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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.

The first known reference to Indra’s Net appears in the Vedic literature, specifically the Athvara Veda (c.1000 B.C.E.). In the Buddhist tradition, the metaphor is closely associated with the Avatamsaka (“Flower Garland”) Sutra, where, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, “it is used to illustrate the infinite variety of interactions and intersections of all things.” According to the mythological narrative in which the metaphor appears, the Vedic deity Indra, King of the Gods, created a cosmic net that extends indefinitely in all directions. At each juncture of the net, there is a clear, many-faceted jewel, which reflects all of the other jewels. Because the net is infinite, this relationship is repeated over and over throughout the cosmos. Everything is connected.

In her Invitation to Gather in Remembrance, the Reverend DeMott related the figure of Indra’s Net to the life of Bonnie Booman, who, she noted, had “lived that metaphor.” A week before Bonnie died, DeMott invited her to describe her life and to reflect on what had been most important to her. She replied with a single word: connections. As an art teacher with twenty-two years of service at Alfred-Almond Central School, she forged meaningful connections with her students, nurturing their self-assurance and helping them develop their individual abilities. And in her personal life, she gave primacy to the web of relationships that included her friends, her family, her students, and the wider community. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster famously advised, in the epigraph to his novel Howards End. Throughout her adult life, in her professional, social, and family relationships, Bonnie endeavored to realize that humane imperative.

Indra’s Net is in part metaphor for such connections, but at a broader level, it is also an emblem of the interdependence of all phenomena. Stephen Mitchell has described Indra’s Net as a “profound and subtle metaphor for the nature of reality.” And, as Francis Cook observes in Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, the metaphor conjures a universe in which “each individual is at once the cause for the whole and is caused by the whole, and what is called existence is a vast body made up of an infinity of individuals all sustaining each other and defining each other.” In the language of Zen, this principle of interdependence is known as “dependent origination,” and it is summarized in the sentence, “This is, because that is.” Nothing, this principle holds, arises from nothing. What our individualistic Western culture conventionally calls the self and views as a solid, fixed, and separate entity is in reality a manifestation of ever-changing causes and conditions. Everything depends on everything else.

Beyond the realities of interconnectedness and interdependence, Indra’s Net is also a metaphor for the selfless nature of all conditioned things, be they plants or animals, rivers or human beings. In Mahayana Buddhist teachings, this quality is known as “emptiness,” a common translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata. One of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhist thought, “emptiness” does not refer to a cosmic void, nor does it deny the existence of the self. Rather, it views the so-called self as made up of non-self elements. In the case of a tree, those elements include sunlight, soil, and water, without which the tree could not exist. With respect to a human self, they include all of our relationships, without which we would have no identity. What the self is “empty of” is an intrinsic, static, and separate existence. What it consists of is its dynamic relationships with everything that is not itself, including its ancestors, family, society, and natural environment.

No one understood this reality more clearly than Bonnie Booman, who devoted her energies to nurturing the web of relationships in which she lived. “If we could look into the jewel that was Bonnie,” DeMott remarked in her eulogy, “we would see the reflections of all your faces, because she believed that it is you who made her who she was.” In our contemporary, self-aggrandizing culture, such a belief is no longer widely held, nor does it govern our national life, but its very rarity makes it all the more valuable. Embodied vividly in the figure of Indra’s Net, it defined the life of Bonnie Booman, and it also comports with the way things actually are.

The Reverend Laurie DeMott is Minister of the Union University Church in Alfred, New York and Interfaith Advisor at Alfred University.

“[I]t is used to illustrate . . .”: Thich Nhat Hanh, Cultivating the Mind of Love (Parallax, 1996), 81.

Stephen Mitchell has described: Stephen Mitchell, ed., The Enlightened Mind (Harper, 1991), 41.

And, as Francis Cook observes: Francis H. Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 3.

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“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. (more…)

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“Everything we have is disposable,” lamented Brian Milo, a former autoworker at the G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in an interview with Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times (July 5, 2019). “Everything is made cheap and disposable. And I think that trickles down into our daily lives. I mean, you see marriage success rates are down. Things are disposable, even on a human level. I mean, I’m an employee, I’m disposable.” Milo lost his livelihood when sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the principal product of the Lordstown plant, fell precipitously, and G.M. eliminated 5,000 jobs. Adding insult to financial injury, the company notified its workers of their termination through impersonal, unsigned letters. Milo had been a loyal employee for ten years. What caused him to feel disposable was not only G.M.’s decision but the manner in which it was handled. Conspicuously absent was a quality essential to harmonious human relations. (more…)

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Charlotte Joko Beck

In the popular imagination, Zen practice consists of sitting cross-legged, preferably on a mountain or within the confines of a monastery, in a state of perfect calm. His hands positioned in the “cosmic mudra” and a beatific smile on his face, the Zen Buddhist practitioner sits at a comfortable remove from the petty conflicts and mundane concerns of ordinary life. In a word, he is detached. He has transcended the human fray.

This stereotypical image of Buddhist practice has widespread currency, even among the intellectual elite. A recent manifestation may be found in the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019), where the author defines the general aim of Buddhism as “a detachment from everything that is finite.” Reviewing this book in The New Yorker (May 13, 2019), staff writer James Wood endorses Hägglund’s view, alluding vaguely to “those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment.” “Everything that is finite,” one might note, is a very large category. Not only does it include buildings and boulevards, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees. It also includes one’s family, friends, and loved ones generally. Why on earth would anyone wish to be so detached? If that is what Zen is about, one might conclude, so much the worse for Zen. (more…)

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The poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) hated being old. In his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written when Yeats was in his early sixties, he described an “aged man” as “but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .” And in “The Tower,” a poem of the same vintage, he likened the “absurdity” of “decrepit age” to a battered kettle tied to a dog’s tail. Invoking the traditional duality of body and soul, Yeats contrasted his “passionate, fantastical / Imagination” with the humiliations of physical decline. By common consent, Yeats’s late poems are among his finest, but the agon they so memorably dramatize is that of an aging artist resisting with all his imaginative might those inevitable changes that happen to us all.

Zen teachings also address those changes, but they offer a very different perspective. Nowhere is that perspective more concretely articulated or more forcefully asserted than in the litany of home truths known as the Five Remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation: (more…)

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Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

“It’s so not like that.”

Such was the response of Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, to a comment I’d made a moment earlier. At the time, we were midway through a private interview—one of the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that are a staple of Zen training. It was the third day of an extended retreat at the Zen Center of Syracuse, and I was one of more than thirty practitioners in attendance. In keeping with Zen custom, Shinge Roshi, then in her sixties, was giving dokusan, as it is called, to each of us in succession. She was also overseeing the retreat, conducting formal services, and offering erudite talks on Zen topics. Remembering my own experience as an academic advisor, in which I sometimes met with six or more students in a two-hour period, I remarked that she must be tired, if not exhausted. “It’s so not like that,” she replied, going on to explain that she loved what she was doing, and, far from exhausting her, the work replenished her reserves.

In her conspicuous resilience, as in her seemingly limitless energy, Shinge Roshi exemplified a quality of heart and mind essential to Zen practice. At once a precondition and a benefit of long-term practice, that quality is known in Zen circles as virya paramita, the fourth of the Six Perfections of Wisdom. Virya paramita is commonly translated as “energy” or “effort,” but the full meaning of this Sanskrit term is more nuanced than those conventional translations might imply. The multidimensional nature of virya can be seen in the contrasting perspectives of three influential Zen teachers of our time. Each gives the word and its referent a distinctively different coloration. (more…)

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800px-Sweden._Doll_02One afternoon not long ago, my five-year-old granddaughter taught the basics of sitting meditation to her red-haired doll, Pippi Longstocking. Being a rag doll, Pippi is not very good at sitting upright, so after repeated attempts, Allegra allowed her to lie down. “I know you can do this,” she explained to Pippi, “but since this is your first day, I want you to be a little comfortable with what it feels like instead of what it looks like.” With Pippi lying flat on her back, Allegra proceeded with her lesson. “You just have to listen to your breathing,” she advised.

If you are familiar with the stories of Pippi Longstocking, you might agree that Astrid Lindgren’s rambunctious nine-year-old heroine, who is physically strong but conspicuously lacking in tact, could use a bit of meditation in her life. But in addition to teaching Pippi how to meditate, Allegra was also demonstrating by example a quality much prized in the Zen tradition. Known by its Sanskrit name of kshanti paramita (pron. kuh-SHAWN-ti pear-uh-ME-tuh), it is the Third Perfection of Wisdom to which serious Zen practitioners aspire. At once conceptually complex and emotionally challenging, it comprises three principal dimensions, each of them integral to the whole. (more…)

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