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Posts Tagged ‘Eihei Dogen’

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question. “How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

Paradoxical and enigmatic, this statement alludes to a classic Zen koan: Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves. Zen koans—those ancient Chinese anecdotes, dialogues, and apothegms that Zen students are assigned to memorize and contemplate—often pose logic-defying questions (“What was your original face before your parents were born?”). By internalizing the question and living with it for a time, the student awakens intuitive insight. In this instance, however, the main point of interest is not the question but the master’s answer. What might it mean, we might inquire, to walk straight by winding along?

Such an inquiry might begin with consideration of the word straight, which calls to mind a venerable Zen saying: Jikishin kore dojo (“The straightforward mind is the place of practice.”). In Japanese, jiki can mean “direct,” “correct,” or “looking straight ahead.” Closely associated with Zen, the tea ceremony, and the martial arts, jikishin kore dojo equates the “place of practice” with the “straightforward mind” of the Zen practitioner. Free of anger, craving, and other destabilizing emotions, the straightforward mind perceives things as they are. To walk straight is to embody and realize this capacity. And it is also to pursue, with integrity and a single-minded sense of purpose, one’s chosen vocation.

To do so may well require one to climb a “steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves.” In her commentary on Watanabe’s admonition, the Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi recalls the injunction of an earlier Zen master, Eihei Dogen, to “do good single-mindedly and continually.” “`Continually,’” she reminds us, “does not mean without stopping. As in driving a car, when we go down the road of life we cannot expect the traffic lights always to be green. Sometimes we have to stop at the red light of illness. . . . But stopping, retreating, or making a wide detour is more enriching and gives us far more inner strength than traveling down a straight and easy road.” The road of life, in other words, is seldom linear, and it is often complicated by dead ends, detours, and retreats—by its steepness and ninety-nine curves. Why ninety-nine? Like the phrase “the ten thousand things,” which crops up often in Zen and Taoist teachings, “ninety-nine” may be understood to mean “a great many.” It refers to the innumerable, unexpected stops and turns that one is more than likely to encounter.

Faced with the ninety-nine curves, we might prefer to take a short cut. The shortest distance, as we know, between two points is a straight line. “Walking straight” might imply avoiding the ninety-nine curves altogether. But such an attitude and the actions it engenders are neither constructive nor realistic. “When told to walk straight,” Aoyama writes, “we stupidly think we have to cross mountains, hills, rivers, and the sea in a straight line. Ignoring traffic lights, we dash off like a race car, looking neither left nor right. But we only deceive ourselves into thinking we progress as we lurch forward.”

By contrast, to “wind along” a winding road is to align oneself with the realities one is actually encountering. Embodying the “straightforward mind” of the committed practitioner, one makes true progress, impeded and delayed though it be by stops, turns, detours, and other apparent setbacks. To progress in this way requires patience and persistence. It also requires the ability to see clearly and the courage to resist, when necessary, those voices calling for rapidity, efficiency, or a culpable expediency.

Today more than a hundred projects are underway, one of the most promising being at Oxford University, to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. To those doctors and research scientists who are working night and day to accomplish that purpose: Thank you, and Godspeed. But for the rest of us, who have little practical choice but to wait, patiently or otherwise, for that urgent goal to be met, Watanabe Roshi’s advice is both timely and on the mark. Walking straight may well mean winding along.

__________

In her commentary: Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds: Essential Buddhist Teachings on Effort, Gratitude, and Happiness (Shambhala, 2019), 61.
 

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In a recent article for the New York Times (April 14), Jim Dwyer reported that the doctors and health-care workers at the front lines of the corona-virus pandemic are facing challenges not only to their health and safety but also to their previous medical knowledge. “What we thought we knew, we didn’t know,” said Dr. Nile Cemalovic, an intensive-care physician at Lincoln Memorial Center in the Bronx. As Dwyer explains, “certain ironclad emergency medical practices have dissolved almost overnight.”

By any standard, the circumstances under which doctors and health-care workers are currently laboring are extraordinary. At the same time, the experience of finding one’s knowledge obsolete or no longer useful is not unique to the present crisis. “Our knowledge is historical, flowing,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop. And, according to Zen teachings, our previously acquired knowledge can also be an impediment to present understanding. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts the matter this way: (more…)

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Roshi Joan Halifax

Zen is not a methodical practice. Its character is more holistic than linear. Insofar as method connotes an immediate goal or predictable outcome, the word and the outlook it represents run counter to Zen teachings. “There is nothing to be attained,” the Heart Sutra sternly reminds us. The byword of practice is not attain but continue.

All that said, methods can be useful, especially for newcomers and those whose practice is in need of renewal. Of the methods available, one of the most helpful is a six-step set of instructions formulated by Roshi Joan Halifax, Founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillful means,” and the Upaya instructions are at once skillful and comprehensive, both as a structure for meditation and as a means toward meditative insight. What follows is a summary of those instructions, interpreted in accordance with my own experience. (more…)

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If you enjoy cooking, as I do, and if you devote much time to that activity, you probably play favorites. You have your favorite recipes and your favorite ingredients. High in my own hierarchy would be certain meats (chicken,  pork tenderloin), fish (haddock, cod, sole), vegetables (yams, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli), and seasonings (turmeric, coriander, ginger, fenugreek). Much lower on the ladder would be salt, processed meats, and sugar (New York State maple syrup excepted). Beyond these personal preferences, there is the relative cost of any one ingredient. Fresh sea scallops at $19.99 / lb., it’s fair to say, receive greater respect than a common parsnip or humble clove of garlic.

Nothing unusual there, you might conclude, especially for an amateur chef aiming to create simple, frugal, and nutritious meals for his family and friends. But in a classic text of the Soto Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun; 1237), the founder of that tradition challenges the assumptions and the value system such conventional thinking represents. “When making a soup with ordinary greens,” Dogen advises, “do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. . . . Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain . . . Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality.”

As might be surmised from the last of those admonitions, Dogen has more than cooking in mind. The Tenzo Kyōkun is in part a practical manual for the head cook, or tenzo, of a Japanese Zen monastery. But in its broader, metaphoric dimension, it is also a guide for living, in which a medieval Zen master advocates a general attitude toward the conduct of everyday life. That attitude has multiple aspects, but three in particular stand out. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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