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.

That quality is respect. A core value of Western culture and the foundation of liberal democracy, respect is also a cornerstone of the Zen tradition. Like the six “perfections of wisdom” (generosity, morality, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom), respect for others, for moral principles, and for oneself is at once a practice and a goal of Zen training, a path and the realization of that path. In the short term, the path of respect leads to greater awareness of our thoughts, words, and actions and their effect on the world around us. Over time, it fosters a radical reshaping of ethical character. Self-centered delusive views give way to life-centered thoughts, speech, and service. Narrow self-interest yields to a mature respect for other people, for the natural environment, and for life itself.

As with most things in Zen, the cultivation of respect begins with the practice of zazen, or seated meditation. In formal practice, correct posture is critical: one’s knees and sitting bones should create a secure, three-point foundation; the back should be upright and aligned; the head should rest directly above the shoulders. Likewise one’s breathing: ideally, it should be deep and slow and originate from the diaphragm. Yet it is equally important that these guidelines be adapted, both to present conditions and to the practitioner’s physical capacities. If we truly wish to cultivate respect, we can start by respecting our unique physiognomies and respiratory rhythms, our sometimes unwelcome thoughts and changing states of mind. At the same time, if we are practicing with others in a zendo (meditation hall), we can cultivate respect by recognizing and supporting their immediate presence. In traditional Rinzai Zen, this is done through the gesture of gassho (palms pressed together) and by the making of deep bows, before and after every sitting. More broadly, we can show respect by meticulously maintaining stillness and silence, the conditions most conducive to formal meditation.

Beyond the confines of the zendo, the cultivation of respect extends into ordinary life. Mindfulness, it is often said, is the heart of Buddhist meditation. But to be mindful is not only to be present for the present moment. It is also to bring a respectful attitude to whatever action, chore, or duty one is performing, be it closing a door, turning off a faucet, or chopping a clove of garlic. Whether we are cooking or cleaning, watering a garden or filling a fountain pen, we can practice respect for whatever tools and materials we might be handling. As a potter respects common clay, we can learn to respect the most mundane objects in our lives, including those we might regard as dispensable or disposable.

And as with objects, so with other people. Respect for others, including those for whom we feel little affinity, can be practiced and nurtured in our daily interactions: in punctual arrivals and considerate departures; in timely responses to others’ requests; in acts of patient listening, with full attention and without interruptions; in conscious awareness of personal space and infringements thereof; in the strict observance of silence when silence is called for. And just as an attitude of respect can be realized in these small but consequential ways, it can also be expressed through a general regard for other races, ethnicities, genders, and creeds, as reflected in the language we choose to use and the words we refrain from using.

In “Variations on a Text by Vallejo,” a poem envisioning his own death, the American poet Donald Justice (1925-2004) depicts a cemetery in Miami on a sun-drenched afternoon. The gravediggers, “standing apart, in the still shade of the palms, / Rest on their shovels, and smoke, / Speaking in Spanish, softly, out of respect.” Perhaps this is the ultimate form of respect: an act of profound restraint, as instinctual as it is appropriate. On such acts rests our common humanity. In their absence, our lives and our culture suffer. In their presence, peace and healing become possible.


“When a G.M. Plant Shut Down in Ohio,”  The Daily, July 5, 2019.

Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 1995), 105.

Photo: “Showing Respect,” Paul Synnott, Osaka, Japan.




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 »

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 »