Posts Tagged ‘samatha’

Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”

At lunch on the second day, I observed a chubby, red-cheeked boy at a neighboring table. Before him was a tray of steaming vegetables and rice. Just as he was about to tuck in, we heard the sound of a gong. The boy put down his fork. As quickly as he could manage, he made three loud puffs, as if he were blowing out birthday candles. He then proceeded to scarf up his meal.

Clearly, that hungry lad had missed the point of the exercise. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, its purpose was to train us in the “practice of stopping,” which is to say, of arresting our headlong rush into the future. Practicing conscious breathing, we became present for whatever was occurring within and around us.

In his book You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh further explains the practice:

Stop! The street sign reminds you. Stop running, because life is here, in the present moment. We have to train in that. As you breathe out, you say: “I am home.” I am already home, I don’t have to run. . . . The address of my true home is clear: life, here and now. Peace is something that becomes possible the moment you stop. Stopping is an essential aspect of Buddhist meditation.

By now the boy I observed would be in his thirties. If by chance he has pursued the practice he learned in childhood, perhaps he has reaped its long-term benefits. For my own part, having explored various forms of “stopping” over the past two decades, practices drawn from both the Vietnamese and Japanese Zen traditions, I have come to understand “stopping” as both a tool of awakening and a path to meditative insight.

With respect to awakening, no figure in Buddhist iconography is more central than Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom. In most depictions, Manjushri wields a flaming sword, which cuts through ignorance and delusion. The practice of stopping performs a similar function. It severs our thought-loops and groundless divagations. It interrupts our interior monologues and calls us back from forgetfulness. And it punctures the delusive, egocentric bubble that many of us inhabit much of the time.

In Zen monasteries this action is accomplished primarily through sounds. Within the prevailing silence of the monastery, the reverberant tones of bells and gongs and the sharp cracks of wooden instruments draw practitioners out of their thoughts of past or future and into the present moment. Whether it be the jingling of the wake-up bell at 4:30 in the morning or the woodpecker-like taps on a hardwood board at the opening of morning service, the sounds of a Zen monastery enforce a shift of attention from self-centered reverie to a shared, life-centered perspective. Never mind that you haven’t finished your thought or the task at hand. You stop immediately and return to the communal life of which you are a part.

No less important, both for monastics and for lay practitioners, the practice of stopping establishes an inner platform: a stable vantage point from which to investigate what Zen calls our true nature. In classical Buddhist teachings, the practice of stopping and following our breathing is known as shamata, a Sanskrit word often translated as “calm abiding.” Practicing this concentrative form of meditation, we prepare ourselves for the complementary practice of vipassana, or “looking deeply.”

In Zen practice, what we are urged to look into is the impermanent and interdependent nature of things we conventionally regard as permanent and independent. Whether those entities be solid objects or fixed ideas, evanescent feelings or enduring states of mind, under the steady gaze of Zen contemplation they reveal themselves to be more fluid and transitory than our reifying minds would have us believe. And rather than remain attached to them, we experience the freedom of letting them go.

Here in the village of Alfred, New York, we have no shortage of daily bells. Any one of them can awaken us into awareness. But whether the “bell of mindfulness” be a Town Hall clock marking the hours or the chime of a smart phone, its sound can summon us back to the here and now. Calling a halt to excessive, compulsive, and non-constructive thinking, it can help us live more wisely.


Stop! The street sign reminds you: Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (Shambhala, 2009), 37.





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It’s a Saturday morning, and Jack and Ian are playing catch in their backyard. Jack is twelve, his brother ten.  After they have tossed a softball back and forth for a while, Jack announces that he’s going for a ride on his bike. Without waiting for a response, Jack mounts his bike and pedals off. “Wait up!” cries Ian, his older brother already far ahead.

Although Ian is probably unaware of it, he has just used a phrasal verb. In contrast to simple verbs, phrasal verbs contain two or more words, which function as a single semantic unit. “Wait up” differs in tone and meaning from “wait,” and it also differs from “wait around” or “wait out.” Phrasal verbs are a challenge for non-English speakers, who sometimes leave out the “particle”—the second word—or get it wrong. “I take my hat to you,” a Japanese acquaintance once wrote to me, intending to offer a compliment but instead evoking an image of a vigorous assault. (more…)

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