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Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

 

Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

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Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022).

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

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TomisenSensujiKyusu_A01

One morning a few weeks ago, my new kyusu arrived at my door. A kyusu is a Japanese teapot with a hollow side handle and an interior mesh filter. Handcrafted in the Tokoname tradition, this particular kyusu is dark brown and evokes a quiet, earthy atmosphere. Concentric circles in the lid and body impart a simple, classical feeling. To prepare this new tool for use, I filled it with boiling water, emptied it, and left it in the dish drainer to dry. By nightfall, it had taken its place on the counter among my small collection of kyusus, looking pristine and ready for service.

That look was not to last. The following afternoon, as I was reading in my study and my wife was working in the kitchen, I heard a crash, followed by a few words of Yiddish and the improbable prediction, “He’s going to kill me!” As it happened, as Robin was innocently opening the cupboard above the counter to fetch a box of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a jar of cream of tartar came tumbling out. As if guided by radar, this little missile landed squarely on my new kyusu, breaking its hollow handle into several pieces. With a seasoned ceramist’s expertise, Robin repaired the handle, leaving barely visible lines where the fractures had occurred. No matter: having traveled safely all the way from Japan and spending less than forty-eight hours in our home, this exquisite object was already broken. (more…)

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Chicken image ps

Once a week, I stop in at Stearns Poultry Farm in Alfred, New York to buy a dozen eggs. On the wall above the egg cooler, looking worse for the wear, is a poster depicting a rooster standing on a country road. Over his head, a thought-balloon reads, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

That riff on a well-known conundrum seldom fails to make me smile. And on certain days, it reminds me of a slogan from the lojong system of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Based on a 12th-century text (The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind), this system consists of fifty-nine numbered “slogans,’ i.e., themes for daily living, all of them designed to generate resilience and compassion. With the guidance of a teacher, practitioners memorize a particular slogan, reflect on its meaning, and allow it to percolate into their conscious awareness during the course of the day. In this way, they train their minds and modify their outlooks and conduct accordingly.

            The slogan evoked by the poster is number 26:

Don’t figure others out.

In his book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi discusses this slogan in the context of interpersonal relationships. In Fischer’s view, human relationships are inherently prone to conflict. And the human impulse, however well-intentioned, to figure others out is often a source of discord. By becoming aware of that impulse, and by observing its often harmful effects, we can learn to refrain from engaging in the reflexive pondering of others’ motives. Or, failing that, we can learn to approach that self-appointed task with greater discernment and humility.

As Fischer observes, “[E]ven a cursory investigation . . . shows us that we barely understand ourselves. . . . If it’s hard to fathom ourselves, how could we seriously believe we can figure out someone else?” All of our motives, it might be argued, are ulterior, insofar as they are hidden even from us. Yet on we go, attributing feelings, thoughts, and motives to our spouses, friends, and even public figures, as if we could read their minds. As Fischer notes, “[W]e assume the intentions of others based on our understanding of their outward acts. And we are usually wrong.”

Depending on the situation, the human costs of attributing—or misattributing—motives can be slight or great, trivial or momentous. It’s fair to say that no one relishes being told, even by a well-meaning friend or relative, what he or she is feeling, wanting, thinking, or intending. “I’m really sorry,” I once said to a person whose feelings I had hurt. “No, you’re not,” she shot back. “You’re just feeling guilty.” That rebuke only widened our emotional divide. “I can imagine what you’re feeling,” sympathetic friends sometimes say to the recently bereaved, inadvertently deepening their sense of separateness and isolation. As one grieving husband, still reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, lamented, “How could they know what I’m feeling, when I don’t even know myself?”

As Fischer acknowledges, “There are times when it may be a good idea to try to imagine what someone else is feeling, thinking, needing or wanting.” “Don’t figure others out” is a motto, not an absolute. Rather than treat the slogan as a rigid rule, to be followed in every situation, it might better be understood as a cautionary mantra: a reminder, in Fischer’s words, that “we don’t really know what is in another’s heart and . . . whatever we imagine is probably incorrect.” “What heart can know itself?” asks the poet Anthony Hecht, in his poem “Upon the Death of George Santayana.” To that rhetorical question we might add: “What heart can know another’s?”

Yet, if we are not to “figure others out,” what, in times of conflict or crisis, are we to do? “In the end,” Fischer suggests, “probably the best thing we could do . . . for anyone . . . is to let them alone, profoundly alone, in the recognition that they are so much more than we could ever understand.” By doing so, he adds, we are “recognizing their full human dignity.”

Perhaps so.  But leaving others alone when they are fearful or distraught can be tantamount to abandonment—or be felt as such. To Fischer’s advice, and to the lojong slogan generally, I would add these complementary words by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, which I keep not far from my meditation cushion: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Allowing others their full human dignity by refraining from trying to figure them out, we can also be fully present for them in their time of need. The two principles are not incompatible. Held in balance, the one supporting the other, they can constitute an appropriate and compassionate response.

__________

Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2012), 105-106.

Anthony Hecht, “Upon the Death of George Santayana,” The Hard Hours (Atheneum, 1967).

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THICH NHAT HANH

Thich Nhat Hanh

1926-2022

Back in December, my wife and I sent an electronic holiday card to our family members and friends, wishing them “happiness, peace, and equanimity” in the year to come. Ever the realist, one of our friends replied, “I’ll settle for equanimity.” I suspect he was not alone.

Equanimity is a central term in the lexicon of Zen. A translation of the Sanskrit word upeksha, the word refers to a quality of mental balance and emotional stability. Not to be confused with a neutral passivity or cold indifference, equanimity might better be likened to what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”: the ability to remain calm and composed under the most trying of circumstances. Equanimity is also the faculty that enables us to take the long, even-tempered view and to remain unmoved by praise or blame, desire or aversion. Although this quality of heart and mind may be more evident in some people than in others, from the standpoint of Zen teachings, equanimity is not an ingrained trait, which some people possess and others do not. Rather, it is a capacity anyone can acquire and systematically cultivate through well-established practices.

The most fundamental of those practices is zazen, or seated meditation. Although Zen literature abounds in special instructions and nuanced techniques, zazen itself is a simple practice. In essence it consists of sitting still and paying close attention to one’s breath, body, and awareness. In this respect, Zen practitioners doing zazen resemble non-practitioners sitting quietly and enjoying their early-morning coffee, aware of their thoughts, bodies, and immediate environment.

Yet there are two crucial differences. Ideally at least, zazen is both a non-judgmental and a non-reactive practice. However pleasant or unpleasant our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations may be, we refrain from judging them. If the room where we are sitting is uncomfortably cold, we note that fact but refrain from passing judgment. And should an uncharitable thought cross our minds, we refrain from reacting with an inner rebuke or external action. Instead, we note our transitory thought and return to our awareness of breath and posture. By such means, zazen engenders an attitude of mindfulness and non-reactivity. Rather than judge or try to fix what we encounter, we closely observe its arising and passing.

In similar fashion, sitting still and taking the “backward step” heightens our sense of impermanence. All things change, no matter how permanent they seem. We may know this already, but when practicing zazen, that knowledge becomes concrete and unignorable. Whether what arises is an anxious thought or a disturbing image, a memory from childhood or the fragment of a song, it’s gone before we know it. The contents of our minds are in constant flux. By experiencing this directly, we are reminded time and again that even the most troubling circumstances in our lives are also subject to change. “Long live impermanence!” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh used to say. Not only can awareness of impermanence bring relief from fear and obsessive thinking. Over time, it can also foster the qualities of dignity and equanimity, which we can carry into our daily lives.

For those who might prefer a more direct approach, there is also a practice known as “equanimity meditation,” in which the qualities of balance and peace become objects of contemplation. This practice begins with reflection on the benefits of equanimity. We are asked to consider the gift an equanimous state of mind can bestow on those with whom we come into contact. We may also reflect on its long-term benefits for ourselves. The meditation proceeds to an inner recitation of such sentences as “May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with balance and equanimity,” or “May I be balanced and at peace.” In some lineages, the exercise may conclude with a “transfer of merit,” in which we transfer to a person or persons of our choice whatever merit we may have accumulated by doing this practice. Though more abstract than the practices described above, this verbal exercise, repeated daily, can strengthen our sense of balance and emotional well-being.

In Zen teachings, upeksha (equanimity) is known as one of the Four Immeasurable Minds: the “boundless” states of mind that practitioners vow to cultivate. The other three are maitri (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and mudita (sympathetic joy). Equanimity is sometimes regarded as the most important of the four, if not their very foundation. Without equamimity, it can be difficult to practice loving-kindness or compassion or to feel joy in someone else’s happiness. For Thich Nhat Hanh, upkesha also means “inclusiveness” and “non-discrimination”: the capacity to absorb whatever vicissitudes we encounter and to treat all sentient beings with equal regard. All things considered, one could do worse than settle for equanimity.

________

Detailed instructions for equanimity meditation may be found in Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart (Random House, 1993). See also Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion of upeksha and the Four Immeasurable Minds in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Harmony, 1999).

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Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

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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.”

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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

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shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

(more…)

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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…)

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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.

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Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

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

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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…)

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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…)

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