Dogen and his “Joy of Cooking”

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

A cookbook, by definition, is a book about cooking. And cooking is about preparing dishes, and preparing dishes means following recipes. As for recipes, some people are just content with following old recipes handed down to them from their grandmothers. But others, possessed with their culinary curiosity, turn to cookbooks for new recipes to cultivate and experiment with new dishes. In a country such as the United States where people have access to and take delight in all kinds of dishes, it comes as no surprise that we should find all kinds of cookbooks—as evidenced, for example, by over 80,000 cookbooks sold by Amazon. These cookbooks contain recipes for all kinds of dishes, classified into categories based on whether the recipes are for dishes for specific regions, for specific ethnic groups, for specific occasions, for people with specific dietary needs, and so on.

If a cookbook is a book about cooking, it is hard to imagine a cookbook without any recipe in it. But that is indeed the case with Tenzo Kyokun, written by Dogen (1200-53), and anyone who expects to find a recipe or two in it is in for disappointment. Although there is no recipe in it, Tenzo Kyokun is no doubt a book about cooking, and also qualifies as a cookbook in a derived sense of that word: a book that contains step-by-step instructions on whatever the subject the book is intended for. In the case of Tenzo Kyokun, it contains step-by-step instructions for the tenzo, or the Zen cook, who is responsible for cooking at the monastery. The book, completed in 1237 while Dogen was at Kosho-ji, has since been incorporated into Eihei Daishingi at Eihei-ji, which Dogen established in 1244 as the training center for monks.

When it comes to giving instructions to the tenzo, Dogen is quite meticulous and thorough, from planning for meals, gathering of ingredients, washing and cooking them, to finally serving the meals to the community of monks. The tenzo’s work begins right after the noon meal. The question he asks is not, however, “What shall we have for dinner?” As the monks eat only two meals a day, planning for meals means planning for the next day’s morning and noon meals—checking the ingredients available and deciding on the dishes to be served.

Dogen asks the tenzo to put his whole attention to the work. In washing the rice, for example, Dogen instructs the tenzo to “remove any sand you find. In doing so, do not lose even one grain of rice.”1 And when putting the washed rice into the cooking pot, he asks the tenzo to “take special care, lest a mouse accidentally falls into it.” As for ingredients like greens, which possess Buddha-nature, Dogen’s instruction is quite to the point: “Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf.” Here we are reminded of Dogen’s message about Genjokoan, a chapter in his major work Shobo-genzo, in which he redefines koans, departing from the customary usage of them as practiced in the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism: Everything in the world around us is a koan—not something to contemplate on in order to gain insight into reality but already a manifestation of reality itself. And a single leaf of a green is no exception.

Dogen’s emphasis on zazen, as summarized by his words: shikan-taza, or “just sitting”, as a form of Buddhist practice is a natural consequence of his redefinition of koans. Needless to say, the tenzo, as one of the monks at the monastery, is expected to participate in zazen with other monks: “After each meal has been carefully prepared, place it on a table. Put on your kesa and spread out your zagu. Facing the sodo, where everyone does zazen, offer incense and bow nine times. Afterwards, carry the meal into the sodo.” But why “bow nine times”?

Nobody before Dogen had instructed the tenzo to “bow nine times” before carrying the meal into the sodo. In fact, it was what Dogen regarded as the major defect in Buddhist practice in Japan that prompted him to write Tenzo Kyokun in the first place: “It has been several hundred years since the buddhadharma was introduced into Japan. Yet, no one has ever written about the preparation and serving of meals as an expression of buddhadhrama, nor have any teachers taught concerning these matters.” An inspiration to write about the tenzo’s work at the monastery came, as Dogen recounts in Tenzo Kyokun, from his encounter with an old tenzo from the monastery at Mount Ayuwang in 1223, when he went to China to further his own practice. This old tenzo painfully reminded Dogen not only of his immaturity as a Buddhist monk but also of the importance of performing simple everyday tasks as an integral part of Buddhist practice.

The tenzo, as is the case with any officer or assistant at the monastery, is expected to “maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent.” In fact, the word “joy” appears often in Dogen’s instructions to the tenzo: “Therefore, rejoice in your birth into the world, where you are capable of using your body freely to offer food to the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Samgha. … The merit of working as a tenzo will never decay. 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. To view all things with this attitude is called Joyful Mind.” In fact, “joy” is the attitude required of everybody at the monastery, as Dogen concludes Tenzo Kyokun with the following words: “Whether you are a head of a temple, a senior monk or other officer, or simply an ordinary monk, do not forget the attitude behind living out your life with joy, having the deep concern of a parent, and carrying out all your activities with magnanimity.”

According to Dogen, working as a tenzo, as is true with any other activity, is thus a way to the buddhadharma. The same idea is echoed in the ever-popular cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, whose 75th anniversary edition came out in 2006. In addition to mastering the skills of the cook, Rombauer and Becker promise in the Preface that “you will go on to unexpected triumphs, based on the sound principles which underlie our recipes, and actually revel in a sense of new-found freedom.”2  It appears that cooking, with or without recipes, can be a joyful way to freedom, to liberation.

  1. This and other quotes are from Thomas Wright’s new translation of Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun: Instructions for the Zen Cook in Dogen/Uchiyama, How To Cook Your Life, Shambhala, 2005.
  2. Quoted from the 1964 edition owned and used by the chief tenzo of the Koizumi household.

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