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Posts Tagged ‘Dai Bosatsu Zendo’

TNH bell

Years ago at a literary conference, I lent a book to a Japanese friend. A few days later, as the conference was ending, she returned the book, holding it with both hands and presenting it to me as if it were an offering. Silent, direct, and present-minded, her gesture filled the space between us. And though she was not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, her action epitomized the practice of Zen.

In the early years of my formal Zen training, I learned to do everything—or almost everything—with two hands. No one taught me to do this. Rather I learned it through observing longtime Zen practitioners. Observation, of course, is one thing and performance another. And for a Westerner like me, the practice of using both hands to return a book or to hold and strike a bell, however conventional in East Asian cultures, felt foreign and unnatural.

I grew up in a culture, after all, where “single-handed” is a term of praise. As a teenager, newly licensed to drive, I tooled around in my father’s Buick, my left elbow resting in the open window and my right hand on the wheel. My friends and I thought that way of driving manly and cool. And well into my thirties, I could be seen walking across a room with a book in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. Only decades later, as I was learning Zen at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats and subsequently at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, was I to experience the benefits and indeed the joys of using both hands to perform the actions of ordinary life. Those benefits are many, but three in particular stand out.

First and most obvious, using both hands concentrates attention. It aligns the body and focuses the mind. If you once took Driver Training, as I did, you were probably taught to keep both hands on the steering wheel, the left at ten o’clock and the right at two. This physical configuration enables the driver to maneuver quickly in an emergency. And even under normal driving conditions, this simple discipline keeps the body aligned and the eyes trained on the road ahead. Likewise, in everyday, domestic situations, developing the habit of using two hands can make life easier, safer, and less costly. Transferring an expensive china plate from the dish drainer to the cupboard, for example, we are less likely to chip or break it. Closing a door, we are less likely to slam it or leave it ajar.

In the second place, using both hands balances the two sides of the body and by extension the distracted or agitated mind. I am decidedly right-handed. My given name means “son of the right hand,” and I more than live up to my name. I suspect that the same is true for most people, unless they are ambidextrous, and it becomes more so with advancing age. Training oneself to use two hands when filling a bird feeder or picking up a garden tool balances the tendency to favor one side of the body over the other. And, like cross-legged sitting, this practice also integrates the left and right sides of the body/mind. As the Zen teacher Christian Dillo has observed, the act of pouring tea with two hands, as is done in Zen rituals, aligns the spine, the shoulder girdle, and the chest of the server toward the teapot and the person being served. And in my experience, the practice also promotes a sense of somatic and mental reunion: a reuniting of the body/mind into one, naturally functioning whole.

Third and perhaps most important for secular, 21st-century Westerners, using both hands in our daily tasks restores, or begins to restore, a sense of the ceremonial in everyday life. Some might call this a sense of the sacred. Call it what you will, the practice of using two hands for even the most mundane task counters the tendency to be inattentive and disrespectful, both in our attitudes toward physical objects and in our treatment of other people. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time, so is it hard to apply two hands to a task and not bring some degree of reverence to the present moment—the only moment, as Thich Nhat Hanh so often remarked, where life is available to us.

To be sure, the practice I’ve described is not for everyone. Nor should we make a fetish of it. Some actions, such as writing, shaving, or turning a door knob, are meant to be performed single-handedly. But if this practice should interest you, may I suggest you try it for a week and see what happens. Note how it affects your actions and their outcomes. Observe how it influences your state of mind. 

            __________

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 246.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh

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John Daido Loori

In his poem “New Hampshire” (1923), Robert Frost broods on the meaning of a place name. Listing the names of small towns in that state, he pauses at the name Still Corners, remarking that the town is “so called not because / The place is silent all day long, nor yet / Because it boasts a whisky still—because / It set out once to be a city and still / Is only corners, cross-roads in a wood.” Whether Frost is pulling the reader’s leg, as he was known to do, or is making a serious point about stunted growth, his riff calls attention to the suggestive ambiguity in the name he’s elected to contemplate.

A kindred ambiguity surrounds the phrase “the still point,” which Frost’s contemporary T.S. Eliot brought into prominence in his poem “Burnt Norton” (1936). In that expansive meditation on “time present and time past,” Eliot alludes to “the still point of the turning world,” a coinage that has since found its way into the mainstream of English discourse. At least three American wellness centers are known as The Still Point, and the British writer Amy Sackville chose the phrase as the title of her debut novel, identifying the “still point” with the North Pole. More pertinently for Zen practitioners, John Daido Loori (1931-2009), founder and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, invoked the phrase for his book Finding the Still Point, a basic manual on Zen meditation. For Loori, finding that point was an essential component of Zen practice, if not its central aim. (more…)

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return_to_innocence-2

“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest. (more…)

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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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  Dai Bosatsu Zendo      Meditation Hall

Dai Bosatsu Zendo
Meditation Hall

If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.

At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life. (more…)

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