the lost shingi

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)

  1. 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.
  2. The small kitchen refrigerator should reserve one shelf for only milk and milk-like products (soy milk and almond milk, for example).
  3. The small kitchen refrigerator should be gracious toward those foods that are healthy and give off aromas that are appropriate to their native culture.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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the backward step

One day in 1981 I stood on a bluff at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad, California.  My back was to the edge of the bluff and a rock-climbing harness and rope firmly attached me to a secure point on the ground in front of me.  I was learning to belay – to walk down the near-vertical face with the rope supporting me.  The natural, easy voice of the instructor prescribed the next step: “now lean back over the edge.”

Lean back over the edge? What, are you nuts?!?

I did lean back eventually and walked down the bluff, over the objections of several parts of my system that insisted the event was not survivable.  Touching the ground at the bottom, I was exhilarated.

I think about that day sometimes when I read what the 13th century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen says about awakening:

“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.”

The backward step that Dogen speaks of feels similarly unsurvivable to backing over a cliff at times, asking of me to let go of everything that is familiar and trusted: the things I’ve accumulated over a lifetime, my likes and dislikes, my accomplishments, my ideas about who I am.  It feels as though all these things have hardened into a rind that encapsulates a soft gentle nature that might be found still residing within.  Perhaps the process of awakening consists of softening the rind to allow original nature to breathe as it was intended.  So when I say “letting go” I don’t mean “disavowing”; but letting go as in not holding on tightly, not mistaking the things I identify with for something solid.

When I’m really listening I know that the ground below that backward step is the home to which I’ve always wanted to return.    In a way all I do is an exploration of learning to take the backward step, to navigate the obstacles and strangeness of the journey home.

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the breakfast cook

Written without the assistance of any glossary :-).  But for the curious, this Zen glossary will explain any words written in green.

I’m awake before the alarm, which arrives as a soft knock-knock-knock: a low-volume digital han offered by my Enso alarm clock, recreating the pattern of the roll-down used in this temple to call people to zazen.  It’s 4:50am;  the fukudo begins his/her daily run through the halls with the wake-up bell as I head out the door.

Some parts of my brain house what I refer to as my “triple-yang-wood,” a Chinese astrology description resulting from the year and day of my birth. My “Nine Star Qi” numbers are 3, 3, 5.  The first two numbers – 3, 3 – refer to yang wood, which in Chinese Five Element theory represents action, enthusiasm, the outdoors, the tangible, the plant pushing forward from the ground.  To me it’s the Go-Go-Go I feel when things are intense at work and I’m juggling ten different tasks, prioritizing and re-prioritizing, and executing them in (hopefully) just the right order.  The 5 at the end stands for “triple what was before.” When I get too caught up in this thing it’s like my brain is on frappe.  I get irritable and unfocused.  Zazen is good medicine for that.

Debates about astrology aside, in some contexts “triple-yang-wood” as a concept is not a bad place to come from.  For example: cooking breakfast for forty people. It’s not a high-stress endeavor, but a number of tasks need to be choreographed such that a meal is prepared and served and the pots cleaned and put away within the allotted time, so it’s good when you’re someone who can be organized and task-oriented and likes to punch out a nice list of to-dos.

Today it’s pretty simple, tofu cabbage with semolina and veggie juice. To engage all this I head down the back stairs and into the kitchen.  A few people are entering and moving about in the semi-darkness, some in robes, the vast majority in something dark, something plain.  They are in the side kitchen seeking caffeine’s assistance to get them through an hour of sitting and staring at a white wall during the morning’s zazen.  The caffeine I ingest gets the triple-yang-wood activated but not over-revved, and I unhurriedly fire up the oven, put three gallons of water to boil, take the tofu out of the walk-in, light the candle by the kitchen altar, and begin laying out in my mind the various pieces of the puzzle, starting with the known events:

  • 5:10am the han starts beating
  • 5:17am the first roll-down begins (for real, not my alarm clock)
  • 5:17 to 5:25am the doshi arrives to make an offering to the kitchen altar
  • 5:55am  kinhin starts downstairs in the zendo
  • 6:35am end of zazen, and the work leader appears to ask how many people I will need to help me finish cleaning up during soji
  • 6:55am-ish the light-up chiden shows up for the food offering tray
  • 7:05am-ish  the doshi arrives to make an offering to the hallway altar
  • 7:05-ish plus one:  soji
  • 7:15-7:20am all arrive for breakfast

(I’m aware that this precise scheduling is counter to most people’s imagination of a peaceful, laid-back Zen life. Perhaps more on that later.)

So then it’s 5:17am and I’m standing in shasu position, hands folded just underneath the breastbone.   Today’s doshi arrives with his jisha.  There is an incense offering at the kitchen altar and then they move off to the next altar and then the Buddha Hall, that offering accompanied by the big Bong, Bong, Bong of the Buddha Hall bell. The bell tells the fukudo that the doshi will soon be appearing in the zendo. The fukudo responds – a second roll-down.  More time elapses. Then a third roll-down as the doshi enters the zendo and zazen begins.

But most of this is happening outside of the kitchen. I know the movements of these people without actually observing them; in the kitchen I cannot hear the big Bong of the bell unless I stand at the doorway. The longer I live here, the more I pay attention out of the corner of my consciousness, some part of my awareness tracking the movements of zen practitioners in their choreographed travels up and down the stairways, moving between altars in time with bells and drums.   In the morning, in the evening.  There is a rhythm and it can be watched and listened to.

And as I follow this rhythm, I map out a project timeline for breakfast, with parallel processes and critical paths clear in my mind.   And then I go to work, and today the tasks are executed efficiently and easily. Tofu is heated in the oven; cabbage is stir-fried in the wok; all is combined and the Buddha trays are filled with their offerings.

At 6:35am the work leader comes in wanting to know how much help I will need in cleaning up and I tell her “I think today, just one person.” A normal day would be maybe 2-3.  She raises her eyebrows.

And then after juggling more tasks, by the time the light-up chiden has come in for the offering tray I know that there will be nothing left for the soji help OR for me to do during soji.  Everything is ready.

I go out to the hallway and light the candles there, and listen to the sounds coming from the Buddha Hall.  Service also has a rhythm and is in two parts: a grouping of chants, then All Buddhas, then a second grouping of chants, then Ji Ho San Chi. Since my work is done I stand in the hallway, listening to the chanting, listening to the quiet in the rest of the building, letting my sweat cool, my heartbeat slow down.  When I hear Ji Ho San Chi I move toward the altar and pick up an incense stick and stand still.  In the Buddha Hall they are doing prostrations and standing bows; bells mark each set and I follow this pattern auditorily. At the last single bell I light the incense and extinguish the small candle. The doshi and jisha slowly process down the hall toward me.  The doshi offers the incense, then doshi and jisha move upstairs to the Kaisando.

The work leader is ready to give out soji assignments but I grab her attention. Walking toward her I say softly, “It is done.”  Meaning, don’t send anyone into the kitchen, there is nothing to do.

“It is done?!”  She responds, in astonishment that borders on alarm.

I smile.  I rather like mornings like this, when the concert of assembling breakfast comes together so smoothly, although I am also rather fond of the other kind of mornings, when the time goes by too fast, when I end up with piles of muffin tins that I have no hope of tackling before the soji crew comes in. It all gets done somehow, efficiently or sloppily, with composure or with anxiety, and I am just another one of those practitioners moving according to my choreography within the rhythm of this temple:   the breakfast cook.

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Room #8

or: “Let us not be submerged by the things of the world

I wrote this poem shortly after moving into the Zen Center, where my personal space became a room measuring about 10′ x 12′.

Looking in through the doorway,
It is apparent that this room is unit-sized.
One unit, the smallest increment.
All other magnitudes are just multiples of this room.
And I ask myself, did I order a room this small?

And from another direction, is this unit-sized room small enough?

A room that is large invites mistakes, invites messiness,
invites confusion of the issues in front of me.
The extra bar of soap waiting in line for the death of its predecessor;
the summer hat that I will wear only twice this year.
A few too many books on the dresser.
They would all speak softly during the night,
rhapsodizing about a place of their own,
a different drawer perhaps, one not so crowded,
and about the many ways to take care of them.

But this is a room where the oryoki and dark robes have their own place and keep quiet during the night.

In a small room I contemplate the sound of the letter “A” and how depending on inflection it can entice you to come closer or frighten you away.

In a small room I reduce my movements so that each limb is isolated and observed.
Can just this one arm I use to steady myself, move with kindness?
Can just this one eye that inspects my reflection, stay open and vulnerable?
Can just this one lung that admits air in and out, be soft and tender?

Can this dresser, this window, this unit-sized room, teach me to lie at your feet submerged in undistracted love?

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Moons of knowing

Some context of this piece: (1) Where I live – the San Francisco Zen Center – many people have “temple shoes” that are easily put on and taken off – flip flops, clogs, birkenstocks, etc. It is permissible to leave one pair of shoes outside of one’s bedroom door. (2) There are certain times when it’s recommended to keep one’s gaze downward to reduce external stimulation, and many people find that after doing this for awhile just a glimpse of a shoe, or a robe, or the posture while walking is enough to tell you, oh there goes John or Mary.

I know his movements by the movements of his shoes.
I pass outside the door; they are there.
On returning: they are gone.
It’s a binary system, a light blinking on-off, on-off.
Inside-elsewhere, inside-elsewhere.

I know how she loves by the essence of her shoes.
These are not the new shiny shoes that in a moment of desire replaced the old
These shoes are a little bit taller on the outside,
textured by use at the toe
shoes for walking in the sticky parts and all.

I know how he loves by his footfall.
Making almost no noise
as if to save the floorboards from the burden
of his full weight.

I know her concentration by her walk.
Gliding, legs forming equilateral triangles with each step
The upward bob when one foot passes the other
giving away her constant curiosity.

I know everything I need to know about them by their moons
and the movement of their moons’ orbits around the center of their being

When the planet turns ever so slightly
So that their faces are caught in the light
reflecting off topographical irregularities
and coalescing into patterns upon patterns upon patterns
I am caught too, in fear, in rapture
An over-determinate wash of information drenching me with its painful beauty
triggering fear of annihilation.

I know I don’t need to suffer so
That I could look the other way
I know everything I need to know about them by their moons
So why, then, is it their faces that I always want to see?


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