Don't separate cheese and crackers from the meaning of life. Barry Magid March 6th 2010

Downstairs I posted a cartoon koan from The New Yorker. It shows a quintessential cartoon, where a seeker-after-the-truth, robed, bare-foot, bearded figure with a staff has come to a crossroads in his life and he’s facing a sign that says, to the left, Meaning of Life, and to the right, Cheese and Crackers. It’s the dilemma we all face. Like all good koans, it presents us with an apparent dichotomy: Life presented in the form of some irreconcilable pair of opposites that we’re challenged to come to terms with. It’s a very good koan. But instead of a dog and Buddha-nature, it’s the meaning of life, cheese and crackers. So. . . what do we choose?

In any koan like this, any seeming dichotomy, we have to look at what is the apparent split that we’re being presented with? How is life being divided artificially into two opposing halves? Why are we tempted to divide life like this? And how can we put them back together so there’s no conflict? That’s really the essence of koans and the essence of our practice: To become aware of how we split our life into incompatible parts and what it means to put them back to a whole.

There are many kinds of splits that this choice seems to present us with. See, first the figure of the pilgrim, the barefoot character with a staff is off on a quest. Is this who we have to become in order to practice? In order to be serious seekers of the truth, of the meaning of life? In traditional terms, a monk was a home-leaver, someone who chose the pursuit of spiritual truth over the attachments of family and worldly desire. But it’s interesting historically that the supposed choice of home-leaving is something that you can say was imposed or befell many people.

If you look at the stories told of the life of Buddha and of Dogen and of many teachers and monks, the stories involve a very early death of a mother or a child sent to become a monk at a very young age, often pre-teenage, and they grow up taken away from their family and put in an essentially monastic boarding school. So home-leaving is actually often a euphemism for home loss and an attempt to reconcile oneself to the loss of home and family and love. And a lifetime has been spent trying to come to terms with: What have I lost? Was it really valuable? Is there something else I’m getting in compensation? So often you see a kind of devoted attachment to a teacher substituting for a familiar attachment to a parent that has been given up or lost.

We have to leave home in miniature every time we come to the zendo to sit. We always have to make a choice to be here rather than there, to get out of bed, to be on a cushion, and sitting on a cushion instead of having our head on one, on a pillow. In that sense we’re faced with what looks like a dichotomy in our lives every time we sit. Are we going to stay home or am I going to go to the zendo? I think that again we can put a lot of energy into experiencing this as a kind of false conflict, an either-or, whereas lay practice is precisely saying both, not either-or, that we will find a way to have our home in the zendo part of one life, not have them in opposition or conflict with one another.

There’s also a way in which traditionally conceived spirituality was considered in opposition to the flesh, materials, desires. The meaning of life is something transcendent, spiritual, esoteric. Cheese and crackers is simply bodily desires, greed, appetites. They are two opposites. We have to choose. It’s another false split: How do we put them back together? How do we actually go about finding the meaning of life through cheese and crackers? That might be a good way to put it.

I would suggest one expression of that is in the meal chants that we recite. We recite them at every sesshin. We just recited them last weekend at Garrison, and there, I would suggest, we precisely focus on the meaning of our life as we take our meal. First, seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us. Learn the reality of interconnectedness, cause and effect, by understanding the food chain, the work of everyone who brings things to you. And so forth through the whole meal chant. I won’t go through it line by line right now, but we try to understand our nature in the food’s true nature. We use it to become aware of our attachment, our greed, to support our life, to further practice.

See, I think that the cartoon makes this kind of funny dichotomy out of something we fall into all the time, a kind of experiencing life in terms of false choices. But our practice really is about bringing those things back together, the most mundane and the most spiritual, the ordinary and the absolute. All great chefs know that you don’t separate cheese and crackers from the meaning of life. So let us enjoy our meals together.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid February 13th 2010 Being dependent intelligently

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