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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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.

Impermanence

Impermanence is a fact of life. Even the most cursory observation of the world around us is enough to confirm that all conditioned things are subject to change, including those we most cherish. Likewise that world of thought and feeling known as the inner life. It, too, is subject to what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Yet, despite this general recognition, expressed in such common adages as “all things change” or “this, too, will pass,”’ one important aspect of the law of impermanence often goes unheeded.

That aspect is the continuous, moment-by-moment nature of change and transformation. It is one thing to stop from time to time and note how an object of attention has altered—how, for example, the faces of our children and grandchildren have defined themselves, or how their minds have matured. It is quite another to recognize and continuously acknowledge that, as Zen teachings put it, every moment is a birth and a death. Toward that end, a silent, continuously moving second hand is both a useful instrument and a stern reminder. It dispels false notions of permanence and banishes illusions of control.  And, like the evening prayer posted in Zen monasteries, it implores us not to squander our lives.

Yardsticks

In his book Living by Vow, the Soto Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura observes that most of us apply our personal yardsticks to our experience. We impose human metrics upon the fluid, boundless realities we encounter. In the same way that an ordinary ticking clock calibrates the time it is telling—one pulse, one tick per second—we, too, impose our fixed standards upon the flux of experience. By circling the perimeter of a clock face, not stopping to mark each unit of time, an incessantly moving second hand reminds us that the twelve established numbers and the sixty second-marks of the clock face are imposed, conventional measures. Beyond their artifice lies the reality: the unmeasured, uninterrupted flow of time.

This is an important reminder, not least because it mimics the way in which our conditioned expectations, habitual judgments, and self-centered thoughts govern our perceptions of the world. As Shohaku Okumura remarks, we cannot discard our yardsticks. We need them to navigate the world, and they are all we have. But with practice and awareness we can come to see their limitations, and we can let them go. And “when we live in this way,” Okumura notes, “without attachment to objects or to our conditioned way of viewing and judging things, the lotus flower can bloom in our lives.”

The Present Moment

For centuries, Zen teachings have admonished us to return to the present moment. To practice Zen, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh asserts, is to be “present for the present moment.”

Yet, as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, observes in his Genjokoan, the so-called present moment is no more than a “geometrical line” that separates the past and the future.  That line has no width, length, or intrinsic existence. It is not a unit of time. A silent second hand, coursing rapidly and relentlessly past the second marks, vividly represents that reality.  But, as Okumura notes in his book Realizing Genjokoan, “reality unfolds only within this present moment.” If we truly wish to be present for our unfolding lives, we must endeavor to be present for that ungraspable moment. Such is the aim, the challenge, and the ultimate reward of Zen practice.

___________

 Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 128.

Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan (Wisdom, 2010), 120.

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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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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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