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Archive for the ‘Zen’ Category

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory.

Not so in the Zen tradition, where the word special and, more broadly, the concept of specialness, occupy a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, the Zen tradition is based on what its founder, the fifth-century Indian monk Bodhidharma, called a “special transmission outside the scriptures,” which is to say, a special understanding of reality and the nature of mind, engendered by communion with an authentic teacher. Yet Zen is probably unique among spiritual disciplines in portraying its practices as “nothing special.” “My miraculous power and spiritual activity:,” wrote the eighth-century Buddhist practitioner Layman P’ang, “drawing water and carrying wood.” More recently, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), founder of the first Zen monastery in America, explained to his students that “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.” And the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), author of Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993), insisted that the practice of “living Zen,” as she called it, was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary. Coming from realized masters who devoted their lives to Zen, these characterizations may seem curious or even disingenuous. Yet they point toward the paradoxical nature of the practice.

The true spirit of Zen, it may be said, resides in ordinary life. Although committed practitioners, lay and monastic alike, spend long hours in silent sitting, releasing thoughts as they come and go, and though advanced practitioners may experience those transformative moments of illumination known as kensho and satori, the primary aim of Zen practice is not some special vision or attainment that will elevate the heroic, solitary practitioner above other, unenlightened beings or convey some special authority. Rather, it is to train us to be mindful in all of our activities and to perform them in full awareness, whether the task at hand be washing dishes, cleaning a bathtub, or driving a car in heavy traffic. Grasping for some special experience or state of mind, we distract ourselves from that central aim.

And all too often, we delude ourselves as well. In his book Why Buddhism Is True (2017), the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright asserts that a “sense of specialness,” applied to ourselves, our families, our tribes, and our species, may be hardwired into our brains. Such a predisposition, he suggests, is natural selection’s way of ensuring our survival and the propagation of our genes. Be that as it may, our conferring of special status upon a person, place, or spiritual practice may have little or nothing to do with objective reality. As the psychologist Robert Zajonc has written, “[A]ffective judgments are always about the self. They identify the state of the judge in relation to the object of judgment.” If our overarching aim, as Zen practitioners, is “just to live, always in reality,” and to align ourselves and our actions with things as they are, the notion of specialness and the imposition of that notion on our immediate experience are likely to be more subversive than constructive.

Zen is a non-dualistic practice. It encourages us to see and accept the whole of our lives, rather than rank one moment of consciousness over another or compartmentalize our experience under such rubrics as “sacred” or “profane,” “trivial” or “profound.” By labeling a particular experience “special,” we imply that our other experiences are “not-so-special” or perhaps “non-special.” As Zen masters from Seng-ts’an (d. 606) to Thich Nhat Hanh have warned, dualistic descriptions slash undifferentiated reality into separate parts. Such discrimination is necessary for navigating the world, but without the balancing forces of awareness and holistic intuition, our powers of discrimination can immure us in our bubbles of dualistic thought and blind us to the realities beckoning our attention. All the more reason to abandon our notions of specialness, or failing that, hold them in abeyance. By so doing, we will not only cease to delude ourselves. We may also restore our sense of the wonder, beauty, and boundlessness—the specialness, as it were—of every moment of our lives.

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Photo: Meditation hall, Dai Bosatsu Zendo

The translation of Layman P’ang’s lines is by Stephen Mitchell. See The Enlightened Mind (Harper, 1993), his anthology of sacred writings.

The comment by Robert Zajonc is quoted by Robert Wright in Why Buddhism is True, p. 236.

 

 

 

 

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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. (more…)

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Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. (more…)

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Julian Bream, 1964

On this snowy winter evening I’ve been listening to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland (1963), a twenty-minute piece for solo guitar composed for the English lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream (b. 1933). By turns dreamy and martial, restless and serene, this masterpiece of the modern guitar repertoire can be heard on Bream’s 1967 album 20th Century Guitar, one of forty CD’s in my newly-acquired Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection (2013). Released in conjunction with Bream’s eightieth birthday, this handsome boxed set is both a treasure trove of music for classical guitar and a tribute to a great musician’s lifetime achievement. And for this listener, the collection also evokes an enduring memory. (more…)

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Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? (more…)

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BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. (more…)

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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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