2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

Because the basic essentials of living close to nature require so much of my personal involvement, I'm paying more attention to details like water and trash. It's time to empty the chamber pot on the front porch that is full to the brim with the dung of yours truly. During work period I decide to take it down to the outhouse to empty it. It is surprisingly heavy. The deep snow doesn't make for easy walking. Trying not to break through the thin ice crust on the top layer of snow, I make my way to the outhouse, a small distance away. Every couple of steps my boot breaks through, and I sink all the way up to my knees.

Should have worn snowshoes.

I finally get there, huffing and puffing, and put the pot down to rest a minute. This is the only visible waste I have generated in the past few weeks. At home I can fill two trash barrels with tons of junk every week, but out here there's just this small recyclable bucket. I take off the lid and turn the bucket upside down. It's frozen solid as a rock. No problem, I think. I'll just get a big stick and poke it out. I break four hefty sticks on that pile of frozen shit. After 15 minutes of assaulting it with all my might, it occurs to me that an easier way to get it out would be to melt it. I lug it all the way back to the cabin so I can be there in time for cleanup and bows at 9:45.

Between 11:00 and 1:00 there's a sunny spot on the small clearing next to the cabin. For the next few days I bring the pot out during walking mediation, take the lid off, and place it in the center of the only patch of sunshine there is. As the sun moves, I move the pot too, hoping to melt at least the top layer. Even though it melts a little bit while the sun is out, it freezes over again quickly. This is turning into a bona fide dilemma. I don't have any other containers to use.

This little project is actually kind of humorous. Here I am, ostensibly seeking that which is beyond life and death, moving a pot full of my own poop three inches to the right every half and hour so it will melt. To complicate matters, some days there is no sun and it's snowing heavily.

Three days later the sun comes out and it's a warm day. Finally. After lunch I decide to check on the melting project. I open the lid to add a fresh contribution and what do I see? A little gray mouse snuggling up and rolling around in the melted top layer of my shit. His whiskers covered in brown, he is reveling in it. A day at the spa for him. He looks up at me. Our eyes meet for a split second. Then I let out the biggest scream you've ever heard, dropping the lid with a clang on the porch as he runs for his life. My heart is banging like a pile driver, this being the biggest excitement and most eye contact I've ever had with any other being this far on the retreat. I am at least able to empty the top level of the bucket, thanks to the warmer temperatures.

To see another creature nuzzling around in what I would consider the most disgusting place on earth is quite a shock. In this universe, everything is eating something else. One man's ceiling is another man's floor, so to speak. And all of it is going around and around-from me and you to the mouse, to the bug, back into the earth, fertilizing the next fruit or vegetable, back to you and me. Around and around we go.

Pretty good system.

That little mouse and I become friends. The next day, when I lift the lid to add more poop, there he is again, enjoying himself like a child playing in the mud. I look at him, add my fresh contribution to his survival, and quietly close the lid and go away.

Two thousand years ago, Zen Master Un Mun, when asked about the utmost master, said, "This utmost master is a lump of shit."

I now know what he means.

*~*~*~*~*

"I want." "I have" "I need." "I, I, I." It's endless! If something beautiful comes out of all this suffering and passion, may it save all beings because it sure as hell isn't saving me.

Today I am so dying for something other than rice and beans to eat. If I even so much as look at another soybean, I am going to throw up. I refuse to ever eat one again. Ever.

I am presently visualizing coffee from Dunkin' Donuts, in one of those fantastic cardboard cups with the soothing pink and orange logo on it. Right now, if you put that in front of me besides the most handsome Hollywood actor, I would definitely choose the Dunkin' donuts coffee. No contest.

I see croissant sandwiches. During sitting I plan my future as a caterer and design menus from appetizers to desserts for fictitious weddings and birthday parties. I keep trying to get back to the breath and the mantra, but the catering scenarios are coming back with a vengeance. After a lunch of the usual rice and sunflower seeds, I head out for a walk. It's sunny out, almost springlike. Early afternoon, with this kind of gorgeous weather, the only thing missing really is the food.

About a mile down the dirt road, between several pine trees, I see a most unusual sight: a parked car. The orange color doesn't fit in with everything else. I don't know whose it is, but its presence can only mean one thing: there might be something to eat in that car!

Could it be? An open window!

As if in a Yogi Bear cartoon, I spy an actual picnic basket in the backseat on the floor. Yes, a bona fide old-fashioned picnic basket, with the checkered cloth, the little wicker handles, and the whole bit.

Lust mind kicks in. I look to my left, then to my right, making sure no other animal can catch my prey. The thought flirts across my mind that I shouldn't reach in that window or in that picnic basket, but it is instantly overpowered by the feeling of the wicker handle against the palm of my quivering little hand. Lifting the lid, I find my deepest prayer has been answered: Lorna Doones!!! How many can I take without the owner noticing an errant Zen student has been here? Perhaps it is a gift from God for all this hard training. Or is it a test of will?

I don't care. Grabbing four cookies, I jam one into my mouth, reserving the others for later. All clarity is gone. The mantra is gone. My body has been taken over by a group of aliens. I hurry back to the cabin propelled by an extreme adrenaline rush and try to savor the other three. Ten seconds of pleasure and then, tragically, they are gone. I could go back and get more, but it's two miles round-trip and dark now. Plus I'd break the schedule and I can't do that.can I? No, I can't.

Guilty now, I'm out of balance.

"I've strayed."

"I'm no good."

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does! Dae Soen Sa Nim ate only pine needles! He would never have fallen for the Lorna Doones!"

"Jesus Christ, Jane, you chose, for better or worse, to adhere to a regimen most people would never have undertaken in a million years. Why not allow yourself this small transgression?"

"Will the owners of the car notice the cookies are missing?"

"Why have I lost my mind, like a crazy fool, for a fleeting taste of cookies?"

"What's so powerful about taste anyway?"

"On the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, what's a few Lorna Doones? Why obsess over such an insignificant thing?"

Mind can make a mountain out of a molehill, regardless of the content. Like a pebble in a pond, the ripples of each thought go outward in circles farther than you can imagine. It's humbling to know that on a normal day in my usual life back home, this level of mind activity is going on-times ten million. It's just that it's going so fast that I can't notice it.

There is no sutra that can illustrate the mud of endless desire mind as well as those cookies did.

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