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Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”

At lunch on the second day, I observed a chubby, red-cheeked boy at a neighboring table. Before him was a tray of steaming vegetables and rice. Just as he was about to tuck in, we heard the sound of a gong. The boy put down his fork. As quickly as he could manage, he made three loud puffs, as if he were blowing out birthday candles. He then proceeded to scarf up his meal.

Clearly, that hungry lad had missed the point of the exercise. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, its purpose was to train us in the “practice of stopping,” which is to say, of arresting our headlong rush into the future. Practicing conscious breathing, we became present for whatever was occurring within and around us.

In his book You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh further explains the practice:

Stop! The street sign reminds you. Stop running, because life is here, in the present moment. We have to train in that. As you breathe out, you say: “I am home.” I am already home, I don’t have to run. . . . The address of my true home is clear: life, here and now. Peace is something that becomes possible the moment you stop. Stopping is an essential aspect of Buddhist meditation.

By now the boy I observed would be in his thirties. If by chance he has pursued the practice he learned in childhood, perhaps he has reaped its long-term benefits. For my own part, having explored various forms of “stopping” over the past two decades, practices drawn from both the Vietnamese and Japanese Zen traditions, I have come to understand “stopping” as both a tool of awakening and a path to meditative insight.

With respect to awakening, no figure in Buddhist iconography is more central than Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom. In most depictions, Manjushri wields a flaming sword, which cuts through ignorance and delusion. The practice of stopping performs a similar function. It severs our thought-loops and groundless divagations. It interrupts our interior monologues and calls us back from forgetfulness. And it punctures the delusive, egocentric bubble that many of us inhabit much of the time.

In Zen monasteries this action is accomplished primarily through sounds. Within the prevailing silence of the monastery, the reverberant tones of bells and gongs and the sharp cracks of wooden instruments draw practitioners out of their thoughts of past or future and into the present moment. Whether it be the jingling of the wake-up bell at 4:30 in the morning or the woodpecker-like taps on a hardwood board at the opening of morning service, the sounds of a Zen monastery enforce a shift of attention from self-centered reverie to a shared, life-centered perspective. Never mind that you haven’t finished your thought or the task at hand. You stop immediately and return to the communal life of which you are a part.

No less important, both for monastics and for lay practitioners, the practice of stopping establishes an inner platform: a stable vantage point from which to investigate what Zen calls our true nature. In classical Buddhist teachings, the practice of stopping and following our breathing is known as shamata, a Sanskrit word often translated as “calm abiding.” Practicing this concentrative form of meditation, we prepare ourselves for the complementary practice of vipassana, or “looking deeply.”

In Zen practice, what we are urged to look into is the impermanent and interdependent nature of things we conventionally regard as permanent and independent. Whether those entities be solid objects or fixed ideas, evanescent feelings or enduring states of mind, under the steady gaze of Zen contemplation they reveal themselves to be more fluid and transitory than our reifying minds would have us believe. And rather than remain attached to them, we experience the freedom of letting them go.

Here in the village of Alfred, New York, we have no shortage of daily bells. Any one of them can awaken us into awareness. But whether the “bell of mindfulness” be a Town Hall clock marking the hours or the chime of a smart phone, its sound can summon us back to the here and now. Calling a halt to excessive, compulsive, and non-constructive thinking, it can help us live more wisely.

___________

Stop! The street sign reminds you: Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (Shambhala, 2009), 37.

 

 

 

 

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Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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