Living Beyond Right and Wrong

Beautiful poem by Zen teacher Ryokan, from the early 1800’s Japan:

What was right yesterday
Is wrong today
In what is right today,
How do you know it was not wrong yesterday
There is no right or wrong,
No predicting gain or loss.
Unable to change their tune,
Those who are foolish glue down bridges of a lute.
Those who are wise get to the source
But keep wandering about for long.
Only when you are neither wise nor foolish
Can you be called one who has attained the way.

(translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi – from Sky Above, Great Wind)

Peaceful Life

Peaceful Life, a poem by Katagiri Roshi

Being told that it’s impossible,
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told that it is possible,
One believe, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But whichever is chosen,
It doesn’t not fit one’s heart neatly.

Being asked, What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is!

As to this mystery:
Knowing how to live
Knowing how to walk with people….

The full poem can be found here:

Possible or impossible; which is it?

Katagiri Roshi was the teacher of the Minnesota Zen Center for many years, until he died in 1990.

This is a poem about saying “Yes!” to our lives, to the mystery, the messiness, the love, the impossibility of being a human being.

It is a poem about stopping, and appreciating, ourselves, each other, our work; and going beyond ourselves. Stopping, being changed, and getting back to work.

The poem goes on to present and encourage living with a vow, or more strongly, living a life of vow, stronger than intention; stronger than a promise. A vow to live a peaceful life, to help others live peaceful lives:

To aspire
To be resolute

Today, I let these words wash over me, through me.

Cultivating Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, Great Mind

“Instructions To the Head Cook” is one of my favorite pieces of writing from Dogen, the 13th century founder of Zen in Japan. In it he describes the three states of mind that the head cook should cultivate in all activities in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, and Great Mind.

I’m struck by this simple yet radical notion of cultivating states of mind. Usually we feel as though our state of mind, our feelings and emotions just happen, generally in relation to the events and circumstances of our lives. And, of course we are influenced by what we do and what happens in our lives, within and outside of our own control. At the same time, what a powerful idea, that we can cultivate states of mind. Here are three states of mind suggested by Dogen, that are applicable to our lives, not only in the kitchen but anywhere, at work, or outside of work:

Joyful Mind: “since you are cooking pure meals in this lifetime, this is a life of rejoicing…” Whatever we are doing can be thought of as cooking meals – our work, our relationships, our play. What meals are you cooking? Whatever we are doing, we can cultivate doing it wholeheartedly and joyfully, by simply cultivating the mind of joy.

Kind Mind: This is sometimes described as grandmother mind, the mind of unconditional love, looking over everything we do with love, without expecting anything in return. Cultivating kind mind mean bringing our presence and kind attention to each activity.

Great Mind: “is the mind like a great mountain or a great ocean.” Dogen describes this as the mind of equanimity; staying focused on being aware and present, bringing compassion to whatever we are doing; staying open to freeing ourselves and others from greed and fear.

Balance: I Don’t Take Any Of This For Granted

Balance: Forget about balance. We are always out of balance. Always in perfect balance.

I sat meditation this morning as I do nearly every morning at about 6:00 a.m. This morning it was quiet, dark and cold. A wonderful way to begin my mornings. I don’t take it for granted, the privilege to begin my day in this way. The privilege to live in a place where I can feel safe. The privilege of having a body and mind, to be able to sit cross legged on a black cushion. I know I won’t always be able to cross my legs. What a pity, impermanence. And how wonderful and mysterious. And I don’t like it, that I won’t always be able to sit, to hug my wife and children, to chop fresh garlic for zucchini soup, to walk to the beach with my friends. I often think of creating a support group called BAC, Buddhist’s Against Change.

It is effortful and more painful, at times, to sit in this way then it was 10 years ago; more difficult than 35 years ago. And so much easier then when I first began my sitting practice, when I was 21 years old. My legs and hips were stiff and inflexible. Sitting every morning I could see and feel my hips opening, a little each day, my knees began lowering toward the ground, until sitting in this cross-legged posture began to feel more comfortable than sitting in a chair. This posture became my home.

I don’t take it for granted, the privilege of being able to follow my breath on this cold and dark December morning. It is pitch black dark this morning. I notice this as I bow toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow away. This motion, this routine that I have performed innumerable times. Sometimes paying attention, sometimes lost in thought. This morning, I notice and I don’t take it for granted. Like a ballet dancer, my hands raise from my sides and palms come together. I bow from my hips, toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow again. I notice. I don’t take this dance for granted.

This ritual that was taught to me, passed on from person to person, over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, passed on from warm hand to warm hand. It is unusually dark, black dark, no light. I remember – The street light outside the window of my home is broken. As I notice the absence of light I’m reminded that I called PG & E a month ago to report that it was broken; then called again a week ago to find out when it would be fixed. The second time I called the woman from PG&E said she would resend the request and mark it as “critical.” This was a week ago, I thought. Perhaps I need to call 911 to get their attention, I thought. This dialogue with myself happened in a millisecond, as I sit on my cushion. I’m annoyed, settling, swaying my upper body from side to side, amused at myself. Amused at it all. I don’t take any of this for granted, as I gently bring my attention back to my breath, body, and feelings. Knowing that this won’t always be the case, to experience darkness, to miss the light, to be annoyed, amused about anything, to be able to bring my attention back, again and again.

I glance at my clock on the bookshelf. It says 6:30. Thirty minutes seems to go by in an instant this morning. This isn’t always the case. I begin to slowly move my head, shoulders and upper body from side to side, an ancient routine for transitioning from meditation to entering the world. The words of Shunryu Suzuki float into my mind. “Swaying from side to side is not preparation, not transitioning for anything. This too is meditation.” Where is the line between meditation and not meditation, between paying attention, and not paying attention, the line between amusement and annoyance, the line between birth and death; these few delicious and impossible moments of time we call our lives. Just show up, fully alive. Just appreciate being alive. Just meet yourself, meet each situation, alive, and juicy, and boring. Broken and whole, completely in balance and completely out of balance.

I stand up. Noticing the stiffness in my legs, feet, lower back. Appreciating each creak and grown of this body as “they” say in Zen this “bag of bones.” I turn and bow toward my cushion. I turn clockwise and bow away from my cushion. Bowing to you, to my family, to my friends; bowing to the world. Bowing to the Buddha that is me, the Buddha that is you. Remembering Buddha; letting go of Buddha.

As I bow to my cushion there is a strange sensation under my bare and cold right foot. “What? What is that?”, I ask myself. What is under my foot, lying on my rug? I reach down in the black empty darkness, reach down, and there is an object in my hands. My glasses! The glasses I took off and placed in front of me 30 minutes ago. My beautiful, old dependable pieces of wire and glass that turn the world from fuzziness to sharpness, from out of focus to clarity. I forgot about them. I stepped on them, thoughtlessly. I feel ashamed, forgetful. I smile. Ah, so happy these glasses are flexible, nearly unbreakable. They easily return to their original shape.

In that instant, that moment my glasses become my teacher. Turning fuzziness into clarity, resilient, returning to their original shape. They are not ashamed. “What is your original face before your mother and father are born?” My glasses help me understand this silly and profound Zen question. I place them on my face; this time paying attention. I’m delighted, grateful. I smile. Feelings arise. I bow to my glasses, my shame, my resilience. I notice a tear, perfectly balanced under my left eye. I don’t take any of this for granted, the tear, slowly rolls, gone. The traces of thoughts, bows, darkness, tears, longing, memories, shame, aliveness, black cushions, Buddha, sweet caresses.

I don’t take any of this for granted.

The Hero’s Journey

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’s going to spend its life believing it’s an idiot. – Einstein

We are all heroes on our own journey. Sometimes we forget. Whatever we are doing, however mundane, however meaningful, this moment is unique and cannot be repeated.

We are always in some kind of transition. Writing now for me is a transition. I begin the process, setting out from the known to the unknown. I leave the comfortable world of not saying anything. Now, what to write? Then, at some point this transition will be complete.

The hero’s journey, our hero’s journey is like this. We set forth toward something, leaving the comfort of what we know. At this stage of the journey we need to let go of something. What is it that needs to be let go of for you in your life?

Then we enter the unknown. At this stage we might find some help in the way of guides or allies or mentors. We may encounter difficulties and challenges. We may find our power.

Then, we find our way, for now. Whether we are in the midst of a large life-changing transition or a small change. We open to something new; we find our way home.

Zen practice offers the realization that we are always in transition, and that we are always home. Our journey is to move from anxiety and difficulty to peace and freedom. And, we don’t need to wait; we can find peace and freedom with each step along the way.

What are some of the transitions you find yourself in now?

Cooking/Kitchen Meditation

“When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind.”

This quote is from a document titled Instructions to the Head Cook, written by Eihei Dogen in 13th century Japan. Dogen is one of the most revered teachers in the Zen tradition. His temple, Eiheiji is one of the premier training temples in Japan today.

I find it an encouraging and inspiring reminder for the 21st century; how to cultivate an attitude of caring, a spirit of generosity and of focus, right here in my kitchen. I can do this while chopping vegetables, steaming kale, or washing dishes. Meditation, bringing awareness and focus to day-to-day activities, can be done anywhere, even in the kitchen.

Dogen goes on to say, in his instruction to the Cook, that you should bring three minds to your work in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Grandmother Mind, and Big Mind. Joyful Mind is somewhat obvious, but not always easy to practice – enjoy what you do in the kitchen. Be present, have fun, create an atmosphere that is playful and alive. Bring your knives and vegetables and pots and pans alive.

Grandmother Mind is the attitude of unconditional love of sincerity and of acceptance. Imagine planning, cooking, and cleaning with this mind, working with others with this mind, and serving food with the mind of grandmotherly love and acceptance.

Big Mind is the mind that is wide and open, accepting things as they are. There is an expression in the Zen tradition that says “The Way is easy; just avoid picking and choosing. When you give up grasping and rejecting, the Way unfolds before you.” This is pointing to the spirit of Big Mind. On one level, impossible. On another, this is how are lives really are, beyond picking and choosing. And yet, what should we make for dinner?

Experiment. Bring into your simple activities of working in the kitchen — the mind of joy, grandmother mind, and big mind.