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Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

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Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life (Wisdom, 2018).

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022).

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

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Sarasota Zen Center

In the summer of 1965, shortly after my twenty-first birthday, I booked passage from London to New York on the Castel Felice, a storied old Sitmar liner with rock-bottom fares. For the previous nine months I had been an American student at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. Now I was coming home.

Midway through the ten-day voyage, something quietly momentous occurred. Winston Churchill once remarked that America and England are two nations separated by a common language. And during my time in England, although I shared a common tongue with my British hosts, I seldom forgot that I was a foreigner: a guest, as it were, of the British nation. But somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, I began to feel myself on native ground again. I began to feel like a host. And the British subjects on board, with whom I had many conversations about American culture, began to feel like my guests. Although it was never openly acknowledged, this reversal of roles could be felt in our language, our attitudes, even our demeanor. And the closer we came to the Statue of Liberty, the stronger the feeling grew.

Something analogous has been happening in American Zen. Recently Shohaku Okumura Roshi, an esteemed Zen master and abbot of the Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, Indiana, abandoned the lotus position, the traditional, cross-legged posture of Japanese Zen. He now sits in a chair. Likewise Susan Moon, an American writer and longtime Zen practitioner, has traded her traditional zafu (meditation cushion) for a straight-backed chair. In both instances, these decisions were driven by physical considerations. But in their broader cultural import, they might well be seen as symbolic.

For the past fifty years, American Zen has played guest to its foreign host, whose postures, forms, language, and liturgy it has struggled mightily to emulate and adopt. We Western practitioners have worn our hipparis and rakusus, our robes and tabi. We have chanted the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese. But slowly and sometimes painfully, American Zen has been coming into its own. Such unconventional practices as sitting zazen in a chair or chanting the sutras in English translation have been introduced in many Zen centers and widely, if sometimes reluctantly, accepted. Such adaptions are now no longer seen, as least by the more liberal-minded proponents of the practice, as concessions to comfort or as inauthentic, Western replicas of the real thing.

Looking back on my own essays on Zen practice, I see that they, too, reflect this tectonic shift. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, to whom I have so often referred, went out of his way in his talks and writings to make the Asian practice of Zen palatable and accessible to interested Westerners. The word Zen was never mentioned; he spoke rather of “mindfulness” and the “energy of mindfulness.” Zazen became “seated meditation,” kinhin became “walking meditation,” and prostrations—that most foreign of Buddhist practices—became “touching the earth.” In this way “Thay,” as we called him, not only repackaged the practice. He also contributed, in no small measure, to its naturalization in the Western Hemisphere.

By and large, most of the leading Western teachers and writers on Zen—Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Roshi Joan Halifax, Charlotte Joko Beck, Edward Espe Brown, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, James Ishmael Ford, to name a few—have done the same. Their teachings and writings are deeply rooted in the traditional Asian teachings, particularly the seminal writings of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto tradition of Japanese Zen. But all of these teachers grew up in the United States and were conditioned by the mores, values, and language of mainstream Western culture. And in their talks and writings, they too have made an effort not only to translate the teachings into Western terms but to make this ennobling practice relevant and understandable to people living in our present place and time. Such terms as “ordinary Zen” and “everyday Zen” reinforce the image of a practice that originated in the East but has found a home and a nurturing environment in Western society.

To be sure, not every Zen practitioner is comfortable with this development. Those who assert that the full lotus is the only truly authentic Zen posture are unlikely to be at ease in such venues as the Ordinary Zen Sangha in Sarasota, Florida, which features on its website a photo of airport-style chairs lined up next to a wall on one side of its meditation hall and a row of zafus on tatami mats next to the facing wall. This image of an accommodating cultural change might also be read as a symptom of a deepening cultural divide: the innovators on the one side, the traditionalists on the other. Will that image prove to be a symbol of a broadening, inclusive practice—or a harbinger of a splintering spiritual community?  I for one would hope that a strict and formal Eastern practice whose motto is “include everything” will find ample room for the West and its often informal ways.

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Photo: The zendo of the Ordinary Zen Sangha, Sarasota, Florida. https://ordinaryzensangha.org/.

 

 

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In her book Ordinary Wonder, the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) recounts the experience of one of her students, a heart surgeon on the verge of burnout. A nervous wreck at work, he came home exhausted in the evenings. To relieve his stress, he adopted a simple but effective practice. Whenever he was walking down the halls of the hospital, he focused on his feet. Rather than think about the operation just performed or the one in prospect, he shifted his attention to the feeling of his soles pressing against the floor. To his amazement, he found himself less anxious at work and less tired at the end of the day.

 As food for thought, the sensation of one’s feet doing their customary work may seem like meager fare indeed. How much better to be musing about enlightenment—or dreaming of the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. But underlying the surgeon’s humble intervention was an essential principle of Zen practice. Ubiquitous in Zen teachings, that principle has three distinct but interrelated aspects.

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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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