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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

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.

Preferences

“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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Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service.

As her organizing metaphor, Halifax has invented the term “Edge States,” by which she means “five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive.” The five Edge States are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Standing at the “high edge” of any one of these qualities, Halifax writes, we can lose our footing and “slide into a mire of suffering.” With this extended metaphor as its core, Standing at the Edge consists of six sections, one for each of the Edge States and a sixth on the power of compassion. Within each of the first five sections, Halifax discusses the complexities of the Edge State, its pitfalls for the practitioner, and its relationship to the other Edge States. She then offers practices that can support the healthy development of that particular state, together with her insights into its nature. In the sixth section, she concludes her book with an incisive discussion of compassion, which she views as “the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage.”

The perils intrinsic to Edge States are many and varied. With respect to altruism, the chief danger is “pathological altruism,” or “help that harms.” With empathy, the risks include “empathic distress” and “vicarious trauma,” which occur when the empathic doctor, counselor, teacher, aid worker, or chaplain “[merges] with the sufferer through over-identification.” With regard to integrity, the destructive sides include “moral distress” and its cousin “moral remainder,” which Halifax defines as “the painful emotional residue that lingers following actions that violate one’s sense of integrity.” Regarding respect, the main hazard is disrespect, which arises when “we too easily objectify the other as persecutor or victim, objectify ourselves as a victim, or let others objectify us as a victim, persecutor, or rescuer.” And with “engagement,” or wholehearted commitment to the relief of suffering, the most common negative outcomes are over-exertion and exhaustion.  All too often, an excess of well-intentioned effort leads to burnout.

Artfully and effectively, Halifax balances her discussion of dangers with a systematic presentation of salutary practices, most of them drawn from the Zen tradition. Among them are the practice of “not-knowing,” wherein the practitioner endeavors to let go of fixed ideas; “deep listening,” in which the listener sets aside biases and attends to the other person’s experience; the practice of “living by vow,” including the fundamental vow of non-harming; the practice of mindful speech, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh; and the practice of Right Livelihood, in which the practitioner finds a way to earn a living without causing personal or social harm. Beyond these specific Buddhist practices, Halifax offers an inspiriting discussion of “universal compassion” and its protective power.  The skillful practice of compassion, she maintains, can keep us grounded “on the high edge of our humanity.”  And should we fall, it can “harrow us from the hells of suffering and bring us home.”

To those familiar with Zen teachings, the markedly schematic structure of Halifax’s book and its heavy reliance on abstract concepts may seem at odds with the Zen tradition, which emphasizes the fluidity of experience and warns against the reification of abstract ideas. But Standing at the Edge is not aimed exclusively at Zen practitioners. Rather, it is addressed, in its author’s words, to “those who encounter others’ difficulties and suffering on a daily basis.” To that general audience, which includes almost everyone, Halifax speaks with eloquence, warmth, and hard-won wisdom.

 

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. (more…)

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ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.” (more…)

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A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion. (more…)

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Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. (more…)

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