The whole universe tastes like chocolate

From the Zen point of view, when you bite into a chunk of chocolate, the whole universe tastes like chocolate. This isn’t because the chocolate is so delicious that it’s deliciousness crowds out everything else. It’s not about deliciousness at all. Because it’s also true that if you bite into a turd, the whole universe tastes like poo. It’s about how Zen practice refines the quality of your attention. Most of the time, attention is scattered. Zen practice can change that, helping develop a careful kind of attention to and engagement with whatever life brings.

This is something Fukushima Roshi often spoke about. In a talk he gave on a visit to the U.S., he told a story about the Zen scholar and teacher D.T. Suzuki that helps clarify this topic. Here, in part, is what he said (and which I’m paraphrasing here):

“One morning, D.T. Suzuki, then about 80, was eating breakfast with an American man who was helping take care of him. The man asked, ‘What is Zen really?’ Suzuki slapped himself on the leg. The man nodded. A few days later, Suzuki asked him, ‘When I slapped myself on the thigh, you nodded. What is it you understood?’ The man said, ‘Zen is here and now.’ Suzuki said, ‘If you understand that, that’s great. What Zen is teaching is here, now, and ourselves.’

There’s a Japanese expression: ‘Ima, koko’ now and here. It’s the same as the English expression “Here and now.” Zen teaches this moment is of the utmost importance. It’s what our lives are about, living this moment. This is the foundation of Zen teaching.

We also know some day we’re going to die. We can’t know when and how. We can’t really prepare for it. But the emphasis in Zen is on us ourselves, here and now. We’re concerned about living. We live life to its fullest moment by moment. Moment by moment we live one day. Then another day, and then, day by day, we live a year. And in this way a whole life is lived. After living this life to its fullest, at the moment death arrives, then we can die to its fullest. This is what Zen teaches about being human.”

Before I came across this talk, I had a correspondence with Fukushima Roshi during a time when I was pre-occupied with death and he said to me just what he said in this lecture. It was very helpful. When Fukushima Roshi’s Parkinson’s disease was rendering him less and less able to function, he continued to live and teach with whatever resources remained available to him. He walked the walk until he could no longer. Then he returned home to his family, leaving his teaching responsibilities to others.

I am writing about this teaching especially to honor Myogen Steve Stucky, the Central Abbot of Zen Center of San Francisco. Myogen is approaching the end of his life with stage IV pancreatic cancer. I’ve gotten to know Myogen in the last 6 or 7 years, and perhaps because he and I are a day apart in age, I feel a special connection with him. Myogen has had a course of chemotherapy, but has decided to discontinue the chemo and work with hospice. Here’s a portion of a recent letter he posted:

“I have just completed one round of three chemotherapy treatments for Stage IV pancreatic cancer, a terminal illness. While I sincerely appreciate the benefits of this treatment, I have been listening deeply to this body/mind and soul searching whether to continue with more of this chemical intervention. As of yesterday morning I have decided to not do more chemo, and instead have begun working with Memorial Hospice based in Petaluma as I continue to respectfully engage in the process of dying.

One can’t exactly say where such a decision comes from, but I feel more clarity and relief since deciding to focus on “palliative care.” This change will allow me to focus on taking good care of this precious body/mind. I feel very fortunate to have wonderful hospice care people based locally and look forward to working with them.

It has been eight weeks since I received this diagnosis. Every day has brought new situations and opportunities for learning, and this will continue in the remaining weeks. I appreciate your understanding that my energy will continue to diminish as time passes, and so my ability to respond will become increasingly limited.”

What I’d like to say about this moving statement from Myogen loops back to a few of the words in the D.T. Suzuki anecdote. “What Zen is teaching is here, now, and ourselves.” It is the ourselves that is so important. It’s tempting to think that Zen’s teaching is to concentrate on one thing at a time, moment to moment, and thus have a wonderful and vivid experience of life. Life here and now! Just this moment! Great! This is part of practice. It is great, and through practice you do learn to really pay attention and life can feel more alive. But even with devoted Zen practice, it’s rare to be so single-minded that what you’re doing or experiencing feels like the whole universe.

The important point of “ourselves” is that each of us is living his or her very own life, not anything else, not anyone else’s. It is you here and now and it is your here and now. This means really looking into and facing the reality of yourself and your actual life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You – your body, your mind, all your equipment and your conditioning – are where your life is lived. And when you come to the end of your life, it means recognizing that and meeting it, too.

Sometimes your life tastes like chocolate and sometimes your life tastes like poo. You try to meet your reality, the reality of yourself and your actual life, as clearly, honestly, respectfully, and completely as you can. This is what Myogen expresses in his letter. He is looking at the reality of his life and meeting it as fully as he can. This is how I understand and appreciate these teachings of D.T. Suzuki, of Keido Fukushima Roshi, and of Myogen Steve Stucky.