Saturday was our monthly one-day sitting, required for all residents. Actually it was a triple whammy Zen day: a one-day sitting, the middle day of a three-day sesshin (meditation retreat), and the end of the spring practice period. But I was only in for the one-day sitting.
The day was a celebration of simplicity. I managed to escape getting assigned complicated and responsible duties and could just “follow the schedule,” going to the zendo when the densho called, getting up to do kinhin between sitting periods, going to lecture or work circle when it was time to do that. The assignment I did pull (everyone gets an assignment) was on the serving crew for oryoki. Oryoki is a formal, choreographed meal in the zendo and the role of the servers is to execute the instructions of the soku and head server, bearing pots of food into the zendo and being mindful to enter with an open and generous heart. This isn’t really different than what is required of any other moment (perhaps if you substitute “the request of practice” for “the soku and head server”), but somehow taking away all the distractions I associate with more fussy activities made it easier to focus on just that. I felt relaxed and appreciative.
After serving the oryoki breakfast the serving crew sat down for their own silent meal together, playing out an abbreviated form of the formal oryoki we’d enacted in the zendo. Oryoki has a lot of specific rules, and one of the rules is that you don’t mix the food from your three bowls unless it is announced that the Tenzo (head of the kitchen) invites you to do so. This announcement, when it happens, is a Zen version of Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card, a release from the constriction of a tightly scripted ceremony. We sat in silence with oats in the first bowl, pumpkin pudding in the second bowl, and toasted almonds in the third bowl. As I picked up my almonds one-by-one with my chopsticks, I longed to dump them all into the pumpkin pudding. I looked at the soku to see if perhaps he’d spaced out about announcing the invitation, but he did not seem to desire being prompted. So I made the mental shift to remember to fully take in what the universe was offering, and settled in to eat my pumpkin pudding and almonds separately, tasting each in my mouth and experiencing their individual characteristics.
It was then that the soku broke the silence, saying “The whole universe invites you to mix your second and third bowls.”
There were some quiet chuckles as we all appreciated the soku’s twist on the usual announcement. We don’t always find the sweet spot we’re looking for, and it never stays with us when we do find it, but it does pass through on occasion, affording an opportunity to make contact. I luxuriated in the sweetness of the moment, as it seemed that the whole universe was offering up its generosity and kindness without discrimination to me and all beings.