The Spirit of Zen Practice

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group

London, Ontario, Canada

 

The Tenzo Kyokun, or “Instructions for the Cook” describes how the tenzo, the head of kitchen practice in a monastery, should go about their job. However, the Tenzo Kyokun is a lot more than that. It describes the attitude with which one should practise. It is a great guide not only for those doing kitchen practice in a monastery, but for any Zen practitioner. The attitude with which we practise determines the quality of our practice both individually and as a sangha.

 

To understand the context of the Tenzo Kyokun, it might help to say a few words about how Zen monasteries and temples are organized. Every monk in the monastery has a position. These positions entail different responsibilities. The positions are such that each position depends on the other positions. Everyone needs to fulfill their responsibilities so that monastic life functions smoothly and supports the practice of the monks. In this way, the sangha or group of practitioners embody our interdependence. The role of a temple position places us in the position of simultaneously practising for ourselves and for the benefit of others. This is an important point in Zen practice. On one hand, no one can do our practice for us, and, on other other hand, our practice is utterly dependent on other people. In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen puts it like this,

The three aspects of this attitude are to see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself; to understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one's own character ...1

 

In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen emphasizes that the tenzo and the other temple officers should practise in their positions with three attitudes, or “minds” as Dogen calls them. These are, joyful mind (kishin), nurturing mind (roshin), and magnanimous mind (daishin). However, this isn't just good advice for temple officers, it is good advice for anyone who is engaging in the practice of Zen.

 

Joyful mind is one of gratefulness and buoyancy. When we consider all of the myriad circumstances which brought us to Zen practice, such an opportunity is a rare gift. Our practice today is due to every moment we have lived, and every choice we have made up until this moment. If one decision had changed, we cannot say our path would be the same. When we keep this perspective, an attitude of joy and gratitude can naturally arise in the course of our activities. With joyful mind we put our entire being in our activity.

 

“Put our entire being into our activity” is what in Soto Zen the term “wholeheartedness” means. Nowadays, people talk about “being present”. Wholeheartedness is a way to be present. Further, wholeheartedness is the concrete practice of non-duality, the dissolving the dichotomy of subject-object. Many consider wholeheartedness to be the hallmark of Soto Zen practice. Joyful mind is beneficial because it keeps our mind open when we are wholeheartedly engaged in some activity.

 

In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen relates a story about a very old tenzo he met in a monastery in China. It gives a sense of the sincerity and wholeheartedness with which these people practised. Dogen comes across the tenzo drying mushrooms in courtyard of the monastery. The stones of the courtyard were so hot they burned one's feet. The old man was nearly 70 years old, had a cane, and an arched back. Dogen asked him, why don't you have an attendant dry the mushrooms for you? The tenzo answered, “Others are not me”. Dogen then asked, the sun is so hot, why do it now? The tenzo answered, “What time should I wait for?” Dogen withdrew with a deep appreciation of the tenzo's practice and manifestation of the Buddhadharma.

 

I would like to think that the old tenzo was drying the mushrooms with joyful mind – the gratitude and joy which comes from serving and benefiting others. The story also shows that our practice is no one else's except ours and the only time to do our practice is now. No one can sit zazen for us, no one can enlighten us. These are our responsibilities. What time should you wait for to start practising?

 

This way of practice, this spirit of Zen practice, continues in the kitchens of contemporary Zen monasteries and temples. Almost everything in a Zen kitchen is about paying attention and staying present. The knives are extremely sharp which really encourages paying attention to what you are doing.

 

If you participate in sesshins or practice periods, you will probably eventually end up helping in the kitchen. Normally, the kitchen helper is given some relatively simple, repetitive physical task like washing or chopping vegetables. The idea is to be present with that task and do it wholeheartedly. So, if you're given a couple of gallons of onions to cut up, that's your entire life until you finish. There is nothing else to worry about; the entire universe is just chopping onions. When engaging in an activity like chopping onions in this way, life becomes very vivid. All the senses are engaged in chopping the onions. You hear the knife singing through the onion, you feel the onion juice on the blade pressing against your knuckles. When wholeheartedly engaged like this, you want for nothing and you are lacking nothing. Joyful mind naturally arises.

 

Another contemplation which helps me bring joyful mind to my zazen practice is to remember that my sitting zazen now is not just my effort. I am sitting because Buddhist practitioners of the past have all made the effort to carry on this practice. My teacher, my teacher's teacher, Suzuki-roshi, teachers in Japan, China, and India. Likewise, my sitting today may play some small role in someone sitting in the future. Such a perspective always fills me with joy and gratitude.

 

The second mind or attitude toward practice is called Nurturing mind and is the mind of treating all things as being sacred. With nurturing mind, we make all things and activities living and vibrant. Dogen advises us to have affectionate caring concern for whatever we are handling. Nurturing mind is bringing our full presence to whatever we are doing in the moment. Dogen gives an example of nurturing mind when he writes in the Tenzo Kyokun,

 

Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way. At the same time, this power functions in our lives to clarify and settle activities and is beneficial to all living beings.2

 

Dogen is not talking about some magical, cosmic power. He is talking about “the how” of doing an activity can change our consciousness. The way I interpret this passage is that transformation is done by doing an activity, not just thinking about it. When Dogen talks about this power operates “in a most natural way”, he means, in my opinion, that this change happens without some conscious contrivance. There is an old 12 Step saying which puts this sentiment in a pithy, unadorned way,

 

You can't think your way to a better life, but you can act your way to better thinking.

 

When we act in a way as if all things are sacred, our mind is transformed from a self-centred grasping to just being a participant in this vivid and immediate reality of now. When we act with nurturing mind, we nurture ourselves as well as others.

 

We can apply nurturing mind to any activity. It often helps to use both hands when doing some physical activity. For example, when picking up a tea cup, do it with two hands, bringing our full attention to the act. When we are washing and putting away dishes, we can apply nurturing mind. We conscientiously dry and place each dish carefully back in its place with our undivided effort. When you park your car, take the time to make your car straight and fully between the lines. Sounds pretty simple, right? Then why not give it a try?

 

Magnanimous mind or “big” mind is, as Dogen says, “like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective.” With magnanimous mind we engage in activity with impartiality. We are not swayed by our judgments of “good” or “bad”. Dogen offers the tenzo advice in practising with magnanimous mind in the kitchen,

 

Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality. A person who is influenced by the quality of a thing or who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a person working in the Way.3

 

Impartiality is non-discrimination. While nurturing mind makes things sacred, magnanimous mind makes all things equally sacred and valuable. Magnanimous mind is stable, imperturbable. While the wind may whip the waves of the ocean's surface, magnanimous mind lets us walk with our feet rooted solidly on the bottom of the ocean.

 

However, just because magnanimous mind makes everything equally sacred and valuable, it does not mean we ignore differences between things and the differences between people. One could see it as magnanimous mind is broad and impartial enough so that it includes and encompasses differences rather than pretending they aren't there. Dogen expresses this when he describes cleaning up the kitchen,

 

Put those things that naturally go on a high place onto a high place, and those that would be most stable on a low place onto a low place …

Clean the chopsticks, ladles, and all other utensils; handle them with equal care and awareness, putting everything back where is naturally belongs. Keep your mind on your work and do not throw things around carelessly.4

 

This quote isn't just about caring for external physical objects, but it can also guide us in our zazen practice. All of our bodies are different. A particular sitting posture which works for one person may not work for another. We accept and include this difference. Even within an individual person, the left and right sides of our bodies differ. One side may be stronger or more limber than the other. In zazen practice, we use the attitude fostered by magnanimous mind to include these physical differences; we kindly and lovingly make these differences part of our practice. Magnanimous mind also includes diversity of all types, not just the physical differences in our bodies.

 

It is magnanimous mind which does not judge our zazen. We might be tempted to think, “Oh,

that was really good period of zazen”, or we might think, “I couldn't count past 2, that period of zazen was terrible and useless”. I think everyone has thoughts like this from time to time. However, with magnanimous mind, we include all of our zazen, whether or not we think it was good or bad. The work of sitting Buddha is performed irregardless of what our talking mind is saying about it.

 

Finally, Zen practice is the practice of emptiness. Many people are tempted when they hear, “everything is empty” to think it means, “nothing matters”. In fact, the opposite is true. When everything is empty, everything matters. Everything we do matters, and, moreover, how we do an activity matters. This is why Dogen's teaching of the three minds in the Tenzo Kyokun is so vital to our practice. Dogen's teaching takes our empty practice, and guides and shapes it into the practice of groundless bodhisattvas. Thank-you.

1Dogen and Uchiyama, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, p 15 (removal of patriarchal language by Kuden).

2Dogen and Uchiyama, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, pp. 8-9.

3Dogen and Uchiyama, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, p. 7.

4Dogen and Uchiyama, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, pp. 5-6

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016