Posts Tagged ‘zen’

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.

However variable the terminology, the distinguishing qualities attributed to this faculty remain relatively consistent across the differing schools. Of those qualities, the three most salient are its constant, uninflected nature; its capacity for knowing what is present, within and without; and its particular way of knowing—a way very different from that of everyday linear thought.

As even an hour of introspection will confirm, our mental and emotional states are anything but permanent or reliably stable. In the morning we may feel dull and irritable, in the afternoon alert and relaxed. By contrast, the silent mind is immutable. It is not depressed when we’re depressed or angry when we’re angry. At any moment during the day or night, especially when the external world has been upended, we may suddenly feel anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The onset of such states is not predictable and for many not controllable. But the silent mind is not subject to those changes. For that reason it is a dependable refuge, to which we can return, time and again.

And just as taking refuge in the silent mind can provide stability in the midst of chaos, it can also engender insight into things as they actually are. Buddhist teachings speak of the “five hindrances,”—the mental states of craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt—which skew our perceptions and hinder our ability to see clearly. Classical teachings liken those states to disturbances in calm, clear water. Craving is like dye suffusing the water, making it opaque. Aversion is like heat, causing it to boil. Sloth is like algae, agitation like wind, doubt like darkness. Inhabiting our silent mind, we acknowledge whichever hindrance might be preventing us from seeing clearly. By recognizing that particular hindrance, we see how it is causing us to deny, exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort whatever is occurring. And, having gained that insight, we can more wisely decide what action, if any, we should take.

This way of knowing is not the same as “thinking through a problem” in the usual linear fashion. Its nature is contemplative rather than logical, holistic rather than narrowly focused. In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind,” Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, compared this mode of being, seeing, and knowing to that of a wading bird. As a blue heron stands perfectly still and quietly observes its surroundings, so the silent mind takes in what is present, not zeroing in on any one aspect of the scene. It comprehends the whole. Poised and alert, it stands ready to respond, without resistance and with the totality of its being, to whatever might occur.

The Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) called the silent mind “the mind of readiness,” “the deep quiet mind that is always present, even in the midst of activity.” Yet, despite its abiding presence, it may escape our conscious notice much of the time. And even when we are resolved to return to it, we cannot throw a switch to turn it on. What we can do, however, is cultivate our silent mind by inviting it into our conscious awareness. Sitting upright and still, quietening ourselves with conscious breathing, we can open our awareness to our breathing, our bodily sensations, and the ambient sounds in the room. Thus established in the present moment, we can gently shift our attention from the foreground to the background: from our sensory impressions to awareness itself, our living presence in the vastness of existence. By such means, practiced with discipline and devotion, we can ground and nourish ourselves, even in the midst of our anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. And over time, if we are faithful in the practice, we can experience the peace of the silent mind.


In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind”: Alan Watts, “The Importance of Meditation”

Sobun Katherine Thanas: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35. (more…)

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Mary Oliver

“Attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), “is the beginning of devotion.”

Oliver’s bold assertion appears at the end of her lyrical essay “Upstream,” the title essay in her 2016 collection. In the preceding paragraph, she implores her readers to introduce children to the sensuous delights of the natural world:

Teach the children. . . . Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

Thus instructed, children may “learn to love this green space they live in.” But they must first learn to pay attention. (more…)

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Dale S. Wright

Recall, if you will, the last time you felt deeply angry. Someone had hurt and offended you, and the more you dwelt on the indignity you’d suffered, the angrier you became. You felt your anger rising in your stomach, your chest, your body generally. You wanted to retaliate, and you imagined what you might say or do. At the very least you wanted to break the nearest plate or throw your cell phone against a wall.

Now imagine some future indignity, but this time with a very different response. Rather than fuel your anger with destructive scenarios, you choose simply to feel and acknowledge it. “Anger has arisen in me,” you might say to yourself, while practicing conscious breathing. And rather than reflexively condemn the words or actions that have occasioned your outrage, you elect to look into their causes. What personal or social conditions prompted that person to speak or act as he or she did? What specific event triggered that insulting remark? Might that trigger have had little or nothing to do with you? (more…)

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Roshi Joan Halifax

Zen is not a methodical practice. Its character is more holistic than linear. Insofar as method connotes an immediate goal or predictable outcome, the word and the outlook it represents run counter to Zen teachings. “There is nothing to be attained,” the Heart Sutra sternly reminds us. The byword of practice is not attain but continue.

All that said, methods can be useful, especially for newcomers and those whose practice is in need of renewal. Of the methods available, one of the most helpful is a six-step set of instructions formulated by Roshi Joan Halifax, Founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillful means,” and the Upaya instructions are at once skillful and comprehensive, both as a structure for meditation and as a means toward meditative insight. What follows is a summary of those instructions, interpreted in accordance with my own experience. (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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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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