Curiosity filled the dog

Harvey, our golden retriever, beat me to Buddhism. He discovered the dharma a full five years before I did and seems to have skipped the student phase entirely, advancing directly to Zen master.  BA8DDABC-48B0-437D-B705-B53C53E8E3F4-454-000000CC028E11A5_zpsd7ad2dd4 (3)

Because he’s a real dog and not some smart-mouthed cartoon canine, Harvey’s lessons for me are all non-verbal. Even if he could talk, he couldn’t take credit for pioneering the silent approach to spiritual teaching.

More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha delivered his Flower Sermon. Without saying a word, he held a white lotus in his hands for his followers to see.

People take away different things from the Buddha’s Flower Sermon. Some have suggested he was conveying the importance of direct experience in spiritual practice; others have interpreted it as the Buddha’s way of saying “things are just as they are.”

Harvey put his own spin on this teaching several summers ago, when he held in his mouth the remnants of a running shoe I’d just bought the day before.

Like the Buddha’s silent lesson, the Chewed-up Running Shoe Sermon can be interpreted several ways. One possible conclusion to be drawn from it: “Bad dog!” Another: “If you don’t want something chomped to bits, don’t put it in reach of a puppy.”

Reflecting on it today, the image of my shoe in Harvey’s mouth with chunks of rubber sole scattered about the room points to some fundamental spiritual truths. It’s a reminder that all phenomena, shoes included, are impermanent, that we shouldn’t take the stuff we care about for granted, and that reality may not agree with our expectations of how long things should last.

And to take a few more steps back for a broader view of the shoe incident: Things that may seem like mere annoyances at first have something more to them.

In many Zen monasteries, a monk will make the rounds in a meditation hall carrying a flat wooden stick – a keisaku in Japenese – and when he spots a meditator slouching or nodding off, he’ll deliver a quick whack to the back or the shoulders. The first time I saw a video of this, I wondered why the rest of the monks weren’t pouncing on the jerk with the bully stick and giving him a taste of what he’d been dishing out. That’s before I learned that the keisaku isn’t used to inflict pain or punishment, but its application is seen by monastics as a compassionate act that assists them in their spiritual practice. There’s something more to it (though I’m kind of glad my own Zen teacher prefers ringing a bell to swinging a stick).

The leg injury that’s kept me from running these past couple of weeks has a bit of the keisaku-wielding monk to it. Superficially, it’s an annoyance. Take time to understand it, though, and its value becomes more apparent.

Running reinforces my spiritual practice, and I think this forced break from running can do the same.

Kodo Sawaki Roshi offers this insight in a fresh translation of his teachings published last year:

“To practice the Buddha way is not to let our minds wander, but to become one with what we’re doing. … Eating rice isn’t preparation for shitting; shitting isn’t preparation for making manure.”

Similarly, time away from running isn’t preparation for running, or time to kill. It’s something that should be fully appreciated on its own.

My workouts over the past couple of weeks have been limited to taking Harvey for a walk around the block. This morning, he used the opportunity to deliver another silent sermon.

Harvey has encountered the same telephone poles, trees and mailboxes thousands of times over the years. Yet he approaches each with the curiosity of a dog who’s never been on a walk in his life.

Seeing the intensity with which he sniffed the street sign this morning brought to mind the prologue to Shunryu Suziki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. … Always be a beginner.”

There’s no doubt Harvey has a beginner’s mind, and it may be rubbing off on me, at least a bit. Our dog hasn’t sold me on sniffing every telephone pole I pass, but he has pointed of the value of approaching my time away from running with an open mind and a healthy dose of curiosity.

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