Posts Tagged ‘Shinge roko sherry chayat roshi’

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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Cloisters of Lisbon Cathedral

“There is this cave / In the air behind my body / That nobody is going to touch: / A cloister, a silence / Closing around a blossom of fire.”* So wrote the American poet James Wright (1927-1980) in his poem “The Jewel.” Wright’s images are enigmatic, in the way dreams are, but their import is clear. They evoke a place in the self that is silent, luminous, and inviolate. (more…)

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In “Letting Go,” an illuminating article on care for the dying, the surgeon and author Atul Gawande examines the choices that terminal patients and their families face at the end of life. Contrasting hospice with hospital care, he reports a remarkable finding:

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months.*

Reflecting on this finding, Dr. Gawande concludes that the “lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”

“Almost Zen” is an approximation, akin to the modifier “Zen-like,” which often obscures what it purports to describe. But in associating this particular “lesson” with Zen practice, Dr. Gawande comes close to the mark. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, often admonished his students to have “no gaining idea” when practicing Zen meditation. Other teachers have done the same.  Those Medicare patients who chose to forgo hospital treatment were indeed rejecting a gaining idea: that of a longer life at any cost. Ironically, by choosing hospice care, they not only improved the quality of their last days and avoided the debilitating side-effects of hospital treatments. They also lengthened their lives.

Yet it is one thing to know that you have a fatal illness and another to accept that you are dying. “I’d say only a quarter have accepted their fate when they come into hospice,” observes Sarah Creed, a hospice nurse quoted by Dr. Gawande. “Ninety-nine per cent understand they’re dying, but one hundred per cent hope they’re not. They still want to beat their disease.” Such hope is only human. Only a very cold observer would presume to judge it adversely. But to deny that one is dying, when that is in fact the case, is not a constructive way to prepare oneself or one’s loved ones for the inevitable. Nor is it the way of Zen.

The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, who is nothing if not tough-minded, once proclaimed that to practice Zen, we have to “give up hope.” When that statement angered some of her students, she explained what she had meant:

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not terrible at all. A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life . . . . [W]e are usually living in vain hope for something or someone that will make my life easier, more pleasant. We spend most of our time trying to set life up in a way so that will be true; when, contrariwise, the joy of our life is just in totally doing and bearing what must be borne, in just doing what has to be done. It’s not even what has to be done; it’s there to be done so we do it.**

Joko Beck’s tone is blunt, and her perspective may be difficult to accept. But that perspective accords with Dr. Gawande’s, insofar as it admonishes us to accept the harshest of realities and to act accordingly. Addressing the question of hope, Dr. Gawande recalls the example of Stephen Jay Gould, who survived a rare and lethal cancer for twenty years. “I think of Gould,” Dr. Gawande remarks, “every time I have a patient with terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin.” There is nothing wrong with looking for that tail, he acknowledges, “unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable.”  What is wrong is that “we have created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets . . .  Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.” As a wiser alternative, he advocates open discussions, funded by medical insurance, between terminal patients, their families, and their doctors.  Conducted with patience and candor, discussions of this kind can clarify what is most important to the dying person. And having had such discussions, people are “far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation, and to spare their family anguish.”

Reading Dr. Gawande’s prescription, I am reminded of the experience of Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, whose mother recently passed away. During the days before her death, Shinge Roshi talked with her mother about books, art, and music. She edited her mother’s memoirs—and helped her write the ending. Her mother, in turn, saw to it that her affairs were in order. Accepting her imminent death, she gave her daughter a list of things to do, people to call, and last thoughts. For Shinge Roshi, the experience of being with her mother during and after her passing awakened feelings of profound gratitude.  It was, she said, as miraculous as birth.


* Atul Gawande, “Letting Go,” The New Yorker, July 26, 2010 (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/02/100802fa_fact_gawande).

** Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 66, 68.

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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.

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