Juggling the sun and the moon

In Buddhist teachings there is always an emphasis on trying to achieve balance in all aspects of our lives, in an effort to reach a state of equanimity (stability and calmness). This is why it is called the “Middle Way” – to find a path between the extremes. Often in our lives we are aware of how our own pendulum swings from one extreme to another, but it seems that it’s only when we get to one extreme that we realise it and then try to move back to a centring position. Well, this is what I always do when it comes to chocolate, anyway! This morning my husband pointed out (in a very amused voice, mind you) that there was an empty chocolate wrapper on the bedside table, an uneaten chocolate in my handbag, and not one, but two bars of chocolate in the groceries I’d just brought home! Mmm… time to let the pendulum swing back a bit the other way towards balance (funny how that metaphor works for the indicator on the bathroom scales as well!)

But it isn’t always so obvious when we are moving into an unbalanced state, although we certainly can feel ‘out-of-whack’ and intuitively sense that something is not quite right. In the larger picture though, we live in a very “masculine” society: that doesn’t mean that we live like men as such, but rather that our lives are filled with action, light, heat, moving forward, and expending lots of energy. That’s what “masculine” energy means in a spiritual sense. This masculine energy is represented in Buddhism as the figure of the sun. On the other hand, “feminine” energy means just the opposite: passive, dark, cool, staying still and drawing energy inwards. This feminine energy is represented in the figure of the moon.

In our society, however, being active and moving forward are seen as positive traits, whereas being said to be “passive” is viewed negatively and implies laziness and of not being seen to be doing something. However, this is also how we “burn out” – think about that… burnt out, as if we have gotten too hot and melted and there has been nothing to cool us down. So it is essential to our physical as well as spiritual wellbeing to take time out and just be still. Rather than being lazy, it is the way that we can return to the balance that is vital to living a peaceful yet fulfilling life.

This image of the masculine hot sun and the feminine cool moon is used extensively in Buddhist art, but recently I found that this symbolism has also been used in Medieval Europe in the context of alchemy and even as far back as ancient Egypt. In alchemy it refers to the “Chymical Wedding”, which is the union of the masculine and the feminine so that a new perfectly integrated whole can be achieved that joins all opposing aspects of our nature into the Divine One. This is the spiritual alchemy of Medieval mystical Christianity. The psychiatrist Carl Jung used this imagery also as a means of finding balance psychologically in one’s life.

I use the symbol of the sun and the moon a lot in my own meditation and awareness practice, and it is quite easy to feel when I’ve heated up too much and need to draw energy inward instead of expending too much. But even after many years of concentrated effort I still find it difficult to give myself the space I need to be quiet, without feeling like I should be doing something else. The masculine side of our society is so deeply entrenched it takes time… well, to give ourselves just free time! So right now I’m sitting outside in my garden as the sun is shedding that special winter light that filters green through the new nasturtiums and glints off the water in the birdbath as the little Honey Eaters descend for their ritual bath. Aaah……Breathe out……switch off the computer now and go somewhere to sit quietly for just a few minutes – that’s doing something!

Pushing it uphill

Do you know about the Myth of Sisyphus? In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to push a heavy boulder up a mountain, but when he almost reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and Sisyphus would have to start all over again… forever. This seems to be a bleak picture of unending futility without hope. But is it? The French philosopher Albert Camus argued that “the struggle itself is a enough to fill our hearts, so we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.”

This myth has always intrigued me because I see a quite a Buddhist slant to it. If we are in the middle of doing something, especially boring repetitive daily grind stuff, but at that moment we are just wishing that we were doing something else, then that way of thinking can only make us unhappy. So if I’m doing some boring everyday task, like washing the dishes, but I’m thinking I’d rather be writing my blog or reading a book or enjoying a cuppa, then I’m not really engaged in that present moment – I’m just wishing I was in some other alternative reality, which then makes me feel annoyed or dissatisfied with the present reality. However, the fact is that right in that moment of washing the dishes no other reality exists – this washing-the-dishes is the only reality and reading-a-book is just my imagination pulling me into some other non-existent world. In other words, what you are doing right now is totally real, so why not enjoy it?

When you think about it, it’s not the task itself that is boring and annoying, it’s the way we think about it that makes us feel dissatisfied. And if your mind is full of thinking about being somewhere else, then you miss the chance of finding something wonderful that might be right there in front of you, but it might pass by you because you are not really fully aware and present to see it. If I’m doing the dishes, I like to see the rainbows formed in the soap bubbles, or listen to the birds singing outside, or feel the warmth of the water on my hands. This is a meditation. Sometimes, if I’m able to stay present in the washing-the-dishes reality, I feel a great sense of gratitude for this gift of water from the tap, the satisfaction of having had a lovely meal, the good fortune to live in a place where I have the freedom to be safely in my own kitchen doing a simple task like washing the dishes. How lucky I am! And so doing the dishes suddenly makes me feel really happy.

If we can start with small meditations like this about daily tasks that seem to take up our time, even the seemingly endless boring repetitions of getting in the car and driving to work or taking the kids to school, when we’d rather be doing something else, then gradually this will encompass our whole lives, so that everything we do can be made into fruitful uplifting experiences that can fill us with joy. In this way, it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live, you can be happy. It is only the wishing-I-was-somewhere-else that makes us unhappy. So this is how I can imagine that even Sisyphus can be happy.

Eat a ducky, Muss!

“Who’s Muss? And why do Japanese people eat so many ducks?” my five-year-old son asked me when we first went to Japan. On sight of my puzzled face he continued, “Well every time Japanese people start to eat, that’s what they say – eat a ducky muss.”

In fact, what they say is “itadakimasu,” which means “I humbly receive” with the implication in this humility of offering gratitude for the meal. This is very similar to the traditional grace before meals that is familiar to many readers, “For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful.” As a practicing Buddhist, awareness is centred not on the food itself, but on the generosity of the person who has taken the time to prepare it. This appreciation extends to the person who bought the food, who packaged the food, who drove the delivery truck, who grew the food – and even to the earth, the water and the sunshine that nurtured the food. In this way, “I humbly receive” reflects the awareness of a profound connection in that moment to all the living beings and components of the universe that made this meal before me possible.

This deep awareness and appreciation can also challenge the ideas that we may cling to as our fixed beliefs, such that if the dish that I am being offered by another person contains meat or fish, and I am a vegetarian, then I am tempted to politely but firmly reject the offering, based on my personal beliefs. However, I feel that it is much more important to recognise the gift of the offering from this person who has gone to the trouble of feeding me, rather than focus on my own likes and dislikes. This is one of the principle reasons why Buddhists cannot be said to be strictly vegetarian – when collecting alms of food, in times gone by, monks and nuns would gratefully accept whatever was offered and this was an important part of their training. So whilst I have the freedom of choice when I make my own food, my own preferences are overruled by the need to open up to the generosity being offered by another person. Acknowledging generosity with gratitude is more important that having narrow fixed views. When confronted by the limitations of our own beliefs, there is no way to expand our spirit – our hearts cannot reach out and embrace kindness if we are chained in our minds by our fixed ideas.

And this receiving with gratitude does not just apply to food: When you hear a bird singing – receive the sound with gratitude; when you smell a flower – receive its scent with gratitude; when you feel the sunshine on your body – receive its gift of warmth with gratitude. It is a rewarding spiritual practice to try and be aware all the time and to be open to these offerings. In this way, you can open up all your senses to receive the gifts being offered all around you, in every moment, filling your life with unexpected blessings. In this way, being “humble” doesn’t mean grovelling subservience or feeling inferior in some way, but instead it is quite the opposite: grateful awareness opens us up to receive so many wonderful gifts that will make our lives filled with joy. Really! Try it!

Cooking up a stink


Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimbaldo (1527-1593)

To meat or not to meat… Is that the question?
(With apologies to Shakespeare!)

Even though the Buddha ate meat and the Dalai Lama has said that he eats meat, people generally assume that to be a Buddhist you also need to be a vegetarian. But this is a misunderstanding of one key aspect of the Buddhist approach to food and eating. Before I go on, if you would like to read a balanced and informed article about the Buddhist ethics of eating meat I highly recommend Bhante Sujato’s blog entry “Why Buddhists should be vegetarian”. Bhante is a well-respected Australian Theravadin monk who writes in down-to-earth way and the many many comments in response to his writing are also very interesting and shows that this is a really heated topic!

So I won’t go into the pros and cons of vegetarianism, instead I want to share with you what I learned this week whilst translating material about shojin-ryori (Japanese Buddhist cuisine) from a Japanese book written by a Shingon Buddhist priest from Mt Koya (where I was ordained). This follows on from my entry “Cooking up a Spiritual Storm”.

In shojin cooking, as well as the absence of meat, there are no ingredients that have a strong smell such as onions and garlic. From an aesthetic point of view, this is because those strong flavours overwhelm the delicacy of the cuisine. But there is also another reason that relates to spiritual practice. The word that is given as the opposite of shojin, is namagusa, which literally means “the rank smell of raw flesh” but also refers to any “bad smell”. It is also used in the same way in English when we are suspicious or disgusted, when we say “That’s fishy!” or “That stinks!”

Interestingly, this is the word that is also used to describe a Buddhist monk or nun who has broken their vows, so it also has the meaning of losing the way in one’s spiritual practice. In fact, the word namagusa appears in a very early Buddhist sacred text called the Nipata Sutta, which was written in response to asking the Buddha about whether to eat meat or not. However, the Buddha deflects the question and instead says that this concept of “stinking food” applies not only to what we put in our mouths but what we put in our minds and consequently display in our actions. If we fill our minds with harmful or malicious thoughts or unjust criticism and then speak badly of others, engage in lying or arrogant boasting or gossip – these thoughts and actions are like eating poison that harm not only those we denigrate but also ourselves.

So the discussion of what food we eat can be distracting to the real purpose of spiritual practice. If we continuously practice being mindful of what we are thinking and how our thoughts impact our actions, which in turn affect those around us, then we will also be mindful of how we nourish our bodies because if we look deeply into ourselves, ultimately we can find no separation between our mind and our body. In fact, in Japanese the word kokoro means mind and heart and feelings and thoughts (it also means warmth, love and compassion!) So if we focus on mindfulness in what we feed our minds, then what we feed our bodies will be a natural consequence of this awareness. This is the root meaning of namagusa.

Kitchen Sink Zen blog

In 2009, I started a blog especially about shojin-ryori – Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine – called Kitchen Sink Zen. But the gmail account associated with that blog got hijacked not long after I had started and I didn’t know what to do to retrieve it. However, I’ve been engaging in a steep cyber-learning curve trying to get my head around the technicalities of the blogosphere and  just found out how to salvage my old account. I’m so happy about that and I am now going to continue with my Kitchen Sink Zen blog as well as this one. The difference will be that Kitchen Sink Zen focusses entirely on shojin-ryori cuisine, but Cuppa with Cate will ramble onto other topics as I encounter new and old wisdom friends in my everyday life. So this blog is sharing a chat with you over a leisurely cup of tea and the other blog will be when I pull up my sleeves and get into the kitchen. Please drop by for a chat here at the table in the garden or pop over and see what’s cooking in the kitchen.