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For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality.

Mindfulness of the Body

Popular notions of meditation sometimes depict the practice as essentially cerebral. By various means, it’s assumed, the practitioner induces a kind of trance, leaving the cares of the world and the woes of the body behind.

Classical Buddhist meditation is quite the opposite. It grounds the practitioner in present realities, among them one’s breathing, posture, mental state, and physical condition. And, rather than prompt us to think, in general terms, about our bodies, the practice cultivates real-time awareness (a.k.a., “mindfulness”) of the positions, movements, and parts of our bodies, just as they are. The aim is not to objectify those physical realities but to bring a kind, contemplative attention to each of them, one by one. By so doing, we relieve existing tensions, and we also gain insight into the causal connections between our physical habits—our shallow breathing, for example—and the unwholesome states of mind those habits can engender.

To practice mindfulness of the body, we assume a comfortable, upright posture on a cushion or chair. Beginning with the crown of the head, we bring mindfulness first to our eyes, then to our shoulders, spines, lungs, and so on, as if they were stops on a journey. To facilitate this process, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a sequence of meditative verses, each employing the formula, “Breathing in, I’m aware of my ­­­(eyes, shoulders, etc.) / Breathing out, I bring kind attention to my ____.” Silently reciting these verses, the practitioner cultivates mindfulness of breathing simultaneously with bodily awareness.

Shikantaza

Approached with commitment, the practice described above can be transformative. In the space of twenty minutes, it can take us from a state of anxiety to one of stability and calm. Unfortunately, this outcome may be short-lived. Of more lasting benefit, in my experience, is the Zen practice known as shikantaza. Usually translated as “just sitting,” this practice is at once simple and difficult, straightforward and easily misunderstood.

Practicing shikantaza, we set aside all methods and resolve merely to remain aware of whatever is occurring, within and without. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may come along, we acknowledge them, witness their presence, and allow them to disappear. Keeping our senses open, we also note whatever is occurring in our immediate surroundings. And throughout our sitting, we cultivate awareness of the impermanence of all conditioned things, the universal life-force within us, and the vast, interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

To undertake this practice requires two things of the practitioner. The first is a state of continuous mindfulness, clarity, and equanimity. If we have yet to develop those qualities, we are all too likely to be practicing “just sitting around,” or, as the late Eido Shimano Roshi once dubbed it, “shikan-waste-of-time.”

The second prerequisite is an attitude of wholeheartedness. Ideally, when practicing shikantaza, our minds are concentrated and relaxed. And undergirding that relaxed concentration is the intention to be fully present and to include everything in our conscious awareness. By adopting this attitude, as best we can, we develop the capacity to recognize and accept whatever may be unfolding and to let things go as they go.

In Conclusion

What I have outlined here is an unorthodox hybrid, but I can attest to its efficacy. If you are inclined to experiment, other pairings suggest themselves, such as Tai Chi and meditative reflection, or yoga and contemplative prayer. May your practice, whatever it may be, sustain you in this difficult time.

______

Photo: the author practicing shikantaza.

 

242. The still point

John Daido Loori

In his poem “New Hampshire” (1923), Robert Frost broods on the meaning of a place name. Listing the names of small towns in that state, he pauses at the name Still Corners, remarking that the town is “so called not because / The place is silent all day long, nor yet / Because it boasts a whisky still—because / It set out once to be a city and still / Is only corners, cross-roads in a wood.” Whether Frost is pulling the reader’s leg, as he was known to do, or is making a serious point about stunted growth, his riff calls attention to the suggestive ambiguity in the name he’s elected to contemplate.

A kindred ambiguity surrounds the phrase “the still point,” which Frost’s contemporary T.S. Eliot brought into prominence in his poem “Burnt Norton” (1936). In that expansive meditation on “time present and time past,” Eliot alludes to “the still point of the turning world,” a coinage that has since found its way into the mainstream of English discourse. At least three American wellness centers are known as The Still Point, and the British writer Amy Sackville chose the phrase as the title of her debut novel, identifying the “still point” with the North Pole. More pertinently for Zen practitioners, John Daido Loori (1931-2009), founder and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, invoked the phrase for his book Finding the Still Point, a basic manual on Zen meditation. For Loori, finding that point was an essential component of Zen practice, if not its central aim. Continue Reading »

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

If there is one commonly held value in our divided culture, it is the idea—and the ideal—of perfection. We would like to eat the perfectly cooked burger (or steak, or ratatouille). We would like to go on the perfect vacation. We desire perfect health, a perfect relationship, a perfect retirement, and even a perfect death, whatever that might be. That the goal of perfection, whether in work or love, is elusive and for many unattainable only heightens the intensity of the struggle.

To this familiar but often destructive system of values, Zen teachings offer a salutary alternative. In her book Zen Seeds, the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) describes the characters on a hand-painted scroll hanging in a tea house. Some of the characters are misaligned, and one is missing. As Aoyama explains, when “ordinary people” practice calligraphy, they “go to great pains to achieve perfect alignment and would consider missing characters inexcusable.” But from the vantage point of classical Zen teachings, perfection is not necessarily a virtue. “When the line wavers,” wrote Zen master Murata Juko (1422-1502), founder of the tea ceremony, “and characters are omitted . . . the effect is superior.” And, in the words of Yoshida Kenko (1284-1310), “When everything is carefully regulated, it’s boring.” By contrast, imperfection can be a source of interest, truth, and beauty, whether the context be visual art, the natural world, or the conduct of everyday life. Continue Reading »

240. Distant mountains

Meido Moore Roshi

Winter is the season of contraction. In the northern latitudes the earth contracts, and so do our daylight hours, our bodies, and our minds. To counter the ill effects of contraction, some of us engage in outdoor walking or winter sports or employ such interventions as anti-depression lighting. But another proven method, drawn from the Omori school of Rinzai Zen, can help to counter the feeling of contraction, while also enhancing our sense of freedom.

In Zen practice this method goes by various names. It is sometimes called “spreading out the vision” or, more lyrically, “practicing soft eyes.” This way of seeing is not unique to Zen. It is also used intuitively by martial artists, hunters, equestrians, quarterbacks, soldiers on reconnaissance, and others whose activities require unusual breadth of vision. But in Rinzai Zen the technique of spreading one’s vision is more than a useful adjunct to an existing repertoire of skills. It is a vital component of the practice. And in his new book Hidden Zen, the Rinzai Zen teacher Meido Moore Roshi offers the most thorough discussion to date of this important practice. What follows here is a summary of that discussion. Continue Reading »

Thank You Thank You 1211120 PS2

In the spring of 1985 I visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time. Four months earlier, my mother had died at the age of 82. Having lost my second parent, I was feeling vulnerable, perhaps more so than I realized. And Ireland itself was none too stable, being in the midst of a fierce sectarian conflict. Known to the Irish as the Troubles, that conflict was centered mostly in the North, in the cities of Belfast and Derry, but its presence could be felt in Monaghan, the rural border county where I had come to live and write.

I had applied and been accepted for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center (aka Annaghmakerrig), a workplace for artists and writers near the village of Newbliss. By way of preparation, I had read multiple histories of Ireland and immersed myself in Irish literature, particularly modern Irish poetry. Among the poets I became familiar with, none engaged my sympathies more than the “ploughman poet” Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who grew up on a farm near the village of Inniskeen (pronounced INNISH-keen), which is also in Co. Monaghan. Even before I had laid eyes on the low green drumlins and the furze-bordered tillage fields of the Monaghan landscape, I had experienced those features through Kavanagh’s verse and prose. As the bus from Dublin rolled through the countryside on its way into Monaghan town, what I saw through the window largely confirmed what I’d already imagined.

“My black hills have never seen the sun rising,” wrote Kavanagh, whose vision of his native ground is unfailingly vivid but deeply ambivalent. His early poems project a countryman’s intimacy with the “flocks of green potato stalks,” the “lime and copper smell / Of the spraying barrels,” and other physical objects in a subsistence farmer’s world. But they also project a loathing of the “stony grey soil of Monaghan,” which, he came to believe, had “clogged the feet of [his] boyhood” and “burgled the bank of [his] youth.”

That enduring inner conflict, which permeates his poems from first to last, undergirds his early sonnet “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” where he observes the bicycles going by “in twos and threes,” their riders headed for a dance in “Billy Brennan’s barn.” He notes the “half-talk code of mysteries” and the “wink-and-elbow language of delight,” but he also notes the unsettling quietude of Inniskeen Road and the absence of even “a footfall tapping secrecies of stone.”

The mood of loneliness conjured by those observations reaches its peak in the sonnet’s closing stanza:

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Likening himself to the marooned Scottish privateer whose plight inspired Robinson Crusoe, Kavanagh expresses both his sense of mastery over his surroundings and his acute sense of alienation. Both are suggested by the phrase “every blooming thing,” which conveys both its literal meaning and overtones of dismissal and disdain.

The place name Inniskeen means “peaceful island.” Having felt the power of Kavanagh’s sonnet, I was eager to visit that tiny village (population 370), where the poet and his wife are buried. So one afternoon, an artist friend and I drove over to the village and found our way to the local cemetery. There we came upon Patrick Kavanagh’s final resting place: a gravesite covered with rough slate stepping stones, at the head of which stood a plain wooden cross. A plaque bearing four of Kavanagh’s lines was fastened to the cross:

 And pray for him

Who walked apart

On the hills

Loving life’s miracles

Affecting as this memorial was, its impact was superseded by what we discovered, moments later, on a nearby wall. Twelve lines from one of Kavanagh’s poems, in the poet’s own handwriting, had been reproduced in a holograph and mounted on the wall:

We are not alone in our loneliness,

Others have been here and known

Griefs we thought our special own

Problems that we could not solve

Lovers that we could not have

Pleasures that we missed by inches . . .

I thank you and I say how proud

That I have been by fate allowed

To stand here having the joyful chance

To claim my inheritance

For most have died before

The opening of that holy door.

These lines are excerpted from Kavanagh’s poem “Thank You, Thank You,” which was published in the spring of 1963, four years before the poet’s death.

By all accounts, Patrick Kavanagh was not a good farmer. As one of his neighbors told me, he “paid no heed to his fields,” being too busy reading books. At the age of thirty-five Kavanagh left Monaghan for the literary lights of Dublin, where he became both a famous, influential poet and a notorious controversialist. In his last decade, however, having barely survived a life-threatening bout with lung cancer, he experienced a spiritual rebirth, adopting an attitude he called “not-caring.” That profound change of heart infuses his late poems with a tone of humility and, as the Kavanagh scholar Sr. Una Agnew has pointed out, with a pervasive mood of gratitude.

“Curious this,” wrote the poet in his Self-Portrait, “how I started off with the right simplicity . . . and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man and came back to where I started.” Coming back to that “right simplicity,” he also found his way back to one of the simplest but most powerful phrases in the English language. Little wonder that his lines, encountered on a sunny afternoon some thirty-five years ago, have found a home in my memory and indeed in my daily awareness.

______

Patrick Kavanagh, The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (Goldsmith, 1972), 349, 390.

Una Agnew SSL, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh (Columba, 1998), 239-240. “Blessing in a Christian context returns all reality to God in delight and mutual appreciation. It has taken Kavanagh a lifetime to achieve this sense of blessing. Gratitude is the mood which now characterizes his work . . .” (Agnew, 240).

Photo: Courtesy of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Special thanks to Rosaleen Kearney for her kind assistance.

Here in early November, as I look out on the faded reds and golds of the Western New York landscape, I’m reminded of two verses from The Book of Equanimity, a foundational text of the Soto Zen tradition:

   Mother Nature goes on weaving warp and woof;

   the woven old brocade contains the images of spring–

Derived, oddly enough, from the same root as broccoli (L., broccus, pointed, projecting), the word brocade refers to a woven fabric in which a pattern of ornamental figures, often floral in character, stands out in low relief against a plain, contrasting background. Embodied in what is called an “unstructured weft,” the threads that form the figures of brocade were at one time made of silver or gold. The complex, labor-intensive process of brocading was performed by hand, and for most people its materials were prohibitively expensive. For those reasons, brocade has historically been associated with the royalty, the nobility, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. In earlier centuries, in countries as diverse as India, Japan, Italy, and France, handwoven brocade was the fabric of choice for exquisite saris, kimonos, dresses, vestments, and the like. In keeping with this illustrious history, the word brocade connotes luxury, antiquity, and uncommon beauty. Continue Reading »

Derek-Mahon-BW

Derek Mahon

1941-2020

The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, grew up in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father worked in the shipyards, his mother in a linen mill. Against his father’s wishes, Mahon pursued an interest in poetry, first in grammar school and later at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. While in his twenties he worked in various low-paying jobs in North America before settling in London in 1970. For the next fifteen years he earned a precarious living as a freelance journalist. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as the author of superbly crafted lyric poems, in which a skeptical, darkly ironic outlook coexists with contemplative calm and a singing line. When “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” his requiem for the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appeared in The Listener in 1973, it was widely recognized as a modern masterpiece. In the 1990s, with twelve acclaimed collections to his credit, Mahon returned to Ireland, living for a time in central Dublin, whose newly prosperous, commercialized culture he satirically decried. In his last years he retired to the historic port of Kinsale, where he composed expansive meditative poems and enjoyed the consolations of domestic life. At the time of his death he was universally regarded as one of Ireland’s leading and most influential poets. His lifelong friend and fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley observed that “there is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”

Mahon’s early departure from Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on his work, infusing his poems with ambivalent feelings of disdain, regret, and longing. In 1977 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Co. Derry, and he returned with his wife and two children to their native province. It was a homecoming of sorts, but not a happy one. By this time Mahon had been diagnosed with a serious drinking problem, his marriage was teetering, and his writing had come to a virtual standstill. And the murderous sectarian conflict known as the Troubles was at its height, one of its flashpoints being the area where he was then living. Acutely aware of these adverse conditions, Mahon composed “Everything is Going to be All Right,” the poem by which he is best known to the general public.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

In this formal, twelve-line poem, the narrator awakens in an upstairs bedroom in a house on the northern coast. In contrast to his still-immobile state, the natural world is luminous and active: the tide is up, the clouds are flying, and the sky is clearing. If the imagery of the poem sets the narrator’s stillness against the dynamism of his surroundings, its antithetical syntax (“but there is no need to go into that”) reflects a tension between the narrator’s dark thoughts and the untrammeled beauty of the natural world. Out of these tensions arise two affirmations, both them framed in plain declarative sentences.

In asserting that “The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart,” Mahon affirms one of the traditional wellsprings of the poet’s art. “Look in thy heart, and write,” advised the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, whom Mahon had studied at TCD. Following Sidney’s lead, Mahon places his faith in poetic intuition, which a poet can awaken through patient contemplation. For a formal poet like Derek Mahon, whose craft requires meticulous attention to every syllable and element of form, this recognition of a vital source beyond his conscious control is at once revelatory and liberating.

The second affirmation is even more consequential. In his title and closing line, Mahon places his trust in life itself. “In spite of everything,” the sun rises, and the beauty of the “far cities” persists into the future. In a lesser context, Mahon’s affirmation might seem platitudinous, or might even be interpreted as ironic. But in its present context it calls to mind a cryptic statement by the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “Practice,” she asserts, “is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.” Although themes from the Zen tradition appear here and there in Mahon’s work, he was not a committed Zen practitioner. But the paradox he explores in “Everything is Going to be All Right” has much in common with the one to which Joko Beck alludes. And though his poem was written in a time and under circumstances very different from our own, and his “momentous celebration of a moment of well-being,” as the critic Hugh Haughton has described it, may well be a “dream of living which is also a dream of writing,” the reassurance he articulates speaks eloquently to our present, vexed condition.

______

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Gallery, 1999).

Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

Hugh Haughton, The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford, 2007), 147-148.

236. Profound silence

DB 1a

                                      Dzogchen Beara

“Profound silence,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “is not something we fall into casually. This may indeed happen, and a blessed happening it is, but normally we choose to set aside a time and a place to enter into spiritual quietness.”

            For me, the time was a week in July, 1998, and the place was the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Traversed by two mountain ranges and jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Beara offers a landscape rich in Bronze Age antiquities and rugged natural beauty but inhospitable to human habitation. The winters are “full-on,” a local resident told me. And even during the summers, when the temperature peaks in the 60s, and hikers and cyclists converge on the scenic Ring of Beara, the stony hills, steep cliffs, and fierce winds challenge the faint of heart. At one time the population of the Beara Peninsula was nearly 40,000. Today it is fewer than 6,000 hardy souls.

            I came to Beara not to hike or cycle but primarily to meditate. My specific destination was Dzogchen (pron. ZOGH-shen) Beara, a Buddhist retreat and conference center situated near the colorful village of Allihies. Perched on a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the center is affiliated with the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, and during my weeklong stay, a few long-term residents were undergoing training in Tibetan Buddhist practice. But the ethos of the center was ecumenical, welcoming, and international. The then director was an Englishman, the staff mostly Irish. The bookshop included selections in English, Irish, and several other languages. Dzogchen Beara now boasts a modern, well-appointed conference center, bright commodious cottages with spectacular vistas (rentable at € 150/night), and a café that caters to tourists as well as retreatants. But twenty years ago, the ambience of the place was far more austere, and the “self-catering” cabin where I stayed was spartan, to say the least.

            The cabin’s most conspicuous feature was a long, old-fashioned bathtub. When I drew my first bath, I discovered that the water was amber-going-to-brown. This color, I was told, was caused by the peat in the soil. Not only was this additive harmless, I further learned, it was also, like Guinness, supposed to be good for me. Although I grew accustomed to bathing in the visual equivalent of pale ale, I cannot report any salubrious effects.

            The other prominent features of my home from home included a pot-bellied, peat-burning stove; an elderly, encrusted cook stove; a tiny fridge; a writing desk and lamp; and a single hard bed, which looked and felt like an oversized church pew. Fortunately, this Thoreauvian dwelling also featured a large window, from which I could look down at the water far below. In the mornings I watched the fishing boats emerging from the darkness onto Bantry Bay. In the evenings, I watched the sun setting on the distant ocean horizon.

            Dzogchen Beara had no fixed schedule for visitors, and after a brief orientation we were left on our own. But I soon developed a daily rhythm. Rising early, I brewed a pot of coffee, wrote in my journal, and worked on a lecture I would deliver the following week at the Kerry International Summer School in Tralee. After breakfast, I joined a few other visitors for guided meditation in the main hall. Looking out through tall windows on the ocean, we contemplated impermanence and cultivated the primordial awareness known in Tibetan Buddhism as rigpa. In the afternoons I explored the rocky hills and trails around the center, while listening to talks by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on my aging Walkman. Toward evening, I prepared my simple dinners from provisions I’d bought in Castletownbere and brought with me. My most memorable meal: roasted bell peppers stuffed with quinoa and flavored with fresh herbs. Suitable fare, it seemed at the time, for a part-time eremite. In the evenings I sat in solitary meditation before retiring to my monkish bed.

            And what did I take away from this experience? Of the welter of memories I’ve retained, two in particular stand out.

            In southwest Ireland, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, the wild fuchsia blooms abundantly in July. In his poem “The Fuchsia Blaze,” the Cork-born poet Greg Delanty recounts how this deep-red flower, imported from South America, “ran amuck . . . & wildfired the land / becoming the spirit of Kerry’s / Aztec farmers.” The Irish-speaking populace named the wild fuchsia Deora De, meaning “God’s Tears.” In Delanty’s poem, “each branch weeps / their God’s blood tears / as if sensing the earth’s hurt.” But at Dzogchen Beara, the spectacle of thousands of wild fuchsia cascading down the rocky cliff felt more celebratory than elegiac.

            That feeling was of a piece with the deep silence I experienced at Dzogchen Beara. “It seeps into you,” one visitor remarked. Early one morning, as I wrote in my journal and looked out at the bay, I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were those I was making myself: my heartbeat, the scratching of my pen on the page. As the Irish poet Sean Dunne (1956-1995), a native of Cork who also spent some time at Dzogchen Beara, wrote in his memoir The Road to Silence (1994): “silence is not just the absence of noise. It is also the absence of distraction and of mental busyness which prohibits the creation of an inner quiet. Silence is not a passive or quietist quality but an active one. . . . It is tactile, like the pages of a book or the texture of stone.” Such was my experience at Dzogchen Beara, and I have carried that nurturing, necessary stillness with me to this day.

______

Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

Sean Dunne, The Road to Silence (New Island, 1994), 73.

Shunryu Suzuki

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I would spend four hours sharpening the axe.”

That famous saying is commonly invoked to underscore the value of preparation—or, more precisely, of an attitude of preparedness. Whether we are preparing to cook a meal by chopping onions or preparing for a long drive by checking the air pressure in our tires, preparation is understood to be a necessary part of any serious undertaking. And an attitude of preparedness is regarded as a mark of a mature, responsible person.

All that said, preparation is often seen, consciously or otherwise, as subordinate to the main event. It is what the prep cook does before the chef arrives or what the warm-up band does before the stars take the stage. When I was teaching courses in English literature at Alfred University, I would often spend three hours or more preparing for a fifty-minute class. Yet until I began to practice Zen, I would not have thought of those hours as on a par with the dynamic experience of teaching itself. Essential my preparations may have been, even when teaching a text I had taught many times before, but in the back of my mind I still viewed the time spent locating sources, organizing the discussion, and selecting passages for special attention as mere preparation—the sorbet, as it were, rather than the main course. Continue Reading »

234. Peace is possible

Thich Nhat Hanh
        2006

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one. Continue Reading »