Xuefeng Yicun was once the tenzo under Dongshan Liangjie. One day when Xuefeng was washing rice Dongshan happened to pass by and asked, “Do you wash the sand and pick out the rice, or wash the rice and pick out the sand?” “I wash and throw away both the sand and the rice together,” Xuefeng replied. “Then what on earth do the residents here eat?” Dongshan pressed again. In reply, Xuefeng turned over the rice bucket. On seeing that, Dongshan said, “The day will come when you will practice under another master.”
Dogen, “Instructions for Zen Cook”
During the second webinar Dosho briefly went through the story which is about intimately studying the self. Dongshan asks Xuefeng, What is the essence of your practice? Do you throw away what you don’t want or focus on getting what you want? He considers practice to be a concrete expression of our life, not something conceptual, theoretical. Xuefeng’s answer is overdramatic: he turns the bucket over, spilling everything onto the floor. Dongshan is not questioning this response but suggests that Xuefeng with time find a teacher supportive of this more demonstrative style of practice.
As always with these stories, I had no idea where to go with it. So I just let it simmer for a while.
When listening to the interview with Jungian psychologist Jerry Ruhl the other day, two intimately related issues jumped off for me and connected with the rice-and-sand story: handling the tension between our inner yearnings (our authentic self) and the cultured, more practical side and the differentiation Dr Ruhl makes between compromise and synthesis.
It occurred to me that although compromise is something seen in our Western culture as a necessary part of our existence, I’ve always felt some tension around the word. Maybe because what it essentially about is choosing one thing over the other and sometimes this goes against our authentic self which always costs us. According to Dr Ruhl compromise is also a product of the ego. When we compromise we do a little bit of that and a little bit of the other: for example I fulfill my cultural duties during the week (go to my day job that pays the bills) and chose to devote week-ends to what my heart yearns for. Sooner or later I start wondering how I can integrate my passion for the divine into my day-to-day life and how I can bring practicality to my inner yearnings.
What I hear Dr Ruhl say in this interview is that to have an undevided life we need to learn to create synthesis of the two sides rather than compromise. Synthesis appears contradictory to the ego as it offers to hold the tension between two for the ego seemingly conflicting sides but those sides are actually complimentary. A new solution comes to us, as Dr Ruhl points out, from a different part of personality than ego. This is what I hear Dogen speaking about on these pages: choosing sythesis over compromise. I would think that this is easier to do for someone leading a monastic life where these sides are intimately integrated in one’s life through the very way one’s day is shaped. Or – are they? In any case, how can we, the laypeople in this modern world, make sure all these ingredients of our personality are acknowledged and welcomed in this kitchen of life at any point?
David Whyte explores our life-long commitments to Work, Self and Other, and concludes that each of these three marriages is nonnegotiable at its heart:
“People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is at play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.” (David Whyte, p. 9)
Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we should trade those parts of ourselves. Whyte suggests that on the contrary, “we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage comversing with, questioning or emboldening the two” (D. W, p. 11) because they are not separate commitments, but “different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world”.
As for the story, I still don’t know where I have my rice and sand (or in my case it is more accurate to say rice and cat hair). It appears to be one fabulous giant mess. What I do know by now is that no matter how hard I try to get rid of cat hair, it always ends up in places where I least would like to see it: on a plate just when I am about to eat, inside the painting, in the space between the keys on a keyboard and – inside the socks.
Sometimes I find comfort in the idea that it could be worse and I could be living with a tiger! On rare occasions I wonder what the cats that live me with think of this human spreading her stuff all around their place: books on the kitchen table where they like sitting in the morning, books in the bathroom, books and paints all around the floor and – imagine that! – dipping socks in their hair.
- Interview with Jerry Ruhl on Shrink Rap Radio Psychology Podcast, # 229
- Dogen’s “Instructions for Zen Cook”
- Webinar 2 with Dosho Port ( on Sand and Rice)
- David Whyte, “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationsip“