In the refrigerator in the small kitchen at SF Zen Center, where people keep their personal items, items are labeled with those venerable staples of any meditation center–along with the rice cake: masking tape and a sharpie.  Each item is marked with the person’s name and the date. 

If it is something like ginger root, or nori, or, say, orange marmalade, instead of the date, the item might be marked “non-perishable.”  It is understood that this is a relative designation, not a claim at immortality.

Would that it were so, dear Lucy.

It’s not that the red pepper paste is never going to perish, it’s just that it’s not going to do so in a week, and so when someone cleans the refrigerator, they know just to leave those items and not question their viability.

A few months into living at Zen Center, I sometimes kept some of the aforementioned ginger root in a bag gathered with a twist tie and marked G9 and “non-perishable.”   Above the closure, there was another good 4 or 5 inches of, effectively, another bag, a kind of plastic bag apartment arrangement, and sometimes at 5 a.m. before zazen, in the interest of not passing out in the 2 1/2 hours before breakfast, I would slice an apple and eat one half and, in haste, put the rest in the top half of the bag.  The bag marked non-perishable.  That a sliced apple is far from non-perishable did not escape the notice of the person who was then cleaning the refrigerator, a person to whose quiet circumspect gaze, in my inexperience at Zen Center, I had already attributed a measure of censure.

When you first move into Zen Center, it is very easy to think you are doing everything wrong, and it is especially easy to think this if casting yourself as the fugitive is already your tendency.   But I’d soon managed, somewhat athletically, drawing upon everything my cursory reading of the Satipatthana Sutta, and a near-ph.D in Sociolinguistics,  had suggested, to make space for the possibility that perhaps what I had first taken to be an expression of subtle rebuke, could in fact be neutral; perhaps a silent watchfulness was just this person’s style.

One morning after breakfast, she approached me with what I took to be great meaning in her eyes.  Can I talk to you about something, she asked, somewhat tentatively.  I thought maybe something I’d said at breakfast might have offended her.  Maybe she had overheard me saying I like to translate Dai (great) as in Dai Sesshin, or Dai Soji as “bad ass.”

She gestured for us to go around the corner, by the staircase, and so I followed her, and stood close to the wall. What is it you wanted to talk to me about?

A pause, then, in a low voice:  You’re writing non-perishable on everything.