It was the summer of 1971. I was living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center—the first Zen monastery in America. Its founder and resident teacher was Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master who had come from Japan to America to teach meditation to Americans, mostly young. One of those young Americans was Robert, well known among us as a nonstop talker and a fervent proselytizer of brown rice as the perfect spiritual food.
One afternoon I came across Suzuki Roshi and Robert in the courtyard, and Robert was, as usual, talking animatedly. “Wouldn’t you agree, Suzuki Roshi, that brown rice is the perfect Zen food? Isn’t it the perfect balance between yin and yang?” The brown rice diet was trendy in those heady counterculture days, and we served it every day in Tassajara’s meditation hall. Suzuki Roshi was unusually accepting of our counterculture ideas, and rarely criticized us. In those days, brown rice was rarely eaten in Japan. White rice was the norm. For all I knew, Suzuki Roshi was eating brown rice for the first time at Tassajara.
“Don’t you think brown rice helps us attain enlightenment?” Robert was saying.
Suzuki Roshi listened to Robert talk on for some time without saying anything. Finally, when Robert paused for breath, Suzuki Roshi said quietly, “Food is very important.”
Food is very important. That comment seemed to take Robert aback. He stopped talking and just stood there, a quizzical expression on his face. Without saying anything further, Suzuki Roshi turned and walked away.
This approach has three aspects: common ground, respect, and changing levels.
I have never forgotten this story. Even though it seemed to be just casual talk, something about it struck me as important, even profound. I think now that Suzuki’s response was a classic demonstration of a Buddhist approach to disagreement, one with many applications in today’s world. This approach has three aspects: common ground, respect, and changing levels.
Common ground. Suzuki Roshi didn’t respond to Robert with countervailing facts. He didn’t say “Actually, we don’t eat brown rice in Japanese Zen monasteries,” though that was true. Instead, he simply stated something that both of them could agree on, though he didn’t make that explicit. He didn’t say “Well, I think we would both agree that food is very important.” That would have made an assumption about what Robert agreed to, and would have put Suzuki Roshi in the superior position of knowing that. Instead, Suzuki established common ground without saying that it was common ground, in a way that created an open space between them.
Respect. Even though Robert’s foodie ideas were not well informed, Suzuki’s response showed respect. He treated Robert as someone entitled to his opinion and in that sense as an equal. Yes, they both did believe that food was very important, and in spite of a significant difference in age and knowledge (Suzuki was in his sixties and had spent his whole life as a Buddhist monk) he gave Robert equal footing.
Changing level. When Suzuki Roshi said, “Food is very important,” what he really meant was that food is a core spiritual value and teaching in Buddhism through which we can experience interconnection with all beings, as well as gratitude. Our meals in the meditation hall were formal rituals, and before each meal we chanted our appreciation of the food. One part of the chant went “Seventy-two labors brought us this rice. We should know how it comes to us.” Eating was an opportunity to directly experience the Buddhist teaching of interconnection. It didn’t matter what kind of food it was. Ancient Buddhist monks were mendicants, and were expected to accept and consume anything that was put into their begging bowl. When Suzuki said “food is very important” without making it explicit, he moved the conversation to a deeper level.
Common ground, respect, and changing levels: these three elements can be applied to a variety of disagreements, such as arguments in a relationship, communicating with teenagers, and politics.
In a relationship, an argument about a matter important to both parties—such as money— can often devolve into misunderstanding and rancor. “Facts” can be weaponized to win the argument, and the deeper connection of the relationship can be obscured. I can remember times in the past when I fell into “mansplaining” financial matters to my wife without realizing I was doing so. Instead, “Money is really important” is a statement that could establish common ground. “Look, I just want to say I love you” could be an effective change of level.
Parents and teenagers often have difficulty communicating. A social worker I knew who worked with teenagers told me that while teenagers want their parents around, they don’t necessarily want them to say anything. Before Suzuki Roshi said anything, he just listened to Robert. Just listening itself establishes a kind of common ground. It is a way of tacitly acknowledging “I am here” and “you are here.” That shows respect.
Politics are so fraught these days that often it is hard to know what to do or say. Sometimes the most basic facts are in dispute. “I appreciate hearing your views” or “People these days say what they think” are two possible responses, but they might not work. As in encounters with teenagers, sometimes just listening without saying anything is the best recourse.
Suzuki’s response to Robert was not really a strategy or a technique. It was just an outcome of who he was: a person deeply committed to the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, or “non-harming,” in his actions and behavior. He aspired to walk the walk, so to speak, and in doing so inspired all of us to do the same.
This piece appeared in a different form on Good Men Project.