Mazu’s former teacher dispatched a monk to Mazu’s place, instructing him, “Wait until he enters the hall to speak, and then ask him, ‘What’s going on?’ Take note of his answer and then bring it back and tell it to me.” The monk carried out the teacher’s instructions, returned and said, “Master Ma said, ‘In the thirty years since the barbarian uprising, I’ve never lacked for salt or mayonnaise.’” The teacher approved the answer.6
—adapted from Andy Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage (Compendium of the Five Lamps)
We have been sitting with this koan all week in the morning Open Temple, and I must admit, it is too delicious to pass up without comment.
When most people read Mazu’s response of “I’ve never lacked for salt or sauce,” they reasonably think he was speaking of soy sauce, or something like it. They would be right: the character used in the Chinese text 醤 (sho in Japanese) is the root for shoyu, soy sauce. But for me, another beloved condiment was the first that came to mind, the best sauce of all: mayonnaise.
Outside of Mazu, the spread of mayonnaise into Chan-Zen literature seems, well, kind of thin. There is a Zen Mayo Facebook page, but it only has a couple of strange manga illustrations and a single friend. I recalled reading a reference that Richard Baker Roshi, a founding teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, once made mayo as a Zen practice in a teisho, and upon searching, found a 1976 talk by him on the Sixth Ancestor Huineng’s poetry contest. The head monk at the temple wrote that we need to constantly polish the mirror-mind, while Huineng answered there was no need to polish because there is no mirror for dust alight upon. Baker compared mayonnaise separating into its elements to what happens in our lives if we stop polishing our personal mirror with meditation practice.
It is obvious that if you do not polish your mirror, if you stop washing your face and picking up after yourself, things get very bad quickly. Our state of mind and life can deteriorate rapidly. The mayonnaise-like suspension of our life and culture can degenerate rapidly back into yolk and oil when personal or cultural credibility is gone. We feel the power of the outside world, the power of the illusion-of the mayonnaise-and the necessity and need to take care of and maintain things at least minimally. But the concept of a mirror is not adequate for these subtleties. The mirror still poses an “outside” and a “who” that wipes it.
Fair enough, keep sitting and polishing. Chan-Zen itself means “meditation,” and the practice helps us create a solid vessel in which to place our lives. That is why I find sitting in the Open Temple every morning so valuable. But Mazu was famous for taking the practice off the cushion and into ordinary life. When asked “What is Buddha?” Mazu responded, “This very heart-mind is the Buddha.” Awakening is not an experience outside of our lives; it is deeply our own. I think that is what Baker was alluding to in his last sentence.
There is something wonderful and intimate about feeling in our lives that we are not lacking. Not lacking salt, soy sauce, mayonnaise, grocery stores, Studebaker station wagons, mothers, brothers and sisters. A couple of days ago, I sliced up the last large Brandywine tomato of the season, toasted a piece of whole wheat bread, spread Mazu’s best sauce on it, and then dusted the sliced tomato with gomasio. As I tucked into the tomato half-sandwich, not one thing was lacking. It had been thus for thirty, and more, years.