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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.”

At lunch on the second day, I observed a chubby, red-cheeked boy at a neighboring table. Before him was a tray of steaming vegetables and rice. Just as he was about to tuck in, we heard the sound of a gong. The boy put down his fork. As quickly as he could manage, he made three loud puffs, as if he were blowing out birthday candles. He then proceeded to scarf up his meal.

Clearly, that hungry lad had missed the point of the exercise. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, its purpose was to train us in the “practice of stopping,” which is to say, of arresting our headlong rush into the future. Practicing conscious breathing, we became present for whatever was occurring within and around us.

In his book You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh further explains the practice:

Stop! The street sign reminds you. Stop running, because life is here, in the present moment. We have to train in that. As you breathe out, you say: “I am home.” I am already home, I don’t have to run. . . . The address of my true home is clear: life, here and now. Peace is something that becomes possible the moment you stop. Stopping is an essential aspect of Buddhist meditation.

By now the boy I observed would be in his thirties. If by chance he has pursued the practice he learned in childhood, perhaps he has reaped its long-term benefits. For my own part, having explored various forms of “stopping” over the past two decades, practices drawn from both the Vietnamese and Japanese Zen traditions, I have come to understand “stopping” as both a tool of awakening and a path to meditative insight.

With respect to awakening, no figure in Buddhist iconography is more central than Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom. In most depictions, Manjushri wields a flaming sword, which cuts through ignorance and delusion. The practice of stopping performs a similar function. It severs our thought-loops and groundless divagations. It interrupts our interior monologues and calls us back from forgetfulness. And it punctures the delusive, egocentric bubble that many of us inhabit much of the time.

In Zen monasteries this action is accomplished primarily through sounds. Within the prevailing silence of the monastery, the reverberant tones of bells and gongs and the sharp cracks of wooden instruments draw practitioners out of their thoughts of past or future and into the present moment. Whether it be the jingling of the wake-up bell at 4:30 in the morning or the woodpecker-like taps on a hardwood board at the opening of morning service, the sounds of a Zen monastery enforce a shift of attention from self-centered reverie to a shared, life-centered perspective. Never mind that you haven’t finished your thought or the task at hand. You stop immediately and return to the communal life of which you are a part.

No less important, both for monastics and for lay practitioners, the practice of stopping establishes an inner platform: a stable vantage point from which to investigate what Zen calls our true nature. In classical Buddhist teachings, the practice of stopping and following our breathing is known as shamata, a Sanskrit word often translated as “calm abiding.” Practicing this concentrative form of meditation, we prepare ourselves for the complementary practice of vipassana, or “looking deeply.”

In Zen practice, what we are urged to look into is the impermanent and interdependent nature of things we conventionally regard as permanent and independent. Whether those entities be solid objects or fixed ideas, evanescent feelings or enduring states of mind, under the steady gaze of Zen contemplation they reveal themselves to be more fluid and transitory than our reifying minds would have us believe. And rather than remain attached to them, we experience the freedom of letting them go.

Here in the village of Alfred, New York, we have no shortage of daily bells. Any one of them can awaken us into awareness. But whether the “bell of mindfulness” be a Town Hall clock marking the hours or the chime of a smart phone, its sound can summon us back to the here and now. Calling a halt to excessive, compulsive, and non-constructive thinking, it can help us live more wisely.

___________

Stop! The street sign reminds you: Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (Shambhala, 2009), 37.

 

 

 

 

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Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly. (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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“Ray of Hope” impatiens

On this cold morning in February, I’m remembering my last conversation with my father. At the time, he was sixty-five years old. He had retired early the year before, having received a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his once-sturdy body reduced by chemotherapy. Although he did not know for certain that he was dying—no one had definitively told him so—he knew that he wasn’t getting any better. Much of our conversation centered on the past: on our shared experiences, our conflicting political views, his wish that he could have better provided for his family. But when our focus turned to the future, and the word hope arose, I remarked without much thought that he might be “hoping for the wrong things.” My remark unsettled him. “I just hoped to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren,” he replied. “What’s wrong with that?”

Over the ensuing decades I have often regretted my remark. At the very least, it was less than wise. At worst, it was insensitive and unintentionally unkind. Who was I, at the untried age of twenty-six, to be advising my father? To be suggesting what, if anything, he should or shouldn’t hope for? Now that I am well beyond his age at the time, I am far less certain of what any of us should hope for, if hope we must, especially in later life. Turning to Zen teachings for guidance, I find contrasting perspectives, some of them more useful than others. (more…)

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Bill Bryson

Of the many American brand names that have infiltrated the English language—kleenex, aspirin, q-tips, to name a few—none has enjoyed greater success than the word Kodak. Properly capitalized, Kodak originated as the trade name of an inexpensive camera invented by George Eastman of Rochester, New York. As Eastman’s revolutionary invention burgeoned in popularity, kodak became a common noun and a generic term for camera. Yet, for all its eventual currency, Kodak had the least auspicious of origins. The word was coined by Eastman and his mother in 1888 with the aid of an anagram set and three guiding principles. First, the word had to be short. Second, it had to be easily pronounced. And third, it should not resemble any other word or be associated with anything other than the Eastman family business. Kodak, in other words, was conjured out of thin air and meant precisely nothing. (more…)

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Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration. (more…)

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