Many years ago I was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oakland, California. We sat in formal Zen meditation for several hours every day, except during the monthly retreats when we sat for ten or eleven hours each day—and if you’ve never tried it, I should say that it is physically challenging. In fact, it involves a certain consistent level of pain. However, I don’t recall much of the sitting, or the pain. Nor do I recall the liturgical life in any detail, nor the formal study, nor even the regular round of work. What I do recall, vividly, is how I was always hungry.
One evening I was eating a thin vegetable soup, feeling seriously sorry for myself. How in the world had I gotten myself into such a mess? Perhaps late that night I would simply pack my belongings—didn’t have too many of those to worry about—and slip away. Or at least I could go to the nearest taqueria. And I knew of one just a few blocks away. A nice big beef burrito would certainly hit the spot.
Of course, the practice was paying attention. Attending while sitting in meditation, yes, but also attending while working, while reading, while doing everything, including, of course, and very much so, eating. So, reluctantly I drew myself back from that little reverie involving refried beans, sautéed vegetables, pulled spiced beef, pico de gallo, and maybe just a hint of guacamole, and returned to my thin, thin soup.
I’d quickly eaten all the vegetables and all that was left was—have I mentioned?—a very thin broth, but with a miso base, so cloudy I couldn’t see to the bottom of the bowl. I stirred absently, watching small whirls of clouds appear and disappear in the soup. Another wave of regret and sorrow washed over me. But again I returned to the moment, to attending to the meal, such as it was, in front of me. As I looked, a cabbage leaf floated up to the surface. I was ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic.
Then something magical happened. As I watched, I had this amazing sense of gratitude for that cabbage leaf. And I felt gratitude for my companions in this strange project to which I’d committed myself. Then I was aware of our neighbors in the city and of the city itself. I felt gratitude for them and the people of the state and the country and the globe. I felt a sense of joy wash through the cosmos itself. And then there I was, just me looking at that cabbage leaf. There was only that cabbage leaf floating there in front of me. No stories about it, no stories about me. Just this. Nothing more. I slipped the cabbage leaf onto my spoon, raised it to my mouth, and ate it.
The gratitude was a setup. The hand-off was just slipping the cabbage leaf onto the spoon, just that motion, then raising it to my mouth, just that raising, just that moment. And just eating. Just this. Just this. The words, oh God, the words fail. But the consequences have played out for a lifetime.
It was just a taste. But it was, for me, the taste of awakening.
You don’t earn it. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be smart. Awakening just happens.
And it comes to us in surprising places and times, sometimes while meditating or on retreat, or slurping down a cabbage leaf, but actually a bit more likely while washing dishes, or chasing an errant three-year-old, or sitting on the toilet.
Awakening comes to us in the most unexpected ways, in the most unexpected times. It is a gift. It is always a gift. And it comes to us like being hit by a bus.
There are many, many practices out there that claim to help. And here’s a little secret: too many of them do nothing. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams once wryly noted that “nothing sells like egoism wrapped in idealism.” Much of what passes for spiritual practice is just puffing up the ego, reinforcing and guarding it against any and all assault. And—have no doubt in this matter—a real spiritual practice plays rough with the ego.
The Zen path—the spiritual practice I have embraced—is, in this regard and others, a real spiritual practice. And it is worth pursuing, wholeheartedly. But keep your wits about you, be reasonable. Don’t exaggerate any one experience. And, equally important, don’t diminish it, either. Engage it all with a spirit of invitation, and maybe you’ll begin to notice gratitude welling up from somewhere deep within. Whatever, somehow, your insight will appear, your awakening, your gate into the wide world and your initiation into knowing you truly are part of the great Empty family.
Have a little courage and maintain some diligence. Diligence is important.
Once I was in a meeting of Zen teachers and we were discussing what defines a real practice. One of the teachers wanted to express the finest and the highest, to outline a way that encompassed the whole of a life. It was rather beautiful. And I was more than passingly annoyed. I’m more petty, small-minded. I want to know what the minimums are. Sadly, what I’ve come to see is that there is no one who can tell a person what exactly must be done in order to harvest the possibilities of Zen practice. There are just too many variables to make any one-size-fits-all assertion.
Here’s a hard fact. Just sitting once a week is not a Zen practice. It’s true that you might wake up with that one sit. But I wouldn’t put a lot of money on that likelihood. I think for most of us sitting a minimum of about a half an hour a day, most days of the week, is the baseline. And if you can also throw in some retreats—half-day, full-day, multi-day—once in a while, that’s generally even better. The majority of serious Zen practitioners do more than this. But, and I also need to hold this up, some who have truly found the Zen way in their own hearts do less.
But be careful. Doing less, particularly at the beginning, when trying to find your way into Zen, sets up the distinct possibility of a dilettante practice, growing something with no roots and little chance of fruition. And, again, no one knows precisely what makes a real Zen practice, at least in terms of how much is enough. So, bottom line: just do your best. And when you find you’re not, which is what most of us have experienced, often over and over, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again.
The way is vast and endlessly forgiving.
It is also harsh, demanding everything from us. But this “everything” is not about how much time you choose to put on the pillow.
Now, the truth is, even getting to that half hour a day can be difficult. There are still relatively few places in the country where one can find a center that offers a place to sit on a daily basis, although this is changing. I have little doubt that would be the best way to do it. I was blessed to live in an area with multiple centers where I could sit on just about any day of the week. There’s an amazing power in sitting with others. But looking around North America, there aren’t that many such centers. Most likely if one finds a center it is going to offer a sitting opportunity once a week. So, use it. And cultivate your own practice.
At the beginning, I recommend that regularity is vastly more important than duration. So, if you determine to sit three days a week for ten minutes a shot, and you do it, you’re on your way. I’ve met too many people who, caught in the passion of the moment, declare they will sit two hours a day for the rest of their lives. They don’t. And often, embarrassed, they disappear.
Stretch a little beyond what seems comfortable.
Sit at least a little most every day.
And plod on.
Forgive yourself your failures, but resume. Fall down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start over again. One teacher liked to say fall down nine times, get up ten. Start over.
That’s the practice.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (pages 26–27). Illustration: “Soup” (2008–09) by Henry John (Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library). This essay is adapted from James Ishmael Ford’s new book, If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012) and is reprinted with permission. ©2012 by James Ishmael Ford; Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, Massachusetts.
- If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life. By James Ishmael Ford. Wisdom Publications, 2012. (Wisdom Publications)