don’t eat the label

May 29th, 2011

The journey of our lives is remarkably universal and predictable. That’s why we can share experiences, insights and sentiments, and that’s how we can empathize with one another. And so it is guaranteed that, after a pinprick of recognition, a flicker of awareness, someone will turn to me and ask what they should read next.

I would like to say, “Nothing” but that is neither kind nor practical. Of course we read, and we want to read, accustomed as we are to thinking that what is in a book will guide and shape us, will lead us to some deeper understanding, some culminating truth, and maybe even save us a step. Nothing you read in a book will give you that, although reading is itself a worthwhile pastime. Reading a good book is like gazing onto a field of flowers, or the sky, or the sea, or the sand, or a cornfield, or the parking lot at Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon. Gazing at any of those things will deliver you to a deeper recognition and appreciation of yourself and your world without informing you of one thing, except to stay away from Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon.

Information, least of all about the nature of your life, is vastly overrated and might even be harmful. Information about Zen, and Buddhism for that matter, is rather useless, although many will gorge themselves on it, as if eating the label on a can of soup can give them a taste of Tomato Bisque. Zen is the actual, living experience of your life. No one has yet documented the life that only you can live. The practice of Zen requires that you intimately experience your life, and not restrict yourself to reading about it. Almost nothing in your experience will match the anticipation, fear, and misconceptions that are stirred up by accumulating knowledge about this or that.

That doesn’t mean that the next book you read won’t serve a purpose. It will. What you read next or do next will lead you to what comes after. What comes after will appear in front of you at the moment you see it. So will the thing that comes after that. There is a reason why your spiritual path is called a path. It is not a metaphor. Trusting yourself begins by trusting that what appears in your life is uniquely suited for your consumption.

That being said, here are some signposts for your consideration:

1. Zen is a practice of poets, calling you to experience what can never be adequately described or defined. Great teachers speak and write in poetry, just as life expresses itself in poetry. Read poetry, and you will begin to see it, speak it and live it.

2. Writers who have a thoroughgoing practice of Zen write Zen. The topic can be anything at all. Writers who do not have a thoroughgoing practice write about Zen. Too much has already been written about that topic, and it hasn’t done much good. Great writing is always Zen, and it does great good.

3. Never read a book about Zen koans unless you have a koan teacher and you are in a formal koan practice and the teacher has asked you to read that book. A book about koans is the diametric opposite of koans. Koans are not literature, fables or history – they are a living teaching, as if Julia Child herself were standing in your kitchen showing you how to make mayonnaise. When you have an actual koan practice, you will become reluctant to read about koans, having learned for yourself the cruel and frustrating limits of what can be read. If you don’t know what a koan is, you are that much ahead of the rest of us and you should be content to stay that way.

4. Read a cookbook. You’ll not only save yourself from eating a label, you might make yourself a real meal. Eating real food is the only way to satisfy real hunger.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, LA, Sun., June 12

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to a retreat • Fan me • Follow me.


  1. When you wrote about eating the label on a can of tomato soup, I could only think of Andy Warhol and how art is, like poetry, a way for us to understand ourselves.

    Oh, if you want an interesting cookbook with some touching essays, try Zen priest Edward Espe Brown’s Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings (he’s the author of some of those Tassajara books).

    Comment by J, Connecticut — May 29, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  2. The other evening I was at a bookstore to buy The Three Pillars of Zen. I also happened upon a number of books containing koans. I peeked inside. I saw there was an overview, the koan, and interpretation — which I thought kind of defeats the point of a koan. Anyhow, I felt wary even looking at them. My mind was curious but the rest of me felt, “You’re not ready.” So I listened. I think it will be a long long time before I’m ready for those!

    Also, one of my favorite poets is Ted Kooser. I encourage you to find and read him. He also wrote a lovely book about writing poetry — a “how to” of sorts that, while practical, is also encouraging. I’ll have to dig up the quote that I keep on my bulletin board and post it on my blog.

    Comment by Kathryn — May 29, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

  3. Lovely post. Ah, poetry! I love how they tumble out of me after meditation sometimes and how I don’t always “get” them at the time only to have them click at some unexpected delicious moment.

    Cookbook tip: A lovely soulful cookbook is “Sacramental Magic in a Small Town Cafe”
    (the Bread Salad is to die for)

    Comment by Connie Assadi — May 29, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  4. i immediately want to google “koans”…but on second thought i think i won’t. i wake up daily, sort of confused, sort of not, sort of knowing, sort of not, sort of following even though i feel like i’m sort of leading, and the whole time continually working on fully trusting. in the meantime my diet hasn’t been better and i am feeling completely nourished even in the midst of all of these sort of’s.

    Comment by Tamara — May 29, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  5. Nicely said. For something transmitted outside words and scriptures, there are an awful lot of words and scriptures. So easy to get tangled up in a thicket of ideas and concepts. Let’s eat!

    Comment by David Ashton — May 29, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  6. I agree and agreed here….

    Comment by Alan — May 30, 2011 @ 2:53 am

  7. I strongly disagree here and here and with much of this.

    Comment by Bill — May 30, 2011 @ 3:35 am

  8. Just to clarify my particular response, I agree with you won’t find it in reading…Looking out…you find “IT”, whatever that is, looking in…

    Comment by Alan — May 30, 2011 @ 3:40 am

  9. YES!!! I knew reading cookbooks was a good use of my time. It’s one of my favourite things to read.

    Thanks for the reminder to experience my life. Now, Karen, which cookbook should I read???


    Comment by Bobbi — May 30, 2011 @ 8:40 am

  10. Bobbi,
    You are so clever (and so am I). Read the cookbook in front of you.

    I liked reading your post.

    Those who disagree, disagree with much, because the place where disagreement occurs has a lot in it. Or so I find every time I disagree.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 30, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  11. Karen,

    Your can of soup reminds me of a famous painting by René Magritte. He painted a pipe, and wrote underneath “ceci, n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). After all, it was only a picture of a pipe, not an actual pipe.


    Comment by Daniel Hake — May 30, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  12. Your words always provide a gentle wave of calm that wraps around my ankles and reminds me to stand still, breathe, and take it all in.

    Comment by Swirly — May 31, 2011 @ 5:45 am

  13. I appreciated reading point no. 2. I looked up thoroughgoing 🙂

    Comment by Honmei — May 31, 2011 @ 8:42 am

  14. Why are we ahead of you not knowing what a koan is? I find it difficult to be content remaining ignorant.

    Comment by Susan Jarrell — May 31, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

  15. Susan,
    Not knowing what a koan means is called wisdom, not ignorance. You’ll have to explore that for yourself, as we all do.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 31, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

  16. I love this: Trusting yourself begins by trusting that what appears in your life is uniquely suited for your consumption.

    I’m learning, every day I feel it a little more, to just trust the universe.

    Comment by Christine @ Coffees & Commutes — June 1, 2011 @ 4:03 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month