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Bowing to what is

Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly.

 

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

The attitude embodied in Mickey Girardi, Sr., has much in common with a perspective prominent in Zen teachings. In her book Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), the Japanese Zen teacher Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) puts the matter this way:

Happiness that depends on what you acquire or become is only conditional happiness, not true happiness. No matter what happens, it is all right. If you become ill, then just be ill; if you are poor, then just be poor. Unless you accept your present circumstances, happiness cannot be attained. To face any situation and accept it with open arms if it cannot be avoided molds the attitude enabling you to see that such a wonderful way of living is possible. This is indeed something of consequence.

The skeptical reader might take issue with Aoyama’s advice, which runs against the grain of our present-day culture. “If you become ill, then just be ill”? Why not fight the illness, employing every means available? On the face of it, Aoyama’s stance might be mistaken for complacency or a culpable passivity. If the reality being faced is, say, climate change, an attitude of radical acceptance is certainly open to question.

What Aoyama is advocating, however, is not surrender to all the circumstances of one’s life but wholehearted acceptance of those that cannot be avoided. Rather than deny or resist them, we can meet them “with open arms.” Such acknowledgement, difficult enough when circumstances are truly dire, establishes a basis for the even more difficult challenge of accepting what cannot be avoided and is unlikely to change for the better.

Seen in this light, the act of acceptance is anything but passive. On the contrary, it is a positive action, as assertive in its way as the more common responses of denial, rumination, and resistance. And to the extent that acceptance of things as they are is not already reflexive or habitual, as was the case for the pipefitter Mickey Girardi, it may require training and practice.

To that end, there is a Buddhist practice known as “bowing to what is.” Like other forms of bowing in Zen ritual, “bowing to what is” expresses recognition and respect, but in this instance the object of respect is not another person but the reality of the present moment, and the bow is mainly an action of the mind.  It may be accompanied by a nod, such as one might give to a stranger on the street. It may be only an “inner bow.” But whichever form it take, “bowing to what is” can provide a secure foundation for wise and compassionate action. A gesture of humility in the presence of unalterable fact, it is also a way of meeting, with openness and grace, whatever may arise.


His father’s greatness: Richard Russo, Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), Kindle edition, location 3636.

Happiness that depends: Shundo Aoyama Roshi, Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), 13.

Photo of Richard Russo by Camile Gévaudan

214. Only connect

Bonnie Booman

On Saturday, August 31, in a memorial service for the late Bonnie Booman (1954-2019), the Reverend Laurie DeMott invoked the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net to characterize Bonnie’s life and work. The metaphor was as timely as it was apt. Not only did it commemorate the life of a gentle teacher, whose patience, care, and imaginative insight inspired her students and exerted a beneficent influence on her community. In its wider implications, this ancient metaphor offered a potent antidote to the divisive spirit of our times, being at once an emblem of interconnectedness, interdependence, and the selfless nature of all conditioned things. Continue Reading »

213. Peaceful walking

“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. Continue Reading »

212. Out of respect

“Everything we have is disposable,” lamented Brian Milo, a former autoworker at the G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in an interview with Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times (July 5, 2019). “Everything is made cheap and disposable. And I think that trickles down into our daily lives. I mean, you see marriage success rates are down. Things are disposable, even on a human level. I mean, I’m an employee, I’m disposable.” Milo lost his livelihood when sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the principal product of the Lordstown plant, fell precipitously, and G.M. eliminated 5,000 jobs. Adding insult to financial injury, the company notified its workers of their termination through impersonal, unsigned letters. Milo had been a loyal employee for ten years. What caused him to feel disposable was not only G.M.’s decision but the manner in which it was handled. Conspicuously absent was a quality essential to harmonious human relations. Continue Reading »

Charlotte Joko Beck

In the popular imagination, Zen practice consists of sitting cross-legged, preferably on a mountain or within the confines of a monastery, in a state of perfect calm. His hands positioned in the “cosmic mudra” and a beatific smile on his face, the Zen Buddhist practitioner sits at a comfortable remove from the petty conflicts and mundane concerns of ordinary life. In a word, he is detached. He has transcended the human fray.

This stereotypical image of Buddhist practice has widespread currency, even among the intellectual elite. A recent manifestation may be found in the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019), where the author defines the general aim of Buddhism as “a detachment from everything that is finite.” Reviewing this book in The New Yorker (May 13, 2019), staff writer James Wood endorses Hägglund’s view, alluding vaguely to “those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment.” “Everything that is finite,” one might note, is a very large category. Not only does it include buildings and boulevards, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees. It also includes one’s family, friends, and loved ones generally. Why on earth would anyone wish to be so detached? If that is what Zen is about, one might conclude, so much the worse for Zen. Continue Reading »

The poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) hated being old. In his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written when Yeats was in his early sixties, he described an “aged man” as “but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .” And in “The Tower,” a poem of the same vintage, he likened the “absurdity” of “decrepit age” to a battered kettle tied to a dog’s tail. Invoking the traditional duality of body and soul, Yeats contrasted his “passionate, fantastical / Imagination” with the humiliations of physical decline. By common consent, Yeats’s late poems are among his finest, but the agon they so memorably dramatize is that of an aging artist resisting with all his imaginative might those inevitable changes that happen to us all.

Zen teachings also address those changes, but they offer a very different perspective. Nowhere is that perspective more concretely articulated or more forcefully asserted than in the litany of home truths known as the Five Remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation: Continue Reading »

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

“It’s so not like that.”

Such was the response of Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, to a comment I’d made a moment earlier. At the time, we were midway through a private interview—one of the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that are a staple of Zen training. It was the third day of an extended retreat at the Zen Center of Syracuse, and I was one of more than thirty practitioners in attendance. In keeping with Zen custom, Shinge Roshi, then in her sixties, was giving dokusan, as it is called, to each of us in succession. She was also overseeing the retreat, conducting formal services, and offering erudite talks on Zen topics. Remembering my own experience as an academic advisor, in which I sometimes met with six or more students in a two-hour period, I remarked that she must be tired, if not exhausted. “It’s so not like that,” she replied, going on to explain that she loved what she was doing, and, far from exhausting her, the work replenished her reserves.

In her conspicuous resilience, as in her seemingly limitless energy, Shinge Roshi exemplified a quality of heart and mind essential to Zen practice. At once a precondition and a benefit of long-term practice, that quality is known in Zen circles as virya paramita, the fourth of the Six Perfections of Wisdom. Virya paramita is commonly translated as “energy” or “effort,” but the full meaning of this Sanskrit term is more nuanced than those conventional translations might imply. The multidimensional nature of virya can be seen in the contrasting perspectives of three influential Zen teachers of our time. Each gives the word and its referent a distinctively different coloration. Continue Reading »