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Grandmother mind

grandmother-1_custom-9fc121820404197bbae50a16e9363940e4a7e6a3-s800-c85

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.

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Becoming ancestors

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:

            KAYASHATA SONJA

            KUMORATA SONJA

                        —

            SHIDO BUNAN ZENJI

            DO KYO ETAN ZENJI

            HAKU IN EKAKU 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)

Good for nothing

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.

Much the same might be said of zazen, or seated meditation, the central practice of Zen Buddhism. In fact, it has been said—and by authoritative voices within the Zen tradition. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a foundational text for Zen practitioners, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi employs the phrase “no gaining idea” to characterize both the nature of zazen and a precondition for doing it all. “We say our practice should be without gaining ideas,” writes Suzuki, ”without any expectations, even of enlightenment.” More playfully, the contemporary Soto Zen master Shohaku Okumura Roshi (b. 1948), recalling the words of his teacher Sawaki Kodo Roshi, describes zazen as “good for nothing.”

For practitioners and observers alike, it is important not to misinterpret these bold assertions. As Suzuki Roshi puts it, sitting without a gaining idea “does not mean . . . just to sit without any purpose.” Nor should the statement be taken to mean that you can sit in any which way—in a Barcalounger, for example—and call it zazen. Likewise, to assert that zazen, a practice to which Okumura Roshi has dedicated his life, is “good for nothing” is not to reject that practice or dismiss it as a meaningless ritual. Rather, these provocative statements call our attention to a deeper dimension of the practice.

What these statements are saying, to begin with, is that zazen should not be practiced or understood solely as a means toward an end. Over time, disciplined Zen practice can bring transformative benefits to the practitioner, including clarity of mind, heightened ethical awareness, emotional stability, insight into the nature of reality, and a deeper capacity for empathy and compassion. But to pursue the practice for the sole purpose of reaping those benefits is to engage in what Japanese Zen teachings dismissively call bompu, or merely utilitarian, Zen. And to do so while actually sitting is to undermine the practice entirely.

That is true for two reasons. First, by focusing on goals and expectations while engaging in zazen, we shift our orientation, consciously or unconsciously, from the here and now to some future, unrealized state of mind. Rather than experience the present moment in its totality—the pains in our bodies as well as the deep sense of balance, the noises in the street as well as the sense of inner peace—we expend our energies imagining and expecting a purer and more agreeable state. More crucially, by treating zazen as merely a useful tool, we reinforce the duality, already so pervasive in Western thought, between things as they are and what we would like them to be. By so doing, we distance and deny our present experience. As Thich Nhat Hanh put it, we “miss our appointment with life.”

By contrast, to practice zazen without a “gaining idea” is to cultivate what the contemporary Zen teacher Christian Dillo has called “uncorrected mind,” in which we allow our “experiencing to be exactly what it is at this time.” Rather than reflexively approve, disapprove, or attempt to “correct” our experience, we simply acknowledge it and allow it to be. In this way we can not only free ourselves from excessive thinking, judging, and wishing things were otherwise. We can also open ourselves to the beauties and mysteries of our everyday lives, not the least of them being the wonder of a nine-year-old child discovering a language and the world.

______

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 41.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990).

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 57.

 

 

 

Pen 2 ps

To mark my most recent birthday my wife gave me a Conway Stewart fountain pen. Conway Stewart & Co., Limited, the most venerable name in British fountain pens, was founded in London in 1905. During the First World War, their handcrafted pens were used extensively by soldiers writing home from the front. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill enlisted a Conway Stewart pen to sign important wartime documents. More recently, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were presented with Conway Stewart pens to commemorate their golden wedding anniversary. Known as the Wordsworth Shingle, my particular pen is a delight to hold and behold. And to a degree exceptional in this day and age, it affords what I would call the pleasures of inscription.

Foremost among those pleasures is the sensuousness of the experience: the sensation of the pen’s nib pressing against the page. Whether light or heavy, that pressure and its attendant sensations can be felt when using any writing instrument, but with a fountain pen they are far more varied, nuanced, and subtle. I would liken them to what I feel in my left-hand fingers when pressing the nylon strings of the classical guitar, sensations that vary according to the placement of the finger-tips and the string I’m pressing down. Placing (or, rather, misplacing) the finger-tip between the frets requires more effort and creates more tension than placing it next to the fret. The bass strings, being metal-wound, also require greater effort. Continue Reading »

261. Two hands

TNH bell

Years ago at a literary conference, I lent a book to a Japanese friend. A few days later, as the conference was ending, she returned the book, holding it with both hands and presenting it to me as if it were an offering. Silent, direct, and present-minded, her gesture filled the space between us. And though she was not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, her action epitomized the practice of Zen.

In the early years of my formal Zen training, I learned to do everything—or almost everything—with two hands. No one taught me to do this. Rather I learned it through observing longtime Zen practitioners. Observation, of course, is one thing and performance another. And for a Westerner like me, the practice of using both hands to return a book or to hold and strike a bell, however conventional in East Asian cultures, felt foreign and unnatural.

Continue Reading »

 

Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

___

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life (Wisdom, 2018).

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

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

259. Already broken

TomisenSensujiKyusu_A01

One morning a few weeks ago, my new kyusu arrived at my door. A kyusu is a Japanese teapot with a hollow side handle and an interior mesh filter. Handcrafted in the Tokoname tradition, this particular kyusu is dark brown and evokes a quiet, earthy atmosphere. Concentric circles in the lid and body impart a simple, classical feeling. To prepare this new tool for use, I filled it with boiling water, emptied it, and left it in the dish drainer to dry. By nightfall, it had taken its place on the counter among my small collection of kyusus, looking pristine and ready for service.

That look was not to last. The following afternoon, as I was reading in my study and my wife was working in the kitchen, I heard a crash, followed by a few words of Yiddish and the improbable prediction, “He’s going to kill me!” As it happened, as Robin was innocently opening the cupboard above the counter to fetch a box of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a jar of cream of tartar came tumbling out. As if guided by radar, this little missile landed squarely on my new kyusu, breaking its hollow handle into several pieces. With a seasoned ceramist’s expertise, Robin repaired the handle, leaving barely visible lines where the fractures had occurred. No matter: having traveled safely all the way from Japan and spending less than forty-eight hours in our home, this exquisite object was already broken. Continue Reading »

Chicken image ps

Once a week, I stop in at Stearns Poultry Farm in Alfred, New York to buy a dozen eggs. On the wall above the egg cooler, looking worse for the wear, is a poster depicting a rooster standing on a country road. Over his head, a thought-balloon reads, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

That riff on a well-known conundrum seldom fails to make me smile. And on certain days, it reminds me of a slogan from the lojong system of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Based on a 12th-century text (The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind), this system consists of fifty-nine numbered “slogans,’ i.e., themes for daily living, all of them designed to generate resilience and compassion. With the guidance of a teacher, practitioners memorize a particular slogan, reflect on its meaning, and allow it to percolate into their conscious awareness during the course of the day. In this way, they train their minds and modify their outlooks and conduct accordingly.

            The slogan evoked by the poster is number 26:

Don’t figure others out.

In his book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi discusses this slogan in the context of interpersonal relationships. In Fischer’s view, human relationships are inherently prone to conflict. And the human impulse, however well-intentioned, to figure others out is often a source of discord. By becoming aware of that impulse, and by observing its often harmful effects, we can learn to refrain from engaging in the reflexive pondering of others’ motives. Or, failing that, we can learn to approach that self-appointed task with greater discernment and humility.

As Fischer observes, “[E]ven a cursory investigation . . . shows us that we barely understand ourselves. . . . If it’s hard to fathom ourselves, how could we seriously believe we can figure out someone else?” All of our motives, it might be argued, are ulterior, insofar as they are hidden even from us. Yet on we go, attributing feelings, thoughts, and motives to our spouses, friends, and even public figures, as if we could read their minds. As Fischer notes, “[W]e assume the intentions of others based on our understanding of their outward acts. And we are usually wrong.”

Depending on the situation, the human costs of attributing—or misattributing—motives can be slight or great, trivial or momentous. It’s fair to say that no one relishes being told, even by a well-meaning friend or relative, what he or she is feeling, wanting, thinking, or intending. “I’m really sorry,” I once said to a person whose feelings I had hurt. “No, you’re not,” she shot back. “You’re just feeling guilty.” That rebuke only widened our emotional divide. “I can imagine what you’re feeling,” sympathetic friends sometimes say to the recently bereaved, inadvertently deepening their sense of separateness and isolation. As one grieving husband, still reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, lamented, “How could they know what I’m feeling, when I don’t even know myself?”

As Fischer acknowledges, “There are times when it may be a good idea to try to imagine what someone else is feeling, thinking, needing or wanting.” “Don’t figure others out” is a motto, not an absolute. Rather than treat the slogan as a rigid rule, to be followed in every situation, it might better be understood as a cautionary mantra: a reminder, in Fischer’s words, that “we don’t really know what is in another’s heart and . . . whatever we imagine is probably incorrect.” “What heart can know itself?” asks the poet Anthony Hecht, in his poem “Upon the Death of George Santayana.” To that rhetorical question we might add: “What heart can know another’s?”

Yet, if we are not to “figure others out,” what, in times of conflict or crisis, are we to do? “In the end,” Fischer suggests, “probably the best thing we could do . . . for anyone . . . is to let them alone, profoundly alone, in the recognition that they are so much more than we could ever understand.” By doing so, he adds, we are “recognizing their full human dignity.”

Perhaps so.  But leaving others alone when they are fearful or distraught can be tantamount to abandonment—or be felt as such. To Fischer’s advice, and to the lojong slogan generally, I would add these complementary words by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, which I keep not far from my meditation cushion: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Allowing others their full human dignity by refraining from trying to figure them out, we can also be fully present for them in their time of need. The two principles are not incompatible. Held in balance, the one supporting the other, they can constitute an appropriate and compassionate response.

__________

Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2012), 105-106.

Anthony Hecht, “Upon the Death of George Santayana,” The Hard Hours (Atheneum, 1967).

Katherine-Thanas-SCZC

“Recently,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas in her book The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), “I have come to realize that our work is to love the world just as it is.” The work to which she is referring is the practice of Zen meditation. “Loving the world as it is,” she goes on to say, “is being willing to be in the only world we know.”

At first blush, these statements may seem jarring. The world we currently know, if we keep abreast of the news, is a world of environmental peril, intractable racial conflict, political polarization, an unending pandemic, and, as of late, a dangerous and destabilizing Eastern European war. These and other social and political forces have inflicted enormous suffering on untold numbers of people, often through no fault of their own. A grudging acceptance of these realities is one thing. To propose that we love such a world is quite another. To the skeptical mind, Thanas’s advice may seem, at best, naïve, and at worst, culpably detached.

In fact, it is neither. Far from being out of touch, Thanas is acutely aware of the painful realities that many people are presently enduring. Invoking the First Noble Truth of the Buddhist tradition (“Life is suffering”), she acknowledges that “the reality of our life is fragile . . . and subject to changing conditions. Many of us are experiencing financial, psychological, emotional, and social insecurity.” But, as she also observes, once we have discovered that “it’s not in our power to make our lives safe and secure for ourselves and our families, we begin to become aligned with life as it is. Humility and maturity may arise.” We can further develop those qualities by meeting both the social reality and that of our inner lives with a clear and open mind, rather than one of reflexive, ego-driven resistance.

According to Zen teachings, most of us view the world through the lens of our ideas, if not our prejudices and ideologies. Thich Nhat Hanh often noted that our ideas of happiness—that we must acquire new possessions, for example, to be happy—impede us from enjoying or even noticing the sources of happiness immediately at hand. The practice of Zen, Thanas rightly observes, “is about penetrating the membrane of mentality that’s between us and our life. It’s meeting something beyond what the mind knows: meeting with our body, our senses, our skin, our ears. We accomplish this when we trust ourselves enough to drop off what the mind knows.” If we genuinely wish to realize what Thanas calls the “truth of this life,” we have first to set aside our abstract concepts—the “membrane of mentality”—and return to the evidence of our senses. Rather than treat the world as a set of problems, to which we bring our settled knowledge and fixed opinions, we can go beyond our views and meet present realities directly with “our body, our senses, our skin, our ears.”

As noted above, the world that Thanas urges us to encounter directly includes not only the external, objective world of public events and historical facts but “the actual life we have—our habits of mind, our desires, our disappointments, our fears, our embarrassments.” By contemplating these mental and emotional phenomena from the vantage point of a still and stable mind, we begin to understand the “dynamics of our mental life,” particularly the notion that “there is some better state of mind than ours.” Meeting our actual lives, intimately and fully through the practice of meditation, we can, in the words of Joseph Goldstein, open what is closed, balance what is reactive, and reveal what is hidden in the body, heart, and mind. And having identified those closeted, imbalanced, and hidden elements of our experience, we can endeavor to befriend rather than resist, ignore, or deny them.

The first fruit of a mature and disciplined Zen practice is a state of stillness and one-pointed concentration. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called it “unconstructed stillness.” In this state of mind, the self “receives,” as Thanas puts it, “its own freedom, its own contraction and relaxation, absorption and release.” Known in Zen as samadhi, this state is “the gift we give to the world, the gift we receive ourselves.” When we are in samadhi, whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may occur are allowed to arise, abide, and disappear, without judgment or commentary. By cultivating samadhi, day after day, whether we are sitting in meditation, working, or performing routine household tasks, we can learn to accept what is, including and especially those things we cannot change, in a spirit of joy and delight. And over time, Thanas would add, we can come to love them, just as they are.

________

Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), 78-81.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (Shambhala,1987), 15-22.

Photo: Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012).

THICH NHAT HANH

Thich Nhat Hanh

1926-2022

Back in December, my wife and I sent an electronic holiday card to our family members and friends, wishing them “happiness, peace, and equanimity” in the year to come. Ever the realist, one of our friends replied, “I’ll settle for equanimity.” I suspect he was not alone.

Equanimity is a central term in the lexicon of Zen. A translation of the Sanskrit word upeksha, the word refers to a quality of mental balance and emotional stability. Not to be confused with a neutral passivity or cold indifference, equanimity might better be likened to what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”: the ability to remain calm and composed under the most trying of circumstances. Equanimity is also the faculty that enables us to take the long, even-tempered view and to remain unmoved by praise or blame, desire or aversion. Although this quality of heart and mind may be more evident in some people than in others, from the standpoint of Zen teachings, equanimity is not an ingrained trait, which some people possess and others do not. Rather, it is a capacity anyone can acquire and systematically cultivate through well-established practices.

The most fundamental of those practices is zazen, or seated meditation. Although Zen literature abounds in special instructions and nuanced techniques, zazen itself is a simple practice. In essence it consists of sitting still and paying close attention to one’s breath, body, and awareness. In this respect, Zen practitioners doing zazen resemble non-practitioners sitting quietly and enjoying their early-morning coffee, aware of their thoughts, bodies, and immediate environment.

Yet there are two crucial differences. Ideally at least, zazen is both a non-judgmental and a non-reactive practice. However pleasant or unpleasant our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations may be, we refrain from judging them. If the room where we are sitting is uncomfortably cold, we note that fact but refrain from passing judgment. And should an uncharitable thought cross our minds, we refrain from reacting with an inner rebuke or external action. Instead, we note our transitory thought and return to our awareness of breath and posture. By such means, zazen engenders an attitude of mindfulness and non-reactivity. Rather than judge or try to fix what we encounter, we closely observe its arising and passing.

In similar fashion, sitting still and taking the “backward step” heightens our sense of impermanence. All things change, no matter how permanent they seem. We may know this already, but when practicing zazen, that knowledge becomes concrete and unignorable. Whether what arises is an anxious thought or a disturbing image, a memory from childhood or the fragment of a song, it’s gone before we know it. The contents of our minds are in constant flux. By experiencing this directly, we are reminded time and again that even the most troubling circumstances in our lives are also subject to change. “Long live impermanence!” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh used to say. Not only can awareness of impermanence bring relief from fear and obsessive thinking. Over time, it can also foster the qualities of dignity and equanimity, which we can carry into our daily lives.

For those who might prefer a more direct approach, there is also a practice known as “equanimity meditation,” in which the qualities of balance and peace become objects of contemplation. This practice begins with reflection on the benefits of equanimity. We are asked to consider the gift an equanimous state of mind can bestow on those with whom we come into contact. We may also reflect on its long-term benefits for ourselves. The meditation proceeds to an inner recitation of such sentences as “May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with balance and equanimity,” or “May I be balanced and at peace.” In some lineages, the exercise may conclude with a “transfer of merit,” in which we transfer to a person or persons of our choice whatever merit we may have accumulated by doing this practice. Though more abstract than the practices described above, this verbal exercise, repeated daily, can strengthen our sense of balance and emotional well-being.

In Zen teachings, upeksha (equanimity) is known as one of the Four Immeasurable Minds: the “boundless” states of mind that practitioners vow to cultivate. The other three are maitri (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and mudita (sympathetic joy). Equanimity is sometimes regarded as the most important of the four, if not their very foundation. Without equamimity, it can be difficult to practice loving-kindness or compassion or to feel joy in someone else’s happiness. For Thich Nhat Hanh, upkesha also means “inclusiveness” and “non-discrimination”: the capacity to absorb whatever vicissitudes we encounter and to treat all sentient beings with equal regard. All things considered, one could do worse than settle for equanimity.

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Detailed instructions for equanimity meditation may be found in Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart (Random House, 1993). See also Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion of upeksha and the Four Immeasurable Minds in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Harmony, 1999).