Friday, January 31, 2014

Book quotes: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (3/5)


When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it. That is one danger when you listen to someone.


The more you understand our thinking, the more you find it difficult to talk about it . The purpose of my talking is to give you some idea of our way, but actually, it is not something to talk about , but something to practice. The best way is just to practice without saying anything.


"Our understanding of Buddhism is not just an intellectual understanding. True understanding is actual practice itself."

The most important things in our practice are our physical posture and our way of breathing. We are not so concerned about a deep understanding of Buddhism. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very deep, wide, and firm system of thought, but Zen is not concerned about philosophical understanding. We emphasize practice.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book quotes: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (2/5)


It is necessary for us to keep the constant way. Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. If possible, try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. Usually we become busier and busier, day by day, year by year, especially in our modern world. If we revisit old, familiar places after a long time, we are astonished by the changes. It cannot be helped. But if we become interested in some excitement, or in our own change, we will become completely involved in our busy life, and we will be lost. But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world even though you are in the midst of it. In the midst of noise and change, your mind will be quiet and stable.

Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest.


"When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."


There are several poor ways of practice which you should understand. Usually when you practice zazen, you become very idealistic, and you set up an ideal or goal which you strive to attain and fulfill. But as I have often said, this is absurd. When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal. So as long as your practice is based on a gaining idea, and you practice zazen in an idealistic way, you will have no time actually to attain your ideal.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book quotes: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (1/5)


We do not exist for the sake of something else. We exist for the sake of ourselves. This is the fundamental teaching expressed in the forms we observe. Just as for sitting, when we stand in the zendo we have some rules. But the purpose of these rules is not to make everyone the same, but to allow each to express his own self most freely.

… The most important point is to own your own physical body. If you slump, you will lose your self. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here, right now! This is the key point.

… usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us. But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order.

Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain. Of course it is necessary to take some food for your brain, but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.


When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent.


The same way works for you yourself as well. If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. But this policy is not so easy. It sounds easy, but it requires some special effort. How to make this kind of effort is the secret of practice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book: The Doctor and the Soul by Viktor E.Frankl

Viktor Frankl is widely known for his book “Man’s Search For Meaning”, which I imagine is far more accessible to the layman that the “The Doctor and the Soul”, the latter being a pretty dense professional text on existentialist based psychotherapy. The Doctor and the Soul is highly praised by reviewers and it was clearly very popular and influential at the time of publication, advancing the frontier of psychotherapy by introducing and making central the concept of “will to meaning”. However, it was all a bit much for this poor soul who just wanted an insight into Frankl’s thinking and got a lot more than he bargained with paragraphs like:

“Like all other neurosis, obsessional neurosis has a constitutional basis. Wexberg and others, whose interests lie mainly in the fields of psychogenesis or psychotherapy, have assumed that a somatic substructure ultimately underlies obsessional neurosis.”

The first half of the book covers general existential analysis as applied to the meaning of life, death, suffering, work and love and is far more readable than the second half, which is far more specific to the psychology profession, looking at different neurosis and the useful role of logotherapy as therapeutic approach. I made it half-way through the text before the trudge became a slow crawl, which quickly became a complete stop. Nevertheless, I did read enough to appreciate Frankl’s approach and it is something I am partly in agreement and partly something I struggle with. For example, Frankl says that it is self-evident that a belief in a super-meaning (metaphysical or religious) is of central psychotherapeutic  importance, that it adds immeasurably to human vitality; this is something that makes sense but I feel that he doesn’t tackle this fragile concept with sufficient rigour, particularly with respect to some of its failings. Something tells me his earlier book, Man’s Search for Meaning, may have filled this gap rather nicely. Another key issue is suicide. Frankl states that it is “our duty to convince the would-be suicide that taking one’s on life is contrary to reason, that life is meaningful under any circumstance”. I appreciate the importance of his “will to meaning” in keeping him going when he was at Auschwitz, but disagree that a person should keep on going under any circumstance. On this note, the chapter “On the Psychology of the Concentration Camp” stands out for being both deeply personal and insightful. The chapter starts with the ultimate qualifier regarding observations of what happened to the deformation of the human psyche at the camps: on one hand, the ethical and psychological warping that took place must have hindered objective self-evaluation or assessments of other, while the outsider was simply too far removed to empathise. In the camps, one of the problems was that prisoners couldn’t foresee an end to this stage in their lives, which made their existences lose content and meaning due to lack of useful future goals.

Nit-picking some of the less central issues, Frankl makes claims such as “No great idea can vanish, even if it never reaches public circulation” which is clearly far-fetched. His idea that time captures and preserves everything, acting almost like a vault, is romantic but the idea that the passage of time doesn’t change the meaning of the content of person life is unrealistic.

The tone of the book can also come across as austere and harsh, yet at the same time it can be highly motivational and uplifting. Despite my criticisms, many of which could well be a result of my own misunderstandings and failings (I'll blame the teacher!), the central message that we are responsible to ourselves is one I am in very much in agreement with.  All in all, the book is a mixed affair but it has succeeded in giving me much to think about and encouraging to look a little further into this work. After all, it’s no good just reading stuff that you agree with all the time!

Quotes and notes to be included in follow in another post.

Book: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (a re-read)


I had just last week moved "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (read and reviewed a year and half ago) to the charity pile when I learned that Steve Jobs found much enlightenment from Shunryu Suzuki's "beginner's mind" (or "shoshin"), teachings. Before letting the book go, I figured it might be worth  a re-read, and it was, very much so. I will leave the review unchanged with a three star rating, although I do think a lot more of the content resonated on the re-read. Perhaps this is a a function of having taken up yoga, which has helped me to appreciated the value of emptying the mind, or perhaps it is just a function of being that little bit older and having done some pondering between the first read and the second.

a zen monk practises zazen (seated meditation)
I will publish a collection of my favourite quotes and passages in future posts. For now, here is a selection of short quotes from Shunryu's Wikipedia page:
"Our tendency is to be interested in something that is growing in the garden, not in the bare soil itself. But if you want to have a good harvest, the most important thing is to make the soil rich and cultivate it well."
"So the secret is just to say 'Yes!' and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self."

"Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life.

"Take care of things, and they will take care of you."

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

"Life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact, we have no fear of death anymore, nor actual difficulty in our life."

"As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw."

"Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer."

Some elements of the book remain a puzzle to be pondered over. For example, here are a couple of mysterious paragraphs from the epilogue: 
True nature is watching water. When you say, "My zazen is very poor," here you have true nature, but foolishly you do not realize it. You ignore it on purpose. There is immense importance in the "I " with which you watch your mind. That I is not the "big I"; it is the "I" which is incessantly active, always swimming, always flying through the vast air with wings. By wings I mean thought and activity. The vast sky is home, my home. There is no bird or air. When the fish swims, water and fish are the fish. There is nothing but fish. Do you understand?
We must have beginner's mind, free from possessing anything, a mind that knows everything is in flowing change. Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth. In the East I saw rhubarb already. In Japan in the spring we eat cucumbers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

xkcd - cold out there these days

They say explaining a joke is much like dissecting a frog. You understand it a lot better, but the frog dies. Nevertheless, the excellent xkcd explained wiki has a really nice reference that is worth sharing:
This is the same concept that is communicated in the line from the Shakespearean play, "Romeo and Juliet": "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The Go-Between is a masterpiece of considered writing. The main character is Leo Colston, a twelve year boy who is spending the summer at his high-society friend’s house, Brandham Hall. However, I am stopping there as I don’t want to give anything away. Indeed, I must warn readers not to read any reviews, the introduction, or even the notes, as they will all give away the plot. The book is easily worth a read even if you know how things are going to pan out, but can be enjoyed all the more if we leave the story a mystery and let things build up and unfold.

It is in capturing the thoughts of a child and explaining through the mind of an articulate adult, that Hartley shines unlike any author I have come across. He paints an emotionally rich and volatile landscape, reminding the reader of their own childhood; how the relative importance of things was very different; how the adult world was a foreign one; how a small success could produce a tidal wave of pride; how everything was so fragile and things easily derailed; how fantasies played a much greater part in everyday life.


Here are a few of my favourite passages from The Go-Between (only read if you aren't going to read the book):

- If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach
me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people’s books instead of writing your own? What has become of Ram, the Bull, and the Lion, the example I have you to emulate? Where above all is the Virgin, with her shining face and long curling tresses, whom I entrusted to you’ – what should I say?
I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.

- My mother was mistaken if she thought I gloated over their downfall; it was the rise in my own stock that enlarged my spirit.

When Leo moves quarters in Brandham Hall.
- It was a very small room, almost a cell: and the bed so narrow it could only be meant for one person. My things were all there, my hair brushes, my red collar-box; but all in different places and looking different:  and I felt different too. I tiptoed about, as though exploring a new personality. Whether I was more or less than I had been, I couldn’t decide: but I felt I was cast for a new role.

- And without my being aware of it, the climate of my emotions had undergone a change. I was no longer satisfied with the small change of experience which has hitherto contented me. I wanted to deal in larger sums.

- He had very little to laugh about, I thought, and yet he laughed. … I felt he had some inner strength of reserve which no reverse, however serious, would break down.

- How everything else had been diminished by it and drained of quality! – for it was a standard of comparison that dwarfed other things. Its colours were brighter, its voice louder, its power of attraction infinitely greater. It was a parasite of emotions. Nothing else could live with it or have an independent existence while it was there. It created a desert, it wouldn’t share with anyone or anything, it wanted all the attention for itself. And being a secret it contributed to nothing to our daily life; it could no more be discussed than some shameful illness.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book: The Industrial Revolution by Jonathon Downs

“This was the age of the gentleman scholar and collector, the amateur scientist and the traveller. Collecting had become as widespread among the lower middle classes as among the educated dilettante of the upper set, and people could demonstrate their fashionable and scholarly pretensions by having local antiquities – or, even better, Greek or Roman relics – displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’.

This little book by Jonathon Downs is a perfect reminder or introduction to the Industrial Revolution. It focuses on the period 1770-1810, capturing the key changes in technology, economy, society and landscape that took place over this tumultuous phase of our history, setting in train a path of progression and production which continues today. The book is also laden with excellent pictures (why so many books for adults lack pictures, I will never understand.)

Indeed, while we often look at the pace of change today (technology, internet, globalisation, etc) as faster than ever before, it pays to look back to look back to the Industrial Revolution to appreciate that today’s changes, while transformative around the margins, have not impacted how we live as deeply and profoundly as the changes that took place from 1770-1810 (caveat: the current revolution is still going on and who knows what treats await us just around the corner).

The central invention and driving force behind the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, as invented by Watts. Almost overnight, the world had a new source of motive power to complement water, animal and human power. Early steam engines existed prior to Watt’s invention but they were highly inefficient to operate (Watt’s engine burned 75% less fuel). The engine was quickly demanded by mines owners to pump water out of their lower levels, but it quickly went on to find use in grinding, milling and weaving operations. In the world of textiles, the spinning jenny (1770) changed weaving from a household craft activity in to a proper manufacturing activity and utilisation of water power and then the arrival of steam power enabled massive jumps in productivity.

As technology was revolutionising the manufacturing and production landscape, an agricultural revolution was taking place as farmlands became increasingly “enclosed”, with agricultural land ownership moving out of the hands of the many to the few. The end of the medieval style of village based farming resulted in a surplus of farm workers, who were forced to leave for the cities in search of work.  Hence, just as factories and foundries start to ramp up production levels, they were greeted with an abundance of labour.

To enable goods to be transported around the country, canal network projects were developed and heavily invested in (barges were pulled by horses along the tow-paths). At the same time, Watt’s engine was giving birth to the steam railway industry; the first working steam locomotive built by Robert Trevithick (first journey in 1804).

The period was also a thriving era for the slave trade, which had the UK at its centre. English ships sold cheap goods to Africa and the Caribbean in return for slaves, who would be sent to work on plantations in North America and the West Indies. For the return journey to the UK, the slaving ships would load up with plantation produce (e.g. tobacco and sugar).

Working conditions were often harsh and hours long, yet for many the new world still offered the choice to work and build a better life and on average life conditions improved (average wages rose along with life expectancy, and education and welfare also started to improve substantially). Also, the rise in wealth levels, enterprises and town populations led to an increase in middle class professions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, bankers). In many instances, this was a new era when people of low station could rise from apprentice to men of position. And so began the cultural shift as the Industrial Revolution created a class of “nouveaux rich”, who were often looked down upon by the traditionally wealthy. In contrast to today, when self-made men are admired, during the Industrial Revolution these people were often viewed in a negative light as having bought their way into the upper class way of life.

It is important to note that child labour existed well before the Industrial Revolution, with children often working in ghastly conditions in mines and in agriculture. It was only in the 19th century that legislation came into force banning paid labour for children under 9 years. Prior to this, the parishes would readily supply the mills and factories with a pool of orphan labour at a cheap rate (it is important to put this cruelty in historical context and to also to appreciate that this practice was effectively a state enterprise. “Free” child labour also existed alongside the parish children but the numbers of these children were often low).

Some factories voluntarily employed doctors to maintain the welfare of their workers (conditions were not only dangerous but also cramped, which made the spread of disease possible). However, the first Factory Act of 1802 marked a turning point for the welfare of factory workers, as stated that the burden of expense for disease treatment and control would fall on the master or mistress of the mill.

The above notes are made to help me recall some of the meat of the book, but there is much more colourful content besides what I have commented on.

*** 1/2