True adulthood

Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration.

According to conventional wisdom, the attainment of maturity is largely a matter of age and experience. As we grow older, common sense advises, we become more mature—more humble and less self-centered, more responsible and less prone to reckless behavior. Yet, as Roshi Zoketsu Norman Fischer, in his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, has astutely observed, and as even a cursory survey of human conduct will confirm, getting older does not automatically equate with becoming more mature. Like empathy and compassion, maturity is a quality to be cultivated over time, through conscious, self-directed effort. Toward that end, the Zen monastic tradition offers numerous practices, including the taking of vows and precepts, the discipline of “work practice” (the silent, mindful performance of everyday chores), and the systematic contemplation of the six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom” (generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom). Each of these practices contributes, directly or obliquely, to the process of “truly growing up.”

For those who have no interest in becoming Zen monastics but might wish to cultivate greater maturity, the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation, is a good place to start. Often newcomers to the practice arrive in states of anxiety, impatience, and distraction, but as they soon discover, the aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture of meditation induces a sense of emotional as well as physical stability, and the simple technique of concentrating on a single object, be it the breath or a meditative phrase, calms the mind and body. One’s breathing deepens of its own accord. Resident tensions ease.

Beyond this temporary relaxation, the longtime practice of zazen also fosters spiritual maturity. In Zen literature, the mind is sometimes likened to a jar of muddy water. Allowed to rest, the water becomes still and clear; the mud settles to the bottom. With this newfound stillness and clarity of mind comes an increased ability to “take the backward step”: to observe thoughts, feelings, and mental states, even as they are arising. Continued over many months and years, this practice of patient observation promotes increased awareness, not only of passing thoughts and transitory feelings but also of those habits of mind that imprison us in the past and bedevil our moral development. Within this evolving self-awareness, the quality of self-acceptance—one of the most elusive aims of meditative practice—is given space to grow and flourish. In all of these ways, as Fischer succinctly puts it, “meditation practice nourishes our maturity.”

To be sure, meditation can have unexpected, negative effects. Practiced unskillfully, it can aggravate an existing hypervigilance or promote a complacent self-absorption. But if conducted in moderation, preferably under the guidance of an experienced teacher, meditative practice increases our awareness not only of the personal self but of our social relationships and our wider, societal obligations. While sitting, we pay close attention to our breath and posture. And when we rise and re-enter the world, we bring that same quality of attention to our speech and actions, noting how much and in what ways our words and actions affect other people. Meditation strengthens our power of choice, which is to say, our ability to choose words and responses appropriate to the situation. And unless our governing instincts are wholly malign, we can respond in ways that help rather than hurt.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva (“enlightened being”) is an archetype that embodies the paramitas in general and altruism in particular. And in his book Opening the Hand of Thought, the twentieth-century master Kosho Uchiyama defines a bodhisattva as “one who acts as a true adult.” In Uchiyama’s view, “most people who are called adults are only pseudo-adults. Physically they grow up and become adult but spiritually too many people never mature to adulthood. They don’t behave as adults in their daily lives. A bodhisattva is one who sees the world through adult eyes and whose actions are the actions of a true adult.” The Zen aspirant’s desire, in other words, to fully awaken and the ordinary person’s desire to attain true adulthood are neither dissimilar nor discordant. As a practical matter they are one and the same.


Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing UpHarperOne, 2004.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought, Expanded Edition (Wisdom, 2004), 138-139.

203. Good intentions

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

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? Continue Reading »

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.

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Matthew Arnold

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 »