Posts Tagged ‘zen’


Most of the impressions we garner in the course of a day fade quickly from our memories. Lady Memory is very selective. But certain impressions, no matter how mundane, stay with us for decades. Such was the case with one of the most ordinary of physical objects, which I encountered in southwest Ireland in a not-so-ordinary setting.

It was the summer of 1998, and I had come to the town of Tralee (pron. truh-LEE; pop. 23, 691) in Co. Kerry to lecture and teach at the Kerry International Summer School. Although I devoted much of the week to honing my public lecture and teaching my class in Modern Irish Poetry, I also found time to explore the town of Tralee (Ir. Tra-li), whose name means “strand (beach) of the (River) Lee.” Well supplied with shops, restaurants, old-fashioned hotels, and hospitable pubs, Tralee has the feel of an insular but welcoming country town, nestled into the Vale of Tralee at the northern end of the Dingle Peninsula.

If Tralee is known to the wider world, it is largely because of a song. “The Rose of Tralee,” a 19th-century ballad well suited to the swelling tones of John McCormick and other Irish tenors, extols the beauty and virtue of Mary, a local girl known to her community as the Rose of Tralee. She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer, / Yet ‘twas not her beauty alone that won me; / Oh no, ‘twas the truth in her eyes ever shining / That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee. According to the most recent research, these lyrics were written by the Tralee poet William Pembroke Mulchinock (1820-1864) in praise of one Mary O’Connor, a poor girl in service to his family. Set to a melody by Charles William Glover, the song eventually became widely popular in Ireland and abroad.

In keeping with the fame of Mulchinock’s ballad, the town of Tralee has hosted, since 1959, an international beauty contest, drawing contestants from countries far and wide. In the early days of the competition, a local resident told me, the contestants were required to be certified virgins, but that cumbersome requirement was soon set aside. As my informant wryly explained, that stricture had “vastly reduced the pool of eligible applicants.” Likewise, a provision excluding unmarried mothers was eventually laid to rest. Now any unmarried woman between the ages of 18-30 who can claim Irish heritage can vie to become the next Rose of Tralee.

A memorial depicting Mary O’Connor, the original Rose, and her smitten poet-admirer stands at the center of Tralee’s Town Park and Rose Garden, one of the largest urban parks in Ireland. Spanning thirty-five acres, this green oasis includes more than 1,000 mature trees, five kilometers of pathways, and a Rose Garden with over 6,000 well-tended roses. Strolling through its precincts one summer afternoon, I had no need to stop to smell the roses.  On the contrary, their scent, as well as their extraordinary volume and variety, threatened to overload my senses, even as their collective presence soothed my itinerant mind.

RFK lifesize

Near the center of the park, I did stop to inspect a bronze memorial plaque mounted on a rough stone slab. Created by Laura O’Sullivan, this modest monument honors Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995), wife of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and mother of JFK. Beneath the lady’s rather fierce profile, cast in low relief, an inscription reads: I find it interesting to reflect on what has made my life, even with it’s [sic] moments of pain, an essentially happy one. I have come to the conclusion that the most important element in human life is faith.

Perhaps Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s words were echoing in my mind as I walked out of the park and into a courtyard behind St. John’s Church, an imposing Gothic edifice and the town’s spiritual center. There, on the plain back wall of the church, I saw a common outdoor faucet, of the sort to which garden hoses are normally attached. But above it, etched in white on dark gray stone, a small sign read: Holy Water.

holy water on tap 2

This improbable anomaly stopped me in my tracks. It also prompted many questions. Where did this holy water come from? From the town’s water mains? A sacred well? Was it regularly blessed by the parish priest? And why on earth was it on tap?

Beyond those practical and ontological questions, there was the more personal question of what if anything I, a foreigner and a non-Catholic, should do. Turn on the faucet and have a taste? Cleanse my hands and face and, presumably, my mortal soul? Bow and be on my way?

As often happens when faced with such quandaries, I did nothing. But several months later, as I recalled the experience, I composed a poem, aptly titled “Holy Water.” After detailing the situation in which the narrator finds himself, the poem concludes with these lines:

All it would have taken was a turn,

A counter-clockwise motion of the hand.

What was it stopped me? Say it was a sense

Of something tangible behind my shoulder,

By which I mean no priest or risen ghost,

Much less a stern protector of the State,

But something I’d brought with me to Tralee,

A figment of a once and future longing.

Would that it might sustain me or be gone.

Would that I might pass and leave no trace.

William Wordsworth famously described the content of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” More recently, W.H. Auden defined the art as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Both of these pronouncements have a bearing on my poem, though exactly what emotion I was recalling, I couldn’t say. Nor would I claim that much of anything was clarified. But what the poem does do is exemplify a truth that Zen teachings often underscore: that what philosophers call the transcendent and what Zen calls the absolute dimension of our experience resides nowhere else but in our daily encounters with the world’s most ordinary things. In this respect, all water is holy water.


Photos: Tralee Town Park and Rose Garden; Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy; St. John’s Church, Tralee.

Ben Howard, Firewood and Ashes: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2015).

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shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


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Derek Mahon


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.


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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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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