Raking the Garden

I enjoy raking my garden as it changes through the seasons. In early spring, I turn the soil and then rake the dark brown dirt until it is flat, even, and smooth. Nothing is planted. Nothing is growing. No weeds. It looks like a kind of perfection.

It reminds me a bit of a Zen garden. You will find them with stones, gravel, maybe sand. They are not gardens planted with flowers or vegetables – which is what my garden will be. Zen gardens have been used for about 800 years. The care of the garden old, and at the center of its care and upkeep is a quiet, mind, especially raking, is meant to be a practice that is mindful, like meditation.

You might think that a Zen garden would be very precisely designed, but that kind of straight lines and symmetry is really a Western concept. Japanese Zen gardens are less symmetrical. There is often a centerpiece. It could be a rock garden and the raking is done so that the pattern mimics water. They are usually small. You can even find desktop gardens and meant for individual contemplation. I know that sounds like it couldn’t give many benefits but I have a small one indoors and it is a good mindfulness practice to care for it.

My outside dirt and plants garden that was Zen-like in early spring gets greener and greener and my raking meditation becomes weeding meditation. Summer turns me to admiring the colors of blooms, harvesting vegetables, picking bouquets, caring for plants suffering from the heat, insects, disease, too much rain, or not enough water.

In peak summer, the plants have their own kind of symmetry. The zucchini, squashes, melons, and pumpkins look chaotic but I look for patterns.

In the last days of summer and into autumn, the plants start fading and dying. The time comes to clear out the plants and then to rake the garden back into its clean, brown simplicity.

Gardening doesn’t have to be a Zen experience or mindful to be calming and beneficial, but I would recommend taking some aspects of the Zen garden into your gardening.

Simple Wisdom

On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.

Some of those short posts included Zen koans, quotations, and aphorisms. (I don’t see quotes and aphorisms as the same thing.) Some of the posts were migrated to this blog.)

An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:

 “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”

There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:

“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)

“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.” 
– François de la Rochefoucauld

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  
–  Friedrich Nietzsche

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   
– Scottish Proverb

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  
–  Booker T. Washington

Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.

Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
— Plutarch

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde

No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus

It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide

I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.

I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)

I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.

If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.

Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.

Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.

The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.

Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.

Each lock makes two prisons.

All stones are broken stones.

You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms  
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays  
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms

Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist. 

A Haiku May Be a Koan But

The crow yells at me
while I napped by the creek
the muddy water cleared

water bloom

If some of the koans that I have posted here baffle you, perhaps you can step into them gently by thinking of haiku as a kind of koan. I believe that a haiku can be a koan, but not all koans are haiku.

They both often ask us to consider a situation that is not obvious. Though sometimes haiku present a situation that seems so obvious that you wonder if you are not missing “the point.”

There are even “American koans” – a term that probably emerged from the distinction of American Buddhism and American Zen – terms that some may view as derogatory.

balanced stones

The most famous haiku from Japan are probably those attributed to Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa.

One well known Basho haiku from 1686 translated to English says:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.

So simple. This moment of action and sound of the water that captures the poet’s mind.

But, why is it an “old” pond? He might have used the sound of the frog itself singing, but instead the water “reacts” to the frog as we react to the sound.

Unfortunately, most Westerners don’t study haiku very much. I am no expert, but whenever I read more about them, their meanings become clearer. I have written here about

Here is a Buson haiku that I read recently which hasn’t been translated into the familiar Western 5,7,5 syllable format we are used to seeing.

An elephant’s eyes smile-
Mountain cherry blossoms.

I read those lines and then I read further that elephants didn’t arrive even come into Japan until after the medieval era. But they were known as sacred and mythical animals from stories of them in India and China. There were places named for them (such as Elephant’s Head Mountain) and it turns out that Buson visited there and wrote the haiku inspired by the place and the elephant eye shape of that mountain shrine.

Basho was Zen-trained, and ordained as a priest, but did not seem to actually practice as a priest. But Issa lived for several years in monasteries. His taken name “Issa” means “one tea” as in a bubble in a cup of tea and suggests the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and change.

In checking online about him, I found that he seems to have also used the name Haikaiji Issa. Haikaiji means “haiku temple.” He was paralyzed by a stroke at age 58. After he recovered, he changed his name to Soseibo, meaning “revived priest.”

Here’s a poem by him that is often noted as a Zen haiku:

From the white dewdrops,
Learn the way
To the pure land.

His lesson, seen in the drops of dew, is that as they form during the night, gather in the morning and then fall into a pond or the soil and become part of it.

Simple oneness.

“Pure Land” is a reference to Pure Land Buddhism, described as a place of beauty that surpasses all other realms. More importantly for the Pure Land practitioner, once one has been “born” into this land, one will never again be reborn. In the Pure Land, one will be personally instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until one reaches full and complete enlightenment. Being born into the Pure Land is akin to escaping samsāra. Sansāra (or samsāra) literally means “continuous flow” and is the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation that is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, Bön, Jainism, Sikhism, and other Indian religions.

temple tower

Are haiku koans? Some may be. They certainly ask us most of the time to think more deeply about something in a focused manner. Many haiku can teach something, though I don’t believe that is always their purpose. Still, the continued study of haiku can be a practice of refining your vision, both literally and figuratively.

Beginner’s Mind

“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.”

My Monkey Mind

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.

Crossing the River of the World

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.