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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Moon’

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One night at the dinner table I posed three questions to our granddaughter, who has now entered fourth grade.

“What is something,” I asked, “that children are interested in but grown-ups are not?”

“Pokemon,” she replied, not skipping a beat.

“What is something that grown-ups are interested in but children are not?”

“Economics,” she replied, a knowing look in her eyes.

“And what is something that both children and grown-ups are interested in?

“Food!” she answered.

Perhaps it was time to eat.

The subject of food—and of late, food insecurity—is indeed of universal interest. Its importance transcends nations and cultures as well as generations. In Zen teachings, food is regarded as one of the four essential gifts for which we should be grateful, the other three being clothing, medicine, and shelter. Yet, though food is fundamental to our existence, regardless of who we are or where we live, it’s fair to say that there are as many customs, strictures, and prohibitions regarding the preparation and consumption of food as there are societies, ethnicities, and varieties of religious experience.

Zen is no exception, though in Western Zen, especially among lay practitioners, there are few hard and fast rules. According to the “Five Contemplations” chanted before meals in Zen monasteries, we are to consume “only those foods which nourish us and prevent illness.” (Fritos are out of the question). Moreover, we are to “eat mindfully, so as to be worthy” to receive our food. By so doing, we will “realize the path of understanding and love.” If you spend time in a Western Zen center, as in its Asian counterpart, you are more than likely to be served—and often to assist in the preparation—of vegetarian meals. But what, exactly, you will eat is on the whole of less consequence than the attitude to be cultivated in preparing and consuming it.

If you would like a taste, as it were, of that attitude, I would recommend exploring the many Zen-inflected cookbooks currently available to the Western reader. A good place to start would be Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book (1974), the bread-making bible of the “whole-earth” movement, and his memoir No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice (Sounds True, 2018). In the latter book, Brown, a celebrated chef as well as a Zen priest, embraces an intuitive, improvisatory approach to the art of cooking. Also of interest is 3 Bowls: Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery (Harvest, 2000), by Seppo Edward Farrey and Nancy O’Hara, which offers innovative, hybrid recipes not found elsewhere. My own well-thumbed favorite is A Taste of Heaven and Earth (Morrow, 1993) by Bettina Vitell. Like Farrey, Vitell is a former tenzo (head cook) at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. Emphasizing the sensory dimension of cooking and eating, her wide-ranging book integrates perspectives from the Zen tradition with simple but delicious vegetarian recipes.

Underlying all of these modern examples, however, is Eihei Dogen’s thirteenth-century classic Instructions for the Zen Cook (1237), in which the founder of the Soto Zen tradition articulates the basic principles of Zen cooking. Foremost among them is an attitude of wholeheartedness—or, in today’s parlance, of being “all in,” however menial the task at hand. Concomitant to this is the principle of equality: we are to treat the lowliest turnip with the same respect as we would the most exotic rice. Most striking, at least to the modern Western reader accustomed to hastily prepared food, is Dogen’s explanation of robai-shin, commonly translated as “parental mind.” Cultivating robai-shin, we train ourselves to treat both the food we are preparing and the utensils we are using as if they were our children, affording them infinite care.

Robai-shin is sometimes translated as “grandmother mind.” And in her book Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), the Zen teacher Susan Moon, herself a devoted grandmother, opts for this alternative translation. “Grandmother mind” deepens the concept of parental mind to include the qualities of warmth, empathy, wisdom, and compassionate understanding, tempered by grandmotherly sternness when required.

This attitude need not be limited to cooking. Nor is it the exclusive province of literal grandmothers. In the true spirt of Zen, Moon widens the concept to encompass anyone engaged in the interactions of everyday life. “If a young male monk can develop grandmother mind,” she writes, “then a person of any age, gender, and social status can develop it. You don’t have to be a grandmother to give your coat to someone shivering in the cold. A particular nod of recognition is due to all the grandfathers who are devoted to their grandchildren. Grandmother mind is simply a figure of speech. Even grandfathers can have grandmother mind.” Moreover, she notes in her conclusion, “Since we will become ancestors after we die, whether we like it or not, we might as well practice now by loving the beings we meet with grandmother mind, even if we aren’t grandmothers and even if they aren’t children.”

_______

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 57, 62.

Illustration by Nicole Xu.

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Guido of Arezzo

If you have studied music, you are familiar with the five-line staff, the most fundamental component of Western musical notation. You may also remember the standard mnemonic for learning the notes on the lines of the treble clef: Every Good Boy Does Fine. I learned this mnemonic as a child, and even then it didn’t sit well with me. For one thing, it expressed a half-truth, at best, if not an outright falsehood. And later, when I’d studied English grammar and usage, I realized that fine, an adjective, was being misused as an adverb. Yet, if I questioned the quality of the mnemonic, I never thought to question the provenance of the musical staff itself. For all I knew, it had existed since time immemorial.

Not so. This basic element of Western notation was in fact the invention of one man: a shy, frail Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo (990-1050). As Stuart Isacoff explains in his book Musical Revolutions, Guido lived in a time when the Latin chants and hymns of the Church were sung in widely disparate ways by the various communities scattered throughout the Papal domain. Partly in an effort to standardize the diverse styles in which church music was being sung, and partly to afford the singers a more efficient means of learning it, Guido devised a method for connecting graphic notation to the physical act of singing.

Graphic representations of music had existed as early as 1400 BCE. But, as Isacoff notes, these were usually no more than markings: “abstract hints” as to how the music should actually be performed. To remedy this situation, Guido created a four-line staff on which note symbols were placed. Analogous to a geographical grid, with its intersecting arcs of longitude and latitude, Guido’s staff became a “map on which any pitch could be measured in relation to another. The higher the placement, the higher the pitch.” What was new about Guido’s system was the “idea of regarding pitches as occupying positions in vertical space.” This allowed the singer to “grasp at a glance the exact melodic distances in a hymn to be sung.” Although singers and musicians now take the staff for granted, as though it were a common piece of furniture, at the time of its creation it was truly revolutionary. However humble and unprepossessing Guido may have been in his private life, he made an enduring contribution to the development of Western music.

Something similar might be said of such major figures as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), Linji (Jap. Rinzai, d. 895), Shido Bunan (1603-1676),and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), all of whom made profound contributions to the Zen tradition. In Zen temples and centers around the world, the names of these and scores of other ancestral masters are regularly chanted, slowly and rhythmically, each name followed by an honorific title:

            KAYASHATA SONJA

            KUMORATA SONJA

                        —

            SHIDO BUNAN ZENJI

            DO KYO ETAN ZENJI

            HAKU IN EKAKU ZENJI

In printed form, this litany resembles the list of credits at the end of a movie. As an aural experience, however, the lineage chants can be hypnotic and strangely moving. Echoing in the spacious environs of a darkened Dharma Hall, they create an atmosphere of reverence, gratitude, and mystery.

Zen lineages also figure prominently in the jukai, or “lay ordination” ceremony, in which committed practitioners “receive the precepts.” Newly confirmed practitioners are presented with a “lineage chart” depicting the lineage of a particular sect. Starting with Shakyamuni Buddha and traversing the centuries, these charts graphically dramatize the antiquity and the continuity of a given lineage. The author and Zen teacher Susan Moon, in her book Alive Until You’re Dead, irreverently likens her “lineage paper,” which delineates “ninety-two generations of ancestors who passed the dharma along, from the Buddha down to me,” to an American Kennel Club pedigree. Among other things, the chart certifies the authenticity of the confirmed practitioner, who has taken vows to keep the moral precepts of the Zen tradition.

Looking, this morning, at my own lineage chart, where my name is emblazoned in bright red letters beneath the Ten Precepts and the Rinzai Zen lineage, I am reminded of those family trees that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents to his guests on Finding Your Roots. More seriously, I am reminded of Susan Moon’s observation that “we will become ancestors, too.” For good or ill, we will take our places in the lineages of our blood and spiritual descendants. Although our roles will almost certainly not be as pivotal as that of Guido of Arezzo in Western music, neither will they be inconsequential. Passing down our frailties and foibles, our mistakes and misdeeds, as well as whatever kindness and wisdom we have to offer, we will influence the lives of our descendants, who, as Moon prophetically notes, will one day become ancestors themselves. If that thought will not suffice to give us pause—and prompt a little humility—I really don’t know what will.

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Stuart Isacoff, Musical Revolutions (Knopf, 2022), Kindle Edition, Lot 190.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 37,53-63.

Engraving: Guido of Arezzo (Guido d’Arezzo)

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Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. (more…)

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