serenity comes from within

Serenity is a Skill You Can Learn

Serenity is not bestowed from outside; it can only be built from within. You can actually learn to be calm, by practicing “thought before action”.

What is “Calm”?

I am known for being calm. I can remember how many times I have lost my temper since I was in my mid-twenties, and count them on one hand. A passage comes to mind when I think about how I achieved that serenity.
 
“CALMNESS of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control. Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought.”
 
James Allen wrote this in 1903, in his short book “As a Man Thinketh”, a set of brief essays that outline how each person is the architect of their own life. It is one of the jewels of early western thought on the power of our minds to direct our lives.
 
“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armoury of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”
 

Serenity Now!

As we engage in the world, it can become easy to get frustrated and angry at others. People do not behave as expected, much of the time. But you might as well get mad at the stone on which you just stubbed your toe! In the end, you can only govern your own thoughts and actions. Trying to force your mind on others is no way to grow inner serenity.
 
serenity now
Seinfeld tried to address the pursuit of inner calm with Frank Costanza’s “serenity now!”  yell. It made me laugh but pointed out that just yelling the word was the exact opposite response required to achieve it. You can’t force serenity on yourself; you have to build it from the inside.

Thought Before Action

Real peace and inner calmness can only come from looking within. You have no control over anything outside of your thoughts and actions. Once you come to grips with that, you can focus on examing the things that cause you distress and change the way you respond to them. Take time to think about your responses before you decide on action. Thoughts affect no one but yourself, actions affect the world. Approach action with calmness and serenity, and you will rarely regret your choices.
You can grab a copy of this insightful little book from The Gutenberg Project for free. Read some of the Zen stories that inspired thinkers like James Allen.
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As always, comments and critique are welcome!
hand holding a birds nest engaging

Engaging With the World

Instead of retreating from the world, being human means fully engaging with it.
 
One of the Zen koans I find thought-provoking is “Nothing Exists“. Its message is simple: to experience enlightenment, you cannot distance yourself from reality. That is a common misunderstanding about Zen. It is easy to think that to achieve a sense of peace, you should attempt to reach a place where nothing can touch your inner mind.
 
While emptying your mind is a common meditative practice, it should lead to a state of mindfulness. This state is the place of no-thought. No-thought does not mean nothing is going on in your head. It means that you allow your mind to flow around and through your perception of reality. You become one with everything that is, and feel your place in that reality.
 
This brings the world into your mind, engaging with everything that is. Distance from the world only leads to a loss of that engagement.
buddha's zen

101. Buddha’s Zen

Buddha said: “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”

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tosui's vinegar

99. Tosui’s Vinegar

Tosui was the Zen master who left the formalism of temples to live under a bridge with beggars. When he was getting very old, a friend helped him to earn his living without begging. He showed Tosui how to collect rice and manufacture vinegar from it, and Tosui did this until he passed away.

While Tosui was making vinegar, one of the beggars gave him a picture of the Buddha. Tosui hung it on the wall of his hut and put a sign beside it. The sign read:

Mr. Amida Buddha: This little room is quite narrow. I can let you remain as a transient. But don’t think I am asking you to be reborn in your paradise.

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non-attachment

98. Non-Attachment

Kitano Gempo, abbot of Eihei temple, was ninety-two years old when he passed away in the year 1933. He endeavored his whole life not to be attached to anything. As a wandering mendicant when he was twenty he happened to meet a traveler who smoked tobacco. As they walked together down a mountain road, they stopped under a tree to rest. The traveler offered Kitano a smoke, which he accepted, as he was very hungry at the time.

“How pleasant this smoking is,” he commented. The other gave him an extra pipe and tobacco and they parted.

Kitano felt: “Such pleasant things may disturb meditation. Before this goes too far, I will stop now.” So he threw the smoking outfit away.

When he was twenty-three years old he studied I-King, the profoundest doctrine of the universe. It was winter at the time and he needed some heavy clothes. He wrote his teacher, who lived a hundred miles away, telling him of his need, and gave the letter to a traveler to deliver. Almost the whole winter passed and neither answer nor clothes arrived. So Kitano resorted to the prescience of I-King, which also teaches the art of divination, to determine whether or not his letter had miscarried. He found that this had been the case. A letter afterwards from his teacher made no mention of clothes.

“If I perform such accurate determinative work with I-King, I may neglect my meditation,” felt Kitano. So he gave up this marvelous teaching and never resorted to its powers again.

When he was twenty-eight he studied Chinese calligraphy and poetry. He grew so skillful in these arts that his teacher praised him. Kitano mused: “If I don’t stop now, I’ll be a poet, not a Zen teacher.” So he never wrote another poem.

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teaching ultimate

97. Teaching the Ultimate

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

“I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.”

“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.”

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”

“Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.

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drop of water

96. A Drop of Water

A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath.

The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over.

“You dunce!” the master scolded him. “Why didn’t you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even one drop of water in this temple?”

The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

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letter

95. A Letter to a Dying Man

Bassui wrote the following letter to one of his disciples who was about to die:

“The essence of your mind is not born, so it will never die. It is not an existence, which is perishable. It is not an emptiness, which is a mere void. It has neither color nor form. It enjoys no pleasures and suffers no pains.”

“I know you are very ill. Like a good Zen student, you are facing that sickness squarely. You may not know exactly who is suffering, but question yourself: What is the essence of this mind? Think only of this. You will need no more. Covet nothing. Your end which is endless is as a snowflake dissolving in the pure air.”

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midnight excursion

94. Midnight Excursion

Many Zen pupils were studying meditation under the Zen master Sengai. One of them used to arise at night, climb over the temple wall, and go to town on a pleasure jaunt.

Sengai, inspecting the dormitory quarters, found this pupil missing one night and also discovered the high stool he had used to scale the well. Sengai removed the stool and stood there in its place.

When the wanderer returned, not knowing that Sengai was the stool, he put his feet on the master’s head and jumped down into the grounds. Discovering what he had done, he was aghast.

Sengai said: “It is very chilly in the early morning. Do be careful not to catch cold yourself.”

The pupil never went out at night again.

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