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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.

In his steadiness and stillness, Thich Nhat Hanh also embodied a classic Buddhist practice, known in Sanskrit as apranihita. Most often translated as “aimlessness,” this practice is one of the Three Doors of Liberation, or gateways to awakening. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the practice in this way:

The Third Door of Liberation is aimlessness, apranihita. There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda. . . . Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as if you have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes, and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.

When we practice aimlessness, Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt.”

But can it? Can the ordinary Western person, unpracticed in Zen meditation, learn to be at peace in this way? “You are perfect just as you are,” Zen master Shunryu Suzuki told his students, “and you could use a little improvement.” That paradoxical remark has been widely quoted, but I suspect that many a Western reader, coming upon it, has readily agreed with the second clause but reflexively dismissed the first. Me, perfect? Tell me another one.

Yet what Suzuki Roshi meant by “perfect,” as I understand it, is that at any given moment each of is the dynamic convergence of what the American Zen priest Norman Fischer has called a “beautiful and perfect interplay of forces,” genetic, ancestral, social, and personal. Many if not most of those forces, which include our present circumstances and our past decisions, are well beyond our control. Being human, we strive and struggle to improve ourselves and better our lot in life. In ultimate reality, however, our lives are as they are, and they are fine as they are.

For many people, that proposition may be difficult, if not impossible, to accept. As Fischer Roshi points out, “our minds can’t accept the fundamental genuineness and all-rightness of our lives. We are actually very resistant to this reality. We hate it because it is too simple, and we persistently think we need more.” As a result, we are often at war, both with ourselves and with those “others” whom we perceive as blocking our way. If we are unable to accept that our present lives are fundamentally “all right,” we may have little hope of practicing apranihita or experiencing the peace that “aimlessness” engenders.

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has so often reminded us, peace is possible—and not only for Buddhist practitioners. In September 1927, in a letter to his longtime friend Maud Gonne, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats attested to that possibility:

Today I have one settled conviction. “Create, draw a firm strong line & hate nothing whatever not even . . . Satan himself.” I hate many things but I do my best, & once some fifteen years ago, for I think one whole hour, I was free from hate. Like Faust I said “stay moment” but in vain. I think it was the only happiness I have ever known.

Although Yeats was no stranger to Eastern thought, it is unlikely that he had heard of apranihita. Yet in this poignant recollection he recounts an experience that closely resembles the practice and its rewards. By renouncing hatred, he experienced a temporary end to suffering. By letting go of striving, he permitted himself a transitory joy.

__________

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 142. See also Thich Nhat Hanh, The Path of Emancipation (Parallax, 2000), 27.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “A Coin Lost in the River is Found in the River,” The Art of Just Sitting, ed. John Daido Loori (Dharma Communications, 2002), 151.

W.B. Yeats, letter to Maud Gonne, September 29, 1927, The Gonne-Yeats Letters: 1893-1938, ed. Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares (Norton,1992), 434.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh leading walking meditation at the Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York, June, 1998. I am walking two rows behind Thay.

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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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