(transcribed from the first day’s talk at the 2016 Face to Face January retreat where we were studying Dogen’s chapter “Kajo” or “Everyday Activity”)
Homage to the Buddha, our original cook, Shakyamuni
Homage to the Dharma, everyday rice and tea
Homage to the Sangha, those awakened to rice and tea
How fitting that our founder’s altar should be arranged on a piano. Hundreds of years of teachers and students, the musical score of this Zen way. And as I look over at this altar and see my teacher’s picture there….that was taken at the Empty Field Zendo – there’s a hint of my elbow in his side as I’m to his left in front of the altar. How fitting – mercy, how he listened to my years of struggle! Fifteen years as his student, and still his student now even after his death. Face to face. Eye to eye. Nose to nose. Two human hearts, two flawed beings, two perfect buddhas, awakening together. Hundreds of years of this.
In this retreat, we are studying Dogen’s chapter called Kajo – everyday activity, about everyday life. Kajo means that which is habitual in one’s home life. Like many of Dogen’s talks to his students, I get the sense he wrote this from a place of deep love, right out of the experience of his own path. He wanted his students to stop chasing for enlightenment in the place where it did not exist. His own life was not easy. He could have chosen to assume a role in the aristocracy, like Shakyamuni Buddha, but instead, after seeing his mother’s death when he was quite young, decides to follow a more pressing call. There was much corruption in the religious circles at that time in medieval Japan, Buddhism intertwined with political power struggles having to do with whether this temple or that teacher was in favor with the various ruling elite family or not. Like us Dogen wanted something sincere, something genuine, something satisfying.
When Dogen finally went to China where he would meet Rujing, he encountered a tenzo, a senior in the temple on a boat who was doing manual labor as a cook in his old age. Dogen asks him, Can’t you get someone else to do this? The tenzo looks at him curiously and tells him he mustn’t know too much about Zen. A bit of a double take for someone practicing as long as he has. You don’t know to much do you? But Dogen listened. He asks the tenzo, What is practice? Everywhere, nothing is hidden, says the tenzo. So it is now, on January 28th, exactly 773 years later, in a home in Corvallis, that we study the words to his students on the transmission of the dharma as everyday tea and rice.
Just like Rujing’s koan Mushin talked about this morning, How can you purify something that is already pure? there’s a koan Dogen offers us here that we can carry around this weekend, keep company with. If drinking tea and eating rice have been transmitted for a long time and are present right now, what is drinking tea and eating rice? We should each find our own answer to this question.
What is your answer?
Don’t answer too soon. Don’t explain anything.
See what comes to you this retreat.
While on one hand it seems too obvious, on the other, we might balk a little and think, what could tea and rice possibly have to offer towards shedding light on my struggles in life? I do that kind of stuff everyday and still don’t feel enlightened! Certainly it can’t be as easy as that! Luckily, the priest Daokai is totally on board with this quandary and asks the question for us:
Priest Daokai, who would later become abbot of Mount Dayang, asked Touzi, “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”
Daokai is also doubtful that the deep meaning of the Buddha ancestors is the same as eating rice and drinking tea. Surely there must be some other means to awaken people, to teach people to wake up. How familiar to our modern sensibilities. It is the same way when we wonder, What am I missing? Is there some other practice I should be doing that will move me along? Some teacher that will reveal the truth? If so, please, could someone just let me know what that is? It’s important to Dokai and is not a frivolous question.
It’s with some irony I am recalling our recent lay teacher conference last week in Portland. We ask the same thing too. What new practices are you integrating into Zen? Bodywork, writing exercises, and so on. I must admit, I too get excited about our creativity in teaching. But I know from my 30 years as a farmer, after all the new names for approaches and fancy techniques have come and gone, growing good food is about something really simple, all about timing with water, sun and good earth. No shortcuts. My teacher Kyogen in his later years (how fortunate I should be his student in his later life) said much the same about Zen practice. He said, You know, after all we have done by way of innovation (and that’s quite a bit), it comes down to this – zazen and precepts. You just have to do the practice. Now there’s some everyday rice and tea. Plain words: Just do the practice. I don’t think that’s going to fly off the bookshelves. But there it is.
If we don’t know where to start with answering this koan, about the meaning of rice and tea we can start with the rice and tea that’s right here on retreat. What is this rice I am eating? What is this tea? We can completely let go of the idea of tea, listen to tea, drop you versus tea, forget inside and outside. Where are you when drinking tea? Who are you? What’s not tea?
Everyday activity. This Zen tradition is about living up close and personal. Young priest Daokai has some pressure on him to do some magic (as any new teacher I can identify with, ahem) as others are looking to him to enlighten them. He’s “got it” on one level, but faced with teaching others, goes back to looking for some power outside of what is right in front of him. Like me, he is refining his understanding but is not yet mature.
It is telling that, although Dogen could have just written his message more directly, that Kajo is chock full of stories of teachers and students, full of human stories. It reads like a play in many acts.
Here’s one answer to this koan: Most intimate. Tea and rice are most intimate. You know what I’ve come to realize is the hardest thing about Zen practice? Not the long hours of zazen, not the bizarre and frustrating Zen koan language, not this not that. No, it is the practice with others. Face to face. When I first came to practice with my home temple, Dharma Rain, they talked a lot about the need to be “willing to be seen.” I totally didn’t get it. What can they mean, I’m here aren’t I? Is there something more than just having my body show up to the zendo? I think the question made me feel even more inadequate at first. Now I realize there’s a big different between showing up and being willing to be seen. The willing comes when we can relax and allow ourselves to be received, to be part of the flow. It is hard to explain, but there is a noticeable difference. This is why it’s easy to have a distant teacher – someone who doesn’t see you in the morning with puffy eyes, doesn’t watch you interact with your child or argue with your partner, doesn’t encounter you when you’re confused or sick or angry. And vice versa. How easy to have a distant student who doesn’t see you, the teacher, mess up or get irritated or have conflicting human needs. Everyone’s on best behavior, but only for so long. Intimate. Up close and personal.
The opening scene of our play begins with Fuyo Dokai and his student Tosu Gisei. I do not know when this exchange happened, but because we do know their dates of birth, it’s possible that Tosu could be in his late 20’s, maybe 29, and Fuyo, 11 years his senior, could be about 40. Although Zen stories make it look like these brilliant masters pop out of nowhere, have a single conversation and then get enlightened, this is not the case. They have been at it for some time. And we can guess a little about their own karmic affinities by some of the stories about their lives. They had real struggles and concerns just like us, and engaged in many failed attempts to find the right path for them that would finally bring satisfaction and relief to their spiritual quest.
One account says that Fuyo started out on the Taoist path studying practices for immortality. It’s too bad he didn’t live in this modern era, because we’ve got tons of these kinds of devices! Just go into a store for special youthful creams, self help books and workout equipment. So I can only imagine that this naive hope we all secretly share to elude the ravages of time appeared one day to have its limits. A hope that often gets checked simply by looking in the mirror.
I also imagine Fuyo may have also had an affinity for image of the Taoist lone sage and perhaps, like many of us (I include myself) wanted to just practice as the solitary being, not be bothered with others, rise above this dusty demanding world. Make a clean escape. Perhaps one day, he realized the loneliness of that was getting him nowhere. We can imagine this of our old friend Fuyo, many cul de sacs on the path of practice. Of course, he did live until 72, so perhaps a few of those Daoist practices gave him a boost. No harm done.
And then there’s his teacher, Touzi, Tosu Gisei. I imagine him more the intellectuial sort – literary minded, attracted to esoteric teaching and the more complicated the better. Someone seduced by intellectual intrigue. According to Keizan, he studied Yogachara (which is a system of thought you practically need a PhD in Sanskrit to understand) until one day he exclaimed, “This doctrine is obscure, what good is it?” How familiar to us modern seekers with access to so much information, so much written dharma. How complicated the thinking mind can get when looking for the truth of this moment. So instead of complicated doctrine, he starts to take up Zen and look directly into his own heart-mind without the props.
A later story about Tosu says that at one time his teacher sent him off to a monastery to learn from another teacher. When found absent in the meditation hall after he arrived and the Ino goes and finds him asleep in the corridor. When questioned about this rude behavior, he replies, “Fancy food doesn’t interest someone who’s sated.” Can you imagine? The word “cheeky” comes to mind. But true enough, he’s no longer engaged in chasing words and phrases to wake up to his own existence. He’s ready for the real thing.
So these monks, these seekers, like us, had many years of trial and error before this conversation. They were reenacting Shakyamuni’s path based on their own karmic affinity until they knew what drinking tea and eating rice was. Reaching the place of the unborn, the undying. The place of no doubt. And then they continued on, constantly refining. Once sated, the continued eating.
My teacher used to say that there’s only one constant between teachers and students. And this is that the teacher becomes a koan for the student. What we want in a teacher and what we need in a teacher may not be the same thing. What a paradox, to awaken in relationship to another, someone who cannot give you anything. Dogen says here awakening to the truth is not found in the exotic, does not belong in the past, is not in words or esoteric practices, does not belong to famous teachers. No, instead he says there’s no need to rely upon anything else than drinking tea and eating rice. Like Mushin’s nest she so beautifully described, we need to leave the nest of our imagined enlightenment, into which are woven postcards of awakening from the images of others. (Of course, if these postcards inspire us to leap out of the nest, that’s great. But usually they just make us dreamy.)
I want to use a story of my own early days as a new student. Since we often hear teachers talk about their own teachers in romanticized (ie. forgetful) ways, like when Dogen talks about his teacher Rujing as “The Old Buddha,” I’d like to offer a more realistic view. When I met Kyogen, I knew he had something I wanted that I couldn’t name but felt compelled to return to. It made no sense to my rational mind. Since we had almost nothing in common on a basic human interest level, I had the most difficult time relating to him. Early on I drew the shocking conclusion that he just plain didn’t like me. That I was an annoyance. Of course, the more I thought this, the more evidence piled up to support this embarrassing fact. I would try to make small talk and he would drift away or look blankly back at me. He didn’t seek me out or laugh at my jokes or offerings of conversation. He certainly wasn’t impressed by my Zen insights! It became useless, until finally, I just said to myself, fine, he doesn’t have to like me, but I am determined to see this path through regardless. I was not about to give up. This is my last stop! Of course in hindsight, I was trying to fit Kyogen into the map of my known world and feared the worst base on my own early trauma growing up. The question of liking and not liking isn’t even relevant. I find the reflection amusing now, because his love was always shining great and clear. He was waiting patiently for me to arrive.
One translation of this fascicle refers to the rice and tea phrase as “coarse tea and thin gruel.” It’s not an easy path to have a teacher. Sometimes it’s coarse tea and thin gruel. Something not easy to take in. A teaching that is disappointing, not the medicine we want. On sesshin I try to accept with a little sadness when the Tippy Cloud South is weak in the morning. Then I understand the diluted taste often brings out something stark and haunting. Hundreds of years of teachers and students – heartbreak, struggle, opening, release. No two alike. And the gratitude there is profound. We teachers are often guilty of telling a romantic story of our studenthood that’s only romantic in retrospect.
Dogen’s chapter Kajo is a nourishing meal for the dis-ease we suffer from in our own skin. Such compassion for his sangha. When he recalls the words, the “everyday rice and tea” of his teacher, the old buddha Rujing, he remembers him saying in the hall:
Right at this moment, put down the burden you are carrying.
So, please, come back to your own seat and ponder this koan, What is drinking tea and eating rice? Sit with this question and don’t answer it too soon. Put down the burden you are carrying.