The Metaphysics of Cooking

by John Daido Loori Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 32.2, Fall 2013-2014


All of Master Dogen’s teachings point to how our everyday lives are the very ground of our Zen practice. Whether he was writing a poem, giving instructions on how to clean one’s teeth, cook a meal, or do a job—he was always revealing the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha, the teachings of the Tathagatha. It is exceedingly odd that so many of us are puzzled when it comes to realizing our Zen practice in daily living situations. “How can I practice in my life?” students repeatedly ask. This practice is about your life; that is all it is about.

Master Dogen made the position of chief cook, tenzo, key in his monastery, usually second in importance only to the Abbot. Chief cook is much more than a “hash-slinger.” In fact, the cook has enormous responsibility and opportunity to teach. In traditional Japanese Zen monasteries, an older, mature Roshi serves as tenzo. He or she may have many assistants, but the Roshi provides the leadership and teaching.

The teaching entitled “Instructions to the Chief Cook” appears in the Eihei Shingi, the monastic regulations. Some of Dogen’s most profound teachings can be found in these rules of the monastery.

Take up a green vegetable leaf and turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body; take the sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable leaf. This is the miraculous transformation—a work of Buddha that benefits all sentient beings.

Because our sangha at this monastery is still young and maturing, the position of tenzo is assigned to one of the senior monks, with the cook working as an assistant. It is the tenzo’s responsibility to supervise and train the succession of cooks who pass through here, and to do that in accord with the spirit of Master Dogen. Each time a new cook comes to dokusan, I ask them if they can take up a green vegetable leaf and turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body, or take a sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable leaf. It becomes a koan they work with for as long as they are the cook.