Perhaps in a few more lifetimes I’ll reach the point where I can cook breakfast and stir the pot in front of me without also stirring the pot of ideas in my head. Some people say that practice and enlightenment are not different from one another but I’m still working on that. For me, only practice.
Today was a special day for cooking breakfast, because we’re returning from three and a half days of holiday, which meant no Zen Center programs of any sort and an open kitchen instead of a staffed kitchen crew. Today was also the first day of interim – a week-long break from compulsory morning zazen – and the usual forms of drums and bells and offerings of food and incense were replaced by a skeleton program staffed by volunteers.
The unfortunate result of the long weekend of debauchery (Zen-style debauchery, which is mostly related to sleeping and food; I wouldn’t know about the sex, unfortunately, and I don’t want to know about any drugs or alcohol, which are ejectable offenses) was that the kitchen was a mess. The recycling and compost bins were overflowing, there were frying pans on the stove with dried egg and a swimming pool of cooking oil, and the clean and dirty dish areas were still partying with clean and dirty dishes.
Irritation could be one response to walking into this situation, and indeed that was the general flavor of my state of mind upon first viewing the wreckage. But irritation is not just irritation. It comes from somewhere.
A fellow resident quoted Paul Haller on Facebook today: ”Buddhism teaches that we construct the realities we live by. We think them up and then act them out.” I’m not sure which comes first, the thinking up or the acting out, but either way the fun thing about being human is that there is always a story to explain what’s happening. I think of it as the curse of being human, and also the gift. We assign meaning to everything to ensure that what’s happening conforms to our familiar, cherished beliefs about the world and our place in relationship to it.
Most of the stories I made up to explain this messy kitchen were about others’ benign neglect, although when I looked at the stack of hotel pans in the drying rack I thought that perhaps some Bodhisattva had cleaned the empty pans of leftovers from the walk-in. (Cleaning a pan that you’ve emptied is supposed to be a rule, but because leftover-foraging is a solitary pursuit with few witnesses, it doesn’t always happen. And that’s another story I just made up.) I also externalized and generalized the mess into stories about how the world is not fair, life is hard, and it’s an uphill battle. Those are my usual stories, yours may be different, and I suppose a really unbalanced person might even have thought that the dirty dishes were aimed specifically at them – it’s easy enough to find out who the Tuesday breakfast cook will be and “mess” with them. Fortunately my mind doesn’t go there. Rarely, and not today.
And then this morning as these stories started to take familiar form and tighten up in my gut, there was a magical turning. Instead of bowing down in homage to my stories, imbuing them with greater detail and intensity, I thought that it really didn’t seem like a good plan to spend the next two hours muttering to myself about perceived injuries. So I added the frying pans to the dirty pans I was going to wash anyway, and put the hotel pans away, and it was not a big deal.
My friend Cindy Henry McMahon describes the process of this magical turning in one of her old blog posts:
“… here’s the grace in it (if grace is what you call it): I felt those old feelings, succumbed for a little bit, and then caught myself. “Oh,” I said, “I see what’s happening here. It’s you, my old friend Mr. Anger. Nice of you to stop by, but the truth is, you’re not really needed now. Things are fine here.” We shook hands, and off he went. I breathed, and it was over. He was gone.”
It is not always so, but I take grace when the door is open, if grace is what you call it. It’s much better than spending your time all pissed off.
As the morning progressed, the tenzo came in and cleaned up the dish area. A few other Bodhisattvas straggled in and volunteered their efforts, including a friend on break from Tassajara, who could easily have abstained with the excuse that he was on holiday. But he helped anyway. Maybe he had a different story about it, one that’s just about seeing what needs to be done and then doing it. Perhaps my friend is at one with the dishes, not separating out practice from enlightenment the way I do. The answer? More zazen!
See what I mean about stirring the pot? So many words and I still haven’t told you about breakfast: semolina with stewed fruit, cottage cheese, and mixed nuts. I banged on the umpan to call everyone down to eat under a sky woven together with nursery pinks and blues. Then I served myself and returned to a spot in the courtyard, and in the space of five minutes the grey had descended, which gradually morphed into the wet torrents we are experiencing tonight.