The book that brought me to Zen was Dropping Ashes On the Buddha, and I still come back to it when I lose my way. There are many things in it that I understand, and many that I don't. It's all good teaching. My favorite koans of which I have zero understanding: "The mouse eats the cat food, but the cat-bowl is broken." Koans have meaning; Zen uses words as tools to point to real meaning, and koans have meaning beyond words that one reaches through concentration, which ripens understanding like cheese. That koan, though...completely opaque.

When you wash the rice and prepare vegetables, you must do it with your own hands, and with your own eyes, making sincere effort. Do not be idle even for a moment. Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another. Do not give away your opportunity even if it is merely a drop in the ocean of merit; do not fail to place even a single particle of earth at the summit of the mountain of wholesome deeds.
                                                     -- Dogen, Instructions to the Cook

Dogen was a great reformer in the thirteenth century who traveled throughout China to find out how to give life to Japanese Zen. It turns out that the cook (tenzo in a Zen monastery is one of the most important positions, and must be a senior student who is most conscientious and advanced in his or her study. The tenzo is not only responsible for feeding the monastery and thus aiding the saving of all things from suffering, but they work at the center of our awareness that our survival depends on the death of other living things.

Pain is mandatory. Suffering is optional.

I just encountered a letter in Dropping Ashes On the Buddha, in which a student writes to the teacher (these are all interactions from the 1970s, so recent and as easily accessible to modern readers as any such Zen record can be) that he is extremely down and discouraged and disheartened, and feels very much like a failure both as a man and a Zen student--feelings I have in varying quantities over time.

The teacher wrote back, "It is a true Zen letter. Thinking is only thinking. Suffering is only suffering. If you were to think, 'I want my mind to become clear,' this would be bad thinking. When you are suffering, you must only suffer."

I like that answer because it reminds me to focus on this moment, even when this moment sucks.

I'm thinking it's time to get with the Zen training again. When I left college I diverged onto a different path, to try and get my insane curiosity satisfied, out of my system; and I've learned a lot, but it hurt horribly, and I feel I've gotten so lost and I just have more crap I need to let go of. Which is okay, and irrelevant to the quest, but if I believe that seeking enlightenment (by not seeking it but training anyway, which takes longer to explain than I feel like typing right now) is the most important thing we can do with our lives, maybe I should get to it? Aikido is one entrance into Zen, but zazen (meditation) is good too, in different ways. So I will start zazen again and see if a teacher appears. It is helpful to sit with a group.

The snow is beautiful here.