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Posts Tagged ‘Eihei Dogen’

A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion.

Impermanence

Impermanence is a fact of life. Even the most cursory observation of the world around us is enough to confirm that all conditioned things are subject to change, including those we most cherish. Likewise that world of thought and feeling known as the inner life. It, too, is subject to what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Yet, despite this general recognition, expressed in such common adages as “all things change” or “this, too, will pass,”’ one important aspect of the law of impermanence often goes unheeded.

That aspect is the continuous, moment-by-moment nature of change and transformation. It is one thing to stop from time to time and note how an object of attention has altered—how, for example, the faces of our children and grandchildren have defined themselves, or how their minds have matured. It is quite another to recognize and continuously acknowledge that, as Zen teachings put it, every moment is a birth and a death. Toward that end, a silent, continuously moving second hand is both a useful instrument and a stern reminder. It dispels false notions of permanence and banishes illusions of control.  And, like the evening prayer posted in Zen monasteries, it implores us not to squander our lives.

Yardsticks

In his book Living by Vow, the Soto Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura observes that most of us apply our personal yardsticks to our experience. We impose human metrics upon the fluid, boundless realities we encounter. In the same way that an ordinary ticking clock calibrates the time it is telling—one pulse, one tick per second—we, too, impose our fixed standards upon the flux of experience. By circling the perimeter of a clock face, not stopping to mark each unit of time, an incessantly moving second hand reminds us that the twelve established numbers and the sixty second-marks of the clock face are imposed, conventional measures. Beyond their artifice lies the reality: the unmeasured, uninterrupted flow of time.

This is an important reminder, not least because it mimics the way in which our conditioned expectations, habitual judgments, and self-centered thoughts govern our perceptions of the world. As Shohaku Okumura remarks, we cannot discard our yardsticks. We need them to navigate the world, and they are all we have. But with practice and awareness we can come to see their limitations, and we can let them go. And “when we live in this way,” Okumura notes, “without attachment to objects or to our conditioned way of viewing and judging things, the lotus flower can bloom in our lives.”

The Present Moment

For centuries, Zen teachings have admonished us to return to the present moment. To practice Zen, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh asserts, is to be “present for the present moment.”

Yet, as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, observes in his Genjokoan, the so-called present moment is no more than a “geometrical line” that separates the past and the future.  That line has no width, length, or intrinsic existence. It is not a unit of time. A silent second hand, coursing rapidly and relentlessly past the second marks, vividly represents that reality.  But, as Okumura notes in his book Realizing Genjokoan, “reality unfolds only within this present moment.” If we truly wish to be present for our unfolding lives, we must endeavor to be present for that ungraspable moment. Such is the aim, the challenge, and the ultimate reward of Zen practice.

___________

 Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 128.

Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan (Wisdom, 2010), 120.

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408px-representation_of_laozi“Do your work,” wrote Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “then step back—the only path to peacefulness.” Sage advice in itself, this admonition also points toward two complementary practices in the Zen tradition. Undertaken individually, these practices can deepen and illuminate our everyday lives. Undertaken together, they can promote a wholesome balance of action and insight, engagement and contemplative awareness, enabling us to live more wisely. (more…)

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sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate. (more…)

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Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

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             Hotei    Kano Takanobu, 1616

Hotei
Kano Takanobu, 1616

Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.

Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life. (more…)

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800px-Labyrinth_28Exert yourself. Whether conscious or unrecognized, that imperative underlies our everyday experience. Our livelihoods and indeed our survival depend upon our exertions. If we are to compete, achieve, and contribute to the common good, we must exert ourselves. Even the pursuit of happiness, as it is called, requires exertion. No rest for the weary, and no mercy for the slacker.

Yet even the highest achievers need their rest. The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz was once asked how he managed to play so many notes so quickly. “I relax between notes,” he cheerfully replied. As Horowitz well understood, rest and relaxation are essential, both before and during performance. They make strenuous exertion possible.

Quite often, people in need of rest and relaxation find their way to Zen practice. Viewed from a distance, the practice offers the prospect of unruffled calm. Yet, as newcomers soon find out, it is not always easy to rest or relax, even in a meditative setting. For those accustomed to multi-tasking, hyperconnectivity, and busyness generally, the simple act of stopping and resting can be as challenging as the most demanding activity.  Admonished to sit still, the body rebels. A shoulder aches; a knee hurts; a foot wants to fidget. Efforts to correct one’s posture or relieve one’s unease often result only in new forms of discomfort. Wedded to incessant movement, the body wants to do, not merely to be. (more…)

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