Posts Tagged ‘Shohaku Okumura’

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.

Patience is an innate human quality

In Mahayana Buddhist teachings, from which Zen teachings derive, what we ordinarily call patience is known as kshanti.  It is the third of six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom,” to which committed practitioners aspire. Like the other five paramitas (generosity, ethical conduct, effort, concentration, wisdom), kshanti is understood to be innate in every human being. It is sometimes likened to a seed, which may lie dormant for a lifetime but can grow and flourish if faithfully tended. Water that seed, and it will grow; neglect it, and it will not.

This view of patience has two major implications for the conduct of our lives. On the one hand, it posits a capacity for patient thought, patient speech, and patient action common to us all. We have only to nourish that inborn capacity, and in time it will develop, permeating our thought, speech, and actions. On the other hand, this view implies a responsibility to tend our mental gardens, moment by moment and day by day, lest they be overrun by weeds. Everything is changing, including that entity we conventionally call the self. To view oneself as an incorrigibly impatient person, with no choice or ability to be otherwise, is an erroneous perception and a culpable delusion.

Be mindful of impatience, even as it is arising

In Zen practice, we train ourselves to see things clearly, just as they are. If one aspires to develop greater patience, the place to start is not with an abstract ideal but with our direct experience of impatience, whenever and wherever it may manifest in the body/mind. It may be felt, for example, as a muscular contraction, or a roiling in the belly, or a constricted, judgmental state of mind. Bringing mindfulness to those changing phenomena, we can acknowledge and accept the fact that impatience has arisen.

Having taken those initial steps, we can then investigate the causes, immediate and fundamental, of our impatience. Often the immediate cause will turn out to be a desire for something currently happening to stop, or for some future event to commence. But if we examine the fundamental cause, we are more than likely to discover a general, conditioned desire that reality conform to our wants and expectations. By bringing mindfulness to that deeply rooted desire, we drain impatience of its power, even as we nurture our capacity for patient contemplation.

Include everything

It is human nature to want pleasure to continue and pain to cease. And it is a common practice of our species to include in our awareness only that portion of our experience which pleases us and confirms our fixed ideas. Our steadfast inner curator, supported by longstanding habits of denial and resistance, excludes the rest.

By endeavoring, as Zen teachings advise, to put our likes and dislikes in abeyance and open our awareness to all the conditions of our lives, we also cultivate kshanti, which the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh prefers to translate as “inclusiveness.” Kshanti, thus interpreted, is not mere forbearance, much less self-repression. Nor is it a form of stoic pride. Rather, it is an ever-widening, ever-deepening capacity to admit, absorb, and eventually transform whatever pleasant or painful conditions we might encounter.

Balance patience with effort

The paramitas do not exist in isolation. They depend on one another. As Shohaku Okumura has observed, “If we aim only for patience, we may harm ourselves or others. Patience alone can be a kind of poison.” But if kshanti can be evenly balanced with virya paramita (effort, energy, diligence, perseverance), and if that balance can be maintained throughout our daily round, the practice of patience can become a powerful force in our everyday lives. It can sustain us through the most trying of ordeals, the most disheartening of reversals, and the most menacing of futures. And like an incorruptible amalgam, it can strengthen our resolve.


Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 261, 138.

For a glimpse of Shohaku Okumura’s personal and domestic life, watch Yoko Okumura’s documentary Sit.

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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that. (more…)

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RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” (more…)

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