Tofu or beef?

When someone asks, “How’s it going?” we usually say something like “Not too bad,” or “Pretty good.” My grandpa, in his 90’s, would say, “Good, considering the alternative.” We make comparisons. We think tofu is better than beef. Or we detest tofu and love beef. We see everything in relation to something else. This feels natural. But Zen practice opens a different window through which we see each thing – each person, moment, idea, object – as incomparable. Perfect just as it is.

Not perfect in the relative sense of good/better/best/perfect, or in the sense of perfect/wonderful. But perfect in the sense of being exactly, completely, thoroughly itself. Tofu is tofu. It is incomparably itself, just as it is, in the very moment in which we eat it (or choose not to). Dogen might say “Tofu takes its place in the universe as tofu.” Beef has nothing to do with it.

A couple of hundred years after Dogen, the writer John Lydgate said “comparisons are odious.” But day in and day out, we make comparisons. We have to. Still, in the end, because each thing is unique, we also understand that saying something is better or worse than something else is like saying one fingerprint is better than another.

The Third Patriarch of Zen, Seng T’san, is credited with a lovely poem called “Trust in Mind” which begins with these words:

The Great Way is not difficult,
Just don’t pick and choose.
If you cut off all likes or dislikes
Everything is clear like space.
Make the slightest distinction
And heaven and earth are set apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Don’t think for or against.
Likes and dislikes
Are the mind’s disease (and the poem goes on from here)

The distinctions we make – signs of the mind’s “disease” of liking and disliking – are a source of suffering. This is basic Buddhist teaching that echoes the Four Noble Truths. Because everything is in flux, we inevitably inherit what we dislike and when we get what we like, it runs through our fingers. That’s how things are. So Seng T’san advises “don’t think for or against.”

Zen practice opens this window of not thinking for or against. In practice, we learn to concentrate intensively on one thing at a time. In zazen, we watch our breath and let go of everything else. Attention concentrates and eventually thinking for or against lifts like a fog burning off in warm sunlight. Each breath is vivid and incomparable.

And when we actually see and experience the incomparable nature and value of just one breath, or of any one thing, of any one moment, the whole world of incomparable value, of each thing as just itself, is revealed. When this happens, we experience a kind of ease and clarity. We see our life through this other window. As Seng T’san says, “Everything is clear like space,” even while the horizon is cluttered with life’s real complexities, even as we are pulled by our likes and dislikes.

This isn’t the unique province or property of practice. Sometimes this window opens in daily life unexpectedly and without fanfare. You’re walking down the street and a shaft of sunlight stabs through a cloudy sky and splashes onto the sidewalk in front of you and you’re riveted and speechless and maybe feel like you could cry at the inexpressibly beautiful, wondrous moment. And yet it is also a thoroughly ordinary moment. You realize such “moments” are all around.

So in practice we let go of thoughts not because the thoughts are bad, but because we’re training our attention to penetrate the fog of our preferences and judgments and fantasies and see each thing, each other, and each moment as themselves, not as props in a self-centered opera of likes and dislikes.

Of course, we don’t always look at the world through this window. We understand that to function in our lives we have to make comparisons and judgments. We choose one course of action as better than another, one thing as better than another. We acknowledge and work with our likes and dislikes. But the view through this other window of incomparable value is now part of our life. It’s always there and with it we have a new perspective that informs and softens our comparisons and judgments. We have our likes and our dislikes, but we don’t mistake them for ultimate reality.