Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in the Dental Needs aisle of your local supermarket, shopping for floss. Fifty varieties, in bright, colorful packages, tempt you with their charms. Your options include Top Care Reach, Oral-B Glide, Listerine Cool Mint, Oral-B Essential, Listerine Gentle Gum Care Woven, and, not least, Tom’s of Maine Natural Anti-plaque Floss. You don’t have all day; you must choose. How will you do so? And of your many mental faculties, which will you employ?

In Zen teachings, the mental faculty that enables us to compare “this” to “that” is known as “discriminating mind.” Beyond the act of comparison, this faculty also allows us to distinguish between the good and the not-so-good, the beautiful and the ugly, the authentic and the bogus. Like food, medicine, and shelter, critical thinking is essential to our physical survival, our emotional well-being, and our conduct as responsible adults. In the ethical sphere, our powers of discrimination allow us to distinguish between thoughts, speech, and actions that may be harmful to ourselves and others and those that are wholesome and beneficial. In the aesthetic sphere, they permit us to tell a good painting from a bad one and an elegant phrase from a vulgar expression. And in the political sphere, they empower us to differentiate between fact and opinion, honest reporting and partisan propaganda, truthful statements and shameless prevarication. Little wonder that the training and refinement of the critical faculty has been—and, I hope, continues to be—an integral part of traditional education.

Yet, as some of us have found, our powers of criticism and analysis can also take over our daily lives. If conceptual thinking becomes our dominant way of perceiving the world, usurping every other way, it can prevent us from being present and seeing clearly. “Alike in ignorance, his reason such /,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope, “Whether he thinks too little or too much.” By its nature, conceptual thought is dualistic: it divides subject from object, body from mind, and, most crucially, “self” from “other.” Embodied in language, it slashes reality into words and phrases, leaving fragments in its wake. As Zen teacher Genjo Marinello Osho observes, our discriminating consciousness, if left unchecked, can come to resemble a hammer, which we obsessively wield and cannot put down, irrespective of the task at hand. As Marinello puts it, we can spend our waking hours “hammering everything,” leaving little space for intuition, contemplation, and other avenues to understanding.

To counterbalance that destructive tendency, and to help us see the world in a more balanced way, Zen teachings admonish us to cultivate an attitude known as upeksha, or “the mind of non-discrimination.” Often translated as “equanimity,” the word upeksha derives from a root meaning “to look over,” as if from a high elevation. Practicing upeksha, we endeavor, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, to “see life steadily and see it whole.” We no longer divide the world into parts or regard one part as superior to another. Nor do we take sides, rejecting one side’s interests in favor of the other’s.  In his public lectures, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often explained the principle of upeksha by holding his two hands in front of him, as though they were hand puppets, their palms facing each other. His right hand, he noted, had written hundreds of songs and poems; his left had no such record of achievement. But his right did not claim superiority over his left, knowing as it did that the two hands were parts of the one body. And if the left hand were to be injured while the right was hammering a nail, the latter would hasten to treat the injury. Such is the nature of upkesha.

            As Thich Nhat Hanh’s analogy suggests, the “mind of non-discrimination” should not be confused with mere indifference. Upeksha is better understood as the capacity to remain balanced, present, and compassionate when faced with such reversals as pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. Nor is upeksha synonymous with a culpable neutrality. There are situations when it is necessary to take sides and to act accordingly. But if our ability to discriminate, criticize, and judge can be balanced with our capacity to let go of our critical judgments, step back from our habits of mind, and question our fixed ideas, we can learn to meet our experience with a mind that is at once all-embracing and undeceived. In Buddhist teachings, this synthesis of a critical mind and an open heart is known as “discriminating wisdom.” A powerful antidote to prejudicial thinking, it is also a central aim of Zen practice.


Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man” (1733), Epistle 2, 11-12.

Genjo Marinello, Osho, “The Discriminating Mind is Like a Hammer,”

Photo: “Burlington Buddha,” by Harry Littell.

smith-corona-psTwelve years ago, my son gave me a vintage manual typewriter for my birthday. Black, sleek, and compact, it was manufactured in the 1930s by L.C. Smith and Corona Typewriters, Inc., of Syracuse, New York. All of its forty-seven keys are still intact, including its Shift Key, Shift Lock, Back Space, and Margin Release. Fitted out with a new black ribbon, it can still produce a faint but legible line: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Although I have never used this machine, it occupies a place of honor in my study, a symbol of my vocation and a reminder of family continuity and change. Half a century ago, I wrote my doctoral exams and my doctoral dissertation on my late father’s Royal Empress typewriter. Two decades later, when my son was soon to enter high school, I presented him with my own IBM Selectric, which even then was becoming obsolete. All too soon, that nimble machine gave way to his first personal computer. He is now a journalist by profession and does much of his work on a laptop or mobile device.

My Corona Standard is what Zen teachings call a composite thing. It consists of a multitude of moving parts, nearly all of them visible to the naked eye. Lifting its cover, I can inspect its type bars, type heads, springs, and twin ribbon spools. Turning it over, I can examine its gears, rods, cords, escapement, and walnut-sized bell. Equipped with the appropriate skills and tools, I could dismantle the entire mechanism, part by part. And at some point in the process, this complex, functioning machine would no longer be recognizable or identifiable as a typewriter, a term of convenience for a configuration of component parts. It would be revealed as the temporary aggregate it always was.

In this it is not alone. According to Zen teachings, nearly all of the presumably solid objects we encounter in the course of a day are composite things. At one time, that reality was readily apparent, but as industrial technology has advanced and digital technology has won the day, it has become easy to forget that such common objects as clocks, pens, and flat-screen TVs contain any number of concealed and potentially unstable parts. In the language of Zen, “the self is made up of non-self elements,” whether the self in question be a smartphone, a kitchen stove, a Camry, or a living being. But nowadays, when moving parts have become ever fewer and static parts accessible only to technicians, this dimension of everyday reality often eludes our notice, and the illusions of permanence and solidity are thereby reinforced.

“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form”: that well-known observation from the Heart Sutra, a core text for Zen practitioners, enjoins us to realize that the things of this world are neither as permanent nor autonomous as they seem.  “Form” in this context refers to the observable, tangible aspect of a given entity—its color, shape, and texture—as viewed from the standpoint of conventional perception. “Emptiness” refers to that object’s impermanent, interdependent nature and its contingent existence in the web of life. According to Zen teachings, there is no form independent of formlessness, and vice versa. As one ancient Zen poem puts it, “fundamentally there is not a single thing.” The seemingly solid things of this world, including my vintage typewriter, are in reality evanescent and insubstantial.

To those with scant interest in metaphysics, these recognitions may be less than compelling. But in fact, the deep realization, in our hearts as well as our minds, that “form is emptiness, emptiness form” bears directly on the ways we view the world and conduct our daily lives. As the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often noted, we suffer not because things are impermanent but because we expect them to be permanent when they are not. By reminding ourselves, periodically if not on a daily basis, that all conditioned forms are on their way toward extinction or transformation, we release ourselves from that habitual expectation. Concurrently, we reintroduce ourselves to the realm of the formless, where so-called “things” are in constant flux, and new forms are continuously being born.

On this bright morning in March, 2017, my Corona Standard rests peacefully on its old-fashioned typing table, evoking the era of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein.  On most days I keep this prized possession covered, but earlier this morning I removed its cover, and now its shiny black surfaces are catching the winter light. At once a repository of historical meanings, social and familial, and an experiment in what the Irish writer John Banville has called the laboratory of the past, it is also a vivid emblem of industrial progress and human possibility, creative freedom and artistic resolve.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Like the words freedom, justice, and virtue, the word enlightenment can mean quite different things to different people. As a proper noun, the word denotes a specific period in Western intellectual history: the so-called Age of Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. As a common noun, however, enlightenment can refer to experiences as diverse as a religious conversion, an intellectual discovery, or, more casually, a shift of perspective occasioned by an influx of fresh information. We can be enlightened by a lecture on astrophysics, a new history of the American Civil War, a Nova program on monkeys or spiders.

In the American Zen community, the term enlightenment is heard only rarely. By and large, contemporary Zen teachers prefer to speak of “awakening.” But when the word does arise, its meaning varies according to the teacher’s training and affiliation. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, enlightenment refers specifically to kensho (or satori): a sudden, direct experience of absolute reality. This transcendent experience is viewed as an aim attainable—if it all—only after a period of dedicated practice. By contrast, in the Soto Zen tradition, enlightenment is neither a distant goal nor a possession of the spiritually advanced. From the Soto perspective, formal seated meditation (zazen), with due attention to posture, breath, and the practice of “opening the hand of thought,” is itself an expression of enlightenment. It is an experience available to any serious practitioner. Continue Reading »

184. True Nature


“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest. Continue Reading »

408px-representation_of_laozi“Do your work,” wrote Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “then step back—the only path to peacefulness.” Sage advice in itself, this admonition also points toward two complementary practices in the Zen tradition. Undertaken individually, these practices can deepen and illuminate our everyday lives. Undertaken together, they can promote a wholesome balance of action and insight, engagement and contemplative awareness, enabling us to live more wisely. Continue Reading »

gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Continue Reading »

Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. Continue Reading »