The reason we find hell or unhappiness unbearable and run around longing to escape is because we cling so strongly to the desire for happiness. Traditionally, in the East, this is seen as a demon making a plaything out of you in the same way a cat does to a mouse it has caught. Perhaps he puts us in a pot to boil or chases us up a mountain of needles. We run about all confused and the demon taunts us all the more with our own confusion.

Or to offer a more modern-day example, a man’s business fails and then his wife falls ill. His child has a traffic accident, which causes a nervous breakdown. All his misfortunes seem to come at once, and in complete despair, he begins to struggle. However, since everything—in this case, even misfortune—is our life, what is essential especially in these circumstances is to meet adversity with an attitude of equanimity. If we fall into hell, then we need the resolve to see that hell is our home. When we are being boiled in the demon’s cauldron, that is where we have to do zazen. When we are pursued up a mountain of needles, we should be willing to climb that mountain hand over hand even at the risk of our life. When we throw all our life energy into whatever we might encounter, no demon can help but retreat. What a way to live!

In the Linji Lu (The Records of Linji) is the following passage: “The Self far transcends all things. Even if the whole universe tumbled down, I would have no misgivings. Though all the buddhas in the ten directions might appear before me, I would not rejoice. Even though the three hells might appear before me, I would have no fear, since there is nothing I dislike.” We view heaven or hell, enlightenment or delusion all with the same eye, or to put it more positively, we throw our whole lives into whatever we encounter, and that is the attitude of living out the buddhadharma.

When we have developed this kind of attitude toward our lives, the meaning of living day by day changes completely, along with our valuation of the events and people and circumstances that arise. Since we no longer try to escape from delusion, misfortune, or adversity, nor chase after enlightenment and peace of mind, things like money and position lose their former value. People’s reputations or their skills at maneuvering in society have no bearing on the way we see them as human beings, nor does a certificate of enlightenment make any impression on anyone. What is primary and essential is that as we develop this vision, the meaning of encountering the things, situations, or people in our lives completely changes.

The Tenzo Kyokun shows us in a concrete way just how to cultivate this attitude through careful handling of the food we use to prepare meals. We must no longer look at things in the way they are commonly seen. Rather, we need to face everything that arises with the entire meaning and value of these encounters completely altered, seeing everything as our life! It says: “When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions.” In other words, you should not consider something precious simply because it cost a lot of money, nor treat it roughly because it was inexpensive. It goes on: “When making a soup with ordinary greens, do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. By the same token that you do not indulge in a meal because of its particularly good taste, there is no reason to feel an aversion towards an ordinary one.”

Mathijs Delva