Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

A cup of tea

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The above story is the first in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It sets the tone perfectly, reminding the reader that before the page is turned, it is important to empty one’s mind as completely as possible.

This is very hard to accomplish in our day-to-day lives, because we cling with every ounce of our being to our assumptions, possessions, and desires. The value we place on material things or accomplishments or the opinions of others is gravitational. It is in our genetic code and our cultural code. But as we all must die, and not one scrap of these things can accompany us, it is really for the best that we understand our desires and fears in this larger perspective.

At the end of the 1990 movie Jacob’s Ladder, there is a scene where a sage chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers advice to the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been having terrible hallucinations — men with faces distorted and blurred, eyeless doctors operating on him against his will, his girlfriend being molested by a demonic lizard at a party — and we’ve learned that he was a soldier in Vietnam. [Spoiler alert] At a certain point, we come to realize that Jacob was actually killed in Vietnam, and that the entire movie is comprised of the last moments of his tortured consciousness, played out in his expiring brain. The fantastic hallucinations make sense in this context, and the context of the chiropractor’s words: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

In this sense, the entire movie is the efforts of Jacob’s brain to make peace with his life and his death. This is something we all must do, whether we are young or old, sick or in fine health. We should always operate with the understanding that our time is limited. It gives us a certain sense of urgency about things. That we must not pass our days feeling afraid, anxious, or full of regret. Better to fill our time with things that bring us and others happiness. Better to treat every moment as the start of an existence filled with infinite potential.

Although I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a happy or well-balanced man, I do know that he was a powerful thinker, capable of seeing through to the inner kernel of a matter. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, now very famous, he offered this statement, a bare, resonating filament of truth:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

When Jobs gave this commencement (view it here), he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. He spoke as a great mind, but also as one who is forced to look his own end square in the eye. Such an encounter can leave a person hopeless and depressed. (And it is likely that Jobs felt these things, at times.) But ultimately his message was one of acceptance and understanding. More, he saw death as necessary — a thing that actually gives meaning to life.

We are all headed this way, and we have all always been headed this way. Will you attempt to ignore that truth? Will you let it drain the marrow from your life? Or will you use it as a source of energy and meaning, powering you to make the world greater than when you entered it? Every day, we must empty our cup and approach life full of excitement for the time we have. Humbled. Naked.


The Anti-Tourist: LA Recommended

Growing up as only child, my parents kindly took me with them on their many travels. Without fail, the most exciting thing about our destinations was the food. France, Greece, Northern California, New York City… before our trips, I recall mom and dad clipping reviews from papers and magazines (pre-Google! pre-Urban Spoon!), plotting out our culinary itinerary to the meal. It’s only logical though — nothing gives more intimate connection to a place and a people than food.

This past weekend, my fiancée and I headed to Los Angeles to meet up with my folks and enjoy a brief vacation. Again, meals provided the anchors around which the rest of the trip would flow. Admittedly, three nights in LA are not enough to scratch the city’s strange, smoggy surface, but my special lady and I certainly came away from the trip with a few food and entertainment recommendations. If you’re heading to LA for a day or a week, or (I suppose, if you live in LA and just need an excuse to try something new) consider adding these to your list. They’re places worthy of planning a trip around.

Check out a photo gallery from my LA trip, here

The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney
The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney

Gjelina – Located amongst the pricey eclectic boutiques of tragically hip Abbot Kenny Road, Gjelina offers a high-end rustic setting with fresh, well-thought-out food: raw wood planks and beams, bare light bulbs with bright orange filaments aglow, rusted metal fixtures, a monumental steel I-beam exposed on the ceiling. We sat in the back patio, where patina-colored tables rested on antique bricks. Every dish we tried was superb: grilled brussels sprouts with bacon, dates, and vinegar; a mixed cheese plate with goat, cow, and sheep’s milk cheeses; a flatiron steak sandwich on a baguette with chili peppers, arugula, and a sinus-infiltrating (in a good way) horseradish aioli; a fried egg sandwich with roasted pepper, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and harissa aioli; and a lamb burger with the same harissa aioli, roasted tomato, and arugula. Next door is Gjelina GTA, a take-out specific space for those looking to save a little money and a lot of time – gjelina.com.

Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina
Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina

Intelligentsia Coffee – Also on Abbot Kinney, this spot takes coffee dorkery to its logical extreme. The first and most noticeable trait of the large, airy café is the layout. Instead of the typical straight block of forward-facing counter space, Intelligentsia features a circular counter, penning in the four or five tragically hip knowledgable baristas working the gleaming coffee machinery. The theory behind the counter circle, our barista informed us, was to reduce the distance between barista and customer. In the rear of the shop was an area labeled “slow bar.” Here, a coffee expert will take you through the origin story of the particular coffee you order. Whether you enjoy Intelligentsia’s ambience or not (I did), it’s hard to argue that the high-quality, fresh coffee was expertly prepared. The cappuccinos and lattes were artful blends of well-pulled espresso and what I can only presume was local, organic milk. A small, moist red velvet mini cake sported a layer of raspberry cream and a delicate chocolate coating. While enjoying our Intelligentsia experience, we were also stoked to see our favorite ex-IRA weapons expert, Fiona, from the TV series Burn Notice (her real name is Gabrielle Anwar). Our LA experience felt somehow more complete for the television-star sighting – intelligentsiacoffee.com.

Note: Our barista at Intelligentsia was practiced in the art of latte “leaf” creation (see below). For a very cool piece on this frothy medium, check out The Art of Judging Latte Art on Slate.com

 cacA barista pouring a near-perfect latte at Intelligentsia
A barista pouring a near-perfect cappuccino at Intelligentsia
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee

The Lazy Ox Canteen – Located in one of my favorite downtown LA neighborhoods, Little Tokyo, the Lazy Ox isn’t a Japanese restaurant. The owner, Michael Hide Cardenas, however, was raised in Japan, and Japanese notes definitely infiltrate many of the eclectic dishes. Our party of four waited a solid hour to be seated sans reservation, but luckily a walk through Little Tokyo burned most of that. At one point, we came across an awkward outdoor karaoke session in a little plaza full of bakeries, noodle shops, and fashion boutiques. We spent the final twenty minutes of our wait sipping sake and big bottles of Kirin at the Japanese restaurant next door to the Lazy Ox. Once seated, we ordered four small and four medium-sized plates, not of a single one of which was less than amazing. Still, some standouts included barbecued short ribs, polenta with mushrooms, the tempura artichoke hearts with a citrus mayonnaise, and the ricotta fritters with honey. I can only assume the rest of the items on the ever-changing menu would have been as exceptional, too. For desert, a seasonal fruit crumble, and butterscotch pudding were among the party favorites, but again, nothing was disappointing. The Lazy Ox philosophy is “to bring exceptional ingredients prepared artistically at an approachable price.” The first two items I can see, but the approachable price thing seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’ve forgotten how much things cost in the big city… – lazyoxcanteen.com

Also highly recommended are LA’s many food trucks. We only ate at one, which served killer Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches on baguettes),  so you’ll have to experiment to find your style. Totally worth it. Find them at findlafoodtrucks.com

A food truck in LA
"Cool Haus," one of many food trucks in LA. This one was parked across the street from the LA Country Museum of Art, which has a great show on California modernist design from the 1930s-60s.

And here are a few places we didn’t get to go but that were highly recommended by trustworthy sources: