Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

In popular culture, the practice of Zen is sometimes perceived as a remedy for complaints, physical and emotional.  Some years ago, as I was arriving at my chiropractor’s office for my appointment, I ran into a longtime friend, who was just leaving. “What’s a Zen master like you doing in a place like this?” he jokingly asked. Underlying his good-natured question, I suspect, was the notion that meditative practice can magically cure the ills that flesh is heir to—or, failing that, enable the practitioner to rise above pain and suffering. Unfortunately, the converse is more often the case. Zen practice is about awakening to reality, not escaping from it.  By curbing the habit of mental wandering and by fostering the disciplines of “stopping and looking,” Zen practice enhances our awareness of our sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, even as they are arising. That awareness can warn us of serious problems in need of treatment, but in my experience it does little to relieve present pain. If you are looking to Zen for a mental or physical analgesic, you would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

What Zen practice does offer, however, is a way of responding, wisely and compassionately, to whatever pains we may incur. In at least four fundamental ways, the practice can enable us to see our lives more clearly and respond accordingly.

First and most important, even ten minutes of meditation a day can reveal the difference between raw physical pain, which is inevitable, and reactive emotional suffering, which is not.  Pain, whatever its origin, is what happens to us; emotional suffering is what we add to the pain, often as a result of our resistance. By paying close attention to our immediate experience, we can learn to recognize that resistance as separate and distinct. And we can endeavor to let it go.

Second, as we come to know our own minds through daily meditation, we can observe the mind’s unceasing urge to generalize, extrapolate, and speculate: to envision dire outcomes and often to fear the worst. Brought under mindful scrutiny, this catastrophizing tendency loses much of its force and power. It, too, can be noted, duly acknowledged, and allowed to dissipate of its own accord.

Third, Zen meditation heightens our awareness of impermanence, including the impermanence of our everyday discomforts. In Zen teachings this dimension of our experience is known as “emptiness”: all conditioned things, including our aches and pains, are empty of inherent existence. Chronic they may be, but they are also insubstantial. To recognize that fact will not take our pains away, but it can help us to endure them.

And last, the compulsion to complain can be met and counterbalanced by what Zen calls the “practice of gratitude,” which is to say, the active cultivation of that quality in our daily lives. “Grateful for my life, I breathe in. / Grateful for my life, I breathe out.”  Whatever our religious beliefs or absence thereof, stopping at least once during the day to offer gratitude for our lives in general and certain aspects of them in particular can be a powerful, countervailing force against reflexive complaining. Words, it’s true, are only words, but if repeated on a daily basis, words of gratitude can have a profound impact on the ways we think and feel.

That impact can be deepened, I might add, if the words are accompanied by the now-uncommon practice of bowing—even if, in the words of the American poet W.S. Merwin, one is “bowing not knowing to what.” Should you choose to explore this practice, you may find that it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain of one’s infirmities at the same time. The one action precludes the other. For that reason alone, the practice of gratitude is a potent antidote to the habit of complaint.


Cartoon: Mike Baldwin / Cornered

W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”





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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.”

The notion of “nature” as a source of natural feeling may also be found in the Buddhist tradition, as can the word nature in English translations of the classic teachings. In Zen that source is sometimes called “true nature” or “original mind,” but most often it is identified as “Buddha-nature.”  Specific concepts of Buddha-nature vary widely from sect to sect, but broadly speaking, this ambiguous term refers to an innate capacity for such qualities as kindness, empathy, generosity, and forgiveness. All spring from one’s Buddha-nature. In this respect, Buddha nature resembles the “nature” to which Charles Hartshorne and Behan’s prison guard allude.

Yet there is also a crucial difference. In its Irish context, “nature” is seen as a quality of mind and heart that a person may or may not possess—or possess to a greater or lesser degree. Whether that quality is inborn or not is an open question, but, as used in Irish discourse, the word nature serves to differentiate those who take a generous, compassionate, and forgiving attitude toward their fellow human beings from those who do not. Or cannot, given who they are.  To have “nature” is to have a good heart. Not every person does, and those who demonstrate that lack by their words and deeds are regarded as having “no nature.”*

Not so in the Buddhist tradition, where Buddha-nature is viewed as a universal potentiality. Buried though it may be beneath layers of conditioning, this seed of awakening is believed to reside in every sentient being. In the Zen tradition in particular, Buddha-nature is seen not as something we have but as something we are. And, in the language of Zen, we can all “aspire to Buddhahood.” Just as the practitioner who pursues the “path of liberation,” as it is called, can eventually experience freedom from fear and suffering, so those who aspire to Buddhahood can, in due time, discover and realize their potential for compassionate wisdom.

Central to this pursuit is the daily practice of meditation. In its monastic setting, meditative training begins with the taking of vows and the establishing of a solid ethical foundation. From there it proceeds to the development of mindfulness and concentration, primarily though seated meditation. By concentrating the mind and opening the heart, the practitioner becomes intimately aware of those unwholesome feelings, thoughts, and mental states—greed, anger, jealousy, and the like—that pass through us and sometimes take up residence. With diligent practice, however, monastics and lay practitioners alike can also learn to recognize such wholesome states as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, even as they arise.

These positive states can be “watered,” as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often put it. They can be nurtured, as one might nurture a seedling. In the Zen tradition, there are many practices designed for that purpose, one of the simplest being this gatha (meditative verse) by Thich Nhat Hanh, which practitioners are admonished to recite in the early morning:

    Waking up, I smile, knowing I have twenty-four new hours.

    I vow to live mindfully, and to see all things with the eyes of compassion.

By such means, the quality of mind and heart we Westerners once called nature is encouraged to take root and flourish. And over time, our thoughts, speech, and actions can be transformed accordingly.


— Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

— *”No nature”: In Ireland, observes the American poet Richard Tillinghast, “you are expected to take turns buying drinks. Mental notes of whose turn it is to buy a round are kept, and though no one will ever be so rude as to say so, you will be considered to ‘have no nature in you’ if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.” Richard Tillinghast, Finding Ireland (Notre Dame, 2008), 146-147.

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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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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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