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Pen 2 ps

To mark my most recent birthday my wife gave me a Conway Stewart fountain pen. Conway Stewart & Co., Limited, the most venerable name in British fountain pens, was founded in London in 1905. During the First World War, their handcrafted pens were used extensively by soldiers writing home from the front. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill enlisted a Conway Stewart pen to sign important wartime documents. More recently, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were presented with Conway Stewart pens to commemorate their golden wedding anniversary. Known as the Wordsworth Shingle, my particular pen is a delight to hold and behold. And to a degree exceptional in this day and age, it affords what I would call the pleasures of inscription.

Foremost among those pleasures is the sensuousness of the experience: the sensation of the pen’s nib pressing against the page. Whether light or heavy, that pressure and its attendant sensations can be felt when using any writing instrument, but with a fountain pen they are far more varied, nuanced, and subtle. I would liken them to what I feel in my left-hand fingers when pressing the nylon strings of the classical guitar, sensations that vary according to the placement of the finger-tips and the string I’m pressing down. Placing (or, rather, misplacing) the finger-tip between the frets requires more effort and creates more tension than placing it next to the fret. The bass strings, being metal-wound, also require greater effort.

Something similar occurs when writing with a fountain pen. The pressure and the accompanying sensations felt by the writer will depend on multiple conditions, including the writer’s mood, the quality of the paper, the breadth of the nib (broad, medium, fine, extra fine), the angle at which the pen is being held, and the particular character being created. When all of those conditions are optimal, a good fountain pen will produce an even, distinctive script, analogous to the clear, pure tone of a well-played guitar. And even before that result can be seen or heard, it can be felt in the hand of the player or writer.

Writing well with a fountain pen requires precise control. At the same time, it demands a gentle relinquishing of control. When writing by hand—in longhand, as we used to call it—with a fountain pen, one has the sense of continuous flow, as the hand moves steadily forward, and the ink is released into and onto the page. Obviously, this process begins with an act of conscious will. But to the practiced writer, the process can feel as if it’s happening on its own. In this instance, I would liken the experience to that of seated meditation. Both require effort and skill on the practitioner’s part, but they also demand awareness of—and adherence to—the fine line between making something happen and allowing it to happen. Having found that point of balance, the writer and the meditative practitioner may experience a keen sense of participation in the natural flow of things, be it ink or the breath or time itself.

Beyond the sensory aspects of writing by hand, the experience also aligns the writer with an activity nearly as old as the human race itself. In a poem of mine titled “The Pleasures of Inscription” I explore my motives for writing poems and essays. After considering such “noble” purposes as reifying fleeting moments, witnessing political oppression, or reflecting on the art of poetry itself, I conclude that my primary motive is simply to enjoy the “pleasures of inscription, / which Hardy must have felt / and Sophocles before him, / even as they looked / on death and human passion / and faithfully inscribed / such words as came to mind.”  Writing by hand with a pen, I sometimes feel an affinity with writers as distant in time as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Hardy, who by necessity did the same.

Yet even as writing by hand fosters this sense of camaraderie, it also heightens and sharpens the sense of self. A handwritten script reveals the temperament of the writer. It is an act of creation as well as inscription. And what is being created and thereby objectified is the author’s unique, impermanent, and authentic self. Watching the ink from my Conway Stewart pen dry on the page, I may wish that what I’ve just written, be it a poem, essay, or note to a grieving friend, might be indelible. But whether or not it last, my handwritten script is a concrete expression, here and now, of my inalienable humanity, which words can refer to and names identify but handwriting intimately embodies. There goeth my soul, I might have said, were I living in Elizabethan England. And there beneath it, for all to see, is my indivisible birthright: my sovereign signature.

________

Photo: Conway Stewart Wordsworth Shingle fountain pen

 

 

 

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TNH bell

Years ago at a literary conference, I lent a book to a Japanese friend. A few days later, as the conference was ending, she returned the book, holding it with both hands and presenting it to me as if it were an offering. Silent, direct, and present-minded, her gesture filled the space between us. And though she was not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, her action epitomized the practice of Zen.

In the early years of my formal Zen training, I learned to do everything—or almost everything—with two hands. No one taught me to do this. Rather I learned it through observing longtime Zen practitioners. Observation, of course, is one thing and performance another. And for a Westerner like me, the practice of using both hands to return a book or to hold and strike a bell, however conventional in East Asian cultures, felt foreign and unnatural.

I grew up in a culture, after all, where “single-handed” is a term of praise. As a teenager, newly licensed to drive, I tooled around in my father’s Buick, my left elbow resting in the open window and my right hand on the wheel. My friends and I thought that way of driving manly and cool. And well into my thirties, I could be seen walking across a room with a book in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. Only decades later, as I was learning Zen at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats and subsequently at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, was I to experience the benefits and indeed the joys of using both hands to perform the actions of ordinary life. Those benefits are many, but three in particular stand out.

First and most obvious, using both hands concentrates attention. It aligns the body and focuses the mind. If you once took Driver Training, as I did, you were probably taught to keep both hands on the steering wheel, the left at ten o’clock and the right at two. This physical configuration enables the driver to maneuver quickly in an emergency. And even under normal driving conditions, this simple discipline keeps the body aligned and the eyes trained on the road ahead. Likewise, in everyday, domestic situations, developing the habit of using two hands can make life easier, safer, and less costly. Transferring an expensive china plate from the dish drainer to the cupboard, for example, we are less likely to chip or break it. Closing a door, we are less likely to slam it or leave it ajar.

In the second place, using both hands balances the two sides of the body and by extension the distracted or agitated mind. I am decidedly right-handed. My given name means “son of the right hand,” and I more than live up to my name. I suspect that the same is true for most people, unless they are ambidextrous, and it becomes more so with advancing age. Training oneself to use two hands when filling a bird feeder or picking up a garden tool balances the tendency to favor one side of the body over the other. And, like cross-legged sitting, this practice also integrates the left and right sides of the body/mind. As the Zen teacher Christian Dillo has observed, the act of pouring tea with two hands, as is done in Zen rituals, aligns the spine, the shoulder girdle, and the chest of the server toward the teapot and the person being served. And in my experience, the practice also promotes a sense of somatic and mental reunion: a reuniting of the body/mind into one, naturally functioning whole.

Third and perhaps most important for secular, 21st-century Westerners, using both hands in our daily tasks restores, or begins to restore, a sense of the ceremonial in everyday life. Some might call this a sense of the sacred. Call it what you will, the practice of using two hands for even the most mundane task counters the tendency to be inattentive and disrespectful, both in our attitudes toward physical objects and in our treatment of other people. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time, so is it hard to apply two hands to a task and not bring some degree of reverence to the present moment—the only moment, as Thich Nhat Hanh so often remarked, where life is available to us.

To be sure, the practice I’ve described is not for everyone. Nor should we make a fetish of it. Some actions, such as writing, shaving, or turning a door knob, are meant to be performed single-handedly. But if this practice should interest you, may I suggest you try it for a week and see what happens. Note how it affects your actions and their outcomes. Observe how it influences your state of mind. 

            __________

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 246.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh

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Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

___

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life (Wisdom, 2018).

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022).

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

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TomisenSensujiKyusu_A01

One morning a few weeks ago, my new kyusu arrived at my door. A kyusu is a Japanese teapot with a hollow side handle and an interior mesh filter. Handcrafted in the Tokoname tradition, this particular kyusu is dark brown and evokes a quiet, earthy atmosphere. Concentric circles in the lid and body impart a simple, classical feeling. To prepare this new tool for use, I filled it with boiling water, emptied it, and left it in the dish drainer to dry. By nightfall, it had taken its place on the counter among my small collection of kyusus, looking pristine and ready for service.

That look was not to last. The following afternoon, as I was reading in my study and my wife was working in the kitchen, I heard a crash, followed by a few words of Yiddish and the improbable prediction, “He’s going to kill me!” As it happened, as Robin was innocently opening the cupboard above the counter to fetch a box of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a jar of cream of tartar came tumbling out. As if guided by radar, this little missile landed squarely on my new kyusu, breaking its hollow handle into several pieces. With a seasoned ceramist’s expertise, Robin repaired the handle, leaving barely visible lines where the fractures had occurred. No matter: having traveled safely all the way from Japan and spending less than forty-eight hours in our home, this exquisite object was already broken. (more…)

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Chicken image ps

Once a week, I stop in at Stearns Poultry Farm in Alfred, New York to buy a dozen eggs. On the wall above the egg cooler, looking worse for the wear, is a poster depicting a rooster standing on a country road. Over his head, a thought-balloon reads, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

That riff on a well-known conundrum seldom fails to make me smile. And on certain days, it reminds me of a slogan from the lojong system of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Based on a 12th-century text (The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind), this system consists of fifty-nine numbered “slogans,’ i.e., themes for daily living, all of them designed to generate resilience and compassion. With the guidance of a teacher, practitioners memorize a particular slogan, reflect on its meaning, and allow it to percolate into their conscious awareness during the course of the day. In this way, they train their minds and modify their outlooks and conduct accordingly.

            The slogan evoked by the poster is number 26:

Don’t figure others out.

In his book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi discusses this slogan in the context of interpersonal relationships. In Fischer’s view, human relationships are inherently prone to conflict. And the human impulse, however well-intentioned, to figure others out is often a source of discord. By becoming aware of that impulse, and by observing its often harmful effects, we can learn to refrain from engaging in the reflexive pondering of others’ motives. Or, failing that, we can learn to approach that self-appointed task with greater discernment and humility.

As Fischer observes, “[E]ven a cursory investigation . . . shows us that we barely understand ourselves. . . . If it’s hard to fathom ourselves, how could we seriously believe we can figure out someone else?” All of our motives, it might be argued, are ulterior, insofar as they are hidden even from us. Yet on we go, attributing feelings, thoughts, and motives to our spouses, friends, and even public figures, as if we could read their minds. As Fischer notes, “[W]e assume the intentions of others based on our understanding of their outward acts. And we are usually wrong.”

Depending on the situation, the human costs of attributing—or misattributing—motives can be slight or great, trivial or momentous. It’s fair to say that no one relishes being told, even by a well-meaning friend or relative, what he or she is feeling, wanting, thinking, or intending. “I’m really sorry,” I once said to a person whose feelings I had hurt. “No, you’re not,” she shot back. “You’re just feeling guilty.” That rebuke only widened our emotional divide. “I can imagine what you’re feeling,” sympathetic friends sometimes say to the recently bereaved, inadvertently deepening their sense of separateness and isolation. As one grieving husband, still reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, lamented, “How could they know what I’m feeling, when I don’t even know myself?”

As Fischer acknowledges, “There are times when it may be a good idea to try to imagine what someone else is feeling, thinking, needing or wanting.” “Don’t figure others out” is a motto, not an absolute. Rather than treat the slogan as a rigid rule, to be followed in every situation, it might better be understood as a cautionary mantra: a reminder, in Fischer’s words, that “we don’t really know what is in another’s heart and . . . whatever we imagine is probably incorrect.” “What heart can know itself?” asks the poet Anthony Hecht, in his poem “Upon the Death of George Santayana.” To that rhetorical question we might add: “What heart can know another’s?”

Yet, if we are not to “figure others out,” what, in times of conflict or crisis, are we to do? “In the end,” Fischer suggests, “probably the best thing we could do . . . for anyone . . . is to let them alone, profoundly alone, in the recognition that they are so much more than we could ever understand.” By doing so, he adds, we are “recognizing their full human dignity.”

Perhaps so.  But leaving others alone when they are fearful or distraught can be tantamount to abandonment—or be felt as such. To Fischer’s advice, and to the lojong slogan generally, I would add these complementary words by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, which I keep not far from my meditation cushion: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Allowing others their full human dignity by refraining from trying to figure them out, we can also be fully present for them in their time of need. The two principles are not incompatible. Held in balance, the one supporting the other, they can constitute an appropriate and compassionate response.

__________

Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2012), 105-106.

Anthony Hecht, “Upon the Death of George Santayana,” The Hard Hours (Atheneum, 1967).

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Katherine-Thanas-SCZC

“Recently,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas in her book The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), “I have come to realize that our work is to love the world just as it is.” The work to which she is referring is the practice of Zen meditation. “Loving the world as it is,” she goes on to say, “is being willing to be in the only world we know.”

At first blush, these statements may seem jarring. The world we currently know, if we keep abreast of the news, is a world of environmental peril, intractable racial conflict, political polarization, an unending pandemic, and, as of late, a dangerous and destabilizing Eastern European war. These and other social and political forces have inflicted enormous suffering on untold numbers of people, often through no fault of their own. A grudging acceptance of these realities is one thing. To propose that we love such a world is quite another. To the skeptical mind, Thanas’s advice may seem, at best, naïve, and at worst, culpably detached.

In fact, it is neither. Far from being out of touch, Thanas is acutely aware of the painful realities that many people are presently enduring. Invoking the First Noble Truth of the Buddhist tradition (“Life is suffering”), she acknowledges that “the reality of our life is fragile . . . and subject to changing conditions. Many of us are experiencing financial, psychological, emotional, and social insecurity.” But, as she also observes, once we have discovered that “it’s not in our power to make our lives safe and secure for ourselves and our families, we begin to become aligned with life as it is. Humility and maturity may arise.” We can further develop those qualities by meeting both the social reality and that of our inner lives with a clear and open mind, rather than one of reflexive, ego-driven resistance.

According to Zen teachings, most of us view the world through the lens of our ideas, if not our prejudices and ideologies. Thich Nhat Hanh often noted that our ideas of happiness—that we must acquire new possessions, for example, to be happy—impede us from enjoying or even noticing the sources of happiness immediately at hand. The practice of Zen, Thanas rightly observes, “is about penetrating the membrane of mentality that’s between us and our life. It’s meeting something beyond what the mind knows: meeting with our body, our senses, our skin, our ears. We accomplish this when we trust ourselves enough to drop off what the mind knows.” If we genuinely wish to realize what Thanas calls the “truth of this life,” we have first to set aside our abstract concepts—the “membrane of mentality”—and return to the evidence of our senses. Rather than treat the world as a set of problems, to which we bring our settled knowledge and fixed opinions, we can go beyond our views and meet present realities directly with “our body, our senses, our skin, our ears.”

As noted above, the world that Thanas urges us to encounter directly includes not only the external, objective world of public events and historical facts but “the actual life we have—our habits of mind, our desires, our disappointments, our fears, our embarrassments.” By contemplating these mental and emotional phenomena from the vantage point of a still and stable mind, we begin to understand the “dynamics of our mental life,” particularly the notion that “there is some better state of mind than ours.” Meeting our actual lives, intimately and fully through the practice of meditation, we can, in the words of Joseph Goldstein, open what is closed, balance what is reactive, and reveal what is hidden in the body, heart, and mind. And having identified those closeted, imbalanced, and hidden elements of our experience, we can endeavor to befriend rather than resist, ignore, or deny them.

The first fruit of a mature and disciplined Zen practice is a state of stillness and one-pointed concentration. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called it “unconstructed stillness.” In this state of mind, the self “receives,” as Thanas puts it, “its own freedom, its own contraction and relaxation, absorption and release.” Known in Zen as samadhi, this state is “the gift we give to the world, the gift we receive ourselves.” When we are in samadhi, whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may occur are allowed to arise, abide, and disappear, without judgment or commentary. By cultivating samadhi, day after day, whether we are sitting in meditation, working, or performing routine household tasks, we can learn to accept what is, including and especially those things we cannot change, in a spirit of joy and delight. And over time, Thanas would add, we can come to love them, just as they are.

________

Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), 78-81.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (Shambhala,1987), 15-22.

Photo: Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012).

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THICH NHAT HANH

Thich Nhat Hanh

1926-2022

Back in December, my wife and I sent an electronic holiday card to our family members and friends, wishing them “happiness, peace, and equanimity” in the year to come. Ever the realist, one of our friends replied, “I’ll settle for equanimity.” I suspect he was not alone.

Equanimity is a central term in the lexicon of Zen. A translation of the Sanskrit word upeksha, the word refers to a quality of mental balance and emotional stability. Not to be confused with a neutral passivity or cold indifference, equanimity might better be likened to what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”: the ability to remain calm and composed under the most trying of circumstances. Equanimity is also the faculty that enables us to take the long, even-tempered view and to remain unmoved by praise or blame, desire or aversion. Although this quality of heart and mind may be more evident in some people than in others, from the standpoint of Zen teachings, equanimity is not an ingrained trait, which some people possess and others do not. Rather, it is a capacity anyone can acquire and systematically cultivate through well-established practices.

The most fundamental of those practices is zazen, or seated meditation. Although Zen literature abounds in special instructions and nuanced techniques, zazen itself is a simple practice. In essence it consists of sitting still and paying close attention to one’s breath, body, and awareness. In this respect, Zen practitioners doing zazen resemble non-practitioners sitting quietly and enjoying their early-morning coffee, aware of their thoughts, bodies, and immediate environment.

Yet there are two crucial differences. Ideally at least, zazen is both a non-judgmental and a non-reactive practice. However pleasant or unpleasant our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations may be, we refrain from judging them. If the room where we are sitting is uncomfortably cold, we note that fact but refrain from passing judgment. And should an uncharitable thought cross our minds, we refrain from reacting with an inner rebuke or external action. Instead, we note our transitory thought and return to our awareness of breath and posture. By such means, zazen engenders an attitude of mindfulness and non-reactivity. Rather than judge or try to fix what we encounter, we closely observe its arising and passing.

In similar fashion, sitting still and taking the “backward step” heightens our sense of impermanence. All things change, no matter how permanent they seem. We may know this already, but when practicing zazen, that knowledge becomes concrete and unignorable. Whether what arises is an anxious thought or a disturbing image, a memory from childhood or the fragment of a song, it’s gone before we know it. The contents of our minds are in constant flux. By experiencing this directly, we are reminded time and again that even the most troubling circumstances in our lives are also subject to change. “Long live impermanence!” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh used to say. Not only can awareness of impermanence bring relief from fear and obsessive thinking. Over time, it can also foster the qualities of dignity and equanimity, which we can carry into our daily lives.

For those who might prefer a more direct approach, there is also a practice known as “equanimity meditation,” in which the qualities of balance and peace become objects of contemplation. This practice begins with reflection on the benefits of equanimity. We are asked to consider the gift an equanimous state of mind can bestow on those with whom we come into contact. We may also reflect on its long-term benefits for ourselves. The meditation proceeds to an inner recitation of such sentences as “May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with balance and equanimity,” or “May I be balanced and at peace.” In some lineages, the exercise may conclude with a “transfer of merit,” in which we transfer to a person or persons of our choice whatever merit we may have accumulated by doing this practice. Though more abstract than the practices described above, this verbal exercise, repeated daily, can strengthen our sense of balance and emotional well-being.

In Zen teachings, upeksha (equanimity) is known as one of the Four Immeasurable Minds: the “boundless” states of mind that practitioners vow to cultivate. The other three are maitri (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and mudita (sympathetic joy). Equanimity is sometimes regarded as the most important of the four, if not their very foundation. Without equamimity, it can be difficult to practice loving-kindness or compassion or to feel joy in someone else’s happiness. For Thich Nhat Hanh, upkesha also means “inclusiveness” and “non-discrimination”: the capacity to absorb whatever vicissitudes we encounter and to treat all sentient beings with equal regard. All things considered, one could do worse than settle for equanimity.

________

Detailed instructions for equanimity meditation may be found in Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart (Random House, 1993). See also Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion of upeksha and the Four Immeasurable Minds in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Harmony, 1999).

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255. To let or not to let

If you have spent much time in England, you may have noticed signs reading “To Let” in front of houses and office buildings. When, at the age of twenty, I first glimpsed one such sign, it was so unfamiliar to my American eyes that I misread it as “Toilet.” In fact—or “actual fact,” as my British friends were fond of saying—“to let” means “to grant for lease or rent.” In layman’s terms, to let means to allow.

The verb let also figures prominently in meditative practice and in spiritual contexts generally. If you are of a certain age, you may remember the Beatles’ song “Let it Be,” in which “Mother Mary,” speaking “words of wisdom,” advises a troubled Paul McCartney to “let it be.” If you are of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, you may have been enjoined to “Let Go, Let God.” And if you have explored Eastern contemplative practices, it’s more than likely that someone has instructed you to “let go,” without always specifying what is to be released, or how. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once described Zen practice as letting things “go as they go.”

As those who have tried doing so know, “letting go” is far easier said than done. During most of our waking hours, most of us expend enormous energy exerting control, whether we are driving, cooking, piloting a recalcitrant snow blower, or navigating a fraught social interaction. And the mental habit of maintaining control, even when control is unneeded or inappropriate, is not easily abandoned, having been reinforced at every turn.

Fortunately, the Zen tradition offers multiple practices for those who might wish to let things go as they go. In my experience, two specific exercises, one of them practical and the other reflective, have proven especially efficacious. Both foster awareness of the impulse to control, even as they promote the counter-habit of relinquishment. And over time, both can foster insight into our need to manage the future.

In his little book How to Sit, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers an unconventional meditation. “When you sit on your own,” he suggests, “you may like to think of the Buddha as sitting with you.” In this instance, the Buddha is not to be thought of as someone “outside of you.” Rather, he represents the “seeds of mindfulness, peace, and enlightenment” that reside within all of us. “When you invite the Buddha in you to sit, he will sit beautifully right away. You don’t have to do anything.” To support this practice, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to say to ourselves, as we follow our breathing, “Let the Buddha breathe. / Let the Buddha sit.” In this way we set aside our ever-present need to supervise our experience—even when practicing meditation. We literally “let it happen.”

The second exercise is of a more cerebral nature. To explore it, sit in a comfortable, upright posture on a cushion or bench or chair. Take a few minutes to become fully aware of your breathing. With each exhalation, release the tensions in your body. When you have established yourself in the present moment, entertain the question, “What will happen tomorrow?” As possibilities occur to you, focus on one over which you have a modicum of control. You will go grocery shopping; you will do your laundry; you will keep a doctor’s appointment. Note how that scenario feels and how it affects your state of mind. Now explore the opposite. Choose an aspect of the future over which you have little or no control—the course of the pandemic, for example, or a pending diagnosis. Note whatever feelings of fear and uncertainty may arise. And now, as you conclude your meditation, resolve to accept rather than resist, deny, or ignore those feelings, however unwelcome they may be, and to remain open to the flow of life.

In his essay “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield offers this illuminating perspective on our need to know and control:

Underneath all the wanting and grasping . . . is what we have called “the body of fear.” At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable. But we can never know what will happen. With wisdom we allow this not knowing to become a form of trust. . . . In wisdom the body of fear drops away and our heart comes to rest.

Here, as so often in meditative practice, the pivotal action is that of letting go. By so doing, we transform the body of fear into wisdom and the anxiety of uncertainty into a “form of trust.” To let or not to let: that is the question.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Sit (Parallax, 2007), 64.

Jack Kornfield, “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” http://www.jackkornfield.com/the-wisdom-of-not-knowing/

Drawing by Allegra Howard.

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Temperature drops Jens Schott Knudsen ps

When cold, be thoroughly cold, an old Zen saying advises. Glancing at the thermometer this morning, I’m reminded of that ancient saying. When the temperature drops into the teens, I like many others want it to be otherwise. Or I want to be elsewhere. And for all the wisdom it may contain, that old Zen saying can seem both useless and faintly annoying.

Fortunately, “When cold, be thoroughly cold” does not mean what it is sometimes thought to mean. Its source is a classic Zen koan (Blue Cliff Record, Case 43), in which a monk complains of the cold, and the Zen master Tozan Ryokai replies, “Why not go to a place where there is no heat or cold?” Of course, there is no such place. And as the dialogue unfolds, Tozan instructs the monk not to resist the cold but to allow it to “kill” him.

To a Western ear, that may sound like pure stoicism: something Seneca or Epictetus might have said. Having grown up with what is sometimes called Midwestern Stoicism, which induces some of its adherents, particularly hyper-masculine young men, to go out in zero-degree weather without caps or scarves, I am well-acquainted with that attitude. What Tozan is urging, however, is something quite different.

To understand the principle behind Tozan’s advice, it’s helpful to remember that Zen is a late flowering of the Buddhist tradition. Fundamental to that tradition is the wholesale rejection of a belief ubiquitous in Western culture, by which I mean the notion of a separate, autonomous self. In its broader context, this belief underlies Western individualism, which further holds that this separate, autonomous self is to be maintained, nurtured, and defended at all costs. If this mindset sounds familiar, it should: Western individualism, one might say, is more American than apple pie. Some people don’t care for apple pie or avoid it for dietary reasons. But, consciously or unconsciously, nearly everyone I know is a proponent of Western individualism. We admire those whom we perceive as strong and independent. And whatever we’ve done in our lives, we fervently believe, we’ve done it our way.

Individualism has deep roots in European and American culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay “Self-Reliance” (1840), a locus classicus of Western individualism, has inspired subsequent generations to make their own way, do their own things, and “be all [they] can be.” Trust thyself,” wrote Emerson. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Implicit in Emerson’s exhortation is a concept of the self as a separate, solid entity, which we own, operate, and—as best we can—control. From infancy we are conditioned by this view, and it is firmly embedded in our language. “It’s your funeral,” my mother used to say, having failed to dissuade me from some unwise course of action. At this point, even my own mother perceived herself and her teen-aged son as distinctly separate, independent beings. And just as the self is conceived of as separate from others, it is also seen as separate from the natural world—the primal source of heat and cold.

In one important way, Zen teachings concur with our Western outlook. Atta dipa . . . atta sirana, ananna sirana, Rinzai Zen disciples chant in their morning service:“You are the light. Rely on yourself. Do not rely on others.” Congruent with this chant, Zen teachings admonish practitioners to realize their “suchness”: their uniqueness (or “Dharma position”) as manifest in any given moment. Ichigo ichie (“one time, one meeting”), a cardinal slogan of Zen practice, echoes that affirmation. Just as the present moment is unprecedented and unrepeatable and therefore to be met with wholehearted attention, so is our own unique presence in that moment. “Bowing to the moment,” we also bow to our unprecedented, unrepeatable selves.

Yet despite this common ground, the concept of self implied or stated in classical Zen teachings differs radically from that of Western individualism. Yes, the self exists, Zen teachings tell us, but it is impermanent, interconnected with others, and interdependent with everyone and everything else, including the natural world. In urging the monk to be thoroughly cold when it’s cold, Tozan is enjoining him to acknowledge that reality. And in instructing him to let the cold “kill” him, he is importuning the monk to set aside both his personal preferences and his relative, dualistic concepts of hot and cold. He is urging him, in other words, to experience and become intimate with the world as it actually is.

That is a difficult teaching. For many, the challenge it poses may be insurmountable. But if inner peace as well as peace on earth is what we seek during this holiday season, we could do worse than entertain this problematic teaching.  Remembering it as we step outdoors, we might inquire what place, if any, Tozan’s advice might occupy in our contemporary Western lives. 

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Photo: Temperature Drops. Jens Schott Knudsen. Courtesy Creative Commons.

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Bowing in gratitude

However much we may differ in other ways, nearly all of us share one common trait. We all have bad habits. And for those of us who are married, one of the chief functions of a spouse, it often seems, is to point them out.

My personal repertoire of unfortunate habits includes leaving cupboard doors open in our rather small kitchen. After opening one to fetch a plate or bowl, I sometimes neglect to close it. So it was the other day, when I banged my knee on a lower cupboard door, and my wife kindly noted that if I stopped leaving cupboard doors open, I might also stop banging my knees, or my head, as the case may be. Perhaps after a day of nursing a sore knee, I have finally got the message and will make an effort to mend my ways.

Such efforts can sometimes be successful, at least where behavior is concerned. Far more difficult, I have found, is any attempt to change one’s habitual attitudes. By their very nature, habitual attitudes are resistant to change. Driven by what Buddhism calls “habit energy,” they bear a force as powerful as tornadoes and no less capable of causing serious damage. As with habitual behavior, each time we voice or demonstrate a particular attitude, be it kindness or hostility, reverence or derision, we reinforce that habitual attitude and the energy behind it, making it all the more difficult to change.

One such attitude is that of habitual complaint, which seems close to universal. Is there anyone among us who can emulate the example of Sono, the woman in an old Zen story who ended each day by saying, “Thanks for everything. No complaints whatsoever”? For one thing, the habit of complaint has probably been with us from the cradle. And for another, we have plenty of things to legitimately complain about—the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuels, for example, or the polarization of our polity, or, not least, the dramatic rise of toxic noise pollution in American life. But all that said, the habit of complaint, as distinguished from the justified choice to complain, is one we might well prefer to eliminate, for others’ sake as well as our own.

Unfortunately, if there is one thing that recent research on habits, as reported in such books as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2020), has determined, it’s that few if any of our deeply ingrained habits can be entirely expunged, as if they were ugly stains in a carpet. Yes, we can become aware of our habits, as Zen teachings describe, through the practice of mindfulness, and thereby gain a modicum of control. But, as Duhigg convincingly explains, the most effective way to change a habit, behavioral or mental, is first to become aware of it, and, second, to consciously replace that habit with another.

With respect to the habit of complaint, the prime candidate for such replacement is the habit of gratitude. As the Zen teacher John Daido Loori once pointed out, it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time. Likewise, the attitudes of grievance and thankfulness are largely incompatible. In contemporary American life, it’s fair to say, the presence of the former threatens to overwhelm the latter. Many of us expend far more energy complaining than we do expressing gratitude. But the restoration of a proper balance between complaint and gratitude, at both the personal and societal levels, will probably not happen all by itself. It will take concerted effort. And giving thanks once a year—or even once a week—or noting our good fortune from time to time will probably not suffice.

What is needed is an active, regular practice. Bowing every day in gratitude, as Loori recommends, is one such practice. Making a daily list, as others have suggested, of those things for which one is—or might be—grateful is another. Having recently adopted that practice myself, I can attest to its efficacy. Indeed, having made it one of my daily rituals, I have been surprised by the number of things I have to be grateful for. The list, it would seem, is endless.

Whatever practice one chooses, however, the important thing is not so much the means as the ultimate aim: the habitual attitude being created, cultivated, and integrated into one’s everyday life. It is all very well to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year or to count our blessings at periodic intervals. But with disciplined daily practice, the habit of gratitude can become more than a matter of lip service or pious self-congratulation. It can become an authentic way of being: the governing principle behind our every action and the lens through which we view our troubled world.

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Photo: A two-year-old recovered coronavirus patient bowing to a nurse outside a hospital in East China.

 

 

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