Friday, June 3, 2011

True Compassion

My aunt has a big rock (it's a novelty rock, probably not even rock but it's big, gray, hard and cold...) that has two sides.  On the top it says "Please turn me over," and on the other "Thank you."

Now it used to bug me that people would keep turning it back over having "gotten the joke" since it obviously preferred to be on the "thank you" side.  But recently I've been thinking about it, wondering if it's not that it prefers a side, but that it enjoys being turned over.

Yes, it's a damn rock.  I know it doesn't have feelings, just what we project on to it.  But I have long felt a sort of animistic connection to many objects for a long time and these are things that I think about.  Animals have preferences that they express in different ways.  Plants express preferences in how they thrive.  Just because all life doesn't experience the world through the same sense gates as we do, doesn't mean that their experience is any less vibrant or real.  As all things are transient and interconnected, who is to say that a rock or any other form of inert existence isn't alive?  It was created, exists in this moment, and will pass into another form eventually.  Where do we draw the line of what life is?

Part of this viewpoint stems from an interesting source.  There's an anime I like a great deal for many reasons called Trigun.  There's an episode where a child version of the hero is having a conversation with the influence of his life and she tells him about how trees are just as active and full of life as we are, using all of their life's force and effort just to grow tall and be green, to reproduce and fulfill their function.

This perspective stuck hard and fast with me.  It also has a great deal on how I view life as a food source, but I promise I'll get around to that post eventually.

My point is, in our limited view, we think we know what's right for others and ourselves.  We think that the commonly held viewpoint of compassion as "a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it" ( is alleviated through being nice and forgiving and all those other positive things associated with compassion.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes we're wrong.  And we can be very wrong.  Sheltering and pampering can cause someone to become weak and unable to fend for themselves in the real world.  Just as a pet animal can never be released into the wild, the pampered will require that for survival.  Even if they don't they'll have to suffer a great deal in order to regain their instincts.

The world is full of frustrated little dogs treated like children instead of like dogs and a handful of people are making a living reminding their owners of that fact.

This doesn't mean we should kick people to the curb and shut down homeless shelters or food pantries.  This is not a call for an end to altruism, just a call to attempt to understand that what we think someone needs is not necessarily what they need.

I think we all need a certain amount of suffering to get us moving.  If we were perfectly comfortable during zazen it would be harder to stay in the moment.  Without suffering we wouldn't have the need to practice.  Isn't that the whole reason living in the realm of the devas isn't all it's cracked up to be?

Suffering, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, is the fuel of our practice.  It is the reason we seek to make ourselves better.  Sometimes being compassionate is allowing an individual to suffer just the right amount.  I'm sure I'll revisit this and refine my view, but I doubt it will wander far.

Let us be grateful to experience suffering so that we may seek to go beyond.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Waking Up from My Dream and Being Angry About It

So after a few short weeks, I woke up from my dream job.  I should remember to never get a job working for owners who either aren't silent or aren't restaurant people.  It doesn't matter how great your crew is or how wonderfully they're led by the management, if the owners won't let go their ego in favor of the success of the business, it's doomed to fail. 

So here I find myself with two paths.

1 - Be pissed off, and for good reason.  This really was a dream opportunity.  I was coming into a restaurant that needed my particular skills.  It was a delightful atmosphere, very casual yet mature enough that things still got done.  The management was sincerely invested in every employees success and saw the greater picture.  After just long enough to start making plans for the future, like committing to cook three meals a day for my sangha for 45 days, around my work schedule, the chef that doesn't even work there told me my next scheduled day, I wouldn't be on the kitchen schedule. 

Not "we have to let you go, sorry," but, some lame story about how business is slow and they want to keep me around because I'm a quality employee but due to loyalty to other (less skilled or motivated) employees who don't know they should have asked for a raise because they deserve it, that I should talk to the front of the house manager about serving or bartending.  Other gems concerning the owners and a whole mess of trouble arose after that, but that's what I had to deal with then.

== OR ==

2. I see it for how it's benefited me.  I did make some new friends and had some fun in a cool environment.  I learned some new skills and recipes since I'd never worked as a prep cook before.  My interest in returning to the kitchen was renewed, whereas before I was dreading it as an obstacle to my graduation.  I also rekindled that spark from my first job of "the people in charge are irresponsible and/or stupid, I can do this better. What's stopping me?"  After taking it easy for so long I feel that assertiveness again.  This time I can taste the ability to actually help a restaurant prosper and grow, not just survive.

It also held time for me in a way.  I was able to get at least 3 weeks into the practice period before really having to get another job.  I could have gotten a different one that wouldn't have afforded me that option.  Being tenzo for Ango is more valuable to me in experience than any job I've had so far.  I really am behaving and working as a chef, not like a chef, but as a chef.  I'm planning daily menus once a week, putting together shopping lists and purchasing ingredients.  I'm also learning to delegate responsibility to make sure things get done when I'm not around, and have had to deal with the consequences of it not getting done.  I'm actually cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday through Thursday with the exception of two dinners.  I've had to pay attention to dietary needs as I haven't before since what I cook is essentially the diet for 8+ people for nearly two months.

So take a guess at which path I've chosen.

Both actually, and it's been an interesting experience.  Being angry is just as legitimately a Buddhist experience as sending love to my tormentors and wishing all beings happiness.  The Ninth Grave Precept is a prohibition against harboring ill will, not ever feeling it.  Allowing myself to feel what I feel is in accord with the teachings.  I can feel angry all I want as long as I'm mindful of why I'm angry.  Harboring ill will is holding on to and giving it shelter.  Once the emotion has done what  it needs, it should be let go.

The anger still comes up about the whole thing, as well as the joy in what may most likely happen to the whole operation.  But that dream I had about what my future path would hold in that life really is just that, a dream.  There was never any guarantee that that's how my life would turn out, and it definitely wouldn't be everything I imagined, it never is.

So now I return to the moment, take the bad as bad and the good as good.  I have other hopes of employment lined up, ones that may be infinitely better and that wouldn't have been available to me in the same way two months ago.

How can anyone argue with that?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Right Here Between Two Worlds

Halfway into this third week of Ango, my fellow participants and I have made some interesting observations of the atmosphere of practice now that the excitement of receiving so many guests has passed.

While this is my first practice period, it is the third for Houston Zen Center and others have made some thought inspiring comments about how it feels.  Having only done two week long retreats and a handful of half day sittings, this hasn't quite had the same feeling.

With sesshin, you're there.  You're there to practice and that's it: sitting, eating, and working.  It's a full immersion experience for the week.  For most you only leave to sleep.  It's very different than daily life in that you don't have the distractions or responsibilities of the outside world to interfere with... well it's called a "retreat" for a reason.

In our daily life, practice is something we sometimes only do on the cushion.  It's easy to forget about it as the distractions of every day life get in the way.  Yeah, that's not how it's supposed to be, and even though I pride myself on how my practice is especially my everyday life, none of us is perfect and we all forget.

What's been interesting about the practice period is that it has us situated between those two extremes.  We're all participating in different ways, but there's always someone there practicing away.  There's the intensity of sesshin, but with each of us venturing out back into the world to conduct our affairs independently then returning in various capacities.

Normally a handful of us show up in the morning and get everything going for a little more than an hours worth of activities and then the place is cold until the evening when it happens again.  Four hours on Saturday we have activities but each time we have to get back in the mood.  During this practice period, someone has been there to keep the place warm by feeding the practice fire.

It's been an interesting experience in the kitchen for me as this practice blends my usual daily life with life at the Zen Center.  I spend a lot of time planning menus and preparing shopping lists if not shopping myself.  One of my first comments to my teacher upon completing my first sesshin was of how different it seemed from everyday life, to run away to Tassajara was especially exotic after living a taste of what it could be like for a week.  It troubled me how easy it was to assume the culture of monastic life and how much I would miss "normal life" if I spent a summer there.  She told me that when you're there, that is normal life, which didn't exactly ease my concerns.
But nearly a month into living a life between the two, the "practice" life has become my daily life.  I don't feel I have had to, or become, a different person to live it.  There's an extreme nature to monastic life that, while I can see the appeal, it still doesn't seem like the life for me.  In the Ox Herding series, "returning to the marketplace" is the last step and refers to coming returning to mundane life to live as an example of enlightened activity.  The tradition is that temples were up in mountains so returning to the market place was synonymous with leaving the monastery.  I've always said that I never want to leave the marketplace.  I'm not interested in an enlightenment that involves going somewhere else.  Even if it takes longer, I want it right here.

I really feel that 45 days of this with an actual sesshin at the end will be very different and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.  The regime of sesshin helped my provide my own structure to life afterwards but wore off fairly quickly.  Maybe a little over a long time will build better habits and I'll continue to live right here, between the two worlds of mundane life and the monastic.