Users of the small kitchen at the San Francisco Zen Center may recognize this story, which made its debut on the refrigerator there. I had been assigned to clean the small kitchen refrigerator as a house job, and the story evolved out of my resistance to requests that in addition to cleaning the refrigerator, I also restore order to the shelves by demanding proper behavior from the residents who use the refrigerator. At the time, Paul Haller was teaching about Eihei Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, or the Eihei Shingi. Shingi consist of instructions to monks on how they should live in community. So this piece is derivative of that, and references both traditional Zen stories and actual issues in my modern-day refrigerator/community.
The way of the small kitchen refrigerator
(the lost shingi – by Anonymous)
- When the small kitchen refrigerator meets a food item for the first time, it should offer a permanent label for the name of the food’s owner and the date of the meeting.
- The small kitchen refrigerator should reserve one shelf for only milk and milk-like products (soy milk and almond milk, for example).
- The small kitchen refrigerator should be gracious toward those foods that are healthy and give off aromas that are appropriate to their native culture.
- The small kitchen refrigerator should encourage foods with unruly colors, textures, and smells born of advanced age, or housed in insubstantial dwellings, to find a suitable home elsewhere (usually the compost bin).
- When encountering a food item that is healthy but unlabeled, or belonging to a departed monk, the small kitchen refrigerator should offer it to the monastic community as a free item.
- If a monk is standing in front of the small kitchen refrigerator dismayed that a treasured food item appears to be missing, the small kitchen refrigerator should offer the practice of the contemplation of impermanence as an antidote.
Notes and Commentary
1. “Permanent label” does not refer to actual permanence, which would be antithetical to Buddhist teachings. It describes the relationship between food and label, not just the label itself, and references both the relative and the absolute. In this context “permanent” means that the label and food are not one, not two; transcending the idea of separation or no separation. And yet in the act of labeling, we see form, and thus relative reality, arise in the food item itself.
Some scholars have taken a different view of this instruction, noting that the pairing of label and food item can be seen to symbolize the intimacy of the monastic community.
Another point that is often lost is that this instruction clearly states that the name, and not the initials, of the food owner is to be offered. One is reminded of the story of Gishin, an administrator in the small kitchen refrigerator at Hosshin-ji. Realizing that initials were unique identifiers, she checked her continuously changing mental list of inhabitants at Hosshin-ji to determine whether the initials she encountered were linked to someone in ongoing residence, or to a departed monk. But Hosshin-ji was a community in the heart of a busy city, with many comings and goings, and this great activity of matching initials to actual monks, heaped on top of her administrative duties of opening questionable containers of foul-smelling brews and the tragic necessity of dumping the likes of the forgotten and abandoned into the compost, caused fear and distress. She approached Ryushin, who was Abbot at that time, and asked, rapping on the container, “whose are these initials, are they arrived or departed?” Ryushin replied, “I won’t say.” Gishin’s enlightenment did not occur at that moment. But the thought of enlightenment was aroused.
2. Although other specific examples are given, the text is silent on whether kombucha might be considered a “milk-like product.” Kombucha became a popular food item at Hosshin-ji in the early 21st century, and the monks there held long conferences on whether the brew should be housed on the milk shelf, or whether the small kitchen refrigerator was a suitable home for it at all. No resolution was ever passed, the monks preferring to keep the subject alive as the topic of weekend social discourse.
3. Here we see one of the only clues as to the identity of Anonymous. This third instruction embodies the heart of practice for the small kitchen refrigerator, in which generosity is the primary ideal. As such we would have hoped that the instruction was more prominently placed as the first instruction, not the third. Perhaps it indicates that Anonymous’ life was cut short before he could revise this shingi to reflect a more perfect understanding; or perhaps there are more refined versions that have not yet surfaced.
The reference to culturally appropriate aromas may seem odd, until we consider the sourness of pickles or olives, the acrid saltiness of seaweed, or the organic mustiness of some cheeses. These aromas would not be considered unhealthy in their natural state, even as individual monks may have a naturally passionate disposition or a propensity towards a stern demeanor. Whilst the cultivation of equanimity is put forth as a community ideal, the zen tradition still recognizes and embraces these individual differences as unique expressions of actualized Buddha-nature.
4. This instruction points toward the essence of dukkha, as every food item that is not consumed will eventually acquire some of these characteristics, and thus be moved to the compost. At Hosshin-ji there at first appeared to be an exception in the food items which were labeled “nonperishable.” However, it was eventually discovered that dukkha arose even in these items, in subtler forms, and many of the monks benefited from contemplation on these subtler forms.
“Insubstantial dwellings” refers to any container that neglects to intensify the delusion of separation from other items. Typical examples at Hosshin-ji included ceramic bowls with improvisational lids; paper bags attempting to shelter food items with a liquid component; and bags used for coffee grounds, which emboldened the grounds to migrate into far corners of the freezer compartment, covering other items like a fresh winter snow. It should be noted that various methodologies were developed to avoid the latter category, including a practice of double-bagging.
5. At Hosshin-ji, any free item acquired a label with the word “free” in addition to any other remarks that the administrator found helpful, such as “no name.” Thus, the unlabeled item became labeled, another one of those seeming contradictions that the Zen tradition finds so charming. In the 20th century, Donovan memorialized this koan in the lyrics “first there is no label, then there is a label, then there is … “ … no label … (or something to that effect)
6. In addition to its main function of exemplifying generosity, the small kitchen refrigerator offers many such antidotes to the monastic community in the spirit of joyful practice. Daily opportunities for monks in relating to the small kitchen refrigerator come in the form of finding a treasured food item on an unexpected shelf; finding that the treasured food item has been contaminated by leakage from an insubstantial dwelling; surprising remarks from other monks about the nature or quantity of food items one is housing; and the arising within oneself such uncharitable thoughts as concern other monks’ lack of cleanliness, greediness of refrigerator space, wastefulness in leaving the door open; excess zest in the discharge of instruction #4, etc. These rich opportunities have made the small kitchen refrigerator one of the primary sources of stories and teachings in later Zen literature.