Posts Tagged ‘Alfred’

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice.

For the past two decades the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, has met weekly at the same time—7:30 on Sunday evenings—and in the same location: a spacious, high-ceilinged room in the Miller Center at Alfred University. We have trod, as it were, a well-worn path. And every week the protocol of our sessions has remained essentially the same. After seating ourselves on zafus (round cushions) and chairs in facing rows, in the traditional style of Rinzai Zen, and after the customary bows, the lighting of incense, and the low tones of a gong, we begin by drinking genmaicha, a green tea flavored with roasted brown rice, holding our yunomi—our small, handle-less cups—with both hands. Mindful of the saying chazen ichimi (“Zen and the taste of tea are one and the same”), we take time to savor our tea. When we have finished, our jikijitsu (timekeeper) strikes his wooden clappers, and we chant Atta Dipa (“Be a lamp unto yourself), the purported last words of the Buddha. This practice reunites body, breath, and mind, while also affirming our intention.

Having thus prepared ourselves, we settle into our first sitting. For the next twenty minutes we sit together in stillness and silence, following our breathing. Then, at the sound of the inkin (a hand-held bell), we rise and proceed to practice kinhin (walking meditation), maintaining continuous awareness while making a circuit around our facing rows. Next comes a second, twenty-minute sitting, followed by a recitation from Zen teachings. Once again, the inkin sounds, and we rise together. Our sessions conclude with another crack of the clappers, a deep formal bow, and our palms pressed together in gassho: a gesture of respect for ourselves, the practice, and our fellow practitioners.

All of these forms are rooted in Zen tradition. They derive from the exacting forms and rituals of Japanese Rinzai Zen, as practiced at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the Zen monastery where I received formal training. To a newcomer such forms may seem awkward, but to those of us who have practiced them for decades, they have come to seem both natural and reliably supportive. Like other established conventions, they feel as familiar and dependable as they are old.

Yet every Sunday evening, without fail, something new arises: a new circumstance, a new experience, a new understanding.

The Falling Leaf Sangha consists of a core of committed practitioners, ranging in age from eighteen to ninety, but we have always welcomed newcomers, be they students, faculty or staff, or members of the wider community. Children have sometimes attended, accompanied by their parents. After a brief orientation, in which we introduce the basics of sitting practice, the new participants join us in our facing rows. Their presence colors the tone of the sitting, as do other changing conditions, including the rhythms of the seasons, the light streaming through the tall windows, and, not least, the presence or absence of external sounds—the noises in the building, the traffic in the street below. All of these conditions, as well as others too numerous to mention, shape the experience of everyone in the room. No two sittings are quite the same.

Nor should we expect them to be. According to Zen teachings, each moment of our lives is unprecedented and unrepeatable. Although such phrases as “same old, same old” mask the newness of each new moment, that quality is there all the same. Our practice is not only to observe the received forms of the Zen tradition but to cultivate openness to what is indeed unprecedented and unrepeatable in every moment, lest it escape our notice. In this way, as one of my teachers put it, we more fully appreciate “this precious moment together.”

Paradoxically, adherence to established forms heightens our sensitivity to what is new in every sitting. Shakespeare wrote thousands of lines of verse in a single form: the decasyllabic line known as iambic pentameter. Yet within that form, any number of expressive variations—in rhythm, diction, texture, and tone—are possible, and it is the stable presence of the established form that allows those variations to be heard. Analogously, by practicing zazen (seated meditation) in the authentic, time-honored fashion, Sunday after Sunday, we open ourselves to the boundless fluctuations, the nourishing freshness of the present moment. By taking the path we took yesterday—and the day before—we learn something new.






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Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” (more…)

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