The tendency of ordinary cooks is to handle plain food carelessly and rich food carefully. As one practicing the buddha-dharma in the role of the tenzo, you should prepare food with all the ardor of your life and with wholehearted sincerity. When you think about it, to all of us practicing the dharma, the Tenzo Kyokun is a remarkably compassionate text. This teaching shows us how to discover a deeply refined religious life through our daily activities. The text continues: “Your attitude towards things should not be contingent upon their quality. A person who is influenced by the quality of a thing, or who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a man working in the Way.” Since the Tenzo Kyokun shows us how to handle the ingredients we are about to use to prepare a meal, it follows naturally that the first thing it emphasizes is to be conscientious towards the ingredients and to prepare food with our whole hearts and minds. If our discussion stops here, however, this teaching is apt to be little different from instructions given by any head chef. To move one step further, we encounter the depth of the buddhadharma when we no longer become swayed by the way people ordinarily value things and do not lose sight of the absolute uniqueness of our lives. This attitude is not limited to objects; it extends to all people and situations that arise in our lives. I am sure you can understand now why I refer to the Tenzo Kyokun as the “cookbook for life.”

There seems to be a very strong tendency in human beings, either conscious or unconscious, to humble themselves before people they think might be beneficial to them, and to speak condescendingly to those they consider to be below themselves. Despite the fact that most people depend on some organization only for their livelihood, the executives and higher-ups of these organizations behave arrogantly towards those under them. They are truly a comical sight, yet this situation is the norm. The Tenzo Kyokun shows us that such an attitude is far distant from that of a person who intends to live out the buddhadharma. It illuminates for us just what the attitude of our day-to-day religious life ought to be.

Since the following passages express this same idea, I would like you to appreciate fully just how vital it is not to be turned around by ordinary social values: “When the tenzo receives the food from the kusu, he must never complain about its quality or quantity, but always handle everything with the greatest care and attention. Nothing could be worse than to complain about too much or too little of something, or of inferior quality…. A dish is not necessarily superior because you have prepared it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens. When handling and selecting greens, do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind, and without trying to evaluate their quality, in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast. The many rivers which flow into the ocean become the one taste of the ocean; when they flow into the pure ocean of the dharma there are no such distinctions as delicacies or plain food, there is just the one taste, and it is the buddhadharma, the world itself as it is.”

In other words, when we live out our lives to the fullest, there is no such thing as superior or inferior, good circumstance or bad, fortune or misfortune. There is only the one taste of the great ocean of life. “Similarly, do not judge monks as deserving of respect or as being worthless, nor pay attention to whether a person has been practicing for only a short time or for many years.”

Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998) was a Soto Zen priest and the abbot of Antai-ji, near Kyoto. He authored more than 20 books, including Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice.

From From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Copyright © 1983 by Weatherhill Inc. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publishers.