Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

The truth of unmediated experience

In his book Moon by the Window (Wisdom, 2011), Zen master Shodo Harada coins the term “the ego filter” to describe the lens through which we ordinarily view ourselves and the world. The moon by the window, he reminds us, is always “the same moon.” Not so our perceptions of the moon, which are colored by our preconceptions, judgments, and other forms of conceptual thinking. We filter our experience through such dualistic concepts as “good” and “bad,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” and especially “self” and “other.” However useful or necessary, those concepts mediate between our minds and the objects of our awareness.

By returning to our breathing, we cut through the ego filter. We merge our awareness  with our immediate experience. Although we might employ such conceptual tools as counting our breaths or naming their qualities (shallow or deep, coarse or smooth, etc.), our general aim is to become fully aware of each breath, from beginning to end, and eventually to rest in that awareness. With practice, we learn to recognize the impulse, common among practitioners, to manipulate our breathing or judge a particular method as “right” or “wrong.” And, no less important, we learn to observe the disparity between our conceptions and our actual, unmediated experience. Those are valuable insights, which we can carry into our everyday lives.

The truth of radical impermanence

Few realities are more apparent than the fact of change. Unless we are living in a dream, we know that children grow up, friends grow old, and meetings end in partings. Yet all too often the reality of radical impermanence—the fact that everything is changing, moment by moment—escapes our conscious notice.

By sitting quietly and monitoring our breathing, we directly encounter that reality. The “impermanence of all conditioned things,” as Zen teachings put it, becomes a felt experience. No two breaths, we discover, are quite the same. Breath by breath, the texture, depth, and other qualities of our breathing fluctuate, often in response to thoughts arising or feelings passing through us. Grounded though we are in awareness, we witness a stream of ever-shifting sensations, feelings, thoughts, and mental formations.  Thich Nhat Hanh likens this state to that of a pebble resting on a river bed.

To novice practitioners, the direct experience of radical impermanence may be unnerving.  It can feel as if the bottom is dropping out. For those who persist, however, that experience can be profoundly liberating. Having intimately observed the impermanence of our breath, our bodies, and our most cherished thoughts and feelings, and having realized that ultimately there is nothing substantial to grasp or claim as our own, we can begin to release our resistance to change and our habitual attachments.

The truth of receiving and offering

“Breathe in with gratitude,” exhorts the Zen teacher Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “breathe out with love. Receiving and offering—this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.”

In popular images of Zen meditation, the practice is often portrayed as a solitary activity. The Zen disciple sits cross-legged and alone. In reality, however, Zen practice is intrinsically relational. Breathing in, we cultivate gratitude, principally for the gift of “this precious human life” but also for the untold forms of sustenance we receive from other sentient beings, past and present. Breathing out, in a spirit of selfless love, we let go of the “ego filter” and offer whatever stability, clarity, and wisdom, and compassion we have managed to cultivate. Literally as well as symbolically, the act of breathing embodies this continuing exchange.

Unlike witnesses in a trial, committed Zen practitioners do not take oaths, but they do take what are known as the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. “However innumerable beings are,” reads the first, “I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.” As impossible of achievement as it is noble in aspiration, this vow epitomizes the spirit of Zen practice.

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “What is Zen?” Zen Center of Syracuse website.

The translation of the first Bodhisattva Vow quoted above has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh. That vow is more commonly translated as “However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all.”

Photo by Ash Carter

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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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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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