INSTRUCTION FOR THE ZEN COOK, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)

[…] The tenzo must be present, paying careful attention to the rice and soup while they are cooking. This is true whether the tenzo does the work by himself or has assistants helping him either with the cooking or the tending of die fires. Even though in the larger monasteries recendy people have been placed in charge of cooking the soup or the rice, the tenzo should not forget that these people are assistants working under him and cannot be held responsible for this work. In olden times the tenzo was completely in charge; there were no such assistants.

When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions. Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens, that expounds the buddhadharma through die most trivial activity. When making a soup with ordinary greens, do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lighdy; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. By the same token that you do not indulge in a meal because of its particularly good taste, there is no reason to feel an aversion towards an ordinary one. Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain, and hesitate to work more diligendy with materials of superior quality. Your attitude towards things should not be contingent upon their quality. A person who is influ­enced by the quality of a thing, or who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a man working in the Way.

Strengthen your resolve, and devote your life spirit to surpassing the refinement of the ancient patriarchs and being even more meticulous than those who came before you. How do we apply our life aspiration so that it will function for the Way? If great teachers in the past were able to make a plain soup from greens for only a pittance, we must try to make a fine soup for the same amount. This is very difficult to do. Among odier things, there are great differences between ages past and today, so even hoping to stand alongside the teachers of former times is no simple matter. Yet, being scrupulous in our actions and pouring our energy into those actions, there is no reason why we cannot equal the ancient masters. We must aspire to the highest of ideals without becoming arrogant in our manner.

These things are truly just a matter of course. Yet we remain unclear about them be­cause our minds go racing about like horses running wild in the fields, while our emotions remain unmanageable, like monkeys swinging in the trees.If only we would step back to carefully reflect on the horse and monkey, our lives would naturally become one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them. It is vital that we clarify and harmonize our lives with our work, and not lose sight of either the absolute or the practical.

Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way. At the same time, this power functions in our lives to clarify and settle activities and is beneficial to all living things.*

  • *‘How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment’, by Zen Master Dogen and Koshb Uchiyama Rbshi,

translated by Thomas Wright (Shambhala, 2005) 6-8