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Thich Nhat Hanh
        2006

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one.

That is remarkable in retrospect, because we were moving very slowly. We were practicing walking meditation, an integral component of the Zen tradition. Earlier during this retreat, which was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in August, 2001 and entitled “Peace and Nonviolence in the Family, School, and Workplace,” we had practiced indoor walking meditation (“One step for the in-breath, one for the out-breath”), endeavoring to take “peaceful steps” and, in Thây’s words, to “live deeply in every moment of our daily lives.” Outdoors, in this public setting, we moved faster, but our pace was still slow enough to foster conscious awareness of our lungs breathing, our feet meeting the sidewalk, our bodies moving through the early-morning air. “Walk like a free person,” Thây advised. For those of us accustomed to being in a hurry and with a destination uppermost in mind, the practice of mindful walking required discipline and concentration. Yet even the children adapted readily to it, as though it were only natural.

They also adapted, willingly and without exception, to our group’s unbroken silence. No one spoke. No one gossiped or complained, or made small talk, or offered their unsolicited opinions. In addition to mindful walking, we were also practicing Noble Silence, as it is known in Buddhist circles. In lieu of the usual human chatter, we listened to the sounds of our steps, the rustle of our clothing, the birdsong from nearby trees. As was often the case at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats, where an ethos of silence prevailed during most of the day and night, our refraining from inessential speech enabled us to appreciate the freshness of our immediate surroundings and the fertile activity of our inner lives.  Complex feelings were granted room to expand and be examined. Thoughts were allowed to arise, endure, and disappear, even as we monitored their passing.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, describing him as “an Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence.” Not only did Thây advocate tirelessly for those causes.  In his quiet voice and his gentle demeanor, he fully embodied them, moment by moment and hour after hour. Like water permeating the cells of a thirsty organism, the peaceful energy he imparted spread through his retreats, affecting us all. And as we walked, slowly and silently down that city sidewalk, we too embodied the energy of peace and nonviolence, however imperfectly, and onlookers responded accordingly.

In practicing walking meditation under Thich Nhat Hanh’s tutelage, we were learning, in his oft-repeated words, a method for transforming our fears and anxieties into positive energy and our aversions and frustrations into constructive action. But looking back from the vantage point of September, 2020, I see that we were also making a public statement and sending a potent message, both to ourselves and to the world, a message as forceful in its way as the most impassioned political oratory. Peace is possible, we were saying. Nonviolence is possible. And as our walk vividly demonstrated, when the true intention is present, and when the necessary conditions have been established, peace and nonviolence will manifest, as surely as a river flowing to the sea or the sun rising in the eastern sky.

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Sue Stuart-Smith II

Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and an avid gardener. Her many original insights derive, on the one hand, from her clinical practice, particularly her work with victims of trauma, and on the other, from her long experience in planting and tending her gardens. Grounded in those realities, she is not inclined toward lofty abstractions or metaphysical speculation. But in her book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Stuart-Smith propounds an abstract, metaphysical concept, which she calls “garden time.” By this term she does not mean “a time for gardening.” Rather, she is speaking of a sense of time qualitatively different from the ordinary. (more…)

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Wind bell PS

As a wedding gift eighteen years ago, two of our friends gave my wife and me a wind bell. Tall, pyramidical, and unadorned, it has hung from the branch of a spruce tree for nearly two decades. Its three steel sides and the triangular plate suspended from its clapper are rusted now, and the tree has long since died. But whenever the wind comes up with sufficient force, we are summoned by a distant, resonant clang, clang, clang—a reminder at once of continuity and change.

Wind bells have been around for millennia. In the late twelfth century Tendō Nyojō, a revered Zen master and the teacher of Eihei Dōgen, wrote a poem about his own: (more…)

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Edward Espe Brown

 “Let things come and abide in your heart,” advised Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, “and let your heart abide in things.” Applying this principle to the culinary arts, Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest, author, and celebrated chef, instructs the students in his cooking classes to do the same. “The world of flavor opened up,” he reflects in his book No Recipe, “when I began to let tastes come and abide in my heart.” Rather than try to make the food “behave,” or the final product conform to a preconceived standard, he learned to “allow for an intimate meeting with the world,” and the world of food to “awaken [his] heart.”

As with food, so with classical music. If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare’s Duke Orsinio posits, it too can be allowed or not allowed to abide in one’s heart. And just as different foods have different flavors, so do the works of classical composers, which may by turns be sweet or sour, salty or bland, pungent or bitter. Bach, for example, can be ineffably sweet, as in the Largo movement of his Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Bartok can be bitter. Brahms can be deeply pleasing to the palate—or seasoned, as it were, to a fault. And just as we as diners may be drawn to one range of flavors rather than another, we as listeners may feel affinities at different times in our lives for the works of particular composers. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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