January 23, 2012
I’d like to begin this entry with one of the most famous poems by one of Japan’s most beloved poets of the twentieth century, Miyazawa Kenji. Miyazawa is his family name. This translation was done by Hiroaki Sato. I hope you will forgive the fact that in some cases the actual line breaks and phrasing would not be accepted by this program, so the poem appears in a slightly different form from the original:
Neither yielding to rain
nor yielding to wind
yielding neither to
snow nor to summer heat
with a stout body
never getting angry
always smiling quiet-
eating one and a half pieces of brown rice
and bean paste and a bit of
vegetables a day
not taking oneself
looking listening understanding well
and not forgetting
living in the shadow of pine trees in a field
in a small
hut thatched with miscanthus
if in the east there’s a
going and nursing
if in the west there is a tired mother
going and for her
bundles of rice
if in the south
you don’t have to be
if in the north
there’s a quarrel
or a lawsuit
saying it’s not worth it
in a drought
in a cold summer
pacing back and forth lost
nor thought a pain
is what I want
I have to say, I love the spirit behind the actions of the man in this poem, how broad his reach is, how he expresses or seeks to express care in so many realms of life, without fear, without being important, but like a loving uncle or aunt who carefully and modestly seeks a way to help in a family situation where help is needed, and tries to do what he can.
Menmitsu Nokafu – Intimate, Family Style
This kind of care for even the smallest of things is a hallmark of Zen practice and is expressed by the Japanese phrase memmitsu nokafu. The character pronounced mitsu means “cotton”, and men means close, dense, intimate, or secret. No in Japanese means that what comes before modifies what comes after, so it points in the direction of a connection. Ka means “family” and fu is both “wind” and “manner” or we might stretch our translation a bit to say “way”, though in Zen the character do is usually translated as “way” or “place.”
So, with memmitsu nokafu, we have cotton that is close, dense, intimate, even secret, connecting to family manner or wind, or way. Does it give you some feeling? Think of the closeness of a weave of cotton, how densely or intimately that might be woven together. Isn’t that sort of family style – all the threads woven together so closely and intimately, in the manner of a family that is truly close? As for “wind”, well, wind seems to know how to find its way inside, knowing by nature how to get into everything unless a wall is put up against it. And, even then, sometimes wind can blow down a wall if it needs to.
So the phrase memmitsu nokafu means intimate, family style. It means that the connections that make a family an intimate family are attended to, are honoured, respected, and expressed by members of the family. Whether it’s the people in the family, or the heirlooms, or the ordinary dishes, rugs, ashtrays, rags, or beds that need to be made, because the intimacy of the family is valued and strong, things are given great care.
It is with this spirit and understanding that we attend to the most minor detail in our practice. Just as no thing is too small to be affected by impermanence and emptiness, nothing is so small that it does not deserve the most intimate and caring treatment we can give. The greater our attention and awareness, the greater we can express our intimate relationship to each other and to things. And, the more we strengthen the bonds of intimacy in the world at large, the more the one life being lived here, in all its many forms, is kept whole. But, as you know, if we want to take care of the large, we must take care of the small.
And so, during practice in the zendo, we carefully brush our mats and shape our zafus between periods of meditation, and give care to the way we assume our posture before sitting again, leaving nothing out. During zazen, we focus on our breath with the still attention loving parents might give to watching their baby sleep. Quietly, spacious, aware. We gently place our hands in gassho as a conscious gesture of greeting and reverence. And we walk, chant, eat, attend to our jobs during work practice, with this same loving care.
Outside the zendo, practicing and living in this way is more difficult, but we really do our best to take zendo practice into the world. When we see each other on the street or in the market, we really do our best to see each other. Even there. When we talk with someone, or listen, we do it in this spirit, too – intimately, closely, and with care. Not distracted, distant, absentmindedly, wondering why our cell phone isn’t ringing or what we forgot to do – but with a body and mind of presence that expresses this intimacy and care – like a member of a family that knows what a family is and can be and what it takes to maintain that family’s closeness. There’s great joy in this, you know, to care or allow ourselves to love so much.
So, we might say that memmitsu nokafu is how we express the closeness, the oneness we discover and practice in shikan taza [often translated as just sitting, this is wholehearted meditation typical of Soto Zen practice]. Because we come to understand that separation is a delusion, and that oneness with all things is what we are, we take very good care of ourselves, of each other, and of all aspects of the world. Another way to say it is that the sacred nature of all mundane things is expressed by how we treat them. And, eventually, we come to see that even making categories like “sacred” and “mundane” can be left behind, because things are just what they are – sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible, often ordinary and not very special, but at the same time, if we see what things really are, how it takes the entire universe functioning exactly as it does for each thing to exist, then the most ordinary thing is also absolutely, incredibly, miraculous and wonderful.
Of late, our western culture has promoted a way of being in the world that argues against the intimate, family style of memmitsu nokafu. It has created the idea of ‘throwaway’, and ‘replaceable’, and this sad conception applies to objects like cameras and cell phones as easily as it does to people, entire species, and even the planet we live on. I don’t have vast political theories to respond to this sorrowful mess of greed and confusion that threatens life itself, but I do know that allowing the spirit of memmitsu nokafu to inform how we go about living honours our lives and the lives of those around us in a way that life deserves. Please practice it, and you will see.
December 3, 2011
As the light starts clicking down
Daylight’s getting shorter. Here in the north country the thermometer hovers around zero Celsius. The smell of snow is in the air; people telling each other at the till when I went to town the other day to get some groceries. “Soon,” they say, and everyone knows what they mean.
This morning, just after getting the fire going in the woodstove, I remembered a brief passage Gary Snyder wrote in his tanker notes on December 8, 1957, somewhere out in the Arabian Sea. Just a quick conversation between ship mates, but it’s stayed with me and helped me out on more than one occasion:
Caruso: It’s a long way to Suez.
Duperont: It ain’t a long way, man, it’s just you got a short mind.
I can’t help but notice the date of this entry, December 8th. It’s the day Zen folks commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment and remember the story of him sitting with great determination for many days beneath the bodhi tree until that morning, at dawn, when out of the vastness of the night he looked up, saw the morning star, and realized the oneness of all things. Why that day? Why that star? To ask the question is to go a little further into our own vast sky and the knowledge of what we are.
Maybe it’s just a story, the kind people tell at this dark time of year to help each other remember the light. People like such stories and there are plenty of them the world around. Or, maybe it’s true. It hardly matters, as I see it. What matters to me is to remember that delicious phrase, “it’s just you got a short mind,” and to do what I can about it.
Happy early winter days, everyone. Let’s try and make it to Suez together, any way we can.
Beyond the lines of these hills
there is another line
no one can see — together
may we get across.
November 22, 2011
Here are some poems related to Zen from One Hundred Butterflies. Hope you enjoy:
Watermelons and Zen students
grow pretty much the same way.
Long periods of sitting
till they ripen and grow
all juicy inside, but
when you knock them on the head
to see if they’re ready –
sounds like nothing’s going on.
Don’t eat so fast.
When you use your sticks
you frighten the rice
Once inside the bamboo tube
learns a new way
Telling me to leave
the path untouched
my teacher hands me the rake
Already at birth
I was parted,
not just from my mother —
but body from mind,
mind from its source —
that’s why I take up
this soft blade
to cut me back into one.
innocent of all
how could he know
his bowl would hold the moon?
If you like these and would like to order the book, just go to Book Titles up above and click on the link to the book.
I know it may seem that I’m flooding today’s postings with my little drawing above, (after all, how often will my hopeless little drawings be seen?) but this one does relate to the post from November 3, below. And, you can read my note about it by clicking the Wanderings link on the navigation bar.
November 3, 2011
The Trace of a Smile
When we recognize past or present errors—things we reasonably wish we had done differently—and this recognition is just a matter of seeing clearly, with a sincere desire to know ourselves as we are without the addition of any self-recrimination or punishment, right there is wisdom and compassion in action. And, right there as well is a seed of liberation from the habitual and gratuitous suffering we tend to rain down upon others and ourselves.
Simple as it may sound, to see in such a way requires an act of bravery, of love, really, for it is an essential attribute of a bodhisattva’s heart. But doing our best to live a bodhisattva’s life dedicated to helping all beings does not prevent our own actions from causing pain, suffering or confusion. Far from it. It does mean, however, that we have made a commitment to see through our own acts of ignorance—to make them transparencies, so to speak—and take steps to remedy the situation as quickly, openly and honestly as possible. I think it’s pretty clear that there’s no room for self-punishment in that. What a relief!
A Buddhist Mona Lisa
I have to say that there is joy in such an act, possibly brought about by the bravery and love required. If you look at representations of the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, sometimes called Kanzeon, but also known as Kannon, Guan Yin, and, of course, Avalokiteshvara, [ I feel like I should go all the way and place one of those signs right here in the roadway that says, YOUR NAME HERE ] you may see that the artist has included the faintest trace of a smile.
It would be a mistake to think that just because Kanzeon remains in the world of suffering she is no longer capable of smiling. It’s pretty hard to help others when all we can do is frown or show how depressing, anxiety producing and grim we find the whole human venture.
So, when I think about that smile—not entirely unlike a Buddhist Mona Lisa—it occurs to me that it just may be that as a result of the love and bravery found in a bodhisattva’s heart, and what those attributes might help bring about for others, the faintest trace of joy can be found peeking through.
When Peace Activists Refused to Smile
More than twenty five years ago at the first retreat for North American Buddhist artists, Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggested to the more than fifty attendees that as we sat in meditation, we try to allow a little smile to surface on our lips. A dour look on a meditator’s face is not entirely unknown, after all. Believe it or not, many people—good people, nice people, smart people, committed people, loving people—complained and said that it did not feel authentic, that if we did not feel happy, there was no reason to smile.
It was really rather funny, in a way: here were Buddhist artists of my generation, many of us peace activists during the war against Viet Nam who helped to make famous the slogan Hell No! We Won’t Go! arguing against a Viet Namese Zen teacher, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. had nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, with, in effect, a new slogan: Hell No! We Won’t Smile!
Umbrellas and the Origin of a Smile
I’d like to think that we may have learned something more about the origin of a smile since that time. It’s possible that our personal happiness may not be the only source of a smile in our lives. As we’ve grown older, and practiced more deeply, it seems that whether or not we feel happy at any given moment, there is a joy possible that is authentic, profound, and terribly needed in this world of ours. It is a sympathetic joy found by sincerely being with others exactly as we are, with the piano (that is, soft) accompaniment of a gradual clarity or understanding of our own behaviour and that of others, and a heart willing to love in a way we desperately need. All these may be in that smile as well.
Maybe it would be reasonable, then, or at the very least fun, to end these notes with a question: What is the source of our smile? It’s a bit like asking people to find the seven umbrellas hidden in the drawing in a children’s book: How many can you find?