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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.

That is remarkable in retrospect, because we were moving very slowly. We were practicing walking meditation, an integral component of the Zen tradition. Earlier during this retreat, which was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in August, 2001 and entitled “Peace and Nonviolence in the Family, School, and Workplace,” we had practiced indoor walking meditation (“One step for the in-breath, one for the out-breath”), endeavoring to take “peaceful steps” and, in Thây’s words, to “live deeply in every moment of our daily lives.” Outdoors, in this public setting, we moved faster, but our pace was still slow enough to foster conscious awareness of our lungs breathing, our feet meeting the sidewalk, our bodies moving through the early-morning air. “Walk like a free person,” Thây advised. For those of us accustomed to being in a hurry and with a destination uppermost in mind, the practice of mindful walking required discipline and concentration. Yet even the children adapted readily to it, as though it were only natural.

They also adapted, willingly and without exception, to our group’s unbroken silence. No one spoke. No one gossiped or complained, or made small talk, or offered their unsolicited opinions. In addition to mindful walking, we were also practicing Noble Silence, as it is known in Buddhist circles. In lieu of the usual human chatter, we listened to the sounds of our steps, the rustle of our clothing, the birdsong from nearby trees. As was often the case at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats, where an ethos of silence prevailed during most of the day and night, our refraining from inessential speech enabled us to appreciate the freshness of our immediate surroundings and the fertile activity of our inner lives.  Complex feelings were granted room to expand and be examined. Thoughts were allowed to arise, endure, and disappear, even as we monitored their passing.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, describing him as “an Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence.” Not only did Thây advocate tirelessly for those causes.  In his quiet voice and his gentle demeanor, he fully embodied them, moment by moment and hour after hour. Like water permeating the cells of a thirsty organism, the peaceful energy he imparted spread through his retreats, affecting us all. And as we walked, slowly and silently down that city sidewalk, we too embodied the energy of peace and nonviolence, however imperfectly, and onlookers responded accordingly.

In practicing walking meditation under Thich Nhat Hanh’s tutelage, we were learning, in his oft-repeated words, a method for transforming our fears and anxieties into positive energy and our aversions and frustrations into constructive action. But looking back from the vantage point of September, 2020, I see that we were also making a public statement and sending a potent message, both to ourselves and to the world, a message as forceful in its way as the most impassioned political oratory. Peace is possible, we were saying. Nonviolence is possible. And as our walk vividly demonstrated, when the true intention is present, and when the necessary conditions have been established, peace and nonviolence will manifest, as surely as a river flowing to the sea or the sun rising in the eastern sky.

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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…)

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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…)

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“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…)

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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…)

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Bonnie Booman

On Saturday, August 31, in a memorial service for the late Bonnie Booman (1954-2019), the Reverend Laurie DeMott invoked the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net to characterize Bonnie’s life and work. The metaphor was as timely as it was apt. Not only did it commemorate the life of a gentle teacher, whose patience, care, and imaginative insight inspired her students and exerted a beneficent influence on her community. In its wider implications, this ancient metaphor offered a potent antidote to the divisive spirit of our times, being at once an emblem of interconnectedness, interdependence, and the selfless nature of all conditioned things. (more…)

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“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. (more…)

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The poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) hated being old. In his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written when Yeats was in his early sixties, he described an “aged man” as “but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .” And in “The Tower,” a poem of the same vintage, he likened the “absurdity” of “decrepit age” to a battered kettle tied to a dog’s tail. Invoking the traditional duality of body and soul, Yeats contrasted his “passionate, fantastical / Imagination” with the humiliations of physical decline. By common consent, Yeats’s late poems are among his finest, but the agon they so memorably dramatize is that of an aging artist resisting with all his imaginative might those inevitable changes that happen to us all.

Zen teachings also address those changes, but they offer a very different perspective. Nowhere is that perspective more concretely articulated or more forcefully asserted than in the litany of home truths known as the Five Remembrances. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation: (more…)

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Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

“It’s so not like that.”

Such was the response of Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, to a comment I’d made a moment earlier. At the time, we were midway through a private interview—one of the face-to-face encounters between student and teacher that are a staple of Zen training. It was the third day of an extended retreat at the Zen Center of Syracuse, and I was one of more than thirty practitioners in attendance. In keeping with Zen custom, Shinge Roshi, then in her sixties, was giving dokusan, as it is called, to each of us in succession. She was also overseeing the retreat, conducting formal services, and offering erudite talks on Zen topics. Remembering my own experience as an academic advisor, in which I sometimes met with six or more students in a two-hour period, I remarked that she must be tired, if not exhausted. “It’s so not like that,” she replied, going on to explain that she loved what she was doing, and, far from exhausting her, the work replenished her reserves.

In her conspicuous resilience, as in her seemingly limitless energy, Shinge Roshi exemplified a quality of heart and mind essential to Zen practice. At once a precondition and a benefit of long-term practice, that quality is known in Zen circles as virya paramita, the fourth of the Six Perfections of Wisdom. Virya paramita is commonly translated as “energy” or “effort,” but the full meaning of this Sanskrit term is more nuanced than those conventional translations might imply. The multidimensional nature of virya can be seen in the contrasting perspectives of three influential Zen teachers of our time. Each gives the word and its referent a distinctively different coloration. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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