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In his book The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019) the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi makes an arresting remark, as notable for its subtlety as for its bold assertion. “When I am sick at a retreat,” he writes, “I don’t try to perform as if I weren’t sick . . . I try not to waste time wishing for another condition. I just live within the condition I have.” (My italics)

Norman Fischer is a poet as well as a longtime Zen practitioner. He chooses his words with care. Had he written with rather than within—“I just live with my condition”—his statement would have been unremarkable, even banal. But instead he wrote within, a word that means, among other things, “in the interior of.” And between those two prepositions, so common in speech and prose but so wide-ranging in their implications, there is a significant and telling difference.

“Just live with it,” we are sometimes advised, when we have complained for the hundredth time about some misfortune that has befallen us. “Suck it up.” Uttered often in a tone of exhausted patience, those dismissals imply a common way of coping: a stoic resignation, accompanied often by covert resistance and unexpressed resentment. Even as we are living with our present condition, we are fervently wishing for another.

To live within one’s condition is to take another tack entirely. Zen teachings sometimes refer to the Eight Vicissitudes, those changes in external conditions that may occur over a lifetime and profoundly affect our inner lives. The Eight Vicissitudes are gain and loss, fame and obscurity (or infamy), praise and blame, and happiness and sorrow. To that list we might add health and illness, and, for good measure, the unwelcome changes attendant to aging. We can choose to “live with” the negative aspects of those changes, in the ways described above. But we can also elect to live within them, an attitude and mode of being that entails three essential components.

The first is full recognition. Having incurred a setback, be it physical, emotional, or financial, we may be tempted to kid ourselves: to deny, minimize, or otherwise misrepresent its true nature to ourselves. But if we are to live within our changed condition, we have first to acknowledge it, fully and accurately. That may require us, on the one hand, to gather reliable objective information, while filtering out myth and misleading opinion. On the other hand, we will need to pay due attention to subjective data: to what has occurred and is occurring in our bodies, hearts, and minds. Balancing fact and feeling, we can endeavor to assess and understand our present condition, not as an abstract concept but as a present reality, clearly perceived and duly recognized.

The second imperative is adaptation. Within, we may recall, can also mean “inside the limits of.” And to adapt to a new condition is in part to adjust to the limits and constraints it has newly imposed. Fischer speaks of “scaling down” and, more evocatively, of “modulating” his activities to accommodate his altered condition. To modulate one’s voice is to adapt its amplitude, tone, and intensity to suit the present occasion. In the context of music, to modulate is to change the key. Analogously, we can live within our present condition by modifying our activities to suit our present circumstances. Or we can find, as it were, a new key in which to sing our familiar songs.

Third and last, to live within a condition is wholly to inhabit it. Within, in yet another definition of the word¸ means “the inner part.” And fully to live within a condition is to plumb its inmost being, to become intimate with its essential nature. In a well-known Zen koan, Zen Master Tōzan Ryōkai (807-869) advises a monk, when hot, to be “thoroughly hot,” and when cold, to be “cold through and through.” In his personal variation on that traditional theme, Fischer speaks of “being sick completely” when so afflicted. Although this attitude may sound like capitulation, it is actually its antithesis: a courageous resolve to live, openly and fully and to the best of one’s ability, within a condition that one has neither wanted nor freely chosen.

Fischer’s words were written several years ago, before the pandemic shook the foundations of our world. But the principle he articulates and the guidance he offers remain relevant, practical, and eminently humane. At no time has it been more important to fully recognize and realistically adapt to existing conditions and to live within them as best we can. By so doing we can not only meet the challenges we are facing without loss to our common humanity. We can also respect and protect ourselves and everyone around us.

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Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 122.

 

 

 

 

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W.S. Merwin
1927-2019

Every morning, shortly after rising, I brew a pot of Japanese green tea. For this purpose I use one of my Japanese-made kyusus: small ceramic teapots with hollow side handles and interior mesh filters. The latter feature allows tea leaves to float freely while brewing, enhancing the flavor of the tea.

On most mornings I drink one of three types of Japanese green tea. Gyokuro, whose name means “jeweled dew,” is grown in the shade, is brewed for two minutes at a relatively low temperature (140-158F), and has a sweet and markedly mellow flavor. Sencha, a standard “daily” tea in its country of origin, is more bracing and astringent. Fukamushi, a variety of steamed tea, contains finer particles, is brewed for only 40-50 seconds at around 165F, and has (in my experience) the greatest depth of flavor. All of these teas come directly from a family-owned farm in Uji, near Kyoto, a region famous for producing superlative teas. And like green teas generally, all are at once stimulating and relaxing. In the winter months, while slowly sipping tea, I look out on our dark or moonlit yard. In the summer, when the sun is either up or coming up, I often see deer, or a skunk rooting for grubs, or, more rarely, a grey fox. The birds arrive a bit later. (more…)

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Louis MacNeice
1907-1963

In November, 1936, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice composed “The Sunlight on the Garden,” a lyric poem of surpassing power and beauty. A meditation on impermanence, uncertainty, and loss, the poem is also a luminous celebration of the here and now. Integrating a prophetic awareness of historical forces with a profound appreciation of the present moment, the poem also reconciles two disparate poetic traditions and an Anglo-Irish poet’s own divided loyalties.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

 

THE SUNLIGHT ON THE GARDEN

 

The sunlight on the garden

Hardens and grows cold,

We cannot cage the minute

Within its nets of gold,

When all is told,

We cannot beg for pardon.

 

Our freedom as free lances

Advances toward its end;

The earth compels, upon it

Sonnets and birds descend;

And soon, my friend,

We shall have no time for dances.

 

The sky was good for flying

Defying the church bells

And every evil iron

Siren and what it tells:

The earth compels,

We are dying, Egypt, dying

 

And not expecting pardon,

Hardened in heart anew,

But glad to have sat under

Thunder and rain with you,

And grateful too

For sunlight on the garden.

 

Although this poem, like most love-lyrics, is cast as a direct address, and its tone is intimate and conversational, its historical context is as relevant as the personal. Six months earlier, civil war had broken out in Spain. Pitting Republicans against Nationalists, communists against fascists, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was seen by many Europeans at the time as a harbinger of a second World War. Born in 1907, MacNeice well understood what war and its constraints would mean for art, culture, and individual freedoms. High-flown sonnets would become a luxury. Secular hedonism would give way to austerity and self-sacrifice. And the familiar sound of parish church bells (MacNeice grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, the son of an Anglican bishop) would be drowned out by klaxons warning of incoming air raids. In the vision projected by MacNeice’s poem, these future changes appear both imminent and inevitable.

Yet against the thunderclouds of impending war, MacNeice introduces the countervailing image of sunlight on the garden. At the time of writing, MacNeice was living in a “garden flat” in London. Facing south, its main rooms looked out on a garden, where sunlight filtered through sycamore trees, creating “nets of gold.” Ever the realist, MacNeice depicts those nets as “hardening” and growing cold in the mid-November air. But the extended metaphor of light, in the context of a prevailing darkness, creates the central thematic tension in the poem.

That tension mirrors the times in which MacNeice was living, but it also reflects the poet’s personal circumstances and his complex state of mind. In November, 1935, MacNeice’s first wife left him for another man. A year later—and five days after his divorce was finalized—MacNeice wrote the poem at hand. Although he had initially felt angry and betrayed, the feelings he expresses here are primarily those of acceptance, gratitude, and generosity. He addresses his former wife as “my friend.” And rather than bitterly mourn the impermanence of their relationship, he honors it, fondly remembering their hours together. In quoting a famous line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (IV, xv, 41), spoken by Marc Antony as he is dying in the Queen of Egypt’s arms, the poem invokes the tragic-romantic ambience of that scene. But in its present context the quoted line bears less on MacNeice’s failed marriage than on the historical moment that he and his former wife are both enduring, albeit apart. Neither should expect “pardon” from the punishing days ahead.

The spirit of reconciliation evident in the thematic content of MacNeice’s poem is also embodied in its form. In its symmetries and balances, its iambic rhythms and expressive concision, the poem lies squarely within the English lyric tradition, particularly the “Metaphysical” poetry of the early seventeenth century. However modern in idiom, it is continuous with the love poems of John Donne. At the same time, the poem’s dense, intricate, and song-like quality reflects the influence of Old Irish verse. That quality is heightened by MacNeice’s use of “aicill” or internal rhyme, a distinctive feature of Irish Bardic poetry. In MacNeice’s twentieth-century poem, as in medieval Irish verse, the end word of one line rhymes with the initial word of the next (garden/hardens; lances/advances, etc.), imparting a musical, “inwrought” feel to the poem’s aural texture. However subtly or obliquely, this artful interweaving of the cultural traditions of two recently warring nations expresses a tacit call for solidarity and a sense of common cause. Whatever our troubled history, the poet seems to be saying, to his former wife and to the world, we now face a threat larger than ourselves, and we’re in this together. In its masterly synthesis of Irish and English formal elements, the form of his poem is saying much the same.


Louis MacNeice, “The Sunlight on the Garden,” Collected Poems (Faber, 1966), 84-85.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shundo Aoyama Roshi

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question. “How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

Paradoxical and enigmatic, this statement alludes to a classic Zen koan: Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves. Zen koans—those ancient Chinese anecdotes, dialogues, and apothegms that Zen students are assigned to memorize and contemplate—often pose logic-defying questions (“What was your original face before your parents were born?”). By internalizing the question and living with it for a time, the student awakens intuitive insight. In this instance, however, the main point of interest is not the question but the master’s answer. What might it mean, we might inquire, to walk straight by winding along? (more…)

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In a recent article for the New York Times (April 14), Jim Dwyer reported that the doctors and health-care workers at the front lines of the corona-virus pandemic are facing challenges not only to their health and safety but also to their previous medical knowledge. “What we thought we knew, we didn’t know,” said Dr. Nile Cemalovic, an intensive-care physician at Lincoln Memorial Center in the Bronx. As Dwyer explains, “certain ironclad emergency medical practices have dissolved almost overnight.”

By any standard, the circumstances under which doctors and health-care workers are currently laboring are extraordinary. At the same time, the experience of finding one’s knowledge obsolete or no longer useful is not unique to the present crisis. “Our knowledge is historical, flowing,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop. And, according to Zen teachings, our previously acquired knowledge can also be an impediment to present understanding. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts the matter this way: (more…)

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During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here. (more…)

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Robert Frost
1874-1963

On the eve of the Second World War and during a period of acute personal distress, Robert Frost composed “The Silken Tent,” a lyric poem widely regarded as one of the finest sonnets written in English in the twentieth century. A love poem in the tradition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is also a hymn in praise of personal composure:

            She is as in a field a silken tent

            At midday when a sunny summer breeze

            Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

            So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

            And its supporting central cedar pole

            That is its pinnacle to heavenward

            And signifies the sureness of the soul,

            Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

            But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

            By countless silken ties of love and thought

            To everything on earth the compass round,

            And only by one’s going slightly taut

            In the capriciousness of summer air

            Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

In these eloquent lines, cast in the strict rhymed form of the English sonnet, Frost elaborates a single complex sentence and a single unifying metaphor. Likening an unidentified woman to a silken tent, he compares her strength of character to a cedar pole, her interdependent relationships to guy lines, and her bonds of affection to the “cords” that tether her to the earth. Contrasting the connotations of bound and bondage—the former suggestive of obligations, the latter of enslavement—he portrays a person grounded in real life but also flexible, buoyant, and untrammeled. In the midst of social pressures and ever-shifting conditions, she remains balanced and resilient—qualities of heart and mind that the narrator much admires. (more…)

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If you are of a certain age you may remember the CB Radio craze. In the late seventies, long before the advent of smart phones, Citizens Band radio became wildly popular in America, not only with truckers and tradesmen but also with enthusiasts and hobbyists, who talked back and forth in their cars and trucks, warned each other of road conditions and speed traps, and entertained themselves by tuning into Channel 9, where fires, crimes, and other emergencies were reported and help dispatched.

Such was the pastime of one Allegany County [New York] resident, who lived alone in the country and spent his idle hours on his CB radio. On one occasion, so the story goes, this gentleman was seated comfortably in his bathroom, taking care of business, when he heard a report of a house fire in progress. Listening eagerly for details, he learned to his considerable consternation that his own house was on fire. Fortunately for him, he hastily assembled himself and fled the house, escaping serious injury. (more…)

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“How do we find our own place in a complex political world,” asks the American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, “and find a way towards peace?”

For some, the way might be a studied indifference, a turning away from politics altogether. For others, it might be engagement: social activism in the cause of peace. But for Kornfield, the appropriate initial response, and a prerequisite for wise and effective action, is first to “stop the war within.” “Our first task,” he observes, “is to make our own heart a zone of peace.” (more…)

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Mary Oliver

“Attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), “is the beginning of devotion.”

Oliver’s bold assertion appears at the end of her lyrical essay “Upstream,” the title essay in her 2016 collection. In the preceding paragraph, she implores her readers to introduce children to the sensuous delights of the natural world:

Teach the children. . . . Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

Thus instructed, children may “learn to love this green space they live in.” But they must first learn to pay attention. (more…)

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