Something new

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice.

For the past two decades the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, has met weekly at the same time—7:30 on Sunday evenings—and in the same location: a spacious, high-ceilinged room in the Miller Center at Alfred University. We have trod, as it were, a well-worn path. And every week the protocol of our sessions has remained essentially the same. After seating ourselves on zafus (round cushions) and chairs in facing rows, in the traditional style of Rinzai Zen, and after the customary bows, the lighting of incense, and the low tones of a gong, we begin by drinking genmaicha, a green tea flavored with roasted brown rice, holding our yunomi—our small, handle-less cups—with both hands. Mindful of the saying chazen ichimi (“Zen and the taste of tea are one and the same”), we take time to savor our tea. When we have finished, our jikijitsu (timekeeper) strikes his wooden clappers, and we chant Atta Dipa (“Be a lamp unto yourself), the purported last words of the Buddha. This practice reunites body, breath, and mind, while also affirming our intention.

Having thus prepared ourselves, we settle into our first sitting. For the next twenty minutes we sit together in stillness and silence, following our breathing. Then, at the sound of the inkin (a hand-held bell), we rise and proceed to practice kinhin (walking meditation), maintaining continuous awareness while making a circuit around our facing rows. Next comes a second, twenty-minute sitting, followed by a recitation from Zen teachings. Once again, the inkin sounds, and we rise together. Our sessions conclude with another crack of the clappers, a deep formal bow, and our palms pressed together in gassho: a gesture of respect for ourselves, the practice, and our fellow practitioners.

All of these forms are rooted in Zen tradition. They derive from the exacting forms and rituals of Japanese Rinzai Zen, as practiced at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the Zen monastery where I received formal training. To a newcomer such forms may seem awkward, but to those of us who have practiced them for decades, they have come to seem both natural and reliably supportive. Like other established conventions, they feel as familiar and dependable as they are old.

Yet every Sunday evening, without fail, something new arises: a new circumstance, a new experience, a new understanding.

The Falling Leaf Sangha consists of a core of committed practitioners, ranging in age from eighteen to ninety, but we have always welcomed newcomers, be they students, faculty or staff, or members of the wider community. Children have sometimes attended, accompanied by their parents. After a brief orientation, in which we introduce the basics of sitting practice, the new participants join us in our facing rows. Their presence colors the tone of the sitting, as do other changing conditions, including the rhythms of the seasons, the light streaming through the tall windows, and, not least, the presence or absence of external sounds—the noises in the building, the traffic in the street below. All of these conditions, as well as others too numerous to mention, shape the experience of everyone in the room. No two sittings are quite the same.

Nor should we expect them to be. According to Zen teachings, each moment of our lives is unprecedented and unrepeatable. Although such phrases as “same old, same old” mask the newness of each new moment, that quality is there all the same. Our practice is not only to observe the received forms of the Zen tradition but to cultivate openness to what is indeed unprecedented and unrepeatable in every moment, lest it escape our notice. In this way, as one of my teachers put it, we more fully appreciate “this precious moment together.”

Paradoxically, adherence to established forms heightens our sensitivity to what is new in every sitting. Shakespeare wrote thousands of lines of verse in a single form: the decasyllabic line known as iambic pentameter. Yet within that form, any number of expressive variations—in rhythm, diction, texture, and tone—are possible, and it is the stable presence of the established form that allows those variations to be heard. Analogously, by practicing zazen (seated meditation) in the authentic, time-honored fashion, Sunday after Sunday, we open ourselves to the boundless fluctuations, the nourishing freshness of the present moment. By taking the path we took yesterday—and the day before—we learn something new.






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? Continue Reading »

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 »