This episode is part 2 of “Work as Spiritual Practice According to Dogen’s “Instructions to the Cook.” (“Instructions to the Cook” is an essay Dogen in 1237, known as the Tenzokyokun in Japanese – the head cook of the monastery is called a “tenzo.”) In the last episode, I introduced you to the concept of work practice and how it came to be so important in Zen. I also talked about the central teachings Dogen offers regarding work practice, and what led him to write, “just working as tenzo is the incomparable practice of the Buddhas.” As promised, in this episode I take you through five ways to engage your work as spiritual practice, based on Dogen’s teaching.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
1) Taking Joy in Serving Others [2:10]
2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha [6:36]
3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences [11:12]
4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can [15:10]
5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone” [22:41]
Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis [27:40]
So, on to five lessons we can learn from the Tenzokyokun about how to engage our work as Zen practice. As I discussed last week, the point is not just that we act like good Buddhists while work – being patient and mindful, and all that – but that we try to experience practice (including work practice) and enlightenment as exactly the same thing. In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen encourages us to “expound the buddhadharma through the most trivial activity.” How do we do that?
1) Taking Joy in Serving Others
First, we can take joy in our work as service to others. Dogen writes, “The true bond established between ourselves and the Buddha is born of the smallest offering made with sincerity rather than of some grandiose donation made without it. This is our practice as human beings.” Note he says, “the smallest offering,” so this includes a sincere smile, leaving something cleaner than we found it, adding an edible flower to the top of a dish, or quietly taking up the slack when our co-worker overlooks something.
In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen describes how the tenzo should have an attitude of joy in her work, and approach it with the selfless love of a parent. He suggests we recall that it would have been very possible for us to be living in circumstances where we would be unable to engage in the work we’re doing, and how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to be of benefit to others. Rather than feeling burdened or underappreciated, we’re asked to approach our work as parents take care of their children: “A parent protects the children from the cold and shades them from the hot sun with no concern for his or her own personal welfare… In this same manner, when you handle water, rice, or anything else, you must have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.”
The idea of enlivening our work by engaging it as service or generosity isn’t that radical, but many of us tend to imagine it’s only surgeons, firefighters, or particularly talented and remarkable people who get to feel deeply gratified by the benefits they are offering to others. However, Dogen emphasizes how the monastery cook serves others even as he’s going about simple, unglamorous tasks like washing rice or putting away pots and pans, so he’s clearly encouraging us to see the service and generosity within the work we do.
It can be challenging to see your regular daily work as beneficial to others to the extent that you can consequently take great joy in it and see it as noble and worthwhile. Personally, I don’t find it easy to sit alone at my computer, putting together a podcast episode, and nurture a sense that I’m benefitting others. Even though people have told me they enjoy the podcast and appreciate it, it’s still easy just to see it as something I’ve got to get done today – and certainly no big deal compared to the work that has to be done to meet the critical needs of the world today, like ending world hunger or researching climate change.
However, bringing a joyful sense of service to your work isn’t really about how much it technically benefits others in relative sense. It’s about the state of your own heart as you work; your offering may be small, but as Dogen said, the true bond between ourselves and the Buddha is “born of the smallest offering made with sincerity.” He also instructs us to “see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself,” and to “understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one’s own character.” The beautiful thing is that a community truly thrives when each person in it sees themselves as contributing, and aspires, in the manner of a selfless parent, to give whatever is needed without concern for reward or reputation.
2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
A strong theme in the Tenzokyokun is treating each thing you encounter with great care. Dogen quotes a Chinese Chan master, “Use the property and possessions of the community as carefully as if they were your own eyes.” In Zen work practice, we’re never supposed to do anything thoughtlessly or carelessly. Nothing is dismissed as garbage, or beneath our attention, or beside the point. Tools are handled with care, washed after use, and stored carefully. Things are carried with both hands. Assistants are treated kindly and thoughtfully. Parts of vegetables you’re not going to eat are conscientiously composted, and even wash water is carried outside and poured at the base of a plant instead of being tossed down the drain.
Dogen writes, “Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha.” What does this really mean? First, we usually have to slow down a little, and actually look at what’s in front of us. This cultivates mindfulness, one of the main practices of Buddhism. Then we refrain from evaluating the leaf in our hand simply in terms of ourselves. Ordinarily we are thinking only about completing our task so we can rest, or get praise for how good a job we’ve done. Or we’re daydreaming about something else, because, frankly, this leaf isn’t very important to us.
If we cut through the fog of our self-centered dream, however, we may glimpse what a miracle this leaf is, and how amazing it is that we’re holding it. Inherent in the leaf is the wonder of life, and the power of the sun. Someone planted a seed, carefully tended the plants, and then harvested this leaf. The hard work and generosity of many people were required for this leaf to end up in our hands. Right here, right now, we are alive, and healthy, and capable of grasping the leaf with our fingers… what else do we mean by “the body of the Buddha?” The body of the Buddha is the physical, real manifestation of the Ineffable, and here it is.
Do we think about these things while holding a single leaf of green, or a pencil, or the steering wheel of a car? Maybe, but that’s not the point. It’s nice to have a personal sense that everything is manifesting the body of the Buddha, but whether we feel that way or not, that’s the truth of things. In treating each thing with love, care, respect, and attention, we align ourselves with this truth and honor it.
We’re also not separate from this truth, so there’s a strange way in which our participation is necessary in order for the whole scenario to be complete. After Dogen tells us to handle even a single leaf of green as we would the body of the Buddha, he says, “This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power you cannot grasp with your rational mind.” So, this isn’t about treating things carefully because they are sacred and we’re not, or about acting in a particularly way because we hope to glimpse of the Ineffable as we work. This is about learning how to treat things such that we allow the Ineffable to manifest through them. If we can do this, our whole day and everything we do has the potential to feel sacred.
3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
You might think it would enough to say we should treat each thing as if it’s the body of the Buddha, but we tend to be very attached to our opinions and reactions, so Dogen devotes plenty of time in the Tenzokyokun to admonishing us to rise above them. He writes:
“Your attitude towards things should not be contingent on 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 man working in the Way.”
Specifically, Dogen instructs the tenzo to handle all food with respect, regardless of its quality, “as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor.” He says a tenzo should “never feel aversion toward plain ingredients,” and instead should try to make the best use of whatever ingredients she has. Believe me, this is very relevant advice for a monastery cook, who is usually operating on a tight budget and forbidden to rely on rich, expensive ingredients to make the food delicious. It’s also common for monasteries to receive food donations that… well… prove a challenge. My teacher’s monastery once had to make good use of a semi-truck load of onions that overturned on a nearby freeway. For months, their tenzo had to find creative ways to incorporate way too many onions into the meals.
We’re also supposed to take care of people despite our judgments and preferences about them. Dogen is specific about this, saying “do not judge monks as deserving of respect or as being worthless, nor pay attention to whether a person has been practicing for only a short time or for many years.” He admits there may be significant differences between juniors and seniors, or those who are gifted with great intelligence and those who are not, but says, “Even so, all are the treasures of the sangha [community].” He explains, “Even though there may be right or wrong, do not cling to that judgment.”
So, even though in the course of our daily lives and work, opinions, judgments, and preferences will naturally arise, we don’t have to allow them to interfere with our work practice. We can diligently hold to our aspiration to treat each thing (or person) such that it (or they) can manifest the body of the Buddha. We should respond to circumstances differently depending on what and who we’re dealing with, but stay true to our underlying intention to serve others and honor the Ineffable at all times. This is a tall order, of course, but essentially this aspect of work practice is not allowing ourselves to be pushed about by our own thoughts and preferences. We can easily be lost in the fog of a self-centered dream filled with our opinions and reactions instead of responding appropriately and compassionately to things as they really are.
4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
Again, this probably follows from the aspects of work practice I’ve already covered, because if you’re taking joy in serving others, and treating everything you encounter such that it manifests the body of the Buddha, you’ll probably do the best job you can. Still, it helps to view work practice explicitly through the lens of diligence. This is about taking personal responsibility, and being energetic and meticulous in your work.
Dogen illustrates the importance of diligence in our work with another story about an encounter he had with a tenzo in China. The tenzo was again an older monk – 68 years, to be exact – and Dogen found him drying mushrooms in the hot sun. Dogen writes, “the sun’s rays beat down so harshly that the tiles along the walk burned one’s feet,” and says he was concerned for the tenzo, whose back was bent and whose “eyebrows were crane white.” When asked why he never used any assistants, the old monk replied, “Other people are not me.” Dogen says, “You are right… I can see that your work is the activity of the buddhadharma, but why are you working so hard in this scorching sun?” The tenzo answers, “If I do not do it now, when else can I do it.”
Elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui (a classic set of Chinese monastic regulations), which instructs the tenzo to “prepare each meal with meticulous care,” and to “pay full attention to your work in preparing the meal; attend to every aspect of it yourself so that it will naturally turn out well.” After conveying disappointment and disgust as he described a careless Japanese tenzo, Dogen writes, “Strengthen your resolve, and devote your life spirit to surpassing the refinement of the ancient patriarchs and being even more meticulous than those who came before you.”
Now, we have to careful with these particular instructions about work practice because it’s common in our society for people to work too much, and to be very identified with the outcomes of their work. It’s not helpful for us to try to become even more controlling, obsessed, compulsive, ambitious, or self-critical. The valuable message for us here, I think, is an invitation to take a healthy pride in our work, no matter what it is, and to allow ourselves to unleash our energy, creativity, and vision as we engage in it. In other words, making our work into spiritual practice doesn’t mean making it half-hearted or dreamy, as we contemplate deep spiritual matters in the midst of our tasks. Rather, it means energetically applying ourselves. This reminds me of a sign I saw posted at Zen monastery, over a dishwashing area where mountains of pots and dishes were washed, rinsed, and sterilized after every meal. The sign was clearly in response to newcomers to the monastery who were just learning how to consciously engage their work as spiritual practice. It read, “Mindful does not mean slow.”
Personally, I was delighted when I learned that an essential part of the tenzo’s job is to make delicious and beautiful dishes. Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui: “If the tenzo offers a meal without a harmony of the six flavors and the three qualities, it cannot be said that he serves the community.” The six flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, mild, and hot. The three virtues are light or flexible, clean or neat, and conscientious or thorough. According to the tenzo tradition I was trained in, you need to consider all kinds of things when preparing a meal: flavors, textures, color, contrasts between dishes and ingredients, and variety. You serve beans no more than once a day, and vary the carbohydrates by meal using rice, pasta, root vegetables, bread, corn, and other grains. Lettuce for salad needs to be torn in tiny pieces in order to fit in people’s eating bowls and be easily picked up with chopsticks. Particularly popular dishes like egg frittata are deeply appreciated on the third day of retreat, which tends to be one of the most difficult for people.
There’s a funny phenomenon in American culture where people are considered annoying or mildly anal retentive when they concern themselves with the details of a task and are very particular about the way it’s done. Eyes are often rolled behind the person’s back, and when they are scrupulous in fulfilling their responsibilities – often going above and beyond what’s absolutely required – they are sometimes seen as obsessive or attached. I think this is unfortunate, because it’s beautiful when people do the best job they possibly can, whether they’re pumping gas, offering tech support over the phone, stacking produce in a supermarket, or teaching children. It’s especially inspiring when people are diligent and take pride and delight in their work just for its own sake, regardless of their level of compensation or recognition.
Again, the exhortation to do the best job you possibly can isn’t meant to stress you out by implying you need to work even harder. Instead, it’s an invitation to imbue your work with significance, vitality, and beauty, rather than holding something back from it because you don’t think it’s all that important, or you’d rather be doing something else. No matter the job, it’s always possible to bring something personal and special to it. We’ve all had the experience of being cheered up by a friendly and competent receptionist, or relieved by an empathetic nurse, or made to feel valued by an appreciative shop owner who recognizes us as a repeat customer. With our diligence, we enhance our service to others – plus, there’s satisfaction in a job well done.
5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Becoming one with your activity has long been a goal of Zen practice, but many people will be more familiar with the popular English phrase “in the zone.” This is an experience where our self-consciousness falls away and we become completely absorbed in an activity, allowing us to perform to the best of our ability. Rather than daydreaming about other things while we work, thinking about ourselves and our relationship to our task, evaluating our performance, comparing ourselves to others, or imagining what people think of us, we just do, wholeheartedly. We just cook, wash, write, speak, design, or dig.
In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen says that if we would only step back and reflect carefully on the way our minds are usually racing about, and how often our emotions are unmanageable, “our lives would naturally become one with our work.” In practice, this means bringing awareness to our mind state whenever we remember to do so. When we notice we’re chopping carrots but thinking about an upcoming camping trip, we recall our aspiration to become one with our work, and therefore with our life. We want to be awake, right? Life is short, and we want to appreciate what’s going on. Right now, we’re chopping carrots.
In order to become more absorbed in our task, once we’ve woken up to the present moment, we employ one or more the practices I’ve already talked about: devoting ourselves to serving others, trying to treat the carrots as the body of the Buddha, refusing to be pushed about by our own preferences, and energetically doing the best job we can. Dogen explains, “If [the tenzo] throws all his energy into whatever the situation truly calls for, then both the activity and the method by which he carries it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddhadharma.” Sounds like being in “the zone,” doesn’t it?
But how does “the zone” work? How does paying attention to present moment, absorbing ourselves completely in a task, and letting go of thinking about the task, lead to everything naturally working out? Of course, this is an actual experience and not something that can be easily explained, but I think there’s a clue in Dogen’s instruction, found elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun: “Both day and night, allow all things to come into and reside within your mind. Allow your mind and all things to function together as a whole.” In other words, when we’re one with our task, we’re not shutting anything out or excluding anything. Everything we know and all the skills we’ve developed are accessible to us. We’re not even excluding daydreams or thoughts about self – we’re simply channeling our energy and attention into our work as wholeheartedly as we can.
Dogen further explains the process of our lives naturally becoming one with our work, writing that, “Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them.” “Turning something while being turned by it” is phrase often used by ancestral Buddhist teachers, pointing toward the experience of simultaneously actively participating in something, and being carried along in a process by forces beyond yourself. When we become one with our activity in this way, amazing things happen – like the Buddha manifesting through a lettuce leaf! Dogen says, “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 things.”
Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis
Of course, the moment we think, “wow, I’m in the zone, I’m one with my work, isn’t this great,” we’re no longer in the zone. Still, the only thing we can do at such a moment is throw ourselves back into our work. Hopefully, the five aspects of Zen work practice I’ve distilled for you from the Tenzokyokun will be useful:
- Taking Joy in Serving Others
- Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
- Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
- Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
- Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Now, by way of encouragement I want to say that while descriptions of “being one with our activity” may sound transcendent or profound – and occasionally we may experience our life that way – work practice is also very challenging. There are few other areas of our lives where we are so tempted to adopt a self-centered agenda, be obsessed with the outcome, or be preoccupied with our performance, comfort, reputation, or status relative to others! Just letting go and allowing ourselves to be “turned by” things can become an elusive ideal against which our ordinary ways of operating seem pretty pathetic. Our minds wander over and over, and our opinions and preferences grandstand in our brains as if they had a life of their own.
I vividly remember my work practice from a weeklong retreat many years ago. I was given the job of maintaining the walking trails at the monastery. This was my favorite job – I loved being outdoors, surrounded by nature, doing manual labor. However, at that particular retreat, my two Dharma brothers were assigned to work on the monastery roof. I couldn’t help but notice that women were rarely, if ever, assigned to work on the roof or at other physically risky or skilled jobs. This pissed me off to no end, and I spent the work periods over the entire week mentally rehearsing arguments against this injustice, sneaking looks over at my male friends running around on the roof. I tried to let the thoughts go and pay attention to my trail work, but it was extremely difficult to fight against myself.
It would be easy to conclude, when we find work practice a struggle, that we’re just “not good at it.” It could be tempting to give up trying to make our work into an opportunity for practice. However, there are two essential reasons not to judge, or give up on, your work practice. First, Buddhist practice is not about reaching some ideal, but about paying attention to your life just as it is, right now. In other words, you don’t make any progress by dwelling on how you should be. Instead, you fully face and embrace your current reality – which is only possible if you refrain from judging it. You are where you are. There are no guarantees you’ll make “progress” in this life, but you’re very unlikely to do so if you give up.
Second, the Great Matter of Life and Death is much, much bigger than we are. There is beauty and truth operating within your work practice as long as you’re trying, regardless of what you think. This is what Dogen means by, “This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way.” This doesn’t mean you should go passive and stop trying because it’s all out of your hands, or that the Dharma will manifest no matter what you do or don’t do. Because, remember, through our practice we allow the leafy green to manifest the body of the Buddha! Still, our efforts and failures are part of the whole picture: While my work practice on the trail, where I spent my time inwardly bitching about sexism, was not ideal in one sense, in another sense I was diligently doing my best to cultivate awareness of my life. I may have missed a lot of the joy, service, and beauty of my work assignment, but I was very aware of what was going on in my mind, and had to face a deeper question about how to be true to my values and experience while still not being pushed around by my judgments and preferences.
A closing word from Dogen: “My sincerest desire is that you exhaust all the strength and effort of all your lives – past, present, and future – and every moment of every day into your practice through the work of the tenzo, so that you form a strong connection with the buddhadharma.”
Uchiyama, Kosho. From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Translated by Thomas Wright. New York, NY: Weatherhill, 1983.
 Uchiyama pg. 13
 Uchiyama pg. 18
 Uchiyama pg. 15
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 14
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 12
 Uchiyama pg. 5
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 100 (Translator’s note)
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 6
 Uchiyama pg. 8
 Uchiyama pg. 17