Cooking a Life: Zen Teacher Dana Velden’s Six Tips With Comments

Cooking a Life: Zen Teacher Dana Velden’s Six Tips With Comments November 17, 2017

Christ of the Breadline





I’ve known Dana Velden for something just shy of thirty years. She is a lot of things. Among them she’s a Zen priest. Dana’s also a cook. And she is the author of a book that brings those two things together, delightfully. Do yourself a favor, buy it. And then read it.

As I said she’s lots of things. But, most of all Dana is a wise and faithful friend to all who walk the great way. Recently she wrote an article, Six Tips for Getting Involved at a Soup Kitchen. If you stop reading this and just go and read that, you will be richly rewarded.

But, if you’re willing to linger a bit, I have some thoughts to add.

I found myself ruminating on those six tips that were set out to help people thinking about volunteering at a soup kitchen, something really worth considering. But I realized while they very much are that – they also apply broadly to anyone wishing to walk the spiritual path. A real spiritual path, that is. A path that opens the heart, makes us better people, and allows our lives to grow into something more than an appetite with grudges.

Here they are. Number one is “know that safety comes first,” number two is “remember you are not in charge,” number three is “consider the many ways to give,” number four is “go when you’re really needed,” five is “leave your pity at the door,” and number six is “consider going with a friend.”

With that, a few thoughts on each of them.

Number one, “Know that safety comes first.” Whoever said that God does not give your trials you cannot withstand was either clueless about what people actually face, or was selling something unconnected to reality. We are born fragile and our whole lives are encounters that can kill us, right up until something does.

So, each of us, we need to have some awareness of our fragility and take some common sense precautions. In the Zen world it means not only doing a little research on who you’re getting involved with, but making sure there are at least basic institutionally precautions like a published ethics code that maps out how to address problems. Of course this is true whatever spiritual path you might be undertaking.

Watch out for any spiritual teaching that puts someone beyond ordinary decency and accountability.

Number two, “Remember you are not in charge.” One of the great gifts of modernity and perhaps the whole of the Western cultural project has been individuation. That is a real assertion that the individual, and by that I mean you and me, we are important. As important as kings. As important as nobility. The person begging for spare change is in some genuine and true way just as important as the occupant of the billionaire’s New York penthouse.

And, there are terribly seductions buried in that assertion. As Zen practitioners as we dig into our own inner lives we discover that the human ego is not a thing with an objective existence, but rather an organizing principal given a moment of self-awareness. Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history makes a great deal of this and warns that a host of human ills rise from this delusion of the self that it is center of the universe.

Of course Buddhists aren’t the only one’s to understand this. My mother, a good Baptist lady, pointed out on more than one occasion that I should get over myself. Good advice to a thirteen-year old. And, good advice for a seventy-year old.

When we are told to “let go,” the sentiment is right, but the phrasing is slightly off. The real invitation isn’t an act of will, to let go of something. Rather it is to notice we’ve never been in charge at all.

Number three, “Consider the many ways to give.” And, now we come into the part of intentional action. There’s a line in the Zen Buddhist meal chant where we’re reminded that the gift, the giver, and the receiver of the gift are all one. We are invited into genuinely understanding this in the many acts of giving and receiving.

For me the heart of the whole thing turns on the practice of giving. Paying attention to how we can do this, how you can do this, how I can do this is an invitation into the many practices of our way. Not long ago I was having a conversation with someone who has been practicing Zen meditation for a couple of years. She came to me in dokusan, our formal Zen spiritual direction interviews and told me how she just realized that she came to meditation in our group not just for herself, but in fact for the whole group.

When we discover we’re doing our practice for the whole world, indeed, the whole cosmos, we begin to understand just what just sitting actually is.

Of course its true for everything from offering incense to giving a dollar to a beggar (and, no, I’m not interested in those arguments about how you shouldn’t…)

The intimate path turns on giving. And, of course, receiving.

Giver, receiver, and gift: one thing.

Number four is “Go when you’re really needed.” There’s an anecdote, I believe it may involve the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, who was told “You’re going to hell.” To which he responded, “How else could I help you?” Similarly, I recall a picture of a hell scene where in the corner there’s a small demon dressed in Zen robes and meditating. Same point.

Where are we needed. And by that I mean you. And, of course, me. Maybe its a cave in the mountains. More likely its something else. If you’re supposed to be at the evening meditation period but your child is having a rough time at school and needs some help with studying, what is the authentic practice? And, I hope you get, this shouldn’t actually be that hard a question. I could add in wrinkles that make it more difficult to see, but…

Number five is “Leave your pity at the door.” Life is hard. Life can be and often is brutal. Life is short. I’m almost seventy. I feel the pressing of age. I guarantee you life is short.

And. There are too many ways we can distract ourselves from what needs doing. Leave your specialness in whatever shape it takes, superiority or shame, at the door. Anything that says you or another aren’t quite up to snuff is an invitation into subtle and not so subtle ways of isolating. Whether you feel hate, or, fear, or pity, these are all spiritual dead ends. All this does is cut you off from life. From your life.

This project is a reminder your hair is on fire. It might be a good thing to notice it, and not wonder whether that hair should be curly or straight.

Number six is “Consider going with a friend.” I think of this as a continuation and expansion on pointer number five.

There’s a classic Buddhist text, the Upaddha Sutta that address this. Here’s my paraphrase.

One day while walking quietly together, out of the silence the Buddha’s attendant Ananda declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life. They proceeded along quietly for a while more, before out of that silence the Holy One responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Take a chance. Be a friend. The healing of your own heart is deeply connected to it, as is within the mystery of intimacy, of true love, the healing of this world.

Six pointers on cooking an authentic path.

And, with them, a quick return to Dana’s original invitation. You might take yourself to a soup kitchen sometime and help out. Bring a friend. And all along the way, notice. Pay attention. Open your mind. And open your heart.

Thank you Dana!

And may all beings be at ease…

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