On Zen and Pancakes


Since I have been known to meditate in both the Shambhala and Soto Zen traditions, and since I am also a comics fanatic, I found the excerpt included below of particular interest. It is from The Teacup & the Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra (Vajradhatu Publications, 2008).

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-87) is a Vajrayana (tantric) meditation master, and a holder of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyü and Nyimgma lineages. He is also the founder of the Shambhala lineage. Many of his dharma talks have been transcribed and published by Shambhala Publications. The excerpt below is from a talk given in 1974 at Tail of the Tiger Buddhist Retreat Center in Barnet, Vermont. During this period, Trungpa’s teachings were delivered with an intensity directly influenced by Vajrayana “crazy wisdom” practices.

Trungpa Rinpoche enjoyed a close relationship with Shunryu Suzuki, whose dharma talks transcribed in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind introduced a generation of North Americans to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Using the pancake machine to describe Zen practice is such a bizarre analogy, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it.

A little bit of digging unearthed that what North Americans would call a Rube Goldberg device, Brits would call a Heath Robinson.

CHÖGYAM TRUNGPA RINPOCHE: We could say that the Zen approach is a beginner’s point of view—like a Heath Robinson illustration of a pancake machine—of how to produce prajna in an ordinary person who is confused but still inspired. Latching onto that process is based on a combination of a mahayana spirit and hinayana discipline. That seems to be one of the basic points of the Zen tradition of Japan, as much as we know. There also seems to be a faint emphasis on goodness, being good. A notion of being morally pure and kind and precise goes along with it always. Processes such as recycling your food or eating your meal completely or cleaning your plate are very general examples of the Mahayanist attitude of not polluting the air of the universe. Bodhisattavas should not become a nuisance to other sentient beings—moreover, you should save them (8).


CTR: In Zen, you are not allowed to be liked or disliked, because you have no chance, you have no room. Your practice and your schedule are constantly being run by others. Not “the other” alone, but the others. You have no chance to speculate about anything at all. Disliking only take place, I suppose, when your sense of humor and awareness—or your appreciation of big joke—becomes sour. Then you begin to interpret that joke as being tricked. By then, no doubt, your practice is also waning.

STUDENT: What did you say about the pancake machine?

CTR: In English literature, there is a writer called Heath Robinson [note: the actual writer of the books was Norman Hunter, and Heath W. Robinson illustrated these works], who wrote a story about Professor Brainstawn [sic]. Professor Brainstawn [sic] is constantly inventing machines. He invents a pancake-making machine made out of buggies and brooms and things. There’s a candle underneath the pan and hammer below, and when the pancake is ready, just before, the hammer hits and the pancake flies up and bounces off. Heath Robinson’s notion of making a pancake is comparable to the Zen tradition of producing prajna. It seems to be the same kind of approach. Everything is a homemade machine, but it still works (9-10).

STUDENT: It seems that the pancake machine is a very indirect way of making pancakes. How does that relate to the more direct or precise way?

CTR: It is very precise, as far as we can go and as far as the order of the universe goes. There is no other precision; that is the closest we can get. It is enormously precise, compared to some of the other attempts that have been made. That’s it. And it works.

STUDENT: But wouldn’t it be more precise and direct to make pancakes in a frying pan?

CTR: Then you would not have to work with the machine, which is full of intelligence. That way would be based on your being too lazy to use your machine: you just want to do it. It would be like killing an animal and eating its stomach out instead of warming it in the fire. It’s very gruesome.

STUDENT: What I hear you saying is that there’s a rather innate fundamental difference in the character of the person from America, as opposed to the person who’s from an eastern country—more than something learned, something fundamental to our nature.

CTR: Yes, I think so. It is not purely cultural or genetic or psychological, but it’s the accumulation of how somebody inherits somebody else’s insanity. It’s a kind of plague that went around in America—a different kind of plague than what went around in Japan or Tibet, for that matter, a different kind of sickness. It has nothing to do with culture, particularly, but still, such plagues are contagious (13).

Trungpa, Chogyam (Eds. Judith Lief and David Schneider). The Teacup & The Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra. Halifax, 2007: Vajradhatu Publications.

—Many thanks to Shambhala Media for granting copyright permission to reproduce this excerpt.


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