From The Under 35 Project: “The Gift of Failure”

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project by Marco Seiryu Wilkinson, about being mindful of where our food comes from.

Marcus Seiryu Wilkinson
16 November 2012
Photo by Filipa Campos

My first year as a farmer was challenging. From a late start to the job to breakdowns of every piece of equipment in the Spring, that year was characterized by frustration at setbacks, desperation at the mounting tasks necessary for success, and elation when even one seedling miraculously burst out of the earth. The art of farming is really timing – peas in on St. Patrick’s Day, tomatoes in on Mother’s Day. And so when the tractors on the farm were all broken, in early April we hurled ourselves at the heavy clay of our fields, weeding nearly two acres by hand and hoe (and shovel for mammoth tap roots of curly dock), then trying to draw furrows in the unbroken clay to sow peas and finally plugging them in one by one stooped over in the pouring rain with aching fingers.

This scene played out crop after crop in the spring: leeks, onions, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, potatoes. All gotten into the stubborn ground with aching hands, tears, and sweat, albeit increasingly late, as each required mammoth efforts to prepare the ground for them. What satisfaction to see the peas unfurl their first fat cheerful leaves and the leek transplants thicken and grow tall, and what frustration and sadness to watch that hard work swamped by weeds as late Spring heavy rains made the fields lush with life (just not the intended life of our plans) while we were trying to catch up with planting.

What to do? Make dandelion root tea and pick dandelion greens. Make use of wild greens like lamb’s quarters, amaranth, purslane, chickweed. And yet, as the season progressed and our efforts have brought fruit but not always bounty, it was hard not to feel a failure at this enterprise. What to do with this feeling, and the stunted onions and vanished shallots, the struggling cucumbers and the late planted tomatoes stalled and stubbornly green in August?

In the middle of summer I went to the Hudson Valley in New York to join my sangha, the Village Zendo, for a ten-day sesshin, or intensive meditation retreat. The night before my flight, after working at the farm from 7:30am to 7:30pm trying to get everything done, I returned home to pack. I folded my sitting robes and packed them with my rakusu, and pulled my oryoki bowls off the high shelf of the hutch in our dining room.

“Oryoki” means “just enough” and is the formal way one eats meals in a Zen temple. Like sitting meditation and walking meditation it is a practice and a tool for Zen students, a wake-up call. An intricately knotted cloth package holds nested black bowls, chopsticks, a spoon, a small rubber spatula, a napkin, and a drying cloth. Three times a day after hours of concentrated silent sitting and walking, these bundles are brought down by practitioners from their perches on shelves lining the zendo, and carried with respect to the same seats used for meditation. There is seamlessness from zazen to kinhin to oryoki.

Eating is an incredibly intricate and meticulous practice wrapped in ceremony. Before opening the cloth package we chant that we are actually opening the Buddha’s own bowls. Energies of wisdom and commitment and compassion are invoked as food is served. Humility and recognition of the generosity that brought food to these bowls are expressed once the bowls are filled. A small offering, a clump of rice grains or a tender green, is set out by each participant from their bowls on to the tip of their spatula to feed all beings in the universe. As utensils are arranged and the first bowl, the Buddha Bowl, is held high in offering, all of the universe participates in the meal.

Food is eaten mindfully and efficiently, and when it’s done out comes the spatula. This little tool bewildered me when I first practiced oryoki. Chopsticks and spoon are licked and sucked clean, and then bowl by bowl the spatula is used to scrape up and eat every last morsel, grain or gob of food. In a meal guided by form and decorum, this sucking and scraping and licking is a radical dining move: nothing is wasted.

Hot tea is then poured into the first bowl and each participant goes to work with their spatula to clean the bowl, diligently removing any residue, then pouring the tea into the next bowl and then the next, also cleaning the utensils along the way. The now brothy tea, swirling with bits of rice and drops of oil, is then drunk: nothing is wasted.

Except at this point a last swallow of this meticulous act of dishwashing is reserved and then thrown out. For years, from my first bewildered experience of this eating ritual through growing familiarity and ease with it, what has always been most meaningful is the focus on the preciousness of food and the meticulous way in which none of it is wasted.  But there at the end of the meal is the pouring out of the last of the soupy tea.  At this pouring out, we chant, “The water with which I wash these bowls tastes like ambrosia. I offer it to the various spirits to satisfy them.” What is this? After doing everything possible not to waste, the temple collectively throws the last of the meal out.

Arriving at the retreat after watching all of our herculean efforts in the fields seemingly go to waste and feeling like an utter failure, a small window opened for me. After doing everything possible, what is left? Let go. Tip your bowl, and let the last of the tea spill out. Is this failure or is it a gift? “I offer it to the various spirits.” My three shiny black bowls come back and nest together in the center of the wrapping cloth laid out like a mandala before each student and they are like an enso, that dramatic Zen arc of ink sweeping in a breath across a blank page into a circle — perfection in the moment. And yet it really isn’t. Always left open, the circle is never complete. The bowl’s rim can’t hold, our efforts never complete themselves. The perfect circle is one that spills its contents out to the world, that opens its heart to let the world pour in.

When the last bowl is wiped dry and piece by piece the whole oryoki set returns to its starting point and the last wrapping cloth in the zendo is tied up to resemble a lotus leaf emerging from the water, the chant leader calls out, “May we exist in muddy waters with purity like a lotus.  Thus we bow to Buddha.” While the sangha bows and touches their bowls to their foreheads to conclude the meal in the zendo, the little steel basin used to collect the “muddy waters” of the community has been sitting its own period of zazen silently on the kitchen counter, maybe in a patch of noonday sun or maybe just in the empty gloom. Afterwards, someone on lunch duty will come along and pour it all out (mindfully or not, it doesn’t matter) into the flower bed of irises outside the kitchen door.

Every day spent in the fields was total commitment to caring for earth, coworkers, and community through environmentally sound practice, total commitment to teaching and supporting the growth of young farmers as well as vegetables, total commitment to scraping the bowl of the field of all the food, cultivated and wild, that it had to offer to fill the belly of my little town. And yet… In dollars and cents, it was a miserable and hard year.

After everything, the bowl tips and the remains of the meal spill out, an “offering to the various spirits to satisfy them.” Who knows what effects have spilled out from this year of hard farming? Into the earth, into the people I worked with, into my small town and beyond. After ten days of silently eating, scraping, and pouring out my muddy water, I returned to the farm focused not only on being meticulous, on saving every piece of produce possible, but also on the gift of “failure,” on letting go of my efforts and their failures, trusting that every act is a gift whether it is saving or losing. That in fact there is no losing. Where is the bowl’s rim? When the circle is always open, is there a rim at all?

Marcus Seiryu Wilkinson

Marcus Seiryu Wilkinson is a horticulturist, certified permaculture designer and gardening educator who lives and works in Oberlin, OH, where he is converting his one-acre yard into a micro-farm. He teaches in Lorain County Community College’s Sustainable Agriculture Program and is a Visiting Instructor in Oberlin College’s Environmental Studies Program. He has been a sangha member of the Village Zendo in New York City since 1999. Read more at his blog.