Posts Tagged ‘zen’

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.

The word kshanti is most often translated as “patience.” To practice kshanti is first of all to cultivate a patient attitude toward those forms of suffering that Zen teachings view as natural and inevitable: hardship, aging, illness, and death. No less important, to practice kshanti is to bear with equanimity the harm done to us, intentionally or inadvertently, by others. At the most practical level, the cultivation of kshanti begins with mindfulness of its opposite: the impatience we experience in everyday life, whether we are waiting in line at a checkout counter or driving in heavy traffic. Aware of that state of mind arising, we can remind ourselves to be patient, simply by saying the word patience to ourselves. Beyond such specific measures, however, Zen teachings encourage us to develop a patient attitude toward the uncertain, contingent, and ungraspable aspects of our lives. To practice kshanti, in short, is to cultivate patience with life itself.

The second dimension of kshanti might best be described as ubiquitous tolerance. In his book The Six Perfections, the Buddhist scholar Dale S. Wright focuses on this aspect of the Third Perfection, while also examining its problematic status in contemporary Western culture. For centuries, tolerance of others has been a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But in an era when “zero tolerance” has become a political rallying cry on both the right and left, and when intolerance of social injustice is widely perceived as a social virtue, the ancient Buddhist practice of cultivating tolerance may seem irrelevant, if not morally objectionable. Suffice it to say that in its original sense kshanti is hardly to be equated with a passive acceptance of societal evils. On the contrary, it is an active practice of tolerating—of training ourselves to tolerate—whatever adversity and misfortune we may encounter. More broadly, the practice challenges us to tolerate the often painful fact of impermanence, the sometimes uncomfortable reality of interdependence, and the radically unpredictable nature of our everyday lives.

The third dimension of kshanti has much in common with patience and tolerance but differs in one important way. Thich Nhat Hanh points to this dimension by defining kshanti as “inclusiveness,” by which he means the capacity not only to receive and embrace suffering but also to transform it. Likening this capacity to the earth, which absorbs “fair and foul substances” alike, Thich Nhat Hanh views kshanti as an agent of transformation, personal and social. Rather than suppress the pain we suffer at the hands of others, we can investigate its causes and seek to understand them. Rather than react with righteous indignation to social injustice, we can “look deeply” and examine the “roots” of others’ harmful actions. To do this, however, we have first to “make the heart big”: to develop a magnanimity of heart and mind sufficient to absorb and transform suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, there are concrete practices dedicated to that purpose, the most prominent being the contemplation and cultivation of the Four Immeasurable Minds (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).

“Practice makes perfect,” an old saying reminds us. Where the practice of the Third Perfection is concerned, that claim may be less than realistic. Like death and taxes, ingrained habits of impatience, intolerance, and discrimination may always be with us, wreaking their havoc in our personal, familial, and social lives. But merely by becoming acutely aware of those habits, we begin to ameliorate their destructive force. And should we choose to persist in the practice, making it an unshakable intention and a component of our daily lives, we may in time catch sight of what Zen calls the other shore: the shore free of delusion, fear, and suffering.


Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford University Press, 2009), 94-136.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 185-192.

Photo by Albert Jankowski.





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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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The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice. (more…)

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Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service. (more…)

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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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