Posts Tagged ‘perfections of wisdom’

“Everything we have is disposable,” lamented Brian Milo, a former autoworker at the G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in an interview with Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times (July 5, 2019). “Everything is made cheap and disposable. And I think that trickles down into our daily lives. I mean, you see marriage success rates are down. Things are disposable, even on a human level. I mean, I’m an employee, I’m disposable.” Milo lost his livelihood when sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the principal product of the Lordstown plant, fell precipitously, and G.M. eliminated 5,000 jobs. Adding insult to financial injury, the company notified its workers of their termination through impersonal, unsigned letters. Milo had been a loyal employee for ten years. What caused him to feel disposable was not only G.M.’s decision but the manner in which it was handled. Conspicuously absent was a quality essential to harmonious human relations.

That quality is respect. A core value of Western culture and the foundation of liberal democracy, respect is also a cornerstone of the Zen tradition. Like the six “perfections of wisdom” (generosity, morality, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom), respect for others, for moral principles, and for oneself is at once a practice and a goal of Zen training, a path and the realization of that path. In the short term, the path of respect leads to greater awareness of our thoughts, words, and actions and their effect on the world around us. Over time, it fosters a radical reshaping of ethical character. Self-centered delusive views give way to life-centered thoughts, speech, and service. Narrow self-interest yields to a mature respect for other people, for the natural environment, and for life itself.

As with most things in Zen, the cultivation of respect begins with the practice of zazen, or seated meditation. In formal practice, correct posture is critical: one’s knees and sitting bones should create a secure, three-point foundation; the back should be upright and aligned; the head should rest directly above the shoulders. Likewise one’s breathing: ideally, it should be deep and slow and originate from the diaphragm. Yet it is equally important that these guidelines be adapted, both to present conditions and to the practitioner’s physical capacities. If we truly wish to cultivate respect, we can start by respecting our unique physiognomies and respiratory rhythms, our sometimes unwelcome thoughts and changing states of mind. At the same time, if we are practicing with others in a zendo (meditation hall), we can cultivate respect by recognizing and supporting their immediate presence. In traditional Rinzai Zen, this is done through the gesture of gassho (palms pressed together) and by the making of deep bows, before and after every sitting. More broadly, we can show respect by meticulously maintaining stillness and silence, the conditions most conducive to formal meditation.

Beyond the confines of the zendo, the cultivation of respect extends into ordinary life. Mindfulness, it is often said, is the heart of Buddhist meditation. But to be mindful is not only to be present for the present moment. It is also to bring a respectful attitude to whatever action, chore, or duty one is performing, be it closing a door, turning off a faucet, or chopping a clove of garlic. Whether we are cooking or cleaning, watering a garden or filling a fountain pen, we can practice respect for whatever tools and materials we might be handling. As a potter respects common clay, we can learn to respect the most mundane objects in our lives, including those we might regard as dispensable or disposable.

And as with objects, so with other people. Respect for others, including those for whom we feel little affinity, can be practiced and nurtured in our daily interactions: in punctual arrivals and considerate departures; in timely responses to others’ requests; in acts of patient listening, with full attention and without interruptions; in conscious awareness of personal space and infringements thereof; in the strict observance of silence when silence is called for. And just as an attitude of respect can be realized in these small but consequential ways, it can also be expressed through a general regard for other races, ethnicities, genders, and creeds, as reflected in the language we choose to use and the words we refrain from using.

In “Variations on a Text by Vallejo,” a poem envisioning his own death, the American poet Donald Justice (1925-2004) depicts a cemetery in Miami on a sun-drenched afternoon. The gravediggers, “standing apart, in the still shade of the palms, / Rest on their shovels, and smoke, / Speaking in Spanish, softly, out of respect.” Perhaps this is the ultimate form of respect: an act of profound restraint, as instinctual as it is appropriate. On such acts rests our common humanity. In their absence, our lives and our culture suffer. In their presence, peace and healing become possible.


“When a G.M. Plant Shut Down in Ohio,”  The Daily, July 5, 2019.

Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 1995), 105.

Photo: “Showing Respect,” Paul Synnott, Osaka, Japan.




Read Full Post »

“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Earthquake memorial monument, Kobe, Japan

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? And if you happen to be the latter, how do you cope in a culture biased toward extroversion?

That is the central question posed by Susan Cain, a former corporate attorney, in her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. According to studies cited by Cain, introverts make up thirty to fifty percent of the American population. Numbering herself among that cohort, Cain explores ways by which introverts can navigate a culture enthralled by what she calls the Extrovert Ideal. Those ways include adopting an extrovert’s persona, creating a “restorative niche” in one’s daily round, and negotiating respectfully with extroverted colleagues, friends, and spouses. (more…)

Read Full Post »