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:

  1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Objective in tone and straightforward in expression, these bald assertions have none of the rhetorical drama of Yeats’s lines, but their import is no less grave. “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem Burnt Norton, and these five observations, read in tandem, require us to bear a great deal. Yet, according to Zen teachings, which urge us to contemplate the Five Remembrances on a daily basis, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the attendant discomforts.

To begin with, practicing with the Five Remembrances brings into the foreground those realities that many of us consign to the background of our awareness—or exclude altogether. Although those realities are the ground bass, as it were, of the human condition, we tend to keep them out of hearing. By making the stark facts of aging, illness, death, and loss the focus of conscious attention, we take a step toward acknowledging their immanent presence in our lives. And, rather than view those realities as enemies or as evidence of some defect in ourselves or the universe, we recognize them as a natural part of being human. Rather than reject them, we invite them into our consciousness.

To do so may seem like accentuating the negative, but in my experience the effect of the practice is quite the opposite. Not only does it align our minds with things as they actually are, rather than as we might fancifully have them be. It also prepares us for the “terrible changes,” as they are sometimes called, that may well lie ahead. Josh Bartok Roshi, a contemplative therapist and Spiritual Director of the Greater Boston Zen Center, likens the Five Remembrances to a vaccination, which cannot forestall the vicissitudes of life but can significantly reduce their impact. Having endeavored to embrace the whole of our existence, including its darker aspects, through daily contemplation, we are less likely to be shocked or thrown off balance when untoward events overtake us. We can retain our equanimity.

In similar fashion, the practice of the Five Remembrances can also help us befriend our deepest fears. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, through this practice we “make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being abandoned, and dying.” Though ever-present and sometimes debilitating, those fears are all too easily ignored or suppressed, whether through denial, busyness, or incessant distraction. By naming them outright, and by bringing mindfulness to the feelings, thoughts, and states of mind that they engender, we can diminish their pernicious force. They may never go away, but neither will we allow them to govern our lives.

As commentators on the Five Remembrances have noted, the fifth differs in character from the previous four. Where the first four implicitly look backward, the fifth looks forward. Where the others acknowledge forces of nature over which we have little or no control, the fifth reminds us of our power of choice and our status as moral beings. And though the Five Remembrances in general admonish us to accept our frailty and impermanence, the fifth summons us to remember that our thoughts, words, and actions will constitute our legacy. Reason enough, one might conclude, to explore this time-honored practice and its transformative potential.


I am of the nature: Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 115-116.

Josh Bartok Roshi: “The Great Matter” (podcast), Greater Boston Zen Center. https://bostonzen.org/podcast/the-great-matter/.

As Thich Nhat Hanh explains: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 116.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, California





Joyful effort

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.

For the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, virya is best characterized as diligence. By practicing seated meditation, walking meditation, and mindful living, faithfully and diligently on a daily basis, we cultivate virya paramita, even as we embody this quality. Situating virya within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path, Thich Nhat Hanh views the Fourth Perfection as an aspect of what Buddhism calls Right Effort, or effort whose general aim is full awakening. By assiduously practicing the meditative disciplines, and by persevering even when conditions for practice are onerous or adverse, we “water the seeds” of mindfulness and concentration. Over time, as those seeds grow and mature, we realize the quality of virya in our everyday lives.

Roshi Joan Halifax, Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center and the author of Standing at the Edge (2018), interprets virya in a somewhat different light. “It takes energy and determination,” she acknowledges, “to keep showing up, whether in the hospital, classroom or boardroom, the refugee camp or war zone.” But what matters most is the “unitive” or single-minded character of the practitioner’s attention. For Halifax, to practice virya means to become “one with whatever we are doing. Burning up the self. Letting go of the self.” Borrowing a word from the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, she translates virya paramita as wholeheartedness. Practicing and cultivating virya in our daily lives, we “live life as a compassionate imperative with no holds barred.”

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi, in his book The World Could Be Otherwise (2019), gives virya yet another turn. For Fischer, virya is “joyful effort.” Contrasting this quality with the image of physical exertion in sports-drink ads, where professional athletes maximally tax their bodies and minds, Fischer invokes a simile from the eighth-century sage Santideva, who likens “joyful effort” to a piece of sheer cotton cloth being “swayed by a wafting wind.” Unlike willful, nose-to-the-grindstone striving, joyful effort is a natural expression of the universal life force, an unhindered release of vital energy. “This is the great secret of joyful effort,” Fischer writes, “and perhaps its most important aspect: Joyful effort isn’t something you do. Joyful effort is life, it’s sharing life. It comes to you from elsewhere, flows through you when you are ready to allow it.”

Perhaps this description of virya paramita comes closest to what I observed in Shinge Roshi, though her diligence and wholeheartedness were no less evident. Sometimes seen as a complement to patience (kshanti paramita), the Third Perfection of Wisdom, virya is both an ethical ideal and a distinguishing attribute in those who engage in Zen as a lifetime practice. Yet, as Norman Fischer rightly insists, the seemingly effortless, free-flowing nature of virya, conjoined with the relaxed demeanor and the sense of peace that often accompany it, sets it apart from the ego-centered, competitive, and exhausting effort to which most of us have been deeply conditioned: the drive to win at all costs and at the expense of other competitors. It is so not like that.


For the Vietnamese Zen Master: Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 193-196.

“It takes energy and determination”: Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), 226, 193.

“This is the great secret”: Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 122.




800px-Sweden._Doll_02One afternoon not long ago, my five-year-old granddaughter taught the basics of sitting meditation to her red-haired doll, Pippi Longstocking. Being a rag doll, Pippi is not very good at sitting upright, so after repeated attempts, Allegra allowed her to lie down. “I know you can do this,” she explained to Pippi, “but since this is your first day, I want you to be a little comfortable with what it feels like instead of what it looks like.” With Pippi lying flat on her back, Allegra proceeded with her lesson. “You just have to listen to your breathing,” she advised.

If you are familiar with the stories of Pippi Longstocking, you might agree that Astrid Lindgren’s rambunctious nine-year-old heroine, who is physically strong but conspicuously lacking in tact, could use a bit of meditation in her life. But in addition to teaching Pippi how to meditate, Allegra was also demonstrating by example a quality much prized in the Zen tradition. Known by its Sanskrit name of kshanti paramita (pron. kuh-SHAWN-ti pear-uh-ME-tuh), it is the Third Perfection of Wisdom to which serious Zen practitioners aspire. At once conceptually complex and emotionally challenging, it comprises three principal dimensions, each of them integral to the whole. Continue Reading »

“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others. Continue Reading »

206. A common language

Bill Bryson

Of the many American brand names that have infiltrated the English language—kleenex, aspirin, q-tips, to name a few—none has enjoyed greater success than the word Kodak. Properly capitalized, Kodak originated as the trade name of an inexpensive camera invented by George Eastman of Rochester, New York. As Eastman’s revolutionary invention burgeoned in popularity, kodak became a common noun and a generic term for camera. Yet, for all its eventual currency, Kodak had the least auspicious of origins. The word was coined by Eastman and his mother in 1888 with the aid of an anagram set and three guiding principles. First, the word had to be short. Second, it had to be easily pronounced. And third, it should not resemble any other word or be associated with anything other than the Eastman family business. Kodak, in other words, was conjured out of thin air and meant precisely nothing. Continue Reading »

205. Magnanimous mind

If you enjoy cooking, as I do, and if you devote much time to that activity, you probably play favorites. You have your favorite recipes and your favorite ingredients. High in my own hierarchy would be certain meats (chicken,  pork tenderloin), fish (haddock, cod, sole), vegetables (yams, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli), and seasonings (turmeric, coriander, ginger, fenugreek). Much lower on the ladder would be salt, processed meats, and sugar (New York State maple syrup excepted). Beyond these personal preferences, there is the relative cost of any one ingredient. Fresh sea scallops at $19.99 / lb., it’s fair to say, receive greater respect than a common parsnip or humble clove of garlic.

Nothing unusual there, you might conclude, especially for an amateur chef aiming to create simple, frugal, and nutritious meals for his family and friends. But in a classic text of the Soto Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun; 1237), the founder of that tradition challenges the assumptions and the value system such conventional thinking represents. “When making a soup with ordinary greens,” Dogen advises, “do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. . . . Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain . . . Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality.”

As might be surmised from the last of those admonitions, Dogen has more than cooking in mind. The Tenzo Kyōkun is in part a practical manual for the head cook, or tenzo, of a Japanese Zen monastery. But in its broader, metaphoric dimension, it is also a guide for living, in which a medieval Zen master advocates a general attitude toward the conduct of everyday life. That attitude has multiple aspects, but three in particular stand out. Continue Reading »

206. True adulthood

Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration. Continue Reading »