Dharma Discussion: Dogen's "Instruction For The Cook"

One Wednesday of each month, we study famous Zen writings and share our thoughts and life experiences. No prior reading is required and materials are distributed. Each discussion is independent, such that one needs not attend prior sessions to join one.

We are currently reading the chapter "Instructions For The Cook" in the book "Moon in a Dewdrop" by Zen Master Dogen. This chapter is one of Dogen’s most important writings. Down to earth and practical, it vividly describes the fundamental approach to practice and demonstrates its relevance to the ordinary activities of life.

Moon in a Dewdrop

Excerpts From Past Discussions

By studying this poem we know that the words we saw before were one, two, three, four, five; the words we see now are six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Fellow monks of later generations, from this you should understand practice and from that you should understand words. If you make effort in this way, you will understand pure one-taste Zen beyond words. If you do not make such an effort, you will be troubled with the poison of five-taste Zen. Then you will not be able to prepare the monks' food properly. --- Section 7

There is cooking and there are words. Dogen is saying forget about words; focus on the cooking.

Why are you wasting your time cooking? Dogen's point is practice is doing. It is what I am doing that is my life. This is who I am. This is what I am doing.

Seeing without thinking: It is as it is, without assumptions.

Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "Prepare both meals of the day attentively and plentifully. Make certain that the four types of offering are not lacking, just as the World-honored One offered his descendants the gift of the twenty remaining years of his life. The merit of the light from even the smallest portion of the white hair tuft between his eyes is inexhaustible." In this regard, it also states, "Just think about how best to serve the assembly, and do not worry about limitations. If you have unlimited mind, you will have limitless happiness." This is the way the abbot attentively serves the assembly. --- Section 8

When I read about this paragraph, I see the Big Mind manifesting itself. It is a mind that is not concerned about what material is available to make the meal, about how the meal turns out, or about how the monks feel about the meal, but a mind that focuses on doing what needs to be done. When we let go of the expectations on how things should be, it opens us up to accept our environment. A sense of stability will then arise within that is unchanged by the changes in our environment. If there is a word that I would describe the feeling of limitless happiness, it would be equanimity.

A refined cream soup is not necessarily better than a broth of wild grasses. When you gather and prepare wild grasses, make it equal to a fine cream soup with your true mind, sincere mind, and pure mind. This is because when you serve the assembly - the undefiled ocean of buddha-dharma - you do not notice the taste of fine cream or the taste of wild grasses. The great ocean has only one taste. --- Section 9

The cream soup is sophisticated and carefully prepared to please discriminating human tastes.   A natural wild grass soup may taste “wild,” but when our mind does not yearn for a special taste, it is no different than a cream soup.

I used to have a long list of requirements for my ideal job, the cream soup and the bell grasses - from job function, location and size of the company down to the taste of coffee in the cafeteria. Over the years, the list is getting shorter and shorter. Now what remains on the list are what truly matter. It is about why I do what I do. The answer can only be satisfactory with an understanding on how I inter-relate to the world, and by fully occupying my space. That is my one taste.

Again, do not consider the merits or faults of the monks in the community, and do not consider whether they are old or young. If you cannot even know what categories you fall into, how can you know about others? If you judge others from your own limited point of view, how can you avoid being mistaken? Although the seniors and those who came after differ in appearance, all members of the community are equal. Furthermore, those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today. Who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary? Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "A monk whether ordinary or sacred can pass freely through the ten directions." --- Section 9

In Asian culture, there is strong deference of rank by age. Older is considered to be wiser and more senior.  Dogen is telling us not to be arrogant. Do not look down upon those whom we perceive as inferior.

Dogen is describing a non-discriminating mind. It is about not bringing that something extra to the situation. We have to make many judgements in our daily lives, such as stopping the car when the car in front suddenly brakes. But we don't need to take it personal, such as passing judgement that the offending driver should have his license suspended - the something extra that is not needed.

When I saw the monk who held the tenzo's position in Kennin Monastery, he did not personally manage all of the preparations for the morning and noon meals. He used an ignorant, insensitive servant, and he had him do everything - both the important and the unimportant tasks... He stayed in his own room, where he would lie down, chat, read sutras, or chant. For days and months he did not come close to a pan, buy cooking equipment, or think about menus. How could he have known that these are buddha activities? --- Section 10

In the corporate world, sometimes we see managers sitting in their offices, not distantly involved with the operations of the business. Some would call this "It's the management's fault". Dogen is telling us to take responsibility.

The story of the tenzo reminded me of a coding workshop that I attended a while back. There was certain vitality missing from the workshop. Participants were not really fully present to do the activity. So in the evening, I would fill up the empty space by educating myself to paint.

The visual of a tenzo locking himself into a room reading about the dharma while the other monks are engaging in the buddha activities of the tenzo's work is a funny scene. This is not that dissimilar to habitually talking about Zen concepts that do not come from experience, and mistakenly thinks that is the practice. We talk about no words with many words. We talk about no thoughts with much thought. We talk about no goal oblivious to the fact that we are here seeking. We talk about no form in rituals while the activity of the moment is to get the form right. We talk about non-discriminating mind with a judgmental attitude towards sectarian approaches expressed in different ways. In talking the walk, we forget to walk. We discuss the concept of emptiness in big words and full of ourselves. In practice, emptiness is just saying hi to our neighbors.

When you see those who hold positions as officers and staff in the monasteries of Great Song China, although they serve for a one-year term, each of them abides by three guidelines, practicing these in every moment, following them at every opportunity: (1) Benefit others - this simultaneously benefits yourself. (2) Contribute to the growth and elevation of the monastery. (3) Emulate masters of old, following and respecting their excellent examples. --- Section 10

The oneness of benefiting others and oneself strikes a chord in me deeply. On the outset, the corporate world is a win-lose game. In the long term, it is a win-win game. A well-regarded Silicon Valley executive once gave me a piece of career advice most insightful. What we know, beyond certain point, does not differentiate us because the world is flat and information is readily accessible. The next level of game is who we know. In Silicon Valley, nobody makes it out there alone. Those who survive and thrive have a strong network built on trust. In cultivating one's network, we seek to help before we ask for help. This is based on the spirit of benevolence. The irony is that when we help others without thinking about 'what is in there for me', the goodies will always pass around to us in the long term.