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All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.”

For a graphic illustration of that law, I would recommend a website called Sleep Like the Dead, which purports to offer objective ratings of mattresses and their manufacturers. In an industry rife with hyperbole (“The best mattress you’ll ever sleep on!), expensive products ($ 3500 for a Tempurpedic Flex Elite), and promotional websites disguised as reviews, Sleep Like the Dead provides factual information and statistical analysis. Employing such criteria as “owner satisfaction,” “heat retention,” “motion isolation,” and “romance suitability,” the analysts at SLD rate and compare types, brands, and models on a scale ranging from “poor” to “very good.” (In case you’re wondering, a mattress suitable for romance is one that provides adequate “bounce.” Latex mattresses are highly recommended in this regard; memory foam is not).

Of the many charts and graphs on Sleep Like the Dead, one of the most striking is entitled “Satisfaction by Year of Ownership.” This graph tracks “owner satisfaction” over a period of fifteen years. During the first year of ownership, the data shows, around 85% of owners report satisfaction with their mattresses. After eight years, the percentage drops into the 60s. After eleven, it plummets to less than 50. Clearly, “owner satisfaction” bears a direct correlation to length of service. The longer you own your mattress, the less likely you are to be satisfied.

Less obvious, perhaps, is a reverse correlation between satisfaction and expectation. According to Sleep Like the Dead, the average lifespan of a contemporary mattress is 6.9 years. Imagine, if you will, an informed consumer who is well aware of that statistic. Why should he or she be dissatisfied if, after eight or ten years, the mattress in question no longer provides adequate comfort and support? “We suffer,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “not because things are impermanent but because we expect them to be permanent when they are not.”

Ten years ago, I purchased a black, 12-ounce kyusu—a traditional earthenware teapot with a mesh lining and a hollow side-handle—from a family-owned tea farm in northern Japan. Hand-crafted by a respected Japanese artisan, this exquisite object was expressly designed for brewing loose green tea. Every morning for the next four years, I brewed my Sencha, Fukamushi, Gyokuro, and other green teas in my elegant kyusu. I grew quite fond of it.

Then one morning, as I was removing wet tea leaves from the kyusu, a chunk of its thin black wall fell out. In an instant, its useful life was over. Dismayed by my loss, and uncertain whether to replace the kyusu with another of its kind, I wrote to the owner of the farm. This was his response:

We are so glad to hear that you continued to use HOHRYU Kyusu with so ardor and caution. . . . Endurance of your HOHRYU kyusu was probably enough. It is designed to be light weight as well as usual handcrafted high grade TOKONAME kyusu. At same time they are all designed to have enough endurance. Indeed your HOHRYU had been continuously used every morning for 4 years. Thank you again.

Reviewing this letter, I was aware that its author was a merchant defending the quality of his product. At the same time, I was charmed by his language and instructed by his implicit outlook. Unconsciously, I had assumed that my kyusu was more or less permanent. By contrast, the author viewed the “endurance” of that object as finite and appropriate.  For many of us, I suspect, impermanence is a kind of specter, haunting our every moment. We fear, reject, and sometimes loathe it. But in the view implied by the letter, kyusus, mattresses, and our own vulnerable bodies are impermanent phenomena in the stream of life. They arise, endure for a while, and eventually dissipate, in a way that is both inevitable and natural.

What is not inevitable is the attitude with which we respond to that reality. Deny, minimize, or ignore it, and we will only increase our suffering. Acknowledge and absorb it, and we may suffer less. I am reminded of John Millington Synge’s tragic play Riders to the Sea (1904), where the widow Maurya, who has lost her husband and six sons to the sea, delivers one of the most powerful closing lines in twentieth-century drama:

Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

________

An explanation of the graph and the criteria used to determine percentages may be found at www.sleeplikethedead.com.

J. M. Synge, The Complete Plays (Methuen, 1981), 106.

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else.

In his steadiness and stillness, Thich Nhat Hanh also embodied a classic Buddhist practice, known in Sanskrit as apranihita. Most often translated as “aimlessness,” this practice is one of the Three Doors of Liberation, or gateways to awakening. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the practice in this way:

The Third Door of Liberation is aimlessness, apranihita. There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda. . . . Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as if you have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes, and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.

When we practice aimlessness, Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt.”

But can it? Can the ordinary Western person, unpracticed in Zen meditation, learn to be at peace in this way? “You are perfect just as you are,” Zen master Shunryu Suzuki told his students, “and you could use a little improvement.” That paradoxical remark has been widely quoted, but I suspect that many a Western reader, coming upon it, has readily agreed with the second clause but reflexively dismissed the first. Me, perfect? Tell me another one.

Yet what Suzuki Roshi meant by “perfect,” as I understand it, is that at any given moment each of is the dynamic convergence of what the American Zen priest Norman Fischer has called a “beautiful and perfect interplay of forces,” genetic, ancestral, social, and personal. Many if not most of those forces, which include our present circumstances and our past decisions, are well beyond our control. Being human, we strive and struggle to improve ourselves and better our lot in life. In ultimate reality, however, our lives are as they are, and they are fine as they are.

For many people, that proposition may be difficult, if not impossible, to accept. As Fischer Roshi points out, “our minds can’t accept the fundamental genuineness and all-rightness of our lives. We are actually very resistant to this reality. We hate it because it is too simple, and we persistently think we need more.” As a result, we are often at war, both with ourselves and with those “others” whom we perceive as blocking our way. If we are unable to accept that our present lives are fundamentally “all right,” we may have little hope of practicing apranihita or experiencing the peace that “aimlessness” engenders.

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has so often reminded us, peace is possible—and not only for Buddhist practitioners. In September 1927, in a letter to his longtime friend Maud Gonne, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats attested to that possibility:

Today I have one settled conviction. “Create, draw a firm strong line & hate nothing whatever not even . . . Satan himself.” I hate many things but I do my best, & once some fifteen years ago, for I think one whole hour, I was free from hate. Like Faust I said “stay moment” but in vain. I think it was the only happiness I have ever known.

Although Yeats was no stranger to Eastern thought, it is unlikely that he had heard of apranihita. Yet in this poignant recollection he recounts an experience that closely resembles the practice and its rewards. By renouncing hatred, he experienced a temporary end to suffering. By letting go of striving, he permitted himself a transitory joy.

__________

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 142. See also Thich Nhat Hanh, The Path of Emancipation (Parallax, 2000), 27.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “A Coin Lost in the River is Found in the River,” The Art of Just Sitting, ed. John Daido Loori (Dharma Communications, 2002), 151.

W.B. Yeats, letter to Maud Gonne, September 29, 1927, The Gonne-Yeats Letters: 1893-1938, ed. Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares (Norton,1992), 434.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh leading walking meditation at the Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York, June, 1998. I am walking two rows behind Thay.

192. A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology. Continue Reading »

I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. Continue Reading »

ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.” Continue Reading »

189. Inner weather

                                      

                                       That day she put our heads together,

                                       Fate had her imagination about her,

                                       Your head so much concerned with outer,

                                       Mine with inner, weather.

                                                 — Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”

If you pay attention to your inner life, you may have noticed how your experience of the world around you conditions your states of mind. Sitting with friends on a summer afternoon, you feel happy and relaxed. Watching the evening news, you feel tense and depressed. What may have escaped your notice, however, is the degree to which your mental states condition your experience of the world. “I feel different now,” my granddaughter remarked, having fallen and broken a front tooth, “and the world feels different, too.” In ways less dramatic and often less apparent, that is true for us grown-ups as well.

In Buddhist psychology, the part of our makeup that causes us to feel one way or another is known as a “mental formation.” According to traditional Buddhist teachings, the so-called self consists of five components, known as “form” (physical body), “feelings” (sensations), “thought” (perceptions), “mental formations,” and “consciousness.” Like the other components, mental formations are constantly in flux. They pass through our minds like changing weather. But while a particular mental formation is present, it mediates between our raw sensory impressions and our awareness of the world.  It influences and may determine how we think, speak, and act. If, for example, the mental formation craving is present, we are likely to grasp, or try to grasp, the manifold things we encounter. By contrast, if the formation mindfulness is present, we are likely to see those objects clearly and allow them to remain as they are.

Mental formations might be likened to filters, through which we screen the evidence of our senses. At any given moment, what we call the world is in reality an immediate sensory impression—the bark of a dog, the smell of gas, a roseate evening sky—perceived through the medium of whatever mental formation might be present. In a microsecond, what began as a pure impression becomes a complex of thought and feeling, as we superimpose on that impression our personal and cultural memories, our moral concepts, and our fixed opinions. Together this multilayered amalgam becomes what we call our experience. Continue Reading »

A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion. Continue Reading »