White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 40: Taking a Toothstick in Hand

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, January 3rd, 2009

Bright. Bright bright bright.

White. White white white.

Cold. Cold cold cold.

A beautiful winter's morning. 

When you woke up this morning,
you may have noticed that even in the dark of your room,
there was this moment of brightness
before it became obscured into contractions into a sense of self
that may have had storylines about what was going on. 

"Feck! Feck feck! Don't wanna get up..."

"This'll be great. This'll be great."

"Maybe I'll have an interview and maybe I can bring up this wonderful thing that I've discovered about experiencing. Yes yes, that's IT!"...

And so on... 

The instruction is, of course; any time you notice anything,
practise mindfulness in that moment which, of course,
is the only moment that you can practise.
It is the only thing going on. 

So, regardless of,
or perhaps even propelled by,
some of the thoughts that you noticed,
you put one foot in front of the other, trudged or skipped to the washroom.
Washed your little face, brushed your little teeth, and here you are,
after of course, all the other things you have to do to survive this incredible cold. 

And here you are facing that white, white, white wall.

You may or may not notice it, but it's there,
whether you notice it or not,
it IS there.

So you're encouraged to practise at the moment of noticing anything that comes forward,
creates an imaginary, a fabricated knot in space
and narrows experiencing into something that has been called
"unwholesome", or
"corrupt" or
These are words that have been used to describe what happens when reality,
when the reality of the moment becomes distorted by these knots
which we refer to as self-image. 

So, here we are. 

Sit up straight right now.
Feel that breath right now.
Open the eye gaze,
which is a shorter form of saying practise mindfulness
of the whole bodymind in the moment
by noticing seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling, 
the breath moving in and out of the bodymind,
which is a very long way of saying something you can do
[O-sensei snaps fingers]...
a couple of times,
actually, in the length of time that it takes to snap those fingers
(even though it was a little, feeble snap). [students giggle] 

So when you were walking through the cold winter morning
and you were being breathed in and out,
maybe the cold as it hit the teeth produced twinges
as the nerves were hit by something extreme: the cold.
Now, confidentially, if you're "longer in the tooth",
which is a way of saying "old",
you may have noticed it more,
which I think is a brilliant segue to today's verse. [students laugh] 

Thank you. [more laugher] 

Taking a toothstick in hand,
"May all beings

Realize complete Reality

And enter spontaneous purity." 

Well. Toothstick.
As the man in the store that I went to yesterday asking for a toothstick said:
"Toothpick? You want toothpick?" 

I said "No, stick."

"Toothbrush! You want toothbrush."


So when, since it was a Middle Eastern store,
when I put my fingers about six inches apart and drew an imaginary little twig,
put the imaginary twig in my mouth and started rubbing it up and down on my teeth, he goes:

"Ah! We used to have those, we used to have them. Everyone at home used to use them." 

So, we can understand why when this verse was being translated,
we decided to stick with tooth "stick" rather than toothbrush or toothpick,
because we are actually talking about a stick that was used for cleaning the teeth...
still done in many parts of the world today.
And, as with many things,
such as the neti pot for sniffing saline water up into the nose,
which became a big "new age" item,
we find that the toothstick, when investigated,
turns up some rather remarkable facts. 

And confidentially, the appearance of a toothstick is, I think,
aesthetically more appealing
than something in neon pink with a white handle and Mickey Mouse ears
that is supposed to convince children that indeed it's fun to brush their teeth.
And when you have an item like that,
when you see it,
you might want to consider the incredible amount of resources in energy, time, and so on
that have gone into the packaging, the promotion and so on,
for something which apparently, actually,
may not be the best way of protecting and cleansing the teeth and mouth. 

Now, toothsticks have been written about since the 14th century,
which probably means that they were around a lot longer than that.
The best toothsticks come from an arak or al arak,
which is a tree that grows in hot areas, dusty, desert-like areas, that is always green.
That's kind of interesting in and of itself.
In 1961, a German scientist had some research done
on why the toothstick because it is written into the guiding texts for many Middle Eastern peoples
and toothsticks can be seen hanging out of the mouths of people throughout Africa.
And so, this scientist had people at a German institute look into it.

As it turns out, these sticks from the arak tree
contain an antiseptic substance
which is similar to and has a similar effect on bacteria and germs as penicillin.
And microscopic study of toothsticks from the al arak tree
show silica crystals and acidosis calcs 
which are useful for getting rid of stains and dental calculus which lead to plaque.
There's also chloride with the silica,
providing extra whitening,
and a gummy substance which protects the teeth against cavities.
There's vitamin C, which helps treat damage to the gums,
and sulphuric substance which is also anti-cavity. 

Now, of course, this, as with anything, can give us a chance to look at how self-image,
(these views we have of how we are and how the world is),
is very rooted in only its own experience.

So, "toothstick? Well, obviously she's made a mistake, it's obviously toothbrush,
('cause that's what I'm familiar with)."

Or, "it's obviously toothpick,
(because that's what I'm familiar with)." 

So you can use anything to see this process of self-image,
contraction into a sense of self that has many different views.

Now, some views are harmless.
Some are not, as we witness time and time again.
The forms that this practice provides
give us an opportunity to see how we contract reality,
how we knot into a sense of self with particular views,
and obscure that open, luminous, spontaneous purity of this moment,
which is open,
which is luminous,
which is bright until it becomes conditioned,
until it becomes knotted
and everything is drawn through that knot
based on previous experiences and that knotting,
that focusing narrows.
So, a lot of reality is obliterated. 

Use every opportunity,
use the forms to see whatever it is that comes up in this moment,
and at the moment of seeing it,
of knowing it,
you as the Knowing can know more of that reality,
until it is complete,
until it is always pure or empty of fabrication and knots.
That's what you're doing. 

So the verse again: 

Taking a toothstick in hand,
"May all beings

Realize complete Reality

And enter spontaneous purity." 

Now, of course, it can be a toothpick, or a toothbrush,
or something that's going to rotate so quickly
that every organism in the mouth will be shattered and made less dangerous.

And that's interesting, isn't it?
Even the act of brushing your teeth kills beings. 

Thank you for listening.