robai-shin: entering the heart of ancestral recipes

robai-shin“You understand all of Buddhism, but you cannot go beyond your abilities and your intelligence. You must have robai-shin, the mind of great compassion. This compassion must help all of humanity. You should not think only of yourself.”

I can’t find the source of the quote attributed to Dogen, who apparently said it to the Third Patriarch of Eihei-ji. Upon the arrival of our Gr’Kid, a dharma sister sent me the quote welcoming me into the the community of Grandmothers. Robai-shin, wrote another. It will bring you deeper into the heart of compassion.

Dogen wrote in Instructions for the Tenzo that “in performing our duties along with other officers and staff, (we) should maintain joyful mind, kind mind, and great mind.” Joyful mind arises from our gratitude for being born into this human form. More so that “we have the good fortune of cooking meals to be offered to the three treasures.” Now that I immediately understand because cooking is the heart of my family, its compassionate ground, and the source of all healing. The curries, dahls, rice. The desserts of glutinous black rice and agar jellies. The pungent fermented tea leaves and pickled ginger digestives. Dogen’s exhortations in the earlier sections of Instructions read like a day in my own grandmother’s hotel on Sule Pagoda Road in Rangoon. Well, maybe it was a bit more frenetic than Eihei-ji because my uncle and aunt who helped there were just as likely to swing cleavers at each other as at the chickens.

dahl

My mother, despite not knowing how to cook (why would you need to when your own mother owned a hotel and simply delivered the food each day!), developed her own skills ultimately crafting a pilau rice that earned the title “Gamma’s Rice.” And, the deterioration in its edibility was what first raised the alarms of her encroaching dementia. I’m not sure what dishes will identify my place on this earth but that is the nature of being parent – and now grandparent. I delight in an eclectic range of textures and flavours, only coming into the ancestral recipes later in life. Interesting how I can now say “later” although it’s never been an avoided or hidden idea that aging grants me many somewhat unearned privileges. My own curries are finally edible and I turn more towards the Indian styles of cooking and taste. And yet, my signature dishes tend to be Burmese, likely more for their rarity than their actual craft.

Robai-shin. Grandmother-mind. Kind mind. The second of Dogen’s doors to community is that quality of kindness. Not just kindness but a stance of protectiveness of the present for the future. Kaz Tanahashi¹ translates it as a parental mind. We develop this kindness for our children to the extent that we “do not care whether (we ourselves) are poor or rich; (our) only concern is that (our) children will grow up.” In principle, it is our only concern: that they survive. Of course, we harbour hopes that they will live carefully, in good health, making wise choices, respecting others as themselves, and knowing that the bloodline extends through them but doesn’t end there. The tricky part is that our kindness is offered against this backdrop of hope but cannot be directed by it. Robai-shin is an offering “without expecting any result or gain.” It simply unfolds as that hand reaching for the pillow in the night, the bow that evidences transmission beyond words, the sound of the single hand at death. It holds, it honours, it transcends form as it is called to do so.

Both my grandmothers were iconoclasts in their own right. My paternal grandmother was a rather severe character but with a sharp sense of humour particularly about her love of oversized cheroots. Devoutly Buddhist, she was the quintessential pragmatist. She never cooked, cleaned, or otherwise engaged in tasks that someone else in her life was already doing. I saw her weekly but never among family. She arrived each Sunday to take me to the Botataung Pagoda (while my parents entertained their friends at poker and various gambling games). I don’t recall any words of wisdom or special gifts. That is, until one day I overheard an intense argument she was having with my father over the damage he was doing karmically by exposing me to his high society lifestyle. She was formidable and, as I understand from the family myths, would not have been above picking up a wooden shoe to whack sense into him at any age – his or hers. I never knew her name until I was an adult but it didn’t dim the connection.

dahl-riceMy maternal grandmother ran the Piccadilly Hotel in Rangoon. Now she, along with her only surviving son, was all about food. I lived in the hotel with my  five male cousins and we all became little cook’s helpers. Unfortunately, only I escaped the epigenetic change that enabled the boys to become great cooks. As “Ma,” she made sure we roamed the hallways as a little gang, thereby protecting us from certain characters who lodged there in transit to Bangkok or Delhi. She set the rules for riding out into the Night Bazaar on my uncle’s scooter, clutched to his flapping, open shirt. Being the only girl (at the time), I was forbidden to go though my uncle found ways around that senseless rule. Apparently robai-shin meant something different to him. As “Belle,” she swept through the evening society parties in shimmering gowns with a hairstyle of braids wound upright over her head like a dark halo and an eternal eye cast on negotiating the family’s best future.

robai-shin2Out of joyful mind and robai-shin arises great mind. “Like a great mountain or a great ocean,” it is the nondiscriminatory mind. It is the vast, boundless space which is also robai-shin and joyful mind because it contains everything. Instructions for the Tenzo is a simile wrapped around a metaphor at whose heart lies a mirror. It’s a discourse on how to wash rice, pointing to principles for living a life of deep practice, penetrating that deep question of who we truly are.  In the teachings of the three minds, Dogen reveals the components of both community and the Great Matter, leaving it up to us to craft a recipe that honours why we have been held in robai-shin and are called to embody robai-shin.

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1. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.), Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. North Point Press, NY.

5 thoughts on “robai-shin: entering the heart of ancestral recipes

  1. Such a beautiful post! I love this…” It simply unfolds as that hand reaching for the pillow in the night, the bow that evidences transmission beyond words, the sound of the single hand at death. It holds, it honours, it transcends form as it is called to do so.” Exquisite and congratulations! So glad to have found your site. Are you in Santa Fe?

  2. Thank you for this beautiful offering on grandparenthood. Becoming a grandmother has brought immeasurable joy and magic into my life. And the time I spend with my granddaughter is a reminder of being in the present moment without thoughts of past or future or outcomes or planning. Blessings to you.
    Katherine

    • Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. It has been a lovely 3 weeks with Gr’Kid, The Kid, and approved peripherals and Add-ins. Now to dive into the practice of practice!

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