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Katherine-Thanas-SCZC

“Recently,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas in her book The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), “I have come to realize that our work is to love the world just as it is.” The work to which she is referring is the practice of Zen meditation. “Loving the world as it is,” she goes on to say, “is being willing to be in the only world we know.”

At first blush, these statements may seem jarring. The world we currently know, if we keep abreast of the news, is a world of environmental peril, intractable racial conflict, political polarization, an unending pandemic, and, as of late, a dangerous and destabilizing Eastern European war. These and other social and political forces have inflicted enormous suffering on untold numbers of people, often through no fault of their own. A grudging acceptance of these realities is one thing. To propose that we love such a world is quite another. To the skeptical mind, Thanas’s advice may seem, at best, naïve, and at worst, culpably detached.

In fact, it is neither. Far from being out of touch, Thanas is acutely aware of the painful realities that many people are presently enduring. Invoking the First Noble Truth of the Buddhist tradition (“Life is suffering”), she acknowledges that “the reality of our life is fragile . . . and subject to changing conditions. Many of us are experiencing financial, psychological, emotional, and social insecurity.” But, as she also observes, once we have discovered that “it’s not in our power to make our lives safe and secure for ourselves and our families, we begin to become aligned with life as it is. Humility and maturity may arise.” We can further develop those qualities by meeting both the social reality and that of our inner lives with a clear and open mind, rather than one of reflexive, ego-driven resistance.

According to Zen teachings, most of us view the world through the lens of our ideas, if not our prejudices and ideologies. Thich Nhat Hanh often noted that our ideas of happiness—that we must acquire new possessions, for example, to be happy—impede us from enjoying or even noticing the sources of happiness immediately at hand. The practice of Zen, Thanas rightly observes, “is about penetrating the membrane of mentality that’s between us and our life. It’s meeting something beyond what the mind knows: meeting with our body, our senses, our skin, our ears. We accomplish this when we trust ourselves enough to drop off what the mind knows.” If we genuinely wish to realize what Thanas calls the “truth of this life,” we have first to set aside our abstract concepts—the “membrane of mentality”—and return to the evidence of our senses. Rather than treat the world as a set of problems, to which we bring our settled knowledge and fixed opinions, we can go beyond our views and meet present realities directly with “our body, our senses, our skin, our ears.”

As noted above, the world that Thanas urges us to encounter directly includes not only the external, objective world of public events and historical facts but “the actual life we have—our habits of mind, our desires, our disappointments, our fears, our embarrassments.” By contemplating these mental and emotional phenomena from the vantage point of a still and stable mind, we begin to understand the “dynamics of our mental life,” particularly the notion that “there is some better state of mind than ours.” Meeting our actual lives, intimately and fully through the practice of meditation, we can, in the words of Joseph Goldstein, open what is closed, balance what is reactive, and reveal what is hidden in the body, heart, and mind. And having identified those closeted, imbalanced, and hidden elements of our experience, we can endeavor to befriend rather than resist, ignore, or deny them.

The first fruit of a mature and disciplined Zen practice is a state of stillness and one-pointed concentration. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called it “unconstructed stillness.” In this state of mind, the self “receives,” as Thanas puts it, “its own freedom, its own contraction and relaxation, absorption and release.” Known in Zen as samadhi, this state is “the gift we give to the world, the gift we receive ourselves.” When we are in samadhi, whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may occur are allowed to arise, abide, and disappear, without judgment or commentary. By cultivating samadhi, day after day, whether we are sitting in meditation, working, or performing routine household tasks, we can learn to accept what is, including and especially those things we cannot change, in a spirit of joy and delight. And over time, Thanas would add, we can come to love them, just as they are.

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Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life (Shambhala, 2018), 78-81.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (Shambhala,1987), 15-22.

Photo: Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012).

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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.

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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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5. Marion Howard at his desk, Longfellow School

“All composite things,” declares the Diamond Sutra, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” I am often reminded of those verses when I summon memories from my childhood. From my present vantage point, the images, names, and places that constitute those memories sometimes resemble fragments from a dream or dispatches from a foreign land.

Such is my memory of Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa (pop. 27,000), my scenic hometown on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended Longfellow School from the ages of seven to eleven. Situated on Iowa Avenue, a quiet residential street, and facing the First Church of God, this two-storey brown-brick building bespoke a reliable solidity and an austere sobriety. Erected in 1927, the building housed some thirty classrooms. Together with its spacious playground and baseball diamond, it occupied a city block. To the vulnerable schoolchildren who approached this imposing edifice, it presented a formidable if not forbidding aspect.

Not so for me, however. To this day I remember the school fondly and intimately, not only because it was there that I learned to read, write, and do arithmetic—and to hold my own with the playground bullies—but also because my father, Marion C. Howard (1905-1971), was the school’s principal. Far from being an alien, oppressive institution, Longfellow School felt like a second home. (more…)

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shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

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Derek-Mahon-BW

Derek Mahon

1941-2020

The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, grew up in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father worked in the shipyards, his mother in a linen mill. Against his father’s wishes, Mahon pursued an interest in poetry, first in grammar school and later at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. While in his twenties he worked in various low-paying jobs in North America before settling in London in 1970. For the next fifteen years he earned a precarious living as a freelance journalist. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as the author of superbly crafted lyric poems, in which a skeptical, darkly ironic outlook coexists with contemplative calm and a singing line. When “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” his requiem for the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appeared in The Listener in 1973, it was widely recognized as a modern masterpiece. In the 1990s, with twelve acclaimed collections to his credit, Mahon returned to Ireland, living for a time in central Dublin, whose newly prosperous, commercialized culture he satirically decried. In his last years he retired to the historic port of Kinsale, where he composed expansive meditative poems and enjoyed the consolations of domestic life. At the time of his death he was universally regarded as one of Ireland’s leading and most influential poets. His lifelong friend and fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley observed that “there is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”

Mahon’s early departure from Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on his work, infusing his poems with ambivalent feelings of disdain, regret, and longing. In 1977 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Co. Derry, and he returned with his wife and two children to their native province. It was a homecoming of sorts, but not a happy one. By this time Mahon had been diagnosed with a serious drinking problem, his marriage was teetering, and his writing had come to a virtual standstill. And the murderous sectarian conflict known as the Troubles was at its height, one of its flashpoints being the area where he was then living. Acutely aware of these adverse conditions, Mahon composed “Everything is Going to be All Right,” the poem by which he is best known to the general public.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

In this formal, twelve-line poem, the narrator awakens in an upstairs bedroom in a house on the northern coast. In contrast to his still-immobile state, the natural world is luminous and active: the tide is up, the clouds are flying, and the sky is clearing. If the imagery of the poem sets the narrator’s stillness against the dynamism of his surroundings, its antithetical syntax (“but there is no need to go into that”) reflects a tension between the narrator’s dark thoughts and the untrammeled beauty of the natural world. Out of these tensions arise two affirmations, both them framed in plain declarative sentences.

In asserting that “The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart,” Mahon affirms one of the traditional wellsprings of the poet’s art. “Look in thy heart, and write,” advised the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, whom Mahon had studied at TCD. Following Sidney’s lead, Mahon places his faith in poetic intuition, which a poet can awaken through patient contemplation. For a formal poet like Derek Mahon, whose craft requires meticulous attention to every syllable and element of form, this recognition of a vital source beyond his conscious control is at once revelatory and liberating.

The second affirmation is even more consequential. In his title and closing line, Mahon places his trust in life itself. “In spite of everything,” the sun rises, and the beauty of the “far cities” persists into the future. In a lesser context, Mahon’s affirmation might seem platitudinous, or might even be interpreted as ironic. But in its present context it calls to mind a cryptic statement by the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “Practice,” she asserts, “is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.” Although themes from the Zen tradition appear here and there in Mahon’s work, he was not a committed Zen practitioner. But the paradox he explores in “Everything is Going to be All Right” has much in common with the one to which Joko Beck alludes. And though his poem was written in a time and under circumstances very different from our own, and his “momentous celebration of a moment of well-being,” as the critic Hugh Haughton has described it, may well be a “dream of living which is also a dream of writing,” the reassurance he articulates speaks eloquently to our present, vexed condition.

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Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Gallery, 1999).

Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

Hugh Haughton, The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford, 2007), 147-148.

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Sue Stuart-Smith II

Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and an avid gardener. Her many original insights derive, on the one hand, from her clinical practice, particularly her work with victims of trauma, and on the other, from her long experience in planting and tending her gardens. Grounded in those realities, she is not inclined toward lofty abstractions or metaphysical speculation. But in her book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Stuart-Smith propounds an abstract, metaphysical concept, which she calls “garden time.” By this term she does not mean “a time for gardening.” Rather, she is speaking of a sense of time qualitatively different from the ordinary. (more…)

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Shundo Aoyama Roshi

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question. “How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

Paradoxical and enigmatic, this statement alludes to a classic Zen koan: Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves. Zen koans—those ancient Chinese anecdotes, dialogues, and apothegms that Zen students are assigned to memorize and contemplate—often pose logic-defying questions (“What was your original face before your parents were born?”). By internalizing the question and living with it for a time, the student awakens intuitive insight. In this instance, however, the main point of interest is not the question but the master’s answer. What might it mean, we might inquire, to walk straight by winding along? (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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