarding. And in due time, its true nature can come more clearly into focus.

To begin with, the stillness of the mature Zen practitioner should not be confused with stoicism or emotional repression. Viewed from the outside, the stillness of the realized Zen master might be interpreted as purely an act of will. He or she has learned to hold still. Forming a conscious intention not to move is indeed a part of the practice, at least initially. But as one eventually discovers, the stillness of zazen is achieved not by holding still but by settling into stillness. It represents a release rather than an act of conscious volition. Thich Nhat Hanh once likened settling into stillness to the dropping of a pebble into a river. As the pebble comes to rest on the riverbed, so does the body-mind of the practitioner come to rest on what in Zen is called the “still point”. When that settling occurs, the feeling of repose within currents of activity, of stillness within movement, pervades both the body and the mind.

The stillness of Zen is the natural result of sustained attention. It is the external manifestation of an inner concentration. Yet here again, the concentration of the Zen practitioner is not to be equated with that of a seamstress threading a needle or an artisan carving a scrimshaw medallion. It might more aptly be likened to a red fox sitting on his haunches, ready for whatever might arise. In contrast to the laser-like focus of foveal vision, which concentrates intently on the object at hand, the stillness of Zen reflects a cultivated capacity, common to equestrians, hunters, and Zen practitioners alike, to “spread” one’s vision into the periphery, encompassing both the object of attention and the wider environment. Sometimes called “soft eyes,” this way of seeing is at once invigorating and relaxing.  Shifting our orientation from close inspection to the field of awareness itself, it eases the tension created by one-pointed concentration.

Beyond this enactment of awareness, openness, and easeful circumspection, the stillness of the Zen practitioner also expresses an attitude of respect, both for oneself and whatever persons or inanimate objects may be present at the time. “Being still ourselves,” writes Robert Rosenbaum, a neuropsychologist and longtime Zen practitioner, “allows everything to be itself, still.” To put that assertion in different terms, the stillness cultivated in Zen meditation allows the people and objects in our environs to be exactly what they are, unhindered by any effort to change them or tailor them to our agendas. As I observed more than once at Thich Nhat Hanh’s weeklong retreats, where the gentle but forceful presence of our teacher quietened us all, the dignified stillness of the accomplished Zen practitioner can engender that same quality in others, creating an atmosphere of communal dignity and mutual respect.

 To be sure, the daily cultivation of stillness, as practiced in Zen, is not without its liabilities. We can become addicted to it. As Joko Beck has cautioned, we can focus so intently and so exclusively on stillness as not to notice anything else. But practiced skillfully, the discipline of stillness can be more than a beneficial pursuit. With diligence and commitment, it can transform our once-frenetic moods into tranquil lakes, our anxious minds into oases of stability, and our agitated bodies into human mountains, impervious to our changing inner weather.


Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder (Shambhala, 2021), 119.

Robert Rosenbaum, That is Not Your Mind (Shambhala, 2022), 190.

265. Grandmother mind


One night at the dinner table I posed three questions to our granddaughter, who has now entered fourth grade.

“What is something,” I asked, “that children are interested in but grown-ups are not?”

“Pokemon,” she replied, not skipping a beat.

“What is something that grown-ups are interested in but children are not?”

“Economics,” she replied, a knowing look in her eyes.

“And what is something that both children and grown-ups are interested in?

“Food!” she answered.

Perhaps it was time to eat.

The subject of food—and of late, food insecurity—is indeed of universal interest. Its importance transcends nations and cultures as well as generations. In Zen teachings, food is regarded as one of the four essential gifts for which we should be grateful, the other three being clothing, medicine, and shelter. Yet, though food is fundamental to our existence, regardless of who we are or where we live, it’s fair to say that there are as many customs, strictures, and prohibitions regarding the preparation and consumption of food as there are societies, ethnicities, and varieties of religious experience.

Zen is no exception, though in Western Zen, especially among lay practitioners, there are few hard and fast rules. According to the “Five Contemplations” chanted before meals in Zen monasteries, we are to consume “only those foods which nourish us and prevent illness.” (Fritos are out of the question). Moreover, we are to “eat mindfully, so as to be worthy” to receive our food. By so doing, we will “realize the path of understanding and love.” If you spend time in a Western Zen center, as in its Asian counterpart, you are more than likely to be served—and often to assist in the preparation—of vegetarian meals. But what, exactly, you will eat is on the whole of less consequence than the attitude to be cultivated in preparing and consuming it.

If you would like a taste, as it were, of that attitude, I would recommend exploring the many Zen-inflected cookbooks currently available to the Western reader. A good place to start would be Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book (1974), the bread-making bible of the “whole-earth” movement, and his memoir No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice (Sounds True, 2018). In the latter book, Brown, a celebrated chef as well as a Zen priest, embraces an intuitive, improvisatory approach to the art of cooking. Also of interest is 3 Bowls: Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery (Harvest, 2000), by Seppo Edward Farrey and Nancy O’Hara, which offers innovative, hybrid recipes not found elsewhere. My own well-thumbed favorite is A Taste of Heaven and Earth (Morrow, 1993) by Bettina Vitell. Like Farrey, Vitell is a former tenzo (head cook) at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. Emphasizing the sensory dimension of cooking and eating, her wide-ranging book integrates perspectives from the Zen tradition with simple but delicious vegetarian recipes.

Underlying all of these modern examples, however, is Eihei Dogen’s thirteenth-century classic Instructions for the Zen Cook (1237), in which the founder of the Soto Zen tradition articulates the basic principles of Zen cooking. Foremost among them is an attitude of wholeheartedness—or, in today’s parlance, of being “all in,” however menial the task at hand. Concomitant to this is the principle of equality: we are to treat the lowliest turnip with the same respect as we would the most exotic rice. Most striking, at least to the modern Western reader accustomed to hastily prepared food, is Dogen’s explanation of robai-shin, commonly translated as “parental mind.” Cultivating robai-shin, we train ourselves to treat both the food we are preparing and the utensils we are using as if they were our children, affording them infinite care.

Robai-shin is sometimes translated as “grandmother mind.” And in her book Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), the Zen teacher Susan Moon, herself a devoted grandmother, opts for this alternative translation. “Grandmother mind” deepens the concept of parental mind to include the qualities of warmth, empathy, wisdom, and compassionate understanding, tempered by grandmotherly sternness when required.

This attitude need not be limited to cooking. Nor is it the exclusive province of literal grandmothers. In the true spirt of Zen, Moon widens the concept to encompass anyone engaged in the interactions of everyday life. “If a young male monk can develop grandmother mind,” she writes, “then a person of any age, gender, and social status can develop it. You don’t have to be a grandmother to give your coat to someone shivering in the cold. A particular nod of recognition is due to all the grandfathers who are devoted to their grandchildren. Grandmother mind is simply a figure of speech. Even grandfathers can have grandmother mind.” Moreover, she notes in her conclusion, “Since we will become ancestors after we die, whether we like it or not, we might as well practice now by loving the beings we meet with grandmother mind, even if we aren’t grandmothers and even if they aren’t children.”


Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 57, 62.

Illustration by Nicole Xu.


Guido of Arezzo

If you have studied music, you are familiar with the five-line staff, the most fundamental component of Western musical notation. You may also remember the standard mnemonic for learning the notes on the lines of the treble clef: Every Good Boy Does Fine. I learned this mnemonic as a child, and even then it didn’t sit well with me. For one thing, it expressed a half-truth, at best, if not an outright falsehood. And later, when I’d studied English grammar and usage, I realized that fine, an adjective, was being misused as an adverb. Yet, if I questioned the quality of the mnemonic, I never thought to question the provenance of the musical staff itself. For all I knew, it had existed since time immemorial.

Not so. This basic element of Western notation was in fact the invention of one man: a shy, frail Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo (990-1050). As Stuart Isacoff explains in his book Musical Revolutions, Guido lived in a time when the Latin chants and hymns of the Church were sung in widely disparate ways by the various communities scattered throughout the Papal domain. Partly in an effort to standardize the diverse styles in which church music was being sung, and partly to afford the singers a more efficient means of learning it, Guido devised a method for connecting graphic notation to the physical act of singing.

Graphic representations of music had existed as early as 1400 BCE. But, as Isacoff notes, these were usually no more than markings: “abstract hints” as to how the music should actually be performed. To remedy this situation, Guido created a four-line staff on which note symbols were placed. Analogous to a geographical grid, with its intersecting arcs of longitude and latitude, Guido’s staff became a “map on which any pitch could be measured in relation to another. The higher the placement, the higher the pitch.” What was new about Guido’s system was the “idea of regarding pitches as occupying positions in vertical space.” This allowed the singer to “grasp at a glance the exact melodic distances in a hymn to be sung.” Although singers and musicians now take the staff for granted, as though it were a common piece of furniture, at the time of its creation it was truly revolutionary. However humble and unprepossessing Guido may have been in his private life, he made an enduring contribution to the development of Western music.

Something similar might be said of such major figures as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), Linji (Jap. Rinzai, d. 895), Shido Bunan (1603-1676),and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), all of whom made profound contributions to the Zen tradition. In Zen temples and centers around the world, the names of these and scores of other ancestral masters are regularly chanted, slowly and rhythmically, each name followed by an honorific title:


            KUMORATA SONJA



            DO KYO ETAN ZENJI


In printed form, this litany resembles the list of credits at the end of a movie. As an aural experience, however, the lineage chants can be hypnotic and strangely moving. Echoing in the spacious environs of a darkened Dharma Hall, they create an atmosphere of reverence, gratitude, and mystery.

Zen lineages also figure prominently in the jukai, or “lay ordination” ceremony, in which committed practitioners “receive the precepts.” Newly confirmed practitioners are presented with a “lineage chart” depicting the lineage of a particular sect. Starting with Shakyamuni Buddha and traversing the centuries, these charts graphically dramatize the antiquity and the continuity of a given lineage. The author and Zen teacher Susan Moon, in her book Alive Until You’re Dead, irreverently likens her “lineage paper,” which delineates “ninety-two generations of ancestors who passed the dharma along, from the Buddha down to me,” to an American Kennel Club pedigree. Among other things, the chart certifies the authenticity of the confirmed practitioner, who has taken vows to keep the moral precepts of the Zen tradition.

Looking, this morning, at my own lineage chart, where my name is emblazoned in bright red letters beneath the Ten Precepts and the Rinzai Zen lineage, I am reminded of those family trees that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents to his guests on Finding Your Roots. More seriously, I am reminded of Susan Moon’s observation that “we will become ancestors, too.” For good or ill, we will take our places in the lineages of our blood and spiritual descendants. Although our roles will almost certainly not be as pivotal as that of Guido of Arezzo in Western music, neither will they be inconsequential. Passing down our frailties and foibles, our mistakes and misdeeds, as well as whatever kindness and wisdom we have to offer, we will influence the lives of our descendants, who, as Moon prophetically notes, will one day become ancestors themselves. If that thought will not suffice to give us pause—and prompt a little humility—I really don’t know what will.


Stuart Isacoff, Musical Revolutions (Knopf, 2022), Kindle Edition, Lot 190.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 37,53-63.

Engraving: Guido of Arezzo (Guido d’Arezzo)

Morse code psDuring her recent visit, our nine-year-old granddaughter learned to send Morse code. Having found the code in her activity book, she printed it out in her own, precise hand on a 4 x 6” notecard. As it happens, I learned Morse code myself when I was not much older than Allegra is now. Tapping a pencil on our dining-room table, I taught her how to translate the printed dots and dashes of the code into rhythmic patterns of sound. By the end of her stay, she was able to send “I love you, Dad” to her father. And to her grandfather (who was still in his pajamas), “Have a nice shower, Grandpa.”

The ability to transmit Morse code was not the only skill Allegra acquired during her visit. With a little guidance on my part, she also learned to play a C-major scale on her child’s-size classical guitar; to write her full name in longhand with a fountain pen; to deploy multiple metaphors in a lyric poem; to earn a little money by sorting, counting, and wrapping Grandpa’s coins; to feed the wild birds; and even to sit, silent and still, for three minutes (maximum). But, in contrast to these potentially useful skills, the sending of Morse code stood apart, in the respect that it has little or no utilitarian value. For all its importance in world history, as a practical matter Morse code is now next to useless. Her newly acquired skill will not help her compete in high-school sports or gain admission to an elite university or bolster a future resumé. Continue Reading »