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Peeling Onions Day by Day
Eat supper. Wash dishes. Go to bed. What? You were expecting more from Buddhism?

By Brenda Shoshanna

Just the way everyday life repeats itself, just the way we get up every morning and go to bed every night, so Zen practice, too, focuses upon tasks of daily life that repeat themselves naturally—breathing, washing, sitting, standing, raking leaves, peeling onions for the soup when we need them.

Most consider these events insignificant, something to do and get over with fast. They are irritating chores we’d rather allocate to others, while we think great thoughts or do “important work” that is designed to save the world. We are eager to take on complicated projects that give a sense of accomplishment. But no matter now much we accomplish or do not accomplish, our suffering and loneliness still go on.

In Buddhism, we learn that we don’t have to be fancy or smart. We don’t have to be anything. All we have to be able to do is to sit down. Can we sit down? Fine. Can we breathe? Great—a top student. Do we know how to listen when the bell rings? Can we hear it? Wonderful. Can we get up when it’s time to get up? That’s all we need to know. Can we manage to persevere? Actually, that is all we need to do.

Many people come from a background where there is so much pressure to make the grade, to succeed, to be impressive, that for them, this practice is a much needed relief. To sit when they sit, stand when they stand—not have to constantly focus on achieving something.

Psychologically speaking, when an individual is living under the pressure to constantly achieve, a subtle message is communicated—that he or she is not enough, not loveable just as they are. Love and value must be earned. Of course, this is never experienced as love or true nourishment. No matter how much praise or love such an individual seems to receive, deep down they feel that it is only their achievements that are being cared for, not them.

As we practice, however, we grow to realize that we are sufficient as we are. Rather than seek glory, we realize that everyday life itself, breathing and peeling onions are sufficient in themselves as well. However, most of the time we have not been available to them, we’ve been somewhere else. As we return to the moment and to the to the daily facts of our lives, to onions that need peeling, to wash that must be done, we are returning to the essence of life itself. Why throw this away for a mirage of glory we are only dreaming of?


THE ZEN GARDEN

A famous dignitary was coming to visit a Zen monastery and intense preparations were being made for the visit. The Zen Master instructed the monks to carefully rake up all the leaves that had fallen over their beautiful rock garden. The monks gave particular attention to this task as this garden was the source of great acclaim. The task was completed perfectly about half an hour before the visit.

The Zen Master then went to a deck that was directly above the garden to inspect the outcome of the monks’ work. He saw that every leaf had been raked, all the weeds removed, and the rocks hosed down so that they were gleaming in the sun. After the Master was satisfied with their work, he left for a moment and then returned with a huge bag of old leaves. To the monk’s horror and without a moment’s notice, he immediately tossed them down all over the garden again.

“Now this is a perfect Zen garden,” said the Master. “Don’t forget that.”

The master was teaching the monks that work itself suffices, to forget about results. Whatever life brings is perfect. One can not improve upon that.

 

ORDINARY MOMENTS

Just as we think we need to create perfect gardens or lives, we also need to think that spirituality is about peak experiences and personal ecstasy. While these moments, when they come, are precious, they can also be nothing more than a drug, removing us from what needs to be done—sitting through a painful sitting, keeping quiet so as not to disturb others, taking care of those who are needy, attending to that which is right in front of our eyes. Putting full attention to ordinary life, to simple moments, diminishes our ego. We realize that life is already miraculous and we become concerned with doing what we are doing, not building our false selves up. By not trying to take charge of anything, a strange thing happens—we become the masters of circumstances and are no longer in their grip.


Exercise 1: Peel an Onion
Peel an onion. Peel it again. And again. Peel some more. Keep peeling. Notice everything that’s happening as you peel on and on.

Boring? Annoying? Why Are you searching for something? Trying to get to the core? Forget it. Just peel. Your responses are irrelevant. Watch them come and go. Do you base your life upon transitory responses like these? What have these kinds of responses really done to your life?

Keep peeling the onion. When there is nothing left to peel, peel some more.

Who’s peeling? Where’s the onion? What’s this all about?

Exercise 2: Pick Up Your Coat from the Floor
What’s lying around unattended to in your home or life? Pick it up right now and put it in its rightful place. Is it a piece of clothing, paper, toothbrush, person, relationship? Is it an old dream that has been hanging there a long time? Just pick it up, wash or dust it off and put it where it belongs.

Exercise 3: Persevere
Enjoy persevering at something. Pick one activity that requires a great deal of perseverance and do it for a designated amount of time every day this week. Whether or not you are in the mood to do it, do it anyway. When the time is over, put it down. Then pick it up the next day. See what happens as a result of this to you, and to the activity.

When we focus upon daily tasks, the false self has no place to take hold, and ego, which causes so much anguish, gives way to something else. As well as being a great medicine, this daily practice of doing what needs to be done—sweeping the floor, washing your place after you’ve eaten, walking to the beach with someone who needs you—is the practice of caring for life. No questions asked. No hesitation.

From 'Zen Miracles: Finding Peace in an Insane World,' by Brenda Shoshanna, published by John Wiley & Sons.  Brenda Shoshanna is a psychologist, a relationship expert, and a longtime Zen practitioner. Dr. Shoshanna teaches at Marymount College and the Zen Studies Society in New York. Click here to visit her website.

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