How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment. Dogen’s classic Instruction for the Zen Cook with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama. Shambhala. 122 pp. $16.95.
There are people in this world who believe that spiritual practice involves working and working and working, or suffering and suffering and suffering (or—on the other hand—not working at all) until you have an earth-shattering experience and are a new person, never having any doubts or problems again, ready to teach the rest of the world. The Internet is jammed with such people. There is this guy (who actually studied in my own lineage) and this guy and this woman. There’s even this whole magazine. I’m not making fun of such people (though my closest spiritual friend says that anyone who claims to be enlightened is deluded, and immediately removes themselves from serious consideration). I’ve read their teachings and learned from some of them, though they all tend to sound alike. The most authentic of them, for my money, is this guy. And my favorite story of the experience is this one.
Then there’s Soto Zen, whose fiercest proponent insists that zazen is good for nothing.
Somehow I trust that more. You practice to practice. The reward of practice is practice. If you have some spectacular experience it’s just another moment. You go on.
The great 20th century teacher in that tradition wrote some simple modest books about it. Inspired by a five-day sesshin with his best known disciple, I’ve been re-reading those books. And I’ve discovered again, in a new and deeper way, why I value this practice so much.
My introduction to Soto Zen happened in the early nineties, when I was sitting at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society and taking classes with Larry Rosenberg. Ed Brown came to teach a cooking class, and my wife and I both took it; it was one of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. (We spent the morning cooking and ate the results. We spent the afternoon cooking and ate the results. We did that for two days. It would only have been better if we’d had wine.) Before we began, Ed told some Zen stories, and they were from Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook. One concerned Dogen’s meeting with a 68 year old Zen cook (exactly my age at the moment) who was drying some mushrooms in the hot sun, sweating profusely. Dogen couldn’t understand why he hadn’t asked some younger man to do work that was so trivial and so wearing. “Others are not me,” the man said. When Dogen asked why he was doing the job in the heat of the day, the man said, “When can I do it but now?”
That story was the beginning of my attraction to Zen.
But it paled beside another one, about the first Zen cook Dogen ever met, a man who had come to meet the boat Dogen had sailed to China on because he was looking for mushrooms for a special soup. Again, this was an older man, 61; he had walked fourteen miles to get these mushrooms and had to walk fourteen back. Dogen, young man that he was, couldn’t understand why this venerable monk was going to so much trouble about food, why a man his age wasn’t devoting his time to zazen or working on koans.
The cook burst out laughing at this thought and said, “My good friend from abroad! You do not understand what practice is all about, nor do you know the meaning of characters.”
Dogen felt “taken aback and greatly ashamed,” and asked about those things, but the monk wouldn’t answer. Some months later, the man was retiring and came to see Dogen, who in the meantime had found a new teacher and learned much more. Dogen asked him what practice is.
The monk replied, “There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”
I regard those as the most inspiring—and most mysterious—words in all of Buddhism. They go along with everything else about this practice. There’s nothing special about it. All you do is sit there. You’re not looking for some spectacular experience, just the experience you’re having. Nothing in the world is hidden.
I’ve often wondered—as I pondered some esoteric fascicle in the middle of the Shobogenzo—why Dogen didn’t write more simply. He obviously could, as this teaching indicates. But Kosho Uchiyama—who spent a lifetime studying Dogen’s words—penetrates to the heart of Dogen like no one else.
Every word of this book is fascinating and inspiring, as inspiring as when I first read it, many years ago. Even the chapter titles are inspiring, “Everything You Encounter is Your Life,” “Having a Passion for Life,” “On Life Force and Life Activity,” but Uchiyama gets to the heart of the teaching in his last two chapters, the first of which is “The Function of a Settled Life.” He has let us know already that he doesn’t see the goal of life as happiness, or pleasure, or material joy, anything that people normally strive after. That doesn’t mean he is removed from life.
“Merely to study Buddhist thought and philosophy through books, or to do zazen only to become entranced by satori as some rapturous and esoteric state of mind without actually putting our bodies to work in our day-to-day lives as taught in our text, leaves grave doubts as to whether we have any idea at all of what it means to truly live out the buddhadharma.”
That was what the cooks taught Dogen. The measure of a practice isn’t something that happens in zazen. It’s how you live your life, with what Uchiyama calls “the three minds,” Magnanimous Mind, Parental Mind, and Joyful Mind, which in effect become one mind, accepting everything just as it is, treating everyone you meet as if they were your child, being grateful and resilient about everything that happens to you. That behavior is only possible because you’ve settled the self onto the self in zazen.
In the final chapter Uchiyama takes up another place where Dogen broke into simplicity, a section of Shoji (Life and Death) which Uchiyama regards as a condensation of all Dogen’s teaching.
“Let go of and forget your body and mind; throw your life into the abode of the Buddha, living by being moved and led by the Buddha. When you do this without relying on your own physical or mental power, you become released from both life and death and become a Buddha. Do not immerse yourself in mental and emotional struggles. Refrain from committing evil. Neither be attached to life nor to death. Be compassionate toward all sentient beings. Revere that which is superior and do not withhold sympathy from that which is inferior. Do not harbor hatreds nor covet anything. Do not be overly concerned with trivial matters not grieve over difficulties in your life. This is the Buddha. Do not search for the Buddha anywhere else.”
These instructions about how to live remind me of the great instructions Walt Whitman once gave. In the writings of both men, the words spring forth from more abstract passages and ring with authenticity. The question, of course, is what it means to throw your life into the abode of the Buddha. According to Uchiyama, “the abode of Buddha is nothing other than our own lives. . . . There is no refuge, no special place outside the life of our true Self, nor anything apart from the activities of that Self. . . .
“To devote ourselves to everything we encounter and throw our life force into doing just that is quite different from simply exhausting our energies in playing with toys. Here is where our passion for life as Joyful Mind manifests the significance of being alive.”
This isn’t having some experience that suddenly makes your whole life different, and makes you better. It is living your life the way you sit zazen, constantly letting go of delusions and encountering reality. The reality in which nothing is hidden is always here, obscured only by the delusions of our personal point of view. We let them go and see it free and clear.
It’s available to everyone, not just those who have had some special experience.
 Shokaku Okumura, who did a Genjo-e sesshin with the Chapel Hill Zen Center in early August.
 “This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
 Uchiyama’s feeling is that most of us devote our whole lives with toys. We begin with the toys of childhood, then the material possessions of adulthood, then sexual conquests, fame, and finally, in old age, “collecting antiques, attending various tea-ceremony functions, or visiting temples. . . . What is the difference between rich widows crowding around some famous priest or guru and teenage girls clamoring after some rock star?”
Going DutchAnd Gets Back Up AgainWaking UpMan’s Search for MeaningServe Lots of Wine
View Other Essays by Topic
agingAmerican literatureartBuddhismChristianitycreative processdeath and dyingmeditationmoviesmusicracereligionsexspiritualitythe art of narrativeUncategorizedworld literature
View Posts by Month
July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017 December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 July 2016 June 2016 May 2016 April 2016 March 2016 February 2016 January 2016 December 2015 November 2015 October 2015 September 2015 August 2015 July 2015 June 2015 May 2015 April 2015 March 2015 February 2015