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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others.

Perhaps the most severe of those perspectives is that of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), former abbot of the San Diego Zen Center. Generally speaking, Zen teachings enjoin us to attend to our immediate experience and to look deeply into the present moment. Whatever distracts us from those objectives, be it daydreams or idle speculation, is to be set aside. It is in that context that Beck, in her essay “No Hope,” counsels us to abandon vain hopes for a life other than the one we are presently living. “All hope,” she declares, “is about sizing up the past and projecting it into the future.” That habit of mind leads us to ignore and devalue the “wonder” of our present, everyday lives. “A life lived with no hope,” she asserts, “is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life,” even at its end. For Beck, this outlook appears to have sufficed. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, Joko Beck’s last words, uttered at the point of death, were, “This, too, is wondrous!”

A more temperate view of hope may be found in the teachings of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “We all know,” he writes, “that hope is necessary for life.” At the same time, “according to Buddhism, hope can be an obstacle.” It can divert our energies into self-indulgent fantasies of a better future. It can cloud our perceptions of present realities. “The essential teaching of Buddhism,” he notes, “is to be free of all desire for the future in order to come back with all our heart and mind into the present.” By so doing, we can gain “the deep understanding which can release us from suffering and darkness.” Hope need not be abandoned, but neither should it be allowed to obstruct our vision.

A third general perspective, which Thich Nhat Hanh elsewhere articulates, is embodied in the phrase “the thought of enlightenment,” a thought that committed Buddhist practitioners are encouraged always to keep in mind. By entertaining the thought of enlightenment, the practitioner consciously aspires to become a bodhisattva, or fully awakened human being. In Buddhist teachings, the bodhisattva is an archetype of altruism and selfless service to others. One becomes a bodhisattva by actively cultivating the paramitas, or “Perfections of Wisdom” (generosity, virtue, patience, wholeheartedness, meditation, and wisdom), chiefly through the practice of meditation. Although this aspiration, like all aspirations, focuses on the future, it is consistent with Buddhist practice in general and Zen practice in particular, insofar as one’s hope for enlightenment is grounded in a full awareness of actual conditions and supported by disciplined practice.

As may be inferred from these differing perspectives, the issue of hope in Zen teachings remains unsettled. Likewise the question of what the “right” objects of hope might or might not be. But perhaps a rough guide may be discerned in the word “right” itself, which appears frequently in Buddhist teachings and carries a specialized meaning. To speak of “right view,” “right effort,” and “right speech,” as foundational Buddhist teachings do, is not to promote a dogma or endorse an orthodoxy. Rather, it is to distinguish those things that are grounded in reality from those that are not. “Right view” is a view aligned with things as they are. “Right speech” is honest and true. In this sense, to hope for the “right” things is to hope for outcomes that are possible and even probable, given present circumstances and conditions. And what, we might reasonably inquire, is wrong with that?

________

Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperCollins, 1989), 66-70.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 35.

Photo by Magnus Manske.

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Shortly after her fifth birthday, my granddaughter and I had one of our quiet conversations. We talked about her preschool activities, her best friends, her latest drawings. When we had exhausted those subjects, she paused for a bit, sat back regally in my leather chair, and made a request:

“Grandpa, tell me about the Buddha.”

Her request took me by surprise. During my tenure at Alfred University, I often taught an Honors course entitled The Art of Meditation, in which I introduced undergraduates to the basics of Buddhist meditation. Since retiring, I have given informal talks on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition to classes and audiences large and small. But until then, I had not attempted to expound Buddhist teachings to a very young child, let alone my granddaughter. What should I tell her? What should I not tell her? What did I wish for her to remember? (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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