Sand and rice

In Instructions to the Tenzo, Dogen recounts a conversation, a Dharma interview, between Dongshan (Tozan) and the tenzo, Xuefeng (Seppo). Dongshan asks: “When you are washing the rice, do you wash the sand and pick out the rice or do you wash the rice and pick out the sand?” Seppo answers “I wash and throw away both the sand and the rice together.” Dongshan asks, “Then what on earth do the residents here have to eat?” In reply, Seppo turns over the rice bucket. At this point, Dongshan says, “The day will come when you will practice under another master.”

What does this mean? Even though we usually think of shikantaza as Dogen’s method of zazen, but Dogen also did koan practice as part of his training in China. So we can see this question as a koan and from that perspective it’s a mistake to try to answer in the usual way we answer questions. As a koan, it’s a question we can work on intimately with a teacher, a question that we can sink our teeth into, or that can sink its teeth into us until we resolve it.

But the question about washing the sand and the rice is also understandable as a metaphor for how to practice. Even though our life is just one thing, we can also consider the rice and the sand as two sides of life, two sides of practice. This sounds like duality, but it’s a kind of non-dualistic duality. In this sense, the rice represents the absolute and the sand represents the relative. The rice represents what we awaken to in zazen – the emptiness that informs and nourishes us. The rice is mu shin: it is pure awareness. It’s Buddha Mind, Buddha Nature, or whatever you prefer to call it. And the sand represents the circumstances of life: karma, difficulties, habits, personalities, and so on.

I find this a useful way to take its meaning. Removing the sand from the rice and the rice from the sand are two sides of how we practice. When we’re removing the sand from the rice, we’re emphasizing the work we have to do with our delusions. We’re watching and catching self-centered habits and impulses, deconstructing (or at least not re-constructing) what we call our selves. When we’re removing the rice from the sand, we focus on deepening our samadhi, our concentration, our awakened mind. We’re awakening to Buddha Nature in the midst of circumstances and difficulties, seeing the absolute in all the forms that we inhabit and that surround us.

There’s a similar expression of these two sides of practice in how we frame the precepts: they’re stated both in the affirmative and the negative. In the affirmative, we say “honor life” and in the negative we say “do not kill.” They’re both essentially the same thing, and they’re two ways to come at it. By framing each precept in two ways we recognize the full range of the work we have to do as human beings. We’re both ridiculous and sublime.

Sometimes, we can embody the absolute expression of a precept – for example, we’re able to embody kindness. But there are plenty of times when all we can do is contain a nasty impulse. Abstaining from bad behavior is the best we can do to stick to our vow. Sometimes we’re able to let Buddha Mind express itself through us, and sometimes we grit our teeth to keep from letting our unkind impulses get the better of us. This is an example of removing the rice from the sand and removing the sand from the rice.

As it turns out, there’s no rice without sand. If we’re the tenzo (the cook), we wish just once the rice would come without any sand. But it doesn’t. There’s no such thing as rice without sand in it. We wish our life were less sandy. We wish our job were less sandy, and we wish our partner were less sandy, just as our partner has this wish about us. Because there’s always sand in the rice, removing the sand from the rice and the rice from the sand is just our life.

And even though we say that in one sense there’s no distinction between enlightenment and delusion, we need to know the difference between the sand and the rice. Our lifelong job is to work on removing the sand from the rice in our own life. This means it’s essential to recognize our own delusions. In 12-step programs, the fourth step is to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. We embark on a similar undertaking in practice, because our own biggest difficulties and most persistent bad habits are usually pretty well disguised. We’re on automatic pilot. But if we practice with a teacher and a sangha and if we pay attention, we can bring these difficulties and habits into the light and work on them.

There’s a great joke about an old man (it could be an old woman) who goes to the doctor with a digestive problem. He tells the doctor that he’s suffering terribly from “silent gas,” and that no matter how he varies his diet, he’s constantly passing silent gas. He even confesses that while he has been explaining this problem to the doctor, he’s been passing silent gas. The doctor recommends a series of tests and the patient asks what tests the doctor has in mind. The doctor says, “We should begin with a hearing test.”