Embodying a whisk

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

For the time being a staff or a whisk. Both are tools, both belong to different traditional jobs or offices in a temple: the staff for the zen meditation master, the whisk for the tenzo (the cook in zen temples).

The following bolded lines are from Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun (Instruction for the Tenzo). Translations from Moon in a Dewdrop.

rice “Watch for sand when you examine the rice. Watch for rice when you throw away the sand.”
Can you imagine this task set before you? Two bowls – one filled with the raw rice, another for the rice after examining, and the floor below you for the discarded sand.  Bringing practice into this task is two-fold – both carefully cleaning the rice of sand before considering it clean, and carefully examining the sand before you consider it dirt.

Paying attention not only to the action of the task – the arising of the task, but also to the end – the falling away of the task.  Dogen’s teaching urges us to stay with it – all the way to the end.  In asana this might mean watching equally how we enter, as well as exit a pose – so we don’t wind up with a sequence of starting pose after pose without ever really completing them.  Or in the kitchen, so we don’t wind up with a lot of clean rice without ever really checking to see if we missed any.  Or we spend an entire day moving from one event, task, need, person to the next, without taking any time to pause and be present as it comes to the end. Perhaps, if we did take that time, we might even notice the pause between them – just like the pause at the end of the exhale.

“Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another.”
How can we stay with the beginning and end of a pose? The beginning and end of a breath? The beginning and end of a commute? The beginning and end of a sensation or mood?  We all have areas where we take time to be careful all the way through, and we all have areas where that is not the case.  What are yours? What is one thing, today, you could apply this practice to and see what happens?

“When preparing the vegetables and the soup ingredients to be cooked, do not discuss the quantity or quality of these materials which have been obtained from the monastery officers; just prepare them with sincerity. Most of all you should avoid getting upset or complaining about the quantity of the food materials.”

What would like look like in your office? In your home?

 “Since ancient times this position has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment. This is so because the position requires wholehearted practice.”
How hard is it to do anything whole-heartedly?  For me, this is especially challenging with cooking – it’s so easy to drift off to another task mid-boil, get lost in commentary about completely unrelated topics mid-chop, or get into a mood that makes me less approachable to those I love. Even while writing this dharma, I was making coffee and planning out my words instead of just emptying the grinds.

In B.K.S Iyengar’s translations of “satya” (honesty), he suggests that if every cell of your being is not on board with what you’re saying – it’s not satya.  I like that for a definition of whole-hearted activity – every cell of your being is present and dedicated to this moment.  And also, there’s a mood of whole-heartedness that goes along with that definition.  Without that whole-hearted mood – our movements can become mechanical.

whisk “If there is sincerity in your cooking and associated activities, whatever you do will be an act of nourishing the sacred body”
Sincerity is the quality of being free from pretense…free from trying to make what’s happening anything other than what it is, right now, in this moment.

Sincere, whole-hearted, all the way through from beginning to end practice – this is how we embody a whisk.

Wrathful Deities

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

wrathful deityFor the time being three heads and eight arms – the wrathful deity. The part of us that pushes back against what’s arising with ferocity, without breath, without our tools. We all have this in us. My teacher, Michael Stone, jokes that it’s called “before espresso” for him.

When are you a wrathful deity in life? When are you a wrathful, even minor, deity in asana? On the cushion? We all have this quality. It can be towards others, it can be towards ourselves. When are you a wrathful deity?

Once acknowledgement of the wrathful deity comes, we can start with softening: the jaw, the gaze – all the way to the roots of the eyes. We can relax our recently narrowed viewpoint by releasing the soft palette. Then noting the hands, allow them to rest their continual at-the-ready tension as we let go of clinging to what we expected or wanted the moment to be.  At the end of the inhale say to yourself “let”, at the end of the exhale “go”.  If you notice the words migrate to the beginning of the breath, you’ve started to tighten and over-do.

I can be a wrathful deity when I drive. But I had no idea until about three years ago when I started driving again. I had lived for the past twelve years without driving. Now I drive two hours to see my family a few times a month, I drive five hours several times a year for retreat, and once a year I drive eight hours for silent retreat. Those are one way. Now I’ve had a chance to work with it, and I’m happy to report that I’m no longer a wrathful deity when I drive, or only a very minor one…J

Here’s what I learned:

  • I needed to be in right in the middle of what brings out my wrathful deity in order to work with it. I couldn’t do it on an island in the pacific where we’re mostly bare feet (I used to live in Hawaii). I couldn’t do it in a jazz filled trolley car walking city (I used to live in New Orleans). Despite how magical both those places are, my wrathful deity just laid dormant. It’s important to remember, when we get frustrated with living in a city (or whatever frustrates you), that it’s a gift for the yogi. Don’t avoid your wrathful deity.
  • After the acknowledgement stage, I needed to figure out which tool to use, and then set it in motion prior to the triggering situation. So I’d sit in the car before pulling out of the spot, put on the right music, breathe, look around and say to myself “It’s not mine”. And keep all of that going, with a relaxed tongue and drivingroof of the mouth. With soft eyes.
  • Notice when the patterns become run-off versus actual wrathfulness. There was a point where I would realize that the wrathful thoughts that ran through my mind had nothing to do with how I actually felt. It was just mental run off. It’s important to be in tune enough with the body, breath, and thoughts to spot this. Otherwise the thoughts can trigger you back into the state. Also, our internal practice and growth deserves a nod every now and then for the progress it’s made (without attachment to results, of course)

Highest Peaks and Deepest Oceans

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

Close your eyes. Feel the breath in your rib cage, feel the subtle expansion and contraction of the inhale and exhale.  The height of the collarbones and broadening of the skull on the inhale, the depths of the exhale down in the pelvic floor.  Our very essence is one of contraction and expansion, of highs and lows, inhales and exhales.

top of mountainFor the time being, embody fully where you are right now – the highest peak or the deepest ocean. We all know what it’s like to be in both of those places. We also all know what it’s like to either try and hold onto that space, or to feel like it will never end.  Our very heart beats out to us the message that it’s not possible, not true.  When we fully take in the first two lines of Dogen’s poem, we are listening deeply to this message. We are fully embodying right where we are, right now, in this moment.
bottom of ocean.1“In the midst of pleasure, we are anxious about when it will end. In the midst of possession, we worry about loss. Even the most beautiful birth and most gracious death come with pain, for entering and leaving the body is inherently a painful process. We know that throughout our day, experience changes from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant, and back again, ceaselessly.” Jack Kornfield

When we share our day with others, how bizarre that we often reduce it down to one word or mood. Keeping separate that which is simply in flux. Conditions come and certain parts of our day and mood arise, different conditions swell in, and things change.  The subway car fills with people and there is discomfort, it empties at the next stop and there is spaciousness, a man comes through asking for money and there is concern, we step off the car and there is cold.  Our life is more inhale and exhale than our sequential minds believe it to be.

Listen – A short excerpt from Ram Dass’s “Making Friends with Change” Podcast. I recommend listening to his reading before googling the printed version.

We extend this to our practice:

“Now, at the stage that many people I meet are at, they do their practice, their method, as “good” and as well as they can. And then they take a little time off. They say, “Well that’s been great; now what do you say we have a pizza and a beer and listen to some good music?” Now that – pizza, beer, and music – could do it for them too, except in their mind there’s a model that the “time off” has nothing to do with it.”  Ram Dass from Grist for the Mill

I don’t know about you, but I have definitely done this. And my first instinct upon coming across this passage and essentially being called out in a very specific way – was defensive. I need time off- it’s hard work to practice off the mat or cushion. But then I thought – why would I want to being doing something if that’s how I feel about it? Why would I be committing to a life time of delving deeper into something I needed to be away from.  And I saw habit thoughts around the concept of “work” – it’s something I’ll put effort into in its time, and then I need my time off from it to “relax” and really enjoy life. That’s not at all how I actually see my practice.  With that, I realized how accurate Ram Dass’s critique was – in ways I hadn’t even known.  Now I think – I just don’t want to do anything, anymore, without being as fully there as possible. Whether it’s drinking with friends, or watching Netflix, or sitting with trees, or studying with my teacher, or engaging in relationships.  It’s not separate. One is not a black or white sheep. Whether a high or a low, being fully in that space means being fully present, as fully awake as I’m capable of in that moment. And I stopped using “work” to apply to my practice, or study, or teaching, or the dharma in general.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
if it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

-Rumi (excerpt)