The Zen of choosing brownies
Some classical Zen literature looks at first blush like highly idealized, unrealistic, or even preposterous teaching for life in a complex world. One example is “Faith in Mind,” a long poem attributed to Sozan, the Third Zen Patriarch. It’s a beautiful poem, and it’s filled with pointers like “do not pick or choose.” We’ve started talking about “Faith in Mind” in the Fresno Big Pond Zen group and a question that comes up right away is how to understand and work with pointers like this. They can sound ridiculous. Don’t I have to pick and choose? When I’m having a snack, if I don’t pick and choose a brownie over a turd, I’m an idiot.
A helpful way to approach a teaching like “don’t pick or choose” is to start by taking it as meditation instruction. It seems like not picking and choosing in daily life is a huge if not impossible stretch, but zazen is different. You’re just sitting there. Zazen doesn’t require you to pick and choose, or to make decisions or judgments or to take action. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that you pick and choose even in zazen, that you prefer some thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations over others. You’ll see in zazen how your preferences arise, how they feel, how charged they are, and so forth. And you can see what’s it like to let go of picking and choosing in zazen and return to the breath.
Doing this over time, you’ll grow increasingly alert to the habitual picking and choosing you do and, importantly, your relationship to it will shift. It will begin to soften. You’ll become less reactive to the mental formations and bodily sensations that arise in zazen, and as that happens, you’ll notice more of how picking and choosing operates in your life off the cushion. How tightly do you cling to your preferences? Is your relationship to your preferences a source of well-being for yourself and others, or a source of suffering?
By taking up a challenging teaching like “do not pick and choose” first in zazen, you have a safe and quiet space, a kind of lab, where you can study the teaching intimately without worrying too much about whether or how to put it in practice in your daily life. That comes later.