Thursday, October 18, 2012


an essay by Bobby Byrd
Cup of Coffee (Ink on Paper) by Harvey Daiho Hilbert, Roshi

I confess. For the last several years I've become Stephen Batchelor fan (the Buddhist writer, not the field hockey player). In Living with the Devil: A Buddhist Take on Good and Evil, he says this early on:
What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you. (Page 10) 
I agree totally with that. But I can also listen to, and agree, with differing points of view. When I read the Batchelor quote, I remembered at the same time this wonderful little story in the 2nd volume of Soyu Matsuoka Roshi collection of teachings Moku-Rai:

Zen Master and Catholic Priest
An American Catholic priest, who had founded a Zen Center in Japan, visited the abbot of a large Zen Monastery. The priest had studied Zen in Japan for a number of years and was known for his diligence.
The abbot asked over tea: “Even though you are a Catholic priest you practice zazen. What do you feel, when you practice?” The priest replied: “I feel God all around me. I am guided by him and I am in his power.”
Without hesitation, the abbot said: “If you continually practice zazen, God will disappear.” The abbot’s statement perplexed the priest. He was concerned over the possible loss of his supervision. The priest in response said: “God won’t disappear. I will disappear.” The abbot replied: “Whether God or you disappear, it makes no difference.” (Page 70)
The stories seem to contradict each other. But zazen is a big tent with different ways to resolve the questions before you. Each of us is different, and so we sit zazen together in our zendo (so many “z’s” we have). We don’t ask for membership cards and affiliations when a person walks into our little zendo on Louisville Street. Atheists and agnostics, Catholics and Jews, Baptists and Republicans and Democrats—they’ve all walked through the door one time or another. Some stick around, others disappear, saying they will be back soon, smiles on their faces. Most times, they don’t. That’s okay. We keep sitting and staring at the wall.

Strange how Zen gets so many different people coming through the door. Why does that happen?

We use much of the paraphernalia of religion. We have an altar with flowers, a stick of incense is usually burning, a bronze statue of the Buddha is perched atop the altar like a god, we have our prayers and chants, and we do our dance steps. But we don’t worship a God. Our practice is dharma practice, the study of the dharma, the study of the self. In other words, What is this? Why must we suffer? It’s a good question. Buddha asked the same question. And then Dogen says, when you sit, the self disappears. Poof. Because it’s contingent, second to second, it’s constantly arising as something new and different.

If you believe in God, that’s cool. We want you to come and sit with us. Sitting zazen will be your study of God and God’s relation to you. God. No God. All this is only words. We have faith in the practice of zazen—shikantaza, just sitting—and the study of ourselves through zazen.

If God is your koan, go for it.
Sit down and shut up.
Like the rest of us.

The other night I had dinner with a friend at Kiki’s Mexican Food on Piedras. My friend is a nice guy. He has a temper. He knows it. He’s troubled, but, without trouble, there’s no story. I like stories. I tell him he needs to sit zazen more, but he doesn’t have time to sit more zazen. He has more important things to do. Important things always get in the way. That’s how we are.

We were splitting a small pitcher of beer, but we talked about coffee. Good coffee. Bad coffee. He told me a story about having breakfast at an I-HOP with his girlfriend and getting pissed at the waitress. She was serving bad coffee. It was stale and burnt. He told her so. He could feel the anger in his voice and in his throat. The waitress didn’t understand why he was angry with her. It wasn’t her fault. She only worked there. He seethed for a while, his girlfriend was embarrassed and sad, he realized he had made a fool of himself, and later he apologized to the waitress. But it still pissed him off. I laughed at my friend. After a while, he laughed at himself too. He had the chicken tacos. I had a black bean burrito. We shared some guacamole and finished our beer.

The next morning Lee and I were walking up the hill on Elm, our Tuesday morning walk (other days Lee walks with her good friend Martha). October mornings in El Paso are cool and beautiful, the sun rising up out of the distant east. Tuesdays is garbage day, and the trucks rumble up the streets like ravenous animals. Their job is to pick up the useless bits and pieces of our lives. They also carry away stories and daydreams. They stop in front of the houses and, with a huge mechanical hand, grab the garbage cans and empty them head over heels into their bellies. They make a huge racket. I like that noise. It keeps me awake. I try to pay attention to my walking, sometimes counting my breaths. My mind comes and goes. Thoughts arise.

Like “good coffee / bad coffee.”

Oh, yeah. That was fun, listening to my friend talking about the waitress and her bad coffee. Then I remembered something else—“There’s no place to spit.” It’s an old Soto Zen adage. I love it. It means that everything is sacred. You spit anywhere, you’re spitting on sacred ground. Ground made sacred by our attention to it.

But sometimes I need to spit.
Where am I going to spit if there’s nowhere to spit?
Zen is littered with paradox.
Like God and No God. Like self and no self.

That’s what I like about Zen. There’s always something to do. And there’s always something to pay attention to. That’s why there’s no place to spit. Because we are asked each moment to pay attention to what we are doing—internally and externally. Driving the car. Turning on the computer. Answering the phone. Watering the yard. Making love. Spitting and shitting. The same ball of wax. It’s the dharma. We are studying the self. Every day we teach ourselves this lesson—through the practice of zazen, through taking this understanding off the zafu and lugging it happily, like old Hotei , out into the world. We want to live a balanced life—avoiding evil, doing good and bringing about abundant good for all beings. Some days we do better than other days. Some days we tip the waitress. Some days we get pissed at the waitress, but we remember to leave a tip anyway. The bad coffee really wasn’t her fault. It takes a while to understand. And we always come home to sit on our zafus. That's how we practice our faith--with effort and doubt. We sit zazen in the big tent.

Here’s a poem/story I wrote last year. It’s about good coffee and bad coffee.

"The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences."
—Seng-T’san, the 3rd Chinese Patriarch  

I got a Zen friend eats a vegetarian breakfast at MacDonald’s sometimes. He likes the cheap coffee. He says, “Don’t be a snob, Bobby. What difference does it make?” And he gives me a wise Buddhist smile.

I tell my friend if I’m going to eat fast food, then I’m going to eat at some local place. Like the H&H Carwash over on Yandell. The Haddads own the place, Kenny and Maynard. 4th generation Lebanese Christian immigrants. Both right wingers, but they leave me alone.

I tell my friend that the 3rd Patriarch eats there too. He likes the spinning stools at the counter. He’s a vegetarian so he orders the chili relleno plate. Two rellenos, rice and beans. It’s way too much food of course. He wants just enough, so he takes his leftovers to the bum in the alley.

The bum’s name is Chuy, short for Jesus. Kenny doesn’t like the Chinaman feeding Chuy. It’s like attracting flies. Seng-T’san smiles at Kenny’s rant but he will do as he pleases. Chuy needs to eat. “Yeah, yeah,” Kenny says and walks away.

The rellenos are delicious as always. Likewise the refried beans and rice. A couple of tortillas de maiz. On the side a glass of water and a cup of coffee.

Seng-T’san is no dummy of course. Gloria the cook fries the rellenos and everything else in a little bit of lard. Oh well. He eats what’s set before him. Gloria is a tiny woman, a juarense and every morning she walks across the border to cook rellenos at the H&H. Sent-T’san smiles at Gloria, his hands in gassho.

Then he gives thanks to all the other many beings who have brought this food to his table. Even the pig who provided the lard. In his thanksgiving, he saves Artemisa the waitress for last. She’s his favorite and he knows he’s not supposed to have favorites. Artemisa has such a beautiful big smile.

She says “De nada” and “Quieres más?” She always pours extra coffee to keep his cup warm and makes sure everything is perfect. Then she leaves him alone while he eats. She likes gringos okay and a Chinaman is just another kind of gringo. He eats everything and always leaves a big tip.

The coffee was lousy but that’s okay.

—in memory of Artemisa Salinas (1932-2011)


  1. Gosh, if you're so into paying attention, why don't you pay more attention to your wife?

    Your wife