The purpose of Zen practice is the perfection of character.

Yamada Roshi quoted in The Practice of Perfection by Robert Aitken

As you read this, I will be winging my way to Sant Fe, New Mexico for a retreat at Upaya Zen Center.  A year ago I arrived at the doors of Upaya ZC feeling like I had walked every mile from home.  My heart in tatters, my moral compass spinning, I had no expectations that 7 days was going to put a dent in my character failings.

It was not my first retreat but it was the first that included formal meals (oryoki).  The mysteries of unfolding the linen wrappings, setting out the bowls and utensils, and knowing which spoon to use in which bowl had intimidated me so much I blocked out the request to read the 30-some pages (!) of instructions sent ahead of the retreat.  By the second meal I was truly panicked.  I could stumble along with the order of use of the spoons and chopsticks by watching my neighbours.  But wrapping up the bowls at the end of the meal with a lotus leaf knot and without the bowls skittering across the zendo floor in the process baffled me.  So I cheated: despite the injunction not to read anything during the sesshin, I pulled out the instructions I had wisely brought along and practiced in my room with a towel.

Achieving success was less about looking like an oryoki dork as it was about fully enjoying the beauty and perfection of the whole process from beginning to end.  There was something deeply satisfying about the laying out of the bowls and utensils, the rhythm and cadence of the serving of the dishes, the bows to the servers, the slap of feet on the floor of the zendo in time to the drumming which opened the chanting.  Everything dissolved into a dance with partners who quickly moved out of sight.

Like life.

And in this life I have, I am slowly learning how to wrap things up as skillfully as I can when all is done.

Thank you for practicing,


Please visit Jomon at Nothing to Attain for a beautiful linking of oryoki and compassion

2 wooden bowls

This treasure was discovered in a bamboo thicket —
I washe
d the bowl in a spring and then mended it.
At night,
it serves me soup or rice.
Cracked, worn, weather-beaten, and misshapen

But still of noble stock.

Our friend Ryokan (Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen poems of Ryokan translated by John Stevens) is the master of voluntary simplicity which the Simple Living Network describes as “living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.”  It is guided by five values, the first of which is material simplicity.  Although it may seem like an advocacy of living in mud huts and eating twigs, it’s really not.  Voluntary simplicity is about seeing that what we have is enough and living in a way that greatly reduces the drain on our resources.

Fall Produce 2

I look around this room and wonder about my choices.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my TV (but really, three in a house with two people?), the computers (ok, we do need two for two working professionals), the cameras (OK, I’ll admit selfishness – I don’t share well), and books (non-negotiable but in my defense many are over 40 years old).  At the same time, the sofa set was the first new sofa we bought in 25 years.  Most of our cars have been 10-15 years old by the time they left for the great trade-in grounds.  The other furniture in the house are legacies of two sets of parents and thrift stores 30 years ago.  Our big exciting splurge last year was a new more efficient wood stove.  And the rocking chair in front of it was my very first furniture purchase in 1974 (and no, it doesn’t need to be fixed; the kitchen table keeps it from falling over).

We recycle, compost, shop carefully, and monitor our vehicle use.  And still, I fall into that rooster-mind of craving.  For months after the last sesshin, I found myself coveting a set of oryoki bowls of my own.  How appropriate that the definition on the Shambhala site of oryoki is “just enough”!  After much rationalizing, I forego the packaged sets on line ($100+fuel costs to get them here) and buy three bamboo bowls and spatula ($40) from a local store, supplementing them with chopsticks from the sangha collection and napkins from the linen closet.  Noble enough stock.

Practice too is like that.  There is a desire for an external rightness: right time, the right mat, the right cushion, the right room, the right atmosphere, the right community.  Ultimately, I think we wish we had the right life so that practice is a natural flow of one perfect moment into another.  And we miss that we already own all of it.

Where you meditate has everything to do with how useful your meditation will be.  But by where, I don’t necessarily mean in which room of the house, or whether you live in a quiet spot or not.  I simply mean that you should meditate inside the life you have.  If you are an accountant, meditate inside an accountant’s life.  If you are a policeman, meditate inside of that.  Wherever you want to illuminate your life, meditate precisely in that spot.  (The Wooden Bowl by Clark Strand)