"Several years ago, in the face of a creeping despair about the state of the world, I began to reread my favorite twentieth-century Russian and East European writers. Those folks knew how to keep small embers alive in a fierce wind: Anna Akhmatova, who turned love into a revolutionary act, and Adam Zagajewski, reassuring us that the good always returns, though at the maddening pace of an old gent on a bicycle, the day after the catastrophe.
People are worried, and we’re looking for ways to climb onto our bicycles and pedal out to see what we might do to help. Recently, I’ve been exploring what my own Zen koan tradition has to say about unending conflict, environmental disaster, the starvation of millions, and the small figure in the corner of the painting, tipping her head back to take it all in.
It turns out that the koan tradition was born at a similarly urgent moment in Chinese history. Twelve hundred years ago, a few Chan innovators had a fierce desire to leap out of the usual ways of doing things and into new territory—not to escape the catastrophe looming around them, but to more fully meet it. If they were going to be helpful they had to develop—and quickly—flexibility of mind, an easy relationship with the unknown, and a robust willingness to engage with life as they found it. Perhaps most importantly, they needed a really big view. For them, Chan practice wasn’t about getting free of the world; it was about being free in the world. The first koans are field notes from their experiment in the getting of this kind of freedom."
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