Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Sit, Wait, Find

I was a college freshman taking a course called “Writing the Natural History Essay.” At 80 years old, with pearl earrings and perfectly coiffed hair, the instructor, Ann Zwinger, both did and did not bring to mind my grandma in suburban Connecticut. Here was a woman who authored a dozen-plus acclaimed books about rugged Western lands. Here was a woman who ran whitewater rapids on the Green River. Here was a woman who tromped around like a kid, twisting her ankles in gopher holes, laughing.

We were on a field trip in Colorado’s San Luis Valley—Great Sand Dunes National Park to the south, the toothy Sangre de Cristo Mountains biting at the horizon to the east. The sun was low, the entire world gilded. 

I’ll never forget the “homework assignment” Ann gave us that evening, her outstretched arm gesturing toward the surrounding immensity: Find a place, a gully or rock or shrub, and spend as much time there as you can over the next four days. Sleep there. Eat your meals there. Root yourself to the place. Get bored. Get tired. Get cold and confused. See it from all angles. Notice everything. Journal it down. This is how you will find your essay.

It turns out that when you follow Ann’s advice, you find much more than a dinky essay could ever hope to hold. In my case, I found the mysteries of an ancient fallen juniper and 1,000 variations of light. I found a snowstorm at dawn. I found pebbles. I found vast blank times and the textured richness inside vast blank times. I found a dialogue with the broader environment—listening and responding, listening and responding, zero words exchanged.

The juniper was a hard seat, a friendly seat, a seat on a boat voyaging the ocean of sagebrush, day after day. I spent the bulk of a week riding it, never once trimming the sails or adjusting the tiller, just going wherever the drift wanted to take me. And when the field trip concluded—well, I had changed. 

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How to Mourn 2020

When 2020 began, our routines felt familiar, well within what we thought of as “normal.” We felt a relative sense of security. Then the pandemic struck like a storm out of the Bible, a plague beyond what we could have imagined. The world turned on a dime, and suddenly governments worldwide were mandating lockdowns, and we were all sheltering in place. 

Where we live in Boston, April and May brought a surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths. An email Marnie received during the shutdown began: “I am writing with a heavy heart to tell you. . . .” It was about a friend from her meditation group who had been hospitalized and then died a few days later from the virus. That week, there were almost no non-COVID-19 stories in the news, as the US pandemic death toll surpassed 100,000. 

In a column in the New York Times, David Brooks asked readers how they were holding up. In the first few days, he received 5,000 replies. “I think I . . . expected a lot of cheerful coming-together stories,” Brooks told NPR. “But what I got shocked me. It was heart-rending and gutting frankly. People are crying a lot . . . It tends to be the young who feel hopeless, who feel their plans for the future have suffered this devastating setback, a loss of purpose, a loss of hope. Then the old, especially widows and widowers, talk about the precariousness of it, the loneliness of it. They just feel vulnerable, extremely vulnerable. While a lot of people are doing pretty well, there’s just this river of woe out there that really has shocked me and humbled me.” 

Now we see that aspects and qualities of grief and grieving are universal, whether you have suffered an individual loss, or are experiencing losses on a global scale. Individually and collectively, we are grieving. We’re experiencing large, difficult feelings, even if we don’t recognize them as grief: sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, or disorientation. These troubling emotions, sensations, and mind states are the ways we humans respond to loss. 

We feel the loss of family members, friends, and neighbors we loved, celebrities and public figures we followed. We’re missing the person we were and the way we lived not long ago. In the midst of this invisible, highly contagious virus, we grieve the loss of a kind of innocence. As we don our masks and gloves, we fear being infected or infecting others, and wonder what impact these changes will have on our worldview and our emotional well-being. 

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Health Stable

Plum Village reports that Thich Nhat Hanh’s health is stable despite social media posts claiming otherwise; Kalmyk Buddhists in Russia plan to build a university; and scholars look at the China-selected Panchen Lama’s political influence (or lack thereof). Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenOct 10, 2020

Thich Nhat Hanh with attendants in Hue, Vietnam, in 2019. | Photo courtesy Plum Village

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Thich Nhat Hanh Is Stable After Reports of a Health Scare 

After reports that Thich Nhat Hanh had stopped eating began circulating on social media earlier this week, Plum Village, his international network of sanghas, said in a statement that his health “currently remains stable.” Social media posts had claimed that the beloved Vietnamese Zen teacher’s health was in a critical state and invited people to meditate for Thây (Vietnamese for “teacher,” a name of affection used by his followers). Plum Village said that there is “no immediate cause for concern” and invited people to share their stories of “personal healing and transformation” in honor of Nhat Hanh’s 94th birthday on October 11. 

International Expansions in Buddhist Higher Education

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the head lama of Kalmykia, Russia, met with scholars on September 30 to discuss plans to build a center for Buddhist higher education after the government passed a bill in July requiring all foreign-educated clergy members to be re-certified in Russia, Buddhistdoor Global reported. There are currently no Buddhist educational institutions in the Russian Federation, and most Buddhist teachers in Russia graduated from monastic universities in China, India, Mongolia, and Nepal. In the early 1900s, there were several centers in Kalmykia, but they were destroyed during the Soviet period. Right now, said Telo Tulku Rinpoche, every plan is in place to realize the proposed project except for the financial aspect, which they are still working on. Kalmykia is the only majority-Buddhist region in Europe.

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Our Suffering and Our Suffrage

In the online forums I’ve been involved in, the virtual workshops hosted by groups all across the country, people often have described feeling powerless. Confined as many of us are, experiencing so many pent-up feelings in these aggressive and confounding times, people often find it hard to know where to channel our energy. In the face of immense problems, we can be frozen by the question, what in the world can I do? Any possible action seems so small, so insufficient.

In a forum in early September, a participant presented me with this exact dilemma. He was attending from a city where tensions were high around a police shooting. The night before, he had attended a demonstration that turned violent when the police shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the protestors. He felt angry, frightened, and more than anything he felt hopeless. He asked if I could talk about how we use our practice in moments like this. 

This man spoke for many, we could see, as advice and support for him lit up in the chat. 

We then explored how meditation is a tool that helps us to look more deeply within when we feel the pain of our connection to the world. And even though it runs counter to what many of us have been taught as we grew up, I’ve learned that true acceptance is not inertness. Through meditation we can train the mind not to get lost in anger or grief, but instead to look into the heart of these feelings and find a way to mine their energy.

Meditation helps us sit with powerful emotions yet avoid two extremes—being overcome or defined by them, or trying to push them away. The more we try to tamp down or deny the anger or grief we feel, the stronger they get. Our challenge lies in honoring the message of the emotions and channeling the energy they contain without letting them consume us. In Buddhist psychology, anger is likened to a forest fire that burns up its own support. That means the anger can destroy the host. And, like a forest fire, anger can burn wild, ending up in a place far from where it started and with devastating consequences. Getting lost in anger can indeed leave us very far from where we want to be. 

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Take Five

At the core of the Zen Buddhist tradition is a formal practice called zazen, which is the name for Zen meditation or sitting Zen. It’s not just about crossing our legs and sitting on a cushion or mat, it’s about the quality of our state of mind—a quality of being connected with life. I define this practice in terms of aligning our body, our mind, our breath, and this moment. When we have aligned these four points—when we are present, here and now, meeting life as it is—this is zazen practice. 

I want to stress the formal in “formal practice.” These days, we’re not used to formalities, and by that I mean, developing good habits. Meditation practice requires time. We want to relieve stress, we want to feel content and satisfied, but the first thing that we say when it comes to meditation practice is, “I don’t have time.” But that’s not true. We always have time to do this practice. We always have time to breathe, to connect with the breath, and to connect with the body. Every moment is an opportunity to reconnect with the practice. Thinking about our practice as a “formal practice” is simply a tool to help us to build this good habit into our lives and take our commitment seriously. 

For most of us, making the time to take a shower is not a problem. Whatever we are doing, however busy we are, we always find time to take a shower. At the same level, as we build up our meditation practice, we are creating a habit. We will also make time to sit because we start noticing the benefits of this practice. 

How do we practice? Your back should be straight and your shoulders relaxed. In zazen practice, we don’t close our eyes, but instead gaze out on the floor a few feet ahead of us. We tuck the chin in, keep the mouth closed, and have the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. We start focusing our attention on the breath in the lower abdomen. That is the first thing we learn when we start practicing zazen. This is where we begin until we develop our awareness further. In the end, we have just the awareness of sitting and being here. And that’s the basic guidance for the formal practice of zazen.

But we also need to be aware of three things when engaging in formal practice. I call them the three ‘P’s: practice, patience, and perseverance. 

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