Taken literally a zazenkai (座禅会?), means “to come together for meditation” and refers to a Zen Buddhist retreat that is usually less intensive and of shorter duration than sesshin. The purpose of zazenkai, is to separate oneself from daily affairs and sink deeply into ones practice – even if for just a few hours. The Salem Zen Center (SZC) holds a zazenkai every quarter. They last for 6 ½ hours, including lunch and it is lunch that I wish to write about.

wash-your-bowlOur Sensei tells us that in other groups the meal break is either handled by participants bringing a bag lunch or a cook preparing a simple meal for all. I myself have experienced the latter wherein the Tenzo’s (cook’s) meal was served in the Soto and we ate while sitting on our cushions in style I know as three bowl oryoki. The style at SZC is potluck and being such the Sangha has added a distinctly western touch to this eastern tradition. One advantage to this is that if you can find nothing else to “work”on during the sitting periods you can consider the effects of craving after delicious dishes of food as a distraction to practice.

Craving lunch is not the only source of discomfort one will experience at a zazenkai. Being haunted by life’s experiences, aching legs, and a sore tailbone are all discomforts that come with sitting Zazen for an extended period of time. My own discomfort came upon me early this day and from an unexpected source. But first a bit of background.

My contribution to the potluck was a chilled corn and cauliflower bisque. It was a hot summer day and there would be no unsweetened rice porridge coming from my kitchen. Because of its sweetness the dish it is best served with a freshly pickled combination of jalapeño peppers and radishes.

Freshly pickled means that the vegetables have to be thinly sliced and put in the vinegar and sugar mixture about three hours before they are consumed. So I worked the morning of the zazenkai and sliced the radishes and the peppers. Not wanting to turn the zazenkai al caliente I carefully removed the seeds that clung to each of the jalapeño slices, before adding them to the rest of the pickle ingredients and flying out the door. Forty minutes later I was gathering myself on my zafu and listening to the densho bell in the hall when I rubbed my eye with one of my fingertips.

The burning pain was immediate and intense, each blink or eye movement brought a renewed wave of capsaicin and this just as all thoughts of escape were being thwarted by the Tanto beginning the ceremony that closes the container and blesses the Zendo in each of the four directions. I was left with no choice but to sit there, accept this burning (pot) luck, and observe it’s slow passing over the next 90 minutes or so.

Case 39, The Book of Equanimity

A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’
Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’
The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’
Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’

The instruction for this koan by the 13th century Chinese master Wumen Hui-k’ai reads:

When food comes, you open your mouth;
When sleep comes, you close your eyes.
When you wash your face, you find your nose;
When you take off your shoes, you feel your feet.
At those times, if you miss what is being said, take a burning light and make a special search in the deep night.
How can you find the right correspondence [with your true self]?

Pain can be an excellent teacher and I think I got the burning light part down but in my case the koan will always be, have you prepared your lunch? Then wash your hands before you partake. Have you finished your meal? Then wash your bowl and wipe the counter. When working with chillies, expect some heat.

When I get caught up in what I will be doing later I fail to notice what the present is telling me. The present is where I can find every answer and correspond with my true self.  This is the essence of mindfulness and the lesson I’ll take from this zazenkai.

l am sure this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he spoke of developing the Dharma Eye but perhaps the peppers furthered my practice a skosh.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Sources: Zazenkai definition from Wikipedia and Yamada Ko’un Rōshi (1907 – 1989). Case 39 translation mostly from a translation by Thomas Cleary. Oh and I discovered the word skosh is from the Japanese word “sukoshi” meaning a small amount of something.