If You Meet the Buddha in the Litter Box…

I’ve been visiting the Austin Zen Center so regularly the past couple months that recently the subject came up of my learning the doan ryo: support roles associated with zazen (sitting meditation) and services (the chanting and bowing that typically follow zazen).

I’m still too new to give an adequate description (or even definition) of these tasks, but basically they involve things like keeping time, leading chants, and assisting the priests. Perhaps someone sensed that my years as an acolyte growing up in the Methodist church made me a prime candidate for the Buddhist equivalent. (A little Zen humor for you there.)

Beyond facilitating the daily program, the doan roles allow practitioners to extend their Zen experience beyond the meditation cushion. As you might imagine, the goal of Zen is to take one’s practice off the cushion and into everyday life. Thus, everything is part of the practice—life is the practice—and so I’ve been grateful to apply mindfulness in this new, tangible way.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I am the world’s worst Buddhist, given that months and months of regular meditation haven’t yet freed me from anxiety, confusion, irritability, attachment, etc. In Buddhist terms, the Three Poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. Honestly, I seem to be a very long way still from anything resembling enlightenment.

Yet occasionally I receive the quickest of glimpses into what that might involve. For example, of the few doan ryo tasks I’ve studied thus far, the job of chiden is the only one I’ve actually performed. Essentially, this entails cleaning and replenishing the altar after services, including bowls of ash in which lit incense is placed. Just the other morning, minutes after returning to my apartment from serving as chiden, I fleetingly experienced a zendo sort of mindfulness in a rather unexpected context.

At various points in my morning routine I made myself some cereal and cleaned my cat’s litterbox. For some reason, the juxtaposition of chiden and these more domestic rituals caused something to click—something difficult to articulate, as it was a flash of recognition rather than a thought. Bowls, containers, sifting and cleaning: what I experienced  was first and foremost a physical sensation, with conscious interpretation emerging only after that passing instant in which I was—as corny as this may sound—one with the moment, as opposed to standing back and commenting on it.

Another thing I notice is that from time to time I have a sort of built-in delay to reactions that used to be reflexive. Much like live TV broadcasts that incorporate just enough of a delay for bleeping out anything inappropriate, I now sometimes enjoy  a sort of pause between something that could trigger me and my actual reaction—a moment during which I have some degree of control over whether or not to let the triggering proceed. It’s not constant or consistent, but I think it is a step in the right direction.

Perhaps I’m still a bad Buddhist. But perhaps, if I can see Zen in cleaning out a litterbox, my practice might be progressing more steadily than it often seems.



Filed under Zen

3 responses to “If You Meet the Buddha in the Litter Box…

  1. Tom Bohman

    Great post Bruce! As a fellow litter box cleaner, I especially like the title 🙂

    • Thanks, Tom! In preparing another post, I just ran across this pertinent quote: “There are no mundane things outside of Buddhism, and there is no Buddhism outside of mundane things” (Yuan-Wu).

  2. Pingback: Next to Godliness, Mindfulness | Write Learning

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