Posts Tagged ‘dhammapada’

800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (more…)

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As I look out our kitchen window, the most prominent presence in my field of vision is the fifty-year-old pin oak tree in our backyard. Embedded in its trunk, halfway up, is a red metal hook, which the bark has nearly concealed. Running up and down from the hook is a long, deep crack.

Twenty years ago, I screwed that six-inch bike hook into the trunk. At the time, I owned no clothes dryer, and it occurred to me that I might run a clothesline between the house and the tree. My notion was innocent enough, and, by today’s ecological standards, admirably green. What did not occur to me is that I might injure the tree.

As injuries go, the one I inflicted is less than catastrophic. Over the past two decades, the oak tree has thrived, and now it towers above our house, providing shade in the summer and a year-round habitat for birds and other creatures. It is, in fact, in vigorous health, as shown by the volume of acorns it dumps on our deck, the piles of leaves it deposits in our gutters.

Yet that red hook remains, as does the ugly scar it caused. And together they illustrate the principle of cause and effect, which in Zen teachings is known as karma. In popular culture, that word carries mystical associations, conjuring a chain of causation that extends well beyond the boundaries of this life. But the root meaning of “karma” is simply “action,” and, as used in Zen, it usually means just that. This is because that is. Our words and deeds have consequences. In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, what we say and do creates “our continuation, whether we want it to be so or not”.

To those of a reflective disposition, that is hardly news. Live long enough, and you will observe the long-term effects of even the most casual compliment, insult, reassurance, or rebuke. And that is to say nothing of our major actions, personal, social, and political—actions whose effects may ramify for generations. But in Zen teachings, as in the law, it is not only words and deeds that matter. So do the thoughts that gave rise to the words and deeds.

“Mind,” we are told in the first verse of the Dhammapada, a fundamental text in the Zen tradition, “is the forerunner of action. / All deeds are led by mind, created by mind. / If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering will follow, / As the cart follows the hoof of the ox.” Conversely, if one “speaks or acts with a serene mind/ Happiness will follow, / As surely as one’s shadow.”*

Taken seriously, these lines have serious implications. We are responsible, they imply, for our thoughts and states of mind as well as our words and deeds. And we are also responsible for cultivating a “serene” mind, which is to say, a mind that looks deeply, sees clearly, and causes as little harm as possible.

As I look out our kitchen window in the early mornings, I am sometimes reminded of those admonitions.

March 12, 2009


* The Dhammapada, tr. Ven. Ananda Maitreya (Parallax Press 1995), 1.

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