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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

800px-Sweden._Doll_02One afternoon not long ago, my five-year-old granddaughter taught the basics of sitting meditation to her red-haired doll, Pippi Longstocking. Being a rag doll, Pippi is not very good at sitting upright, so after repeated attempts, Allegra allowed her to lie down. “I know you can do this,” she explained to Pippi, “but since this is your first day, I want you to be a little comfortable with what it feels like instead of what it looks like.” With Pippi lying flat on her back, Allegra proceeded with her lesson. “You just have to listen to your breathing,” she advised.

If you are familiar with the stories of Pippi Longstocking, you might agree that Astrid Lindgren’s rambunctious nine-year-old heroine, who is physically strong but conspicuously lacking in tact, could use a bit of meditation in her life. But in addition to teaching Pippi how to meditate, Allegra was also demonstrating by example a quality much prized in the Zen tradition. Known by its Sanskrit name of kshanti paramita (pron. kuh-SHAWN-ti pear-uh-ME-tuh), it is the Third Perfection of Wisdom to which serious Zen practitioners aspire. At once conceptually complex and emotionally challenging, it comprises three principal dimensions, each of them integral to the whole.

The word kshanti is most often translated as “patience.” To practice kshanti is first of all to cultivate a patient attitude toward those forms of suffering that Zen teachings view as natural and inevitable: hardship, aging, illness, and death. No less important, to practice kshanti is to bear with equanimity the harm done to us, intentionally or inadvertently, by others. At the most practical level, the cultivation of kshanti begins with mindfulness of its opposite: the impatience we experience in everyday life, whether we are waiting in line at a checkout counter or driving in heavy traffic. Aware of that state of mind arising, we can remind ourselves to be patient, simply by saying the word patience to ourselves. Beyond such specific measures, however, Zen teachings encourage us to develop a patient attitude toward the uncertain, contingent, and ungraspable aspects of our lives. To practice kshanti, in short, is to cultivate patience with life itself.

The second dimension of kshanti might best be described as ubiquitous tolerance. In his book The Six Perfections, the Buddhist scholar Dale S. Wright focuses on this aspect of the Third Perfection, while also examining its problematic status in contemporary Western culture. For centuries, tolerance of others has been a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But in an era when “zero tolerance” has become a political rallying cry on both the right and left, and when intolerance of social injustice is widely perceived as a social virtue, the ancient Buddhist practice of cultivating tolerance may seem irrelevant, if not morally objectionable. Suffice it to say that in its original sense kshanti is hardly to be equated with a passive acceptance of societal evils. On the contrary, it is an active practice of tolerating—of training ourselves to tolerate—whatever adversity and misfortune we may encounter. More broadly, the practice challenges us to tolerate the often painful fact of impermanence, the sometimes uncomfortable reality of interdependence, and the radically unpredictable nature of our everyday lives.

The third dimension of kshanti has much in common with patience and tolerance but differs in one important way. Thich Nhat Hanh points to this dimension by defining kshanti as “inclusiveness,” by which he means the capacity not only to receive and embrace suffering but also to transform it. Likening this capacity to the earth, which absorbs “fair and foul substances” alike, Thich Nhat Hanh views kshanti as an agent of transformation, personal and social. Rather than suppress the pain we suffer at the hands of others, we can investigate its causes and seek to understand them. Rather than react with righteous indignation to social injustice, we can “look deeply” and examine the “roots” of others’ harmful actions. To do this, however, we have first to “make the heart big”: to develop a magnanimity of heart and mind sufficient to absorb and transform suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, there are concrete practices dedicated to that purpose, the most prominent being the contemplation and cultivation of the Four Immeasurable Minds (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).

“Practice makes perfect,” an old saying reminds us. Where the practice of the Third Perfection is concerned, that claim may be less than realistic. Like death and taxes, ingrained habits of impatience, intolerance, and discrimination may always be with us, wreaking their havoc in our personal, familial, and social lives. But merely by becoming acutely aware of those habits, we begin to ameliorate their destructive force. And should we choose to persist in the practice, making it an unshakable intention and a component of our daily lives, we may in time catch sight of what Zen calls the other shore: the shore free of delusion, fear, and suffering.

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Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford University Press, 2009), 94-136.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 185-192.

Photo by Albert Jankowski.

 

 

 

 

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“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. (more…)

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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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