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?

As you pursue this line of inquiry, you notice internal changes taking place. Your anger is beginning to abate. You’ve begun to calm down. Your vision has begun to clear, and, rather than seeing red, or through a cloud of righteous indignation, you can now assess the situation more objectively—its gray, ambiguous areas as well as its black-and-white moral outlines. And, slowly but perceptibly, the quality of compassionate understanding is beginning to emerge.

In his book The Six Perfections, Dale S. Wright, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College, closely examines this transformative process. After considering several ways of managing anger, including the employment of diversionary tactics and the scrutiny of underlying beliefs, he arrives at this conclusion:

Why would this person have acted so cruelly? Upon what would such an act depend? Following this line of thought, we can often see how it depends on many prior conditions—the way this person was treated, either recently or over time, by everyone—his parents, family, friends, at work, and on the street. If we can see that others, including ourselves, operating under similar circumstances, would have probably reacted similarly, then the weight of blame we attribute to that person is diminished. Understanding is always the solvent that cools our anger and directs us to more constructive relations.

Central to this perspective is the word depends. “Upon what would such an act depend?” Undergirding this question and its pivotal verb is a foundational principle of Zen teachings. Known as “dependent origination,” that principle can be stated in a few words:

This is, because that is.

This is not, because that is not.

This comes to be, because that comes to be.

This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.

As this formulation implies, material things do not arise without cause. Nothing comes from nothing. Likewise, our words and actions depend on multiple causes and conditions. When certain conditions are present, corresponding words and actions manifest. They in turn cause other words and actions to come into being. And this chain of causation, operative in everyday interactions as well as in the physical universe, gives rise to endless suffering, our own and others’. Anger, in short, begets anger.

To be sure, not everyone will agree with this analysis. According to one widely held belief, harmful actions stem not from external circumstances but from the malice inherent in the human heart. Adverse conditions may aggravate our destructive tendencies, and particular conflicts may cause them to erupt in harmful speech and actions, but their root lies in human nature itself. And the appropriate response may not be compassionate understanding but reciprocal aggression and forceful containment.

That issue has been debated for centuries and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. For the most part, however, Zen practice is less concerned with our philosophical views than with the ways in which we conduct our everyday lives—ways that either increase or decrease the quotient of human suffering. Toward that end, the solvent of understanding can play a crucial part. “Meditation,” Wright observes, “is the womb in which understanding is nurtured.” And should we wish to cultivate that capacity in ourselves, the faithful, daily practice of meditation is a good place to start.


Why would this person: Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford, 2009), 120-121.





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 »

Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly. Continue Reading »

214. Only connect

Bonnie Booman

On Saturday, August 31, in a memorial service for the late Bonnie Booman (1954-2019), the Reverend Laurie DeMott invoked the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net to characterize Bonnie’s life and work. The metaphor was as timely as it was apt. Not only did it commemorate the life of a gentle teacher, whose patience, care, and imaginative insight inspired her students and exerted a beneficent influence on her community. In its wider implications, this ancient metaphor offered a potent antidote to the divisive spirit of our times, being at once an emblem of interconnectedness, interdependence, and the selfless nature of all conditioned things. Continue Reading »

213. Peaceful walking

“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. Continue Reading »