Sunday, March 1, 2009

The food of life

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In "The Historical Jesus," John Dominic Crossan points out that one central feature of Christ's ministry is the taking and sharing of meals. In the miracle of loaves and fishes, the wedding at Cana, and the Last Supper, Christ partakes of food with his followers and disciples.

In every instance, the taking in of food becomes a miraculous process. The changing of water into wine and the multiplication of loaves and fishes indicate a transformation which takes place in the act of eating.

In Dogen's Shobogenzo, chapter "Kajo," or, "ordinary life," we find the following comments:

"A miracle, in every instance and for every person, is always eating meals. This being so, sitting alone on Great and Mighty Peak is just eating meals."

"My late master, the eternal Buddha... says, "When hunger comes I eat a meal, when tiredness comes I sleep. Forges span the universe.

"Hunger coming" is the vivid state of a person who has eaten meals already. For a person who is not experienced eating meals, hunger is impossible. So remember, we for whom hunger may be an everyday state are, decidedly, people who have finished a meal. "Tiredness coming" may be further tiredness experienced in tiredness. It has totally sprung free from the top of the brains of tiredness. Therefore, it is a moment of the present when, in vivid activity through the whole body, the whole body is totally turned around." (Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross, Dogen Sangha Press, Book 3, pp. 188-189.)

So we discover that Dogen's understanding of this process was quite similar to Christ's.

The question might appear baffling, or strictly allegorical, if it were not for Mr. Gurdjieff's words on the matter as explained to P. D. Ouspensky in "In Search Of The Miraculous."

Here we learn that man has three kinds of food. Ordinary food which we eat and digest in the gut; air; and impressions. Impressions clearly are a form of food, and yet modern science completely fails to recognize that fact. Little consideration is given to the idea that if you take in the wrong kind of impressions, you can get sick, in the same way that you will get sick if you eat rotten meat or breathe polluted air.

Because the human being is a resilient machine, we can absorb an awful lot of bad impressions before it ruins us. But the risk is always there. The Buddhist's practice of discrimination, the Christian's and Sufi's practice of action through love, and all of the rituals, forms, and the moral teachings of religions are actually designed specifically to prevent people from taking in bad impressions. In a supreme irony, many of these forms become so rigid that they turn into a bad impression of their own.

It isn't just the forms that become rigid. It's we ourselves that become rigid. We adopt our own "inner form," ostensibly to prevent ourselves from taking in what we think are bad impressions, and low and behold, our inner form itself starts to prevent us from getting the right food. This happens to just about everybody, which is why the Buddhists worry so much about the discrimination of the conceptual mind.

This is why intelligent flexibility within the moment is so important.

The most important action a man engages in in his effort at spiritual transformation is the manner in which he takes in his impressions. Generally speaking, a man is going to get enough food for his gut and his lungs just through the instinctive process alone. Impressions are quite another matter, because the sensitivity of the organ and its ability to drink impressions in deeply deteriorates steadily over the course of a lifetime. A child is born with the ability to drink in impressions very deeply indeed, and there are few barriers to them. As a man grows up and learns to discriminate, however, that ability becomes more and more constricted. Hence Christ's adage that a man must "become as a child" in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. It may not seem related, but the act of becoming more open to impressions is certainly part of what this phrase means from an esoteric point of view.

In the Gurdjieff work, the idea of "being open" is talked about a good deal. There are many different meanings for these words, some extremely esoteric, but in a general and exoteric way they indicate a need for flexibility, and the need to be open to the arrival of impressions within the body.

So once again, we find a common thread buried in the midst of traditional practice on opposite sides of the world, and the one man in the past century who was able to explain the nature of this thread in a technically practical manner was Mr. Gurdjieff.

Of course, anyone can gain a technical understanding of this question from texts. The real question is how to obtain a practical understanding of this, which can only arise through participation in the organic state of being. And, of course, we can see how very clearly Dogen indicated that in the last sentence of the quote at the beginning of this essay. What he is describing there is the same new vessel for new wine which Jesus Christ referred us to.

Many years ago, when I was getting ready for our summer vacation, my group leader Henry Brown asked me what I was going to do over the summer. I told him I was going to make a concerted work effort and read several different religious texts and study them. Now, Henry was an avid reader, and he had nothing against these ideas. But his comment to me on that day was "sometimes work is just taking in impressions."

So before we work, when we work, and after we work, the work we always undertake is the ingestion of our impressions. If we develop a greater appreciation of the sacredness of the process of life, as well as the sacredness of its material nature, our work will deepen and we will be well fed.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

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