Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I’d like to talk about what I call kitchen Zen.

That’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I’d like to think I made it up myself, but it was probably coined centuries ago. The notion comes from certain writings of Japanese Zen Master Dogen Kigen.

Dogen was born in 1200 and lived to 1253. When he was twelve years of age he entered Senkobo, a Tendai Buddhist monastery.

At that time in Japan, many dedicated scholars were unhappy with the teachings of various Buddhist schools because most of those schools practiced esoteric rituals that had nothing to do with the teachings of the Buddha.

Zen wasn’t widely known in Japan then, so the real thinkers who wanted to dig deeply into the tradition traveled to its birthplace, China.

In China the direct word-of-mouth transmission of Bodhidharma and of Hui-neng continued to be recognized, and in China Zen continued to be what was called a nonexistent clear mirror.

Now that’s a flowery phrase if I ever spoke one. Normally I try to avoid hackneyed Zen lingo so I don’t have to interpret and explain it. However, some terms are so embedded and so central to Buddhism or to Zen that they must occasionally be used.

A nonexistent clear mirror refers back to a verse that’s the core of Zen, so the legend bears retelling.

In the late 600s the master of China’s Yellow Plum monastery told his monks that whoever could write something that demonstrated personal awakening would become the school’s new master. One monk posted the following words on a temple wall:

The body is the Bodhi tree,

The mind is like a clear mirror.

At all times we must polish it,

And not let the dust collect.

Profound stuff, yes? However, a modest kitchen helper—Hui-neng—composed the following words:

There is no Bodhi tree,

Nor is there a clear mirror.

From the beginning not one thing exists;

So where is a speck of dust to cling?

To the master, these lines exhibited such an uncluttered understanding of Zen, he established Hui-neng as his successor.

To get back to Dogen, in 1223 he and an associate sailed from Japan to China. Their landing might have been Tsingtao or Shanghai. For one reason or another, when the ship was in port, Dogen was delayed aboard for several weeks.

One day an elderly Chinese man came aboard. He was not only a monk, but the head cook at Mount A-yu-wang Monastery. He and Dogen hit it off from the start, and the two of them enjoyed many hours conversing and sharing intellectual matters. When Dogen asked the fellow to stay longer, the cook thanked him and said he had to return to his kitchen.

Dogen asked what was so important about that kind work, and the monk explained kitchen labor was his form of Zen practice.

“But at your age,” Dogen asked, “why do you slave away in a hot kitchen instead of devoting yourself to meditation?”

The cook said, “My friend from a foreign land, you may be a Buddhist, but you don’t know what words and scriptures, or what Zen practice, is.”

Then the monk said goodbye, and left the ship.

Several months later, Dogen was studying in the Chinese monastery on Mount T’ien-t’ung, and the old man showed up again. So the two of them resumed their discussions.

Dogen asked the meaning of “practice” and “words and scriptures.”

The cook-monk answered, “Words and scriptures are one, two, three, four, five. Practice means that nothing in the world is hidden.”

Dogen took this to signify that words and so-called holy writings were—in today’s terms—a dime a dozen, whereas Zen practice is awakening. In Dogen’s later-writing titled The Lesson from the Monk-Cook he indicated how he had been emotionally stirred by the cook’s Zen.

This “man of the Tao,” as Dogen referred to his friend, had shown Dogen that work which flows out of awakening is actually Zen practice. Any activity—whether it’s teaching a room-full of noisy kids, or steaming a pot of rice, or building a boat, or planting a garden, or writing computer code, or installing dry wall, or carrying out the trash—can be Zen practice.

Think about it. Anything can be Zen practice.

To relate a personal incident that may cause those of you who have heard it more than once to grown, I’ll mention my spinach experience.

I am fond of fresh spinach. But certain foods need to have things done to them before they are eaten or cooked. With dry beans, you have to pick through them to get rid of pebbles. Fresh spinach needs to be rinsed thoroughly to wash out any sand grains.

As much as I like fresh spinach, I used to dread putting in the effort of washing it. That seemed such a waste of time.

Then one spinach day I suddenly realized that the process of rinsing the leaves, and shaking them, and maybe even patting them dry with paper towels, was really not an unpleasant chore. It was all part of an experience to be enjoyed.

It was Zen practice.

Work which flows out of awakening is Zen practice

To quote Heinrich Dumoulin, author of Zen Buddhism: A History, Japan, “The cook embodied the living tradition of Chinese Zen from the time of the fourth and fifth patriarchs … which taught that Zen is practiced not only by sitting cross-legged in meditation … but just as much in daily service to the community.”

This is kitchen Zen.


Post a Comment

<< Home