Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times

Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times

Ji Hyang Padma
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 230 pp., paper, $14.95.

We live in challenging times. The landscape demands that we live with compassion not just for ourselves but for everything around us. It means transforming ourselves, which entails a journey that is unique for each of us. In Living the Season, Ji Hyang Padma tells us about her own journey and about the Zen practice that enriched her life. She shares practices that will bring awareness and compassion to full expression in this ever-changing world.

Padma's own journey is fascinating. She went through a period of teenage restlessness. When she was fourteen, witnessing a car crash was a turning point for her. She worked as an emergency medical technician, which only deepened her spiritual quest, since it involved doing just what the moment demanded. Her questioning continued. In college, she took up aikido, the martial art of bringing energies into harmony. She discovered a sacred space within herself. Through aikido, she was introduced to Zen shiatsu, a traditional Japanese acupuncture-based form of bodywork that also brings together mind, body, and spirit. The transition to Zen meditation practice was inevitable. Meditation helped her find her core (known as hara in aikido) and respond from a place of centeredness.

Even this was not enough. A new question arose for Padma (and for us it is there as well): what is this for? After graduation from Wellesley College, she moved into a Zen center. She lived with and helped her Zen teacher with community building and also took up a job at an AIDS clinic.

Working with AIDS patients, Padma found that the same question continued to resurface: what is suffering and how do we alleviate it? She traveled to Korea, sat a ninety-day retreat, and was ordained as a nun, receiving her precepts from Seung Sahn, a great Korean Zen master. The practice wasnt easy, but it confirmed her vow to awaken and help others. She was given the name Ji Hyang: Ji means "wisdom"; Hyang means "fragrance." Bringing fragrance to the world through her wisdom was her path. She asked Seung Sahn for advice. He said, "Only do it!" She worked as a Zen center director, serving as abbot, but after five years, the desire for solitude opened a new path for her. She moved to Mountain Spirit Center in California to rekindle her love affair with meditation practice.

It is an amazing journey—learning that the sky is blue and the grass is green. We see clearly and hear clearly. Seung Sahn called this the correct function of life. Padma shares this journey with us through the cycle of four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. Each season opens a new aspect of Zen practice for us. Winter is the season of scarcity, requiring shelter. But even within winter there is life. The seeds are stirring. We come out of that stillness to see emerging life in spring. Spring gives way to beauty of summer. There is fullness around. Autumn bring a season of harvesting. We have learned skillful ways of living. This is the time to offer thanks for the gifts we have received. She quotes Zen master Wu-Men, who said:

Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon,
Summer with breeze, winter with snow.
When idle concerns dont hang in your mind,
That is your best season.

Padmas book helps us find our best season. Every chapter includes useful suggestions for practice. We learn impermanence through drawing sketches with water. We learn to work with a great question. As thoughts arise, we may ask, "Who is thinking?" Then we say, "I am thinking." Then we ask the great question: "What am I?" And the answer is "Dont know!" Zen practice means living in this "dont know" state.

In her chapter entitled "Interpersonal Mindfulness: Zen and Relationships," Padma gives us four simple elements of working with relationships: breathing, listening (both to what is said and to what is unsaid), finding our own place of presence (being authentic), and then meeting the others where they reside, joining them, and seeing through their eyes. This is true attunement. 

I loved her tips on compassion. If you are in the line at a drive-in and the person behind is getting impatient and honks at you, do you honk back and glare, or do you buy him a cup of coffee while you are at the window? I tried that the other day, and the look I got from the person behind me was priceless.

In the Indian tradition, seekers who have the same teacher are called brothers and sisters. Ji Hyang Padma and I share that great teacher, Seung Sahn. Well done, sister!

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.