Monday, February 29, 2016



I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to the marquees—or signboards—outside churches. You know the ones that list the hours for services, show the minister’s name, and offer a pithy statement. The messages are intended to be inspirational, but even to a religiously inclined person they’re often puzzling. To a non-religious person they can be absolutely baffling and even hilarious.

            I often wonder if each church minister thinks up these little nuggets of wisdom, or if there is equivalent of what, in the music world, is called a “fake” book. A fake book is a common collection of songs that anyone can use. Probably there isn’t a pastoral fake book, because the same message seldom appears in two different locations.

            What these memos say, or don’t say, and how they say, or don’t say, it reveals a lot about 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, “You helpless clod. Don’t even imagine you can be responsible for yourself. Instead look to someone other than you, and dump on that someone. Then whatever you do isn’t really your doing.”

            Then there’s the message, “Give your heart to Jesus, your brain to science.”

            I made that one up, but you get the idea how commonplace and predictable such statements can be.

            Zen is about oneself. It isn’t about clawing outwardly for someone or something else but about peering inwardly to realize who you are. Once you see yourself, there are no promises that you’ll be cured of alcoholism or facial warts. What is important is that you—not some questionable 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 egocentric? Is that selfish? I don’t think so. What it means is taking your own self as the starting point in a metaphysical way. If you can’t acknowledge the importance of your being to yourself, and keep your being in your own hands, you sure won’t find self-justification in someone or something else.

            Today I’d like to talk about what I call Kitchen Zen.

Kitchen Zen.

It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? It makes one wonder what it means. I’d like to think I made up the term, but probably someone else coined it centuries ago. The notion comes from an experience of Zen master Dogen Kigen.

            Dogen was a Japanese who 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 “religious” scholars were dissatisfied with the teachings of popular Buddhist schools because most of them read so-called sacred scriptures and practiced mysterious rituals. Zen wasn’t widely known in Japan, so the real thinkers who wanted to dig deeply into Zen traveled to the birthplace of Zen.

Where would that have been?

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

In 1223 Dogen and an associate 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 for several weeks. During that time 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 together 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 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, nor do you understand words and scriptures.” Then the monk told Dogen goodbye, and left the ship.

Several months later, when Dogen was studying in the 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” and “words and scriptures.” 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—in today’s vernacular—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 enlightenment is actually Zen practice. Even more, any activity—whether it’s teaching a room-full of noisy kids, or cooking a pot of rice, or building a boat, or planting a garden, or maintaining a data-base, or installing dry wall, or carrying out the trash—can be Zen practice.

Think about it. Anything 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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