Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

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 The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current.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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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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