Most people are aware that Zen involves meditation. Many are also aware – especially if they’ve spent any time practicing at a temple or Zen center – that it involves following a set of moral guidelines called the precepts. Fewer people are familiar with the way Zen demands that we engage our everyday activities, particularly work, as spiritual practice. Few writings describe Zen work practice as well as Zen master Dogen’s “Tenzokyokun,” or “Instructions to the Tenzo” (a tenzo being the head cook in a monastery), so I’ll use this short text to frame my presentation. Although the Tenzokyokun describes the work of a specialized role within a Zen monastery, its teachings about taking care, serving others, appreciating everything, and becoming one with your work are relevant to everyone, no matter what their work or life circumstances.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content
The Birth of Zen “Work Practice” [2:55]
The Hard Work of the Tenzo [6:25]
Isn’t Such Hard Work a Burden? [8:30]
What Is Practice All About, Anyway? [11:40]
The Profound Is Within the Practical (Not Added to It) [15:12]
Applying Dogen’s Lofty Ideals to Your Daily Life [20:12]
This discussion will take place over two episodes. In this first one, I’ll introduce you to the concept of work practice and how it came to be so important in Zen. I’ll talk about the central teachings Dogen offers regarding work practice in the Tenzokyokun, and what led him to write, “just working as tenzo is the incomparable practice of the Buddhas.” In next week’s episode, I’ll present five ways to engage your work as spiritual practice, based on the Tenzokyokun.
The Birth of Zen “Work Practice”
The way work practice is treated in Zen – at least ideally – is a prime example of a big difference between the original Buddhism of ancient India and the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism in China. The monks and nuns of the Buddha’s time very deliberately “left the household life” along with all of its requirements for work. Lay people were understood to be perfectly capable of attaining Buddhist liberation, but the household life was described as a “dusty road,” full of responsibilities that ultimately made it more difficult to concentrate on the Dharma.
Buddhist monastics, seeking the most conducive conditions for awakening, adopted the lives of renunciates and lived on donations from lay people. In the code of discipline that regulated their lives, monastics were forbidden from digging in the ground (because they might kill something), destroying plant life, and handling money. Essentially, their activities were limited to meditation, studying and teaching the Dharma, and begging for alms. You can see, of course, how this kind of discipline was advantageous for allowing monastics to concentrate on “spiritual” practice.
As Buddhism took root in China, however, there were some challenges to this completely renunciate way of life. (I describe this transition in Episode 23 – Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts Part 2.) First, the Chinese didn’t have an established tradition of itinerant spiritual practitioners begging for alms the way India did. Rather, there was a strong cultural emphasis on having a work ethic and contributing to society, so people didn’t readily cough up alms for lay-abouts. Second, the Chinese climate was colder, so more monks tended to congregate and stay in monasteries instead of roaming the countryside living in forests. The distance between monasteries and the nearby towns was not always amenable to trekking to the town every day for alms. Besides, can you imagine hundreds of monks showing up every day at the nearest small town expecting to be fed?
Over time, Buddhist monastics of all kinds probably tended toward more “work” than their Indian counterparts, but this tradition became strongly and explicitly part of the Chan, or meditation, tradition (later called Zen in Japan). A Zen monk named Baizhang Huaihai (720-814) is credited with compiling one of the first full sets of Chan monastic regulations, and also with stating, “a day without working is a day without eating.” Monastic regulations subsequently included detailed descriptions of how the various tasks in the monastery should be done, by whom, and – often – the spirit with which they should be carried out. Thus, the Zen practice of work was born!
The Hard Work of the Tenzo
The earliest extant version of full Chan monastic regulations is the Chanyuan Qinggui, and Zen master Dogen, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan, encountered this text when he was in China. He was quite taken with it, and subsequently composed his own Japanese version of monastic regulations, based heavily on the Chanyuan Qinggui. He mentions the Chinese text several times in the essay we’ll be discussing today, the “Tenzokyokun,” or “Instructions to the Monastery Cook.”
“Tenzo” is the term for the head cook of the monastery, which is one of the hardest and most relentless jobs. (This role can also be found in the context of formal Zen meditation retreats, or sesshin (see Episode 21 for more on sesshin), which is where many lay practitioners will have encountered it.) The tenzo is in charge of everything that happens in the kitchen, from the procuring of food, meal planning, supervising the work of kitchen assistants, and presenting the meal on time. People just keep on eating – 3 meals a day, 7 days a week (although it was only two meals a day in Dogen’s time).
The tenzo has to procure ingredients and be conscientious in their use, particularly because they were either donated to the monastery or bought with donated funds. The tenzo needs to keep the meals inexpensive and easily digestible (so practitioners remain alert and comfortable for meditation) – but also delicious. Meals must be served on time, and there should be plenty of food for everyone but not so much that food goes to waste. Plus, a tenzo – ideally a senior practitioner – also maintains equanimity and joyfulness throughout, and creates a sincere environment for Zen practice in the kitchen at all times.
Isn’t Such Hard Work a Burden?
At one point in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen laments how the Japanese monks of his time have no respect for the role of the tenzo. They think it’s just a burdensome role of an ordinary cook, and if they end up as tenzo they delegate all the work to others and spend their time resting, studying, or chanting.
Of course, Dogen was himself unaware of the essence of Zen work practice, at least with respect to the tenzo role, before he traveled to China. In the Tenzokyokun, he tells the story of several encounters he had with Chinese tenzos. He met one of them while staying aboard a ship in a port. The tenzo was 60 years old and had just walked 14 miles from his monastery in order to buy mushrooms for the next day’s meal from the Japanese merchants on Dogen’s ship. Dogen asked the monk to stay longer so they could talk, but the monk said he needed leave right away to get back in time to prepare tomorrow’s meal or “it will not be made well.” Dogen replies that surely there are other people at the monastery capable of preparing a meal, and asks:
“ ‘…why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of a tenzo? Why do you not spend your time practicing zazen or working on the koans of former teachers? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a tenzo?’
By way of a little explanation: “Characters” refers to the “written word” – presumably the written Buddhist teachings, although in his translation, Thomas Wright suggests the word also refers, in a “broader sense,” to “all phenomena.” Koans are stories of interactions between Zen teachers and their students that are meant to convey a subtle aspect of Zen understanding and practice, and are often used by students as a point of contemplation or inquiry.
After describing this exchange in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen writes, “When I heard this old monk’s words I was taken aback and felt greatly ashamed.” Subsequently, Dogen endeavored to learn what the old tenzo meant, and even had another opportunity to meet with him later that same year. Presumably, in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen is sharing with us what he’s learned regarding “what practice is all about,” the “meaning of characters,” and why, even in a monk’s old age, he would work so hard at the role of tenzo.
What Is Practice All About, Anyway?
Honestly, work practice does need to be balanced with stillness and zazen. There is a time for cultivating stillness and putting aside all activity as much as possible. For example, someone who usually spends their time very busy, or who’s a workaholic, or who is very identified with being useful, may find it quite challenging to spend hours a day in meditation or silence, or doing very simple, meditative activities under the direction of others, so you’re not in charge of anything. Until we really settle into prolonged silence and stillness, we don’t know what they are and why they’re so important. In our daily lives, we’re like hamsters running a wheel, convinced we’re getting somewhere; stepping out of activity is like getting off the wheel and realizing you’ll never be other than right here, right now, no matter how hard you work.
Still, in Zen we’re discouraged from getting too attached to anything, including stillness. If you’re attached to stillness, frankly, you’re unlikely to ever get as much of it as you want, no matter where you go or what monastery you live in. The Zen way is to let you taste a little stillness, kick you back out into activity, call you back into stillness… and on and on until you deeply question what on earth is going on. If the point is to reach some sublime spiritual state, then all this movement and interruption and responsibility and work is surely not helping!
But here’s the thing: we’re not trying to reach some sublime state. We’re trying to awaken to reality. In reality, the luminous perfection we’re seeking is right in front of us all the time. It’s tempting to think that if we could just meditate enough, or get away from all responsibility, something special would happen or we’d achieve some understanding that would change everything, but the point of practice is much subtler than that. Someone who knows “what practice is all about,” and who truly understands the “meaning of characters,” sees no difference between the zendo (meditation hall), the kitchen, the construction site, or the office. There are many ways to describe this phenomenon – being wholehearted or undivided, recognizing the buddha nature in all things, seeing nirvana in the midst of samsara, being fully awake to your life – but all of these phrases are inadequate to convey the essence as well as the actual activity of a tenzo can.
The Profound Is Within the Practical (Not Added to It)
I’m going to take you through five important aspects of tenzo practice, and I hope you will apply them to your own work, in your own regular daily life. Before I do this, however, I want to make two points about Dogen’s teaching in the Tenzokyokun.
First, one of Dogen’s central teachings is that practice and enlightenment are the same thing. That is, you don’t practice in order to get enlightened. “Practice” means everything we undertake because we aspire to be free from suffering, and to cultivate greater wisdom and compassion. Practice includes zazen, Dharma Study, precept practice – and, in Zen, work practice. In the case of the tenzo, it’s not that Dogen is recommending tenzo practice because of what it can teach you, or because of the enlightened qualities it can help you cultivate. That would imply that serving as a tenzo is worthwhile because it helps you on the path to enlightenment. This view is what was behind young Dogen’s question to the tenzo in China, “Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a tenzo?”
The teaching that practice and enlightenment are one is subtle and challenging, but let me humbly offer an explanation, for whatever it’s worth. In the context of tenzo work, this means that the Ineffable – that which is too great or sublime to be expressed in words – is present within every apparently mundane aspect of the tenzo’s work. In other words, the Buddha nature, or enlightenment, or perfection (whatever you want to call it) is immanent in practical, everyday actions and details. Immanent means, “Existing or operating within; inherent.” So, it’s not that a tenzo manages to think lofty thoughts or cultivate special emotions even while busy with their many tasks – it’s that the tenzo’s service enacts enlightenment itself, carrots and beans manifest the great mystery of life, pots and pans embody compassion, and the indescribable self-sufficiency of the Buddha Way is as obvious in a tenzo’s kitchen as it is in a zendo – or in an old-growth forest.
This is why Dogen’s Tenzokyokun is not just about the noble attitude a tenzo should have, it’s also about cooking. He says, “The Way-Seeking Mind of a tenzo is actualized by rolling up your sleeves,” and he gives detailed, practical instructions for the tenzo:
“Before midnight direct your attention to organizing the following day’s work; after midnight begin preparations for the morning meal. After the morning meal, wash the pots and cook the rice and soup for the noon meal. When soaking the rice and measuring the water, the tenzo should be present at the sink. Keep your eyes open. Do not allow even one grain of rice to be lost. Wash the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire, and cook it. There is an old saying that goes, ‘See the pot as your own head; see the water as your lifeblood.’”
Dogen goes on to give instructions about how the tenzo needs to work something like 20 hours a day, planning menus and amounts, consulting with other temple officers, washing dishes and carefully storing them in the appropriate ways, and supervising every aspect of the kitchen work himself.
As she keeps the Sangha properly nourished, the tenzo strives to work in a way that acknowledges her task is sacred, and also seeks to awaken to how this is so. Dogen writes, “When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions. Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens, that expounds the buddhadharma through the most trivial activity.”
Applying Dogen’s Lofty Ideals to Your Daily Life
This brings me to the second point I want to make about Dogen’s teaching in the Tenzokyokun: He sets a very high – perhaps impossible – bar for work practice, as he does for everything else. Not only are you supposed to be so diligent and careful in your work that you don’t lose a single grain of rice, he also mentions that a tenzo shouldn’t miss zazen! All while “expound[ing] the buddhadharma through the most trivial activity.”
It’s best to take Dogen instructions with a grain of salt along with his grain of rice. What he’s describing is an ideal we can use as inspiration and as a direction. I’ve personally never managed to serve as tenzo without losing a single grain of rice (that’s pretty tough if you’re also going to serve the meal on time), or work without ever losing a sense that the Ineffable is immanent in everything I encounter. Tellingly, in the Chanyuan Qinggui – the set of Chinese monastic regulations that Dogen frequently references in the Tenzokyokun and elsewhere – it says, “If the abbot were to expel from the monastery every transgressor, exhaustively enforcing all the regulations, then there would be no assembly at all.” Still, Dogen’s instructions are always there, encouraging us to take better care.
Also, while it may seem like specific instructions for a monastery cook aren’t relevant to lay people, or to ordained people living outside a formal monastic environment, that fortunately isn’t true. After all, the role of monastery cook is not an inherently lofty one! Just think of how common it is throughout the world to consider the daily provision of meals “women’s work,” a service so taken for granted it doesn’t even rank as “work” next to work done for pay or profit. If the Ineffable is immanent in the tenzo’s water and rice, it’s immanent in your breakfast cereal and coffee. If the tenzo can manifest the Buddha Way by rolling up his sleeves and serving the Sangha, you can manifest the Buddha Way as you take care of your children, students, patients, customers, or clients, and treat them with care and respect. Just as a tenzo is encouraged not to think of her mundane tasks as separate from enlightenment, we’re invited to take another look at the tasks we usually do just to get them done.
Cleary, Thomas (translator). Sayings and Doings of Pai-chang: Ch’an Master of Great Wisdom [i.e. Huai-hai]. Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978.
Uchiyama, Kosho. From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Translated by Thomas Wright. New York, NY: Weatherhill, 1983.
Yifa, Venerable. Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China (Classics in East Asian Buddhism): an annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.