The tenzo (chief cook) in a traditional Japanese Zen monastery is second only to the abbot, according to Dogen. The chief cook’s job is first and foremost to nurture the monastics and to ensure their well-being and peace. Dogen calls this an act of “nourishing the seeds of the Buddha.” The cook is fully responsible for the monastics’ nourishment, not just physically, but morally and spiritually as well. He or she is not just a dietitian in the modern sense, but more like a religious teacher. Therefore, the chief cook’s job is usually given to a very mature, older monastic.

Dogen uses the example of Xuefeng as tenzo at Deshan’s monastery: “One day Xuefeng was washing the rice. Deshan said to him, ‘Do you wash the sand away from the rice or the rice away from the sand?’” This is a teaching about duality—about absolute and relative, good and bad, heaven and earth, man and woman. Dogen constantly addresses these dualities in terms of everyday affairs: rice and sand, purity and impurity. “Xuefeng said, ‘I wash both rice and sand away at the same time.’ [Xuefeng shows a side of it.] ‘Then what will the Assembly eat?’ [Deshan brings up the other side.] Xuefeng covered the rice washing bowl with his body. Deshan said, ‘Someday, you will be a great teacher,’ and left.”

One ancient teacher said, “For a tenzo, working with his sleeves tied back is the activity of the Way-seeking mind.” A tenzo has to be able to pick up a cabbage leaf and manifest it as the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha. The sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha does not fall into the dichotomies of purity and impurity. In Christianity, people are considered tainted from the outset by “original sin,” making them imperfect and susceptible to evil. Human life is one long struggle against this imperfect nature. Buddhism begins with original purity—with each one of us, just as we are, considered perfect and complete, lacking nothing. “Each abiding in its own dharma state completely fulfills its virtues,” Dogen writes. That means that each one of us, abiding in our Dharma state, completely fulfills our potential and capabilities. “No creature ever fails to cover the ground on which it stands.”

Mind is body, body is mind. That is why working with the breath is so important in zazen. If the mind is agitated, the breath is agitated. When the mind is at rest, the breath is deep and easy, without hindrance or blockage. One of the precepts, in particular, points quite clearly to this body/mind continuity: the precept of “not clouding the mind.” This refers to the need to abstain from drugs, alcohol, or any substance that would “defile our inherent purity.” Drugs certainly have had a role to play in the buddhadharma in America. In the fifties and sixties, for the most part, the people who were experimenting with drugs were the ones filing into the zendos.

After a number of years, the novelty of sitting wore thin and gradually only more serious practitioners remained involved. But again and again, the question of drugs pops up and people come to teachers to test whether they have had an enlightenment experience when all they have had is a drug experience. It is just not the same thing. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Drugs either dull the mind or excite it tremendously. Using them to reach samadhi is about as effective as taking a baseball bat and hitting oneself on the head. It is important to recognize that for the falling away of body and mind, for the realizing of the self, alcohol and drugs are hindrances.

This is all part of the teaching of realizing with the body. Body practice means tuning into your body, into yourself—not what you read, not what you’re told, not what you think, but what you feel, what you experience with the body. Then you know what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat; how much to sleep, to run, to dance, to cry. That is being tuned into yourself. But that tuned-in feeling can also be deceptive, because one of the things we do is tune into feeling good.


photo by Pavel Jedlicka


When you look carefully at addiction, it has to do with feeling good: drug addiction, alcohol addiction, nicotine addiction, sugar addiction, caffeine addiction. A good feeling is associated with the substance of addiction. And then there is the other side: the after-effect of the addiction. The drug wears off and there is pain; the alcohol wears off and there is a hangover; the cigarette wears off and there is a cough.

Besides having various effects on the user, these addictions also affect others. As we become aware of the addiction, we may choose to do something about it or we may, in fact, be unable to do anything about it.

Taking responsibility for our life includes taking responsibility for our body. When sickness does come it is important to take responsibility for it. Master Yunmen, in teaching his community, said, “Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine. Where do you find the self?” When we are sick we’ll usually pay the doctor to cure us, or say a prayer to God hoping that God will cure us. But this is not enough. Our health can’t be left to someone else. We have to take that responsibility.

Dogen said, “Seeing forms with the whole body and mind, hearing sounds with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately. Yet it is not like a mirror with reflections, nor like water under the moon—when one side is realized, the other side is dark.” The human body and mind are united with the universe physically, psychologically, and spiritually. We are the body and mind of the dharma, the buddhas and ancestors, of the Tathagatha, the Way, the Three Realms, of heaven and earth, of the entire universe. Our body and mind are no other than the body and mind of the Buddha Way, the grasses, trees, mountains, rivers, wind, rain, water, and fire.

What, then, is body practice? It is not a matter of pumping iron or running a marathon. Body practice means realizing the Way with the body as well as with the mind. Just as in Chinese there is only one word for both “heart” and “mind”—shin—in Dogen’s teaching there is no real distinction made between the words “body” and “mind.” They function as one word. To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to be intimate with the self. The “self” means the whole body and mind. To be intimate with the self is to realize the ten thousand dharmas. There is nothing but the self. This is what our practice is. When we say “body and mind fallen away,” that means to be intimate with the self. When we say to “forget the self,” that means to be intimate with the self. When we say to “cast off body and mind of self and other,” that is nothing more nor less than being completely intimate with the self

John Daido Loori, Roshi is the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, and a lineage holder in the Rinzai and Soto Schools of Zen. Loori is known for his unique adaptation of traditional Buddhism into an American context, particularly with regard to the arts and the environment, and the use of modern media as a vehicle for spiritual training and social change.

Reprinted from The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training, by John Daido Loori. Copyright 1992, 2002 © Dharma Communications. Published by Shambhala Publications.