Living Below the Line - Settling into it with a little Dogen

I suspect that most readers of this third piece in my Live Below the Line series will not have all that much experience with going hungry. Sure, we’ve all gotten to the point where we’re just dying for lunch or dinner only to have it superseded by some fairly rare event – we’re in the middle of a project, for instance, or we’re travelling in between towns. And so we become ravenous – feeling as though we could “eat a horse”! Thankfully enough, though, the moment soon arrives when we simply go get something to eat. End of story.

If you’ve ever fasted, you have a little bit more realistic view of hunger. As dinnertime comes around you do indeed feel as though you could eat a horse. But as the karma of your dinnertime subsides so do your hunger pangs, and in their place is that low blood sugar sensation of lightheadedness, weakness, headachiness, and whatever other sensations you might associate with your body tapping into its stored fuel and starting to burn it. If you’ve embarked upon a planned fast you can simply ratchet down your activity level: sit quietly, pray, meditate… In fact, this subsidence of mental and physical energy is precisely what makes fasting such a useful spiritual exercise. But what if you’ve got work to do? What if you’ve got to get up and tend to your crops, or a crying infant? What if you’ve got to go to school and learn algebra?

Me, I had a rather mellow day yesterday. After finishing my previous post I did a little laundry and read some of Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun – Instructions For The Zen Cook, written in 1237. In the afternoon I joined my partner and her church’s youth group on a tour of a local Hindu temple. No snacks for me! Upon returning home I meditated and read the remainder of Tenzo Kyokun before going to bed. I was too tired to write anymore, even though it was only 9:00. Regardless of what I was doing, however, I was mindful throughout the day of the fact that my body was craving just a little bit more fuel than I had given it. I was balancing one of my most basic human needs with one of a much higher order; I was balancing the satisfaction of physical hunger with the satisfaction of spiritual hunger.

I was thinking about Tenzo Kyokun as I prepared my big batch of soup for the week. In the Tenzo Kyokun, the cook monk’s role is elevated to one that is only worthy of being performed by the most advanced of practitioners – one who will, with utmost diligence and an appropriate attitude, fulfill the task of deeply caring for his or her community. In Dogen’s words:

The three aspects of this attitude are to see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself; to understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one’s own character; and to know that endeavoring to succeed and to surpass the patriarchs of past generations means to learn from their lives and to value their examples. p. 15

Mindfulness is something that we Buddhists strive to continually maintain, and yet we so often fall short of even a modicum of awareness. However, there’s nothing like having our attention drawn toward how our actions in the present moment directly affect our own personal wellbeing, safety, or survival to raise our level of mindfulness to the red line – like when we’re walking down a deserted city street after dark and spy some movement in the shadows…, or when we’re washing the limited supply of rice on which we will live for the coming week.

When washing the rice, remove any sand you find. In doing so do not lose even one grain of rice. When you look at the rice see the sand at the same time; when you look at the sand, see also the rice. pp. 4-5

As I prepared the vegetables to add to the soup I found myself taking far more care than I usually do. I kept the broccoli leaves that I would have otherwise discarded. I kept much more of the stalk than usual – merely dicing it into finer pieces. Likewise, I removed the stiff veins of the leaves of the kale and collard greens and diced them up finely rather than composting them as I might otherwise do.

When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions. Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens, that expounds the ‘buddhadharma’ through the most trivial activity.... Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. p. 7

My mindfulness extended, as well, to the washing of the pots and bowls and utensils. I soaked the rice pot in water and scraped the remains into my soup. After cooking and eating my oatmeal I rinsed the pot and bowl and added it to my soup. Even the simplest of gestures can enhance the life-giving potential of the moment, no matter how humble it may be.

A dish is not necessarily superior because you have prepared it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens. When handling and selecting greens, do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind, and without trying to evaluate their quality, in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast. p. 13

Dogen was a great teacher – showing us the great truths to be found in even the most ordinary of activities. We might forget his exact words, but he’ll be there each time we pay attention to even the smallest detail with the intention of serving our community. Here is my wish for all who might be reading this: When you look at the meal before you, see also the entire world of all people and all living and non-living things. When you look at the entire world of all people and all living and non-living things, see also that which sustains you.
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All Tenzo Kyokun quotations are from From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment – Refining Your Life, by Zen Master Dogen and Kosho Uchiyama; translated by Thomas Wright, published by Weatherhill.


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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