Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Soto Zen’

Shortly after her fifth birthday, my granddaughter and I had one of our quiet conversations. We talked about her preschool activities, her best friends, her latest drawings. When we had exhausted those subjects, she paused for a bit, sat back regally in my leather chair, and made a request:

“Grandpa, tell me about the Buddha.”

Her request took me by surprise. During my tenure at Alfred University, I often taught an Honors course entitled The Art of Meditation, in which I introduced undergraduates to the basics of Buddhist meditation. Since retiring, I have given informal talks on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition to classes and audiences large and small. But until then, I had not attempted to expound Buddhist teachings to a very young child, let alone my granddaughter. What should I tell her? What should I not tell her? What did I wish for her to remember?

With no time to prepare, and little time to think about my response, this is what I said:

“Long ago, there lived a wise man known as the Buddha, who was born an Indian prince but became a teacher. He taught that all of us have in our hearts the seeds of kindness. We can be kind to each other. But often we are not kind, because we have forgotten that our true nature is kindness. We are too busy wanting and getting things—more toys, more things for ourselves. We sometimes take things that aren’t really ours, and cling to the things we have. We get angry when we can’t have the things we want, and afraid when others threaten to deprive us of what we have. That is why we need to sit down, be still, and have some quiet time. Then we can come home to ourselves and get back in touch with our true nature—that seed of kindness inside. If we do that, we will water the seed, and it will grow. If do that every day, we will become kinder to everyone, starting with ourselves. And we will be happier, too.”

Allegra listened. Although she is not one to sit still for very long, she sat quietly for a few moments, absorbing what I’d said. Then off she went to play, leaving Grandpa to wonder whether he’d said too much or too little, or even said the appropriate things. Would she take to heart what I’d explained? Or would it be no more than another morsel of information, stored in a brain that is integrating words, concepts, and perspectives at a rate far greater than mine?

Appropriate or otherwise, what I had encapsulated has a firm basis in Buddhist teachings. According to legend, the Buddha’s first words after his great awakening were these: “I now see that all beings, without exception, have the wisdom and compassion of the awakened ones, only, because of their delusions and self-clinging, they don’t realize it.” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps alluding to these famous words, has often spoken of watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion in ourselves by engaging in seated and walking meditation and practicing mindfulness in everyday life.

Allegra is an inquiring child. Had we gone on to discuss the simple teaching I’d offered her, she might well have asked why, if our fundamental nature is kindness, so many people are so often unkind. In an illuminating commentary on the Buddha’s reported words, the Soto Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman suggests that it is our “bad habits”—our social conditioning and destructive habits of mind—that cause us to forget or disregard our innate capacity for kindness. The classical teachings of the Theravada Buddhist tradition attribute the worst of human behavior and the suffering it brings in its wake to the so-called “three poisons”: craving, aversion, and ignorance. In modern Zen teachings, one hears often about “egocentric delusion,” or the half-conscious belief that each us is the center of the universe, and the universe should respond accordingly.

Allegra will learn soon enough about egocentric delusion and the suffering it engenders, both in oneself and others. Her experience will condition her, in ways I cannot predict but can well imagine. But she has already shown herself to be a gentle, empathic little girl, and I can hope that her future experience as a child, an adolescent, and eventually a grown woman will acquaint her not only with the realities of the world but also with her own capacity for kindness, wisdom, and compassion. And who knows? Perhaps one day she will choose to sit with Grandpa and to nourish those inborn qualities through the discipline of Zen meditation.

___________

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, “Sharing Life,” in Seeds for a Boundless Life (Shambhala, 2015), 31-32.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »