robai-shin: entering the heart of ancestral recipes

robai-shin“You understand all of Buddhism, but you cannot go beyond your abilities and your intelligence. You must have robai-shin, the mind of great compassion. This compassion must help all of humanity. You should not think only of yourself.”

I can’t find the source of the quote attributed to Dogen, who apparently said it to the Third Patriarch of Eihei-ji. Upon the arrival of our Gr’Kid, a dharma sister sent me the quote welcoming me into the the community of Grandmothers. Robai-shin, wrote another. It will bring you deeper into the heart of compassion.

Dogen wrote in Instructions for the Tenzo that “in performing our duties along with other officers and staff, (we) should maintain joyful mind, kind mind, and great mind.” Joyful mind arises from our gratitude for being born into this human form. More so that “we have the good fortune of cooking meals to be offered to the three treasures.” Now that I immediately understand because cooking is the heart of my family, its compassionate ground, and the source of all healing. The curries, dahls, rice. The desserts of glutinous black rice and agar jellies. The pungent fermented tea leaves and pickled ginger digestives. Dogen’s exhortations in the earlier sections of Instructions read like a day in my own grandmother’s hotel on Sule Pagoda Road in Rangoon. Well, maybe it was a bit more frenetic than Eihei-ji because my uncle and aunt who helped there were just as likely to swing cleavers at each other as at the chickens.


My mother, despite not knowing how to cook (why would you need to when your own mother owned a hotel and simply delivered the food each day!), developed her own skills ultimately crafting a pilau rice that earned the title “Gamma’s Rice.” And, the deterioration in its edibility was what first raised the alarms of her encroaching dementia. I’m not sure what dishes will identify my place on this earth but that is the nature of being parent – and now grandparent. I delight in an eclectic range of textures and flavours, only coming into the ancestral recipes later in life. Interesting how I can now say “later” although it’s never been an avoided or hidden idea that aging grants me many somewhat unearned privileges. My own curries are finally edible and I turn more towards the Indian styles of cooking and taste. And yet, my signature dishes tend to be Burmese, likely more for their rarity than their actual craft.

Robai-shin. Grandmother-mind. Kind mind. The second of Dogen’s doors to community is that quality of kindness. Not just kindness but a stance of protectiveness of the present for the future. Kaz Tanahashi¹ translates it as a parental mind. We develop this kindness for our children to the extent that we “do not care whether (we ourselves) are poor or rich; (our) only concern is that (our) children will grow up.” In principle, it is our only concern: that they survive. Of course, we harbour hopes that they will live carefully, in good health, making wise choices, respecting others as themselves, and knowing that the bloodline extends through them but doesn’t end there. The tricky part is that our kindness is offered against this backdrop of hope but cannot be directed by it. Robai-shin is an offering “without expecting any result or gain.” It simply unfolds as that hand reaching for the pillow in the night, the bow that evidences transmission beyond words, the sound of the single hand at death. It holds, it honours, it transcends form as it is called to do so.

Both my grandmothers were iconoclasts in their own right. My paternal grandmother was a rather severe character but with a sharp sense of humour particularly about her love of oversized cheroots. Devoutly Buddhist, she was the quintessential pragmatist. She never cooked, cleaned, or otherwise engaged in tasks that someone else in her life was already doing. I saw her weekly but never among family. She arrived each Sunday to take me to the Botataung Pagoda (while my parents entertained their friends at poker and various gambling games). I don’t recall any words of wisdom or special gifts. That is, until one day I overheard an intense argument she was having with my father over the damage he was doing karmically by exposing me to his high society lifestyle. She was formidable and, as I understand from the family myths, would not have been above picking up a wooden shoe to whack sense into him at any age – his or hers. I never knew her name until I was an adult but it didn’t dim the connection.

dahl-riceMy maternal grandmother ran the Piccadilly Hotel in Rangoon. Now she, along with her only surviving son, was all about food. I lived in the hotel with my  five male cousins and we all became little cook’s helpers. Unfortunately, only I escaped the epigenetic change that enabled the boys to become great cooks. As “Ma,” she made sure we roamed the hallways as a little gang, thereby protecting us from certain characters who lodged there in transit to Bangkok or Delhi. She set the rules for riding out into the Night Bazaar on my uncle’s scooter, clutched to his flapping, open shirt. Being the only girl (at the time), I was forbidden to go though my uncle found ways around that senseless rule. Apparently robai-shin meant something different to him. As “Belle,” she swept through the evening society parties in shimmering gowns with a hairstyle of braids wound upright over her head like a dark halo and an eternal eye cast on negotiating the family’s best future.

robai-shin2Out of joyful mind and robai-shin arises great mind. “Like a great mountain or a great ocean,” it is the nondiscriminatory mind. It is the vast, boundless space which is also robai-shin and joyful mind because it contains everything. Instructions for the Tenzo is a simile wrapped around a metaphor at whose heart lies a mirror. It’s a discourse on how to wash rice, pointing to principles for living a life of deep practice, penetrating that deep question of who we truly are.  In the teachings of the three minds, Dogen reveals the components of both community and the Great Matter, leaving it up to us to craft a recipe that honours why we have been held in robai-shin and are called to embody robai-shin.


1. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.), Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. North Point Press, NY.

chickpea soup

The Chickpea and the Cook

A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it’s being boiled.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

“Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.
I’m giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

“Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this.”

Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.

Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
“Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can’t do this by myself.

“I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention
to his driver. You’re my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking.”

The cook says,
“I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.

“My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher.”

Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

My favourite Chickpea Soup served on our Days of Mindfulness

1 cup garbanzo beans (canned or soaked and cooked from dried beans)
6 cups water or vegetable broth
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp saffron threads
salt and pepper
1 bunch spinach (about 1 pound)
(mushrooms if you wish)

Saute onions in olive oil until soft and translucent.  Add garlic and cook
another minute or two.  Put in beans with cooking broth or water.  Add the
saffron threads and mild amount of salt and black pepper.  Let it stew.  Add
spinach after washing leaves.  Cook until spinach wilts.  Check seasoning
and serve.

Serves 4-6 people.  Recipe doubles well.

Thank you for practicing and may you be nourished,


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,