110 - How Understanding Impermanence Can Lead to Great Appreciation
112 - Dogen's "Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings" - Part 3 - Loving Words

If we’re lucky, our practices of meditation and mindfulness give us some sense of spaciousness, stillness, and silence. But what about when we get up from the meditation seat? What about when we engage in activities more complicated and demanding than potentially calming manual tasks like weeding the garden, sweeping, or washing the dishes? Zen master Dogen teaches us a better way to practice in the midst of activity: maintaining joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind. These qualities have the potential to grow even stronger as we get busier.



Quicklinks to Content:
The Zen Cook: A Prime Opportunity to Practice in Activity
Silence, Stillness, and Study Is Best: Dualistic Thinking about Practice
The Deeper Purpose of Practice
Joyful Mind: Gratitude for, and Satisfaction in, Your Work
Nurturing Mind: Naturally and Happily Benefiting Others
Magnanimous Mind: Taking the Largest Possible Perspective


If we’re lucky, our practices of meditation and mindfulness give us some sense of spaciousness, stillness, and silence. But what about when we get up from the meditation seat? What about when we engage in activities more complicated and demanding than potentially calming manual tasks like weeding the garden, sweeping, or washing the dishes?

Especially when we need to move quickly, multitask, or interact with others, it can feel like we can easily lose our thread of practice. However, practice in the midst of activity is different than practice in the midst of relative stillness and silence. We can’t carry the stillness with us except in a deep and subtle sense. Instead of trying to maintain the stillness of meditation or silent mindfulness, Zen master Dogen teaches us a better way to practice in the midst of activity: maintaining joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind. These qualities have the potential to grow even stronger as we get busier.

The Zen Cook: A Prime Opportunity to Practice in Activity

Last week I was in sesshin, a silent, residential Zen meditation retreat. From Tuesday evening through Sunday noon, 30 people moved together according to a traditional schedule. Each full day included 5-7 hours of zazen, or our form of seated meditation. Sitting that much can be grueling, physically and mentally, but most people also found themselves settling into stillness and silence – at least at times – in a way difficult to achieve outside of retreat.

I, on the other hand, served as tenzo, or head cook, during this sesshin. My assistant tenzo and I each put in at least 20 hours of prep work ahead of time: Planning menus, acquiring necessary kitchen equipment, and shopping for food. Our “retreat” actually started Monday evening, when we set up the kitchen and organized the food. We prepared supper for the people who helped set up the rest of the sesshin on Tuesday.

Then, during the retreat itself, my assistant tenzo and I spent at least 8 or 9 hours a day on our feet. And those were very active hours! We were busy from 6am cooking three meals a day for 30 people, along with supervising 6-10 helpers during the silent work period. Once meals were prepared, we needed to get them on the table in dishes that could be easily passed down the long meals tables, along with serving utensils, condiments, and the necessary components for conducting a Zen oryoki meal ceremony.

Tenzo work requires constant movement, both physical and mental. There are a myriad details to be sorted out, and everything has to be timed and coordinated appropriately. Problems arise frequently, and quick adaptation and innovation is necessary. At last week’s sesshin, we unwisely planned for two baked dishes for one meal. The potatoes were no sooner done than we needed to whisk the eggs into the oven and pray they would be finished within the hour, lest we have to delay lunch (picture 30 people standing around in the dining room, hungry and waiting) or serve people liquidy, undercooked eggs! In our haste to keep stirring the eggs, we slopped a fair amount into the bottom of the oven, where of course they promptly starting burning and smoking. We opened the doors and turned on fans, and managed to serve properly cooked eggs on time.

In the midst of the busyness in the kitchen, what was our practice like? You might assume that my assistant tenzo and I just more or less wrote off the week in terms of Zen practice and mindfulness. After all, we pretty much only got the Zendo in the evenings. When you’re engaged in the bustling activity of cooking, it’s very difficult to maintain the kind of calm, reflective mindfulness that’s possible when you’re doing a very simple task like sweeping or washing dishes. However, someone’s got to cook, so maybe it’s just a matter of a couple people taking on the job and sacrificing the benefits of retreat, in order to allow others to experience them?

Silence, Stillness, and Study Is Best: Dualistic Thinking about Practice

And yet, 12th-century Japanese Zen master Dogen strongly emphasized to his students that the role of the tenzo is a very valuable one. He wrote a whole fascicle, or essay, called the “Tenzokyojun,” or “Instructions to the Cook.” In it, he describes how he traveled to China in search of true Buddhism and encountered an elderly monk who had the role of tenzo at his monastery. Dogen wondered why this obviously senior monk was operating in this lowly service role. He asked (translation by Arnold Kotler and Kaz Tanahashi):

“‘Honorable Tenzo, why don’t you concentrate on zazen practice and on the study of the ancient masters’ words rather than troubling yourself by holding the position of tenzo and just working? Is there anything good about it?’

“The tenzo laughed a lot and replied, ‘Good man from a foreign country, you do not yet understand practice or know the meaning of the words of ancient masters.’

Hearing him respond this way, I suddenly felt ashamed and surprised, so I asked him, ‘What are words? What is practice?’

The tenzo said, ‘If you penetrate this question, how can you fail to become a person of understanding?’”[i]

Later Dogen visits this tenzo at his monastery and starts to grasp the true meaning of practice. Have we grasped it? Most of us are still caught up in dualistic thinking. There is stillness and then there is activity. There is silence and then there is talking about what to do about burning eggs. Our Buddhist practice has given us at least a taste of how stillness and silence and letting go can give us peace, and help us wake up from the self-centered dream. But what about when we need to engage with the busyness of life? Family, traffic, work, projects, planning, socializing… how do we maintain our practice in the midst of all of that? Most Buddhists I know carry a sense of inadequacy and sadness about their apparent inability to carry a thread of intentional practice into the demanding activities of their daily lives. I myself have carried a sense of inadequacy and sadness about this matter throughout most of my 24 years of practice.

The thing is, you can’t bring stillness and silence into anything but the simplest of activities, and then only when you don’t have to talk or interact with others. Sitting is one thing, cooking is another. Silence is one thing, talking is another. If we cling to the state of body and mind we experience in meditation or quiet, mindful activity, we will be sorely disappointed. You may even start to feel an aversion to busyness, responsibility, and full engagement with your life, and long instead to spend more and more time meditating, studying, or prioritizing calm, quiet, solitary, non-troubling activities. This is unfortunate, and is not the intention of Buddhism. Even fully ordained Thervadin monks have responsibilities and usually have to interact regularly with each other and with the lay community.

The Deeper Purpose of Practice

If we can’t bring stillness and silence into activity, what is practice in the midst of activity? What, in a broader sense, is practice? This is not an easy question to answer. As the old tenzo said to Dogen, “If you penetrate this question, how can you fail to become a person of understanding?” Even though I will offer an answer in this podcast, ultimately you have to discover the answer for yourself.

So, here’s the answer I’ve found: Practice is deeper than our momentary experiences of stillness and silence. What we’re aiming for is not a mind-state, because mind states come and go. As I discussed in Episode 108 – Buddha’s Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self (Anatta), self-identification with any of our experiences, including our states of consciousness, aspirations, and intentions, leads to suffering. All of the skandhas – form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness – are subject to change. We’ll only be frustrated by our attempts to hold on to, or recreate, the state of mind and body we experience in relative quiet and stillness when we’re responding to demands in our everyday lives.

What’s even more important than stillness and silence, or the delicious awareness of being aware that relative stillness and silence allow us to experience at times? Each of us will have our own way of thinking about this, but I think what’s more important than stillness or silence is wholeheartedness. Or, alternatively, you might say wholeness, or not being divided or conflicted. Rather than being divided against ourselves, we want to know we’re okay – that we’re not cut off from real life, from worthiness, or from intimacy due to our shortcomings, flaws, mistakes, and sins. Rather than being conflicted in our energies and intentions, we want to know what we’re doing is good, and right. We want to able to embrace this moment wholeheartedly instead of being preoccupied with the past or the future.

Zen master Dogen offers an excellent teaching for how to be wholehearted in the midst of activity. In the Tenzokyokun, he recommends the cultivation of three attitudes: Joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind. These attitudes give us ways to continue the deepest thread of our practice through great busyness, competing responsibilities, interactions with other people – even through barely controlled chaos, which is what it feels like sometimes in a Zen kitchen! These three attitudes Dogen recommends to the tenzo have the potential to get stronger, broader, and richer the more active things get.

Joyful Mind: Gratitude for, and Satisfaction in, Your Work

Joyful mind is, Dogen says, “the mind that rejoices.” Joyful mind is a mind full of gratitude. Dogen describes the tenzo reflecting on how fortunate he is to be born a human being, and to have the opportunity to serve the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha by providing pure meals made with his “own hands.” A tenzo with joyful mind would never dwell on how her job is hard and unappreciated. She would not compare her lot with others, thinking of how they have it better. Instead, the tenzo with joyful mind would celebrate how fluffy the eggs turned out, and how brilliant the recipe was – scrambled eggs for thirty, cooked in glass pans in the oven. Every ten minutes, she opens the oven and stirs the eggs, pulling the cooked egg away from the edges and bottom of the pan and stirring it with the still uncooked egg. In the end, voila!

How wonderful to still have the mental capacity to plan and coordinate meals! How wonderful to have the stamina to spend 9 hours on my feet, allowing 100% of myself to be used by my task. How wonderful when something turns our deliciously. The doors to the kitchen are open, letting in the cool morning air. Fridges are full of produce, and permeating the dining room is the smell of fresh-cooked rice. Joyful mind does not compare or evaluate, but delights in the task at hand, appreciating whatever is. In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen tells the tenzo:

“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.”[ii]

Depending on the activity you have to engage in, it may be more or less difficult to find joy in it. When we’re not employing joyful mind, we’re divided from our activity. We lack wholeheartedness when we wish we were doing something else, or are resistant to what’s going on. We’re likely to hold back energy, effort, care, and enthusiasm – and consequently things aren’t likely to go very well, and our situation will feel even more dismal.

If we find joy in our work it makes all the difference. You’ve probably met people doing tasks that you would hate, but because they take joy in the job, their contentment, dignity, and generosity are infectious. It’s always possible to take some joy in our activity. Even if we find our work difficult or demeaning, we can take satisfaction in the efficiency of our line on the factory floor, or greeting customers with patience and friendliness, or simply in being capable of working in order to support ourselves and those we love.

Nurturing Mind: Naturally and Happily Benefiting Others

The second attitude Dogen recommends for our practice in the midst of activity is nurturing, kind, or “parental mind:”

“Just as parents care for their children, you should bear in mind the three treasures. Even poor or suffering people raise their children with deep love. Their hearts cannot be understood by others. This can be known only when you become a father or a mother. They do not care whether they themselves are poor or rich; their only concern is that their children will grow up. They pay no attention to whether they themselves are cold or hot, but cover their children to protect them from the cold or shield them from the hot sun.”[iii]

When we cultivate nurturing mind in activity, we shift the focus off of ourselves and how we feel, how we like our task (not not), or whether we’re going to get the results or payoff we’re hoping for. Hopefully, nurturing mind will occur in combination with joyful mind, however, so we don’t just end up playing the martyr!

There’s something responsive about nurturing mind, as opposed to it being about dreaming up the most impressive thing we can do for others – an approach that rarely leads to the benefit or appreciation we expect. This is why Dogen used the example of a parent (that is, a good and loving parent), who cares for their child wholeheartedly and naturally, not considering for a moment whether or not they should do so. In order to manifest nurturing mind, rather than pondering how good or beneficial our actions are, we pay close attention to the needs arising around us. If we get our self-concern or self-consciousness out of the way, compassion and generosity will flow through us naturally, and when that happens it’s invigorating and connecting.

practice in activityAt times I’m almost moved to tears when I’m sitting down with the community at sesshin, after we’ve done our meal chant and served ourselves, and we finally take our first bites of a meal I’ve helped to plan, shop for, prepare, and serve. My heart swells as I recognize the food as nutritious, attractive, and tasty, and I know my fellow retreatants have just spent hours, unmoving, in a silent zendo. Retreat can be hard, physically and emotionally. How wonderful to be able to provide people with the support and pleasure of good food. You might be surprised how much many of us look forward to the meals at sesshin! I’ve heard more than one person relate how they were contemplating leaving retreat but then thought, “I wonder what’s for lunch.”

Sometimes, of course, we’re obligated to engage in activities that don’t particularly seem to serve others, or that go unnoticed or unappreciated. I confess that cleaning my house is not a task to which I find it easy to bring joyful or nurturing mind. It’s hard to shake the conviction that, somehow, I just shouldn’t have to do it, and that as soon as the house is clean it will just get dirty again so what’s the point? However, Zen practice remains the same whether it’s easy or difficult, and I know my housekeeping causes me much less suffering when I can let go of resentment and do it for the sake of the people who will feel more comfortable in my home because it’s clean, or when I can take some joy in the task.

I heard of a neat practice once from a Zen teacher (I think it was Pat Enkyo O’Hara, but I can’t find the reference), who said when she finds herself thinking something like, “I have to go grocery shopping,” she instead tries to think to herself, “I get to go grocery shopping.” Try it – if you can summon any sincerity about the sentiment, it really can transform any activity. If you think of all the myriad reasons you might not be able to, for example, go grocery shopping – ill health, lack of money, no food on the grocery store shelves – saying “I get to go grocery shopping” better reflects the true state of your life than speaking of your daily tasks as annoying obligations. I get to go to work today, I get to take care of my house, I get to show up early at the Zen center in case someone wants an introduction to meditation. What a joy to be able to do my part.

Magnanimous Mind: Taking the Largest Possible Perspective

Finally, Dogen recommends cultivating magnanimous, or great, mind while engaged in activity:

“‘Great mind’ is a mind like a great mountain or a great ocean. It does not have any partiality or exclusivity. You should not regard a pound as light or a ton as heavy. Do not be attracted by the sounds of spring or take pleasure in seeing a spring garden. When you see autumn colors, do not be partial to them. You should allow the four seasons to advance in one viewing, and see an ounce and a pound with an equal eye. In this way, you should study and understand the meaning of great.”[iv]

I think of maintaining magnanimous mind as not getting overly upset about things, but not by rigidly holding on to particular mind state. Instead, magnanimous mind is about staying upright and afloat like a good boat even when the sea is rough. It’s about releasing the tightness of anger in order to let situations keep flowing, or taking a deep breath and remembering a larger perspective instead of being completely caught by the challenges of this moment.

Sometimes I am no so good at maintaining magnanimous mind, so I can attest to the value of practicing these attitudes even they’re not a natural part of your mental and emotional repertoire. Last week, there were a few moments when five or ten different tasks were competing for my attention and at least a couple of them weren’t turning out as planned, while time was running out. The addition of some banal challenge like not being able to find the hot pads or water spilling on the floor would threaten to send me over the edge into a level of petulant irritability that just might involve a mild cuss word or two. I would feel the wave of pressure and irritation rising in my body, but I didn’t fight it, or argue with it, or feel ashamed. I just imagined I was in a boat – or on a surfboard – and aspired to magnanimous mind. The wave would pass, and the whole thing, interestingly, was actually exhilarating.

Some people don’t seem to have so much problem maintaining their equanimity even when faced with challenges, and I admire them. When I read Dogen’s instructions, “you should not regard a pound as light or a ton as heavy,” I think with amazement of people who might be able to spill raw eggs for 30 in the bottom of an oven and go, “Oh well!” without a glimmer of panic. If you’re such a person, I recommend you practice a great deal of acceptance and patience with those around you, for whom equanimity does not come so easily. We’re all wired differently, and sometimes the tendency to get upset comes as part of package that includes some other stuff that’s actually beneficial – like a lot of energy for getting thing done, an appreciation for efficiency, or great determination to do a good job.

I imagine more people get upset in the midst of their daily activities than we think, because we’re all trained to hide it as best we can. For those of us who tend easily to frustration, anger, irritability, or impatience, daily activity provides many opportunities for practicing magnanimous mind. Rather than seeing ourselves as inadequate, we can try to bring joyful and nurturing mind to our effort to stay upright and fruitfully engaged. Can we really care about the work we’re doing and throw ourselves wholeheartedly into it, but then not overreact to setbacks? Can we let the momentum of our activity keep flowing, and flow around obstacles like water? It helps to avoid self-judgment or emotional repression if we embrace magnanimous mind in the interest of joy, love, and service.

In closing, I hope you will explore the practice of fully embracing activity with a joyful, nurturing, and magnanimous mind. Let go of the self-conscious awareness possible in meditation and in extremely simple, slow mindful activities, like “I am now peeling an orange, now I am eating a slice of orange, now I notice the flavors on my tongue.” Instead, simply try to be wholehearted and undivided in whatever you’re doing, so you can maintain the thread of real, meaningful, beneficial practice – no matter the activity, no matter how busy you are.



[i] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid


110 - How Understanding Impermanence Can Lead to Great Appreciation
112 - Dogen's "Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings" - Part 3 - Loving Words