Recently I had dinner with a friend; we had shared the cooking and prep responsibilities, and had fun doing it. We had enjoyed eating and catching up with news. And as soon as I had put my fork down, I was ready to jump up to do the dishes and clean up. My friend was rather aghast – why didn’t I just want to stay at the table and prolong the conversation?
Feeling a little abashed, I did just that, and noticed that I relaxed back into sitting there, which we did for quite some time before heading to do the washing up (to use the English expression).
This incident has stayed in my head since it happened; I know my own tendencies to keep moving on to the next thing, but I was curious about why I seemed to be in such a hurry to move on from an enjoyable moment. I wondered if it was a downside to the intense training we get at Tassajara to follow the schedule completely: when the han sounds, we go to the zendo; when the bell rings at the end of zazen, we get up for kinhin – it doesn’t matter if you were having the best sit ever, or the worst, you still have to get up when the bell rings.
To do this is a wonderful practice, as we always have to let go of our personal preferences to follow the flow of the sangha through the scheduled day; I often tell people that there is a huge value in having to surrender to that extent.
In my reflections, I thought of a passage from Suzuki Roshi about responding to his wife, when she calls him for breakfast:
‘For an instance, you know, my wife [laughs]—every morning, when breakfast is ready, he hit, you know—what do you call it? Clappers? Yeah, clappers—like this. If I don’t answer for it [laughs], you know, I—he—she may continue to hit it [laughs, laughter] until I feel rather angry [laughs, laughter]. Why we have that kind of problem is quite simple. Because I don’t answer, you know. If I say “Hai!“—that’s all [laughs, laughter]. Because I don’t say “Hai!” she, you know, continue to—she has to continue because she doesn’t know whether I heard it or not [laughs].
Sometime she may think: “He knows but he doesn’t answer.” Eei! [Probably imitates a mock attack by Okusan.] [Laughs, laughter.] That is what will happen. When I don’t answer, you know, I am, you know, on the top of the pole [laughs]. I don’t jump off from here. When I say “Hai!” you know, I jump off from here. Because I stay at the top of the pole, I am—I have something to do—something important to do [laughs, laughter]—something important at the top of the pole: “You shouldn’t call me! You should wait!” So before I say something I determined to shut up—not to say anything. “This is very important! Don’t you know that?! [S.R. and students laughing.] I am here [taps on stick], on the top of the pole! Don’t you know that?” So she start to— [Probably gesturing.] That is how we create problem.
So the secret is just to say “Hai!” you know, and jump up from here. Then there is no problem.’
Jumping off the top of the pole is a classic zen image for not getting stuck – in Suzuki Roshi’s case, not getting stuck by thinking that whatever he was doing was more important than responding to his wife’s call for breakfast.
In my case, no-one was asking me to jump up and do the dishes; I was stuck in the idea that I needed to go and do the next thing, rather than respond to the (as-yet-unspoken but still clear) desire of my friend to linger at the table.