Cedar Sangha

Dharma Discussion, May

May 13, 2013

Do Dishes, Rake Leaves

Karen Maezen Miller

                I have a garden in my backyard, and even if you don’t call it a garden, you do too. In the fall, the broad canopy of giant sycamores in my yard turns faintly yellow and the leaves sail down. First by ones, and then by tons. A part of every autumn day finds me fuming at the sight of falling leaves. Then I pick up a rake

Tell me, while I’m sweeping leaves till kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that life of what-ifs and how-comes – the life I’m dreaming of.

At the moment I’m raking leaves, at the moment I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.

In the spring, the garden burst to life, and once again I see what time it is. It is time to week. When I look up across the endless stretch of the job before me, I surely want to quit. But if I manage to regain my focus on what’s at hand, I realize it’s just one weed. There’s always just one weed to do next. I do it weed by weed, and the weeds always show me how. I never finish.

Looking for greater meaning in life, some people thing that housework is beneath them. Cooking and cleaning are beneath them. I know that feeling well. Sometimes they seem so far beneath me that I can’t see the bottom. I can’t see the beginning or the end. Is there a point to doing the work that seems pointless? The work with no visible end, no redeeming value, and no apparent urgency? Yes. It’s the wisdom of the ancient homemakers.

After Buddhism came to China, the Chan School replaced the tradition of traveling and begging for alms with communal living. It was practical, for one thing. And it was practice. Monastic training came to encompass all the work essential to everyday life – cleaning, cooking, and gardening – as well as meditation. For that reason, we could well view the great Chinese masters as our progenitors in mindful homemaking, since many of their teachings point directly to the everyday chores we might rather high-mindedly neglect.

A monk asked Joshu, “All dharmas are reduced to oneness,

but what is oneness reduced to?”

Joshu said, “When I was in Seishu, I made a hempen shirt.

 It weight seven pounds.”

More than a thousand years have passed since Joshu gave that response, originating one of the many classic koans that recount the provocative teachings of this renowned ninth-century Chinese master. Such koans, enigmatic little dialogues and stories, are used to provoke insight in the process of struggling to unravel their meaning. To this day, seekers are still struggling to find a way out of the shirt. What does it mean? What is he getting at? I don’t understand!

We don’t just struggle with a shirt in a Zen koan. We struggle with the shirts in our hampers. With the pants, the blouses, the sheets, and the underwear. Laundry presents a mountainous practice opportunity because it provokes a never-ending pile of egocentric resistance.

It’s not important to me. It’s tedious. I don’t like to do it!

The monk in the story is like the rest of us, seeking wisdom through intellectual inquiry. If we’re not careful, this is how we approach mindfulness: as an idea, one we rather like, to elevate our lives with special contemplative consideration, a method for making smarter choices and thereby ensuring better outcomes. The problem is that the life before us is the only life we have. The search for meaning robs our life of meaning, sending us back into our discursive minds while, right in front of us, the laundry piles up.

In his commentary on this koan, the late teacher and translator Katsuki Sekida rinsed Joshu’s shirt clear of obfuscation. “Joshu’s words remind us of the keen sensibilities of people who lived in the days when things were made by hand. The seven pounds of hemp were woven into cloth and cut and sewn into a shirt. When Joshu put on his hempen shirt, he experienced a sensation that was the direct recognition of the shirt for what it was.”

The shirt, you see, is just a shirt. Feel the fabric, the weave, and the weight of seven pounds in your hands. The laundry is just the laundry. Pull it out of the hamper, sort it by color and fabric, read the care instructions, and get on with it. Transcending obstacles and overcoming preferences, we have an intimate encounter with our lives every time we do the wash. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but no one turns their nose up at a clean pair of socks.

With only a change in perspective, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty. When we don’t know, we don’t judge.  And when we don’t judge, we see things in a different light.  That is the light of our awareness, unfiltered by intellectual understanding, rumination, or evaluation. When we cultivate nondistracted awareness as a formal practice, we call it mindfulness meditation. When we cultivate it in our home life, we call it the laundry, the kitchen, or the yard – all the places and ways we can live mindfully by attending without distraction to whatever appears before us. But it’s hard for us to believe that attention is all there is to it, and so we complicate things with our judgment – debasing the ordinary as insignificant and idealizing the spiritual as unattainable – never seeing that the two are one.

A monk said to Joshu,

“I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

“Have you eaten your rise porridge?” ask Joshu.

“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.

“Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu.

This famous koan is easy to view as a metaphor. Empty your mind and get rid of your notions of spiritual attainment. But suppose you don’t view the bowl as a metaphor? That might change the way you look at the dishes in your kitchen sink and instruct you just as thoroughly.

The kitchen is not only the heart of a home, it can also be the heart of a mindfulness practice. In cooking and cleaning, we move beyond ourselves into compassionate care of everything and everyone around us.

Eating is our sole essential consumption, and cooking is our common charity, so you’d think its purpose would be obvious. Yet with a critical eye to the value of time and what we judge to be our higher talents, meal preparation may seldom seem worth it. Cooking for two? Not worth it. Filling the fridge? Not worth it. Sitting down to dine? Not worth it. Cleaning up after? Not worth it.

Nothing is worth the measure we give it, because worth doesn’t really exist. It is a figment of our judging minds, an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of imaginary distinctions – and one more way we withhold ourselves from the whole enchilada of life that lays before us.

If nothing is worth it, why cook? Why shop and chop, boil and toil, and clean up after? To engage yourself in the marvel of your own being. To see the priceless in the worthless. To find complete fulfillment in being unfilled. And to eat something other than your own inflated self-importance. That’s what we empty when we empty the bowl, and a busy kitchen gives us the chance to empty ourselves many times a day.

A monk asked Joshu,

“What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?”

Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.”

In this koan, the question about Bodhidharma, the legendary Zen Patriarch who is credited with bringing Zen to China, represents our concerns with the deep spiritual questions. Enough about laundry and dishes, we might think. What about the meaning of everything? Why do the great mystics strive so diligently for enlightenment if it has no more depth than what’s found in ordinary housework?

See beyond your house, Joshu answers, beyond the delusion of a separate self trapped by the false perception of what is inside and what is outside. This is true mindfulness: not the narrow boundaries of our conceptual abode, but the phenomenal world of the awakened mind. Joshu tells us to open our eyes and awaken in our own backyard.

Once again, Sekida pruned the intellectual interpretation that can obscure our clear sight: “There were many giant oaks in the garden of Joshu’s temple. We can well imagine that Joshu himself was personally familiar with every tree, stone, flower, weed, and clump of moss – as intimately acquainted as if they were his own relatives.”

Where is the place you know as well as your own family? Indeed, that is as proximate as yourself? It is the place where you are at east with a full load, fulfilled by an empty sink, tell time by the leaves and weeks – making yourself mindfully at home in the home you never leave.


Dharma Discussion, April

March 7, 2013

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

by: Thich Nhat Hanh

Everyone has pain and suffering.  It is possible to let go of this pain and smile at our suffering.  We can only do this if we know that the present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive.
    Gathas are short verses that we can recite during our daily activities to help us return to the present moment and dwell in mindfulness.  As excercises in both meditation and poetry, gathas are an essential part of Zen B...

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Dharma Discussion, January

January 5, 2013
Dear Sangha,

For this discussion I thought we would join Deer Park as they study and practice together during the winter retreat. The selection from this month is week 7 of the monastery's Ten Gates Winter Retreat Practice. The materials include the Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and some study questions to guide and focus our practice. Follow the link below to access the materials.

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Dharma Discussion, January

December 27, 2012

#11 in the Lin Chi Lu

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nothing to Do, Nowhere To Go

The Master taught: “In these times whoever studies the Buddhadharma needs right view. Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you. At that pint, whether you stay or go, you do so as a free person. You do not need to go in search of the transcendent, but the transcendent will seek you out.

                “Friends on the Path, the virtuous monks of old have all offered human beings a path...

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Dharma Discussion, December

November 11, 2012
The Way of Practice
from Understanding Our Mind
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditating on the nature of interdependence
can transform delusion into enlightenment.
Samsara and suchness are not two.
They are one and te same.

When we live in mindfulness, we are able to see the interdependent nature at the heart of things and transform our ingnorance into insight. Delusion becomes enlightenment - we see that what we formerly perceived as samsara is really non onther than nirvana, the realm of suchness. Mindfulne...
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Dharma Discussion, October

October 27, 2012

"If I stood still, I sank; if I struggled, I was carried away. Thus by neither standing still not struggling, I crossed the flood."

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Dharma Discussion, September

August 20, 2012
The Three Jewels
From The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
By Thich Nhat Hanh

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life.

I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.

I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is a fundamental practice in Buddhims. These are universal values that transcend sectarian and cultural boundaries. When we were in our mother's womb, we felt secur...
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Dharma Discussion, August

July 29, 2012
From Shenryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will b...
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Dharma Discussion, July

June 12, 2012

Discourse on the Dharma Seal

I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was residing at Vaishali with his community of bhikshus. One day, he told the community, “Do you know of the wonderful Dharma Seal? Today I would like to tell you about it and explain it to you. Please use your pure mind to listen and receive it with care, and make the best effort to remember and practice it.” The community of bhikshus replied, “Wonderful, World-Honored One! Please teach us. We will...

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Dharma Discussion, June

May 20, 2012

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

by: Thich Nhat Hanh

Everyone has pain and suffering.  It is possible to let go of this pain and smile at our suffering.  We can only do this if we know that the present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive.
    Gathas are short verses that we can recite during our daily activities to help us return to the present moment and dwell in mindfulness.  As excercises in both meditation and poetry, gathas are an essential part of Zen Buddhis...

Continue reading...
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