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Inner weather

                                       That day she put our heads together,

                                       Fate had her imagination about her,

                                       Your head so much concerned with outer,

                                       Mine with inner, weather.

                                                 — Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”

If you pay attention to your inner life, you may have noticed how your experience of the world around you conditions your states of mind. Sitting with friends on a summer afternoon, you feel happy and relaxed. Watching the evening news, you feel tense and depressed. What may have escaped your notice, however, is the degree to which your mental states condition your experience of the world. “I feel different now,” my granddaughter remarked, having fallen and broken a front tooth, “and the world feels different, too.” In ways less dramatic and often less apparent, that is true for us grown-ups as well.

In Buddhist psychology, the part of our makeup that causes us to feel one way or another is known as a “mental formation.” According to traditional Buddhist teachings, the so-called self consists of five components, known as “form” (physical body), “feelings” (sensations), “thought” (perceptions), “mental formations,” and “consciousness.” Like the other components, mental formations are constantly in flux. They pass through our minds like changing weather. But while a particular mental formation is present, it mediates between our raw sensory impressions and our awareness of the world.  It influences and may determine how we think, speak, and act. If, for example, the mental formation craving is present, we are likely to grasp, or try to grasp, the manifold things we encounter. By contrast, if the formation mindfulness is present, we are likely to see those objects clearly and allow them to remain as they are.

Mental formations might be likened to filters, through which we screen the evidence of our senses. At any given moment, what we call the world is in reality an immediate sensory impression—the bark of a dog, the smell of gas, a roseate evening sky—perceived through the medium of whatever mental formation might be present. In a microsecond, what began as a pure impression becomes a complex of thought and feeling, as we superimpose on that impression our personal and cultural memories, our moral concepts, and our fixed opinions. Together this multilayered amalgam becomes what we call our experience.

As Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck notes in her essay “Experiencing and Behavior,” we cannot feel another person’s experience. However intuitive, empathic, or skillful we may be, and however many miles we may have walked in that person’s moccasins, we can only observe, judge, and have an opinion about his or her behavior. “If we think,” Beck remarks,” ‘she shouldn’t be so arrogant,’ we only see her behavior and judge it, because we have no awareness of what is true for her (her experiencing, her bodily sensation of fear). We slip into personal opinions about her arrogance.”

And as with others, so with ourselves. “Know thyself,” the ancient Greeks advised. But often enough, our fund of self-knowledge consists mainly of our ideas about ourselves (“I’m a morning person”; “I’m a hoarder”; “I’m a survivor”).  Sometimes those ideas correspond to empirical reality, but quite often they do not. However real they may seem or feel, they may be far from true. And even when they contain some modicum of truth, they are usually based on a notion of the self as a fixed entity, impervious to shifting causes and conditions. To the degree that we identify with such ideas or believe what they are telling us, we separate ourselves from our actual felt experience. We become self-observers, whose observations may be wise or foolish, accurate or wide of the mark.

If we wish to counter that common tendency, we can stop and become aware of whatever mental formation might be present. We can permit it to be what it is for as long as it lasts. At the same time, we can look more deeply into its origins—the personal, familial, and cultural causes and conditions that have brought it into being. We can discern whether, in the language of Zen, it is a “wholesome” mental formation, such as loving-kindness or compassion, or an “unwholesome” formation, such as greed, aversion, or delusion. If it is the former, we can resolve to cultivate it at a later time. If it is the latter, we can endeavor to let it go. Empowered with the understanding that, in large part, our mental formations create the world we live in, and that we can choose which formations to embrace, we need no longer be governed by the most destructive among them. And should we take a hard fall, we can learn to accept rather than resist our changing inner weather.

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A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion.

Impermanence

Impermanence is a fact of life. Even the most cursory observation of the world around us is enough to confirm that all conditioned things are subject to change, including those we most cherish. Likewise that world of thought and feeling known as the inner life. It, too, is subject to what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Yet, despite this general recognition, expressed in such common adages as “all things change” or “this, too, will pass,”’ one important aspect of the law of impermanence often goes unheeded.

That aspect is the continuous, moment-by-moment nature of change and transformation. It is one thing to stop from time to time and note how an object of attention has altered—how, for example, the faces of our children and grandchildren have defined themselves, or how their minds have matured. It is quite another to recognize and continuously acknowledge that, as Zen teachings put it, every moment is a birth and a death. Toward that end, a silent, continuously moving second hand is both a useful instrument and a stern reminder. It dispels false notions of permanence and banishes illusions of control.  And, like the evening prayer posted in Zen monasteries, it implores us not to squander our lives.

Yardsticks

In his book Living by Vow, the Soto Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura observes that most of us apply our personal yardsticks to our experience. We impose human metrics upon the fluid, boundless realities we encounter. In the same way that an ordinary ticking clock calibrates the time it is telling—one pulse, one tick per second—we, too, impose our fixed standards upon the flux of experience. By circling the perimeter of a clock face, not stopping to mark each unit of time, an incessantly moving second hand reminds us that the twelve established numbers and the sixty second-marks of the clock face are imposed, conventional measures. Beyond their artifice lies the reality: the unmeasured, uninterrupted flow of time.

This is an important reminder, not least because it mimics the way in which our conditioned expectations, habitual judgments, and self-centered thoughts govern our perceptions of the world. As Shohaku Okumura remarks, we cannot discard our yardsticks. We need them to navigate the world, and they are all we have. But with practice and awareness we can come to see their limitations, and we can let them go. And “when we live in this way,” Okumura notes, “without attachment to objects or to our conditioned way of viewing and judging things, the lotus flower can bloom in our lives.”

The Present Moment

For centuries, Zen teachings have admonished us to return to the present moment. To practice Zen, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh asserts, is to be “present for the present moment.”

Yet, as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, observes in his Genjokoan, the so-called present moment is no more than a “geometrical line” that separates the past and the future.  That line has no width, length, or intrinsic existence. It is not a unit of time. A silent second hand, coursing rapidly and relentlessly past the second marks, vividly represents that reality.  But, as Okumura notes in his book Realizing Genjokoan, “reality unfolds only within this present moment.” If we truly wish to be present for our unfolding lives, we must endeavor to be present for that ungraspable moment. Such is the aim, the challenge, and the ultimate reward of Zen practice.

___________

 Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 128.

Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan (Wisdom, 2010), 120.

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Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in the Dental Needs aisle of your local supermarket, shopping for floss. Fifty varieties, in bright, colorful packages, tempt you with their charms. Your options include Top Care Reach, Oral-B Glide, Listerine Cool Mint, Oral-B Essential, Listerine Gentle Gum Care Woven, and, not least, Tom’s of Maine Natural Anti-plaque Floss. You don’t have all day; you must choose. How will you do so? And of your many mental faculties, which will you employ? (more…)

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smith-corona-psTwelve years ago, my son gave me a vintage manual typewriter for my birthday. Black, sleek, and compact, it was manufactured in the 1930s by L.C. Smith and Corona Typewriters, Inc., of Syracuse, New York. All of its forty-seven keys are still intact, including its Shift Key, Shift Lock, Back Space, and Margin Release. Fitted out with a new black ribbon, it can still produce a faint but legible line: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Although I have never used this machine, it occupies a place of honor in my study, a symbol of my vocation and a reminder of family continuity and change. Half a century ago, I wrote my doctoral exams and my doctoral dissertation on my late father’s Royal Empress typewriter. Two decades later, when my son was soon to enter high school, I presented him with my own IBM Selectric, which even then was becoming obsolete. All too soon, that nimble machine gave way to his first personal computer. He is now a journalist by profession and does much of his work on a laptop or mobile device.

My Corona Standard is what Zen teachings call a composite thing. It consists of a multitude of moving parts, nearly all of them visible to the naked eye. Lifting its cover, I can inspect its type bars, type heads, springs, and twin ribbon spools. Turning it over, I can examine its gears, rods, cords, escapement, and walnut-sized bell. Equipped with the appropriate skills and tools, I could dismantle the entire mechanism, part by part. And at some point in the process, this complex, functioning machine would no longer be recognizable or identifiable as a typewriter, a term of convenience for a configuration of component parts. It would be revealed as the temporary aggregate it always was. (more…)

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185. Wisdom and a good heart

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Like the words freedom, justice, and virtue, the word enlightenment can mean quite different things to different people. As a proper noun, the word denotes a specific period in Western intellectual history: the so-called Age of Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. As a common noun, however, enlightenment can refer to experiences as diverse as a religious conversion, an intellectual discovery, or, more casually, a shift of perspective occasioned by an influx of fresh information. We can be enlightened by a lecture on astrophysics, a new history of the American Civil War, a Nova program on monkeys or spiders.

In the American Zen community, the term enlightenment is heard only rarely. By and large, contemporary Zen teachers prefer to speak of “awakening.” But when the word does arise, its meaning varies according to the teacher’s training and affiliation. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, enlightenment refers specifically to kensho (or satori): a sudden, direct experience of absolute reality. This transcendent experience is viewed as an aim attainable—if it all—only after a period of dedicated practice. By contrast, in the Soto Zen tradition, enlightenment is neither a distant goal nor a possession of the spiritually advanced. From the Soto perspective, formal seated meditation (zazen), with due attention to posture, breath, and the practice of “opening the hand of thought,” is itself an expression of enlightenment. It is an experience available to any serious practitioner. (more…)

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return_to_innocence-2

“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest. (more…)

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408px-representation_of_laozi“Do your work,” wrote Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “then step back—the only path to peacefulness.” Sage advice in itself, this admonition also points toward two complementary practices in the Zen tradition. Undertaken individually, these practices can deepen and illuminate our everyday lives. Undertaken together, they can promote a wholesome balance of action and insight, engagement and contemplative awareness, enabling us to live more wisely. (more…)

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