“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So. The great Zen teacher was describing how to practice sitting meditation (shikantaza), which involves calming our restless minds and coming into the present moment by watching the breath. Suzuki describes how far this simple practice can carry us: “Your breathing will gradually vanish. You will gradually vanish, fading into emptiness. Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form. Exhaling you gradually fade into emptiness….When you practice this in your last moment you will have nothing to be afraid of.”
In her article “Passed Away,” Joyce Kornblatt explores how the breath can serve as a guide to the mysteries of life and death. Check it out!
I’ve been reflecting lately on how forms change–inevitably and very unpredictably. Years ago, I visited the Maezumi Institute, the training center of the Zen Peacemakers Order, in rural Montague, Massachusetts. The center’s land was once a farm, bought in 1968 by a collective of anti-war journalists, the Liberation News Service. The group had split away from a harder-edged New York-based political faction to live together and find peace by turning inward. Their credo was “change your mind, not just the government.” The farm was also later the home of Sam Lovejoy, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement.
I thought there was beautifully fitting that this 60’s experiment in communal living, awakening, and environmentalism would become the home of an American Zen community dedicated to creating a global interfaith community, and to integrating spiritual practice with altruistic work in the outer world. It also seemed fitting because the namesake of the institute, the Japanese Soto Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi, had been surrounded by hippie seekers after he founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967.
But a little reading and reflection revealed that Zen had been associated in Japan with the samurai, the military nobility (aka, not hippies.) I also learned from Peter Gregory, a professor of Buddhism at nearby Smith College who happened to be at the Maezumi Institute that day, that the fortunes of Maezumi Roshi’s family (all connected to the Zen establishment) drastically declined after the war. The prestige of Zen itself was greatly damaged, since they had aligned themselves with the emperor and actively rooted for war. Zen had been anything but counter traditional Japanese culture. The outcome of the last world war made Maezumi counter cultural in the sense that the disastrous turn in his family’s fortunes forced him to leave a defeated and down-on-Zen Japan to teach Zen to those most open at the time–counter-culture types and peace activists in America! Being very pro war actually ended up making Zen in America a vehicle for peace and inclusion.
The moral of this story? Forms change. Forms turn into their opposites. Don’t cling to forms. Seek formlessness. Exhale into emptiness. In the words of Suzuki: “To take care of the exhalation is very important. To die is more important than to be alive.” In other words, think of what is to come. Don’t cling.