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Posts Tagged ‘norman fischer’

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.

However variable the terminology, the distinguishing qualities attributed to this faculty remain relatively consistent across the differing schools. Of those qualities, the three most salient are its constant, uninflected nature; its capacity for knowing what is present, within and without; and its particular way of knowing—a way very different from that of everyday linear thought.

As even an hour of introspection will confirm, our mental and emotional states are anything but permanent or reliably stable. In the morning we may feel dull and irritable, in the afternoon alert and relaxed. By contrast, the silent mind is immutable. It is not depressed when we’re depressed or angry when we’re angry. At any moment during the day or night, especially when the external world has been upended, we may suddenly feel anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The onset of such states is not predictable and for many not controllable. But the silent mind is not subject to those changes. For that reason it is a dependable refuge, to which we can return, time and again.

And just as taking refuge in the silent mind can provide stability in the midst of chaos, it can also engender insight into things as they actually are. Buddhist teachings speak of the “five hindrances,”—the mental states of craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt—which skew our perceptions and hinder our ability to see clearly. Classical teachings liken those states to disturbances in calm, clear water. Craving is like dye suffusing the water, making it opaque. Aversion is like heat, causing it to boil. Sloth is like algae, agitation like wind, doubt like darkness. Inhabiting our silent mind, we acknowledge whichever hindrance might be preventing us from seeing clearly. By recognizing that particular hindrance, we see how it is causing us to deny, exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort whatever is occurring. And, having gained that insight, we can more wisely decide what action, if any, we should take.

This way of knowing is not the same as “thinking through a problem” in the usual linear fashion. Its nature is contemplative rather than logical, holistic rather than narrowly focused. In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind,” Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, compared this mode of being, seeing, and knowing to that of a wading bird. As a blue heron stands perfectly still and quietly observes its surroundings, so the silent mind takes in what is present, not zeroing in on any one aspect of the scene. It comprehends the whole. Poised and alert, it stands ready to respond, without resistance and with the totality of its being, to whatever might occur.

The Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) called the silent mind “the mind of readiness,” “the deep quiet mind that is always present, even in the midst of activity.” Yet, despite its abiding presence, it may escape our conscious notice much of the time. And even when we are resolved to return to it, we cannot throw a switch to turn it on. What we can do, however, is cultivate our silent mind by inviting it into our conscious awareness. Sitting upright and still, quietening ourselves with conscious breathing, we can open our awareness to our breathing, our bodily sensations, and the ambient sounds in the room. Thus established in the present moment, we can gently shift our attention from the foreground to the background: from our sensory impressions to awareness itself, our living presence in the vastness of existence. By such means, practiced with discipline and devotion, we can ground and nourish ourselves, even in the midst of our anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. And over time, if we are faithful in the practice, we can experience the peace of the silent mind.

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In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind”: Alan Watts, “The Importance of Meditation”

Sobun Katherine Thanas: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35. (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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