Saturday, February 6, 2010

Behind You With A Knife

What is the colour of half a Buddha painting? Why green, of course if he/she's gone into the forest (and if I get to choose the colours!) He will of course, be offering a small blessing in the right hand corner which translates as "May all beings everywhere be happy and free". The Om Mani Padme Hum mantra is tucked away in small letters on the Buddha's robes and bordering the blue panel on the right. It has been fun doing this special request as it's kind of a collaboration between the buyer and painter. I added elements that I might not have thought of myself but I got to contemplate and interpret. I actually like the panels separated rather than pushed against each other. Is that some strange subliminal comment on the self??

The koan of daily life has been interesting this past month. If I was living in a little Zen parable it might go something like this: Someone very hungry asks me for food. Something in me immediately responds to the request and begins to prepare a meal. I'm not thinking. I'm just cooking. It seems this is what needs to be done. I ask the hungry person what they need to eat and get an idea, not really clear, but I think I know. I bring them the food. It is not right and they explain why. It makes sense to me and I go off to prepare another meal. I work hard. They are really hungry. It seems urgent. I feel the need, the pressure. I prepare meal number two. When I bring it to them, they have changed their mind again about what they need to quench their hunger. We go through this scenario 2 more times.

As the protagonist in this Zen parable I am a bit dense. The diner keeps moving the plate and I keep spilling the meal on the ground. I start to wonder if the diner is really hungry. And by meal number 4 I feel the anger rise. The diner has showed me the limits of my tolerance (good or bad). I see my expectations and attachment to them. I prepared them a meal, why don't they just eat? And even if they don't want it or like it, couldn't they express some gratitude or appreciation. And finally I think somehow I will save them from their hunger, help them put some deep seated need to rest by feeding them. I want to solve this problem, scratch some culinary itch.

By the end of our little chef and diner dance it is becoming clear, that I cannot satiate another's hunger. Perhaps the need goes deeper? Perhaps the diner is not asking for what is really needed? Perhaps the diner is really thirsty but expresses their need as hunger? Perhaps their request is beyond my ability? I am not a skilled enough chef. Perhaps I should offer the ingredients and leave them to put them together in a way that really works for them? In many ways there are more questions than answers flying around the kitchen.

At the same time I have learned that I still care about their hunger, that it is important to keep my heart open to them. I have learned about my expectations, not that they (the diner or the expectations) are bad, but that I experience suffering because I have expectations. I have learned that I need to keep my heart open to other hungry folks too, and not close the door to similar requests in the future because this one did not go the way I expected. Each diner and meal deserves to be considered on its own merit.

And the world is a hungry place, full of ingredients and ways to put them together, different foods & tastes, diners and cooks. It is not always as simple as we initially imagine. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience and experimentation. Sometimes it will work out deliciously and other times I might get something hot spattered in my eye. And in some cases I just need to order them take out and have it delivered.

To make a long story different, but equally long, I can tell you that I have experimented with some recipes that didn't exactly work out. And I have discovered it is always good to be on the learning end of the cutting board. Now as my daughter would say as she deftly moves around the kitchen: "behind you with a knife."


  1. powerful lessons to be learned in your koan. our expectations so often fool us out of being present to what is truly required in a particular moment. beautiful post and buddha.

  2. Very nice. "...but that I experience suffering because I have expectations..." There's a mouthful right there.
    I think sometimes when we are faced by the hunger of others all we can do is point out where the food is, and sometimes we have to leave the whole situation alone and allow others to find their own way to the food and water. We too can become malnourished when were not paying sufficient attention to our own need for the right food and water.

  3. This is a very powerful post... I have read it several times, digesting it a bite at a time, savoring all it has to offer on so many levels! What keeps standing out for me is the phrase "I think somehow I will save them from their hunger... I want to solve this problem..." I have also experienced these feelings of wanting to "save" people from their distress. My own experience of "wanting to help" is discovering that there is a difference between compassionate action and rescuing... And I'm not saying that you were "rescuing" - as I see the insights that you discovered about this. And these are always tough situations it seems. The tough question that you raise here for me is what *is* "compassionate action" *without* getting caught up in rescuing... It appears each situation will have its own "answer" to that question and it seems it's a matter of listening to the inner voice... Lovely post!