I looked too hard for things that aren’t there
Yin Ts’ao Shakya
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realization
he overcame all ill-being.’
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
-The Heart Sutra Thich Nhat Hanh
The greatest thing the late Ming Zhen Shakya taught me was the importance of living in a productive, fulfilling way in daily life. This teaching helped me overcome my tendency to cling to metaphysical thinking. Eventually it became the vehicle for my ongoing awakening. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for it!
Like so many others, I “looked too hard for things that aren’t there” not only in my spiritual practice, but also in life. And after finding nothing, I abandoned the superfluous “looking” altogether. Allow me to illustrate with several antidotes from my daily life.
I had a challenging day at work. It was one of those days where there were several things on my To-Do list. While working diligently to complete every last item on the list, in a timely and efficient manner, my boss, without warning, calls and tells me to drop everything immediately.
The Executive VP needs something done and he needs it to be done now!
You know what I mean, an urgent request with an alarming deadline followed by the inevitable question, ‘can you make this happen before the end of the day?’ My answer? Well, my answer is always yes, maybe a bit quixotic but still a yes. It comes from my desire to do my best and to do it on time.
And heaven, by god I soldiered through it and delivered the goods with enough time left over to for my boss to review the work. Before he handed it off to the executives he made sure that human beings would actually be able to decipher it.
Voila! It was on time and it worked. Yahoo!
By the end of the day when good-old Miller Time came around, I went outside, sat down in one of our big, plastic Adirondack chairs on the porch, cracked-open a cold one, and watched my dog frolic in the yard.
Sure, it was a challenging day, with unreasonable deadlines, but I got the job done and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. As I sat outside in my chair, watching my dog chase the squirrels that are forever zigzagging and whizzing by her, I thought, I worked hard today. We can pay the rent, and am enjoying a rest in my backyard where I imagined my twins to come will play. I felt good.
When Miller Time was over, I went back inside to cook gumbo for me and my wife, and our two babies who are growing inside her tummy. That took me from feeling good, to feeling great (it always does).
After dinner my wife and I retired to the living room sofa, to relax and catch-up on what we’d missed on Facebook® while we were both at work.
That’s when I went from feeling great to feeling like I wanted to choke people.
A friend of mine had posted a link to an article on Vice.com, entitled “Millennials On Spirit Quests Are Ruining Everything About Ayahuasca” and it caught my eye as I scrolled-through my newsfeed. I should’ve just chuckled and continued scrolling, but I didn’t. Nope. Like a jackass, I clicked on it and started reading. I won’t go too deeply into the details of the article here, I’ll just give the premise and leave it at that-
Apparently, upwardly-mobile young adults who feel unfulfilled in their lives are traveling to South America to hang out with Native Peoples and drink the hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca, with the hopes of having spiritual visions. This, in-turn, has brought a lot of unwanted attention to the afore-mentioned Native Peoples, and such attention is becoming a threat to their culture.
Like Cain, the anger rose up, and from that anger I formulated a comment which I left on my friend’s post. It read something like this-
“What’s this vision quest bullshit? Really? These people need a vision quest? What sheer stupidity! Let me tell you something. There is nothing, nothing more to life than working hard, raising your family right, exercising, and fly fishing (or whatever task you prefer to master). If you’re looking for anything more out of life than that you’re a rube, because it doesn’t exist. Period. Full-stop.”
Ugh! I know, the less a man makes declarative statements the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect. But as no one fully understands the workings of karma I was blessed with an experience while washing the dishes not long after I’d posted the comment.
In the Kitchen Holy Place
It’s no accident that I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning. I suppose I could be described as “Old School” in the sense that yes, I believe the old adage that “a man’s home is his castle,” but I take it to include my wife and my forthcoming twins. I do my very best to make it our castle. But there’s one stipulation: The kitchen is where my best Dharma work is done. This translates into the kitchen is my holy place.
It’s where everything is cooked up, eaten, washed, dried and put into place. It’s a place of refuge where my consciousness is cooked, chewed, washed, dried and put straight. It’s a mortar and pestle where cause and effect, karma, and the whole universe are ground down and changed in the ordinariness of cooking, eating, and cleaning.
Everything is fine, there.
Those words came to me, after I finished doing the dishes, while I stood there looking at the clean countertops and the empty sink, which all seemed to glow in absolute perfection in the evening sunlight which beamed through my kitchen window. I knew the sink wasn’t perfect because I washed all the dishes that were in there, and the countertop wasn’t perfect because I wiped it clean.
I saw they were perfect because washing the dishes washed me off, and wiping-off the countertop wiped me clean.
I stood there, giddy…giggling as the experience occurred.
My consciousness, indeed, me, arises just the same as dirty dishes arise from cooking and serving dinner. And for some ineffable reason, this realization makes me suffer less, and gives me a deeply-abiding peace and joyfulness unlike anything I’ve ever felt.
Zen, lovely in its inherent simplicity, gives everything in the here-and-now to experience this joy. The beloved Heart Sutra is a lens to contemplate and follow the Eight-Fold Path in a life in-which to practice.
What more is needed?
Equanimity comes from the experience of keenly discerning that without dirty dishes and dirty countertops, a clean kitchen cannot exist, and if your kitchen is clean, sooner or later the need to eat, along with literally everything else, contributes to the arising of a dirty kitchen.
It’s life… and it’s all fine… this not looking for things that aren’t there.