Spud Zen: Enlightenment & Potatoes

I posted on FB yesterday, “If I made a Zen school whose view was, ‘Everything’s a potato,’ would anyone be interested?” It was a joke, of course. But I’m a serious joker. 

Zen is, beneath all the various labels, about nonduality. Taoism, older Mahayana schools, Advaita Vedanta, and even some theistic religions deal with nonduality as well. Nonduality is nonduality, the differences in these traditions amount to hows, whats, and whys. “How do we experience nonduality as it really is? Why are things really nondual? What is this nonduality?”

If we free nonduality from the ownership of these various traditions, it’s clear that it’s a natural aspect of human experience. People have been experiencing “oneness” directly for thousands of years. And all of us experience it indirectly every moment of our lives.

I like Zen’s take on it, but even with Zen, I keep running into the same problem over and over again: taking it too seriously. Even though my articles tend to alternate between teaching and noir-style revealing monologues, I’m actually a big fan of Hotei (the Laughing Buddha). Laughing is my favorite thing to do in life. I fell in love with a woman once primarily because she was able to drag me out of my head and make me laugh.

Anyway, no matter what logic or methods you use, the basic point of nonduality is that everything is one, er not-two. Not separate. One is all, and all is one; truly beyond labels, even beyond intellectual understanding.

That means that everything is a potato, since potatoes are included in “all.” 

I’m a potato; you’re a potato. These words are potatoes, The sky, the trees, birds, love, hate, fear, thoughts, habits, consciousness… potato-only. Yes, this is a joke. In fact, it’s basically satire. But I’m finding that it’s not without value, and maybe even a little liberating profundity.

“Why potato? You could just as easily say, ‘Everything is lamp.'” Great question, Harvey! There’s something just, well, funny about potatoes. There are even dozens of memes that reflect that. Maybe it’s how they look, or how the word sounds. Perhaps it’s just the sheer irreverence that makes a random, “Potato,” amusing.

potato6

Regardless of the reasons, many of us find potatoes funny. There’s something about a random potato that disrupts our stream of thought. I did a little research, but I couldn’t find any scientific articles covering the rationale behind the potato humor zeitgeist.

On a deeper level, there’s also something Zen about a potato. They come from the soil, they can be used in so many different ways, and preparing them is a great mindfulness practice.

But none of that matters. What matters is that, surprisingly, potato-only can be used as a mindfulness/meditation method. Suffering is caused by us 1) thinking that things are separate, which then 2) encourages us to cling and crave them, but 3) since everything is in flux, we eventually lose what we were clinging/craving.

In the nondual traditions, this problem is solved by no longer viewing things as separate from each other. Non-separation makes clinging and craving redundant (and gain/loss inapplicable), which means we don’t suffer as things change.

Some traditions call their nondual reality Mind, Tao, Nature, God, Suchness, Self, Emptiness, and probably a thousand others. All these labels and views make nonduality (and the practice) into something, well, serious. They can suck all the joy and humility out of it.

That’s why I decided to experiment with the One Potato. 

The method here is simple. Wherever your mind goes, it lands on a potato. This is similar to the Vipassana technique of labeling. But in Vipassana, when your mind wanders to a thought, you label it, “Thinking, thinking.” With this practice, you’d label it, “Potato.”

It’s like when you’re looking at the sky, “Potato,” and see the clouds, “Potato,” and the sunlight, “Potato,” bathing the landscape, “Potato,” brightening an icicle, “also a Potato,” and you, “Potato,” feel at ease, “Potato,” totally connected, “Potato,” and at home in the moment, “Potato.”

You get it. Everything is potato.

potato5

The sky is a potato, the clouds, the sun, the land, the ice. And that’s just one dimension of the practice: physical forms. Then there are mental forms—all of our thoughts, feelings, memories, our wandering attention… potato, potato, potato.

Then there’s that formless realm, that sense of being aware, that intuitive quality of presence, that phenomenon we intuitively refer to when we say, “my mind,” or, “me.” Potato. In that potato, somewhere, is the One Potato. It’s called the One Potato because it’s both the source of all potatoes, and all potatoes are reflections of it.

“What about morality?” Sorry Harvey, just because everything’s a potato doesn’t mean it’s okay to strangle a hooker. The things we think, say, and do are like potato seeds or tubers that we plant in the ground. If the spud is healthy, it’ll produce a healthy potato plant with other healthy tubers. If it isn’t, then it’ll produce an unhealthy plant with diseased potatoes, or perhaps even those toxic fruits that form on the plants at times.

These diseased potatoes interfere with our ability to practice—for us to be mindful of potato-only—and they put up roadblocks between us and the experience of that One Potato that’s the mother of all the others. Healthy spuds and seeds make it easier for us to practice and pierce the Great Tuber.

It’s as straightforward as that: Do shitty things, and you’ll have a shitty practice with shitty results. And since practice is our means to alleviate suffering—our own and others (not-two)—then planting a healthy crop is important.

Yes, to a mind that is just this One Potato, there’s really no difference between healthy and unhealthy since both are equally potatoes. But are we there yet? Until then, making the distinction is vital. That’s the only touch of seriousness in this little exercise, and even then, we’re still just talking about potatoes.

To get a deeper feel for it, we can peruse ancient texts and replace, “God,” “Mind,” “Tao,” etc. with, “Potato.”

“The Potato that can be harvested,
is not the enduring, unchanging Potato.”

– Tao Te Ching

The Way of the Great Potato is not difficult
For those who don’t pick and choose.
Only when you neither cling nor repel
Does it appear in all clarity.”
– Hsin Hsin Ming

“All Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Potato, beside which nothing exist.” – Huang-po

I’m not taking a firm, ontological stance with this haha. It’s a silly skillful means designed to bypass the pitfalls of the others while still retaining the same spirit. I recommend giving it a try, even just for five minutes.

Be mindful of how potato-only makes you feel, of how the method influences your thoughts, moods, perception, and emotions (don’t forget to think of them as potatoes as well). I’m gonna keep playing with it for awhile and see what happens. Who knows? But I wouldn’t be surprised if the boat that takes us, “To the Other Shore,” is a potato boat.

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