Dogen’s Cookbook

cookI don’t usually write out my talks. But the one I gave at Benediktushof retreat center in Holzkirchen, Germany this year needed to go through a translator so I wrote it out before giving it. It’s based on a chapter from the forthcoming follow-up to my current book Don’t Be a Jerk. Because it was designed to be translated, I tried to simplify the language and eliminate any slang or American linguistic idioms. But don’t worry, fans, all that stuff will be reinstated before the book gets published. I also shortened Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook considerably. The version in the book will be about twice as long as this one.

Benediktushof October 23, 2016

Dogen was born in 1200 CE. Dogen’s mother was the mistress of an official in the Japanese court, so Dogen was what we call “illegitimate” in the west these days.

Dogen’s father was assassinated when Dogen was three years old. Dogen’s mother died when Dogen was seven. This made him eager to find some kind of stability in his life. So at age twelve he became a monk in the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

Young Dogen had one question that troubled him. He asked the older monks, “Buddha said we are all perfect just as we are. So why do we have to do all of these strange practices like chanting, meditating, wearing robes and so on?”

No one could answer him. But he heard about a new temple that taught a form of Buddhism called Zen. It was the first Zen temple in Kyoto, and only the second in Japan. In 1217, Dogen went to that temple and became a monk there.

In 1223, Dogen accompanied the teacher of that temple, Myozen, to China to learn about Zen practices there. At first Dogen was disappointed in Chinese Zen. But in 1225 he met a teacher called Tendo Nyojo who told him, “To practice the Way single-heartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment, or between zazen and daily life.” This impressed Dogen and he became Tendo Nyojo’s student.

In 1227, Tendo Nyojo made Dogen one of his successors and Dogen returned to Japan. He began writing about the practices he had seen in China and the philosophy he had learned from Tendo Nyojo.

In 1233 he founded a temple in the city of Uji, near Kyoto, which was the capitol of Japan and the center of Buddhist study. Ten years later he moved to the remote province of Echizen (now called Fukui Prefecture) and started a temple called Eihei-ji. Some say that the reason he moved was because the leaders of the older, more established Zen temples forced him to leave Kyoto.

He continued writing a gigantic book called Shobogenzo, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, until he died in 1253 at the age of 53. He never completed Shobogenzo, but he produced 75 finished chapters and 20 more chapters that were nearly finished.

Dogen’s students established many temples throughout Japan. The Soto school of Zen became very popular. However, Dogen’s book, Shobogenzo, was not widely read. In fact, for almost 500 years, no one read it except for a few very dedicated scholarly monks.

From 1633 until 1865, Japan closed its borders to outsiders. In 1865, the American Commodore Perry forced Japan to open itself to international trade. If you’ve seen the film The Last Samurai (Der Letzte Samurai), it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of that time. Except Tom Cruise wasn’t there.

Japan suddenly realized it was very much behind the rest of the world and needed to modernize. This led Japanese people to try to find Japanese things that were as good as similar things in Europe and America. This included philosophy and religion.

In 1925 a scholar named Tetsuro Watsuji published a book called Shamon Dogen (the Monk Dogen) in which he presented Dogen as one of Japan’s most important philosophers. This led to a rediscovery of Dogen’s work. For the first time since he wrote Shobogenzo 700 years earlier, the book was being read by ordinary people.

The first English translations began to appear in the 1970’s. The second full English translation of Shobogenzo was made by my teacher Gudo Wafu Nishijima and his student Mike Cross in the 1990’s. A full German translation was produced by Nishijima’s student Gabrielle Linnebach.

This year I published a book called Don’t Be a Jerk, in which I rewrote several of Dogen’s essays from Shobogenzo in my own words. Tonight I would like to read to you part of the sequel to that book. The essay I’d like to look at is called  Tenzo Kyokun or Instructions for the Cook

Although it is mainly a set of guidelines for making food at Zen temples, Tenzo Kyokun it is a great example of both the practical and the deeply philosophical teachings of Dogen.

Instructions to the Cook is not part of Shobogenzo. It was part of a group of pieces he wrote about how to manage a Zen temple.

Kosho Chido, the thirteenth abbot of Eihei-ji, first published the compilation of essays that included Instructions for the Cook in 1667, over 400 years after Dogen died. He said that these pieces of writing were “sealed up in the dust and hidden in the mists” and that it was rare that anyone read them. He said he found these writings in a “worm-eaten container.” Dogen probably never considered it to be finished and probably would have rewritten it if he’d lived longer.

Here are some parts of it (in my own words):



There are six administrators in charge of Buddhist monasteries. One of these is the chief cook (tenzo). They’re all disciples of Buddha and carry out Buddha work. The cook’s job is to oversee meals for everybody at the monastery. Since way long ago, only really awakened people could become the chief cook. If you don’t have the right way of thinking you can’t help anyone.

When I was in China, I talked to many monastery cooks and they told me about the job. First, you have to study the ancient monastic rules. After that you have to talk to people who’ve actually done the job.

The cook’s working day officially begins right after lunch. After you get all the veggies and stuff together, the ancient rules say you must protect them like they were your own eyeballs. Respect the temple food like it was food for the emperor.

Select and prepare the veggies and rice with your own hands. Don’t multitask. Even one little speck of good makes a mountain of goodness that much bigger, so don’t neglect to do your job well.

Don’t waste the water you use to wash the rice. In China they use that water to boil gruel the next morning.

All day and all night many things will come through your mind. Just keep your mind on what you’re doing and don’t get distracted.

After breakfast, do the dishes and get everything ready to make lunch. The chief cook needs to be at the sink when the rice gets washed and the water gets measured. Don’t leave this to somebody else. Back in the old days they said, “Think of the pot like it was your own head and the water like it was your own blood.”

Don’t complain about the ingredients you are given. Remember that even the most mundane and boring things can be a means to enter into the Buddhist Way. Don’t take cheap ingredients lightly or get excited when you get to work with some good stuff. Don’t be like people who change their whole personality according to who they’re talking to.

You should try to use the same seventy-five cents (Literally “three coins,” I decided to make them quarters) your grandma used to buy some cheap-ass soup greens to make a bowl of the finest cream of mushroom soup right now. And that is not easy. How can you ever measure up to what your ancestors did? Still, if you really work at it with the right attitude you can do it.

You don’t get this because your mind going crazy and your emotions are running around like a bunch of monkeys. If you can, just once, make those monkeys turn the light around and shine it inward, you’ll naturally become one with whatever you do.

Treat even a piece of lettuce like you’re the Buddha himself and now you, the Buddha, has to make somebody a sandwich. That’s real divine power. It benefits everybody.

Don’t waste any time during the day. What you do right now becomes the seeds for raising up the next crop of wise people. Putting everyone at ease by doing your job well is how you transform yourself and everybody else.

When I was in China at the monastery on Mount Tendo, the chief cook there was a guy named Yong. One day, after lunch, I happened to see him outside laying some mushrooms out to dry. It was hot out and he was very sweaty. He was an old guy with big white eyebrows, all bent over doing this hard work with a bamboo cane to support him and no hat to keep the sun from burning his bald head.

I asked him how old he was. He said he was 68. I said, “Why don’t you get someone else to do this work?”

He said, “Other people aren’t me.”

I said, “It’s blazing hot out now. Why not wait and do this later?”

He said, “What time should I wait for?”

I left him to do his work. But I immediately felt the real significance of the job of chief cook.

I first arrived in China in 1223. But I was stuck on the ship for a while because of some immigration problems. While I was hanging out there, an old monk of about 60 showed up to buy some Japanese mushrooms. I offered him some tea and asked where he’d come from.

He said he’d walked about twelve miles to get here from his temple. He said he’d trained at a bunch of temples over the years. He was the chief cook and he wanted to make something special for the following day since it was supposed to be a feast day. He decided to make exotic mushroom soup with noodles.

I told him I was really happy to be able to meet someone with his experience and that I’d like to talk some more. I offered to feed him dinner and let him spend the night on the ship so we could talk more.

He declined saying he had to get back to his temple right after he got the mushrooms so he could get to work on the big meal. He said the food wouldn’t turn out right unless he oversaw the cooking.

“Can’t your assistants take care of it?” I asked.

He said, “How could I hand my job over to someone else? Besides I didn’t get permission to be out overnight.”

I said, “You’re a venerable old monk. Why don’t you just spend your days meditating and reading scriptures? Being chief cook sounds like a big pain in the ass. Why would you do that?”

He chuckled and said, “Listen, you’re a nice young fellow from a foreign country, but you don’t know much about the Buddhist Way.”

I felt kind of ashamed and said, “What is the practice of the Way?”

He said, “If you work real hard and don’t fool yourself, someday you’ll understand.” He could see I was still confused, so he said, “Come visit me at my temple some time and we’ll talk more.” Then he said he had to get going because it was getting late.

A few months later I was at the monastery at Mount Tendo. That same old cook heard I was there and paid me a visit. I just about jumped for joy! He told me that by studying words you start to understand the purpose of words. And he said that if I wanted to understand the Buddhist Way I had to actually practice it.

He said, “Nothing in the whole world is hidden.”

The old cook told me a lot more that night, which I won’t bore you with here. Most of what I learned about being a chief cook, I learned from my conversation with that guy.

I hope those of you reading my words after I’m gone pay attention to this message. Don’t get all hung up on the words used to express the truth. They don’t really matter that much. Try to figure out the meaning behind the words. Learn how to see this in that, and that in this.

If you make this kind of effort, you’ll get the true meaning of Zen. If you don’t, you’ll just get all mixed up between various opinions and views. Then how can you ever be a decent cook?

This attitude is the key to everything. Food prepared with expensive ingredients isn’t necessarily better, nor is food prepared with cheap ingredients necessarily worse. When you prepare food with the right attitude that makes all the difference.

It’s the same with people who study Zen. It doesn’t matter if you’re brilliant or stupid. As long as you have the right attitude it’ll be fine.

In old China they say, “A monk’s mouth is like a fireplace.” Whatever you put in the fireplace burns, whether it’s wood or incense or cow dung. Just eat whatever is given to you and use the fuel to continue your practice. The same attitude applies to whatever you are given in life. Just accept it and make it part of your practice.

Don’t worry about your fellow monks, like who is better or worse. You don’t even know your own strengths and weaknesses. How can you know about anyone else’s.

Maybe there are differences between advanced monks and newbies, but who really cares? All members of the sangha are the same in the end. What was true in the past isn’t necessarily true right now. The old rules for Zen monks say that we should accept everyone without distinction.

When I was in China I encountered a number of chief cooks in temples. They all had three things in common. They tried the benefit others, knowing that was the best way to benefit oneself. They maintained the high standards of the monasteries they served. And they tried their best to be equal to the practitioners of the past.

You need three kinds of mind to be the chief cook; joyful (froh) mind, nurturing (pflegen) mind and magnanimous (großmütig) mind.

A joyful mind is a mind of happiness. Think about it. If you’d been born in one of the Heavenly Realms from the old legends, you’d have been so distracted by pleasure you’d never have been able to study the Way. Then you’d never have had the opportunity to cook meals for true practitioners. The ancient texts say the community of practitioners is more precious than anything else in the whole world.

If, on the other hand, you’d have been born in one of the Hell Realms or as an animal, your life would have been too difficult for you to have any opportunity to practice, even if you’d wanted to. And still, you couldn’t have cooked for the community of practitioners.

So be glad you were born where you were and that you have this fine opportunity to serve good food to some cool people. They say it’s incredibly difficult even to be born as a human being, and even more difficult to encounter the true Way. It’s like you’re concentrating a million billion years of good work into this job of being the chief cook. If you think about it this way, you can’t help but pursue cooking with a joyful mind.

Nurturing mind is like the mind of a parent of an only-child who gives every bit of love they have to their kid. Think about the community the way a parent thinks of a child. No matter whether the child is weak or strong, beautiful or ugly, a parent loves them just the same. You need to look at the community like that.

Magnanimous mind is a mind like a mountain or like the sea. It’s stable and impartial. It tolerates anything and everything and keeps a broad perspective. A magnanimous mind isn’t prejudiced and it doesn’t take sides.

All of the great teachers of the past have had this joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind. They knew what it meant to be joyful, nurturing and magnanimous, and they practiced accordingly.

People of today should try their best to be like them.

Written in the Spring of 1237 as instructions for practitioners of the Way by Dogen, abbot of Kannon Dori Kosho Horin-ji Temple.


Zen monasteries are intended to be places where individuals can engage in the very personal practice of deep introspection but do it in a communal setting. So rather than going off alone to a cave in a mountain where no one will bother you, you instead get real introspective in a little building surrounded by other people doing the same thing.

This is a nice idea. It’s less lonely, you don’t have to do every little thing yourself, if you have an accident or get sick there are people around to help, and so on. But in order for the deep introspection part to work, you need to have some very strict ground rules. Everybody’s really got to be on the same page about who is supposed to do what, and when and how they’re supposed to do those things, or else the whole deal collapses.

Therefore you need administrators and you need a hierarchy. However, the tradition is to keep these hierarchies very loose. Jobs are rotated often so that nobody gets too set in any one position.

The general message of Instructions for the Cook applies to everyone who tries to practice, not just to the chief cooks at temples. It’s all about what some people like to call “whole hearted practice.” Whatever you do, put your entire body and mind into it. Don’t be half-assed. Whatever work you’re doing is important work.

Dogen focused on temple cooks because he saw that in Japan, the position of temple cook was looked down upon as a lowly service position. But Dogen didn’t allow for such distinctions of lower and higher. There are hierarchies in temples. This requires that people in certain positions have to answer to people in other positions. But this doesn’t mean those positions are any better or any worse. People just have roles to fulfill and who answers to who is merely a part of what a given job entails, not an indication of some kind of status.

The world would probably run a lot more smoothly if more people started seeing things that way.



October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat

November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat

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