Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I was in Barnes & Noble Booksellers recently, and was browsing through Fast Food Nation, a book by Eric Schlosser, when all of a sudden I thought of Dogen.

What possible connection could there be between an early Japanese Zen master and the dark side of production-line burgers and fries?

Let’s see.

The practice of Zen is chiefly sitting in Zazen.
Being perfectly still.
Quieting your consciousness.
Opening your mind.

That is a big difference from grubbing in a McDonalds.

It may sound idyllic, but sit sitting silently while facing a wall isn’t an excuse for dodging life’s responsibilities. It’s not goofing off. Many people think Zen is an escape from reality.

“Hey, man, this doing-nothing is really cool. No worries, no cares. All you have to do is stare at the wall.”

No, that’s not zazen.

Zazen is based on the life experiences of the Buddha, and those experiences relate to your own life experiences.

Dogen Zenji said that to study Buddhism is to study one’s self, and to learn Buddhism is to learn one’s self.

For some individuals learning one’s self is a lifetime job.

Some individuals never make it.

It’s a wisdom that usually develops little by little, over days or weeks or months, not in one glorious eruption.

Even in the Rinzai sudden-enlightenment school it’s rare for someone to leap up from a cross-legged position to his or her feet and yell, “I got it! Now I really know me!”

I’ve talked about Master Dogen, who was born in 1200 and who died in 1253, several times before, and I’ll probably talk about him several times more. He’s best known for his discourse on Shikantaza, which is absolute meditation without an object in mind.

But Dogen is also celebrated for his lecture titled, in Japanese, Tenzo Kyökun, or Instructions for the Zen Cook.

In old-time Zen monasteries in Japan there were several offices to manage the community affairs. In this talk we’re interested in only one function, that of tenzo, the person in charge of meals for the monks.

As an aside, I’d like to mention a couple of other foodie books, The Tassajara Recipe Book and The Tassajara Bread Book, both compiled by Edward Brown, former tenzo at California Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. They contain first-rate vegetarian recipes that have been prepared over the years in the kitchen of that Soto establishment.
Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook is no how-to handbook, and it’s not an assortment of recipes. It’s a guide to the Zen way of functioning in the kitchen. It emphasizes maintaining harmony in one’s personal actions as well as in the flavors and qualities of the food itself in order to make a meal come together naturally.

For example, great care must be taken in washing the rice and removing any bits of sand without tossing away even one grain of rice.

Dogen tells a story about a tenzo who was washing the rice for the day’s meal. The master happened by and asked, “Do you wash the sand and pick out the rice, or do you wash the rice and pick out the sand?”

The tenzo said, “I wash and throw away both the sand and the rice together.”

“If you do that, what do the monks eat?” the master asked.

The cook responded by upending the rice bucket and chasing the master out of the kitchen.

In the master’s initial question he thought to challenge the cook’s understanding of Zen by posing a this-or-that question. The cook was probably annoyed with the master poking his nose into the kitchen, plus he knew Zen doesn’t deal in this or that, so he thought he would end the matter by saying he discarded both sand and rice.

But in asking what the monks would eat, the master pushed the game too far. The cook gave a wonderful, wordless Zen response by turning over the rice bucket. Maybe on the master’s head.

At one time my grandparents owned a restaurant in Peoria, Illinois. Cooks came and went. Some were good, others would have been better off working as ditch diggers. I remember one excitable fellow, named Tony, who considered the kitchen his private domain. If anyone entered the food preparation area and happened to upset Tony (which was easy to do), he would brandish a cleaver and yell, “Stay outta da kitch!”

Tony was a dedicated chef, even though he probably never read Instructions for the Zen Cook.

What’s the point of all this?

In the book Refining Your Life, Kosho Uchiyama says “When you sit in zazen, just sit, and when you work as a tenzo, just do that.

Whether you’re reading a book, or preparing a meal, or sitting in zazen, focus your mind and dedicate all of your being to the matter.

If you can do this over a container of fast food, you’re to be commended.


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