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Posts Tagged ‘cypress in the garden’

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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