Taking the Path of Zen: Reflections

In Zen Buddhism, when you walk, you are walking. When you sit, you are sitting. When you are going to the bathroom, you are going to the bathroom. Whatever you are doing — whether you’re sweeping the floor, listening to a song on the radio, or biting into an apple — you are fully aware of what is happening. You are caring for each moment like you’re cradling a baby in your arms. When you’re fully engaged in your life, you’re not separate from what is outside of yourself. You (the subject) and what is out there (the object) melt away.

When you practice Zen, you’re not only practicing on the meditation cushion. Zen is ordinary life. There is no real difference. What happens is happening with no clinging to what is happening. “Forgetting the self is the act of just doing the task, with no self-consciousness sticking to the action.” (Aitken, Robert)

When you lose yourself in storylines, you can return to where you are. You don’t need to beat yourself up, saying, “I’m such a bad person for thinking, for feeling upset, for worrying so much.” Just note that you have drifted away from the present. Then you can come back, over and again.

It’s natural to feel sad and mad, excited and bored, and on and on. You are a human. You don’t need to block out your feelings and thoughts and sensations. You’re not a stone or a block of wood. Instead of seeking distractions, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or forming judgements, watch what is here, now, arising and passing. Breathe and let go.

Anger comes, anger goes. Sadness comes, sadness goes. Peace comes, peace goes. Your shoulders may tense up, your heart may beat faster, your insides may hurt, a bird may chirp on a nearby tree, and two squirrels may chase each other over an acorn. There is no need to hold on. You can smile instead. You can smile to your fear, smile to your happiness, smile to your tears, smile to your indifference.

From looking at your fear, you can see the fear of other beings. Your desire for happiness is like so many others before and after you. Your joy becomes their joy. Your suffering becomes their suffering. When you are peaceful, you want others to be peaceful. Their peacefulness becomes your peacefulness, their happiness becomes your happiness, their suffering becomes your suffering. When someone is in pain, their pain often spills over on those closest to them. Instead of judging them, you can love them. You can tend to them in your heart because you tend to yourself.

“In Zen, we practice to realize what has always been true. We wipe away concepts and hang-ups, delusions and attachments, but as Hakuin Zenji says, ‘Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.’” (Aitken, Robert)

When you can see through your delusions, there is space. Freedom. You no longer need to blindly react. You are simply here, aware of what comes and goes. You see the phenomena of the past, present, and future — interacting, changing together, inside you, around you, inside and around you. Everything is a cause and an effect.

When you are sitting, you are sitting. When you are standing, you are standing.

You are standing on the soil, in the sun, in the air, near the sea, under the trees. You’re standing with the bees pollinating the flowers and the birds eating the worms and the caterpillars crawling on leaves. You’re standing with your ancestors and descendants. You are standing because of the stars that burst millions of years ago. You depend on so many things to be. In every moment, you inter-are with your ancestors, with your feelings, with your thoughts, with a mountain that is two thousand miles away.

Everything is changing with each other.

You are not separate from the rest of the universe. You’re an expression of it — going as far back as the Big Bang, as far back as subatomic particles forming into atoms, and possibly even before that. You’re made up of the sun just as the sun is made up of you. You cannot be without spacetime, without the rain, without the carbon dioxide that you exhale, without the roots beneath your feet. What is out there, what is in you, is an interrelated process.

What you cultivate in yourself is not only for yourself, but for others as well. You are already perfect, yet you have a lot of work to do. Through your lifelong practice, you can let go of what holds you back from seeing yourself as you are. But who are you?

What is Hope?

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“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

Noam Chomsky

Hope is an expectation of a positive outcome. To be hopeful is to be confident, to be optimistic. It is to desire a favorable event and believe in its likelihood. It is to see the possibilities for future change.

Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in the study of Positive Psychology, developed Hope Theory. For Snyder, three interrelated elements comprise the idea of hope: goals, pathways, and agency.

Hopeful people use different pathways to reach their goals. They are realistic about the challenges they face, motivated to overcome them. After training in Hope Theory, individuals develop practical plans, set deadlines, and visualize how they can succeed. 

Hope can be beneficial when it motivates people to be in the right mindset to achieve their goals. Even when negative situations happen, a hopeful person can examine what they can do and can’t do, before acting on what is possible.

Hope can be dangerous, however, when beliefs about positive outcomes are too unrealistic. People may imagine a perfect future, but if their thinking is deluded or fallacious, they will suffer when confronted with real barriers.

Pragmatic optimism, however, can often be valuable. Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic philosopher and author, once said in Eye in the Triangle: “Optimistic people outlive pessimistic people consistently if you compare them by sex, by eating habits, by diet, by lifestyle, by race, by all sorts of things. The optimists live longer. Also, optimists have more fun. And besides, maybe things are going to turn out okay, in which case, the pessimists are killing themselves and being miserable for no good reason at all. And the final reason is that if everything is going to turn out terribly, the optimists are having more fun before the final tragedy comes.”

Wilson wrote that optimists look for possibilities, while pessimists are blind to them. Pessimists have concluded that there are no more solutions, even when other options are present. For Robert Anton Wilson, intelligence is the ability to “receive, decode and transmit information efficiently.” To be stupid is to block information from coming in. Those who ignore, or resist, or deny the possibilities of life cannot function efficiently. They are stuck in robotic reality-tunnels.

Buddhists look at hope in another sense. People often strive to do more, to be more. They want to achieve, achieve, achieve. They believe that they will finally be happy only after they drive around in a fancy convertible, get promoted to office manager, marry, raise children, read the canon of Western literature, win a game, or whatever else they can think up. Once they get what they desire, they desire more, while fearing that they will lose what they have. As they possess more, they still feel unfulfilled. They’re often disappointed when what they strived for didn’t bring them lasting satisfaction.

Ordinary hope is unskillful. People crave what they do not have. They cling to abstractions of happiness, unable to let go. They expect to be a certain way, to produce a certain result, to maintain a certain persona, but are secretly afraid of uncertainty and impermanence.

For people to be honest with themselves, they must first be mindful of what they can and can’t change. For Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, “The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”

To accept what is happening in the present moment is to be alive. There is no denial, no resistance. Through awareness, people can transform themselves. They can look at the possibilities of their choices and how those choices will impact the world.

Those who practice the Dhamma are hopeful. They are confident that they are walking the path toward liberation. Rather than attaching themselves to dualistic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, they accept the fleeting nature of the world. They’re mindful of each moment, guided by wisdom and compassion.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

Those who endure hardships often find value in hope. Even when they are subject to abuse, injustice and death, they remember the small kindnesses of life. They desire a better future for themselves and those they care about. A path may not exist for them yet, but they believe that there is more, much more, than what is known.

Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher and author, wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. In it, he said that people look for purpose in an indifferent and chaotic universe. They’re often confronted with the absurdity of their own existence, desperate for an objective meaning that doesn’t exist.

They can choose to commit suicide, but then, the point of their lives would only seem more absurd. They can refuse to examine and question and think for themselves, conforming to different belief-systems, which promise them answers. Through this second choice, they are surrendering their inner freedom for the dictates of others.

Camus proposed a third option after not being able to accept the former two. People are free to subjectively create their own meanings and values and purposes. While they have the tremendous freedom to choose, they are ultimately responsible for their choices.

Camus rejected the idea that people should have hope for an afterlife, but considered each person’s meanings (or lack thereof) to be made by them in each moment. When people prepare for another life after their death, but do not embrace their fleeting time on earth, they minimize the value of their existence.

Hope should be highly personal for each individual. People cannot ignore the fact that they will change, that they will die, that they will pursue meaning in a universe, which is not objectively meaningful.

They must be aware of these underlying tensions. They must decide how they will live, who they will be, before they perish.

There is a close connection between hope and despair. When people avoid looking honestly at their suffering and seek only pleasure, they do not find happiness. Even those who have a lot of money and power are not immune. They can only transform themselves once they are aware of their suffering.

When people understand themselves as they are, they can cultivate compassion. Like a gardener, they can plant seeds of kindness, seeds of happiness, seeds of peace, in every moment. When they are compassionate toward themselves, they can be compassionate toward others.

Roshi Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen teacher and activist, wrote an essay called Yes We Can Have Hope. In it, she suggested that people can be wisely hopeful rather than unskillfully hopeful. Whereas ordinary hope is based on a person’s desires and expectations, wise hope develops from an acceptance of life.

Through this perspective, people can embrace the impermanence of their joys and sorrows. To be hopeful is not to deny reality, but to be fully alive, helping others to awaken out of their suffering.

Halifax said, “Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now.”

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote his own advice about acceptance and choice. He had told Lucilius, the then procurator of Italy, that people should adapt themselves to the present rather than projecting their wishes too far into the future. To live for the future is to be anxious in expectation. “Fear keeps pace with hope” because people not only want to fulfill their desires, but fear not getting what they desire, and losing what they have.

Seneca cautioned against having too many desires. When a person limits their desires, however, they can still be hopeful. They are grateful for what they have been given, and appreciate who they are, while not craving what is unnecessary. Many people wish for more than they have, worried that their expectations won’t be fulfilled. They “suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Potential dangers may not have happened, but they fear that they will happen. They anticipate terrible futures so much that their anticipations become habits. Their minds exaggerate their sorrows. Every moment that they worry is a moment of lost time.

Seneca wrote in his thirteenth letter, On Groundless Fears, “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”

Seneca advised that people should not worry about what hasn’t happened or will not likely happen. Misfortunes don’t always last or remain misfortunes. Sometimes the unexpected happens too. Rather than despairing, individuals can meditate on what choices are available and then act wisely. When people indulge their hearts on fears of the future, they prevent themselves from living.

The only way to live is in the present. Tomorrow has no meaning except in the eternal now. Pasts and futures are abstractions, but people are conditioned to live for conceptualizations of time, until they can’t relate anymore to the time they’re in.

In the Money and Materialism section of Just So, Alan Watts lectured, “So only people who live in proper relationship with the material present have any use for making any plans at all, because then if the plans work out, they’re actually capable of enjoying them. But if you aren’t fully here and your mind is always off somewhere else, you’ll remain starved and always rushing to get someplace else. And there’s nowhere to go except here.”

“Our schools don’t prepare us to relate to the material present. Instead, we’re educated to become bureaucrats, accountants, lawyers, and doctors, who are all good at making money, which is said to be incredibly important. And the children who aren’t considered fit for the college education that these careers require are encouraged to take reluctantly offered courses in trades and manual skills. You hear these jokes about being able to receive your bachelor’s degree in basket weaving from any American university, but that would actually be an improvement on our current state of affairs. The larger point is that we are encouraged to become obsessed with the life of abstractions, with problems of status, and with problems of the world as symbolized rather than the world to be symbolized. This explains our hang-ups when it comes to money. When it comes down to it, most of us are incapable of relating directly to physical existence at all.”

It is easy to mistake the finger for the moon. The finger may point the way, but it doesn’t cast an illumination. In order for life to reveal itself, people must let go of what they think they know. They can only tend to the future when they tend to each moment. While they may forget, their practice is to return to life, again and again.


Sources:

“Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.

Halifax, Joan. “Yes, We Can Have Hope.” Lion’s Roar, 20 Jan. 2021, www.lionsroar.com/yes-we-can-have-hope/.

Hạnh, Nhất, and Thich N. Hanh. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam, 1992.

“Hope (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/hope/.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Penguin UK, 2004.

Snyder, C.R. Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Watts, Alan. Just So: Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe. Sounds True, 2020.

Wilson, Robert A. “The Eye in the Triangle.” YouTube, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p5oHdKZNBA. Accessed 2021.

Yeshe, Ayya. “Ask the Teachers: What is the Buddhist View of Hope?” Lion’s Roar, 11 Aug. 2020, www.lionsroar.com/ask-the-teachers-what-is-the-buddhist-view-of-hope/.


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Touching Life: Lessons of Thích Nhất Hạnh

Touching Life: Lessons of Thích Nhất Hạnh

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We live in a world of ill-being, but not in ill-being alone. Where there is ill-being, there is well-being.

Where there is darkness, there is light. There is no birth without death, left without right, inner without outer.

This is a lesson in inter-being.

In non-duality.

We can live a path of well-being. A noble path. Well-being can be found in our every breath, in our every step, in the seeds we plant daily.

We can plant the seeds of loving-kindness, equanimity, generosity, and mindfulness.

What we do, how we think, what we consume, changes us. If we do not plant the seeds of well-being, then our plants will wither away.

Our life is only available now. We can touch the clouds with our minds. We can be aware of the energy changing under all our storylines. Rather than feeling anxiety about the future and regret about the past, we can enjoy this moment. Our freedom comes from being aware.

Right now, let’s smile to our bodies, smile to our minds, smile to our breathing, smile to the sun and trees and rivers and oceans and mountains.

When we drink tea, we can smell its rising steam and taste a gentle warmth that soon fills our bellies. When we are tired, we can lay and sleep. When we are hungry, we can eat.

There is wonder in what we are doing, in our changing lives, but we are often too distracted. We avoid and resist what is.

Is it possible to touch the silky petals of a white flower? To feel a heart in our chest? To step barefoot in sand and sit down and listen to the waves foaming on the shore?

Freedom From the Known (reflections)

Freedom From the Known (reflections)

You’re not just a separate creature that lives “in” this universe for a fleeting time. You’re not merely a “part” of this universe, apart from the indescribable processes of life and death. You are this universe. Interwoven in the cosmos.

Without spacetime, without the evolutionary line of your ancestors to you, without the soil, rivers, and wind, without the sun and flowers and rain, you would not be here. They are in you.

You do not exist as a single identity, or ego, separate from everything and everyone else. Your existence is changing, transforming in its infinite relationships, right now.

With sensitivity, you can watch interdependent relationships unfold.

They are nuanced and spontaneous, arising, passing, arising, passing.

You are like a wave, calming and crashing and sparkling with light on shadows, until merging back to an endless sea.


There is no sensitivity in ideas of the past. The past is dead and you confuse yourself by carrying around its bones. Your mind is often dulled of its aliveness because it is dominated by the past.

When you lose your sensitivity, you grind out your days with unthinking habits like overeating, smoking, dwelling on your mistakes, worrying, and so on.

You must intimately know this moment. How can you know this moment when you’re filled with opinions, judgements, and values?

When you are judging, concerned with right and wrong, agreeing, disagreeing, comparing, and so on, you’re focused on a fixed interpretation of life. Instead of seeing clearly, you are projecting, distorting, manipulating reality.

The moment that you think you know who you are, you are limited by your view of yourself, and are no longer learning.

It is hard to learn, to see clearly, to be fully alive, because you have been conditioned from language, education, culture, art, politics, religion, family, custom, past experiences. You have been trained to respond in conditioned ways, to think robotically.

Most of us don’t realize we’re conditioned until there is a great disturbance in our lives. Whether from political or economic hardships, in our families or professions, through our relationships with others and within ourselves, we become disturbed.

What can we do? Can we live with so much suffering and confusion and uncertainty?

A lot of people avoid dealing with their sorrows, their sufferings, their fears of what is uncertain. They join a new group, subscribe to an ideology, shout at others, take drugs, gamble, check their social media accounts, or watch TV. They distract themselves all day with amusements.

Instead of being present with their fears and uncertainties and anxieties, they hide from them, avoid them, numb themselves from them. Their fears won’t go away, but they have desensitized themselves so much that they don’t feel alive anymore.

You must be totally aware to understand. Often you are one type of person at the office and another with friends. You talk differently to yourself than you do with your coworkers. You act out so many different roles every day.

You divide your consciousness and create conflict with those divisions, blocking out one part of yourself for another, aware of one aspect of existence and not another.

When you do try to understand yourself, you categorize and analyze and examine, spending weeks and months and years on petty personal dramas. But still, you are no further along to enlightenment.

If you could just be aware for a moment, sensitive to all of life, to trees and wind and birds and rivers and the beating of your heart, to inner and outer energies changing without division, without any purpose or method or conclusion, then you will see immediately who you are.

You can know life more deeply without the need to compare deep to shallow, right to wrong, good to bad.

All too often, you cannot see what is, what exists beyond all symbols, because you’re trapped in conditioned states of thinking, comparing, judging, and deciding.

You narrowly perceive, trained into a rigid way of being after a lifetime of chasing after pleasure, and avoiding pain, and fearing what you don’t understand.

Can you be here without trying to be elsewhere? With choiceless awareness, you can begin to see the totality of life. There is nothing to get and no reward, except for what is happening. If you can truly be without any expectation, letting what comes come until it passes away, then you will know joy.

When you seek out pleasure, to repeat an experience of the past, you will soon know pain. Pain is the shadow of pleasure. One follows the other.

When you have what you want, you often wish to hold onto it forever and fear losing it. If someone has what you don’t have, and you want what they have, then you eventually become envious and bitter.

By clinging to your memories of pleasure, you’re in conflict with yourself. Your desire to keep something or someone, to appear in a favorable way, to not lose what you already have, eventually leads you into suffering.

To be present is to no longer be afraid of losing what you desire. You are not afraid when you are just watching yourself be. At the back of your mind, however, you think about the past and future. You are scared of losing your job, your status, your kids, your health, your life. Can you watch all these fears without trying to justify them?

Do the words, images, and associations to past memories disturb you so much? Look behind the symbols at the undercurrent of energy. What is actually happening to you in reality and what is only thought, feeling, and memory?

Thoughts are not realities. For example, you may have gotten sick a few years ago. Now that you are well, you fear becoming sick again.

Your resistance to sickness is a thought, not what is happening within your body at the moment. At the moment, you are fine. Instead of being aware of how you are and tending to yourself with compassion and joy, you get lost in fears about losing your health. There is a conflict between what you think and what is. You ignore what is and dwell on ideas, which are fixed symbols. The more you think, the more you suffer about non-realities that are no longer there or not there in the future, blocking yourself to all of life.

Can you look at fear without dissecting it? Can you see fear without having to control or analyze it, without having to summon courage, without directing your mind to specific things that you are afraid of? Directly look at fear without making it intellectual. Know fear without hiding, rationalizing, trying to take it apart.

You are not apart from fear. There is no fear and then you, an observer of fear. There is only, when you notice subtly enough, fear, which is you.

Then your awareness of fear — without you trying to conclude or explain what fear is — dissolves it.

Fear is not fear alone. Fear interrelates with anxiety, hatred, jealousy, violence, and many similar states.

How can a person find peace in a world writhing with war, class conflict, murder, starvation, with many forms of injustice, perpetuated throughout the centuries?

Violence doesn’t merely stop at the events. that surround you but it is within you as well.

Violence is not just to maim or kill another person. It is a harsh word, jealousy over a friend’s accomplishments, discrimination, obeying an authority out of fear.

When you divide yourself from others and refuse to see the humanity in them, you’re being violent. All too often, you separate yourself through belief and thought. You see yourself as superior, inferior, or both. You blame and judge, rather than being present, listening deeply, and learning.

If you want to transcend violence, you cannot deny, hide, or distract from the violence within. You must be intimately aware of your anger and sadness and jealousy and anxiety and fear, neither justifying nor condemning these states.

All too often, you strive for ideals of non-violence. You tell yourself that you must be peaceful rather than violent, calm rather than angry, and so on. You think about the best ideological systems to obey to become a better person and blame others for failing to follow along.

You create dualities of good and bad, right and wrong, judging and forming opinions.

You try to be better daily. You prepare so much to be a good person because you have been taught to compare, analyze, judge, and think about every situation.

Yet there is no trying. There is only what is peaceful and what is not peaceful. Many holy books have been filled with words about non-violence for centuries and people are still angry, jealous, greedy, hateful, and so on.

When you claim that you believe in the ideals of peace, but are not peaceful within or in relationship to the world, you’re acting hypocritically.

When you separate, when you condemn others while justifying your righteousness, you’re trapped. You have not learned how to see what is.

Most people are not actually with each other. They form ideas and then act on the nuanced relationships between those ideas. They live on images, on symbols, rather than being with someone in the present. The more they cling to ideas, the more they live in a universe of abstraction.

You must be able to see totally. It is one thing to intellectually understand, to examine yourself under an analysis of symbols, but is quite another thing to completely see, to be aware of what happens within you.

You are never free until you can see what you depend on, what causes you to suffer, what brings you joy, without trying to hide or deny these things within yourself. From relationship — to yourself, to the group, to society, to all of life interconnected in the universe — you can be aware.