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“Before I studied Zen,” goes a famous Zen saying, “I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I had studied Zen for thirty years I no longer saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. But now that I have finally mastered Zen, I once again see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.”

The author of that saying is the poet and Ch’an master Ch’ing Yuan, who lived in the eighth century CE. However, his saying transcends its time and place, and it has long since entered Western culture. A version of it may be heard in the song “There Is a Mountain” by the Scottish folksinger Donovan.

Evoking the landscape of ancient China, Ch’ing Yuan’s saying bears a foreign, romantic aura, but like many Zen proverbs it is also an eminently practical observation. It has less to do with objects seen than with a way of seeing. Ch’ing Yuan used mountains and rivers as examples because they were prominent presences in his daily life. But his saying becomes more accessible if we substitute presences that have become prominent—and troubling—in our own lives of late. I am thinking of American banks and, more broadly, of the global financial system.

To most of us, a bank is a bank. It is always there—an abiding presence that might well be a mountain, so central and established is its place in the community. We keep our money there—or rather, it keeps our money and our important papers, and we rely on it to do so. Although its rates, fees, and policies vary from year to year, its presence is as constant as it is secure. You can take it to the bank, we say, knowing exactly what we mean.

Yet, as Ch’ing Yuan discovered through thirty years of contemplation, mountains are not mountains, insofar as “mountains” denotes something that possesses a separate, intrinsic, and unchanging self. And, as many of us have recently discovered, banks are not as solid as they seem . Their names may remain the same, but their assets are constantly in flux. And however independent they may appear, they are components of an interdependent system, which is no more stable than our rapidly changing climate.

To recognize as much may be deeply distressing, but in the end it is liberating. No longer imprisoned by an illusion of solidity, we see, as Ch’ing Yuan did, the impermanence at the core of our existence. Having nothing solid to cling to, be it a mutual fund or a Treasury bond, we are released from clinging. And if we can extend this realization to all conditioned things, including our bodies, thoughts, and states of mind, we may experience what the Dalai Lama has called “the only true peace, the only true liberation.”

Yet, as Ch’ing Yuan acknowledged in the third part of his saying, we live in the ordinary relative world, where mountains are mountains and banks are banks. Attachment to the illusion of permanence, financial or otherwise, can cause great suffering, but so can a lofty attachment to the insight of impermanence. That is why Zen teachings urge us to cultivate mindfulness in our everyday lives as well as in the zendo. By so doing, we maintain awareness of what Peter Matthiessen has called “the eternally rising and perishing reality of the world,” even as we make our mortgage payments or reallocate our assets. And over time we come to rely on that immovable awareness, which isn’t depressed when we’re depressed or poor when we are poor. On the contrary, it is a refuge from temporal conditions, more dependable than any bank and more durable than any mountain.

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A few hours before Sarah Palin was to deliver her speech at the Republican National Convention, BBC correspondent Katty Kay observed that Ms. Palin seemed a little nervous.

“I guess we’d all be a bit nervous, wouldn’t we?” replied anchorman Matt Frei, before moving on to another matter.

As it turned out, Governor Palin did not appear nervous at all. But I took note of the Kay-Frei exchange because it represents a conversational paradigm that has become conspicuous in recent years. It goes something like this:

“Nixon was a crooked politician.”

“All politicians are crooked.”

Or like this:

“I’m feeling sleepy tonight.”

“You’re always sleepy after dinner.”

I could offer more examples, but perhaps the point is clear. In each instance a particular observation prompts a generalized reply. And the general statement trumps the particular. It no longer matters whether Sarah Palin was nervous or Nixon was crooked. It’s as if the first speaker had noted a specific instance of a universal pattern, which the second speaker understands. Innocence meets experience, and the case is closed.

Whatever the origins of this paradigm, and whatever it might reflect about contemporary culture, to the Zen practitioner it represents the essential delusion that Zen warns us against, the dream from which we must awaken if we are to see things as they are.

Perhaps all politicians are crooked, but quite possibly some are not. But in this instance, as in the others, we will never know, because we have stopped inquiring. A general concept has taken the place of direct experience. A verbal absolute has masked the unprecedented, unrepeatable reality before us.

Because Zen practice is chiefly concerned with that reality, Zen is forever calling us back from the sphere of abstract thought to the concrete world in front of our noses. Only in the here and now, the Zen masters exhort us, can we live out the reality of our lives—or, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “keep our appointment with life.”

The Indian sage Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism from India to China in the fifth century CE. In a well-known Zen koan, a student asks his teacher, the Chan master Joshu (778-897), why Bodhidharma came to China.

“The cypress in the garden,” Joshu replies.

Like many a Zen koan, this appears to be a non sequitur. But it makes intuitive sense, once we realize that Joshu is hauling his student back from the ether of speculation to the world at hand. “Come home!” he might be saying. “Come home to where you are.”

Joshu lived in a time very different from ours, but the story of his retort is worth remembering, if only because it offers an antidote to the malady I’ve been describing. “Stop and look!” it is telling us. And look into what you see

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One afternoon, as I stood in a room in a Seattle hotel, I felt the building sway and the floor move beneath my feet. “What’s going on?” I said aloud, before I realized what had happened.

The hotel had swayed because it was meant to. Like other skyscrapers, it was designed to sway by as much as a foot in a high wind. If that seems like a lot, we have only to consider the skyscraper presently under construction in Dubai. At its current height of 2,250 feet, the Burj Dubai is already the world’s tallest man-made structure. Its pilings extend more than 150 feet into the ground. But when completed, its Sky Tower will sway as much as ten feet in the wind. A symbol of wealth and power, the Burj Dubai also exemplifies stability joined to resilience.

Although the human body is not a skyscraper, the posture of Zen meditation has much in common with the structure of tall buildings. Both require solidity below and flexibility above.

When we sit down to meditate, we first create a solid foundation. We sit on the first third of the cushion, letting our knees rest on the mat below. Crossing our legs in one of the “lotus” positions, we take care to elevate the pelvis above the knees. By so doing, we establish a triangular base of support, our two knees and our sitting bones becoming the three points of the triangle.

Having established that immovable base, we bend forward, then come up slowly, allowing the back to straighten itself. We push the crown of the head upward, stretching the spine. Rocking from side to side, we decrease this movement until the spine is vertical and aligned with the earth’s gravitational force. Then we exhale, deeply and completely, as we relax into the posture of meditation. Although the upper body is motionless and upright, it is also flexible and light..

For Westerners, especially those accustomed to slouching in an armchair or sitting rigidly at a computer, this posture may initially feel uncomfortable. But with practice, it can become the most natural way of sitting, as well as the one most beneficial to the body and mind.

At the physical level, the posture of meditation promotes the free flow of air into and out of the lungs. More broadly, it permits the free flow of energy throughout the body. As the weight of the body settles into its center of gravity—the hara, or lower abdomen—our muscles relax, and our tensions lessen. Rather than resist the directional energies of gravitation, the body enjoys their support.

In tandem with the calming of the body, the posture of meditation also calms the mind. In Zen meditation, we sometimes count our exhalations or follow the movement of the breath into and out of our lungs. But even without these aids to concentration, the posture of meditation fosters clarity of mind. When the body is grounded, upright, and relaxed, the mind more easily sheds its fantasies and fears, its worries and incessant chatter.

Beyond these tangible benefits, the posture of meditation also engenders a more open attitude toward the world. In ordinary life, we often brace ourselves, physically and emotionally, against the “other,” whether the other is threatening us or not. We defend what we call our “selves”. By adopting the posture of meditation we cultivate a suppler and more receptive attitude toward the realities of our lives, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be. Like tall but resilient buildings, we sway in the wind.


Since this column was written, the Burj Dubai has been renamed the Burj Khalifa. For my understanding of stability and resilience I am indebted to Will Johnson’s The Posture of Meditation (Shambhala, 1996).

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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