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Shortly after her fifth birthday, my granddaughter and I had one of our quiet conversations. We talked about her preschool activities, her best friends, her latest drawings. When we had exhausted those subjects, she paused for a bit, sat back regally in my leather chair, and made a request:

“Grandpa, tell me about the Buddha.”

Her request took me by surprise. During my tenure at Alfred University, I often taught an Honors course entitled The Art of Meditation, in which I introduced undergraduates to the basics of Buddhist meditation. Since retiring, I have given informal talks on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition to classes and audiences large and small. But until then, I had not attempted to expound Buddhist teachings to a very young child, let alone my granddaughter. What should I tell her? What should I not tell her? What did I wish for her to remember?

With no time to prepare, and little time to think about my response, this is what I said:

“Long ago, there lived a wise man known as the Buddha, who was born an Indian prince but became a teacher. He taught that all of us have in our hearts the seeds of kindness. We can be kind to each other. But often we are not kind, because we have forgotten that our true nature is kindness. We are too busy wanting and getting things—more toys, more things for ourselves. We sometimes take things that aren’t really ours, and cling to the things we have. We get angry when we can’t have the things we want, and afraid when others threaten to deprive us of what we have. That is why we need to sit down, be still, and have some quiet time. Then we can come home to ourselves and get back in touch with our true nature—that seed of kindness inside. If we do that, we will water the seed, and it will grow. If do that every day, we will become kinder to everyone, starting with ourselves. And we will be happier, too.”

Allegra listened. Although she is not one to sit still for very long, she sat quietly for a few moments, absorbing what I’d said. Then off she went to play, leaving Grandpa to wonder whether he’d said too much or too little, or even said the appropriate things. Would she take to heart what I’d explained? Or would it be no more than another morsel of information, stored in a brain that is integrating words, concepts, and perspectives at a rate far greater than mine?

Appropriate or otherwise, what I had encapsulated has a firm basis in Buddhist teachings. According to legend, the Buddha’s first words after his great awakening were these: “I now see that all beings, without exception, have the wisdom and compassion of the awakened ones, only, because of their delusions and self-clinging, they don’t realize it.” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps alluding to these famous words, has often spoken of watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion in ourselves by engaging in seated and walking meditation and practicing mindfulness in everyday life.

Allegra is an inquiring child. Had we gone on to discuss the simple teaching I’d offered her, she might well have asked why, if our fundamental nature is kindness, so many people are so often unkind. In an illuminating commentary on the Buddha’s reported words, the Soto Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman suggests that it is our “bad habits”—our social conditioning and destructive habits of mind—that cause us to forget or disregard our innate capacity for kindness. The classical teachings of the Theravada Buddhist tradition attribute the worst of human behavior and the suffering it brings in its wake to the so-called “three poisons”: craving, aversion, and ignorance. In modern Zen teachings, one hears often about “egocentric delusion,” or the half-conscious belief that each us is the center of the universe, and the universe should respond accordingly.

Allegra will learn soon enough about egocentric delusion and the suffering it engenders, both in oneself and others. Her experience will condition her, in ways I cannot predict but can well imagine. But she has already shown herself to be a gentle, empathic little girl, and I can hope that her future experience as a child, an adolescent, and eventually a grown woman will acquaint her not only with the realities of the world but also with her own capacity for kindness, wisdom, and compassion. And who knows? Perhaps one day she will choose to sit with Grandpa and to nourish those inborn qualities through the discipline of Zen meditation.

___________

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, “Sharing Life,” in Seeds for a Boundless Life (Shambhala, 2015), 31-32.

 

 

 

 

203. The absolute moment

One Sunday morning, a lifetime ago, I sat with my family in the First Methodist Church in Clinton, Iowa. The pew was hard, as if designed to punish us for our sins. Our black-frocked minister was well into his latest long-winded sermon, but I wasn’t listening. My attention was riveted on the elderly man in the pew ahead of me.

On the nape of his leathery neck, deep creases had etched an elongated “X.” Whenever he bowed his head, the creases would recede. When he looked up again, they would re-emerge. As the service continued, these marks of age and experience exhibited various degrees of depth and prominence. During the responsive readings, they nearly vanished. During the singing of the Doxology, which he probably knew by heart, they stood out boldly, like furrows in a freshly plowed field. Continue Reading »

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi

In his e-book Suffering and Possibility, the Zen teacher Norman Fischer discloses what he calls “the great and beautiful secret” of meditative practice. Elementary in nature but far-reaching in significance, the realization to which he refers has the capacity to transform both our outlook and our experience of everyday life.

Fischer’s general subject is the human condition, of which human suffering, broadly defined, is an inescapable part. Like other teachers in the Zen tradition, Fischer distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary suffering. The former arises from external conditions over which we have little or no control: war, famine, disease, aging, natural disasters, and the like. The latter is created by our own minds, specifically by our conditioned and often unskillful responses to the troubles we incur. Yet, whether human suffering, known as dukkha in Buddhist teachings, be deemed necessary or self-inflicted, it is an integral and unavoidable aspect of human experience.

Continue Reading »

Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind. Continue Reading »

Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service. Continue Reading »

Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –

 

                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,

 

                       but to practice

                        choosing

                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration: Continue Reading »