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HAPPINESS HIDES IN THE MIDDLE(By Philip Jordan ’85)

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HAPPINESS

HIDES IN

THE MIDDLE

By Philip Jordan ’85

 

When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. But don’t wobble.

When I first heard these words, I was at Williams College,

busy falling in love with Zen and Taoism, with the help of a beloved

mentor, Professor Eusden. He had us try short sessions of

zazen (meditation) in class, and take Taoist walks in the woods,

and the ache of response I felt toward these practices astonished

me. Little did I know then that these interests would eventually

lead me to a Japanese Zen monastery(Nagaoka Zenjuku)

.

Zen pleasure does not forsake struggle or pain; that became

clear upon my arrival at the monastery. Buoyed by good health

and advanced Buddhist studies, I still found myself beset by

challenges. In particular it was the monastery’s goal of “continual

meditation” that proved elusive despite my best efforts.

I loved the hours in the meditation hall and savored the silence

until the bell sounded. I could carry this spirit into aesthetic

events, too, such as haiku study and green tea with the old

nun and Zen master. But the Zen life also includes meticulous

cleaning and a good deal of arduous labor. I never minded all the

purposeful tasks such as splitting wood, thinning thick bamboo

groves, and sweeping leaves off the moss and rock gardens.

When I was required to proceed with cleaning when no dust

could be seen, however, I often succumbed to non-spiritual judgments.

One task was to run a wet towel along the labyrinthine

corridors twice a day. I did this athletic task, but reluctantly,

knowing that when I was done, the hallways were no cleaner

than before. Why clean, I wondered, when what I was cleaning

was clean already?

Then there were the times on windy days, when the leaves fell

as fast as we swept them. One day, after watching my handiwork

disappear beneath a fresh, leafy carpet, I exclaimed to the master,

“This is almost hopeless!” to which he replied, “Those are

good Zen words.”

I was frustrated and, because I was frustrated, I couldn’t help

but admire the concentration and energy with which many others

approached “work meditation.” These included not only

more experienced monks, but also artists, professors, and business

people who came Sundays to devote their one day off to

Zen practice at the monastery. I noted a soft and smooth grace to

their work, which made the most mundane tasks appear noble.

Zen Buddhism identifies three human modes, which can help

us home in on Zen happiness. From the dull ache of idle avoidance

routines to our over-aggressive impulses, the Buddha’s first

Noble Truth portrays a steady cycle of dissatisfaction (dukkha).

The fuel for this comes from insecure impulses like enmity, inertia,

and greed. While our happy times (sukkha) may offer a

short reprieve, to the extent that we hoard pleasure and fight

against change, dukkha will remain in the background.

There remains one last concealed field that exists between

these polarities; tathata translates to something like “suchness”

and suggests the unrepeatable wonder and depth at the bottom

of every moment. The same “Buddha-nature” lies hidden within;

and it was this that I, like all Zen practitioners, sought while

sweeping leaves that wouldn’t stop falling.

I did not get so far during my monastic years, but over time

I found my relation to work meditation changing. The more I

repeated the common tasks, the more special and boundless they

became for me. Lying on the tatami at the end of the day, I saw

visions of moss scapes rising before me, with every twig, leaf,

and beetle shining.

I remained at the monastery for four years, until a letter from

my old teacher and then-Dean of Faculty Catherine Boczkowski

H’80 ’11 P’89 ’91 called me back to my alma mater. For 15

years now I have taught religion and philosophy and led meditation

at Lawrenceville.

As I left dear Zen friends to “return to the world,” I wondered

if my life as a teacher would support continued tathata seeking.

In the challenges it presents to live a busy life mindfully, Lawrenceville

is not unlike a Zen temple. From the intellectual talents

of the students, whose adult minds have begun to emerge, to

our residential, athletic, and club interactions where their Original

Nature can shine, I have only myself to blame if I should fail

to respond joyfully.

Zen teaches that the Buddha “came down from the mountain”

to model awakened living. The practice of not grasping at fleeting

pleasures or recoiling in fear of pain is something anyone

can embark upon.

Philip Jordan ’85 chairs Lawrenceville’s Religion and Philosophy

Department. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, in addition to

teaching, he leads meditation, maintains a rock garden, and often

visits his monastery in Japan.

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