turn around

A teacher of old said:

Two-thirds of your life has passed,
not polishing even a spot of your source of sacredness.
You devour your life, your days are busy with this and that.
If you don’t turn around at my shout, what can I do?

from Moon in a Dewdrop, Instruction for the Tenzo, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi

To watch the video “Instructions to the Cook,” click here.

And for Edward Espe Brown’s Cook Your Life, click here.

Thank you for practicing,


wash your bowls

As part of our livelihood, we offer clinical practicum experience for doctoral students who want to learn about mindfulness practice.  It’s an offering to the community and often a joy to share the practice with inquisitive, young minds.  Of course, they come with an intellectual curiousity and an academic stance to the work of dealing with suffering.  The frontal lobes are fully online and the feeling brain is nowhere to be found – an unusual situation given the desire to ease suffering demands more of the latter than the former.  But I fully understand the need to protect oneself with logic and analytic thinking in the face of the darkness we touch in (ourselves and) others.

Occasionally, when we outline our expectations of these practicum students, there’s a push back on some of the tasks.  Laying out the mats in the meditation room, setting up the cushions, inputting the data from questionnaires, washing teacups… what do these have to do with learning how to treat mental disorders?!  It’s hard to fight the trained dualism between doctor and patient or the belief that there is a tool we use that fixes things in others and is independent of who we are.  It’s hard to articulate that treatment is an organic process that grows from two people connecting in a sacred relationship.  No one leaves the room unchanged.

Norman Fischer in his article Wash Your Bowls (in Hooked, edited by Stephanie Kaza) tells of Master Zhaozho’s response to a request for instruction.  Zhaozho asks him if he has eaten his meal to which the monk replies, “Yes.”  Zhaozho says, “Then wash your bowls.”  Pay attention to the details, the ordinary next thing that needs to be done. Of course, in the great drama of life lived chaotically, this is so mundane its value cannot be detected.

Glassman in Instructions to the Cook points out that “awareness is attention expanded 360 degrees.”  It is in the laying down of mats, the sweeping of the floors, the washing of teacups and the collecting of cookie crumbs.  And “wash your bowl” also points to the reality that nothing happens, be it in therapy or in the kitchen, without leaving a trace which we must do our best clean up.  We used to practice samu (work practice) on the last Tuesday of each month in sangha.  Over time, sangha members came to love it as a means of caregiving to each other and the space that holds us faithfully.  But some would object because “this is a chore I do at home and I don’t come here to do chores!”

I know I feel it too in so many things I have to do.  These sensations of rejection, frustration, anger, and all the sticky-icky stuff are the ingredients of my recipes these days.  Per ardua… through difficulties.  Ad astra… to the stars.  But the difficulties only arise where there is discrimination between sacred and profane, the kitchen and the rest of the house.  Fischer does a great job of bringing the tenzo into the rest of life.

Careful attention to detail us not confined to kitchen work.   The daily schedule usually calls for a period of mindful silent cleaning immediately following meditation….  Being present and respectful of all material things, as if each and every one of them were a scared object, is a primary practice and a primary value.  The head monk in a monastic training period not only gives lectures and meets privately with students; he or she is also in charge of taking out the garbage and cleaning toilets.  These traditional assignments are seen as holy tasks and to be undertaken with full respect and honor…

But first the toilets!

Thank you for practicing,



This summarizes much of my life.  Waiting by a garbage can setting my watch to some imaginary time zone in which I am fully functional.  The irony of this picture too is that we were walking through the bustle of Toronto’s Chinatown 2010 wondering where we could find traces of Chinatown 1980.  Amazing, the number of mental garbage bins we stand beside wondering where the time went.

The primary bin is the belief that things shouldn’t change – not much anyway.  That is why my kitchen cupboards are orderly and I can find my way around them blindfolded.  But then when an ingredient is no longer to be found at the market or comes in a different shape or size, I’m flummoxed.  Mentally, I immediately check my watch to see if I can transport into a different, usually past time zone, where all is available in familiar packaging again!  It certainly limits creativity or spontaneity.

Glassman in Instructions to the Cook writes,

How do we find ingredients?  We simply open our eyes and look around us.  We take the materials that are at hand, right in front of us, and prepare the best meal possible.  We work with what we have in each and every moment.

Our body is an ingredient.  Our relationships…thoughts… emotions… all our actions…(t)he place we live, the leaves that fall, the haze around the moon, the traffic in the city streets, the corner market – all these are also our ingredients.

The flip side to this is to accept everything as a potential contributor to the taste of a dish.  It means seeing past the delusion that someone’s characteristics or actions are an obstacle or that they will spoil the dish.  It means using the right amount of a bitter spice or acknowledging that it is available and part of the array on the shelf even if not required in this recipe.  Yet the willingness to use an aspect of relationship I want to reject means a willingness to take a risk that it may not work.  Risk is a spice I tend to use when my need for belonging is triggered.  Inevitably the dish fails because I assume my willingness to take a risk on someone is sufficient to make it all work.

Cooks who have a taste for the spice of risk can’t be afraid of failure.  People think they’ve failed when something doesn’t work out the way they expected it to work out.  But most things don’t work out the way we expect them to….

Maybe something didn’t happen because it wasn’t the right time.  Maybe something didn’t happen because the right people hadn’t come together, or maybe the the circumstances weren’t right.  Maybe it will take another ten or fifty or a hundred years.  The world always unfolds in its own way.

I like the time line – the long range vision of lifetimes is soothing.  In the meantime, I am grateful that my favourite moose still stands guard all these decades.

Thank you for practicing,


begin after noon

The story goes that Dogen saw the elderly tenzo of Mt. Tiantong drying some mushrooms.

He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat on his head.  The sun was very hot, scorching the pavement.  it looked very painful; his backbone was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as a crane.

I went up to the tenzo and asked, “How long have you been a monk?”

“Sixty-eight years,” he replied.

“Why don’t you let a helper do it?”

“Others are not myself.”

Who else would do the work of my life?  Who else can see the delusions, graspings, and blindness?  Who else can see the pleasures, contentment, and skilfulness? Are there another set of eyes that can discern better the wisdom in the choices I’ve made or the wild lack of insight in the choices that lead to disaster?

In Instructions to the Cook, Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields use Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo as a template for Glassman’s social action work that lead to the creation of the Greyston Mandala, a network of businesses and not-for-profit organizations.  With metaphoric recipes, Glassman addresses the way we can become the tenzo of our lives.  I cringed a lot through the massacre of the central metaphor of menus, courses, and ingredients and thankfully that was only the first few pages.  Once he settled down to the business of creativity, the ideas became useful.

Before diving into sharing Glassman’s occasional gems, I went back to the source, Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo (in Moon in a Dewdrop)This sentence struck me – and perhaps only because I feel I’m at a juncture of my life where a shift is about to happen that couldn’t happen before this moment.

The cycle of the tenzo’s work begins after the noon meal.

This is when the tenzo, with the officers of the kitchen, plans the meals for the next day.  I wonder, is it past noon already in this lifespan?  What is the meal I am to plan?

From Glassman,

Zen masters call a life that is lived fully and completely, with nothing held back, “the supreme meal.”  And a person who lives such a life – a person who knows how to plan cook, appreciate, serve, and offer the supreme meal of life, is called a Zen cook….

Of course, the supreme meal is very different for each of us.  But according to the principles of the Zen cook, it always consists of five main courses or aspects of life.  The first course involves spirituality; the second is composed of study and learning; the third course deals with livelihood; the fourth course is made out of social action or change, and the last course consists of relationship and community.

Intimidating to think of my life as a “supreme meal!”  I’ve never been a good short-order cook and, in a real kitchen, the grilled cheese sandwiches are best left The Kid with the “two eggs side by each” left to Frank.  I’m more of the “supreme spread for 10,000 hungry bodhisattvas” prepared in ten courses with ingredients that require braving the wilds of Chinatown.  In the matters of life, it’s the same.  The rapid-fire decisions and changes in current generate more struggle and doubt than those with longer stale dates.  And with that comes a narrowing of vision and an unwillingness to take a chance – or in Zen koan terms – to leap off that 100-foot pole.

But there’s no one else who can prepare to cook this life of ours and we are always past noon.  The ingredients or the skills may not have been available before this but here they are now.  Time to clean the kitchen, gather ingredients, and fire up the coals!

Thank you for practicing,