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“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others.

Perhaps the most severe of those perspectives is that of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), former abbot of the San Diego Zen Center. Generally speaking, Zen teachings enjoin us to attend to our immediate experience and to look deeply into the present moment. Whatever distracts us from those objectives, be it daydreams or idle speculation, is to be set aside. It is in that context that Beck, in her essay “No Hope,” counsels us to abandon vain hopes for a life other than the one we are presently living. “All hope,” she declares, “is about sizing up the past and projecting it into the future.” That habit of mind leads us to ignore and devalue the “wonder” of our present, everyday lives. “A life lived with no hope,” she asserts, “is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life,” even at its end. For Beck, this outlook appears to have sufficed. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, Joko Beck’s last words, uttered at the point of death, were, “This, too, is wondrous!”

A more temperate view of hope may be found in the teachings of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “We all know,” he writes, “that hope is necessary for life.” At the same time, “according to Buddhism, hope can be an obstacle.” It can divert our energies into self-indulgent fantasies of a better future. It can cloud our perceptions of present realities. “The essential teaching of Buddhism,” he notes, “is to be free of all desire for the future in order to come back with all our heart and mind into the present.” By so doing, we can gain “the deep understanding which can release us from suffering and darkness.” Hope need not be abandoned, but neither should it be allowed to obstruct our vision.

A third general perspective, which Thich Nhat Hanh elsewhere articulates, is embodied in the phrase “the thought of enlightenment,” a thought that committed Buddhist practitioners are encouraged always to keep in mind. By entertaining the thought of enlightenment, the practitioner consciously aspires to become a bodhisattva, or fully awakened human being. In Buddhist teachings, the bodhisattva is an archetype of altruism and selfless service to others. One becomes a bodhisattva by actively cultivating the paramitas, or “Perfections of Wisdom” (generosity, virtue, patience, wholeheartedness, meditation, and wisdom), chiefly through the practice of meditation. Although this aspiration, like all aspirations, focuses on the future, it is consistent with Buddhist practice in general and Zen practice in particular, insofar as one’s hope for enlightenment is grounded in a full awareness of actual conditions and supported by disciplined practice.

As may be inferred from these differing perspectives, the issue of hope in Zen teachings remains unsettled. Likewise the question of what the “right” objects of hope might or might not be. But perhaps a rough guide may be discerned in the word “right” itself, which appears frequently in Buddhist teachings and carries a specialized meaning. To speak of “right view,” “right effort,” and “right speech,” as foundational Buddhist teachings do, is not to promote a dogma or endorse an orthodoxy. Rather, it is to distinguish those things that are grounded in reality from those that are not. “Right view” is a view aligned with things as they are. “Right speech” is honest and true. In this sense, to hope for the “right” things is to hope for outcomes that are possible and even probable, given present circumstances and conditions. And what, we might reasonably inquire, is wrong with that?

________

Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperCollins, 1989), 66-70.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 35.

Photo by Magnus Manske.

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Bill Bryson

Of the many American brand names that have infiltrated the English language—kleenex, aspirin, q-tips, to name a few—none has enjoyed greater success than the word Kodak. Properly capitalized, Kodak originated as the trade name of an inexpensive camera invented by George Eastman of Rochester, New York. As Eastman’s revolutionary invention burgeoned in popularity, kodak became a common noun and a generic term for camera. Yet, for all its eventual currency, Kodak had the least auspicious of origins. The word was coined by Eastman and his mother in 1888 with the aid of an anagram set and three guiding principles. First, the word had to be short. Second, it had to be easily pronounced. And third, it should not resemble any other word or be associated with anything other than the Eastman family business. Kodak, in other words, was conjured out of thin air and meant precisely nothing. (more…)

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If you enjoy cooking, as I do, and if you devote much time to that activity, you probably play favorites. You have your favorite recipes and your favorite ingredients. High in my own hierarchy would be certain meats (chicken,  pork tenderloin), fish (haddock, cod, sole), vegetables (yams, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli), and seasonings (turmeric, coriander, ginger, fenugreek). Much lower on the ladder would be salt, processed meats, and sugar (New York State maple syrup excepted). Beyond these personal preferences, there is the relative cost of any one ingredient. Fresh sea scallops at $19.99 / lb., it’s fair to say, receive greater respect than a common parsnip or humble clove of garlic.

Nothing unusual there, you might conclude, especially for an amateur chef aiming to create simple, frugal, and nutritious meals for his family and friends. But in a classic text of the Soto Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun; 1237), the founder of that tradition challenges the assumptions and the value system such conventional thinking represents. “When making a soup with ordinary greens,” Dogen advises, “do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. . . . Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain . . . Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality.”

As might be surmised from the last of those admonitions, Dogen has more than cooking in mind. The Tenzo Kyōkun is in part a practical manual for the head cook, or tenzo, of a Japanese Zen monastery. But in its broader, metaphoric dimension, it is also a guide for living, in which a medieval Zen master advocates a general attitude toward the conduct of everyday life. That attitude has multiple aspects, but three in particular stand out. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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? (more…)

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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. (more…)

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