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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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202. The beautiful secret

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi

In his e-book Suffering and Possibility, the Zen teacher Norman Fischer discloses what he calls “the great and beautiful secret” of meditative practice. Elementary in nature but far-reaching in significance, the realization to which he refers has the capacity to transform both our outlook and our experience of everyday life.

Fischer’s general subject is the human condition, of which human suffering, broadly defined, is an inescapable part. Like other teachers in the Zen tradition, Fischer distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary suffering. The former arises from external conditions over which we have little or no control: war, famine, disease, aging, natural disasters, and the like. The latter is created by our own minds, specifically by our conditioned and often unskillful responses to the troubles we incur. Yet, whether human suffering, known as dukkha in Buddhist teachings, be deemed necessary or self-inflicted, it is an integral and unavoidable aspect of human experience.

(more…)

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Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind. (more…)

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