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Posts Tagged ‘norman fischer’

Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration.

According to conventional wisdom, the attainment of maturity is largely a matter of age and experience. As we grow older, common sense advises, we become more mature—more humble and less self-centered, more responsible and less prone to reckless behavior. Yet, as Roshi Zoketsu Norman Fischer, in his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, has astutely observed, and as even a cursory survey of human conduct will confirm, getting older does not automatically equate with becoming more mature. Like empathy and compassion, maturity is a quality to be cultivated over time, through conscious, self-directed effort. Toward that end, the Zen monastic tradition offers numerous practices, including the taking of vows and precepts, the discipline of “work practice” (the silent, mindful performance of everyday chores), and the systematic contemplation of the six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom” (generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom). Each of these practices contributes, directly or obliquely, to the process of “truly growing up.”

For those who have no interest in becoming Zen monastics but might wish to cultivate greater maturity, the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation, is a good place to start. Often newcomers to the practice arrive in states of anxiety, impatience, and distraction, but as they soon discover, the aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture of meditation induces a sense of emotional as well as physical stability, and the simple technique of concentrating on a single object, be it the breath or a meditative phrase, calms the mind and body. One’s breathing deepens of its own accord. Resident tensions ease.

Beyond this temporary relaxation, the longtime practice of zazen also fosters spiritual maturity. In Zen literature, the mind is sometimes likened to a jar of muddy water. Allowed to rest, the water becomes still and clear; the mud settles to the bottom. With this newfound stillness and clarity of mind comes an increased ability to “take the backward step”: to observe thoughts, feelings, and mental states, even as they are arising. Continued over many months and years, this practice of patient observation promotes increased awareness, not only of passing thoughts and transitory feelings but also of those habits of mind that imprison us in the past and bedevil our moral development. Within this evolving self-awareness, the quality of self-acceptance—one of the most elusive aims of meditative practice—is given space to grow and flourish. In all of these ways, as Fischer succinctly puts it, “meditation practice nourishes our maturity.”

To be sure, meditation can have unexpected, negative effects. Practiced unskillfully, it can aggravate an existing hypervigilance or promote a complacent self-absorption. But if conducted in moderation, preferably under the guidance of an experienced teacher, meditative practice increases our awareness not only of the personal self but of our social relationships and our wider, societal obligations. While sitting, we pay close attention to our breath and posture. And when we rise and re-enter the world, we bring that same quality of attention to our speech and actions, noting how much and in what ways our words and actions affect other people. Meditation strengthens our power of choice, which is to say, our ability to choose words and responses appropriate to the situation. And unless our governing instincts are wholly malign, we can respond in ways that help rather than hurt.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva (“enlightened being”) is an archetype that embodies the paramitas in general and altruism in particular. And in his book Opening the Hand of Thought, the twentieth-century master Kosho Uchiyama defines a bodhisattva as “one who acts as a true adult.” In Uchiyama’s view, “most people who are called adults are only pseudo-adults. Physically they grow up and become adult but spiritually too many people never mature to adulthood. They don’t behave as adults in their daily lives. A bodhisattva is one who sees the world through adult eyes and whose actions are the actions of a true adult.” The Zen aspirant’s desire, in other words, to fully awaken and the ordinary person’s desire to attain true adulthood are neither dissimilar nor discordant. As a practical matter they are one and the same.

___________

Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing UpHarperOne, 2004.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought, Expanded Edition (Wisdom, 2004), 138-139.

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (more…)

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800px-Norman_Fischer_3

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. (more…)

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Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? (more…)

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730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. (more…)

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Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think that wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. (more…)

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