Posts Tagged ‘zen’

Bexley,_pond_at_Danson_Park_-_geograph_org_uk_-_972263Here in the village of Alfred, New York, many of us subscribe to our community newspaper, the Alfred Sun. And some us have discovered that the Alfred Sun, accompanied by a few well-placed squirts of Windex, can make short work of washing windows. The Sun is compact, maneuverable, and eco-friendly. Two full pages will suffice to wash a standard casement window. You can wash as many as three with a single issue.

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in that very task, but the work was not going well. Although I’d liberally applied the Windex and energetically rubbed it off, thick streaks remained. Repeated efforts produced the same result. Newsprint is effective for cleaning glass, I recalled, because the oil in printer’s ink repels the dirty water. Could someone have quietly switched inks? Should I try the Times Literary Supplement instead? (more…)

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The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

It has often been observed that time seems to go faster as we grow older. Our birthdays arrive with increasing rapidity. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to feel as if I were taking the garbage cans out to the curb every other morning. And with each ensuing decade this subjective sense of accelerating time, which a number of my older friends have also noted, has grown ever more prominent. It is as if we were afloat on a swiftly moving river, and each of those “important” birthdays, the ones that mark the decades of our lives, were another waterfall, whose drop and velocity have yet to be experienced.

Yet, from the vantage point of Zen teachings, neither birthdays nor waterfalls are quite what they appear to be. They are at once real and illusory. In his book Living by Vow the Soto Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has this to say about waterfalls:

A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only a continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. . . . We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process.*


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Chickadee feeder 2012-06-25 005One spring morning five years ago, as I was watching chickadees flit around our backyard feeder, it occurred to me that those nimble little birds might appreciate having a trapeze on which to perch. When my son was a child I built him a trapeze, and he enjoyed it. Perhaps the chickadees would as well.

Construction was simple. Rummaging in the garage, I found a remnant of 3/4” flat screen molding. From this I cut two six-inch pieces for the top and bottom bars. These I connected with a central, four-inch dowel. Using wire-cloth staples, I fastened two three-inch lengths of cuckoo-clock chain to the ends of the top bar, joining them at the middle with a handsome brass S-hook. My trapeze thus completed, I hung it from a branch of our pin oak tree. Ready for occupancy, it swung invitingly in the wind. (more…)

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Pruitt Taylor Vince(Rub Squeers in Nobody's Fool)

Pruitt Taylor Vince

If you have a good memory for movies, you may remember Nobody’s Fool (1994). Set in a declining town in upstate New York and based loosely on Richard Russo’s comedic novel, Nobody’s Fool stars Paul Newman as Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a feckless, sixty-year-old handyman who, in Russo’s words, has “led a life of studied unpreparedness.“ Although he is blessed with humane instincts and a generous heart, Sully’s devil-may-care attitude and his boyish penchant for mischief have too often sabotaged his better nature.

Sully’s sidekick and fellow bungler of odd jobs is a garbage collector named Rub Squeers, who plays a role in Sully’s adventures comparable to that of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote’s. Rub is just over five feet tall. His large head sits “like a medicine ball precariously balanced on his thick shoulders.” For most of his life Rub has seldom paid attention to much of anything. He finds attentiveness “hateful and exhausting,” and he considers inattention “normal human behavior.”

What Rub does do is wish, habitually and frequently. During a lull, when he and Sully are out of work, Rub wishes that “we’d just start up again like before.” Later, when they do find work, Rub wishes “we were all through with this job and sitting in The Horse eating a big ole cheeseburger.”* Wherever Rub might be, he wishes he were elsewhere. (more…)

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Path of stone over water, Nanjing, South of China

If you have ever sung in a choir, you know that certain disciplines apply. You must sit up straight at the edge of your chair. You must breathe from the diaphragm. And you must open your mouth more widely than you otherwise would—widely enough to accommodate three fingers. Although these principles are simple, it is easy to forget them, especially if your mind is elsewhere.

Such was the case one morning in 1961, when I and other members of the Clinton High School A Cappella Choir sat upright at the edge of our chairs, rehearsing Michael Pretorius’s beautiful carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Leading us was our director, John De Haan, a tall, ruggedly-built man with a gentle but commanding presence. Glancing in my direction, he noticed my half-open mouth. “Open your mouth, Ben,” he said, quietly but firmly, in his deep bass voice. “This is my life’s work.” (more…)

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One thing at a time, Bud, my father used to say. For centuries, Zen teachers have said the same. Whatever you are doing, give that one thing your full attention. When you walk, just walk.

That is sound advice, but in our present culture it stands little chance of being heeded. A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts an urban couple at an intersection of trails in a state park. While the man studies the printed guide, his companion turns to a passing hiker for help. “Which trail,” she asks, “has the best cell-phone reception?” When you walk, just walk, our culture seems to be saying, but keep your cell phone on. Within this prevailing social ethos, the admonition to do one thing at a time, and to give that one thing sustained attention, comes to look like a quaintly archaic notion. (more…)

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Moises Guevara & Ben Howard

“The song of the piano,” wrote the Catalan poet Eugenio d’Ors, “is a discourse. The song of the cello is an elegy. The song of the guitar . . . is a song.”

Those well-known lines, which please guitarists but tend to annoy pianists and cellists, suggest that the song of the guitar is as natural as that of one’s favorite bird. The Carolina Wren, perhaps, or the Hermit Thrush. That may well be true, but the production of the guitar’s seemingly natural song requires the mastery of two basic right-hand strokes, known to classical guitarists as apoyando and tirando. These two strokes produce two, very different timbres. And they also exemplify two different ways of paying attention. (more…)

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Every morning at half-past six, I make a cup of coffee for my wife, using a device known as an AeroPress. Simplicity itself, this device consists of a plunger, a cylinder, a paper filter, and a perforated cap. To brew a cup of coffee, I place the AeroPress on top of a mug, pour the prescribed amount of freshly ground coffee into the cylinder, and add a small amount of hot water to release the flavor. Moments later, I add the full complement of hot water, insert the plunger, and press down. If I press too hard, I will encounter formidable resistance from the volume of air trapped between the plunger and the coffee, and the AeroPress won’t work. But if I press gently, with virtually no effort, the plunger will go down smoothly, emitting an audible sigh as it reaches the bottom. Almost always, the result will be a delicious cup of coffee.

I first heard about the AeroPress from a friend and fellow Zen practitioner, who also makes morning coffee for his missus. That is perhaps no accident, because the skills required to operate the AeroPress resemble their counterparts in Zen meditation. Both the AeroPress and the practice of Zen require balance, patience, and steady attention. Beyond that, both enlist the kind of energy known to Taoists as wu wei, or “effortless effort,” whether the object of the effort be the breath, the contents of the mind, or the situations encountered in everyday life. Press too hard, and you will fail. Press lightly, aligning yourself with natural forces, and you will allow the desired result to occur.

Most meditative practices begin with attention to the breath. Some schools of meditation, including Zen, advocate the counting of breaths in general and exhalations in particular. Others employ such words as “in” and “out” to track the process of respiration. Whatever the method, however, many people find it difficult to observe the process of breathing without attempting to control that process or bring it into conformity with an imagined ideal. To counter that tendency, I have found it helpful merely to listen to the breath, as the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer advises, rather than employ an analytic method. In the same spirit, one can view oneself not as the owner/operator of one’s breathing but as the one  “being breathed,” both by one’s body and by the life force common to all living beings. Approached in this way, the breath becomes an object of interest rather than willful concentration.

Turning from the breath to the contents of the mind, the same quality of attention may be applied. In his essay Samadhi of the Self, the Soto master  Menzan Zuiho Zenji (1683-1769) defines the contents of the mind as “emotion-thought,” which he views as “the root of delusion; that is, a stubborn attachment to a one-sided point of view, formed by our own conditioned perception.” The purpose of zazen, or sitting meditation, is not to suppress thoughts, as some would have it, but to clarify “how emotion-thought melts.” Through the regular practice of zazen, “the frozen blockage of emotion-thought will naturally melt away.” This will occur not through cutting off thought, a practice Menzan likens to cutting the trunk of a tree and leaving the root alive. Rather, it will occur through effortless effort: through mindful observation of self-centered thoughts and their emotional subtexts. The equivalent of a gentle hand on the AeroPress, such observation serves to illuminate the roots, the dynamics, and the consequences of ego-centered, prejudicial thinking. Over time, it can thaw the frozen block of emotion-thought.

But can that degree of awareness, attainable within the confines of private meditation, be sustained within the arena of everyday life? Can it withstand the violence, physical and verbal, of contemporary culture? In his address in Tucson on January 12, President Obama invited us to ask ourselves whether “we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.” He also asserted that “what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame” but “how well we may have loved.” Those are stirring words, and they rightly locate the nexus of non-violence in immediate, human interaction. At the same time, they remind us of the centuries of negative conditioning—the monumental blocks of emotion-thought—that must be addressed with awareness, if the President’s vision of a kinder society is to be realized.

Given present conditions, that may seem a Herculean project, requiring nothing short of a social and spiritual revolution. But such a project can begin with an effortless effort, which is to say, with a clear and intimate awareness of what we are about to say or do in this very moment. Living in that awareness, we can ask ourselves whether what we’re about to say is necessary, true, and kind, and whether our words and actions are likely to be hurtful or harmful. And we can speak and act accordingly.


*Menzan Zuiho Zenji, “Jijuyu-zanmai” (“Samadhi of the Self”), in Shikantaza: An Introduction to Zazen, edited and translated by Shohaku Okumura  (Kyoto Soto-Zen Center, 1985), 106.

The AeroPress was invented by Alan Alder in 2005. For more information please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AeroPress. In the photo above the AeroPress rests on a cup by Robin Caster Howard.

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A few hours before Sarah Palin was to deliver her speech at the Republican National Convention, BBC correspondent Katty Kay observed that Ms. Palin seemed a little nervous.

“I guess we’d all be a bit nervous, wouldn’t we?” replied anchorman Matt Frei, before moving on to another matter.

As it turned out, Governor Palin did not appear nervous at all. But I took note of the Kay-Frei exchange because it represents a conversational paradigm that has become conspicuous in recent years. It goes something like this:

“Nixon was a crooked politician.”

“All politicians are crooked.”

Or like this:

“I’m feeling sleepy tonight.”

“You’re always sleepy after dinner.”

I could offer more examples, but perhaps the point is clear. In each instance a particular observation prompts a generalized reply. And the general statement trumps the particular. It no longer matters whether Sarah Palin was nervous or Nixon was crooked. It’s as if the first speaker had noted a specific instance of a universal pattern, which the second speaker understands. Innocence meets experience, and the case is closed.

Whatever the origins of this paradigm, and whatever it might reflect about contemporary culture, to the Zen practitioner it represents the essential delusion that Zen warns us against, the dream from which we must awaken if we are to see things as they are.

Perhaps all politicians are crooked, but quite possibly some are not. But in this instance, as in the others, we will never know, because we have stopped inquiring. A general concept has taken the place of direct experience. A verbal absolute has masked the unprecedented, unrepeatable reality before us.

Because Zen practice is chiefly concerned with that reality, Zen is forever calling us back from the sphere of abstract thought to the concrete world in front of our noses. Only in the here and now, the Zen masters exhort us, can we live out the reality of our lives—or, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “keep our appointment with life.”

The Indian sage Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism from India to China in the fifth century CE. In a well-known Zen koan, a student asks his teacher, the Chan master Joshu (778-897), why Bodhidharma came to China.

“The cypress in the garden,” Joshu replies.

Like many a Zen koan, this appears to be a non sequitur. But it makes intuitive sense, once we realize that Joshu is hauling his student back from the ether of speculation to the world at hand. “Come home!” he might be saying. “Come home to where you are.”

Joshu lived in a time very different from ours, but the story of his retort is worth remembering, if only because it offers an antidote to the malady I’ve been describing. “Stop and look!” it is telling us. And look into what you see

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