Sunday, December 09, 2007

Zen wisdom from a Benedictine

In Richard Shrobe's book The Spirit of Korean Zen, Shrobe makes reference to Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who received Zen training and who is the co-author, along with Robert Aitken roshi, of The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian (my review of that book is here). Aitken roshi gets a mention as well. Shrobe writes (pp. 41-42):

There are many people who are truly contemplative or meditative types, Brother David says. Among meditatives he suggests there are two kinds of people, depending on their situations. Some, like monks and nuns, can spend a lot of time in silence and in formalized prayer or meditation. But then there are others, like a schoolteacher who must take her class of twenty-seven children on a field trip to the zoo. All day long she must attend to these youngsters, keep them from going off this way and that, help them have fun and see animals and learn what they are supposed to learn. Finally, she comes home and says, "All day long I didn't have a moment to pray." But seen from a different perspective, she was doing nothing but meditating all day long. In the simple activity-- well, not-so-simple activity-- of attending children on a field trip to the zoo, done with caring, love, and attentiveness, she is continuously engaged in the practice of meditation in action.

The problem comes, of course, when someone sees their circumstance in life as if it were a hindrance to practice. Zen Master Seung Sahn had a kong-an that he used to make a point about this. You would come in for an interview and he would ask, "Why do you eat every day?" The idea was, what is your direction, your purpose?

Robert Aitken Roshi, a Zen master in Hawaii, has made a similar point. He said, "If you're clear about your purpose, then whatever you're doing becomes part of your practice." Calling circumstances in your life obstructions or hindrances to practice is just attaching negative labels to the actual circumstances of your life. And in fact, seen differently, they are no different from your arms and your legs; they are just there to be used in some way. So a hindrance is not a hindrance, and an obstacle is not an obstacle. They are just opportunities.

Shrobe, Richard. The Spirit of Korean Zen. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.


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