Dr. Friederike Boissevain is a German oncologist and seasoned Zen practitioner. By her own admission, her meditative practice is imperfect—or “crooked,” as she describes it. Rather than remain focused and fully aware of the present moment, she finds herself wandering off into the “land of dreams and worries.” But, crooked though it be, her practice has supported her daily work with the sick and the dying. “The most important thing I ever did,” she reflects, “was to sit down once.” That act set “something in motion that cannot be stopped. This is not because of trust in something but because of experience. . . The snow of dharma covers everything, whether we see it or not.”
The snow of dharma? In Buddhist teachings the word dharma has three distinct meanings. In its simplest usage, the word refers to phenomena: the things of this world. “Aware of the impermanence of all dharmas,” the practitioner silently recites, “I breathe in. / Contemplating the impermanence of all dharmas, I breathe out.” But the word dharma can also refer to the body of Buddhist teachings, as in the Zen chant “Opening this Dharma,” where those teachings are described as “incomparably profound and minutely subtle.” And last, dharma can refer to the “laws of reality,” most prominently those of impermanence, no-self, “dependent origination,” and the interconnectedness of all conditioned things. As one master put it, if we can sit still and know we are sitting still, the laws of reality will be revealed to us.
Of those many laws, the inescapable law of impermanence is the most easily verified by direct experience. If you wish to verify it for yourself, may I suggest that you sit still, in a stable, upright posture, and pay attention to what is occurring within and around you. If you wish, you may close your eyes, as Vipassana practitioners do. Or you may leave them half-open and focused on a point three feet in front of you, as Zen teachings prescribe.
If you choose to close your eyes, you can readily observe that within your body and your inner life, nothing is permanent or solid. A moment ago, your in-breath was present; now it is absent. At the start of your sitting, your breathing was fast and shallow; now it is deep and slow. Before, your lower back felt strained; now, as you bring awareness to your spine and your lumbar region, the sensations of pain begin to subside. When you first sat down, you were feeling tense or sad or elated, but as you train your awareness on your state of mind, you realize that in the time you’ve been sitting, your mood has changed. Indeed, everything appears to be in flux—everything but your awareness of the changes.
Should you elect to keep your eyes open, you can also verify the law of impermanence, merely by observing your immediate surroundings. On Sunday evenings, especially in the summer, those who attend the sessions of the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, witness the gradual and sometimes beguiling changes in the light around us. We meet in a spacious, high-ceilinged room, whose tall windows look out on rolling hills. During the course of an hour, the light streaming through the windows brightens, dims, and eventually disappears. Experiencing those changes, moment by moment, from the vantage point of a still and silent awareness, we understand impermanence not as a concept or Zen tenet but as an experiential fact, as palpably real as the darkness gathering around us.
To be sure, it is easier to acknowledge the fact of fading light than to witness, as Dr. Boissevain does in her daily work, the impermanence of a human life ebbing and coming to an end. But by gaining, through meditative practice, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the insight of impermanence,” and by deepening that insight through years of diligent practice, we can cultivate the strength and courage to meet even the most troubling forms of impermanence, namely our own and that of our loved ones, with a balanced and compassionate mind.
Models of courageous realism abound in the literature of Zen, and nowhere more than in the writings of the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a Zen practitioner who transformed the haiku from a pastime into a vehicle for serious poetry. In one of his most celebrated haiku (“Summer grasses: / all that remains of great soldiers’ / imperial dreams”), as in his travels throughout Japan, Basho contemplated the impermanence of life. And in a poetic sequence entitled “While Reading Basho,” the American poet Hayden Carruth (1921-2008), writing across four centuries, recognizes his affinity with the earlier poet:
The snow falls. Basho,
we are very far apart,
and snow is falling.
I’m almost eighty,
and as I watch the meadow’s
brown grass vanishing
beneath this whiteness
how can I not share with you
the poignancy of
In this quiet lyric, Carruth pays homage to Basho by adopting his signature form. Each of Carruth’s stanzas is a haiku, with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5. Beyond this formal connection, however, a deeper solidarity may be discerned in Carruth’s recognition of impermanence, embodied here in vanishing brown grass and falling snow. “Why / is it so hard,” Carruth inquires elsewhere, “to get rid of time?” “Is it because so soon I am going to die?”
Hayden Carruth was not a Zen practitioner, but he was drawn to Asian poetry and culture, and in his lines for Basho he demonstrates an intuitive understanding of the workings of the dharma. To avail ourselves of its support, his lines suggest, we have only to quiet our minds and fully acknowledge the reality of change. We have only to let it snow.
Friederike Boissevain, “Here With You,” Buddhadharma, Winter 2012, 63
Hayden Carruth, Doctor Jazz (Copper Canyon Press, 2001), 94
The image above is a detail from a drawing by Robin Howard.