Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here.

However variable the terminology, the distinguishing qualities attributed to this faculty remain relatively consistent across the differing schools. Of those qualities, the three most salient are its constant, uninflected nature; its capacity for knowing what is present, within and without; and its particular way of knowing—a way very different from that of everyday linear thought.

As even an hour of introspection will confirm, our mental and emotional states are anything but permanent or reliably stable. In the morning we may feel dull and irritable, in the afternoon alert and relaxed. By contrast, the silent mind is immutable. It is not depressed when we’re depressed or angry when we’re angry. At any moment during the day or night, especially when the external world has been upended, we may suddenly feel anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The onset of such states is not predictable and for many not controllable. But the silent mind is not subject to those changes. For that reason it is a dependable refuge, to which we can return, time and again.

And just as taking refuge in the silent mind can provide stability in the midst of chaos, it can also engender insight into things as they actually are. Buddhist teachings speak of the “five hindrances,”—the mental states of craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt—which skew our perceptions and hinder our ability to see clearly. Classical teachings liken those states to disturbances in calm, clear water. Craving is like dye suffusing the water, making it opaque. Aversion is like heat, causing it to boil. Sloth is like algae, agitation like wind, doubt like darkness. Inhabiting our silent mind, we acknowledge whichever hindrance might be preventing us from seeing clearly. By recognizing that particular hindrance, we see how it is causing us to deny, exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort whatever is occurring. And, having gained that insight, we can more wisely decide what action, if any, we should take.

This way of knowing is not the same as “thinking through a problem” in the usual linear fashion. Its nature is contemplative rather than logical, holistic rather than narrowly focused. In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind,” Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, compared this mode of being, seeing, and knowing to that of a wading bird. As a blue heron stands perfectly still and quietly observes its surroundings, so the silent mind takes in what is present, not zeroing in on any one aspect of the scene. It comprehends the whole. Poised and alert, it stands ready to respond, without resistance and with the totality of its being, to whatever might occur.

The Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) called the silent mind “the mind of readiness,” “the deep quiet mind that is always present, even in the midst of activity.” Yet, despite its abiding presence, it may escape our conscious notice much of the time. And even when we are resolved to return to it, we cannot throw a switch to turn it on. What we can do, however, is cultivate our silent mind by inviting it into our conscious awareness. Sitting upright and still, quietening ourselves with conscious breathing, we can open our awareness to our breathing, our bodily sensations, and the ambient sounds in the room. Thus established in the present moment, we can gently shift our attention from the foreground to the background: from our sensory impressions to awareness itself, our living presence in the vastness of existence. By such means, practiced with discipline and devotion, we can ground and nourish ourselves, even in the midst of our anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. And over time, if we are faithful in the practice, we can experience the peace of the silent mind.


In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind”: Alan Watts, “The Importance of Meditation”

Sobun Katherine Thanas: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35. (more…)

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“Maybe you’re thinking too much,” my wife once suggested. She was not the first to do so. Nor, to paraphrase John Lennon, am I the only one. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh has called it. And in our present hyper-connected, information-driven era, that common human tendency has become ever more prevalent.

For centuries Zen masters have warned against over-reliance on conceptual thought. According to Zen teachings, our dualistic concepts—subject/object; self/other; up/down—interpose an “ego-filter” between our minds and our sensory experience. They mediate between what is and what we believe it to be. Likewise the abstract words we use to frame our experience. They impose a yardstick, as the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi puts it, on a universe that is in reality boundless, indivisible, and ungraspable. (more…)

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Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” (more…)

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Bonnie Booman

On Saturday, August 31, in a memorial service for the late Bonnie Booman (1954-2019), the Reverend Laurie DeMott invoked the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net to characterize Bonnie’s life and work. The metaphor was as timely as it was apt. Not only did it commemorate the life of a gentle teacher, whose patience, care, and imaginative insight inspired her students and exerted a beneficent influence on her community. In its wider implications, this ancient metaphor offered a potent antidote to the divisive spirit of our times, being at once an emblem of interconnectedness, interdependence, and the selfless nature of all conditioned things. (more…)

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“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. (more…)

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The poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) hated being old. In his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written when Yeats was in his early sixties, he described an “aged man” as “but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .” And in “The Tower,” a poem of the same vintage, he likened the “absurdity” of “decrepit age” to a battered kettle tied to a dog’s tail. Invoking the traditional duality of body and soul, Yeats contrasted his “passionate, fantastical / Imagination” with the humiliations of physical decline. By common consent, Yeats’s late poems are among his finest, but the agon they so memorably dramatize is that of an aging artist resisting with all his imaginative might those inevitable changes that happen to us all.

Zen teachings also address those changes, but they offer a very different perspective. Nowhere is that perspective more concretely articulated or more forcefully asserted than in the litany of home truths known as the Five Remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation: (more…)

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Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

“It’s so not like that.”

Such was the response of Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, to a comment I’d made a moment earlier. At the time, we were midway through a private interview—one of the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that are a staple of Zen training. It was the third day of an extended retreat at the Zen Center of Syracuse, and I was one of more than thirty practitioners in attendance. In keeping with Zen custom, Shinge Roshi, then in her sixties, was giving dokusan, as it is called, to each of us in succession. She was also overseeing the retreat, conducting formal services, and offering erudite talks on Zen topics. Remembering my own experience as an academic advisor, in which I sometimes met with six or more students in a two-hour period, I remarked that she must be tired, if not exhausted. “It’s so not like that,” she replied, going on to explain that she loved what she was doing, and, far from exhausting her, the work replenished her reserves.

In her conspicuous resilience, as in her seemingly limitless energy, Shinge Roshi exemplified a quality of heart and mind essential to Zen practice. At once a precondition and a benefit of long-term practice, that quality is known in Zen circles as virya paramita, the fourth of the Six Perfections of Wisdom. Virya paramita is commonly translated as “energy” or “effort,” but the full meaning of this Sanskrit term is more nuanced than those conventional translations might imply. The multidimensional nature of virya can be seen in the contrasting perspectives of three influential Zen teachers of our time. Each gives the word and its referent a distinctively different coloration. (more…)

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