Posts Tagged ‘sheila pepe’

Sheila Pepe at Alfred University

This is the season when students go back to school. Here in Alfred, New York, the college students have already returned, and the yellow buses will soon be rolling again. There is a youthful freshness in the air.

Zen students also go back to school, but that action occurs with each new sitting, each fresh encounter with things as they are. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi describes the process in this way:

Once in a while you should stop all your activities and make your screen white. That is zazen. That is the foundation of our everyday life and our meditation practice. Without this kind of foundation your practice will not work. All the instructions you receive are about how to have a clean white screen, even though it is never pure white because of various attachments and previous stains.*

The clean white screen to which Suzuki Roshi refers is a mind without prejudice or expectations, judgments or rigid notions. In the Zen practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” the mind of the practitioner becomes the mental counterpart of a clean new notebook—or what, in grade school, we used to call our tablets. Open and unmarked, such a mind is ready to receive whatever comes its way.

Yet, as Suzuki observes, the screen is not pure white. Attachments and stains prevent our minds from being immaculate or entirely open. Prominent among those attachments is our fear of the unknown and our expectation, conscious or otherwise, that whatever we encounter should fit our preconceptions. And prominent among the stains is our previous knowledge, which ought to help us interpret experience but often has the opposite effect.

Commenting on what Zen calls “the barrier built of knowledge,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh distinguishes between mere knowledge and true understanding:

Old knowledge is the obstacle to new understanding. . . . Like those who are awakened, great scientists have undergone great internal changes. If they are able to achieve profound realization, it is because their powers of observation, concentration, and awareness are deeply developed.

Understanding is not an accumulation of knowledge. To the contrary, it is the result of the struggle to become free of knowledge. Understanding shatters old knowledge to make room for the new that accords better with reality. When Copernicus discovered that the Earth goes around the sun, most of the astronomical knowledge of the time had to be discarded, including the ideas of above and below. Today, physics is struggling valiantly to free itself from the ideas of identity and cause/effect that underlie classical science. Science, like the Tao (Way), urges us to get rid of all preconceived notions. **

Whether the preconceived notion is that of the pre-Copernican universe or the assumption of cause and effect, conventional wisdom quickly grows obsolete, and it can bar the way to a deeper understanding. Elsewhere, Thich Nhat Hanh defines that understanding as “direct and immediate perception,” “an intuition rather than the culmination of reasoning.”

To cultivate direct, intuitive perception is the real work of the Zen practitioner. That work may be aided by the acquisition of conceptual knowledge, including intimate knowledge of Zen teachings and traditions. But unless that knowledge is integrated with direct experience, it can indeed become a positive hindrance. For the work of the Zen practitioner is to enter this present moment, becoming fully and sometimes fiercely aware of whatever is occurring. And as Roko Shinge Roshi has observed, to enter the present moment we “have to let go of everything extraneous—what we think regarding this moment, what we add to it, or try to take away from it.” Practicing Zen is not a process of acquisition, nor is its aim the mastery of a body of knowledge. On the contrary, it is in large part a process of unlearning, of becoming aware of our layers of conditioning rather than adding another layer.

To those of us who grew up in the competitive world of Western education, such a practice runs against the grain, and it may seem formidably foreign. But insofar as the aim of Zen practice is to help us navigate a complex, rapidly changing world, it shares common cause with our universities, colleges, and schools. And insofar as the practice engenders, as it often does, a passion for inquiry and a heightened sense of discovery, its spirit is congruent with that of Western education. In each new moment, we are going back to school.


*Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So (HarperCollins, 2002), 51-52.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (Parallax, 1988), 50-51.

In the photo above, visiting artist Sheila Pepe teaches a class in Foundations at the School of Art and Design in the New York State of College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Photo by Robin Caster Howard.

Read Full Post »