Monday, August 30, 2010

Vow for the August Moon

In addition to renewing my commitment to myself at the full moon. I've decided to try to form a new habit each month to see what happens.

One thing I've been concerned with recently is the amount of food we end up throwing away at home because it goes bad. I could just make the compromise and buy canned everything, but fresh meat and produce is so much more versatile and good for us.

I should be cooking almost every night anyway. There's no reason I should be letting anything go bad, especially since the theme of this blog is using what's at hand.

This all kind of fits with how I interpret the first of the Ten Grave Precepts (usually "do not kill") as concerning the not wasting or destroying of things.

So until the September Moon, I will do my best to not waste food at home. Hopefully by then it will be a habit and I can find something else to dedicate myself to.

Presently Working

I went to St. Louis last week with my dad to do work on his mom's house. I initially thought I was going by myself, but since moving out, it was nice to spend the time with him.

While I have yet to participate in any sort of soji at the Zen Center, I did get to treat this work as such. After all, my grandma's house is essentially a temple that houses people I care about.

The biggest aspect of what I did, that reflects the silent nature of soji, was power-washing the outside. Due to the noise of the compressor, I didn't have the option of listening to anything on my iPod, let alone talk with someone. I had to be very mindful of what I was doing since there was a great deal of really caked on dirt and other stuff like mildew. I didn't have space for my mind to wander since every stroke of the washer's wand had to be precise to remove the debris.

It was a very pleasant experience. Usually my favorite cleaning task is sweeping or mopping, especially large areas. I really enjoy the physicallity of it for some reason. I was able to experience this in an odd way washing the driveway. The low pressure (for a power-washer) reduced the effective cleaning area to about two inches wide. This made the whole process like a sweeping a couple hundred square feet with a two inch paintbrush.

I've never really minded doing tasks like this and have definitely done my share. One of my favorites was working at a fast food restaurant putting together the boxes in which chicken fingers were served while working the back drive thru window. I used to get to watch the South Texas sunset almost everyday.

I used to use this an opportunity to daydream, since they were never tasks that took much effort or focus. Now I use them as an opportunity for mindful practice. I pay attention to my breath and posture while performing each moment of the task as perfectly as I can. I know each time won't be perfect, but I can't fix it once it happens so I just keep swimming along in the moment one by one.

Just like zazen, my mind wanders every once in a while, but I just come back to what I'm doing without being hard on myself. I am only human after all.

I do have questions about how to fully perform other kitchen duties that require you to pay attention to different things at the same time, but hope to have them answered soon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Address Change

Moved over here from since the old address was the closest available to what I wanted, but I never really liked it. This seems to fit better.

I'm not trying to cook up my own dharma as a final result, but rather use it as an ingredient in my life. Each moment will be different, but the dharma will always be the constant ingredient so it will change some of the recipes to the way I deal with different situations life throws my way.

Hope this hasn't caused any confusion.
Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's Just a Hair Cut

With this past full moon, I renewed my commitment to myself by cutting my hair. It's something I mentioned in my first post, but now I have the occasion to go into it a little deeper.

First of all, as I said, I did have other reasons. It was also kind of a big deal for me to just cut it all off, so I'll get into that first.

My parents always encouraged my sister and I to make our own decisions growing up and for me, hairstyle was one of those things. I know plenty of people that didn't have that choice, so to them this must all seem a little weird.

I guess one of my first decisions along this line is that I wanted a buzz cut. Not understanding that with blond hair, getting it cut that short would basically make me look like I didn't have any hair at all. It must have been second or third grade and it was a pretty traumatic thing for me. Before I was able to form my own opinion of it, I had a birthday party to go to where the reaction I received was enough to make me regret it. Kids can be so mean. I'm not sure if that's when the seeds of my issues with how it looked began or not, but it had never been that short again until last December.

Another thing about my hair, is that it's not really straight or curly, just annoying. It's never done what I wanted it to. Over the years I'd ended up just about every thing that could be done to control it from plastering it in place to tying it back. It was a battle that I just could not win. I didn't really know how or have the desire to do what it would really take to control it because I didn't think I'd like how it looked.

It's also not entirely blonde. Growing up, I was always told it was "strawberry blond." It tends to change color between blond and light red for no real reason I've been able to isolate. As yet another aspect I had control over, I tried dying it with pretty lousy results.

The biggest irony has to do with me coming to terms with it falling out, though. Baldness runs on both sides of my family, so I had pretty much accepted from an early age that it was not to last. There is a possibility that this has something to do with me wanting it to look good while I still have it, but it's never been an obsession. I'm pretty sure it's stopped where it is, but I wouldn't really mind if I lost more of it.

The other battle I had to fight was with the powers that be, either the authorities at the private schools I attended or later, employers. The mandate was always to get it cut. Two jobs ago, I was desperate and gave in after letting it grow, for the second time, long enough to pull back.

It was once again pretty traumatic, but I got over it eventually. Unfortunately, just cutting it short to a more conservative style didn't make it conform as I'd hoped but that's where it stayed until the last big change.

When I got back into aikido, sweat would soak my hair. The thought occurred that the shorter my hair was, the less of an issue it would be. (I was wrong, I just traded one problem for another) Routine trimming was always put off as long as I could get away with and occasionally, I didn't have the money. If I cut it with clippers, that wouldn't be an issue, I'd just have to make it all the same length.

But the resolve to actually cut it was symbolic considering the commitment I was making. Along the lines of the theme of my first post, I was following the tradition of "cutting my hair" as it's refered to in classical Japanese literature. While less extreme than renouncing the world, I was drawing a line to cross to better my life and follow through on commitments. The biggest way, committing to practice, which I kind of feel began at that point.

So taking the leap, knowing if it looked bad, it would only be a short while before it grew back and I'd be "normal" again, I cut it to 1/4" and it's not too bad. (A couple months ago, I did experiment with 1/8" and that was too short. All the red was cut off and I just didn't like it.)

While I haven't formally taken any vows, to me it's the same thing and being honest with myself is all that really matters. Reminding myself of this once a month keeps that commitment current and present in my life. If there ever happened to be a time I actually went a month without sitting, cutting my hair would be that reminder just as I remind myself what I'm supposed to be doing when I realize my mind is wandering during zazen.

I'm not sure if I've won the battle with my hair or surrendered. I have managed to let go of the style vs. practical aspect of it though. I've heard that once you go utilitarian, you don't go back so this may be an easier commitment to keep than I thought as long as I remember what it's really about.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Understated Job

So I mentioned Dogen's work the Tenzo Kyokun before. I also complained about the accuracy of the title's translation.

From what I've read about temples and knowing what I do about kitchens, I really don't find "cook" an appropriate translation of tenzo. The only literal translation I've seen is "heavenly monk," but that's from Wikipedia. The tenzo is an officer of the temple in charge of the kitchen, this makes him by definition chef , which is the French word for boss. (also visible cognates: English "chief", or Spanish "jefe") His job is multi-faceted and I'm sure anyone who has served as tenzo would agree that they do more than just cook.

Most people have come to understand an abbreviated role of what it means to be a chef. They think all the chef is responsible for is coming up with the menu and taking credit for the success of a restaurant. This is only where it begins.

The day to day life of a chef is far more than that, a real chef at least. People think culinary students go to school to learn how to cook the classics and make stuff up. I've even worked in kitchens where the staff resented their boss because corporate policy gave them the title of chef even though they'd not made up the menu or been to school. In some restaurants, this position of chef is called the kitchen manager, and my training in culinary school is essentially for that purpose. While we do take cooking classes, we also take classes on management of people, product and money, purchasing, and safety and sanitation.

One of the things covered in most classes is the flow of the food. Purchasing is a little complicated so I'll leave it out, but food comes in the back door. The chef is usually responsible himself for checking to make sure everything he ordered is there and up to the standard it should be. (not all food purveyors are as reputable as they should be... but the same goes for some chefs. anything to make a profit) In a traditional temple, all this shows up in the form of offerings if it's not grown by the monks themselves so they don't get to be picky.

Dogen covers this in the Tenzo Kyokun:
"Without worrying about their quality, simply make the best of what you have. It is prohibited to show your feelings or say anything about the amount of ingredients."

"Even when, for example, one makes a soup of the crudest greens, one should not give rise to a mind that loathes it or takes its lightly; and even when one makes a soup of the finest cream, one should not give rise to a mind that feels glad and rejoices in it... Even when confronted with poor ingredients, there is no negligence whatsoever; even when faced with scanty ingredients, one exerts oneself."

Yeah, that's part of the whole accepting without prejudice and unattachment thing. They don't have customers that can vote with their feet about how the price of the food doesn't add up to the quality. There's a saying, "The mouth of a monk is like a furnace, Just as a furnace burns both sandalwood and cow shit without distinction, our mouths should be the same, eating rich and plain food as food. We should use whatever we receive." You can't put that on a wall to point at everytime a guest complains.

Another task layed out by Dogen for the tenzo is to mindfully count all the monks that need to eat and prepare just enough food to feed them and not have any left over. He lists all the places monks may be hiding to check so that nobody goes hungry.

In a professional kitchen, this is a little trickier. Until you've been in business for a while, you can't really predict how much volume (or business, in non-industry speak) to expect for each meal. There are a lot of factors to consider: day of the week, season, weather, holidays and other local events. While there isn't such a strong imperative on not having left overs and sometimes items do sell out, unsold product is loss of money.

These are just two things a chef and a tenzo have to deal with and there hasn't even been any cooking yet. There are other similarities such as how to treat food and such, but I can save that for another time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Such a Nice Guy..."

As a zen practitioner and chef in training, it's obligatory for me to soak up as much information about the Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions to the Cook*) by Dogen, as I can. I came across a commentary online that has this great quote by Ven. Anzan Hoshi Roshi:

Just because you are kind to someone once, the moment is entirely gone, you can't build anything the base of that... It is not sufficient to just have some image of being compassionate towards others, we must actually be so. So when that moment comes, that is what we must do. We can't say, “Well, I am usually like this and I will probably be quite compassionate then, too.” When the moment comes we have to make our choice and we have to do what we do. Once it is done, then there is the next thing to be done.

In other words, we can't rest on our laurels.

Just because we are normally one type of person (kind, helpful, good worker, etc.) doesn't mean we earn merit that we can expect to be able to cash in later to get away with things. The universe doesn't work like that, it doesn't remember in that way. People usually do, though, and I'm guilty of taking advantage of that more often than I'd like to admit.

I'm a pretty hard worker, and helpful, and yes, usually kind. I try to do things by the book at school and work when it comes to most things, and I (usually) get appreciated for that. But sometimes, I slack off with a couple ideas in my head: "Other people do it, and I work so much harder than them." or "I do my best at this and even go above and beyond what is expected, so I should be able to let this slide."

It's dangerous thinking, and while, in the moment, I see it as fair, I'm not playing by the rules that I think everyone should be held to. For one thing, it usually doesn't require me extra effort to do some of the exceptional things I do, I just do them because they're there. It's not truly giving 110% if you give 110% effort and take back 20-30%.

How does this fit with practice? Every moment is now. Full effort must be expended each moment, and if it's not, it's okay, I just can't lie to myself and say I am.

Sitting is a good example. Once I've committed to the cushion, I'm there. Slouching isn't going to make my legs hurt any less, and letting my mind drift is counterproductive. I have to keep my spine erect, shoulders back, chin down and head up. Only through this effort will the future be easier.

My aikido practice is another good example. If I don't actually push myself in training, I'm not getting anything done. Only through reaching actively when stretching, will my muscles stretch, making it easier next time. But, I can't relax when it's easier or my progress stops there and I might as well stop training.

Even when cooking, I can subsist on what I know, but it'll get boring. Pushing boundaries and opening up to new things keeps what I eat interesting.

Fortunately, practice helps make me more aware of all of this when I'm in the moment and that awareness fuels a second wind in my effort.

In personal situations, sometimes I feel like I don't deserve the way I'm being treated because of how well I usually act. I feel like I should have merit from my effort with practice that can be cashed in. I mean, if it weren't for that who knows how bad arguments would get. How could it be fair to try so hard to keep my cool when the other person is just letting me have it? (The last thing I'm going to do is point this fact out, too. I know I'm not perfect so there's no need to be self-righteous)

Sometimes it just gets to be too much and even my awareness of what's going on doesn't get me over that hump and the best I can do is not slide down the hill towards hurtful or passive aggressive behavior. I'm glad this is rare, because, while I understand this is normal human trait, I don't like it or myself when it does. I can only keep my nose to the grindstone and push on with my practice knowing that each moment is another chance to realize that ideal.

I know that every time I push through the difficulty, the rut of that habit gets deeper and just as the stretching to get flexible just to stretch some more benefits my body, exerting myself in other ways makes everything relatively easier and automatic down the road.

*I think it should be Instructions to the Chef but I'll save that for a post of its own.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Staring Down Death

...well, maybe that's a rather intense way of putting it. I suppose this is the reflection on my mortality that was supposed to coincide with my birthday.

As I was sitting this morning, and the familiar pain in my legs was becoming unbearable, I understood the whole "life is suffering" bit just a little bit more.

Seeing as this post was originally supposed to be for the 3rd, I've been having trouble articulating this here. I'll put what I wrote in my journal (on the 3rd)

"Every breath is another step towards death. There is no going back and no sidestepping. With each moment we suffer in some way but to accept the suffering without judgment steals its power over our minds, turning it simply into a fact."

Another perspective I experienced during the same session I came across while reading Uchiyama Roshi's Opening the Hand of Thought (which is very good, by the way) yesterday:

"Doing zazen is to actualize the reality of life. Zazen is the self which is only the self of the universe, without any playing with toys. Zazen is like the time just before our death when all the toys have been taken away. Yet, even then, we look around for something to play with, if only for an instant.

He uses the term toys for any sort of outside distraction that takes our interest from birth through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It can be something concrete, or an idea or daydream. I like the word "diversions" better, reminding me of the Spanish word for games divertidos. We're always playing games with ourselves, toys implies physical props. But then again it was originally written in Japanese and maybe the Japanese word has a different connotation in Japanese.

But as I sat there facing the wall, it felt like I was facing death in a way. It's kind of hard to put it into words, kind of an imperative to live right then. Like this was what the moment before death was going to be like. Knowing that that moment was all I really had.

I don't think it was frightening, maybe just sobering. I hope its echoes stay with me for a while and sink in a little more. While it's not something I want to obsess about, it would be good to keep in mind.