Stack 1, Flapjack 1
By 7:45AM on Friday, The Original Pancake House in Atlanta is already percolating with characters: the gruff gargantuan waiter, the pink-haired cashier, prep school kids, retirees, caffeine fiends and refugees from nearby sex shops and strip clubs. Also in the house are a fine artist, a professional designer, an accomplished writer, a compelling public speaker, a skilled musician, a game inventor, a craftsman and a bonafide Zen master but those are all the same person. He is the catalyst for my pancake enlightenment.
Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston Roshi - “Sensei” or “Elliston Roshi” to me and “Mickey” to his friends and family - sits with the newspaper and a cup of coffee in Booth 4, nestled in the front corner of the restaurant by the windows. At age 77, Elliston Roshi still has a full crop of downy white hair clustered across the top of a broad head and a wispy goatee. He is a big presence, physically and personally. He stands six feet and two inches tall with a bulky frame covered with a black cotton sweatshirt, black-rimmed rectangular eyeglasses hanging from the neck on a black retainer cord,
black sweatpants and black slip-on shoes. Black is the unofficial color of Zen enthusiasts.
You may have seen statues depicting the historical Siddhārtha Gautama or Shakyamuni Buddha. This Buddha is the wiry one sitting cross-legged in solemn meditation. You may also have seen statues of the semi-historical, round, robust, laughing Buddha named Hotei. At first glance, Sensei looks like him. He is quick with a wide grin and a genuine laugh.
Original Frontier, Original Pancake
Sensei looks up, smiles with his eyes as much as his mouth and presses hands together in a slight bow. I do the same and slide across the blue vinyl bench opposite him. I am here for coaching, collaboration, and a stack of griddlecakes. These sessions, for me, are koan in action.
A “koan” is an illogical riddle assigned to Zen students to provoke them out of their own intellect and into intuition. The basic riddle we confront daily is this, “What is it to live a meaningful, constructive life?” The founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, called it the Genjo koan: the all-encompassing question. These pancake breakfasts are Genjo koan plus coffee.
The provocative Zen koan is exceeded only, as a skillful teaching tool, by the purposefully purposeless pause of zazen meditation. Sitting still in zazen can wake you up to the territory - the reality of our lives - that is always present but usually unexplored. Don’t understand those words? That’s because realizing what they mean only occurs through doing the practice and figuring it out on your own. That hasn’t stopped most Zen masters from attempting to clarify Zen in words, though.
Sensei has written and spoken of Zen as the “Original Frontier.” Zazen is pathway to that Frontier. Sitting down facing the wall and shutting up is really a radical act of paying unflinching, mindful attention to everything in the face of the constantly morphing pleasure and pain of existence. Sitting still is deceptively straightforward and subtly effective. To enter the original frontier is to enter the real "real world." Sensei says, “In this Awakening, there is no tangible change in anything, other than our own awareness. In other words, everything changes. Permanently, and for the better.” You can experience this original frontier anywhere, even at The Original House of Pancakes.
Circles Rolling Within Circles
The most innovative designers are daring frontiersman. They are the Lewis and Clarks of visual thinking. Elliston Roshi was originally trained as a designer. He attended, earned his Masters and taught art and design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1960s. The school was founded in 1937 in Chicago as the “New Bauhaus” - the American outpost of the pioneering German modernist art and design movement of the early 1930s. Unadorned use of basic geometrical shapes was a staple of the Bauhaus movement and none used them more deftly than Vasily Kandinsky - the Russian-born Bauhaus artist who taught the beginners design class at the Bauhaus in Germany before being run off by the Nazis.
Kandinsky saw basic geometrical shapes like circles as part of a universal aesthetic language. This is a role they play in Zen, too. The Enso alludes to completeness and wholeness of each moment, a constant flowing of reality and an openness that transcends language. “Walking meditation,” Sensei likes to quote his teacher as saying, “is like circles rolling within circles, rolling within circles.”
Today, Sensei orders salami and eggs and asks the waiter to provide a box so he can bring half of the breakfast home to his wife, Diane. I order buttermilk pancakes and ask that they be shaped like Enso. An Enso is a Zen circle - hand painted in one swift, rough-hewn brushstroke. Enso is a fundamental symbol of Zen and painting Enso is a meditative practice that fits in the Japanese genre of hitsuzendō - “the art of the brush.”
The waiter could care less and stares at me as if he heard it wrong. “Just a circle, with nothing in the middle?" he asks flatly. “Yes, just like this, you know?” I say and swipe circles in the air. He rolls his eyes and turns back to the kitchen. I am prone to harmless outbursts of sheer idiocy. Maybe this one will at least provide a path in to discussion about the Zen/Creative interchange.
There are formal opportunities, in Zen practice, to have private one-on-one interviews with your primary teacher. The interviews, called “Dokusan” in Japanese, are basically Zen coaching sessions. Dokusan usually takes place in the inner sanctum of a Zen temple and The Atlanta Soto Zen Center - founded over 40 years ago by Elliston Roshi - is just a two-mile drive from the pancake diner. Over the past year, though, my encounters with Sensei have spilled beyond the Temple walls and into the pancake diner, providing informal chances to gain his guidance.
These Friday morning “diner dokusan” sessions provide encouragement and insight. Our dialogue has expanded, too, morphing into a collaboration to develop a workshop on the intersection of Zen meditation and business innovation. I hope to share a portion of that content with you in this blog series. Looking back now, though, it seems that these breakfasts have been about much more than coaching or collaboration; much more than coffee and conversation and high carbohydrate meals. They have been lessons in how to design a creative life and the importance of both pause and provocation. The set of stories that follow on IdeaMonger.org recount what I’ve picked up during my diner dokusan pancake breakfasts with Sensei and through the stories of several creative pioneers whose lives and legacies are braided with his.
One of the pioneers included is Soyu Matsuoka, a Japanese Soto Zen master who immigrated to the United States in 1940 and became Sensei’s Zen teacher. One of the creators included, Buckminster Fuller, was a brilliant, quirky futurist who became a counterculture hero. Sensei considered him an inspirational mentor in the realm of innovation and design thinking. Another creative pioneer is John Cage, the Avant Garde American composer and Zen enthusiast who intersects with Sensei through music, the Institute of Design, Buckminster Fuller and Black Mountain College. The lives of these extraordinary people meander and converge like a confluence of rivers.
Jonathon Keats represents a more current generation of creative pioneer whose life and work flows through this intertwining set of stories. Jonathon is the most recent biographer of Buckminster Fuller and the most recent University of North Carolina – Asheville’s Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow. He is also a writer for Wired and Forbes magazines, a prolific conceptual artist and a self-proclaimed “experimental philosopher.” Jonathon is an unofficial mentor to me in the areas of creativity, writing and the meander of rivers.
One of Jonathon’s most recent conceptual art proposals is to create a monumental calendar that will keep time with the flow of a major river over the next 100,000 years. “The timekeeping mechanism will be quite simple. Stones will be placed in the landscape according to where the river is predicted to meander over the next hundred millennia given current climate conditions,” he told me. Very Zen.
Rivers Meander, So Does Syrup
I am daydreaming of rivers when the food arrives. Sensei divides his meal in two and places half into a to-go box for Diane. My Enso cakes come with a heaping of butter and a container of syrup. I hoist the standard issue glass dispenser with chrome-plated top just over my Enso flapjacks and press the metal thumb lever. The floodgate opens and maple syrup meanders over my breakfast much like a river or my writing or life itself. I think, with extreme profundity, “We aim ourselves at life as best we can and, like it or not, the boulders and the banks and the pancake lumps take us along bends and over rapids as it strikes their fancy.”
I fought the meander for a long time. I bought in to the delusion that the “right” life flows straight and smooth and that a capable person – through force of will – ought to be able to make anything happen. That force-of-will thing didn’t work out so well. I nearly drowned in a river of depression. Creativity and Zen, pause and provocation by way of pancakes, pulled me out and led me to better breakthroughs. I’ll say more about that, too, in the stories that follow.
I hope these Original Pancake stories on IdeaMonger prompt you to embrace life’s meander. I hope they serve as both creative provocation and pause. Like a good batch of Vermont Maple, I hope these stories carry an earthy, caramelized taste and a slightly sticky texture.
More pancakes coming soon.