After I got out of the army, I went to work at a book-publishing house in New York City. It was one of the first full-time jobs I ever had and it seemed to fit nicely with my background ... pink, well-educated and polite. There were rugs on the floors and no one ever laughed too loud.
After three or four years, I took a 20% pay cut and went to work as a reporter in Massachusetts. It was as if there were more oxygen in the air -- a noisy place filled with ringing phones, cigarette smoke, cuss words you could sink your teeth into, and the occasional bottle of Wild Turkey buried in the bottom a right-hand drawer. Every day there was something new, some new assignment that involved contacting people who had concerns that might not even include newspapers or books or even much politeness. I could not believe anyone would be stupid enough to pay me to do this work ... I was a pig in shit.
But one of the things I noticed at gatherings outside the office was that the same people who used their curiosity as a good tool in gathering news stories seemed to be largely incurious when outside their professional setting. They talked about the office or its politics or its gossip. The curiosity brought to bear in an office into which news poured from all over the nation and world or region ...? Well, if it didn't affect them, it seemed unworthy of their wonder.
It was a good lesson for me, and I wasn't much different ... there is only so far anyone can go with their intellectual and emotional minds before they shut down, make their decisions, claim their biases and make do with what they've got, however narrow or expansive: There may be a time for curiosity and learning, but someone has to do the dishes, someone has to put spaghetti on the table and make the car payments ... from sheep herder to Ph.D., it's the same.
But because of my pink, well-educated, polite, and unsettled upbringing, my format was somewhat different: I was stuck with a farm of never quite crediting a farm to be stuck with. It was as if, no matter how wonderful or compelling anything was, there was a whispered insistence: "What's beyond that?" It wasn't a better or worse farm except to the extent that it could never quite settle down. It was just the farm I lived on.
And saying in words that anyone is stuck with a particular farm is never quite accurate. Farms suggest defined boundaries, but everyone, on whatever farm, finds themselves looking over the barbed wire of certainty. Sometimes that yearning or curiosity is straight-forward, sometimes it expresses itself by reiterating in the loudest possible voice the wondrous boundaries that have been created. Everyone may have a farm, but everyone knows in their heart of hearts that there is no farm: To live on the well-fenced farm is to see the far mountains, the mountains wreathed in curiosity and possibility. The limits speak of limitlessness, but what is limitless cannot be limited, would take boundless energy ... an energy that could not be requited because, after all, there is always something "beyond that."
So ... better to tend my farm and vote Republican; better to sip white wine and abhor the war; better to ask "what's beyond that" and lounge among the worries that bar so many doors.
After five years, I had become entranced by spiritual life. Spiritual life seemed to offer the best setting in which to get to whatever it was that was "beyond that." But I was entranced at the time by book reading, temple-hopping, lecture-attending. My mind was filled to overflowing with delight and yet the question could not be stilled: What's beyond that? I could not be satisfied to live in a world where there might be much agreement, but no one ever laughed too loud. Virtue and bright understandings might be nice, but, but, but ....
But I wanted to laugh till the tears ran down my cheeks, find a farm without the barbed wire, put to rest what I sensed, but didn't know, might be put to rest. Speaking of the far mountains, believing in their wonders, praising their splendor ... where was the laughter in any of that? It was a hellish recognition for me. Spiritual life was "good," but it "good" really didn't have much meat on the bone.
So I took up Zen practice and threw myself into it with all the virtue and goodness I could muster: Sit down, shut up, erect the spine, focus the mind ... this was how I would find a farm worth tilling, a land without barbed wire, a place to farm without making it a farm. But it was a farm. It was where I was, however much I might pretend it wasn't.
Day after day, week after week, year after year. Sitting, chanting, absorbing, abhorring, swearing, sweating, reaching from the tips of my toes to the tips of my fingers. From dawn until dusk ... tending the carrots and potatoes and lettuce on my farm. I followed the advice I could stomach and, when I couldn't stomach it, I grew into it with time. And occasionally, there would be laughter.
Down on the farm, it was, as all farms are, a serious business. Everyone's got a serious farm to till. So ... till it. I tilled mine as best I could, which, as often as not, was not very well at all. Two steps forward and three steps back. Just about the time I felt that I could tuck some understanding, some harvest of carrots, under my belt, somehow the carrots would dissolve, as wispy and ephemeral as wood smoke...leaving me with ... leaving me with... leaving me with ... with WHAT for Christ's sake!?
I once asked my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, what the difference was between the time he had taken up Zen practice and the moment when we were sitting across the kitchen table and I asked the question. In the beginning, he replied, there was lots of uncertainty and pain ... legs hurt, back hurts, mind hurts. Ouch, ouch, ouch! And now, I asked? "Now," he said with a smile, "laughing all the time."
In the beginning, tilling the farm has meaning and importance...publishing farm, newspaper reporter farm, teacher farm, religious believer farm, hot-rod-driver farm.... Everyone has to eat, after all. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone fences the land with care and fences out varmints that might spoil the crop. Everyone cares for their tools and sweats under their noonday sun. But where the meaning and importance are set aside -- as when pulling a weed that threatens some delicious carrot -- what do you get? What is left?
Well, I can't speak for everyone, but if I had to guess, I guess I'd guess what you get is ...
A laughing carrot.