Of all the philosophies, practices and social trends to emerge in America in recent decades and be relegated to the category of “new age”, none has entered the arena of popular misunderstanding as firmly as Zen Buddhism. The word itself found its way into our vocabulary as a sort of vague description of totality, as in, “that was a Zen thing to do.” This is an ironic turn for a discipline that originated about fifteen centuries ago and strives, primarily and above all else, to attain “full awakening” and see things as they are. Much of the new book “Entering Zen” by Zen practitioner Ben Howard is concerned with defining and describing Zen and linking it to everyday life, “forever calling us back from the sphere of abstract thought to the concrete world in front of our noses.” It clarifies such concepts as “impermanence” and “suchness”. Though it makes no claims to being a complete guide to Zen, the reader will likely find that “Entering Zen” will sometimes move her or him to breathing more consciously and becoming aware of imposing preconceived notions on the reality around us.
The library of Zen is vast and in many languages, but the remarkable thing about Ben Howard’s “Entering Zen” is that its 75 essays are adapted from a biweekly column he has written for the past few years for the Alfred Sun, the weekly newspaper published in the college town of Alfred, NY and read widely throughout neighboring rural communities. If the teaching of Zen seeks to bring lofty concepts down to earth and, through meditation, “return to the ground of being”, earth and ground are always readily in sight in New York’s Southern Tier. To share Zen experiences, Dr. Howard tells of ice dams, firewood, dandelions and how his column regularly shows up next to the classified ads.
…Zen has everything to do with the classifieds — or, more broadly, with the mundane business of daily life. For unless one chooses to renounce our materialistic culture and become a monk or nun, Zen practice must somehow be integrated with a world where cats and dogs develop allergies, septic tanks need to be pumped, and love seats are bought and sold.
To be sure, meditative training is traditionally conducted in tranquil surroundings, where the lights are dim and the distractions few. Sitting quietly in the zendo, or perhaps at home in a space reserved for meditation, we settle into stillness. We learn to rest in simple presence, in what Zen calls the clear open sky of awareness. Thoughts cross our minds, but if we do not pursue them, they pass like clouds in the clear open sky. And when our sitting ends, we return to our lives feeling cleansed and refreshed.
— from “Zen and the Classifieds” in “Entering Zen”
Ben Howard is Emeritus Professor of English at Alfred University. He writes the Zen blog “One Time, One Meeting”. His poetry has been widely published and his most recent volume is “Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt”. Among his scholarly work is “The Pressed Melodeon: Essays on Modern Irish Writing”. Ben is also an accomplished teacher and performer of classical guitar, and plays several works on this OFF THE PAGE program.
Photo courtesy of Jason Parker-Burlingham via Flickr.