Posts Tagged ‘czeslaw milosz’


When greyhounds race on a track, they chase an artificial rabbit. Mistaking that furry object for the real thing, they pursue it with all their might.

During a recent greyhound race in Australia, however, a living, breathing rabbit wandered onto the track. Spotting that hapless creature, a greyhound named Ginny Lou took off in hot pursuit, leaving the other dogs to their delusion. Apparently, Ginny Lou could distinguish between the illusory and the real, and she chose to pursue the latter.

To make that distinction is also the work of the Zen practitioner. And to reconnect us with our actual lives is a defining aim of Zen meditation. The poet Czeslaw Milosz once described the art of poetry as the “passionate pursuit of the Real,” and much the same might be said of Zen practice. During the course of a day we might expend the bulk of our energy chasing artificial rabbits, but when we are practicing Zen meditation, we are pursuing the real one: the moment-to-moment reality of things as they are.

That pursuit often begins with the body. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational text for Zen students, directs the practitioner to recite, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body // Breathing out, I calm my body.” In keeping with that prescription, the contemporary Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer advises us to begin a sitting by sweeping our awareness lightly through our bodies. “The point,” he explains, “is to arrive in the body, to be aware of the body as sensation and process, to ground [ourselves] in the body as basis so that thought and emotion don’t fly too far afield.” * In similar fashion, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh directs us to bring compassionate awareness to the various parts of our bodies, including our internal organs: “Aware of my lungs, I breathe in. / Smiling to my lungs, I breathe out. / Aware of my heart, I breathe in. / Bringing kind attention to my heart, I breathe out.” By such means, we return to our bodies, grounding ourselves in our physical lives.

Having established ourselves in that awareness, we can then turn our attention to our states of mind. In Zen teachings, mind and body are often seen as aspects of each other. “What happens to the body,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “happens to the mind.” By being aware of the present state of the body—relaxed or tense, energetic or fatigued, balanced or imbalanced—we may already be aware of our present state of mind. To sharpen that awareness, however, we might ask ourselves, “What is my state of mind just now?” Or, more concretely, “Is my mind/body tight or loose?” Employing that classic analogy (which originally referred to the strings of a lute), we can then investigate the causes of tightness or looseness, identifying such specific states as craving, fear, or anger, on the one hand, or balance, elation, and equanimity, on the other. And as with awareness of the body, we can bring kind attention to whatever state of mind we may be experiencing, noting the effect of our awareness on our fear or anger, our craving or agitation.

Meditation of this kind steadies the body and mind. In Zen practice, however, it also serves a broader aim, which is the recognition and acceptance of our present lives, just as they are, just now.  “Do not get carried away,” Dogen Zenji admonishes us in his Instructions to the Cook, “by the sounds of spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective.” ** Commenting on this passage, the Soto master Kosho Uchiyama urges us “to be resolved that whatever we meet is our life,” and to “see the four seasons of favorable circumstances, adversity, despair, and exaltation all as the scenery of [our lives].”  Such an attitude, which Dogen identifies as “Magnanimous Mind,” can profoundly alter our experience of the world, engendering a deeper realism as well as a more balanced perspective. Uchiyama Roshi describes its impact in this way:

When we have developed this kind of attitude toward our lives, the meaning of living day by day changes completely, along with our valuation of the events and people and circumstances that arise. Since we no longer try to escape from delusion, misfortune, or adversity, nor chase after enlightenment and peace of mind, things like money and position lose their former value. People’s reputations or their skills at maneuvering in society have no bearing on the way we see them as human beings, nor does a certificate of enlightenment make any impression on anyone. What is primary and essential is that as we develop this vision, the meaning of encountering the things, situations, or people in our lives completely changes.***

Artificial rabbits abound, as do encouragements to chase them. But as Dogen’s observations and Uchiyama’s commentary make clear, we can indeed develop another kind of vision, in which things appear as they actually are, not as our conditioning would have them be. Like Ginny Lou, we too can pursue the real.


*Norman Fischer, Sailing Home (Free Press, 2008), 79.

**Eihei Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook), q. in Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment (Shambhala, 2005), 47.

***Uchiyama, 49.

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