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Posts Tagged ‘Diamond Sutra’

Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind.

Fixed ideas

Some ideas come and go.  Accidental in origin, they cross our minds, only to promptly disappear. By contrast, other ideas set up house and resist eviction. They become our idées fixe: our fixed ideas. To the extent that we identify with those ideas, regarding them as our very own, they continue to influence our thought, speech, and actions.

Sometimes our fixed ideas reflect our ethical convictions and fortify our personal integrity. They provide a moral compass. But such ideas can also cause us to blindly “stay the course,” even when the course is destructive, and to see people and events from a static, limited perspective. That is why the Diamond Sutra urges us to cultivate “a mind that alights nowhere”: a mind that remains fluid and responsive under changing conditions.

Various methods have been developed for that purpose. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, admonishes us to take “the backward step” and to examine our inner lives, including our habitual patterns of thought, from that perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to keep the question, “Are you sure?” uppermost in mind when addressing difficult questions. And Shunryu Suzuki bids us remember that even our cherished verities are “not always so.” Any or all of these methods can loosen the hold of our fixed ideas.

Preferences

“The Great Way is not difficult,” a revered Zen text assures us, “for those who have no preferences.” The author of this pronouncement, the Third Zen Ancestor, does not mention where such people might be found.

Preferences are intrinsic to human nature. Without our personal preferences, we would be dull creatures indeed. Here in Western New York, I have a friend who prefers winter to summer. He has come to the right place. For my own part, I prefer green tea to coffee, chamber music to orchestral music, and Mozart to Wagner any day of the week.

There is nothing harmful about such preferences. The risk lies in our attachment to them. Such attachment can restrict our imaginative freedom and our ability to develop a broader, wiser, and more compassionate outlook. As with our fixed ideas, our preferences can be tenacious, but insofar as their presence is merely arbitrary or reactive, they can be challenged, suspended, or abandoned altogether. What is needed, as before, is full and continuous awareness, joined with the will to manifest greater breadth of mind.

Dualistic thinking

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax recently remarked that we human beings have a “penchant for dualities.” From the cradle on, we are conditioned to see the world through the lens of dualistic language and thought. Dark and light, hot and cold, beautiful and ugly. Even more fundamental are the dualities of “self” and “other,” “us” and “them.”

From the vantage point of Zen, such dualities are both necessary for survival and ultimately delusive. What meditative practice reveals, moment by moment, is that both the self and the external world are impermanent and interdependent. The world of phenomena is not a mere assemblage of solid “things” but an intricate web of ever-changing relationships. And the so-called self is not a separate entity but an integral part of that dynamic whole. “Unity is diversity,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “and diversity is unity.”

Such a view is neither common nor conventional. To embrace and practice it requires energy, persistence, and perhaps the help of a good teacher. But the effort is well worth it, if our intention is to disentangle ourselves from our fixed ideas, transcend our self-limiting preferences, and realize our innate capacity to see life whole.

 

 

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Open seaAs a boy growing up in eastern Iowa, I savored the word dwell, which I heard on many a Sunday morning. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, I intoned with the rest of the congregation, not quite understanding the context but reassured by the general idea. The word was pleasant to pronounce. It made a pleasing sound.

Only later did I learn that dwell bears a negative connotation. “Don’t dwell on it,” I was advised, in the aftermath of some abrasive encounter. “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Used in that fashion, dwell meant to brood, to worry, to concentrate unhealthily on some slight or insult or perceived injustice. Nowadays, for good or ill, many people use the verb obsess to describe the same habit of mind. “Don’t obsess about it,” we might advise a person who can’t stop talking about a personal dilemma, or can’t let go of a painful experience, as though that person had a choice, or our well-intentioned counsel might be helpful. (more…)

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