By Tara Greenwood
“Food is very important” was #Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s response and then he quietly walked away when asked the question “wouldn’t you agree that brown rice is the perfect Zen food” by one of his American Zen students. The student was obsessed with the idea that brown rice is better than white rice and wanted his teacher and mentor to state what he believed was true for him. But brown rice was rarely eaten in Japan at the time when Suzuki was teaching Zen in America in the 1970s. Richmond (2021) described this student-teacher story in which Suzuki’s response was a classic demonstration of a #Zen approach to disagreement. The student puzzled and suddenly awake to the reality that white rice and brown rice co-exist and the possibility that both are important — Eureka! We often crave to be validated by somebody, especially teachers are expected to praise students. From a science perspective, we may belief that to persuade somebody is by facts and data. But those can be weaponized to win the argument from an “expert point-of-view”, and hence, amplify confrontation of “right” (data and facts) versus “wrong” (the others’ view) failing to persuade irrespective of a compelling factual argument.
What’s really behind this gentle Zen-kind approach. According to Richmond (2021), first finding common ground, that is stating something simple that both can agree on. Second, respect and treating the other person as equal, as a partner not top-down that devalues the other. Third, changing level to something that is profound and connects people, for example, enjoying food. I like to add a fourth aspect, which is being mindful and completely present to a conversation or confrontation that allows to slow down and provide thoughtful responses that are less reactive. Mindfulness meditation practice builds up these “Zen” resources over time. When we may say “I appreciate you”, “I see you”, “I just want to say you warm my heart” or just listening and bearing witness to the present moment contentment and being okay arise. Recognizing that there are many shades of color of rice is something profound and simple.
Reference: Richmond, L. (2021). Food is very important: A Buddhist approach to disagreement. Winter Issue, p. 56–57.