Archive for the ‘Previous columns’ Category

As I was driving on Route 21 the other day, I noticed a trailer full of firewood for sale. I was reminded of the winter, many years ago, when I burnt twenty face cords of firewood, most of it maple and beech. I also recalled a statement, famous in Zen circles, by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, Eihei Dogen (1200-1250):

Firewood becomes ashes, it does not become wood again. Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after. Your understanding must penetrate that although firewood is firewood, it has a before and after; that having this before, this after, it is free of these. . . . Life is life, death is death and are each in their own place like winter and spring. Winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.*

On first reading, this statement defies common sense. “Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after”? Sometimes translated as “firewood does not turn into ashes,” this sentence runs counter to our experience, as does Dogen’s later assertion that “winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.” Obviously, winter does become spring, if rather late in Western New York.

Dogen’s statement becomes more accessible if we remember that the image of firewood turning into ashes is a creation of the mind. It is a concept, a construction of thought. As such, it may help us to understand firewood—and to prepare for the process of burning, which will include the disposal of ashes. But it is still a concept, and though it may be useful, it can also impede our direct experience of firewood, right here and right now.

Direct experience, unmediated by conceptual thought, is the first concern of the Zen practitioner. In her commentary on Dogen’s statement, Toni Packer addresses this aspect of the practice:

Zen Master Dogen once said, “Firewood does not turn into ashes.” When I heard that the first time, I didn’t know what he was talking about because obviously firewood turns into ashes. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. And the next time we had a campfire, I watched and observed, and the time quality fell away. It was just being there and there was no change from fire to ashes; it was just what was. Fire. And then sometimes it collapses, and there are some sparks, and it seems to turn black. But when you’re really there, timelessly, it is not a process of time that is observed but presence: eternal, everlasting, without time.**

Packer goes on to say that once “you’re just here. . . a response will come out of this intelligent or wise presence. One’s response will be intelligent.”

But doesn’t Dogen also acknowledge that firewood has a “before and after”? Indeed he does, and surely an intelligent response to the burning of firewood must include a recognition of its past and its probable future. A stick of firewood was once a tree, and it will soon be ashes. To ignore—or attempt to ignore—those facts is to misconstrue the aim of Zen practice as merely “being present” or “living in the Now.”

What Dogen and Toni Packer are urging is not simply living in the Now but cultivating a dual, or binocular, vision. Contemplating firewood, we are aware that it exists in time; it is turning into ashes even as we watch. But we are also experiencing what Zen calls its “suchness”: its timeless presence, in all its brilliant vivacity. To see in both of these ways at once, to be present for the changing relative world while also being in touch with the timeless ground of being, is a primary aim of the Zen practitioner. And it is also a primary challenge of the practice.


*Eihei Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjo Koan), tr. by Yasuda Joshu Roshi and Anzan HoshinRoshi, Dogen: Zen Writings on the Practice of Realization, forthcoming. See http://www.wwzc.org/node/279.

**Toni Packer, “Firewood Does Not Turn into Ashes,” Springwater Center Newsletter, Summer, 2003, 1-2.

Read Full Post »

15. Innocence

Many years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the village of Inniskeen in Co. Monaghan, Ireland. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) grew up on a small farm in Inniskeen and is buried in the village cemetery. After visiting his grave, which is marked by a simple wooden cross, I spoke with a local farmer, who remembered his illustrious neighbor.“I knew Paddy,” he told me. “His mother couldn’t read or write. His father was a shoemaker. Paddy was not a good farmer—not good at all. He paid no heed to his fields.”

Paddy Kavanagh paid no heed because his mind was elsewhere. He yearned to be in Dublin, where he could enjoy the bohemian life and pursue a literary career. At the age of thirty-five he finally left his farm for the big city, and within a decade he had become an internationally known poet. In “The Great Hunger” (1942), the poem that made him famous, he examined the spiritual and sexual deprivation of the Irish farmer. And in “Stony Grey Soil” he looked back in anger at his native ground, which had “clogged the feet of [his] boyhood,” “fed [him] on swinish food,” and “burgled [his] bank of youth.”

Yet Kavanagh also loved the “black hills” he had abandoned, and in “Innocence” he revisits the scenes of his childhood:

They laughed at one I loved—

The triangular hill that hung

Under the Big Forth. They said

That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges

Of the little farm and did not know the world.

But I knew that love’s doorway to life

Is the same doorway everywhere.

Ashamed of what I loved

I flung her from me and called her a ditch

Although she was smiling at me with violets.

But now I am back in her briary arms

The dew of an Indian Summer morning lies

On bleached potato-stalks—

What age am I?*

Remembering his youth, he also recalls his innocence, which enabled him to take delight in the violets in the ditch and the dew on potato stalks. And in his closing lines, he embraces the environs he had scorned. “I cannot die,” he declares, “Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.”

The quality of innocence so important to Kavanagh is also important in Zen practice, where it is known as “beginner’s mind.” A translation of the Japanese term shoshin, “beginner’s mind” describes an openness to experience, unimpeded by preconceptions. In the book that introduced the term to the West, Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki explains:

The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. . . . This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.**

Beginner’s mind, in other words, is the mind before it is conditioned by knowledge, experience, and expectations.

Patrick Kavanagh sought to reclaim his innocence through the art of poetry. Zen practitioners cultivate beginner’s mind through the discipline of meditation. But we needn’t be poets or Zen monks to see the world afresh. We have only to quiet our minds and open our eyes.


*Patrick Kavanagh, “Innocence,”  The Complete Poems (Peter Kavanagh Hand Press, 1972), 241.

**Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 21.


Read Full Post »


A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, New York. Joining me were twenty-seven other retreatants, who had come from as far away as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Nicaragua. For the better part of a week, we sat, walked, and worked in an atmosphere of silence, speaking only when necessary or during the afternoon discussions. In the words of Toni Packer, founder and director of the Springwater Center, we paused in our lives to “ask what is really going on” and “to feel the wholeness of what is here.”

The Springwater Center is situated on a hillside amidst two hundred acres of open fields and woods. Its tall windows look out on the gentle hills of the Springwater Valley. Its simple but spacious facilities include a meditation hall, a dining room, accommodations for guests and staff, and even a modest library. Naturally lit, its interior spaces feel close to the outdoors. In the mornings we heard birdsong, in the evenings faint sounds from the town.

Toni Packer, who recently celebrated her eighty-first birthday, grew up in wartime Germany. She remembers the atmosphere of fear, the searchlights roaming the night sky. In her twenties she married an American and immigrated to the United States, settling in North Tonawanda. During the 1970s she studied Zen with Philip Kapleau, abbot of the Rochester Zen Center, where she became a senior student and Kapleau’s designated successor. In 1984, however, she and a group of friends left Rochester to establish a center of their own. Dispensing with the liturgy, forms, and hierarchies of traditional Japanese Zen, they preserved the core of the practice, which for Toni Packer is one of pure listening and unmediated inquiry.

Pure listening, as defined by Toni, is listening without preconceptions. In her essay “Listening and Looking,”*she explains:

There are different states of mind, and the state that is reacting most of the time when we are talking to each other is the state of memory. Our language comes out of memory, and we usually don’t take time to think about the way we say things, let alone look carefully at what we are saying. We usually talk to each other and to ourselves in habitual, automatic ways.

So we’re asking, can there be talking and listening that are not solely governed by memory and habit, except for remembrance of the language and the various examples that are given? Can there be fresh speaking and fresh listening right now, undisturbed by what is known?*

Described in this way, the “fresh listening” Toni advocates may resemble induced amnesia. But later on in her essay, she clarifies that point:

Can there be listening that does not abolish the personal past—that’s impossible—but that sees it for what it is: memory, thought, image, and connected feelings and emotions? That collection is not what is actual right now! When there is open listening, the past is in abeyance.**

As might be inferred from these excerpts, the practice of open listening fosters the practice of radical inquiry. “Here at Springwater,” Toni has said, “we question everything.” For Toni Packer that commitment meant questioning the Zen tradition itself, including its hallowed claims to authority. But whether she calls her practice “meditative inquiry,” “the work of this moment,” or something else, her spirit of listening and questioning goes to the heart of Zen.

If you would like to refresh your mind, while also examining your mental habits, you might wish to spend a few days at the Springwater Center, thirty-five miles north of Alfred. And unlike the retreatants from Europe, you won’t have to cross the ocean to do it.


*Toni Packer, The Work of This Moment (Tuttle, 1995), 1,4.

**Packer, 4.

Read Full Post »

In The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, her gentle satire on Zen practice, the writer and photographer Susan Moon invents an eccentric Zen master who answers questions in the manner of “Dear Abby”. When a young woman asks where she might go to meet cute guys, Tofu Roshi explains that if she’s looking for psychologists, she should check out a Vipassana center, but if she’s looking for poets and artists, she should do her cruising at a Tibetan monastery. If she fancies carpenters or cooks, she should head for the zendo.

Susan Ichi Su Moon is a long-time Zen practitioner, who knows whereof she speaks. Cooking and Zen practice have much in common, and over the centuries they have enjoyed an enduring relationship. Readers of a certain age may remember the Tassajara Bread Book, a popular cookbook in the days of the Whole Earth movement. Its author is Edward Espe Brown, an ordained Zen priest and one of the founders of the Greens restaurant in San Francisco. More recent cookbooks include Bettina Vitell’s A Taste of Heaven & Earth, whose simple recipes generate complex flavors, and Seppo Edward Farrey’s Three Bowls, which interleaves enticing recipes with vignettes of life in the zendo. Both Vitell and Farrey were head cooks at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills. Their books reflect their rigorous training.

The affinity between cooking and Zen may be traced, in part, to a classic text in the Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instruction for the Tenzo (1237).* Written by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, this text is at once a practical guide to the cook and a lucid exposition of an ethical perspective. At the practical level, Dogen advises the tenzo (head cook) of the monastery on such matters as the selection of lentils and the separation of rice from sand. At the philosophical level, he advocates a way of being and an attitude of mind. Faithfully held and thoroughly developed, this attitude will produce meals that embody the “three virtues” of mildness, cleanliness, and formality. And it will also advance the cook on the path of liberation.

Of the multiple components that make up Dogen’s attitude to cooking, the most central is “sincerity,” by which he means wholehearted attention to every last detail. “In the art of cooking,” Dogen writes, “the essential consideration is to have a deeply sincere and respectful mind regardless of the fineness or coarseness of the materials.” Rejecting conventional hierarchies, the tenzo will pay consistent attention to every task and every ingredient, however menial or exalted. “Do not be idle even for a moment,” Dogen sternly advises. “Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another.” Give as much attention to a “broth of wild grasses” as you would give to a “fine cream soup.” The tenzo who implements this advice will learn “to turn things while being turned by things.” He will realize “freedom from all discrimination.”

For those of us who cook, Dogen’s advice offers a challenge as well as an invitation. Can we give the chopping of onions the same attention as we give the measuring of rice? Can we show a lowly turnip the same respect as we show a delicate fillet of sole? If so, we will be cultivating a quality of mind and heart whose benefits extend well beyond the kitchen. And we might also cook a satisfying meal.


*Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi (North Point Press, 1985), 53-66.

Read Full Post »

If you have spent much time in a Salvation Army store, you may have heard a peculiar sound.

I heard it one afternoon when I accompanied my wife, Robin, to the Salvation Army Depot in Hornell. As Robin eagerly examined the dresses and blouses, hoping to find something from J. Jill or Eileen Fisher, I cast a desultory look at the polo shirts and tee-shirts, the vests and forlorn tweeds. Finding little to whet my appetite, I turned my attention to the sounds in the store.

What I heard was a low, continuous scraping. Was it a knife being sharpened? A blade removing paint? The sound was metallic, arhythmic, and vaguely abrasive, but it held my attention, in a way that the polo shirts had not. What was I hearing? Was it someone pushing a rusty cart down the aisle?

A few moments later, the answer dawned on me. What I was hearing was the sound of metal hangers—as many as a dozen—being pushed along metal rods, as the shoppers looked for bargains. From time to time the sound would diminish, as someone found a promising item. Then it would pick up again. The more I listened, the more varied and pleasing the sound became. Although it had probably always been there, I had never noticed it before.

Quite possibly I was listening because I had nothing better to do. But to listen to what is occurring, within and without, is an important aspect of Zen training. And to listen without immediately knowing—or trying to know—what one is hearing is itself an instructive practice.

It is natural, of course, to want to name what we hear. Unidentified sounds, particularly loud or sudden sounds, can be disconcerting, as Alfred Hitchcock well understood. When something goes bump in the night, it unnerves us, at least until we discern that it was not an intruder but the snow shovel falling and hitting the deck. Having solved that mystery, we can go back to sleep.

In Zen practice, however, the point is to be awake: to be aware of whatever is going on, moment by moment, and to be intimate with our experience. Our accumulated knowledge, however valuable, can stand in the way of that objective, as can our habits of defining, naming, and comparing. To have a concept of a sound is one thing, to have an experience of that sound another. The concept may give us comfort, but the experience returns us to the reality of our lives.

Waking at six in the morning, we hear the song of a bird. Is it a house wren? A Carolina wren? Some kind of warbler?

Listening again, we drop the effort to know what we are hearing—or to show off our knowledge to ourselves. We enjoy a moment of wonder and pure listening. In the language of Zen, we savor the “suchness” of the song, its transitory presence in the stream of time.

Such moments are central to Zen practice, not least because they open us to a spacious, immovable awareness, within which we can observe both our immediate experience and our lifelong conditioning: our urge to label whatever we encounter. Such moments are fostered by quiet sitting, but they can occur at any time and any place, be it a darkened zendo or the well-lit aisles of the Salvation Army.

Read Full Post »

I have a friend who’s obssessed with fish. Or, more precisely, he’s obsessed with fly fishing. So far as I can tell, when he is not fishing, he is thinking about fish. His license plate reads “Red Trout.” So does his e-mail alias. I suspect that he also dreams about fish, and when he closes his eyes it’s not Renoir’s bathers or Rubens’ nudes but red trout that swim up to greet him.

As some of you may have guessed, I am speaking of Richard Thompson, a painter of national renown, who recently retired from the School of Art and Design at Alfred University. Now he devotes his days to painting and fishing in (I think) that order.

Not long ago, Richard painted a series of pictures entitled “Mindful Wading.” These paintings feature a fly fisherman in hat and waders making his way across a stream. The paintings were inspired by a conversation with my wife (who suggested to Richard that he take up yoga and meditation) and informed by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Long Road Turns to Joy, a pocket guide to walking meditation. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “Walking meditation is walking just for the sake of walking.” Mindful wading is Richard’s version of the practice.

In one of Richard’s paintings, a circular panel called“Cross Currents,” the fisherman stands in the center with outstretched arms. In one hand he holds his rod, in the other his line. His feet are poised on the bed of the stream, surrounded by rocks, and he appears to be stepping gingerly, lest he stumble and fall. Above his head and to either side, the heads of trout are surfacing, each lunging toward a fly. Superimposed on five contrasting colors—yellow, red, blue, and two shades of green—the image feels both centered and kinetic. Viewed from a distance, the painting itself resembles a pinwheel.

“I fly fish,” Richard has written, “and I wade streams. When I am crossing a stream I can’t see the bottom, and the water is moving. I have to balance myself while testing each rock for stability. I do this navigating under low light and in bad weather and often on unfamiliar streams. I do mindful wading.”

Thich Nhat Hanh might be surprised to learn of Richard’s adaptation of his practice, but I suspect that he would approve. For the practice of walking meditation, as interpreted by Thich Nhat Hanh, is more than a respite from the rigors of zazen. It is a practice in its own right, whose purpose is to cultivate awareness of our bodies, our surroundings, and our changing states of mind. Beyond that, it is also a way of developing inner peace and a non-violent attitude toward our natural environment. Walking mindfully, we notice whether our steps are anxious or peaceful, and we cultivate the latter.

If you would like to practice walking meditation, select a place where you will not be observed or disturbed. Open your senses to your surroundings. Assume an upright but flexible posture, letting your shoulders drop and your belly soften. Relax into your breathing. Then walk naturally and unhurriedly, as though you had no destination, feeling the bottoms of your feet pressing the ground. Continue this practice for fifteen minutes or more, maintaining mindfulness all the while. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.

As you become more skillful in this practice, you may wish to extend it into the public arena, increasing the tempo so as not to call attention to yourself. Let the practice restore your peace, your grace, and your dignity, as you walk—or wade—through your day.

Read Full Post »

If you have been reading this column, perhaps you have noticed that it sometimes appears across from the Classified Ads. Perhaps this has given you pause.

Zen is a meditative tradition of high purpose and great antiquity. What is a column on Zen doing across from an ad for Happy Jack Skin Balm? (Happy Jack “promotes healing and hair growth on dogs & cats without steroids!”).

Zen is a late flowering of an even older spiritual tradition, whose foundational principles are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. What is a column on Zen doing across from an ad for Brown’s Septic Service? (“Septic tanks pumped. Repairs and installations. . . Visa and MasterCard accepted”).

Zen is concerned with the interdependence of all living beings, the impermanence of all conditioned things, and the suffering caused by a fundamental ignorance of reality. It is especially concerned with the Great Matter of life and death. What is a column on Zen doing across from ads for a floral-pattern love seat priced at $ 350, “I Love Alfred” bumper stickers at $ 1.50 each, and power scooters at “ABSOLUTELY NO COST TO YOU!!”?”

Nothing, one might say. If this column ends up across from the classifieds, it’s because the editor of this paper, who was kind enough to include the column in the first place, had to put it somewhere.

A more accurate answer, however, is that Zen has everything to do with the classifieds—or, more broadly, with the mundane business of daily life. For unless one chooses to renounce our materialistic culture and become a monk or nun, Zen practice must somehow be integrated with a world where cats and dogs develop allergies, septic tanks need be pumped, and love seats are bought and sold.

To be sure, meditative training is traditionally conducted in tranquil surroundings, where the lights are dim and the distractions few. Sitting quietly in the zendo, or perhaps at home in a space reserved for meditation, we settle into stillness. We learn to rest in simple presence, or what Zen calls the clear open sky of awareness. Thoughts cross our minds, but if we do not pursue them, they pass like clouds in the clear open sky. And when our sitting ends, we return to our lives feeling cleansed and refreshed.

Such respites nourish us, and they are not to be discounted. But the deeper value—and the higher challenge—of meditative practice lies in the integration of our experience in meditation with our experience of everyday life. With practice and proper training, we can learn to quiet our minds. We can learn to be still. But with patience and persistence, we can also learn to maintain stillness in the midst of external hubbub and meditative awareness in the midst of emotional turmoil.

In his new book, The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield reminds us that there are “two distinct dimensions to our life: the ever-changing flow of experiences, and that which knows the experiences.”* Cultivating the latter, we can learn to trust in “that which knows”: in an awareness that isn’t angry when we are angry or depressed when we’re depressed. It is merely present, sustaining us through joy and sorrow alike. Within that spacious awareness, pleasant and not-so-pleasant mind states come and go, as do the cats and dogs, the love seats and power scooters of our quotidian world. Aware of them all, we enlarge our sense of self. Embracing them all, we renew our connection with life.


* Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart (Bantam, 2008), 42.

Read Full Post »

In the sometimes cryptic utterances of the Zen masters two plain words are often to be heard. Considered singly, they define two distinct aspects of Zen meditation. Considered together, they point to the core of the practice.

The first of these words is just, as in the Zen saying, “When you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat.”

In its most common adverbial usage, just means “no more than,” and it serves to limit its object. “That’s just George being George,” we might say of an eccentric uncle. “Oh, that’s just my arthritis acting up again,” we might say to ourselves.

As used in Zen practice, just conveys a similar meaning, but it also connotes a wholehearted, one-pointed concentration. When you walk, just walk, giving full attention to your walking. When you eat, do the same. In contrast to so-called multi-tasking, the word just exhorts us to do one thing at a time, and to give undivided attention to whatever we are doing. A person washing the dishes just to wash the dishes is cultivating this quality of attention. A person watching CNN while walking on the treadmill is doing the very opposite.

No less than just, the pronoun this holds a promiment place in the lexicon of Zen. This is everywhere,” we read in the Diamond Sutra, “without differentiation or degree.” “Zen is this,”writes Roshi Bernie Glassman, “this moment, this stick, this thisness.” The word may also be found in the Zen slogan “This is it” and the Zen koan “What is this?” In all of these instances, this adverts to whatever is present, right here, right now. More specifically, it refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of concepts, opinions, or dualistic thinking generally.

Stepping outdoors in early March, we feel the heat of the sun. We may go on to check the thermometer, or describe the day as unseasonably warm, or attribute the unseasonable weather to global warming. But before any of that occurs, we feel the heat of the sun. By saying “this is it,” we remind ourselves to be present for that transitory experience. And by asking “what is this?” (followed, in Zen training, with “I don’t know”), we challenge our preconceptions and open ourselves to the depth of our experience.

Taken separately, just and this represent the two main components of meditative practice, which are often described as “stopping” (samatha) and “looking” (vipassana). Taken together, they form the slogan “just this,” which, as James Austin observes in his Zen-Brain Reflections, offers a key to understanding and a practical tool for meditation. Practicing with just, we gather our energies; practicing with this, we bring our gathered energies to the penetration of reality. If the first trains us to focus on the one thing we are doing, the second invites us to look deeply into the present moment.*

If you would like to try this practice, seat yourself in a comfortable, upright posture. Place your mind on your breathing. With your in-breath, say just silently to yourself. With your out-breath, say this. As you breathe in, feel the concentration of your energies; as you breathe out, surrender yourself to whatever you’re experiencing. Continue this practice for several minutes, encountering this, this, this, just as it is.


*James H. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections (MIT Press, 2006), 33-37.

Read Full Post »

Imre, a three-year-old friend of mine, delights in kicking things. When my wife and I gave him a set of educational blocks, of the sort that are supposed to develop eye-hand coordination, Imre took a few minutes to build a tower, then merrily kicked it across the room. Perhaps he was learning eye-foot coordination. Perhaps he has a future in the NFL.

One morning, Imre’s mother invited us over for a Sunday brunch. As we and a few other grown-ups were tucking into a delicious custard pie, Imre decided it was time to run around the table, dragging his wooden train and yelling at the top of his lungs. It was difficult to hear ourselves think, let alone carry on a conversation.

Fortunately, I’d come prepared. Earlier that morning, as I was pouring my Cheerios into a bowl, a blue matchbox car dropped out of the box. Foreseeing its possible use, I had stashed it in my pocket.

Armed with that equipment, I stopped Imre in his tracks. “I have a present for you,” I said, “but if you want it you will have to sit still for one minute”.

Regarding me quizzically, Imre agreed to the deal, and for the next forty seconds, he sat more or less still, chuckling all the while. Apparently, sitting still struck him as a silly idea, but he was willing to go along. And having kept his end of the bargain, he received his car, which, he soon discovered, he could happily crash into the walls and furniture.

I tell this story partly to illustrate that sitting still, however rare it may be in our culture, is something even a rambunctious three-year-old can do. If you are reading this column, you must be older than three, and you can do it too.

However, if you are thinking that by doing Zen meditation you will receive an immediate reward, you may well be disappointed. It is true that even twenty minutes of zazen can leave us cleansed and refreshed. And over time, Zen practitioners experience such benefits as heightened clarity and concentration, sharpened intuition, and greater emotional stability. But to sit in zazen with goals and expectations is not only to invite frustration. It is also a sure-fire way to undermine one’s effort.

In practicing Zen meditation, we sit still and return to the ground of being. We step back from our usual mental activities: defining, preferring, judging, or comparing this to that. Those activities may continue, but we merely watch them, and if we can, we drop them altogether. In so doing, we open ourselves to the experience of pure seeing, pure hearing, prior to names, goals, plans, and expectations. In the words of Zen master Kosho Uchiyama, we experience “what is there before [we] cook it up with thought.”* We enter the stream of life just as it is, not as we would have it be.

That is not so easily done. A lifetime of Western conditioning militates against it. But for those who persist, the practice of zazen becomes its own reward. In the language of Zen, by forgetting the self and its endless expectations, we “awaken to the ten thousand things.” And whether those things be toy cars or custard pies, we see, hear, and taste them as never before.


*Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought (Wisdom, 2004), 30.

Read Full Post »

Today I am writing this column with my Sailor 1911 fountain pen. Its name commemorates the origin of the Sailor Pen Company, which was founded in 1911 by Mr. Kyugoro Sakata of Hiroshima, Japan. Having learned about fountain pens from a British sailor, Mr. Sakata started his own company, naming it after his source of inspiration. My Sailor 1911 is plum-colored and sports a gold-plated nib, from which the black ink flows freely. A gift from my wife, it is a pleasure to use and a handsome object in its own right.

Yet my pen is also a composite thing, and when I take it apart to clean it, I see that it consists of four principal components: nib, cartridge, cap, and barrel. Were I to take those components themselves apart, I would discover that my fountain pen, which feels so stable in my hand, is actually an impermanent aggregate, to which the concept “fountain pen” has been applied. And though it appears independent, it is really a locus of interdependent causes and conditions, including the manufacturers who produced its resin, metal, and ink, the craftsman who assembled it, and of course Mr. Sakata himself. Far from being a separate entity, my pen might better be seen as an event in the ever-changing web of life. For all its beauty and functionality, it is void of solidity or intrinsic existence.

That is no small discovery. And were I to continue my investigation, examining my Sailor 1911 under an electron microsope, I would see that my so-called fountain pen is mostly energy and formless space. I would recognize the formlessness—or what Zen teachings call “emptiness”beneath the form. Through direct experience, I would have verified the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries. “Form is no other than emptiness,” that sutra informs us, “emptiness no other than form”. A pen is indeed a pen, but it is also not a pen. And what is true of fountain pens is true of all phenomena, ourselves included.

To examine the world and the self in this fashion might seem a rather negative, if not destructive, enterprise, but in practice it is quite the opposite. It is as nurturing as it is liberating. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle explains:

Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.*

In Zen teachings, what Tolle describes as the “dimension of the formless” is usually called the “absolute” dimension. It is contrasted with the “relative” dimension, where a pen is a pen and a post is a post. In Zen training we are enjoined to see all things, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, from both perspectives. We cultivate a kind of double vision, seeing the changing and the changeless, the relative and the absolute, as two sides of a single coin. By so doing, we loosen our anxious attachments to things and thoughts and feelings, having recognized that ultimately there is nothing solid to be attached to, or any need to be attached. And if peace arises, as it often does, it is because at long last we are seeing things as they are.


*Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), 81.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »