“Wanting Something Back”
Published earlier this year, the small book Zen is Right Here is a collection of brief, memorable exchanges between Suzuki-roshi and his students during the 1960’s. The following story is related by a senior Zen student in residence at San Francisco Zen Center at the time:
‘In the early days there were no snacks in the kitchen at Tassajara, so sometimes I’d send cookies to a friend of mine there. I began to wonder why she didn’t write to say how great I was. Then I thought, how selfish of me. I’m not being generous; there are strings attached. I just wanted something back.
‘I told Suzuki-roshi about this and he said, “It’s all right for you to take care of her, but first you have to take care of yourself!” His voice rose as he said this, and then he got right in my face to say loudly, “Do you understand?”’
Zen literature is famous for anecdotes that conclude with dramatic teachings. Here is an example of an unforgettable message delivered in the final line:
‘A student asked Suzuki Roshi, “I’ve been listening to your lectures for years but I just don’t understand. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”
‘Suzuki Roshi answered, “Everything changes.”‘
Our story about kitchen snacks at Tassajara contains not just one but two highlights. The first occurs in the opening paragraph where the student says:
“I just wanted something back.”
The statement dramatically acknowledges her self-orientation, the first step in letting go of such troubling distractions. However, in addition to lack of generosity, she also admits to a strong craving for affirmation from her friend at Tassajara. Feeling pride in her insight, compelled by her need for “something back,” she is unable to keep the experience to herself, but instead relates it to Suzuki-roshi, hoping for his acknowledgment. Recognizing his student’s karmic pattern, Suzuki-roshi does not respond to what might feel to her as a self-discovery worthy of praise. Rather, he provides the second of the two messages in the story, forcefully urging her to pay more attention to herself.
The story brings to mind the episode in ‘Crooked Cucumber’ when the young Suzuki was practicing with his teacher, So-on:
‘The boys were cleaning out the temple pond, scraping the mud from the bottom. So-on was working at the edge. Shunryu reached down and caught a little goldfish and noticed that there was a tiny worm attached to it. He had learned about this worm in school. He held the fish up, pointed to the worm, and proudly said for all to hear, “This is Mijinko!”
‘”Shut up!” So-on barked at him.
‘“To encourage a student by setting a good example is one sort of mercy. To shout at me when I was proudly showing off was another sort of mercy, another kindness.”’
Human craving for attention can arise anywhere. It has no boundaries of gender, intelligence, skills, ethnicity, creativity, success in life or geography. For those with confidence and a strong sense of purpose, it does not appear at all. But for those less fortunate, it can appear in varying degrees, as if part of a spectrum.
At its least troublesome level, it has no noticeable effect on daily life, except for a possible feeling of rejection when an idea, proposal, or presentation is met with skepticism or doubt. We get over such mildly uncomfortable moments, having learned not to take them personally.
However, at its midrange, the nagging need is expressed in anxiety, impatience, emotional discomfort and the use of selected words, tone of voice and gestures to gain attention. It can become an ongoing distraction, accompanied by a painful sense of separation.
At its most troubling, a deeply felt lack of acceptance leads to anger, unreasonable demands, denial of responsibility, blaming of others, desperation, crime and suicide. Suffering depends on where we are on the scale.
Desire for approval exhibits the symptoms of a troublesome illness, persistent, difficult to eradicate. For Zen students, the antidote is commitment to selfless zazen practice, enabling the troubled mind to release its grip on the image of a self that feels in need of continuous affirmation from the world. The antidote also includes caring – affirming each other, anytime, all the time. It is how we manifest “saving all beings,” the heart of Buddhist practice. Caring has no boundaries.
Through our practice, as we experience an increasing sense of authenticity for how we are living our life – feeling that we are serving others, not just ourselves – enthusiasm and energy motivate us to continue. We find determination and confidence, not caught up in contemplating potential psychic rewards, such as “how much recognition will I get?”
Abbot of Kannon Do