Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

______

In Zen practice,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas, “we give attention to the details of our lives.” By paying close, sustained attention to the most ordinary details in our daily round, we train ourselves to abide in the present moment. Rather than sacrifice our present experience to a past that is already gone, a future that has not yet come, or abstract thoughts that may or may not reflect reality, we attend to the details of the matter at hand: the level of green tea in our measuring spoon, the temperature and volume of water to be added, the specific brewing time for that particular tea. By so doing, we fully engage in relative, historical time, even as we touch the timeless, absolute dimension of our experience.

No one understands this paradox more fully or articulates it with greater skill than the Midwestern poet Ted Kooser (b. 1939), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Delights & Shadows in 2005 and served as US Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. Kooser is not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, but by attending to the details of quotidian life, no matter how mundane, he returns the reader, time and again, to the immediacy of the present moment. And in their acute awareness of impermanence and interdependence, as revealed by such common or discarded objects as curtain rods, enameled pans, and Depression glass, his poems often embody the essence, if not the customary forms and rituals, of Zen practice.

A vivid example may be seen in the title poem of Kooser’s collection Splitting an Order (2014). In this gentle poem, set in a diner, the narrator observes an old man cutting his cold sandwich into two equal parts. It pleases the narrator to watch him

                                  keeping his shaky hands steady

by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife

while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,

her knife, and her fork in their proper places,

then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees

and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

A more ordinary situation it would be difficult to imagine: an elderly married couple having lunch in a diner. Yet Kooser endows this everyday situation with the glow of heightened attention, both on the part of the husband and wife and on that of the observant narrator.

The couple are splitting a plain roast-beef sandwich, perhaps to economize or because neither needs to eat a whole one. To accomplish this division, the husband must steady his shaky hands, a challenge he readily overcomes. By dividing the sandwich “surely” and diagonally, he ensures that the resulting portions will be exactly equal. Meanwhile, his wife carefully unrolls the napkin enclosing her knife, fork, and spoon. These, too, become objects of meticulous attention.

Even as the husband and wife are taking their time and paying attention to the details of their humble repast, the narrator is doing the same. His unswerving observation, recorded in a single complex but graceful sentence, not only mirrors that of his subjects toward the actions they are performing. It also establishes a tone of caring, even for common, unexceptional things, and implicitly bestows moral and aesthetic value on a scene that might otherwise have been dismissed as banal. The true significance of the scene becomes apparent in the poem’s closing lines, where the husband’s offering his wife her half of their sandwich completes his act of fairness, solicitude, and kindness. She in turn exhibits an attitude of openness and gratitude.

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying reminds us: “Poetry and Zen are one.” Although the former depends on fresh language, the latter on silent contemplation, both rely on wholehearted attention to concrete, particular detail. By stopping and looking deeply, both reveal the hidden dimension of human experience, the currents of interdependence and impermanence that underlie the most commonplace of human interactions. And, though they do so in very different ways, both, in the words of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”

_____________

Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life: Essays on Learning to Love This World (Shambhala, 2018), 69.

Ted Kooser, Splitting an Order (Copper Canyon, 2014), 9.

Patrick Kavanagh, “The Hospital,” Collected Poems (Norton, 1964), 153.

Photo: Ted Kooser

Read Full Post »

shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

(more…)

Read Full Post »

For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality. (more…)

Read Full Post »

DB 1a

                                      Dzogchen Beara

“Profound silence,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “is not something we fall into casually. This may indeed happen, and a blessed happening it is, but normally we choose to set aside a time and a place to enter into spiritual quietness.”

            For me, the time was a week in July, 1998, and the place was the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Traversed by two mountain ranges and jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Beara offers a landscape rich in Bronze Age antiquities and rugged natural beauty but inhospitable to human habitation. The winters are “full-on,” a local resident told me. And even during the summers, when the temperature peaks in the 60s, and hikers and cyclists converge on the scenic Ring of Beara, the stony hills, steep cliffs, and fierce winds challenge the faint of heart. At one time the population of the Beara Peninsula was nearly 40,000. Today it is fewer than 6,000 hardy souls.

            I came to Beara not to hike or cycle but primarily to meditate. My specific destination was Dzogchen (pron. ZOGH-shen) Beara, a Buddhist retreat and conference center situated near the colorful village of Allihies. Perched on a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the center is affiliated with the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, and during my weeklong stay, a few long-term residents were undergoing training in Tibetan Buddhist practice. But the ethos of the center was ecumenical, welcoming, and international. The then director was an Englishman, the staff mostly Irish. The bookshop included selections in English, Irish, and several other languages. Dzogchen Beara now boasts a modern, well-appointed conference center, bright commodious cottages with spectacular vistas (rentable at € 150/night), and a café that caters to tourists as well as retreatants. But twenty years ago, the ambience of the place was far more austere, and the “self-catering” cabin where I stayed was spartan, to say the least.

            The cabin’s most conspicuous feature was a long, old-fashioned bathtub. When I drew my first bath, I discovered that the water was amber-going-to-brown. This color, I was told, was caused by the peat in the soil. Not only was this additive harmless, I further learned, it was also, like Guinness, supposed to be good for me. Although I grew accustomed to bathing in the visual equivalent of pale ale, I cannot report any salubrious effects.

            The other prominent features of my home from home included a pot-bellied, peat-burning stove; an elderly, encrusted cook stove; a tiny fridge; a writing desk and lamp; and a single hard bed, which looked and felt like an oversized church pew. Fortunately, this Thoreauvian dwelling also featured a large window, from which I could look down at the water far below. In the mornings I watched the fishing boats emerging from the darkness onto Bantry Bay. In the evenings, I watched the sun setting on the distant ocean horizon.

            Dzogchen Beara had no fixed schedule for visitors, and after a brief orientation we were left on our own. But I soon developed a daily rhythm. Rising early, I brewed a pot of coffee, wrote in my journal, and worked on a lecture I would deliver the following week at the Kerry International Summer School in Tralee. After breakfast, I joined a few other visitors for guided meditation in the main hall. Looking out through tall windows on the ocean, we contemplated impermanence and cultivated the primordial awareness known in Tibetan Buddhism as rigpa. In the afternoons I explored the rocky hills and trails around the center, while listening to talks by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on my aging Walkman. Toward evening, I prepared my simple dinners from provisions I’d bought in Castletownbere and brought with me. My most memorable meal: roasted bell peppers stuffed with quinoa and flavored with fresh herbs. Suitable fare, it seemed at the time, for a part-time eremite. In the evenings I sat in solitary meditation before retiring to my monkish bed.

            And what did I take away from this experience? Of the welter of memories I’ve retained, two in particular stand out.

            In southwest Ireland, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, the wild fuchsia blooms abundantly in July. In his poem “The Fuchsia Blaze,” the Cork-born poet Greg Delanty recounts how this deep-red flower, imported from South America, “ran amuck . . . & wildfired the land / becoming the spirit of Kerry’s / Aztec farmers.” The Irish-speaking populace named the wild fuchsia Deora De, meaning “God’s Tears.” In Delanty’s poem, “each branch weeps / their God’s blood tears / as if sensing the earth’s hurt.” But at Dzogchen Beara, the spectacle of thousands of wild fuchsia cascading down the rocky cliff felt more celebratory than elegiac.

            That feeling was of a piece with the deep silence I experienced at Dzogchen Beara. “It seeps into you,” one visitor remarked. Early one morning, as I wrote in my journal and looked out at the bay, I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were those I was making myself: my heartbeat, the scratching of my pen on the page. As the Irish poet Sean Dunne (1956-1995), a native of Cork who also spent some time at Dzogchen Beara, wrote in his memoir The Road to Silence (1994): “silence is not just the absence of noise. It is also the absence of distraction and of mental busyness which prohibits the creation of an inner quiet. Silence is not a passive or quietist quality but an active one. . . . It is tactile, like the pages of a book or the texture of stone.” Such was my experience at Dzogchen Beara, and I have carried that nurturing, necessary stillness with me to this day.

______

Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

Sean Dunne, The Road to Silence (New Island, 1994), 73.

Read Full Post »

Shunryu Suzuki

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I would spend four hours sharpening the axe.”

That famous saying is commonly invoked to underscore the value of preparation—or, more precisely, of an attitude of preparedness. Whether we are preparing to cook a meal by chopping onions or preparing for a long drive by checking the air pressure in our tires, preparation is understood to be a necessary part of any serious undertaking. And an attitude of preparedness is regarded as a mark of a mature, responsible person.

All that said, preparation is often seen, consciously or otherwise, as subordinate to the main event. It is what the prep cook does before the chef arrives or what the warm-up band does before the stars take the stage. When I was teaching courses in English literature at Alfred University, I would often spend three hours or more preparing for a fifty-minute class. Yet until I began to practice Zen, I would not have thought of those hours as on a par with the dynamic experience of teaching itself. Essential my preparations may have been, even when teaching a text I had taught many times before, but in the back of my mind I still viewed the time spent locating sources, organizing the discussion, and selecting passages for special attention as mere preparation—the sorbet, as it were, rather than the main course. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Thich Nhat Hanh
        2006

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one. (more…)

Read Full Post »

In a recent article for the New York Times (April 14), Jim Dwyer reported that the doctors and health-care workers at the front lines of the corona-virus pandemic are facing challenges not only to their health and safety but also to their previous medical knowledge. “What we thought we knew, we didn’t know,” said Dr. Nile Cemalovic, an intensive-care physician at Lincoln Memorial Center in the Bronx. As Dwyer explains, “certain ironclad emergency medical practices have dissolved almost overnight.”

By any standard, the circumstances under which doctors and health-care workers are currently laboring are extraordinary. At the same time, the experience of finding one’s knowledge obsolete or no longer useful is not unique to the present crisis. “Our knowledge is historical, flowing,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop. And, according to Zen teachings, our previously acquired knowledge can also be an impediment to present understanding. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts the matter this way: (more…)

Read Full Post »

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. (more…)

Read Full Post »

“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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »