I was in a shop the other
day, searching for just the right platter to serve a particular Thai dish
on, and I saw a little Chinese writing kit. It was a toy, really, not for
serious calligraphers. It had a tiny little inkwell stone, about 2" square,
a tiny water bowl, a tiny ink stick, and two tiny brushes. For anyone who
truly wants to write Chinese, it was virtually worthless, but I was happy
to see it on a common store shelf. Traditional Chinese calligraphy is a
wonderful thing, and it exemplifies perhaps more perfectly than anything
else how the Chinese used to incorporate spirituality into all day-to-day
activities. "Real" Chinese writing sets consist of an ink stone with a
long shallow end and a short deep end, an ink stick (usually 6"x2"x1"),
a water bowl, and various-size brushes. A small amount of water is put
on the inkstone, and the stick is rubbed across it to the desired viscosity.
The inkstick requires at least 15 minutes of rubbing, and this is where
the true spirit of Chinese writing lies. It is a form of za-zen,
a losing of the conscious mind through repetitive action. At that point,
the very act of writing becomes meditation. And although the kit I saw
was little more than a toy, I was overjoyed that this meditative experience
should be available to anyone to discover. Of course, za-zen is
available to anyone, anytime, but most folks need a little push in order
to make their "discovery".
Another way in which some Eastern cultures revere even the smallest activities is reflected in the tea ceremony. Japan, China, Taiwan, and Russia all have their own variation. And although the Japanese tea ceremony is the most famous, I happen to think that it is also the most contradictory to its intentions. The entire event is very proscribed and rigid and complicated, and focuses entirely on the serving of the tea rather than the tea itself. There are rules about how the room should be situated (door here and here, window here, table with exactly three cushions arranged just so), the order in which serving and drinking occur (the host/hostess enters from the right at a certain moment, and then does blah, then this, then this, ad ennui). The tea itself is almost inconsequential to the ceremony. That's not what Zen is about. One cannot possibly meditate or attain enlightenment when intently concentrating on the successive steps of a ritual. While it's true that za-zen can be conducted through repetitive action, the idea is to not think. If you have to think about what you are doing, you will never escape conscious thought.
Now, contrast this with the Chinese tea ceremony. The "ceremony" is almost inconsequential to the tea drinking. The only rules involved regard how the tea is steeped and poured, and these are simply to ensure the best, most consistent flavor; so unlike the Japanese version, there is a purpose to the rules. The cups are set in a circle and the tea poured in a continuous stream from the pot around and around the circle, so that no one has a cup which is all from the top or all from the bottom. The cups are all of equal quality. The participants focus on the tea's aroma and flavor, and how each pot tastes and smells slightly different though made from the same leaves. One is reminded of tea's transience. In the course of a few minutes it will be created and will cease to be. No two cups will ever taste exactly alike. Each is unique. The Chinese tea ceremony is about being in the moment and losing yourself in heightened sensory perception. The Japanese ceremony is about following a set of rules. The two are as far apart as you can get.
Everyday life is about being in the moment. Whether it is the act of writing, drinking tea, or washing dishes, there is much to be gained through quiet, solitary tasks. I personally enjoy snow shoveling (well, I don't enjoy the job; it's tiresome and backbreaking). I enjoy being among the silence of a fresh snowfall. Snow has the wonderful sound-deadening property. Sometimes you can hear the individual flakes landing near you. I love to be among that literal white noise, and soon the steady scrape, scrape, scrape of the shovel lulls my mind into a state of za-zen. Although I'm cold, tired, winded, and sore by the time I return to the house, my spirit feels refreshed. Unfortunately, I have not yet achieved this same sense of oneness while mowing the lawn.
The quote at the beginning has a twofold meaning. The first and most obvious is that you can find inner peace through the most mundane tasks. The second meaning is that your life doesn't change once you become enlightened, only your perception of life changes. There will still be wood to chop and water to carry. But these chores will take on deeper purpose, and eventually you will find even the mundane tasks worthwhile.
The word "karma," in its literal translation, does not mean reward or punishment for the quality of the sum of your deeds--a sort of cosmic trial by jury. Quite literally, the word means "doing" or "action". Your state of being in the current moment is comprised of whatever you do, big or small. You can grumble about how monotonous sweeping the floor is, or you can fall into it and let your mind go. How you choose to carry out your karma is up to you.