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In a drawing our seven-year-old granddaughter made during the lockdown, Rapunzel is escaping from the wicked witch’s tower. “We rescue ourselves without long hair,” she explains, as she and a companion descend from a rope suspended from a window. Meanwhile a knight-in-arms, who has arrived on cue to liberate the damsel in distress, looks on, bewildered.

Our granddaughter’s drawing admits of multiple interpretations. To a contemporary feminist, it might exemplify a salutary revision of a patriarchal tale. To a child psychologist, it might represent a healthy, if anxious, response to prolonged confinement. But to a Marine Corps veteran—or anyone who remembers Clint Eastwood’s movie Heartbreak Ridge—the imprisoned maiden’s resourceful escape might bring to mind a familiar mantra.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome may or may not have originated with the US Marines, but it has long been associated with that branch of the armed services. According to one theory, the motto reflects the fact that the Marines, for all their valor on land and sea and in the air, have often found themselves on the tail end of the supply chain. They have learned to make do. Their verbal triumvirate, itself a model of minimalism and concision, offers one effective way of dealing with adversity, uncertainty, and deprivation. And, as a three-pronged tool for coping with life’s vicissitudes, it has much in common with three cardinal principles of Zen teachings.

Improvise

Of the truths that the Zen tradition holds to be self-evident, none is more central than the impermanence of all conditioned things. Challenged to encapsulate Zen teachings in seven words, the American poet Jane Hirshfield proposed, “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”

If we are indeed paying attention to our experience, we have little choice but to assent to Hirshfield’s first assertion. Not only does everything, in the long or short run, change, be it external phenomena or our private feelings, notions, and states of mind. More fundamentally, those moment-by-moment changes are governed by what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Paradoxically, that natural law differs from human laws in not being subject to revision or revocation.

Given the universality of impermanence, improvisation becomes more than a last resort, to be employed only when there is no practical alternative. It might better be seen as the only realistic response to ever-changing conditions, external and internal. Whether the situation at hand be the absence of an essential ingredient when following a favorite recipe or the arrival of an unexpected visitor just as one is sitting down to dinner, improvisation is often the most practical, appropriate, and humane course of action.

Adapt

The second imperative in Hirshfield’s formulation—“everything is connected”—articulates a second fundamental tenet of Zen teachings, namely the doctrine of interdependence or “dependent origination.” Simply put, this doctrine states that everything depends upon everything else. The things of this world may appear solid, singular, and autonomous, but in reality they are transitory, insubstantial, and interconnected in the vast web of life. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book The Heart of Understanding, a piece of paper depends for its very existence on trees, water, soil, the forester, and so on. Without them, the paper could not exist.

For that reason, it is seldom wise to reflexively apply a rigid formula to a specific situation. Causes and conditions must be considered, and our practiced responses must be adapted to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Analogous to its counterpart in the natural world, the practice of adaptation in human affairs requires us to remain continuously aware of present conditions and to align our best efforts with those conditions, lest our well-intentioned actions prove erroneous or harmful.

Overcome

In its original context, this term applies most directly to external obstacles: whatever stands in the way of a successful mission. Applied to Zen practice, however, the metaphor of conquest may seem a poor fit, the primary aims of the practice being not military victory but clarity, equanimity, and compassionate wisdom.

Yet, in everyday life, Zen practice often involves “going against the grain,” whether that grain be conventional thought or, more immediately, the force of habit. Zen teachings speak often of “habit energy,” viewing that energy in a largely negative light. Ingrained and often impervious to change, our long-standing habits present formidable obstacles to improvisation and adaptation, and more so as we grow older. “I adore tradition,” the pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked, “but I cannot stand habit.” Her aversion was not unfounded.

Over time, however, even the force of habit can be overcome, chiefly through the office of mindful awareness. Through diligent practice, Zen teachings assure us, the “energy of mindfulness” can encompass and transform our most corrosive habits of heart and mind. Conjoined with the practices of improvisation and adaptation, it can enable us to live more flexibly and wisely—and rescue us from our self-constructed towers.   

245. Holy water

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244. Today is today

shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

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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. Continue Reading »

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.

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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.

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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.