Once in the course of their journey, Chinshan stopped to wash his feet in a stream, when he saw a vegetable leaf floating by. He rejoiced and said, “There must be a man of the Way in these mountains; let us follow the stream and seek him out.” Xuefeng said, “Your eye of wisdom is cloudy; later on, how will you judge others? With his carelessness about material blessings, what is he doing dwelling in the mountains?”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Xuefeng’s biography.
“We have to educate people that fruit and vegetables need not look perfect to be good food,” lectured the deeply tanned and field-hardened farm worker. He was an organizer for the United Farm Workers, and the year was 1970. I was a sophomore in high school and had joined a group of environmental activists, hiking from Sacramento to Los Angeles in the Survival Walk. We had been invited to spend the night camped in a field outside of Cesar Chavez’s headquarters in Delano, in the heart of the Central Valley, and the UFW was telling us their story. It was my first lesson in gleaning.
My late summer vegetable harvest has now begun, and every year I remember the UFW organizer’s few words. Only a small percentage of the twisted carrots, mottled potatoes, and stringy broccoli I grow would be saleable in a farmer’s market, let alone on the shelves of a supermarket. These are veggies that only a mother (or father) could bear to look at. Yet that which appears malformed and a bit unsightly is tasty and wholesome to me.
We sometimes think that Zen practice is a matter of purifying our world, and when we complete that, we can find perfection and enlightenment for ourselves. They have a word for that in Buddhism. It is called delusion. In fact, in our true practice, we glean those bits of ourselves we have rejected or distrusted, and use those as ingredients to cook the simple meal of our lives. It is a wonderful meal: Refused and abandoned material itself is necessary to create the savory feast. And the universe gives us all ingredients in exactly the proper measure.
In her movie The Gleaners and I, director Agnes Varda talked about how gleaning has become a lost art: mechanization in agriculture and the huge crush of trash in the modern world has put beyond reach of the average person the fruits left in the field, the appliances left in the dump. In her documentary, she said, “I like filming rot, waste, mold and trash. But I never forget those who do their shopping in the leftovers and garbage when the market has closed.” Varda followed gleaners in the fields, outdoor marketplaces and trash bins of France. She got to know one regular visitor to a closed vegetable market and found he held a master’s degree in biology, sold newspapers at the train station in the morning, gleaned in the afternoon, and taught French to immigrants in the evening. He saw value where others could not.
“What ails you?”, asks Linji. “Lack of belief in yourself is what ails you. If you lack belief in yourself, you’ll keep on tumbling along, following in bewilderment after all kinds of circumstances. You will be taken by them through transformation after transformation without ever attaining freedom.” Gleaning, accepting the seemingly imperfect as perfect, provisions the true feast of our freedom.