There’s a story in which a cook—an elder Zen practitioner—was traveling, and he stopped at a monastery to listen to a lecturer speak about the three qualities of the body of reality, on which he expounded profusely and eloquently. And as the lecturer was talking, the visiting cook suddenly couldn’t help himself and started laughing out loud. After the lecture, the speaker addressed the cook: “My simple knowledge is narrow and inferior; I interpret the meanings according to the words. Just now, in the course of the lecture, I saw you break out in a laugh; I must have some shortcoming—please explain it to me.” The cook said, “If you had not asked, I wouldn’t have spoken. But since you have asked I can’t help but explain. I was actually laughing because you don’t know this body of reality.” The lecturer said, “What is wrong with my explanation, such as it was?” The cook said, “Please explain it once more.” The lecturer said, “The principle of the body of reality is like the great void: vertically, it goes through past, present and future; horizontally it extends throughout the ten directions of the universe; it fills the eight extremities and embraces both positive and negative modes. According to conditions, it tends toward effect; there is nowhere it does not extend.” The cook said, “I did not say your explanation is wrong; but you only know that which pertains to the extent of the body of reality; you do not actually know the body of reality.” The lecturer said, “Granting that you are right, you should explain it for me.” The cook said, “If you agree, then give up lecturing for ten days, and meditate correctly in a quiet room; collect your mind, gather your thoughts, give up various clingings to good and bad all at once, and investigate exhaustively on your own.” Stop talking and thinking about the dharma. Just meditate correctly.
It’s necessary to be able to reflect clearly and constructively—without self-clinging—on one’s practice and to be able to assess: “Am I truly doing zazen? Is my zazen in accord with the dharma?” We should be able to ask these questions and learn, over time, how to guide ourselves. But if we’re caught in a mind of insecurity and self-doubt, then it may be difficult to do this without becoming self-critical. We’ll just look for confirmation that we’re failing because that’s what we expect of ourselves. If that’s the case, it’s better not to ask the question. Just trust practice and do it. Reflecting on our practice should happen naturally. It’s a bit like driving—you naturally correct yourself to stay on the road. Understanding the principles, if you are then attentive and aware, staying on the path takes care of itself.
The cook tells the lecturer, “You only know that which pertains to the extent of the body of reality. You don’t actually know the body of reality.” How did the cook know that the lecturer didn’t actually know? Understanding reveals itself, as does lack of understanding. Falseness, insecurity, fear, confidence, trust, arrogance—they are always evident. To the one who pays attention and has seen clearly into him or herself, all beings become clear.