Posts Tagged ‘Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’

During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here.

However variable the terminology, the distinguishing qualities attributed to this faculty remain relatively consistent across the differing schools. Of those qualities, the three most salient are its constant, uninflected nature; its capacity for knowing what is present, within and without; and its particular way of knowing—a way very different from that of everyday linear thought.

As even an hour of introspection will confirm, our mental and emotional states are anything but permanent or reliably stable. In the morning we may feel dull and irritable, in the afternoon alert and relaxed. By contrast, the silent mind is immutable. It is not depressed when we’re depressed or angry when we’re angry. At any moment during the day or night, especially when the external world has been upended, we may suddenly feel anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The onset of such states is not predictable and for many not controllable. But the silent mind is not subject to those changes. For that reason it is a dependable refuge, to which we can return, time and again.

And just as taking refuge in the silent mind can provide stability in the midst of chaos, it can also engender insight into things as they actually are. Buddhist teachings speak of the “five hindrances,”—the mental states of craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt—which skew our perceptions and hinder our ability to see clearly. Classical teachings liken those states to disturbances in calm, clear water. Craving is like dye suffusing the water, making it opaque. Aversion is like heat, causing it to boil. Sloth is like algae, agitation like wind, doubt like darkness. Inhabiting our silent mind, we acknowledge whichever hindrance might be preventing us from seeing clearly. By recognizing that particular hindrance, we see how it is causing us to deny, exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort whatever is occurring. And, having gained that insight, we can more wisely decide what action, if any, we should take.

This way of knowing is not the same as “thinking through a problem” in the usual linear fashion. Its nature is contemplative rather than logical, holistic rather than narrowly focused. In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind,” Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, compared this mode of being, seeing, and knowing to that of a wading bird. As a blue heron stands perfectly still and quietly observes its surroundings, so the silent mind takes in what is present, not zeroing in on any one aspect of the scene. It comprehends the whole. Poised and alert, it stands ready to respond, without resistance and with the totality of its being, to whatever might occur.

The Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) called the silent mind “the mind of readiness,” “the deep quiet mind that is always present, even in the midst of activity.” Yet, despite its abiding presence, it may escape our conscious notice much of the time. And even when we are resolved to return to it, we cannot throw a switch to turn it on. What we can do, however, is cultivate our silent mind by inviting it into our conscious awareness. Sitting upright and still, quietening ourselves with conscious breathing, we can open our awareness to our breathing, our bodily sensations, and the ambient sounds in the room. Thus established in the present moment, we can gently shift our attention from the foreground to the background: from our sensory impressions to awareness itself, our living presence in the vastness of existence. By such means, practiced with discipline and devotion, we can ground and nourish ourselves, even in the midst of our anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. And over time, if we are faithful in the practice, we can experience the peace of the silent mind.


In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind”: Alan Watts, “The Importance of Meditation”

Sobun Katherine Thanas: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35. (more…)

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The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice. (more…)

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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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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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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. (more…)

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