24-Hour Zen

All zen, all the time

Or, the zen of anything and everything

(updated periodically by PTS)

Today's thought:


Zen Coffee Break

There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.

-Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)


No matter how pressing the deadline, no matter how much work there is to be done, we all need sustenance to keep going. In zen, there is a strong relationship between work and food, for the former begets the latter.

A famous story tells of the master Hyakujo, who toiled in physical labor around the temple grounds even at the age of 80. His students pleaded with him to ease up, but he refused.

One day the students hid his tools to prevent Hyakujo from working. In turn, the master refused to eat.

"No work, no food," he said.

Zen demands constant mindfulness, but no more so than at meal time. There is a saying in zen, "Do not walk and eat at the same time." Many times we see busy people walking the streets at lunch, chomping on a slice of pizza as they hurry back to work. Whenever the time comes to eat, even if just for a moment, sit, relax, and give thought to the food. It need not be a formal saying of grace, although many religious people begin that way. Just be mindful. As the Chinese proverb says, "When you drink water, remember its source." Take nothing for granted-that is spiritual living. Even those computer mavens who seem to live on coffee and junk food should be thankful for the sustenance. Anyone who's ever fasted or gone hungry can tell you there is preciousness in all foods.

Some students mistakenly regard the saying, "Do not walk and eat at the same time" as a hard-and-fast rule. In zen, there are no rules, only guides. The key point is to be mindful. The zen teacher Seung Sahn offered a variation of this lesson at a retreat in San Francisco. "Do not eat and read the newspaper at the same time," he said. "When you eat, just eat. When you read the newspaper, just read the newspaper."

The next morning, a student saw the teacher eating breakfast while reading the newspaper.

"I thought you said not to eat and read the newspaper at the same time," the student said.

To which Sahn said, "When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper."

The point of zen is simply to be natural. Listen to the rhythms of the body. "Eat when hungry, sleep when tired" means, conversely, don't eat when not hungry-that is, don't overeat, drink too many cups of coffee, or use food as a substitute for comfort. All things in moderation. That is the middle way of zen.

Then, when the time comes to return to work, return to work. This was the first lesson of the zen master Joshu in teaching a new monk.

"I have just entered the monastery," the monk said. "Please teach me."

"Have you eaten your rice porridge?" Joshu asked.

"Yes," said the monk.

"Then you had better wash your bowl."

Call it a coffee break, but in truth, there's never a break. Zen is always on.

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