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Nothing special

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory.

Not so in the Zen tradition, where the word special and, more broadly, the concept of specialness, occupy a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, the Zen tradition is based on what its founder, the fifth-century Indian monk Bodhidharma, called a “special transmission outside the scriptures,” which is to say, a special understanding of reality and the nature of mind, engendered by communion with an authentic teacher. Yet Zen is probably unique among spiritual disciplines in portraying its practices as “nothing special.” “My miraculous power and spiritual activity:,” wrote the eighth-century Buddhist practitioner Layman P’ang, “drawing water and carrying wood.” More recently, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), founder of the first Zen monastery in America, explained to his students that “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.” And the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), author of Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993), insisted that the practice of “living Zen,” as she called it, was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary. Coming from realized masters who devoted their lives to Zen, these characterizations may seem curious or even disingenuous. Yet they point toward the paradoxical nature of the practice.

The true spirit of Zen, it may be said, resides in ordinary life. Although committed practitioners, lay and monastic alike, spend long hours in silent sitting, releasing thoughts as they come and go, and though advanced practitioners may experience those transformative moments of illumination known as kensho and satori, the primary aim of Zen practice is not some special vision or attainment that will elevate the heroic, solitary practitioner above other, unenlightened beings or convey some special authority. Rather, it is to train us to be mindful in all of our activities and to perform them in full awareness, whether the task at hand be washing dishes, cleaning a bathtub, or driving a car in heavy traffic. Grasping for some special experience or state of mind, we distract ourselves from that central aim.

And all too often, we delude ourselves as well. In his book Why Buddhism Is True (2017), the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright asserts that a “sense of specialness,” applied to ourselves, our families, our tribes, and our species, may be hardwired into our brains. Such a predisposition, he suggests, is natural selection’s way of ensuring our survival and the propagation of our genes. Be that as it may, our conferring of special status upon a person, place, or spiritual practice may have little or nothing to do with objective reality. As the psychologist Robert Zajonc has written, “[A]ffective judgments are always about the self. They identify the state of the judge in relation to the object of judgment.” If our overarching aim, as Zen practitioners, is “just to live, always in reality,” and to align ourselves and our actions with things as they are, the notion of specialness and the imposition of that notion on our immediate experience are likely to be more subversive than constructive.

Zen is a non-dualistic practice. It encourages us to see and accept the whole of our lives, rather than rank one moment of consciousness over another or compartmentalize our experience under such rubrics as “sacred” or “profane,” “trivial” or “profound.” By labeling a particular experience “special,” we imply that our other experiences are “not-so-special” or perhaps “non-special.” As Zen masters from Seng-ts’an (d. 606) to Thich Nhat Hanh have warned, dualistic descriptions slash undifferentiated reality into separate parts. Such discrimination is necessary for navigating the world, but without the balancing forces of awareness and holistic intuition, our powers of discrimination can immure us in our bubbles of dualistic thought and blind us to the realities beckoning our attention. All the more reason to abandon our notions of specialness, or failing that, hold them in abeyance. By so doing, we will not only cease to delude ourselves. We may also restore our sense of the wonder, beauty, and boundlessness—the specialness, as it were—of every moment of our lives.

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Photo: Meditation hall, Dai Bosatsu Zendo

The translation of Layman P’ang’s lines is by Stephen Mitchell. See The Enlightened Mind (Harper, 1993), his anthology of sacred writings.

The comment by Robert Zajonc is quoted by Robert Wright in Why Buddhism is True, p. 236.

 

 

 

 

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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. Continue Reading »

All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.” Continue Reading »

In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. Continue Reading »

192. A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology. Continue Reading »

I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. Continue Reading »

ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.” Continue Reading »