January, Part 4
On such days I sometimes take my little green kayak over to the nearby reservoir for exercise. Unlike large motorboats and sailboats, kayaks tend to enforce a bit of solitude, which can be a good thing, I think.
At this time of year the lake hosts from hundreds to thousands of Canada geese, mallards, mergansers, and coots. The black coots, with their stubby beaks, are fun to watch, especially while landing on the water. They crash-land, skittering along on the surface tension of the water with their wings folded, until they stall out in their own bow wave and seem about to flip forward just as they come to a stop.
A few days ago, I came across a dying mallard. I realized, as if I had never thought of it before, that every wild duck, as do all of us, must die sometime.
She had been paddling, a bit lamely, in the same general direction as I had, but as I came up to her, several hundred yards from shore, she seemed to give it up. I thought at first she might be settling in for a nap. But napping, for a mallard,
involves turning one's head about on that long neck and using one's back for a downy pillow. She had her head extended before her, and her face in the water, blowing bubbles, lifting weakly from time to time to inhale. I waited with her, about ten feet away; she showed no reaction to my presence and eventually her head sagged beneath the surface film a last time and the bubbling stopped.
Dogen tells the story of Great Master Zhenji, who met with a newly arrived monk.
"Have you been here before?"
The monk said, "Yes, I have been here."
The master said, "Have some tea."
Again, he asked another monk, "Have you been here before?"
The monk said, "No, I haven't been here."
The master said, "Have some tea."
The temple director then asked the master, "Why do you say, 'Have some tea,' to someone who has been here and 'Have some tea,' to someone who has not?"
The master said, "Director." When the director responded, the master said, "Have some tea."
Dogen concludes that "the everyday activity of buddha ancestors is nothing but having rice and tea."
Here in the West, when we, or at any rate some of us, read this sort of thing, we tend to get very excited by it, and to visualize becoming Buddhas ourselves by trying out this kind of everydayness -- sounds easier than sitting with our legs painfully crossed. But, of course, there's a trick to it, as one might suspect from reading of the long years Dogen put in, sitting cross-legged, before he felt himself to be, and was certified by his own master as, qualified to say something on the subject.
On the one hand, it's very hard to come to one-pointedness of mind (everyone says so), and on the other, nothing could be easier (everyone says that too -- as one master commented, "here I've been all these years selling water right by the river."). Dogen's genius, though, is that he doesn't try to mystify us by embracing either the difficulties and complexities of practice nor the easiness and simplicity of practice. He demystifies, by telling us to relax and simply do what's next. If you want to be a Zen nun or monk, you may begin anywhere, such as having a cup of tea -- that's a start, nothing to be ashamed of. Little steps. Come, he says, patting the tatami and the seat cushion. Sit.
I made soup in the crock pot and baked some bread. The soup is rice, tofu diced small, onion from the winter garden, green vegetables, peas, tomatoes, water chestnuts, thyme, basil, rosemary, spring onion greens -- garlic greens too. Threw half the tofu and onions and garlic into the soup, the other half into the mixing bowl ...
... to which I added a dollop of oil, tablespoon of salt, sixteen ounces of warm water, 1/4 cup of honey, a small handful each of miso, bran, and oatmeal, teaspoon of yeast, stirred, then added a cup of white flour, and several cups of whole wheat flour, stirring until too thick to stir, then floured up my hands a bit and kneaded, adding flour occasionally, until the dough "felt right." Covered the bowl and set it on top of the crock pot to stay warm and rise. You can flip the glass lid upside down and it's a stable enough warming shelf.
Looked out: it was raining heavily. Jasper Mountain completely obscured. Went over the supply of seed left over from last year's garden. I have thought that this year I might try to get some greens going early, so last month I cleaned up the potting shed/greenhouse. There's an old radio suspended from the ceiling, tuned to the classical station; it's a soothing place to work.
I put on a coat, hat, and rubber boots, slither out to the shed, fire up the music (Mendelssohn's violin concerto, I think), pick six old, cracked flats, load them up with potting soil, and spread seeds. Romaine lettuce, Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce, Red Russian kale, bunching onions,, Detroit Red beets (for the greens, really), spinach.
Each packet I broadcast round the flat, then cover the seeds with peat, set the flats in the window and dose them with rain water.
Music off, close door, back to the house, boots, etc. off, check the dough, grease the cookie sheet, shape the loaves, put them on the sheet.
Jasper Mountain is somewhere beyond the window. External fog, internal fog. Wind, rain, and typos. When the bread has risen some, bake (in this oven) 40 minutes at 350 degrees.
Have we been here before?
Have some tea.