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“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot, but here in Western New York, the month of February seems more deserving of that honor. And for the meditative practitioner, no month presents a sterner challenge. Be here now? You must be joking. I’d rather be in Sarasota. Or better yet, St. Lucia.

In the “Faith-Mind Sutra,” Seng-ts’an, the Third Ancestor of the Zen tradition, offers this advice:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When neither love nor hate arises,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.*

To follow the Great Way—the path of liberation from conditioned suffering—is to set aside our habitual preferences. Summer over winter, for instance. Or, in winter, St. Lucia over Western New York.

That may sound like being numb or in denial, but in its context Seng-ts’an’s meaning is quite the opposite. What he is urging is an openness to whatever we encounter, be it sun-drenched beaches or sub-zero temperatures, cloudless tropical skies or a Buffalo winter. Putting our preferences in abeyance, we fully experience our environs.

Beyond that, Seng-ts’an is enjoining us to recognize that by preferring one thing over another, we separate ourselves from the world we live in. We identify with our preferences, fashioning an “I” that dislikes cold weather, that prefers sand and sun over ice and snow. If what we prefer is presently available, we like it and want more of it—and want it to last forever. But if it’s not, we stand apart, resisting what is present and complaining of our lot. On a really frigid day, we blame the cold for being cold, the winter for being winter.

Such responses are not to be suppressed. Their roots lie in generations of conditioning and in social forces well beyond our control. At the same time, what has been learned can be unlearned, and what is causing us suffering can be diminished, not by willful self-denial or efforts at self-improvement but by patient meditative inquiry. In her essay “Consciousness, Attention, and Awareness,” the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer puts it this way:

Sometimes people say, “I ought to drop this habit, but I can’t.” No one is asking us to drop anything. How can we drop things when we are in our customary thinking and suffering mode? We can drop a bowl of cereal, but our habitual reactions need to be seen thoroughly as they are taking place. When there is awareness, a reaction that is seen and understood to be a hindrance diminishes on its own. It may take a lot of repeated suffering, but a moment comes when the energy of seeing takes the place of the habit. That is all. Seeing is empty of self. The root of habit too is empty.*

Rather than struggle to drop our habitual reactions, we cultivate awareness of those reactions and allow them to change in their own time.

If you would like to explore this practice, you might wish to take a meditative walk on a cold winter day. As you set out, bring your awareness to your body—to your feet as they slog through the snow, your arms as they rhythmically swing, your face as it meets the cold. Open your eyes to the landscape, your ears to the sounds of winter. Then bring your awareness to your resistance: to the concepts and judgments that cross your mind. Pay particular attention to your likes and dislikes, your comforts and discomforts. Continue this practice through the month of February, and see what becomes of your aversions.

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**Seng-ts’an, Faith-Mind Sutra, tr. Richard B. Clarke, http://www.mendosa.com/way.html.

*Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 134.

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In November, 1972, I accompanied Dan and Lillyan Rhodes to the University of Rochester to hear a reading by the poet Gary Snyder. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Daniel Rhodes was an internationally known potter, sculptor, and professor of ceramic art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He was also a longtime friend of Gary Snyder.

Of the poems I heard that evening, one in particular made a lasting impression:

PINE TREE TOPS

In the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.*

As he read the last line of his poem, Snyder stressed the word “we.” What can we presume to know, he seemed to be asking, in the presence of the natural world’s nocturnal beauty? His tone was one of awe, tempered by disdain for human presumption.

Gary Snyder’s poem owes something to Ezra Pound, one of Snyder’s poetic mentors, who admonished us to “pull down [our] vanity”  and to “learn of the green world what can be [our] place.” Snyder’s lines also reflect his practical experience as logger and forest ranger, his empathic study of indigenous cultures, and his lifelong practice of Zen meditation.

In one well-known story from the lore of Zen, a monk sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. Along the way he encounters a Zen master, who asks him where he’s going. “Around on pilgrimage,” the monk replies.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”asks the master.

“I don’t know,” the monk confesses.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replies the master.

That story is conventionally interpreted as an illustration of “beginner’s mind.” By not presuming to know where he is going, the monk is opening himself to whatever he encounters. Void of expectations and preconceptions, he can meet the world directly.

That interpretation is plausible enough, but Gudo Nishijima, a contemporary Zen master, has a different take on the story. In Nishijima’s view, the monk’s response acknowledges the limitations of his perceptions. To be sure, we usually know our immediate destinations. In relative terms, we know where we are going. In ultimate terms, however, we really have no idea where we’re headed. By admitting as much, the monk remains in touch with ultimate reality, even as he lives in the relative world.

Thirty-six years ago, as I listened to Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,” I did not know that Dan Rhodes would retire and leave Alfred the next year—or that he would die of a heart attack in Nevada in 1989, at the age of seventy-eight. Nor did I know that Gary Snyder, Beat poet and author of  rugged lyric verse, would become an icon of the environmental movement, or that his progressive views on ecology, derived from the ancient principle of ahimsa (“non-harming”), would become moral imperatives in the early 21st century.

Gary Snyder is a man of wide erudition, with a deep respect for the natural and social sciences. In offering the teaching of not-knowing, he is not sanctioning an aggressive ignorance. Rather, he is urging an attitude of humility and reverence, lest we do further harm. Resonant at the time, his lines are even more urgent now.

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*Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974). To hear Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,”  go to http://cdn3.libsyn.com/bubba/Gary_Snyder_Spiritual_Spice_14.mp3?nvb=20091124134834&nva=200911251.

 

 

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If you own a home in Western New York, you may be familiar with ice dams. These pesky obstructions occur when heat escapes from a warm attic, melts the snow on the roof, and sends water trickling down to the cold eaves. There it freezes into mounds of ice, blocking the further flow of melting snow. Unless your roof is protected by an asphalt polymer membrane, the trapped water may find its way under the shingles and into the ceiling below.

Ice dams can cause no end of trouble. And so can their counterparts in the inner life, if we allow them to form and grow. In his article “The Mind’s True Nature,” the Tibetan poet and meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:

Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical; but neither can we say that they are different, because ice is only solidified water, and water is only melted ice.

The same applies to our perception of the world around us. To be attached to the reality of phenomena, to be tormented by attraction and repulsion, by pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, creates a solidity in the mind. What we have to do, therefore, is to melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within.*

In this vivid analogy Dilgo Khyentse is describing dualistic thought: the process by which we habitually divide undifferentiated reality into concepts of this or that—into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, self and other, and so on. While necessary for survival, such concepts can all too easily freeze into rigid categories, to which we become attached, occluding our vision and blocking the stream of life.

But how do we “melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within”? Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis” and other modern parables, once described a book as an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” And Zen koans, which sometimes resemble Kafka’s parables, can also serve that function. Contemplating a koan such as “Who hears the sound?” or “All things enter the One. But what does the One enter?” we are compelled to abandon conceptual thought, making room for direct, intuitive perception.

But there is also a gentler and more gradual method. It consists of sitting still and watching our sensations, thoughts, and mental states arise, take form, and eventually dissolve. Bringing relaxed attention to that inner stream, we may detect the counterpart of ice dams in our psyches: fixed ideas, inflexible beliefs, impermeable states of mind. That’s just the way I am, we may be tempted to say. But should we continue to shine the lamp of mindfulness on those aggregates of thought and feeling, recognizing their impermanent and insubstantial nature, we may sense the beginning of a thaw. We may touch the ground of being—the common source of ice and water. And over time, we may taste the living water within.

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* Shambhala Sun (January, 2009), 78-79

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On New Year’s Eve some people drink themselves silly. Others make improbable resolutions. In Japan, however, millions travel to Zen temples to listen to a heavy log strike the temple bell 108 times. Symbolically, the 108 strokes of the bell banish the 108 delusions to which the human mind is prone.

But why 108? Why not 107—or 10,001? In several spiritual traditions, the number 108 is thought to have numerological significance. Hindu deities have 108 names, and the recitation of their names is sometimes accompanied by the counting of 108 beads. Buddhist temples often have 108 steps, and Zen priests wear a string of 108 prayer beads on their wrists. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, has 108 suitors, which Odysseus must dispatch before he and his missus can be reunited. In his book Sailing Home, the Zen priest Norman Fischer interprets this action as an allegory for the extinguishing of delusions.

Suggestive as such correspondences are, they are not enough to convince the Zen priest Anzan Hoshin Roshi, who argues that “108” is really the equivalent of “a lot.” As he explains, “We say 108 because, well, that is a lot, isn’t it? You can try to picture, say, three things, five things. At ten things it starts to get a little fuzzy. Try to picture 18 things, 37 things, 108 things. Can’t do it. So 108 means means measureless, numberless.”*

But what constitutes a delusion, and why does the human mind produce so many? In his classic satire The Praise of Folly, the Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus contends that we human beings generate delusions to keep ourselves happy. To dramatize the point he enlists the goddess Folly, who delivers an ironic lecture in praise of herself. As Folly sees it, the more we fool ourselves about our looks, wit, learning, and the like, the happier we are. Therefore Folly, who makes this happiness possible, deserves our praise.

Zen takes another tack entirely. According to Zen teachings, delusion does not conduce to happiness. On the contrary, it is a primary cause of suffering. And the delusions that afflict us, however many their number, stem from a common root, which is sometimes called “a fundamental ignorance of reality,” or more succinctly, egoistic delusion. Robert Aitken Roshi, an American Zen master, describes that core delusion in this way:

We desire permanent existence for ourselves and for our loved ones, and we desire to prove ourselves independent of others and superior to them. These desires conflict with the way things are: nothing abides, and everything and everyone depends on everything and everyone else. This conflict causes our anguish, and we project this anguish on those we meet.**

The Heart Sutra, chanted daily in Zen monasteries, calls these egocentric attitudes “upside-down views.”  And the second of the Four Great Vows, also chanted daily, describes delusions as “inexhaustible” and expresses the intent to “extinguish them all.”

That is a tall order, and to some it may sound like a negative effort. But from the vantage point of Zen, the extinguishing of a delusion is also the opening of a “dharma gate”: an opportunity to rid ourselves of self-deception, right our upside-down views, and live in harmony with the laws of reality. That is why the tolling of a temple bell on New Year’s Eve, however solemn it may sound, is not a rite of mourning but truly a cause for celebration.

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*Anzan Hoshin Roshi, “Joya: Resolutions,” http://www.wwzc.org/teisho/joya.htm.

**Robert Aitken, The Dragon Who Never Sleeps (Parallax, 1992), xiii.

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“Snow was general all over Ireland,” writes James Joyce at the end of his short story “The Dead.” In this celebrated story Gabriel Conroy, a middle-aged Dubliner, comes to terms with his own mortality. As often in Western literature, snow is a metaphor for death.

Today, what is general all over America—and indeed the world—is fear, whether its object be joblessness, a terrorist attack, or the more familiar specters of aging, sickness, and death. What have Zen teachings to say about fear? And what has Zen practice to offer?

One person who has confronted fear in general and the fear of death in particular is Joan Halifax Roshi, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Trained as an anthropologist, Roshi Joan turned to Zen practice after the death of her grandmother. For the past four decades she has devoted her life to teaching Zen and caring for the dying.

In her new book, Being with Dying (Shambhala, 2008), Halifax presents the fruit of her life’s work. Observing that the fear of death causes many of us to avoid, ignore, or otherwise deny the “only certainty of our lives,” she reminds us that “to deny death is to deny life.” And to embrace death can be the ultimate form of liberation:

The sooner we can embrace death, the more time we have to live completely, and to live in reality. Our acceptance of death influences not only the experience of dying but also the experience of living; life and death lie along the same continuum. One cannot—as so many of us try to do—lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay.

But how, exactly, are we to embrace death? To address our fear?

Halifax offer a wealth of “skillful means,” including zazen, walking meditation, reflection on one’s priorities, and the contemplation of nine perspectives on living and dying (“The human life span is ever-decreasing; each breath brings us closer to death”). But of her many strategems, two in particular stand out, the first of them a practical method, the second a matter of attitude.

Halifax calls her method “strong back, soft front.” By this she means the posture of meditation, in which we first straighten, then relax, our backs, feeling the strength and stability of an upright spine. Having established that stability, we soften the front of our bodies, opening our lungs to the air and our minds to things as they are. We bring our presence, strengthened but softened, to whatever suffering we encounter.

Simple though it sounds, this practice can bring immediate calm. And over time, it can engender a profound shift of attitude :

To meet suffering and bear witness to it without collapsing or withdrawing into alienation, first we must stabilize the mind and make friends with it. Next, we open the mind to life—the whole of life, within and around us, seeing it clearly and unconditionally from that stable inner base. And then we fearlessly open our hearts to the world, welcoming it inside no matter how wretched or full of pain it might be. I’ve come to call this the “threefold transparency”—us being transparent to ourselves, the world’s being transparent to us, and us being transparent to the world.

As Halifax readily acknowledges, this practice is anything but quick or easy. But with the necessary effort come eventual liberation and the capacity to be of genuine help to others. “It may take effort,” she observes, “to return our mind to practice. And it usually takes effort to bring energy and commitment to everything we do. Effort at its very core means letting go of fear.”

At a time when fear is as general as Joyce’s snow, such a perspective is as worthy as it is rare.

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Jundo Cohen, an American Zen priest who lives in Japan, often refers to the “tool kit” of meditative practices. Within the Japanese Zen tradition alone those practices include susokkan (counting out-breaths), kinhin (walking meditation), samu (work practice), oryoki (formal meals), contemplation of koans, and shikantaza (“just sitting” ). And that is to say nothing of the multitude of other methods, such as meditation on a text or repetition of a mantra, employed by the world’s contemplative traditions.

Jundo himself practices shikantaza, which is also known as “objectless meditation”. In most modes of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to focus on an object, tangible or intangible. In Zen practice that object is usually the flow of the breath, at least at the beginning of a sitting, but it can also be a koan, such as “Who hears the sound?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” In either case, we are enjoined to focus our attention, exclusively and singlemindedly, on a chosen object. By so doing, we enter the state of one-pointed concentration known as samadhi.

In practicing shikantaza, we dispense with all such methods. Insofar as we can, we do nothing but sit in awareness, noticing whatever comes along, including the sensations in our bodies, the coming and going of the breath, and the urge to be doing something—anything—but just sitting. Should we begin to slouch, we correct our posture, but apart from such corrections, we focus on nothing in particular. Instead, we cultivate a panoramic attention, opening our minds to all that is occurring, within and without. If thoughts cross our minds, we note them but do not pursue them. Nor do we attempt to analyze our thoughts or discern their emotional subtexts. We just sit.

Shikantaza is a composite word, made up of three discrete elements. Shikan is usually translated as “just” or “nothing but,” and it connotes wholehearted attention. Ta is an intensifier, literally meaning “hit.” Za means “to sit,” or more broadly, “to sit together.” Together these elements describe a practice of sitting in precise, continuous awareness.

Eido Shimano Roshi, a contemporary Zen master, explains the practice of shikantaza in this way:

This is zazen in which one neither seeks enlightenment nor rejects delusion. The purest zazen, it uses no devices as such; strictly speaking, there is no goal or method. Shikan taza practice is a manifestation of original enlightenment, and is at the same time a way toward its realization . . . . Zazen is both something one does and something one essentially is.*

To sit without goals or methods is not so easy as it sounds. In a culture as competitive as ours, where doing rather than being is widely prized, such a practice presents an extraordinary challenge. But for all its rejection of goals, “just sitting” affords the diligent practitioneer uncommon rewards. In contrast to object-centered meditation, it trains us to include whatever we experience—and to let the things of this world reveal themselves, just as they are.

Shikantaza is best practiced under the guidance of a teacher, lest it become what Eido Roshi once called “shikan-waste of time.” If you would like to explore the practice, I would recommend that you visit Jundo Cohen’s Tree Leaf Zendo at www.treeleaf.org. There you will find detailed instructions, as well as a daily opportunity to sit with Jundo in shikantaza.

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*Namu Dai Bosa, ed. Louis Nordstrom (Theatre Arts Books, 1976), 251.

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Not long ago, Dr. Emrys Westacott, Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, gave a thought-provoking talk at the Bergren Forum. His subject was snobbery, which he defined in this way:

Believing without sufficient justification that you are superior to another person in certain respects because you are associated with some group that places you above them in a social hierarchy.

Professor Westacott went on to explore this definition and to suggest that snobbery, so defined, may be unavoidable.

As definitions go, Professor Westacott’s strikes me as sound and useful. At the same time, it points toward something deeper than social snobbery. From the standpoint of Zen teachings, it identifies a fundamental ignorance of reality and a root cause of human suffering. And it also implies a remedy, both for snobbery and its underlying causes.

To begin with, the snob, as here defined, assumes that he or she is a separate, unchanging self. Once a Harvard graduate, always a Harvard graduate. Once a star, always a star. Yet even a moment’s reflection reveals that what one calls one’s “self” is anything but permament or solid. Perhaps our temperaments remain constant from day to day—and decade to decade—but our circumstances and identities, social and personal, do not. Today’s “superior” self may be something else tomorrow.

Beyond the impermanence of self, there is also the impermanence of one’s ideas. Because an idea has occurred to us, we tend to believe it. And, more often than not, we identify with it, calling it “my” idea and defending it against detractors. But in reality the unquestioned ideas that cross our minds, including ideas about ourselves, are no more solid or permanent than the caws of crows or the sound of the UPS truck arriving in the driveway. To take them at face value, or assume that they reflect reality, is to court delusion.

Yet even if we acknowledge that both our selves and our attitudes are subject to change, we may persist in believing ourselves superior because, as Professor Westacott’s definiton asserts, we are associated with a group that ranks high in the social order. But here again, that belief has feet of clay, because groups themselves are subject to change and revaluation. Yesterday’s darling–Lehman Brothers, for example—can become tomorrow’s pariah. In the current political climate, even “Harvard-educated” has become, in the minds of some, a political liability.

Given these realities, and given the unstable foundation on which social snobbery rests, it might seem odd that it continues to exist. Yet continue it does, bringing harm and folly in its wake. Is snobbery in fact unavoidable—a curse instrinsic to human nature?

Zen teachings would say no, because the very attribute that makes snobbery delusive—its insubstantial basis—also makes it vulnerable to dissolution. When practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we sit still and take note of whatever comes along, including the caws of crows and our notions of social superiority. I drive a Lexus. He’s still driving a Ford. Bringing sustained awareness to notions of that kind, we begin to see them for what they are. We begin to see through them. And over time, as our practice strengthens and our awareness deepens, we may recognize our place in the web of life, where no one is solid or separate, superior or inferior, and all depend on one another

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