Posts Tagged ‘zen meditation’

Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –


                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,


                       but to practice


                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice.

In the 1970s, Hirshfield spent three years in residence at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is situated in the Los Padres National Forest in central California. The fragrance of cedar, we may infer from her title, was in the air. In Zen centers and monasteries, residents rise as early as 2:30, splash cold water on their faces, and make haste to the zendo (meditation hall) for the first sitting of the day. “Decades after,” as she puts it, Hirshfield is still continuing this practice, though her external circumstances no longer require her to do so. “What is this?” Zen students are enjoined to inquire, whether the focus of inquiry is a concrete object, a physical sensation, or a state of mind. In this instance, Hirshfield implicitly asks why she is still performing a less-than-pleasant action, morning after morning, when she no longer has to.

Employing abductive reasoning, her poem entertains three plausible explanations. The first is that she is maintaining the rigor of Zen discipline, as a musician might do in playing scales. The second is that she is reconnecting her present experience with what she has called the “diamond at the center of [her] life”: her years as a full-time Zen student at Tassajara. And the third is that she is using the shock of ice-cold water to awaken herself, awakening being a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Rejecting all these explanations, however, she answers her own question in five key words, each of which carries a rich cargo of meaning.

The first of these words is practice, a word and concept as essential in Zen as it is in medicine or law. In Zen, nearly every activity one might engage in, be it sitting, eating, walking, gardening, cooking, or cleaning, is viewed as a form of practice, to which the practitioner gives his or her wholehearted attention. An end in itself, each such practice is also a means to an end, namely full awakening, and it is also the fruit of previous practice.

No less important is the word choosing, which Hirshfield underscores by allotting this operative verb a line to itself. One of the primary benefits of Zen practice is the eventual replacement of habitual, reflexive reactions with mindful, chosen responses. Through daily practice, the former give way to the latter. By anchoring ourselves in a stable posture, practicing conscious breathing, and observing our thoughts as they come and go, we become intimately aware of our mental habits—what Zen teachings call our “habit energy”(vasana). Bringing this awareness into our everyday lives, we develop the capacity to relinquish our most destructive habits. We fortify our power of choice.

The third key word is make, which in this context refers to creating a particular emotional response. In her book How Emotions Are Made, the distinguished neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett propounds what she calls the “theory of constructed emotion,” which holds that our emotional responses are not hardwired into our bodies and minds but actively constructed by our brains from three primary components: “affective realism” (empirical fact filtered through present feeling); “emotion concepts”; and social realities. Broadly speaking, Zen teachings accord with Barrett’s findings. Our emotions don’t just happen to us. Our brains play an active part in creating them. By becoming fully aware, through daily meditative practice, of that ongoing, moment-by-moment process of creation, we gain control over our reflexive thoughts and actions.

By such means, we can make the unwanted wanted. Rather than merely react to a splash of icy water by fighting that sensation, we can choose to respond with openness and curiosity. Rather than mindlessly react to its verbal counterpart—an offensive opinion, an inadvertent insult, a condescending remark—with prejudicial judgment and a commensurate retort, we can learn to respond with genuine compassion. And over time, we may even come to welcome adverse situations, insofar as they offer occasions for cultivating broader awareness, clearer insight, and deeper understanding.


Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins,2001).

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, “Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview,” Agni Online.

Photo: Jane Hirshfield, Zen Center of Syracuse, November 2009.




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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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Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative.

“Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. (more…)

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800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (more…)

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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention (more…)

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Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think that wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. (more…)

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