Deshan one day descended to the dining hall, bowls in hand. Xuefeng asked him, “Where are you going with your bowls in hand, Old Teacher? The bell has not rung, and the drum has not sounded.” Deshan turned and went back to his room.

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 13

If you have done this Zen thing long enough (or even better, if you haven’t; Hakuin wrote that sitting even once wipes away beginning-less crimes), you may find that a single word or phrase will grab you, and rattle around your brain for some days or weeks. For me, recently, it has been just this: An Invitation. The dictionary defines invitation as a “formal or polite request” to do something. But an invitation to what?

In the above koan, Deshan, who thought he was invited to the noon-day meal by the bell, but was not, was probably in his eighties. For Yamada Koun, with whom I studied in the last years of his life, this was perhaps his favorite anecdote. Sitting and giving teisho in the small 26-tatami zendo in Kamakura, every once in a while he would bring up this koan, hold up his hands as if cradling a bowl set, and say “Gatta, gatta, gatta”, mimicking the clack of Deshan’s sandals, while gesturing walking in small steps in his chair. “For Deshan,” he would say, “At this time in his life, just his carrying the bowls represented the total integration of his awakening into his life.” Of course, for me, the young zendo rat, listening at that time to the talk, I was not feeling a lot of integration or invitation. I was probably sneezing, as I often did, from my allergies to the rice dust and dani mites in the tatami mats. As I look back, Yamada was recognizing in Deshan a stage in life he deeply felt himself. I now feel a little bit of that, myself.

It is hard to explain Zen by saying “An Invitation” and then add something. I would love to say, “invitation to your life”, an “invitation to awakening”, or “invitation to freedom.” But all those words don’t define the invitation, they actually make it smaller, less clear, more narrow. After all, we already have life. We already have awakening. We already have freedom. So, what is it an invitation to? Well, I guess it is an invitation to all things. That was something that Xuefeng, at that time, did not yet understand.

Very early this morning, as I was meditating, the weekly garbage truck roared to the front of our house. I could hear the hydraulic arms come out, and then the sound of glass and (a slightly embarrassing large number of) wine bottles going clink and clunk into the maw of the truck’s back. Clink, clunk, clink, clunk. The recycling being dumped felt like it was tumbling down through my own body. Clink, clunk, clink, clunk. At that moment, I was being given an invitation by the universe to listen, and was very pleased to accept. Thank you.