Posts Tagged ‘shunryu suzuki’

Uninvited guests

Thinking about small

“I like my thoughts,” a student once told me. She was not alone. Our passing thoughts can entertain, console, and inspire us. They can be the seeds of future creations. But our thoughts can also burden and oppress us, especially when they become repetitious or obsessive. And all too often our thoughts can deceive us, creating a delusive filter between our minds and things as they are.

Zen teachings address this issue in various ways. The most basic instructions for Zen meditation direct us to sit upright and still and pay attention to our posture and breathing. To assist in doing this, we can employ a variety of methods, such as counting breaths, repeating a mantra, or reciting meditative verses. Such methods foster concentration and stability of mind. They slow our non-stop thinking by creating gaps between successive thoughts. Beyond this basic practice, however, we can also learn to release our thoughts, even as they arise.

If you are interested in exploring this practice, may I suggest you try this three-step exercise:

1. Fill a small cup with a favorite beverage. Sit upright, aware of your breath and posture. Pick up the cup with the fingers of both hands, pressing firmly against its sides. Take a sip of its contents, savoring its taste. Now put the cup down and release the pressure you applied. Feel the sense of release.

2. Place a valued object (real or imagined) in the palm of your hand. Clutch it tightly and extend your hand in front of you, palm downward. Imagine that you are holding your extended arm over a deep, open well. If you open your hand, the object will fall. Experience the impact of that imagined outcome on your body and your state of mind. Now turn your palm upward and slowly open your hand. Feel the sense of release. And note that the object is still fully supported.

3. Summon from your trove of memories a strongly held view. It might be a political opinion, an inherited moral absolute, or a perception of a person you like or dislike. Let the thought and its emotional coloration come clearly into view. Now, with each exhalation, gradually shift your mental orientation from the foreground to the background of your mind: from the contents of your thoughts to the field from which they’ve arisen. Imagine that your mind is an open sky, and your thoughts are clouds. Allow them to stay or drift away.

If you are new to Zen meditation, you may find the first two steps of this exercise relatively unchallenging. By contrast, the third may feel difficult or next to impossible. Should that be the case, two metaphors from twentieth-century Zen teachings might be instructive.

The first comes from the Japanese Zen master Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998), who admonished his students to “open the hand of thought.” As Uchiyama observed in his eponymous book (Opening the Hand of Thought; Wisdom, 2004), the production of thoughts, one after another, is what the mind naturally does. Thoughts are the mind’s “secretions.” Rather than try to repress them, Uchiyama recommended we train our minds to release them. Opening the cage of our clenched hands, we allow them to fly away.

More playfully but with the same intent, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi advised his Western students, many of whom were heady intellectuals, to think of their thoughts as guests and themselves as hosts. “Leave your front and back doors open,” he urged. “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”

Embodied in this saying are two cardinal principles of Zen practice, the first being an attitude of openness to the moment, whatever it might bring. The second principle derives from the Diamond Sutra, a foundational Zen text, where we are enjoined to cultivate a “mind that alights nowhere.” Rather than engage with our thoughts or protract them by dwelling on their implications, we allow our uninvited guests to come in the front door of our minds and leave by the back. And, rather than construct fearful, future-oriented scenarios, we permit the next moment, unhindered by conceptual blockades, to present itself to our awareness.

Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, encapsulated this practice in a resonant phrase: “Think non-thinking.” The exact meaning of this phrase has been much debated, perhaps because it is so abstract. In my experience, if we wish to practice “non-thinking” it is helpful to employ one or both of the exercises outlined above, and from there to transfer the physical experience of release into our mental and emotional lives. If we like our thoughts, so much the better. But whether we do or don’t, the practice of releasing them, time and again, can not only relieve our overburdened minds. It can also prepare us for the next moment, whatever pleasures or pains, discoveries or disappointments, that moment might entail.

Image: “Thinking about Small,” by Freddie Alequin (CC)

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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. (more…)

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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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