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In his book The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019) the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi makes an arresting remark, as notable for its subtlety as for its bold assertion. “When I am sick at a retreat,” he writes, “I don’t try to perform as if I weren’t sick . . . I try not to waste time wishing for another condition. I just live within the condition I have.” (My italics)

Norman Fischer is a poet as well as a longtime Zen practitioner. He chooses his words with care. Had he written with rather than within—“I just live with my condition”—his statement would have been unremarkable, even banal. But instead he wrote within, a word that means, among other things, “in the interior of.” And between those two prepositions, so common in speech and prose but so wide-ranging in their implications, there is a significant and telling difference. (more…)

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During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here. (more…)

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Robert Frost
1874-1963

On the eve of the Second World War and during a period of acute personal distress, Robert Frost composed “The Silken Tent,” a lyric poem widely regarded as one of the finest sonnets written in English in the twentieth century. A love poem in the tradition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is also a hymn in praise of personal composure:

            She is as in a field a silken tent

            At midday when a sunny summer breeze

            Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

            So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

            And its supporting central cedar pole

            That is its pinnacle to heavenward

            And signifies the sureness of the soul,

            Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

            But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

            By countless silken ties of love and thought

            To everything on earth the compass round,

            And only by one’s going slightly taut

            In the capriciousness of summer air

            Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

In these eloquent lines, cast in the strict rhymed form of the English sonnet, Frost elaborates a single complex sentence and a single unifying metaphor. Likening an unidentified woman to a silken tent, he compares her strength of character to a cedar pole, her interdependent relationships to guy lines, and her bonds of affection to the “cords” that tether her to the earth. Contrasting the connotations of bound and bondage—the former suggestive of obligations, the latter of enslavement—he portrays a person grounded in real life but also flexible, buoyant, and untrammeled. In the midst of social pressures and ever-shifting conditions, she remains balanced and resilient—qualities of heart and mind that the narrator much admires. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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