One of my favorite Zen stories is about two novice monks from long ago who were discussing the relative merits of their teachers.
The first said, "My teacher can do amazing things. He can stand on one side of a river with a brush, while an assistant stands on the other side of the river with a sheet of paper. As he moves the brush through the air, writing appears on the paper."
The second said, "Interesting. My teacher can also do amazing things. For example, when he eats, he eats. And when he sleeps, he sleeps."
To which the first monk replied, "Yo' mama."
The first time I read this (and the second, and third, and fourth–it's a Buddhism Greatest Hit) I thought I understood it. When you sit down to eat, pay attention to your food and to eating. Do not distract yourself with thoughts of other meals, of a past you can't change, of a future that doesn't exist. When you lie down to sleep, let go of the day's worries and don't invent new ones for tomorrow. Just sleep.
Sounds rather impossible; but okay, fine. Great. Got it. What's next?
Well, I didn't get it. As popular as stories are in Zen teaching, Zen isn't about words. It's about experiencing things directly, yourself. You can't get that out of books.
Me, I love books. I love books the way that Fafnir, the dragon in Siegfried, was rather fond of treasure. Books have been my greatest, sometimes I think my only, teachers. So when I've been told that reading books on Buddhism isn't going to get me anywhere, I've nodded and said, yes yes. And then I've gone out and bought another book.
Time for an attitude adjustment.
Sunday was a great big helping of Direct Experience. Our center held "zazenkai"–a full day of meditation. This was my first time. Here's the schedule:
- 7 am-10 am: zazen (seated meditation) and kinhin (walking meditation)
- 11-noon: teisho (lesson)
- noon-12:45: lunch
- 12:45-2 pm: zazen and kinhin
Instead, I was shown in silence that I was to help myself to the soup, rice, fruit, and crackers in the kitchen and then take a seat in a chair in the living room. And just as in the zendo, the seats were arranged to face the walls.*
There I was, after five hours of not talking, being sent to eat soup and crackers while looking at nothing and speaking to nobody. For just a second I considered slipping out of my robes and into my clothes, and running away into the street shouting at the top of my lungs.
Instead, I sank dutifully into a chair by the fireplace. There's a small bronze Buddha on the mantel. I looked at it and thought, "2,500 years ago you had a bright idea under a tree, so now I'm sitting here in Chicago dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi having lunch with a wall."
I took a spoonful of soup and my eyes rolled back in my head. The taste was incredible. It didn't make sense, though. This was pretty plain stuff. Broth, vegetables. But it blew my mind. So did the cracker when I bit it.
I kept eating, trying to get a grip on the sensations rocking my head, and then I realized this was possibly the first meal of my entire life in which I was permitted–compelled, really–to just eat. No checking e-mail, or making calls, or dishing friends not present. It was just me and the soup.
The word that sprang to mind was luxury. I've never enjoyed any meal so much, not even dinner on the Minerva II, eating five French courses while watching the sun set over the Aegean. It felt unspeakably indulgent. I stretched out my bare toes and sighed, which in the hushed room sounded like a car alarm.
And so...so what?
I don't know. There's no pat conclusion here. No specific lesson learned. I'm not going to start declining dinner invitations so that I can have tete-à-tetes** with a sheet of plasterboard. I do feel that I've been shown something interesting. I might never have seen it if it weren't for practice.
Reason enough to keep practicing. (Plus I get to wear cool robes. I look pretty darn cute in the robes.)
* In the Soto Zen tradition, which I practice, we meditate with our eyes open, facing the wall. It's an homage to the Zen ancestor Bodhidharma, who is said to have reached enlightenment after meditating for years while facing the wall of a cave in China.
**Where the hell is the circumflex on this keyboard?