By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2003
In topics: Everyday Zen
, Koan Studies
Summary: Drawing on Zhaozhou's reminder to wash our bowls, Zoketsu explores the Zen approach to the material world.
There’s an old Zen story that I like very much. A monk comes to the monastery of Master Zhaozhou and asks for instruction. The master asks him, “Have you had your breakfast?” The monk says that he has. “Then wash your bowls,” is the Master’s reply, and the only instruction he offers
Although this story might seem merely to illustrate the gruff, odd, and cryptic style of the Zen Master, it is actually making a fundamental point. Zhaozhou wants to bring the monk down to the immediate present of his training: “Don’t look for some profound Zen instructions here. Open your eyes! ” he seems to be indicating. “Just be present with the actual stuff of your ordinary everyday life- in this case, bowls.”
I have always appreciated Zen’s emphasis on the material, practical aspects of our lives. Like the monk in the story, I came to the Zen Center years go with huge metaphysical concerns. But my questions weren’t answered. Instead I was taught how to mop the floor, wash the dishes, tend the garden. Actually it was very good training for me. It was exactly what I needed. And out of the grounding that this training gave me, my metaphysical concerns began to be, slowly and soulfully, settled. My experience is quite in line with the classical Zen approach. Over and over again throughout Zen literature you read of students approaching their masters with many complications, only to be brought down to earth, just as Zhaozhou brings the monk down to earth, just as my teachers brought me down to earth. “It’s right here- in front of your nose. ”
Far from offering a path to transcend the material world, Zen endeavors to open up to the material world by entering it fully. Once you enter the material world completely, the teachings imply, its depths will be revealed. The material world is not just the material world; it is not what we think it is. In fact, the Zen masters show us, the material world is not, as spiritual practitioners might initially imagine, in and of itself superficial: what’s superficial is our habitial view of it. To see the material world as it really is is to recognize its non-difference from the highest spiritual truths. Zen training is the effort to learn to enter the material world at such a depth, and to appreciate it. And, as the story of Zhaozhou indicates, to see that appreciating the world as it is involves taking care of it.
The main practice of Zen is meditation (indeed the word “Zen” means meditation) but the meditation practice the tradition emphasizes is not exactly spiritual contemplation. In the Soto Zen that I practice, meditation is called, technically, “just sitting,” and the actual mechanics of sittings as sitting are stressed. When you receive instruction in Soto Zen meditation you are not given mantras or lofty objectives- instead the instructor will talk to you about many details of physical posture – the alignment of your ears and shoulders, the correct position of your hands and arms – and how to go about paying attention to your breathing. The instruction will be so physical, so concrete and specific, that you might well wonder when the “Zen” part begins. But this is the Zen part: the meditation practice is quite physical. To pay attention intensely to the body in all its details, to be present with the body, the physical immediacy of the body- this is the practice, and all its depth comes from this.
In Soto Zen monasticism this emphasis on the physical as the fountainhead of the spiritual extends through and past the body to all aspects of monastic life. As Zhaozhou instructs, monks are to be quite present with and careful of their bowls, their robes, their shoes. The temple work is considered not a necessary and unfortunate series of chores, but rather an opportunity to realize the deepest truths of the tradition. Workers in Zen kitchens approach their tasks, however menial or repetitive, with full religious attention (at least ideally!); the head monk in a monastic training period is in charge of cleaning toilets and taking out the garbage, a holy task he or she is to take on with full respect and honor. Most Westerners are now aware of the spiritual intensity with which Zen monastics take on the daily job of cleaning the temple inside and out, rushing up and down to wipe the wood of the pillars and floors by hand with wet cloths; raking leaves, cutting wood, drawing water. All these immediate physical tasks are seen as essential spiritual practices. The monks are continually taught that none of them differ in any way from sutra chanting or text contemplation, or meditation itself. All is physical, all is immediate, all is the stuff of enlightenment.
All this is to say that Zen is quite a materialistic tradition. Far from proposing an alternative to materialistic life, Zen affirms the materialistic realm as something that is – at least potentially- self transcending. In other words, spirituality is not achieved through avoiding or bypassing the material realm: it is achieved by entering the material realm in a more mindful and thoroughgoing way.
Once many years ago, soon after I was ordained as a Zen priest, I visited a cousin of mine in Miami. An oral surgeon, quite good as what he does and consequently rather wealthy, my cousin is quite enamored of cars. When he takes a fancy to a particular kind of car- once it was a Mercedes Benz sports convertible, later the Ford Bronco- he buys several versions of it, so that he typically has a small fleet of cars, all the same model, in different colors and with slightly different features. On this particular visit of mine, he was quite taken with the Chevrolet Corvette, and had several of them. Quite tentatively he asked me whether I’d like to have a ride in one, and I said, sure. He rolled the convertible top down, and we went out onto the highway, speeding along at a good clip, and stirring a wonderful warm south Florida breeze as we went. I was impressed with the way the automobile handled, with its considerable power, and enjoyed the ride thoroughly.
On our return my cousin asked me what I thought of the car and I told him how impressed I was. He was surprised at my reaction. Clearly he’d expected that as a religious person I’d have disapproved of his conspicuous consumption. Maybe I did. But, apart from any ideas I might have had about that, I could appreciate the actual experience of the automobile, and enjoy it. He asked me how that was. “In our experiencing the material world,” I explained to him, “there are always two elements in play, the material object - in this case a car the highway, the scenery going by - and the sense organs and mind that apprehend that object. You need both to have an experience of the material world. We all have bodies, we all eat food. So we are all materialists. So-called materialists emphasize the object; so-called non materialists, or religious people, emphasize the sense organs and the mind. But you need both. The fact is though, if the mind and the sense organs are acute enough, even a fairly humble object can bring a great deal of satisfaction. Think of how much money I save by practicing Zen! I can get a lot of good out of just one ride; I don’t have to buy the car!” He saw my point. Just as he spent long hours on the accumulation of objects, I spent long hours on my meditation cushion, each of us working on the question of being alive in this material world from his own angle.
Working on the sense organs and the mind (which includes the heart and the spirit) does take cultivation. It takes mindfulness, the skill of quieting the mind so it can be present with what actually is, rather than with ideas about what is. The truth is, what we call materialism isn’t really materialistic – it is idealistic. In other words, it is not the objects that we are after in our consuming- it’s what those objects mean, what they represent. If you don’t think this is true, just consider advertising. While advertising may or may not have had its roots in the need to inform the public about products that are available, certainly it is not now that. Now its function is to create an aura of emotion and ideology around an object, so as to make it much more desirable than the actual object itself actually is. A friend of mine once drew my attention to a magazine ad for a van. In the photo the van was parked on a gorgeous beach, with its wide doors open on both sides. On one side of the van was a man reclining. On the other side was a beautiful woman in a bathing suit, lying down with her feet in the sea. A luminous, almost ethereal, shaft of sunlight shone down from the sky, right through the open doors of the van, and onto the woman’s sensuous face. The photo- idealistically touched up with rich colors and smooth surfaces- suggested something delightful, although I don’t know how much it actually had to do with the van itself.
I have another friend whose genius lies in his profound understanding of the idealism that lies at the heart of our so-called materialism. He had the idea years ago that the way to sell clothing is not to show pictures of the clothing and stress its beauty or durability. Since material things are essentially ideas to us, the way to sell clothing is to tell stories that indicate attitudes, he realized, and to associate those stories and attitudes with the clothing. So he drew pictures of the clothing and wrote catalogue descriptions of it that involved many witty and romantic adventures. There was a style and an spirit to the way he did this that made the depicted clothing seem extremely desirable. That desirability even extended beyond the catalogue pictures to the clothes themselves: when you wore them you somehow felt draped in the attitude and style written about in the catalogue! Needless to say, my friend has been able to make a fortune several times over in our modern idealistic economy.
This is all a far cry from “wash your bowls,” which emphasizes taking a very humble object, and making it magnificent not by applying ideas to it, but by simply and repeatedly taking care of it mindfully. Once the Twentieth Century Japanese Zen Master Nakagawa Soen Roshi gave a retreat in America. The retreat took place in a rented school building, so there wasn’t much equipment available for serving meals. The daily schedule included a tea service, and since there were no teacups available, paper cups had to be used. On the first day of the retreat, after the initial serving of tea, the retreatants began to wad their cups to throw them away, but the Roshi stopped them. “No!” he told them. “We need to use these same cups each day so you have to save them.” For seven days of the retreat retreatants used the same paper cup for tea. When the retreat was over Soen Roshi said “Ok, now we can throw away the paper cups.” But the students wouldn’t hear of it. “Throw them away! These are our cups that we have used mindfully every day. How could we possibly throw them away: they are precious to us!”
My friends are always astonished when I tell them how much I enjoy shopping malls. Especially at Christmas time, when they are full of shoppers. I enjoy the feeling of joining together with other people who are out looking for gifts for their loved ones, anticipating getting together for a festive meal with them, happy to be spending lots of money in a celebration of life. I am of course aware of all the waste and misery that also accompanies the holiday season, but mostly that’s not what I focus on. Yes the parking lot is too crowded, and yes the amount of merchandise in the stories is overwhelming. But I can’t help it, I still enjoy myself.
The contemporary American shopping mall may seem like a recent blight on social life, but the truth is shopping malls are as old as human civilization. I’ve visited Jerusalem several times, and walked through the narrow streets of the Old City, which are now, as they have been for millennia, crowded with shops overflowing with merchandise, jammed in check by jowl with each other, shopkeepers shouting at passers-by to get their attention. I have also spent many happy hours at the great Indian market in Oaxaca, in Mexico, where you see women selling tamales, butchers displaying their wares, and all manner of clothing, jewelry, liquor, and food (including the Oaxacan specialty, peppered grasshoppers). Although I don’t buy much at any of these places, I enjoy the spectacle, and, especially, I enjoy the feeling of being with the people, shoppers and shopkeepers alike, all of us brought together in one teeming location by the simple human need for material goods that we hope will bring pleasure, comfort, and sustenance into our lives.
In the end commerce is communication, a way of being together, transacting, each of us helping the other to fulfill our human needs. Thirteenth Century Japanese Zen Master Dogen says somewhere, “To build a boat, or construct a bridge- these are acts of giving. To earn a living is an act of giving.” I know that it is possible for us to engage in commerce as an act of participation and compassion – to buy and sell in that spirit. To cultivate, through the process of our spiritual practice, a view of material things that appreciates them for what they are in themselves, and recognizes in them also an opportunity for us to meet each other on the ground of our shared human needs. When you do business with someone, you are cementing a relationship with him or her. You could see the relationship as adversarial (who will get the best of whom?) but you could just as easily see it as mutual, each of you providing as fairly and as pleasantly as possible what the other needs. It is within the power of any of us to cultivate an attitude of mutuality in our economic transactions, and in doing so, to see our customer, our supplier, our dealer, our accountant, as a friend, someone who, like us, needs to earn a living. To look at commercial life like this, and to conduct ourselves as if it were so, takes sensitivity and mindful awareness that we need to develop over time, working with our thoughts and responses, just as we work with our breath on the cushion. Part of that work is to be honest and realistic about our own greed, to our own fear, our own confusion. But if can do this with enough clarity and patience, then it is possible for us to conduct our economic lives with some peacefulness and enjoyment.
Contemporary commerce is characterized by its immense complexity. There’s no longer anything local about it: goods we buy and sell involve unknown and unseen participants from all over the globe, many of whom may be exploited in the process of the fulfillment of our needs. To conduct our economic lives mindfully requires us to be aware not only of our attitudes, the goods we buy, and our relationships to the people in front of us who supply us with them, but also to be as informed about the possible exploitation involved in our purchases as we can be, and to use our purchasing power to reinforce goodness and weaken greed and exploitation. It seems to me that the world is in need of a new economic theory to replace the one that is now in effect, unrestrained free market capitalism, which operates on the faith that an “unseen hand,” as Adam Smith called it, will see to it that things don’t go out of bounds. In fact the unseen hand has been relatively skillful: although our world economy is in fairly terrible shape (especially when you consider its ecological costs), it is also a miracle that it is in as good a shape as it is, considering its complexity, and the fact that it is ruled by people who are not as well meaning as one would like. I don’t know if Adam Smith ever proposed a definition of the “unseen hand,” but here’s mine: it is the sum total of human goodness, of our love for ourselves and each other. Perhaps we can trust it to inspire us to more mindful consumption as time goes on, and to find, eventually, some new organizing principles for our economic life. Until then- and long after! – we have our individual spiritual practice to guide our daily conduct as we go forth into the world, earning and spending as we must.
© 2003, Norman Fischer