Posts Tagged ‘zen’

“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.

Perhaps the most severe of those perspectives is that of Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), former abbot of the San Diego Zen Center. Generally speaking, Zen teachings enjoin us to attend to our immediate experience and to look deeply into the present moment. Whatever distracts us from those objectives, be it daydreams or idle speculation, is to be set aside. It is in that context that Beck, in her essay “No Hope,” counsels us to abandon vain hopes for a life other than the one we are presently living. “All hope,” she declares, “is about sizing up the past and projecting it into the future.” That habit of mind leads us to ignore and devalue the “wonder” of our present, everyday lives. “A life lived with no hope,” she asserts, “is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life,” even at its end. For Beck, this outlook appears to have sufficed. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, Joko Beck’s last words, uttered at the point of death, were, “This, too, is wondrous!”

A more temperate view of hope may be found in the teachings of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “We all know,” he writes, “that hope is necessary for life.” At the same time, “according to Buddhism, hope can be an obstacle.” It can divert our energies into self-indulgent fantasies of a better future. It can cloud our perceptions of present realities. “The essential teaching of Buddhism,” he notes, “is to be free of all desire for the future in order to come back with all our heart and mind into the present.” By so doing, we can gain “the deep understanding which can release us from suffering and darkness.” Hope need not be abandoned, but neither should it be allowed to obstruct our vision.

A third general perspective, which Thich Nhat Hanh elsewhere articulates, is embodied in the phrase “the thought of enlightenment,” a thought that committed Buddhist practitioners are encouraged always to keep in mind. By entertaining the thought of enlightenment, the practitioner consciously aspires to become a bodhisattva, or fully awakened human being. In Buddhist teachings, the bodhisattva is an archetype of altruism and selfless service to others. One becomes a bodhisattva by actively cultivating the paramitas, or “Perfections of Wisdom” (generosity, virtue, patience, wholeheartedness, meditation, and wisdom), chiefly through the practice of meditation. Although this aspiration, like all aspirations, focuses on the future, it is consistent with Buddhist practice in general and Zen practice in particular, insofar as one’s hope for enlightenment is grounded in a full awareness of actual conditions and supported by disciplined practice.

As may be inferred from these differing perspectives, the issue of hope in Zen teachings remains unsettled. Likewise the question of what the “right” objects of hope might or might not be. But perhaps a rough guide may be discerned in the word “right” itself, which appears frequently in Buddhist teachings and carries a specialized meaning. To speak of “right view,” “right effort,” and “right speech,” as foundational Buddhist teachings do, is not to promote a dogma or endorse an orthodoxy. Rather, it is to distinguish those things that are grounded in reality from those that are not. “Right view” is a view aligned with things as they are. “Right speech” is honest and true. In this sense, to hope for the “right” things is to hope for outcomes that are possible and even probable, given present circumstances and conditions. And what, we might reasonably inquire, is wrong with that?


Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperCollins, 1989), 66-70.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life (Parallax, 1990), 35.

Photo by Magnus Manske.

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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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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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