Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

Patience is an innate human quality

In Mahayana Buddhist teachings, from which Zen teachings derive, what we ordinarily call patience is known as kshanti.  It is the third of six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom,” to which committed practitioners aspire. Like the other five paramitas (generosity, ethical conduct, effort, concentration, wisdom), kshanti is understood to be innate in every human being. It is sometimes likened to a seed, which may lie dormant for a lifetime but can grow and flourish if faithfully tended. Water that seed, and it will grow; neglect it, and it will not.

This view of patience has two major implications for the conduct of our lives. On the one hand, it posits a capacity for patient thought, patient speech, and patient action common to us all. We have only to nourish that inborn capacity, and in time it will develop, permeating our thought, speech, and actions. On the other hand, this view implies a responsibility to tend our mental gardens, moment by moment and day by day, lest they be overrun by weeds. Everything is changing, including that entity we conventionally call the self. To view oneself as an incorrigibly impatient person, with no choice or ability to be otherwise, is an erroneous perception and a culpable delusion.

Be mindful of impatience, even as it is arising

In Zen practice, we train ourselves to see things clearly, just as they are. If one aspires to develop greater patience, the place to start is not with an abstract ideal but with our direct experience of impatience, whenever and wherever it may manifest in the body/mind. It may be felt, for example, as a muscular contraction, or a roiling in the belly, or a constricted, judgmental state of mind. Bringing mindfulness to those changing phenomena, we can acknowledge and accept the fact that impatience has arisen.

Having taken those initial steps, we can then investigate the causes, immediate and fundamental, of our impatience. Often the immediate cause will turn out to be a desire for something currently happening to stop, or for some future event to commence. But if we examine the fundamental cause, we are more than likely to discover a general, conditioned desire that reality conform to our wants and expectations. By bringing mindfulness to that deeply rooted desire, we drain impatience of its power, even as we nurture our capacity for patient contemplation.

Include everything

It is human nature to want pleasure to continue and pain to cease. And it is a common practice of our species to include in our awareness only that portion of our experience which pleases us and confirms our fixed ideas. Our steadfast inner curator, supported by longstanding habits of denial and resistance, excludes the rest.

By endeavoring, as Zen teachings advise, to put our likes and dislikes in abeyance and open our awareness to all the conditions of our lives, we also cultivate kshanti, which the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh prefers to translate as “inclusiveness.” Kshanti, thus interpreted, is not mere forbearance, much less self-repression. Nor is it a form of stoic pride. Rather, it is an ever-widening, ever-deepening capacity to admit, absorb, and eventually transform whatever pleasant or painful conditions we might encounter.

Balance patience with effort

The paramitas do not exist in isolation. They depend on one another. As Shohaku Okumura has observed, “If we aim only for patience, we may harm ourselves or others. Patience alone can be a kind of poison.” But if kshanti can be evenly balanced with virya paramita (effort, energy, diligence, perseverance), and if that balance can be maintained throughout our daily round, the practice of patience can become a powerful force in our everyday lives. It can sustain us through the most trying of ordeals, the most disheartening of reversals, and the most menacing of futures. And like an incorruptible amalgam, it can strengthen our resolve.


Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 261, 138.

For a glimpse of Shohaku Okumura’s personal and domestic life, watch Yoko Okumura’s documentary Sit.

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Hand on BibleIf you have ever testified in a court of law, you have sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And as you may have discovered, that is a tall order. Even if we are trying our best to be honest, our best intentions may be at odds with imperfect memory, the slipperiness of language, and the inherent complexity of human affairs. “The whole truth,” if it exists at all, may be well beyond our comprehension or powers of expression.

In practicing Zen meditation, we also seek the whole truth, though our means are not primarily verbal. Rather than talk, we endeavor to realize ultimate truth through a variety of practices, one of the most essential being that of conscious breathing. Coming home to our breath, time and again, we embody the truth of our lives in general and three kinds of truth in particular. (more…)

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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. (more…)

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800px-UH-1H_Flying_over_ROCA_Infantry_School_Ground_20120211Last week two Army helicopters flew over the village of Alfred, New York. Their thunder, my wife confided, unnerved her as never before.

In the wake of the mass shootings in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, fear has become a focus of national attention. In his address to the nation on December 6, President Obama sought to reassure us. “Freedom,” he asserted, “is more powerful than fear.” Perhaps it is in the long run, but for the time being, how can we best address the growing presence of fear in our daily lives? And how can the practice of meditation help us in that effort? (more…)

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Open seaAs a boy growing up in eastern Iowa, I savored the word dwell, which I heard on many a Sunday morning. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, I intoned with the rest of the congregation, not quite understanding the context but reassured by the general idea. The word was pleasant to pronounce. It made a pleasing sound.

Only later did I learn that dwell bears a negative connotation. “Don’t dwell on it,” I was advised, in the aftermath of some abrasive encounter. “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Used in that fashion, dwell meant to brood, to worry, to concentrate unhealthily on some slight or insult or perceived injustice. Nowadays, for good or ill, many people use the verb obsess to describe the same habit of mind. “Don’t obsess about it,” we might advise a person who can’t stop talking about a personal dilemma, or can’t let go of a painful experience, as though that person had a choice, or our well-intentioned counsel might be helpful. (more…)

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AustraliaSkyZen has been called the study of silence. “We need silence,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light.” But how, exactly, are we to study silence? By what means can we cultivate its nourishing presence?

Just be quiet, one is tempted to suggest. Just be still. But in a world rife with noise and distraction, that choice may no longer seem plausible–or even very desirable. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, the sociologist Sherry Turkle reports that many of the people she has interviewed, particularly young people, have an aversion to silence, finding it merely boring. They would rather go online. And as Thich Nhat Hanh observes in his book Silence, many of us are afraid to sit quietly, doing nothing. By keeping ourselves ever-busy and ever-connected, we avoid such negative feelings as loneliness, restlessness, and sadness, which can become all too present when we are silent and alone. If we wish to study and cultivate silence, it would seem, we have first to overcome our resistance, whether it be grounded in aversion or fear. (more…)

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800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (more…)

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