You gotta love the San Francisco Zen Center. As a tango dancer, I do. They’ve been bringing the Art of Not-Thinking to us since about 1969. I’ve been working in the Zen Center kitchen lately in exchange for having sat a sesshin—seven days of sensory deprivation.

I love the kitchen work even if I don’t always stay for dinner. The food is fabulous just to handle: organic, fresh, local, vegetarian, and vegan/gluten-free, upon request. And all work and food are ecology minded. Zen Center bends over backwards to save all beings. As big as they are on not-thinking, they are mavericks at mindfulness. A seeming paradox, until you riddle it out with a Zen master.

In the kitchen, I’ll be chopping carrots, onions, chard, by the gallon. Repetitive tasks are a huge op for both not-thinking and mindfulness. I de-activate all “Preferences” and accept what’s asked for by the tenzo (chef) or fukutan (sous-chef). Something strange though occurs, which I accept but not without questioning: At regular 3-5- or 10-minute intervals someone shouts KNIFE! It shatters the silence we work in and startles me.

No, it’s not an Americanized translation of the Densho shout, that ancient Buddhist practice where the suddenly enlightened person shouts I GOT IT! Nor is it a Zen student losing it and giving us fair warning. Both possibilities ran through my mind the first time I heard the pronouncement. KNIFE!

It’s simply required etiquette, code, or as the Zen Center labels these practices, “form.” It means “I’m coming through with a blade, get out of the way.” Last week, I was about five feet from one worker when she blurted out KNIFE! Although, we avoid unnecessary speech, I couldn’t resist. “I trust you,” I said. She didn’t share my sense of irony. “You’re supposed to stand back,” was the steely admonition. Never good at delivering funnies, I smiled and whispered, “OK, OK.”

It’s not the first time in my 23 years of attending Zen Center, that I’ve witnessed hyper-correction. There is a ton of bending, backwards and forwards, at Zen Center, a place that prides itself on teaching the Middle Way.

As I jumped back, too exaggeratedly, from the knife wielder, I shared a private chuckle with my Self (which doesn’t really exist, but tends to). I wanted to say to her, “When I’m around you should HIDE THE KNIVES!” It’s a punchline from a story more than 30 years old. I had a boyfriend, Italian, but from the north of the Boot, who had a brother who was a cop in South Philly. “HIDE THE KNIVES!” is what the cop brother shouted when he heard I was pure Sicilian. We still laugh about it.

OK, I know the Zen Center is trying to avoid injury and protect all forms of life. But I doubt (they do encourage doubt) this practice of startling me across 10, 20, 30 feet of open space, by having workers shout KNIFE! is the Middle Way. My inner Freud has diagnosed the form as a reaction formation. Really, we all have a desire to use knives to cut and slice . . . (I’ll leave it there) . . .the way we suffer vertigo on cliffs, because we experience the urge to jump.

Why not have us kitchen workers apply our mindfulness? Here, I must confess to a breach of form yesterday. I traveled a distance of some 20 or 30 feet in the Zen Center kitchen, carrying—yes!—an 8-inch chopping KNIFE! Not once did I shout KNIFE! I cradled the “weapon” point down between my well-insulated breast and a wooden chopping board. If anyone caught me flagrante delicto, they did not say so.


  1. Pj Schott says

    I had a Sicilian boyfriend in San Francisco too. And I said the same thing whenever I was around his family. “Hide the knives.” Great story, Camille.

  2. Thanks, PJ. Some day you’ll have to tell me what became of your Sicilian beau . . . did you kill him first?