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Posts Tagged ‘Eihei Dogen’

Katherine-Thanas-SCZC

“Recently,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas in her book The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), “I have come to realize that our work is to love the world just as it is.” The work to which she is referring is the practice of Zen meditation. “Loving the world as it is,” she goes on to say, “is being willing to be in the only world we know.”

At first blush, these statements may seem jarring. The world we currently know, if we keep abreast of the news, is a world of environmental peril, intractable racial conflict, political polarization, an unending pandemic, and, as of late, a dangerous and destabilizing Eastern European war. These and other social and political forces have inflicted enormous suffering on untold numbers of people, often through no fault of their own. A grudging acceptance of these realities is one thing. To propose that we love such a world is quite another. To the skeptical mind, Thanas’s advice may seem, at best, naïve, and at worst, culpably detached.

In fact, it is neither. Far from being out of touch, Thanas is acutely aware of the painful realities that many people are presently enduring. Invoking the First Noble Truth of the Buddhist tradition (“Life is suffering”), she acknowledges that “the reality of our life is fragile . . . and subject to changing conditions. Many of us are experiencing financial, psychological, emotional, and social insecurity.” But, as she also observes, once we have discovered that “it’s not in our power to make our lives safe and secure for ourselves and our families, we begin to become aligned with life as it is. Humility and maturity may arise.” We can further develop those qualities by meeting both the social reality and that of our inner lives with a clear and open mind, rather than one of reflexive, ego-driven resistance.

According to Zen teachings, most of us view the world through the lens of our ideas, if not our prejudices and ideologies. Thich Nhat Hanh often noted that our ideas of happiness—that we must acquire new possessions, for example, to be happy—impede us from enjoying or even noticing the sources of happiness immediately at hand. The practice of Zen, Thanas rightly observes, “is about penetrating the membrane of mentality that’s between us and our life. It’s meeting something beyond what the mind knows: meeting with our body, our senses, our skin, our ears. We accomplish this when we trust ourselves enough to drop off what the mind knows.” If we genuinely wish to realize what Thanas calls the “truth of this life,” we have first to set aside our abstract concepts—the “membrane of mentality”—and return to the evidence of our senses. Rather than treat the world as a set of problems, to which we bring our settled knowledge and fixed opinions, we can go beyond our views and meet present realities directly with “our body, our senses, our skin, our ears.”

As noted above, the world that Thanas urges us to encounter directly includes not only the external, objective world of public events and historical facts but “the actual life we have—our habits of mind, our desires, our disappointments, our fears, our embarrassments.” By contemplating these mental and emotional phenomena from the vantage point of a still and stable mind, we begin to understand the “dynamics of our mental life,” particularly the notion that “there is some better state of mind than ours.” Meeting our actual lives, intimately and fully through the practice of meditation, we can, in the words of Joseph Goldstein, open what is closed, balance what is reactive, and reveal what is hidden in the body, heart, and mind. And having identified those closeted, imbalanced, and hidden elements of our experience, we can endeavor to befriend rather than resist, ignore, or deny them.

The first fruit of a mature and disciplined Zen practice is a state of stillness and one-pointed concentration. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called it “unconstructed stillness.” In this state of mind, the self “receives,” as Thanas puts it, “its own freedom, its own contraction and relaxation, absorption and release.” Known in Zen as samadhi, this state is “the gift we give to the world, the gift we receive ourselves.” When we are in samadhi, whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may occur are allowed to arise, abide, and disappear, without judgment or commentary. By cultivating samadhi, day after day, whether we are sitting in meditation, working, or performing routine household tasks, we can learn to accept what is, including and especially those things we cannot change, in a spirit of joy and delight. And over time, Thanas would add, we can come to love them, just as they are.

________

Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), 78-81.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (Shambhala,1987), 15-22.

Photo: Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012).

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Wind bell PS

As a wedding gift eighteen years ago, two of our friends gave my wife and me a wind bell. Tall, pyramidical, and unadorned, it has hung from the branch of a spruce tree for nearly two decades. Its three steel sides and the triangular plate suspended from its clapper are rusted now, and the tree has long since died. But whenever the wind comes up with sufficient force, we are summoned by a distant, resonant clang, clang, clang—a reminder at once of continuity and change.

Wind bells have been around for millennia. In the late twelfth century Tendō Nyojō, a revered Zen master and the teacher of Eihei Dōgen, wrote a poem about his own: (more…)

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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? (more…)

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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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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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