One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck


Friday, March 27, 2020

Nanso no Ho practice


Nanso No Ho, or “soft-ointment meditation,” is a 'naikan' (transformation) practice originally taught by Zen master Hakuin Zenji (1689-1768)as he describes it in Yasen Kanna [translation by Norman Waddell]

"Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in color and fragrance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without. It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoulders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks. At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the heart as it sinks downward into the lower body. As it does, you will distinctly hear a sound like that of water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will move lower down through the lower body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.

"The student should then repeat the contemplation. As his vital energy flows downward, it gradually fills the lower region of the body, suffusing it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he were sitting up to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and infused by a skilled physician.

"Inasmuch as all things are created by the mind, when you engage in this contemplation, the nose will actually smell the marvelous scent of pure, soft butter; your body will feel the exquisite sensation of its melting touch. Your body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better and enjoy greater health than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty. At this time, all the undesirable accumulations in your vital organs and viscera will melt away. Stomach and bowels will function perfectly. Before you know it, your skin will glow with health.

"If you continue to practice the contemplation with diligence, there is no illness that cannot be cured, no virtue that cannot be acquired, no level of sage hood that cannot be reached, no religious practice that cannot be mastered. Whether such results appear swiftly or slowly depends only upon how scrupulously you apply yourself."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Zen Bland!



Originally posted December 21, 2011, revised during the Coronavirus lockdown, March 25, 2020








In the Spring of 2011, I did a Zen retreat at a former catholic convent, the Angela Center, in Santa Rosa California. As I was unpacking my bag, I thought to myself that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice 45 years earlier, the same bland institutional architecture put up to accommodate the large numbers of men and women who were entering religious life after World War II. 
  
In a Jesuit house of formation, we got up at 5:30 and went to bed at 9. Now my concentration started an hour earlier and lasted an hour later, and seemed to re-stimulate both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate, a period that was for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life. I couldn’t stop a flood of memories, tastes of prayer, study, and feelings that soon included my 11 years of Jesuit indoctrination as well as the aftermath.  

I followed the schedule and brought as much of myself as I could to the practice. It was difficult.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4thday, as I was walking back to the room, my actual perception of the building suddenly shifted. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. No sounds but the sound of my feet, no visions but what I saw through my eyes—just pictures on a wall, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. It was not a dramatic, flashing-bright-lights insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I was hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It doesn’t drag itself along. Actually there’s nothing there. It’s not real.

Suddenly in that moment of bland Zen, I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!


The light rain
clears momentarily.

Cold.

A bird's three bare notes—
infinite variations
flood over me.

Red Camilla blossoms
fall
upside down.


*The title of this reflection comes from a piece my friend Laurence Platt wrote, “Zen Bland,” which was not at all bland but very juicy. He argues that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else! 


Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend.



The Beginnings of a Christian-Zen Bibliography

Abe, Masao, "Emptiness Is Suchness" in The Buddha Eye, edited by Frederick Franck.  NY: Crossroad, 1982 Abe, Masao, Zen ...