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ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.”

The notion of “nature” as a source of natural feeling may also be found in the Buddhist tradition, as can the word nature in English translations of the classic teachings. In Zen that source is sometimes called “true nature” or “original mind,” but most often it is identified as “Buddha-nature.”  Specific concepts of Buddha-nature vary widely from sect to sect, but broadly speaking, this ambiguous term refers to an innate capacity for such qualities as kindness, empathy, generosity, and forgiveness. All spring from one’s Buddha-nature. In this respect, Buddha nature resembles the “nature” to which Charles Hartshorne and Behan’s prison guard allude.

Yet there is also a crucial difference. In its Irish context, “nature” is seen as a quality of mind and heart that a person may or may not possess—or possess to a greater or lesser degree. Whether that quality is inborn or not is an open question, but, as used in Irish discourse, the word nature serves to differentiate those who take a generous, compassionate, and forgiving attitude toward their fellow human beings from those who do not. Or cannot, given who they are.  To have “nature” is to have a good heart. Not every person does, and those who demonstrate that lack by their words and deeds are regarded as having “no nature.”*

Not so in the Buddhist tradition, where Buddha-nature is viewed as a universal potentiality. Buried though it may be beneath layers of conditioning, this seed of awakening is believed to reside in every sentient being. In the Zen tradition in particular, Buddha-nature is seen not as something we have but as something we are. And, in the language of Zen, we can all “aspire to Buddhahood.” Just as the practitioner who pursues the “path of liberation,” as it is called, can eventually experience freedom from fear and suffering, so those who aspire to Buddhahood can, in due time, discover and realize their potential for compassionate wisdom.

Central to this pursuit is the daily practice of meditation. In its monastic setting, meditative training begins with the taking of vows and the establishing of a solid ethical foundation. From there it proceeds to the development of mindfulness and concentration, primarily though seated meditation. By concentrating the mind and opening the heart, the practitioner becomes intimately aware of those unwholesome feelings, thoughts, and mental states—greed, anger, jealousy, and the like—that pass through us and sometimes take up residence. With diligent practice, however, monastics and lay practitioners alike can also learn to recognize such wholesome states as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, even as they arise.

These positive states can be “watered,” as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often put it. They can be nurtured, as one might nurture a seedling. In the Zen tradition, there are many practices designed for that purpose, one of the simplest being this gatha (meditative verse) by Thich Nhat Hanh, which practitioners are admonished to recite in the early morning:

    Waking up, I smile, knowing I have twenty-four new hours.

    I vow to live mindfully, and to see all things with the eyes of compassion.

By such means, the quality of mind and heart we Westerners once called nature is encouraged to take root and flourish. And over time, our thoughts, speech, and actions can be transformed accordingly.

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— Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

— *”No nature”: In Ireland, observes the American poet Richard Tillinghast, “you are expected to take turns buying drinks. Mental notes of whose turn it is to buy a round are kept, and though no one will ever be so rude as to say so, you will be considered to ‘have no nature in you’ if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.” Richard Tillinghast, Finding Ireland (Notre Dame, 2008), 146-147.

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