Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I like to read the signboards outside churches. You know, the ones that list the hours for services, show the minister’s name, and present a clever message. The messages are intended to be inspirational, but some of them can be puzzling, even to a church-going individual.
To a non-churchy person such statements can be absolutely baffling, or else very funny.
For a local example: “Passport to Heaven. Apply within.”
I often wonder if each church minister thinks up these little nuggets of wisdom, or if there is the equivalent of what, in the music world, is called a “fake” book. A fake book is a collection of songs that anyone can use.
What these ecclesiastical memos say, or don’t say, and how they say, or don’t say, it reveals a lot about organized religions. For example, not long ago I read in front of church the following:
“Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.”
At first you might think, hey, that’s clever. God is all-everything, and so . . . .
Then you realize what’s really being expressed.
I’ll repeat the message: “Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.”
That is to say, don’t even imagine you can be responsible for yourself. Instead, look to something other than you, and depend on that other thing. Then whatever you do isn’t really your doing.
Then there’s the message, “Give your heart to Jesus, your brain to science.”
Zen is about you. It isn’t about reaching out for someone or something else but about looking inward to realize who you are. Once you really see yourself, there are no promises that you’ll be cured of alcoholism or facial warts. What is important is that you—not some other—will be administering to you.
To quote or misquote someone or another, “I am the most important [insert your own name] I know.”
Is that self-centered? Is that egocentric?
I don’t think so. What it means is taking your own self as the starting point. It means acknowledging the importance of your being to yourself, and keeping your being in your own hands.
Today I’d like to talk about what I call Kitchen Zen.
This talk was inspired by Dogen’s lecture, “Instructions to the Zen Cook.”
Kitchen Zen.
It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I’d like to think I made up the term, but probably someone else coined it centuries ago.
Dogen Japanese Zen master Dogen Kigen lived from 1200 to 1253. At age twelve he began a dedicated life at Senkobo, a Tendai Buddhist monastery. At that time in Japan, many serious scholars were dissatisfied with the teachings of popular Buddhist schools because most of them read so-called sacred scriptures and practiced mysterious rituals.
Back then, Zen wasn’t widely known in Japan, so the real thinkers who wanted to dig deeply into Zen traveled to its birthplace.
In 1223 Dogen and a friend sailed from Japan and docked in central China. Their landing might have been Tsingtao or Shanghai.
For one reason or another Dogen was detained in port aboard the ship. One day an elderly Chinese man came aboard to buy supplies for his monastery. 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 of work, and the monk explained kitchen labor was his form of Zen practice.
“But at your age why do you slave away in a hot kitchen instead of devoting yourself to meditation?” Dogen asked.
The cook laughed and said, “My friend from a foreign land, you may be a Buddhist, but you don’t know what Zen practice is.”
Several months later, when Dogen was studying in a Chinese monastery on Mount T’ien-t’ung, the old man showed up again, and the two of them resumed their discussions, Dogen asked the meaning of “practice.” The cook-monk answered, “Words and scriptures are one, two, three, four, five. Practice means nothing in the world is hidden.”
Dogen took this to signify that words and so-called holy writings were a dime a dozen, whereas Zen practice is enlightenment. 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 the cook, 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 cooking a pot of rice, or building a house, or planting a garden, or maintaining a data-base, or carrying out the trash—can be Zen practice.
Any activity can be 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.”
That is what I call Kitchen Zen.


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