Japanese Version

from the zen kitchen to enlightenment



By Roshi Uchiyama 

Translated by Tom Wright

"Be very clear about this: A fool sees himself as another but a wise man sees others as himself (Eihei Dagen Zenji, 13th Century Zen Master)

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Most of us have read pithy statements like the one above from Dogen Zenji. They often seem easy enough to understand when read quickly and without consideration; but when we start to think about what the statement means we often fall short of truly understanding it. Sometimes whole texts, especially old religious texts, take on the same character; i.e. more terse and profound than apparent at first glance. This was the case, at least for me, when I read Dogen Zenji's "Tenzo Kyokun," or "Instructions for the Zen Cook," the text from which the above statement is drawn. This is a manual written by a 13th century Zen master to the temple cook. He instructs him on the spiritual value of performing his cooking duties as a practitioner of the Way – to approach his work with the right attitudes of mind, heart and devotion to the path of Zen Buddhism.


In some respects it is not difficult reading. However, there are some interesting and obscure references' which are somewhat confounding, such as like Chanyuan Qinggui or Luling rice; or unfamiliar persons like Guishan Ligyou, Myozen, or King Asoka; or strange idioms like "Shakayamuni (the historic Buddha) was to have lived to one hundred years of age but died at eighty, leaving twenty years for his disciples and descendants." There are also foreign words like byakugoho and uddhadharma; or unfamiliar geographic locations like Ayuwang, Xishu, and Mount Taintong; or instructions like use ingenuity in your practice; see the cow and Gu1shan as one, not as two, even though temporarily they appear that way;" or "put your awakened mind to work." Then there are spiritual teachings such as embodied in the following dialogue Dogen Zenji recalled having with a tenzo (temple cook) on Mount Taintong:


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The tenzo said: "(A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to pracrtice the Way must understand what practice is." Dogen asks, ''What are characters?" Tenzo replies, "One, two, three, four five." Dogen asks, "What is practice?" Tenzo replies, "There is nothing in the world that is hidden."


It is only when one loo s more deeply into the references, instructions, idioms, spiritual teachings, antidotal stories, metaphors, etc. that the true profundity of the text manifests itself. Nonetheless, practical value can be attained even through a casual reading of "Tenzo K yokun." As a lay reader, I was able to glean quite an interesting assortment of truisms, such as:


•Stay focused on your work, for by doing so you will not suffer disappointment that comes from comparing t his kind of work (or yourself) to another.

•Take (loving) care in everything that you do, as caring nurtures the (your) spirit and the spirit of those for whom you do things.

•Apply all your energy and focus to what you are doing. By doing that the mind is freed from the pain caused by idle thinking. It also opens to greater creativity and expanded ability in finding new and improved ways of performing your work and in expanding your awareness of your true self.


Understanding what Dogen Zenji is saying in "Tenzo Kyokun" at its deepest level is like trying to penetrate the meaning of the opening quote to this article. It can be done, but only after patient reflection within the context of what was said. Roshi Uchiyama, a Zen master in the Dogen Zenji tradition, has done this for us in his commentaries to Dogen Zenji's "Tenzo Kyokun" called From The Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment. Roshi Uchiyama has lived as a Zen practitioner and has spent a lifetime studying Degen's writings. In his clarification of Degen's "Tenzo Kyokun" he lets us share in the greater value and truth hidden in the text.




He shares with us Degen's understanding of the true self, that the expanded mind latent within ourselves is of the Buddha. He also shows our potential to live life totally in the present with joy, of the appreciation of impermanence and contraction in our lives by living the Middle Way of acceptance, and many more gems of wisdom. Let me share a few of his thought with you:


On Self: "The true Self has nothing to do with others, it is a Self that lives totally within itself."


On Self and Buddhism: "To study the way of the Buddhas is to study the way of the Self."


On Reality and the True Self: "You and the totality of the world you live in together constitute … the life of the Self."

"Living out the true Self means to put away these ideas Of upper and lower, success or failure, and to learn to see that everything we encounter is our life, our true Self."


On Self and Zazen: "Sitting is the practice of the Reality of life. Sitting is non-activity. This is the true form of the Self. Outside of this, there is nowhere to search for the buddhadharma."


On the Self and Others: "You cannot exchange even a fart with another person you have to live your own life."


On Caring for the Self: "It is vital for us to take the utmost care of the world in which we live out our total Self."


On Faith in Buddhism: "…faith in Buddhism is the ability to recognize happiness and unhappiness, heaven and hell, all with the same eye, and to live out the life of one's total Self despite the circumstances that arise."


On the Middle Way: "The Middle Way means to accept this contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect within your own life. To accept this contradiction means to forbear and overcome it without trying to resolve it."


On Life Force: " … the very essence of life is contradiction, and the flexibility to forbear and assimilate contradiction without being beaten down by it nor attempting to resolve it is our life force."


On the Highest Truth of Life: " As difficult as it may seem to be, the highest, ultimate truth in life is grounded in the fact that there are not favorable or adverse circumstances, no fortunes or misfortunes. All there is, is the life of the Self."


On Practicing the Way: "Practicing the Way of the Buqdha means to actually put our bodies to work, vividly living in every moment of our lives."


On Suffering: " We suffer because of our goals. Inflating a goal with great insignificance set our 'self' in opposition to the goal, and we suffer in direct proportion to our fixation with attaining the goal. Consequently, here is always going to be a sense of instability or anxiety in our lives."


On (self) Limitation: "You should think only about how to best serve the community having no fear of poverty. As long as your mind is not limited, you will naturally receive unlimited fortune."


In closing I recommend that you read From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment and discover for yourself the possibilities and value the teachings of Dogen Zenji can bring to your llfe. ·


Tom Johnson is a freelance writer and student of philosophy, presently residing in Kansas City. He professes that he is not an expert or practitioner of Zen, and again apologizes for any misinterpretation of this article which might have occurred in his review.