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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.

As the foregoing statement suggests, awareness of intentions can begin with awareness of our thoughts, even as they are arising. In the language of Zen, this practice is known as “mindfulness of the mind in the mind.” With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and patterns of thought, and we can watch how readily our thoughts turn into conscious intentions. In similar fashion, when we are engaged in such routine activities as taking a shower or getting dressed in the morning, we can note how even our most habitual action is preceded by an intention, conscious or otherwise. By becoming aware of such subtle intentions, we develop the capability to recognize our more consequential intentions and their impact on our lives.

Beyond awareness training of this kind, we can also explore traditional practices designed to support good intentions and foster wholesome qualities of heart and mind. Prominent among those qualities are what is known as the Four Immeasurable Minds (brahminviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Typically, the traditional practices begin with the intention to cultivate a particular quality in oneself. In metta, or loving-kindness meditation, for example, we initiate the exercise with such sentences as “May I be filled with loving-kindness. / May I be well.” As the meditation proceeds, we widen the circle to include a loved one, an acquaintance, a stranger, an enemy, and all living beings. Like similar exercises for cultivating compassion, equanimity, and gratitude, the objectives are, first, to articulate our intention and, second, to cultivate the desired quality itself. These active, daily practices can also serve as a form of mindfulness training, insofar as they reveal how remote our mental state might be, at any given moment, from the one desired. We may wish to be filled with loving-kindness, but in our present state, we may feel anything but loving.

In concert with these practical measures, there is the deeper practice of taking vows. The Zen tradition embraces a wide variety of vows, which may be taken both by monastics and lay practitioners. Some are limited in scope and pertain specifically to the conduct of everyday life: “Waking up, I know I have twenty-four new hours. / I vow to live mindfully, and to view all things with the eyes of compassion.” But at their most profound, Zen vows are both open-ended and life-altering. They chart a challenging course for serious practitioners. Best-known among such formulations are the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, two of which read: Shu jo mu hen sei gan do (“Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all”) and Bo non mu jin sei gan dan (“Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to extinguish them all”). To those grand—and self-contradictory–assertions, the cynical observer might retort, “Good luck with that.” But it is in the nature of such vows to formulate not concrete, finite goals but unattainable objectives, acknowledging at once the nobility of those objectives and the impossibility of fulfilling them in one lifetime. A declaration of our best intentions, the Great Vows are a confession of our highest values and an affirmation of our shared humanity. And, in the words of Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi, they are also “a manifestation of the foundation of our being.” To return to the “reality of life in the midst of this reality,” writes Okumura in his book Living by Vow, “is our practice. This practice is based on vow.”

___________

The true purpose: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 33.

The thought becomes an intention . . . : Guy Armstrong quotes this passage, which has been attributed to the Buddha, in his book Emptiness (Wisdom, 2017), Kindle edition, 122.  “I doubt it was he who said it,” Armstrong notes, “but I think he would agree.”

A manifestation : Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 51.

 

 

 

 

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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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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. (more…)

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (more…)

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Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

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