A zone of peace

“How do we find our own place in a complex political world,” asks the American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, “and find a way towards peace?”

For some, the way might be a studied indifference, a turning away from politics altogether. For others, it might be engagement: social activism in the cause of peace. But for Kornfield, the appropriate initial response, and a prerequisite for wise and effective action, is first to “stop the war within.” “Our first task,” he observes, “is to make our own heart a zone of peace.”

The great spiritual traditions offer many ways of doing that, but one proven way is the time-honored practice known as Chadō, or the Way of Tea. Rooted in sixteenth-century Japan, this practice has long been associated with Zen meditation. Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), Tea master, Zen practitioner, and codifier of the Japanese tea ceremony, established four basic principles for practicing the Way of Tea. Guidelines for everyday life as well as the shared enjoyment of tea, these principles have endured to the present day.


In Rikyū’s time and for centuries afterward, tea gatherings were held in rustic, sheltered tea huts. Guests walked down a garden path, and, after cleansing their hands and mouths in a stone basin, entered the tea hut by crawling through a small, low doorway. Humbled by this experience, they found themselves in an alcove, where a hanging scroll, chosen by the host and often composed by a Zen master, established the theme of the gathering. That theme accorded with the rhythms of the season, as did the flowers in the alcove, arranged by the host “as they are in the field.”

These aspects of décor contributed to an atmosphere of harmony, both between the human and natural worlds and between the host and guests. As Sōshitsu Sen XV, a descendent of Rikyū and retired Grand Master of the Urasenke School of Tea, explains in his book Tea Life, Tea Mind, “The host interacts with the guest, both thinking of one another as if their roles were reversed. . . . The principle of harmony means to be free of pretensions, walking the path of moderation, becoming neither heated nor cold, and never forgetting the attitude of humility.”


When elite samurai warriors came to the tea gatherings, they left their swords outside. They also left behind their exalted social rank. According to the principle of respect, every person in the gathering is of equal importance. Each possesses his or her inherent dignity and is to be treated accordingly. This principle informs the strict etiquette of the traditional tea ceremony, extending beyond the human to the inanimate environment—the utensils used in preparing the tea; the tea bowls, chosen in keeping with the season. All are to be regarded with openness, reverence, and sincerity. In the words of Sōshitsu Sen, “this principle presses us to look deeply into the hearts of all people we meet and at the things in our environment. It is then we realize our kinship with all the world around us.”


The writer Peter Matthiessen once noted the “fierce cleanliness” of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the monastery in the Catskills where he practiced Zen. That same spirit applies to the Way of Tea. The garden path must be swept, the utensils kept immaculate. Less literally, the principle of purity applies to the state of mind of the guests, who are enjoined to leave their worldly attachments and the “dust of the world” outside the tea room and practice with single-minded concentration. Together with rigorous cleanliness, physical and spiritual, the principle of purity also implies a meticulous sense of order, both in the immediate environment and in the minds of the host and guests. “When the host is cleaning and arranging the areas that the guests will occupy,” writes Sen, “he is establishing order also within himself.”


Unlike the first three principles governing the Way of Tea, the fourth cannot be attained through conscious effort alone. Rather, the cultivation of harmony, respect, and purity establishes, over time, the conditions in which tranquility of body, heart, and mind is most likely to manifest. “[A] person making and drinking tea in contemplation,” writes Sen, “approaches a sublime state of tranquility.” And, paradoxically, this sense of tranquility is deepened “when another person enters the microcosm of the tearoom and joins the host in contemplation over a bowl of tea.”

Green tea is unique. Its combination of mild caffeine and the compounds known as catechins engenders a state of mind that is at once calm and alert. But whether or not one enjoys green tea, the timeless principles of the Way of Tea have much to recommend them. Called to mind through the course of the day, they can positively influence the way we look at others. Faithfully observed, they can indeed create a zone of peace.


“How do we find our own place: Jack Kornfield, “Dharma & Politics.”

As Sōshitsu Sen XV: Sōshitsu Sen XV, Tea Life, Tea Mind (Weatherhill, 1979), 13-14. For a deeper understanding of Japanese tea culture and its roots in eighth-century China, see Sōshitsu Sen XV, The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū (University of Hawaii Press, 1998).





Mary Oliver

“Attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), “is the beginning of devotion.”

Oliver’s bold assertion appears at the end of her lyrical essay “Upstream,” the title essay in her 2016 collection. In the preceding paragraph, she implores her readers to introduce children to the sensuous delights of the natural world:

Teach the children. . . . Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

Thus instructed, children may “learn to love this green space they live in.” But they must first learn to pay attention. Continue Reading »

220. Something new

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

Dale S. Wright

Recall, if you will, the last time you felt deeply angry. Someone had hurt and offended you, and the more you dwelt on the indignity you’d suffered, the angrier you became. You felt your anger rising in your stomach, your chest, your body generally. You wanted to retaliate, and you imagined what you might say or do. At the very least you wanted to break the nearest plate or throw your cell phone against a wall.

Now imagine some future indignity, but this time with a very different response. Rather than fuel your anger with destructive scenarios, you choose simply to feel and acknowledge it. “Anger has arisen in me,” you might say to yourself, while practicing conscious breathing. And rather than reflexively condemn the words or actions that have occasioned your outrage, you elect to look into their causes. What personal or social conditions prompted that person to speak or act as he or she did? What specific event triggered that insulting remark? Might that trigger have had little or nothing to do with you? Continue Reading »

218. Skillful means

Roshi Joan Halifax

Zen is not a methodical practice. Its character is more holistic than linear. Insofar as method connotes an immediate goal or predictable outcome, the word and the outlook it represents run counter to Zen teachings. “There is nothing to be attained,” the Heart Sutra sternly reminds us. The byword of practice is not attain but continue.

All that said, methods can be useful, especially for newcomers and those whose practice is in need of renewal. Of the methods available, one of the most helpful is a six-step set of instructions formulated by Roshi Joan Halifax, Founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillful means,” and the Upaya instructions are at once skillful and comprehensive, both as a structure for meditation and as a means toward meditative insight. What follows is a summary of those instructions, interpreted in accordance with my own experience. Continue Reading »

217. Non-stop thinking

“Maybe you’re thinking too much,” my wife once suggested. She was not the first to do so. Nor, to paraphrase John Lennon, am I the only one. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh has called it. And in our present hyper-connected, information-driven era, that common human tendency has become ever more prevalent.

For centuries Zen masters have warned against over-reliance on conceptual thought. According to Zen teachings, our dualistic concepts—subject/object; self/other; up/down—interpose an “ego-filter” between our minds and our sensory experience. They mediate between what is and what we believe it to be. Likewise the abstract words we use to frame our experience. They impose a yardstick, as the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi puts it, on a universe that is in reality boundless, indivisible, and ungraspable. Continue Reading »

Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Continue Reading »