Posts Tagged ‘shunryu suzuki’

Matthew Arnold

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind.

Fixed ideas

Some ideas come and go.  Accidental in origin, they cross our minds, only to promptly disappear. By contrast, other ideas set up house and resist eviction. They become our idées fixe: our fixed ideas. To the extent that we identify with those ideas, regarding them as our very own, they continue to influence our thought, speech, and actions.

Sometimes our fixed ideas reflect our ethical convictions and fortify our personal integrity. They provide a moral compass. But such ideas can also cause us to blindly “stay the course,” even when the course is destructive, and to see people and events from a static, limited perspective. That is why the Diamond Sutra urges us to cultivate “a mind that alights nowhere”: a mind that remains fluid and responsive under changing conditions.

Various methods have been developed for that purpose. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, admonishes us to take “the backward step” and to examine our inner lives, including our habitual patterns of thought, from that perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to keep the question, “Are you sure?” uppermost in mind when addressing difficult questions. And Shunryu Suzuki bids us remember that even our cherished verities are “not always so.” Any or all of these methods can loosen the hold of our fixed ideas.


“The Great Way is not difficult,” a revered Zen text assures us, “for those who have no preferences.” The author of this pronouncement, the Third Zen Ancestor, does not mention where such people might be found.

Preferences are intrinsic to human nature. Without our personal preferences, we would be dull creatures indeed. Here in Western New York, I have a friend who prefers winter to summer. He has come to the right place. For my own part, I prefer green tea to coffee, chamber music to orchestral music, and Mozart to Wagner any day of the week.

There is nothing harmful about such preferences. The risk lies in our attachment to them. Such attachment can restrict our imaginative freedom and our ability to develop a broader, wiser, and more compassionate outlook. As with our fixed ideas, our preferences can be tenacious, but insofar as their presence is merely arbitrary or reactive, they can be challenged, suspended, or abandoned altogether. What is needed, as before, is full and continuous awareness, joined with the will to manifest greater breadth of mind.

Dualistic thinking

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax recently remarked that we human beings have a “penchant for dualities.” From the cradle on, we are conditioned to see the world through the lens of dualistic language and thought. Dark and light, hot and cold, beautiful and ugly. Even more fundamental are the dualities of “self” and “other,” “us” and “them.”

From the vantage point of Zen, such dualities are both necessary for survival and ultimately delusive. What meditative practice reveals, moment by moment, is that both the self and the external world are impermanent and interdependent. The world of phenomena is not a mere assemblage of solid “things” but an intricate web of ever-changing relationships. And the so-called self is not a separate entity but an integral part of that dynamic whole. “Unity is diversity,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “and diversity is unity.”

Such a view is neither common nor conventional. To embrace and practice it requires energy, persistence, and perhaps the help of a good teacher. But the effort is well worth it, if our intention is to disentangle ourselves from our fixed ideas, transcend our self-limiting preferences, and realize our innate capacity to see life whole.



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“I coulda been a contender,” laments the boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront (1954). “I coulda been somebody instead of a bum . . .” If those lines are among the most famous in American film, it is perhaps because they express a familiar human desire. Which of us would not wish to be a “contender”?  To be “somebody” in others’ eyes?

Yet, as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi observes in his essay “Calmness of Mind,”* the desire to be “somebody” is costly to the human psyche. It steers us into trouble. And as Suzuki also observes, the desire to be somebody bears an intimate connection to the process of breathing, specifically inhalation. “[W]hen you are more interested in inhaling than in exhaling,” he notes, “you easily become quite angry. You are always trying to be alive.” When we are inhaling, we are “trying to be active and special and to accomplish something.” And when, in meditation, we make our inhalations the main focus of our attention, we may only add to our anxiety. In Suzuki’s view, conscious inhalation, striving, and the drive to be somebody are of a piece, and all conduce to suffering. (more…)

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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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