About The Writer

HC James is from London and worked as a teacher before switching careers to medicine. He currently works as a doctor in a south London Emergency Department and in his spare time visits family in California.   

 

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"To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen"

- Shunryu Suzuki

There is probably little I can say about mindfulness that hasn't been better said already, so here I will limit myself to giving a brief overview of a few pivotal texts - for me anyway. The title reflects the similarity between mindfulness practice and the much older tradition of Zen (or Zazen) practice, though mindfulness is really a distillation of many different traditions.

Nowadays mindfulness is well known. (In my workplace we have even been invited to a 'mindful leadership' course!). Mindfulness is mainstream enough that recently a group of British government ministers - a breed we don't straight away associate with Eastern mysticism - attended a mindfulness session in the Houses of Parliament with the intention of fostering a more mindful government.

This achievement was facilitated by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who can take much of the credit for introducing 'mindfulness' to contemporary western culture. In 1990 his book Full Catastrophe Living was published, and for many this remains a key mindfulness text. In it Kabat-Zinn - originally a molecular biologist hailing from New York City - introduces us to the practice of mindfulness and the work of the Stress Reduction Clinic in Massachusetts. In straightforward prose he explains the origins of mindfulness, how to cultivate the most helpful attitudes to practice, and talks the reader through plenty of exercises, including simple sitting meditation, body scans and yoga. For anyone wanting to take their mindfulness/meditation practice seriously, this is an invaluable book.  

Much of the success of the book was in Kabat-Zinn's ability to strip away a lot of the cultural trappings of Buddhism to make it available to a western audience without sacrificing its central ideas. A similar feat was achieved earlier by Thich Nhat Hanh with The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975). Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who witnessed first-hand the war there. He has since published a number of books, but for me The Miracle of Mindfulness is the one to start with - it's short and accessible, with plenty of practice in there, perfect for train journeys.

The simplicity of mindfulness practice owes a lot to the practice of Zen. Zen Buddhism was developed in Japan around the 6th century. It has its origins in China, where it was known as Ch'an Buddhism. For a sample of Ch'an you might want to check out the Blue Cliff Records, which is a collection of Ch'an Buddhist stories and koans (mental tests) compiled in the 12th century. Warning - it's not an easy read, indeed much of it is virtually incomprehensible, to the 'rational' reader at least. This is not meant disrespectfully; if anything the very point of a koan is that it can't be answered using rational thinking. There are no clever answers and one can only 'understand' by not thinking. One day I hope to be able to read through the Records with such an 'understanding' though I suspect to really get into it one needs to be a fairly advanced Zen practitioner.

Such a person was Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) whose words open this page. Suzuki was a Zen master of the Soto school in Japan, who came to the United States in the late 1950s and taught Zen. His talks are compiled in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind (1970). These talks are a gift - in crystal clear language Suzuki explains many ideas central to Zen. These include Beginner's Mind ('in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few...'), patience, 'imperturbable' composure and Big Mind. Whereas small mind is 'dualistic' (me-you, them-us, right-wrong) and always related to something else, something external, big mind is 'the mind that includes everything'. Meditation practice opens the door to Big Mind. How? Put simply:

'If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called Big Mind.'

Above all, Zen is about practice. There are different practices in Zen - bowing, walking, chanting, koans - but the main one is simple sitting meditation: Sitting in an upright posture and paying full attention to the breathing. Here is what Suzuki has to say about it: 

'When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say 'inner world' or 'outer world' but actually there is just one whole world... If you think 'I breathe', the 'I' is extra. There is no you to say 'I'. What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale'.

Finally, I will mention Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (1976). Seung Sahn was also a Zen master who taught in the US (Kabat-Zinn was a student), though he hailed from Korea rather than Japan. This is a compilation of lectures and correspondence with students. Seung Sahn's teaching is a little more koan-like, full of odd stories and impossible questions, plus phrases like 'only go straight!' - all meant to wake us up. Reading it is a bit like splashing cold water on your face. Seung Sahn stresses the importance of keeping a 'Don't Know Mind' and one of his favourite phrases is 'put it all down!' - thinking, opinions, judgments, concepts, good, bad, liking, not liking...he would say 'put it all down!' Again and again, every time we get lost in our mental processes.

These are the texts I would recommend for anyone interested in Zen and mindfulness, but there are and will be many more. We live in an exciting time, with more and more people realising the benefits of practicing meditation and being more mindful, which is great because it really is one of the few things you cannot get too much of.

HJ,

2017

Mindfulness and Zen