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Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –

 

                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,

 

                       but to practice

                        choosing

                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice.

In the 1970s, Hirshfield spent three years in residence at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is situated in the Los Padres National Forest in central California. The fragrance of cedar, we may infer from her title, was in the air. In Zen centers and monasteries, residents rise as early as 2:30, splash cold water on their faces, and make haste to the zendo (meditation hall) for the first sitting of the day. “Decades after,” as she puts it, Hirshfield is still continuing this practice, though her external circumstances no longer require her to do so. “What is this?” Zen students are enjoined to inquire, whether the focus of inquiry is a concrete object, a physical sensation, or a state of mind. In this instance, Hirshfield implicitly asks why she is still performing a less-than-pleasant action, morning after morning, when she no longer has to.

Employing abductive reasoning, her poem entertains three plausible explanations. The first is that she is maintaining the rigor of Zen discipline, as a musician might do in playing scales. The second is that she is reconnecting her present experience with what she has called the “diamond at the center of [her] life”: her years as a full-time Zen student at Tassajara. And the third is that she is using the shock of ice-cold water to awaken herself, awakening being a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Rejecting all these explanations, however, she answers her own question in five key words, each of which carries a rich cargo of meaning.

The first of these words is practice, a word and concept as essential in Zen as it is in medicine or law. In Zen, nearly every activity one might engage in, be it sitting, eating, walking, gardening, cooking, or cleaning, is viewed as a form of practice, to which the practitioner gives his or her wholehearted attention. An end in itself, each such practice is also a means to an end, namely full awakening, and it is also the fruit of previous practice.

No less important is the word choosing, which Hirshfield underscores by allotting this operative verb a line to itself. One of the primary benefits of Zen practice is the eventual replacement of habitual, reflexive reactions with mindful, chosen responses. Through daily practice, the former give way to the latter. By anchoring ourselves in a stable posture, practicing conscious breathing, and observing our thoughts as they come and go, we become intimately aware of our mental habits—what Zen teachings call our “habit energy”(vasana). Bringing this awareness into our everyday lives, we develop the capacity to relinquish our most destructive habits. We fortify our power of choice.

The third key word is make, which in this context refers to creating a particular emotional response. In her book How Emotions Are Made, the distinguished neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett propounds what she calls the “theory of constructed emotion,” which holds that our emotional responses are not hardwired into our bodies and minds but actively constructed by our brains from three primary components: “affective realism” (empirical fact filtered through present feeling); “emotion concepts”; and social realities. Broadly speaking, Zen teachings accord with Barrett’s findings. Our emotions don’t just happen to us. Our brains play an active part in creating them. By becoming fully aware, through daily meditative practice, of that ongoing, moment-by-moment process of creation, we gain control over our reflexive thoughts and actions.

By such means, we can make the unwanted wanted. Rather than merely react to a splash of icy water by fighting that sensation, we can choose to respond with openness and curiosity. Rather than mindlessly react to its verbal counterpart—an offensive opinion, an inadvertent insult, a condescending remark—with prejudicial judgment and a commensurate retort, we can learn to respond with genuine compassion. And over time, we may even come to welcome adverse situations, insofar as they offer occasions for cultivating broader awareness, clearer insight, and deeper understanding.

___________

Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins,2001).

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, “Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview,” Agni Online.

Photo: Jane Hirshfield, Zen Center of Syracuse, November 2009.

 

 

 

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  Dai Bosatsu Zendo      Meditation Hall

Dai Bosatsu Zendo
Meditation Hall

If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.

At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life. (more…)

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Thomas Brackett Reed       January 2, 1894

Thomas Brackett Reed
January 2, 1894

“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.

“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”

That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane. (more…)

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Early one morning, a friend of mine ventured to compliment his wife, who was sitting upright in bed.  “You look lovely today,” he noted.

“Only today?” she replied.

My friend might learn two lessons from this experience. The first is ably expressed by a character in one of the Irish writer Claire Keegan’s stories. “Many’s the man,” he reflects, “lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”*

The second lesson is that the English language is inherently dualistic. “Today” in this instance is an adverb, indicating when an action occurred. Today is not yesterday and not tomorrow. By implication, if not by overt statement, my friend excluded those other possibilities.

Applying this principle to the word “holiness,” Thich Nhat Hanh offers this observation:

Holiness is only the word “holiness.” And when we say the word “holiness,” we eliminate everything that isn’t holy, like the ordinary. If there is no ordinary, how can there be holiness?  Therefore any words, even words like “holiness,” “beautiful,” and “Buddha,” eliminate part of the true nature of the thing in describing it. . . . When we say a name out loud, it is as if we are slashing a knife into reality and cutting it into small pieces. **

In Zen teachings, the act of slashing reality into small pieces is called discrimination, and the mind that performs this act is the discriminating mind, which distinguishes self from other and this from that. Employing dualistic language to that end, the discriminating mind might say that someone is an “acquaintance” rather than a “friend,” implying that the same person cannot be both.  Or, to view it the other way round, by employing language in the first place, the mind is led to discriminate, since language itself discriminates, eliminating part of what it purports to describe. To say that someone is an acquaintance is to think, or to lead oneself to think, that he or she is not a friend.

Dualistic language also generates opinion. The language may be minimal, as when women express their opinion of “men” simply by saying the word. Or it may be elaborate, as when Oscar Wilde observes that “all women become like their mothers. That’s their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” But whether the expression be simple or complex, direct or ironic,  personal opinion and dualistic language are of a piece, each serving to reinforce the other.

The American poet Jane Hirshfield, a longtime Zen practitioner, acknowledges as much in her poem “To Opinion,” in which she addresses Opinion as though it were a sentient being. Positing that a capacity to have opinions is what defines the human, she notes that “a mosquito’s estimation of her meal, however subtle, / is not an opinion.” She also recognizes that to think about Opinion is to have one. It is to “step into” something (“your arms? a thicket? a pitfall?”) Most poignantly, when she senses Opinion “rising strongly” in her, she feels herself “grow separate / and more lonely.” Opinions divide people, not only from others but from the wholeness of their own experience. And language—the poet’s medium—is both the source and the instrument of Opinion.

What, then, is one to do? Hirshfield recalls a line from the Japanese poet Myoe—Bright, bright, bright, bright, the moon—as if to suggest that by simply repeating a word we might honor the presence of an object, rather than slash its reality into pieces. And in her closing lines, she offers an instance of her own, as she recalls a few brief minutes when Opinion “released her,” and “[o]cean ocean ocean was the sound the sand / made of the moonlit waves / breaking on it.” Rather than generate an opinion, or divide self from other, the act of repeating a mimetic name drew her closer to the natural world.***

By such means, the dualistic character of language may sometimes be transcended. The self’s isolation may be overcome. But should those means fail, there is another option, which is to listen rather than speak: to say nothing rather than something. In one of his many reflections on language and silence, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton entertains that possibility:

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.****

Eloquent though they are, these sentences evoke the wisdom of saying nothing.

________________________

*Claire Keegan, “Foster,” The New Yorker, February 15, 2010.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go ( Parallax, 2007), 122.

***Jane Hirshfield, After (HarperCollins, 2006), 41.

****Thomas Merton, Echoing Silence, ed. Robert Inchausti (New Seeds, 2007), 55.

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If you are near-sighted, as I am, you may have found that you can sometimes see nearby objects more clearly by taking off your glasses. Or, to put it another way, in the absence of your glasses, the inherent closeness of those objects becomes more apparent. What was supposed to enhance your vision was actually imposing a veil between yourself and the coffee cup in front of you.

One of the aims of Zen practice is to recognize such veils and, if possible, to remove them. According to Zen teachings, direct experience of the world—or what the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer calls “fresh seeing”—is the one reliable basis for knowledge, understanding, and whatever wisdom we might acquire. Books and teachers may guide us, confirm what we have seen, or place our perceptions in an enabling context. But we must see things for ourselves. In Zen practice we cultivate direct seeing and a sense of intimacy, both with ourselves and with the world around us. Whatever stands in the way is to be set aside, or subjected to scrutiny, or cut asunder.

Of the conditions conducive to direct seeing, none is more important than the silence of meditation. “Only when I am quiet for a long time / and do not speak,” writes the poet Jane Hirshfield, “do the objects of my life draw near.” Elaborating her theme, she imagines that the proximate objects in her life, among them scissors and spoons and a blue mug, are deliberately keeping their distance from her. Even her towels, “for all their intimate knowledge,” are hesitant to come close. They are kept away by speech and thought, which separate self and other, the ego-centered mind and the things of this world. Only in those rare, egoless moments when she glimpses “for even an instant the actual instant” do the objects of her life draw near. At such moments, she fancifully suggests, each object emits a “sigh of happiness,” knowing that she has joined “their circle of simple, passionate thusness,” void of habitual, me-centered thought and the separation it imposes. (1)

Such intimacy is indeed a source of happiness. Conversely, a sense of separation can engender a deep and chronic suffering. In her essay “Touching Fear” Toni Packer addresses that reality:

“I’m never free of fear,” some people say, implying that there should be a state of mind and body that is free of fear. How can we possibly be free from fear when we live in the conditioned mode of the me-story most of the time? We’re deeply programmed to believe in this separate me by inaccurate language and by growing up in a world of other mes, all of whom think of and experience themselves as separate entities. . . . With separation inevitably goes fear and pain. (2)

Elsewhere, Packer quotes a questioner who asked, “Why does this me-ness, this self-centered feeling, arise when we realize that it causes such a painful sense of separation? How did it ever start in the first place?” Packer admits that she doesn’t know, but she also suggests that “all of us can watch me-ness as it is arising from moment to moment. We can find out about it if we are really deeply interested and curious.” (3)

Perhaps we can. And perhaps over time we can also discover ways to release ourselves from the me-centered tyranny of dualistic thinking, which places images and concepts between ourselves and the objects in our lives. By sitting still and not speaking, if only for the space of an hour, we can permit those objects to draw near, and we can rejoin what the poet Mary Oliver has called the “family of things.”(4) By taking off our conceptual glasses, we can see the world afresh, and see our place within it.

_____________

(1) Jane Hirshfield, Only When I Am Quiet and Do Not Speak,” Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins 2001), 23.

(2) Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala 2002), 59

(3) Packer, 82

(4) Mary Oliver, “”Wild Geese,” Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press 1986), 14.

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Roko Shinge Roshi and Jane Hirshfield

Roko Shinge Roshi and Jane Hirshfield

A few years ago, the American poet Jane Hirshfield was invited to define Zen practice in seven words. As a young woman Hirshfield spent eight years in full-time Zen training, three of them in a Zen monastery. “That experience,” she has said, “and its continuing life in my life underlie everything I have done since.”* How might Hirshfield’s deep, experiential understanding of Zen, which she views as a path parallel to that of poetry, be articulated in seven words?

To appreciate the daunting nature of Hirshfield’s task, even for a writer of her abilities, please take a minute to try it yourself. Choose something you know well and have known for a long time. Then try to define your subject in seven words. An anonymous Roman writer, who chose the brevity of life as his or her subject, wrote the motto ut hora sic vita, which became, in English, “As an hour, so is this life”. That was a feat of rhetoric as well as a distillation of insight. And it illustrates, not incidentally, that in comparison with Latin, English is a rather wordy language. To say anything of substance in seven English words is itself a worthy challenge.

For the writer who would define Zen, three additional obstacles present themselves. Considered singly, they demonstrate the limitations of any proposed definition. Taken together, they illustrate the paradoxical nature of Zen practice.

To begin with, the tradition known collectively as Zen has changed dramatically over the centuries. Zen is thought to have originated in the sixth century CE, when the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor of Zen, brought the practice of dhyana, or meditation, to China. There it mingled with Confucian and Taoist elements and became known as Chan,  the Chinese word for dhyana. When Chan arrived in Japan four centuries later, it became Zen, the Japanese word for Chan, and it acquired a distinctively Japanese character. In its subsequent migrations through Asia and, more recently, Europe and North America, Zen has continued to adapt to its changing cultural contexts. How can a practice so fluid and protean be defined in seven words?

A second obstacle lies in the interdependent relationship of Zen to other fields of human endeavor. In its rites and rituals, formal Zen resembles a religious order, though it’s also been called the “religion before religions”. As a rigorous physical discipline, requiring one-pointed concentration, it has something in common with the martial arts. As a form of inquiry that aims to relieve human suffering, it shares common cause with psychology, particularly cognitive therapy. And as an aesthetic, embodying principles of harmony, simplicity, and directness, it has influenced artistic pursuits as diverse as architecture, painting, tea-drinking, and landscape gardening. How can a practice so interconnected with others be isolated in a simple definition?

And last, though Zen can be readily identified by a noun, it is not really an entity. It is not a solid thing. Rather, it is an activity—a continuing practice of mindfulness. As Eido Shimano Roshi reminds us, “Zazen is both something one does – sitting cross-legged, with proper posture and correct breathing – and something one essentially is. To emphasize one aspect at the expense of the other is to misunderstand this subtle and profound practice.”** But whether one emphasizes does or is, both are verbs; both point toward an evolving practice, not a static form. How can a definition, which assumes some degree of stability, be applied to a practice that is inherently vibrant, unpredictable, and ever-changing?

Jane Hirshfield found her own way. “Zen pretty much comes down to three things,” she wrote. “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention”.

_________

*Atlantic Unbound, September, 1997.

**Eido Tai Shimano Roshi, “What is Zen,” http://www.amacord.com/taste/essays/zen.html.

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