The Zen Master’s Stirring Spoon
- By Sarah Kanowski
- Jun 17
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Once, the chief cook of a Chinese Zen temple was busy preparing lunch. As he was working, there appeared floating above the rice pot the revered Bodhisattva, Manjushri. ‘Get away from here!’ said the cook, later a noted Zen master. ‘I’m making lunch!’ To drive him away, the cook finally hit Manjushri on the head with his stirring spoon. He said that even if the Buddha himself had appeared floating above the rice pot he would have hit him too!
During World War II in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a group of French Protestants harboured Jewish refugees. In Philip Hallie’s book about those events, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, the Italian wife of the pastor leading the resistance has a central role. Magda Trocmé is described as a quick, forceful person. In the winter of 1940–41 when the first refugee from the Nazis, a German Jewish woman, knocked at the door of the presbytery asking if she could enter, Magda ‘gave an abrupt, ungrudging, raucous command issued through a wide-open door: “Naturally, come in, and come in.’”
These two stories may appear antithetical: one about driving someone away, the other about bidding someone to enter. Yet both speak to a particular type of goodness: one that it based on simply doing what needs to be done.
Discussion on the nature of this kind of spontaneous moral action is difficult. When asked about the rationale for her actions many years after the war Magda answered: ‘I try not to hunt around to find things to do. I do not hunt around to find people to help. But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks for something. This, I think, is my kind of religion. You see, it is a way of handling myself. When things happen, not things that I plan, but things sent by God or by chance, when people come to my door, I feel responsible.’
For moral philosophers these statements pose a problem. How did Magda choose where her responsibilities lay? Were they to the unknown German Jew knocking on her door or to her own four children endangered by the refugee’s presence? What general principles, philosophers ask, allow us to perceive what is right in a particular situation? When Hallie tried to ask Magda such questions she would become impatient and turn back to her cooking or sewing or cleaning.
Perhaps the source of Magda’s ethical discrimination can be found in her comment ‘it is a way of handling myself’; that is, it flows from a way of being rather than a set of established beliefs about right and wrong. At the beginning of his second book of Ethics Aristotle refers to the term as having its origin in the Greek word for an individual’s character. For Aristotle, reason is the central force in the relationship between character and morality, aligning the passions in accordance with the golden mean that constitutes right action. Magda’s goodness, in contrast, is founded not on the rational intellect but in a fundamental orientation towards others: ‘When people come to my door, I feel responsible.’
When philosophers have tried to talk about that kind of connection—Hume’s ‘sympathy’ or John Stuart Mill’s ‘benevolence’—their peers grow uncomfortable. How do we prove such ideas? How can we define them? But Magda’s goodness is beyond the reach of such questions. To be able to call out without thinking as she did, ‘Naturally, come in, and come in,’ requires the collapse of our self-centred desires. Spiritual practice can aid in this, but Magda did not share her husband’s religiosity and was actively opposed to its mysticism. Indeed, as the story of the Zen cook shows, attachment to religious or philosophical ideas about right and wrong can even get in the way of goodness.
The cook had a tangible job to do—he was preparing a meal for his community. In the Zen framework, taking care of everyday life is more important than worrying about esoteric religious matters. Meditating on a cushion, stirring a pot of rice—each moment of being is essential and each must be given wholehearted attention and care. This taking care of needs as they arise shouldn’t be confused with the kind of fretting and worrying that consumes Martha in Luke: 10, and it has nothing to do with complaint. It does, however, have much in common with the story that precedes it, that of the Samaritan who sees a man wounded on the road and helps him without thought or theology. If there had appeared floating above the injured Jew a vision of Yahweh, I think the Good Samaritan would have hit him with his sandal: ‘Get away from here! I’m busy bandaging!’
Ethics emanating from this way of being, this openness to whatever presents itself, look easy, natural. But such a nature is hard to cultivate, and all the philosophical and theological talk in the world won’t create it. It takes work to be able to operate from that place—the same work done in the church and on the street, in the meditation hall and at the rice pot.