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Archive for the ‘Ango’ Category

Well, maybe the new way will not be better. But it surely will be different. In retrospective I find that it is definitely worth trying: an external shift makes it easier to take a new perspective which is always enriching. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to learn something new about my own reactivity and resistance to change that I don’t approve of.

For a while I was at a loss: should I encourage my sangha-friend to open up to this change and at least give this new way a try? I noticed how my thoughts went in different directions almost simultaneously: one side of me was concerned with my self-image (how will this influence how others see me?); another side was glad the person spoke up; yet another one wished he had said something in the line of  “I feel uncomfortable and disconnected from the sangha by splitting into groups for the discussion but I am willing to give it a try”. A friend and sangha-member helped me out by voicing the need she sensed coming from the person, that of connection, which I heard in the beginning but lost when it did not make sense to me (splitting into groups is not the same as splitting the sangha!)

Suddenly I felt the tiredness of the last few weeks coming down on me. I saw the person next to me, also quite tired and obviously very uncomfortable. I backed off, invited everyone to rejoin the circle and do it the way we used to do. I felt relieved as the peace in the room was restored and we could finally turn to the poem which,  incidentally, was about impermanence and not clinging to the solid picture of the world we carry with us.

During the discussion one person said that he thought we did not have to be shaped only by “some immense storm” but in fact could allow every little thing influence us. Back then that comment didn’t strike a chord with me but as I am writing this I can see how our everyday lives here in the West are not that stormy but still consist of countless situations in which we can allow ourselves to get softer, let go of holding on to the ways we are comfortable with for the moment. A sensitive soul can feel the touch of a breeze…

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“Put those things that naturally go on a high place onto a high place, and those that would be most stable on a low place onto a low place; things that most naturally belong on a high place settle best on a high place, while those which belong on a low place find their greatest stability there.”

Dogen’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook” with commentary by Uchiyama Roshi, p. 5.

yesterday evening I facilitated the discussion at the gathering of my local meditation group. As a topic I chose a very rich in imagery and symbols poem by Rilke “The Man Watching”. I have been carrying it with me for about a month now, letting it incubate and listening in. There is still a lot in the poem that doesn’t make sense to me but there was a lot that struck a chord. Here’s how it starts:

The Man Watching

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

……………

We had a very fruitful discussion that was deeply rooted in our personal experiences rather than trying to understand the meaning of all images. Or maybe we were trying out how the poem fit our personal experiences? Some of us initially reacted to the lines like “let ourselves be dominated” because we automatically translated it into “giving up”. After some reflection we came to the conclusion that it meant “surrender”  and not “giving up” and to us the poem was about surrendering to Life itself  based on trusting it and being willing to be shaped by the storms on our journey.

The following lines especially resonated with me:

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.

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Uchiyama Roshi opens his comments to Dogen’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook” with a story of a tenzo who would not let any distractions stand in his way when cooking:

“One day Wuzhao was working as the tenzo at a monastery in Wutai Mountains. When the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī suddenly appeared above the pot he was cooking, Wuzhao beat him. Later he said, “Even if Shakyamuni were to appear above the pot, I would beat him, too”. (“How to cook your life”, p 23).

This story made an impression on Uchiyama Roshi when he was a tenzo himself. Wuzhao’s cool amazed and puzzled me: it is not every day that the Bodhisattva of compassion makes an appearance and if it happens when I am cooking, isn’t this yet another wonderful ingredient to add to the meal? Flexibility and going with a flow is something I could use more of in the kitchen (of life).

When I read the story of Wuzhao sending Mañjuśrī off, I could not help thinking of the guests I would actually be glad to get a company of while at the stove. Here’s what I came up with so far:

I’d be delighted to take a cup of tea with the charming Mad Hatter while waiting for the rice to cook

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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.

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In the comments to Dogen’s “Instruction for the Zen Cook”  Uchiyama Roshi mentions frustration with his own inability to chase away “hungry ghosts” when he started serving as a tenzo in the end of 1940s. At the time food was scarce so I imagine talking of “hungry ghosts” was more than a figure of speech. In notes to his own comments he explains what it means in the Buddhist context,

“Hungry ghost” is a literal translation of the Japanese word gaki. Ga means to be famished or hungry, and ki means a demon or ghost. In the context of Zen Buddhism, gaki refers to that which arises which arises inside our us human beings, and which is never satisfied with what we are or what we have.” (p. 108)

Reading these lines and my own observation of being around the food made me think of the “hungry ghosts” that I’ve been having visits from. The days of food shortage are over (food coupons we had after the fall of the Soviet) but not the feeling of hunger, of not having enough of something. Staying with the issue of food alone, I can see how mindful eating (through engaging all sensory fields) can enrich my own experience of food.

In this post I’d like to share the exercise called “Who is hungry in there?” that I transcribed after the Tricycle magazine’s podcast episode called “Are you hungry inside?” . The instructions are about 7 min long but exercise itself can take longer.

Who is hungry in there?

In this exercise we access the seven different kinds of hunger.

Preparation: sit down with some food in front of you. The amount of food does not matter (it can be a whole meal, it could be one cracker). Start by doing it alone, so you don’t feel awkward. Do this exercise at least once a day until it become a second nature.

Each of the seven hungers is associated with different parts of the body. In ME (Mindful eating) before we eat or drink we look inward and we ask each of this body parts if they are hungry. If the answer is Yes then we ask that part how hungry it is on the scale of 0 (Not interested at all) to 10 (Famished). The parts of the body that we look at are the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the stomach, the body or the cells, the mind, and the heart.

Begin by sitting down with some food in front of you. Take a deep breath and relax a bit.

Before you begin eating we are going to access the seven types of hunger.

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Ango: playing in the kitchen

Before we get sautéd in another koan, I took a chance to celebrate my return into the kitchen by cooking to a trance tune in the background and playing around.

“You must not leave the washing of rice or preparation of vegetables to others, but must carry out this work with your own hands. Put your whole attention into the work, seeing just what the situation calls for”

Dogen, “Instructions for the Zen Cook”

Was Dogen talking about food? What I hear is the same question that keeps coming up:

What does it mean to take responsibility for my life?

But back to the kitchen… For most part, I cook my meals myself.  Not an easy thing to do if you commute and have all evenings booked for preferably some other activity than cooking.  Still, this is my choice.  I save time, ingredients and energy by cooking a few meals at a time. Also, it has to be simple, fast and fun!


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Do not be absent minded in your activities, nor so absorbed in one aspect of a matter that you fail to see its other aspects.

From Dogon’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook”

Many of us know from the kitchen experience that if we focus on one side of the meal we are preparing (for example, its aroma or color) and even temporarily forget the others, our checking out from the world into our heads can ruin the whole meal. It’s easy to get carried away and forget to add salt and spices or miss the critical point when we should remove it from the stove.

Burnt oats (not happy): Read my lips, “Eat this!”

I find the same to be true of  life: if I choose to focus only on one aspect of it, for example work, I can get signals from inside that something is missing, something is out of balance, that I left home. Still, this is what most of us have to deal with at different points in our lives when one side of it temporarily takes over. In the best case we are aware of what’s happening and can even tell others who might be affected that we will catch up with them once the project is done, the book is finished or we have solved the issue of poverty in the world. In the best case we can come back to the center in time before some damage is done (in yoga, on the physical level, the price of not being aligned is that we either collapse with our bodyweight on one particular part of the body and can get injured or have to resort to great muscular effort to sustain balance.) But even as we let our life on the everyday level come slightly off-balance, we don’t have to be out of balance with the experience of life, do we?  We don’t have to go to exotic places or eat exclusive meals in posh restaurants to experience the gift of life, to feel alive.

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