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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

That is how Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki begins. This is a book that I first read in college when I was, like many people my age in that time, exploring paths and philosophies. It may be the best known of all the American Zen books.

It is not a long book and that simple opening line is actually a good summary of what the book is about.

As I got deeper into and more serious about Zen Buddhism, I met people who considered “American Zen” to be a lazy path to true Zen. I was certainly a rather lazy American student of it. I was far less interested in learning about postures and breathing than I was supposed to be. I had a lot of trouble staying focused in zazen meditation sessions. “You have monkey mind,” said the abbot at a monastery I attended. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in a tree.” Yes. That’s also known as Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have returned to the book several times since that first encounter in an attempt to return to beginner’s mind – something that it is not easy to do.

Shoshin is the word in Zen Buddhism that translates to “beginner’s mind.” It means to have an attitude of openness to new things. It is that freshness, and eagerness we usually bring to something early on that interests us.

In a workshop I gave many years ago, I used many non-Buddhist examples, from a child with a new toy, to a person newly in love. Participants also came up with lots of examples, such as when you first begin a new hobby or sport, take up a musical instrument etc. In these situations, you truly have a beginner’s mind. What is much more difficult is to have that approach when you have progressed further – perhaps to the point of being an “expert.”

That attempt to once again be a beginner is why musicians go back to taking lessons. Any “back to basics” approach has a bit of that Zen approach in it. I had an art teacher who told me I should try painting with only one tube of paint. That was an attempt to get me to focus more on other aspects and forget about trying to get “the perfect flesh tone.” Why would a pro athlete or musician go back to doing beginner drills and exercises? Same thing.

I think of how Orson Welles approached his first film as a director, Citizen Kane. He had experience directing actors on stage and in radio plays, but film production was new. He came to it with a beginner’s mind free from preconceptions, even though some might have considered him at an advanced level in other ways. He wanted very deep focus shots with objects in the foreground and background all in focus. He wanted low angles that showed ceilings (something that wasn’t done at that time). He was told that those things just are not the films are made. He asked the kinds of questions that a child might ask. “Why can’t we do that?”

Welles and Toland

Welles and Toland set up below floor level for a low-angle shot

Luckily, Welles’ “teacher” was his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who must have also had a beginner’s mind and was willing to approach something he was an expert at as if he was a beginner. They added ceilings and did those low angles. They figured out a way to do those long, deep focus shots.

The naturalist, Rachel Carson, wrote something that sounds like Zen.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

Lately, I have been thinking more about having that kind of mind in my close relationships. I believe I am relying too much on assumptions. Things do not seem “fresh.” I need to try to consciously to drop some of my assumed views. This is difficult.

The poet, Rilke, wrote:

“For there are moments, when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

I read a post this past week by Parker J. Palmer called “Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods” and I was jealous of his week away. This past week has been tough and escaping to a cabin in the woods on a silent, solitary retreat sounds very good.

He took a few daily notes each day. Nothing formal. And posted them on the On Being blog. Here are a few of his notes  with my own.

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

I like this idea of a 10 o’clock “Quaker midnight.” In the woods, camping in a tent or a cabin without electricity, the night is shorter. The daylight goes and you light your little world with a fire, a candle, a flashlight, but you tend to go to bed earlier. That’s a good thing.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

I had heard this story before. In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton did his own versions of the sayings of the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu. He is one of the Taoist sages that transformed Indian Buddhism into a Buddhism in China which evolved into what we know by its Japanese name of Zen.

“If a man crosses a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be bad tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because someone is in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry. If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you. No one will seek to harm you”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe. “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from Palmer’s book (one of many!), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

This week I have been trying to empty my boat, but the river is crowded and people want to climb in and I don’t feel like I can leave them out there in that icy water. And people are watching me from the shore. And other boats are drifting downstream towards me as I row upstream. I don’t know if anyone is in them. I don’t shout at them, but it is frightening.

I just want to stop fighting the current and drift downstream to a place of peace and serenity.

“The Monk and the Fish” is a little film from 1994 by animator Michael Dudok de Wit. It is about a monk who tries to catch an elusive fish. Some viewers see Christian symbolism. Some see Buddhism.

The animator has said it is about rising above duality. He was inspired by the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of Zen poems and images from 12th Century China. They illustrate the journey to enlightenment through the story of a man’s struggle with a wayward bull.

Each frame is hand-drawn in ink and watercolor and it also feels more Eastern. The short film was nominated for Best Short Animated Film at both the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.

The Five Hindrances are the obstacles identified in Zen practice that arise in meditation, as well as in our lives. Each of them has its own way of diverting us off the path.

They can lead you off the path of your Zen practice, but also off the path in life, even if you don’t practice meditation or Zen Buddhism.

In that odd Zen way, as with koans, the hindrances turn you from your practice and they are your practice.

If we had no negative emotional states to confront, we wouldn’t be on the spiritual path at all.

The hindrances are desire, aversion, laziness, restlessness and doubt.

Sensory desire (kāmacchanda) is the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.

Aversion or ill-will (vyāpāda) can be the kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.

Laziness AKA sloth-torpor (thīna-middha) is the heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.

Restlessness (uddhacca-kukkucca) is the inability to calm the mind.

Doubt (vicikicchā) is any lack of conviction or trust.

Which one is the most harmful to your own life practice?

Deconstructing Zen: Apples and Oranges, Strings and Branes, and the Buddha s BellyI saw someone’s review of Deconstructing Zen: Apples and Oranges, Strings and Branes, and the Buddha’s Belly on Amazon and it reminded me of how often people attach Zen to other related and unrelated things. That particular book mixes Zen with consciousness (logical) and Zen as a way to “deconstruct” physics, philosophy, poetry, and literary analysis (maybe not so logical, or at least, not so intuitive).

I do agree that there are many paths to understanding. I also think you can actually “find Zen” in the everyday life of every day.

But it does get a bit annoying to consider contemplating the empty fullness of Buddha’s belly with Zen magnet spheres.

I like the taste of Zen Tea, but there is no true connection there other than the idea of practitioners sand monks drinking tea. Even less so with marketing  Zen vitamins , Zen “cigarette” rollers, a Zen spa robe, Zen baby items or the many books that use Zen in their title whether or not they have anything to do with that form of Buddhism.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not attracted to books “about Zen” that also seem to be about something else.  Two books that I especially found instructive as well as entertaining are Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (who I have written about before). Zen in the Art of Archery sounds suspicious, but is a classic Zen reading and a good example of using Zen in other practices. I would put it much higher on the list (actually, on another list) from books like The Zen of Tennis.

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