In Japanese Buddhism Shojin is a word used to denote elevation of the soul through intense focus on a single task. It's most often used to describe the ritualized cooking of vegetarian meals in Buddhist temples known as Shojin Ryori.
During the preparation of Shojin Ryori cuisine monks go to the market and "greet" their vegetables. First, they smell each one individually. Then they use their fingers to massage the plant, and investigate it's texture. After that, they return home and slowly chop each one by hand. Nothing is wasted. The use of machines (including refrigerators) is frowned upon in Shojin Ryori, so cooks buy only as much as they need for a meal, and utilize every part of the plant.
They spend hours grinding spices with a pestle and mortar. And then they create a dish which carefully balances the colors, textures, and flavor profiles of every ingredient. The end result is that the mundane, task of cooking vegetables is turned into a literal work of art. But more than that, it becomes a lesson in how beautiful life can be when we put our whole heart into the present moment.
"Just stir the pot", I can hear the Shojin teacher say. Just chop the vegetables. Just serve the food. Do it over and over again. Do it until your mind explodes. Do it until the training takes away every hope, dream, and desire that you have. Do it until you realize that THIS is all you have in life. And then learn to cherish this... whatever it might be. Cherish the pot, cherish the vegetables, cherish the long commute, and the annoying relatives. Cherish your boring, everyday life, and appreciate how lucky you are to have it.
This is an important lesson for me as I continue walking the Buddhist path. For a long time I've felt that normal life is a hindrance to my training. I sit in conference rooms at work and wish that I could live out my days in a monastery. I go out with friends and feel guilty for not spending more time on the cushion.
In short, if I'm not sitting cross-legged, and staring at walls until my legs ache, then I feel like I'm slacking. But what is Zen if not training in how to live our normal lives wholeheartedly? What is meditation if not the stripping away of every trick, technique, and piece of technology that we use to escape the here and now?
I still believe that seated meditation is the most effective path to awakening. However, practicing Shojin has taught me that what I'm doing in the moment is only one part of the puzzle. It's my devotion to the task which turns ordinary actions into dharma gates.. If a cushion is a tool for awakening, then so is a chef's knife. If sitting zazen is enlightenment itself, then so it cutting the grass.
When Buddhist monks practice Shojin Ryori, they turn vegetarian cooking into a pathway toward enlightenment. When I live everyday life with a full heart, I do the same. I ride my bike, I read my books, I go to work, and awakening takes care of itself.
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