Compassion for Imperfection

The wise heart brings compassion to imperfection itself. The wise heart is at peace with the way things are. No longer struggling against the world or lost in it, we rest. The holy qualities of understanding, humility, and a patient caring are our gifts. Our body, speech, and mind become like the Tao, “content with the changing of the seasons.” We become the love we have sought. And in this love we are also returned to ourselves.

Zen teacher Edward Espe Brown is the author of many Zen-inspired cookbooks, beginning with The Tassajara Bread Book. Through describing his kitchen practice, he writes of the truths of the heart:

When I first started cooking at Tassajara, I had a problem. I couldn’t get my biscuits to come out the way they were supposed to. I’d follow a recipe and try variations, but nothing worked. These biscuits just didn’t measure up.

Growing up I had made two kinds of biscuits. One was from Bisquick and the other from Pillsbury. For the Bisquick you added milk in the mix and then blobbed the dough in spoonfuls onto the pan—you didn’t even need to roll them out. The biscuits from Pillsbury came in kind of a cardboard can. You rapped the can on the corner of the counter and it popped open. Then you twisted the can open more, put the premade biscuits on a pan, and baked them. I really liked those Pillsbury biscuits. Isn’t that what biscuits should taste like? Mine weren’t coming out right.

It’s wonderful and amazing the ideas we get about what biscuits should taste like, or what a life should look like. Compared to what? Canned biscuits from Pillsbury? “Leave It to Beaver?” People who ate my biscuits would extoll their virtues, eating one after another, but to me these perfectly good biscuits just weren’t right.

Finally one day came a shifting-into-place, an awakening. “Not right” compared to what? Oh, my word, I’d been trying to make canned Pillsbury biscuits! Then came an exquisite moment of actually tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some previously hidden standard. They were wheaty, flaky, buttery, sunny, earthy, real. They were incomparably alive—in fact, much more satisfying than any memory.

These occasions can be so stunning, so liberating, these moments when you realize your life is just fine as it is, thank you. Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product made it seem insufficient. Trying to produce a biscuit—a life—with no dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger, was so frustrating. Then savoring, actually tasting the present moment of experience—how much more complex and multifaceted. How unfathomable.

As Zen students we spent years trying to make it look right, trying to cover the faults, conceal the messes. We knew what the Bisquick Zen student looked like: calm, buoyant, cheerful, energetic, deep, profound. Our motto, as one of my friends said, was, “looking good.” We’ve all done it, trying to look good as a husband, a wife or parent. Trying to attain perfection. Trying to make Pillsbury biscuits.

Well, to heck with it, I say. Wake up and smell the coffee. How about some good old home cooking, the biscuits of today.

When we accept our place in the mandala of the whole, we come back to just where we are. And in this is found joy, ease, simplicity, and courage, and what T. S. Eliot calls the freedom “to care and not to care.”

© 2019 – All Rights Reserved. Jack Kornfield

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