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Magnanimous mind

If you enjoy cooking, as I do, and if you devote much time to that activity, you probably play favorites. You have your favorite recipes and your favorite ingredients. High in my own hierarchy would be certain meats (chicken, fish, pork tenderloin), vegetables (yams, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli), and seasonings (turmeric, coriander, ginger, fenugreek). Much lower on the ladder would be salt, processed meats, and sugar (New York State maple syrup excepted). Beyond these personal preferences, there is the relative cost of any one ingredient. Fresh sea scallops at $19.99 / lb., it’s fair to say, receive greater respect than a common parsnip or humble clove of garlic.

Nothing unusual there, you might conclude, especially for an amateur chef aiming to create simple, frugal, and nutritious meals for his family and friends. But in a classic text of the Soto Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun; 1237), the founder of that tradition challenges the assumptions and the value system such conventional thinking represents. “When making a soup with ordinary greens,” Dogen advises, “do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. . . . Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain . . . Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality.”

As might be surmised from the last of those admonitions, Dogen has more than cooking in mind. The Tenzo Kyōkun is in part a practical manual for the head cook, or tenzo, of a Japanese Zen monastery. But in its broader, metaphoric dimension, it is also a guide for living, in which a medieval Zen master advocates a general attitude toward the conduct of everyday life. That attitude has multiple aspects, but three in particular stand out.

To begin with, Dogen articulates a principle of radical equality. Just as the ingredients of a meal are to be treated with equal regard, whether they are common or rare, cheap or expensive, so are the other components of our experience, including the four seasons, our changing fortunes and mental states, and, not least, the people we encounter on our daily rounds. “Do not get carried away by the sounds of spring,” Dogen advises, “nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective.” Likewise, when working with others, “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.”

Concordant with this principle of equality, Dogen also advocates an attitude of wholehearted attention, irrespective of the rank or status of its object. “When handling or selecting greens,” we should “do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind . . . in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast.” Similarly, when encountering and interacting with other people, we should give them our undivided attention, regardless of their perceived virtue, means, stature, or seniority. All are “treasures of the sangha,” which is to say, valued members of the community of practitioners. All deserve our deep and undivided attention. Nor should we discriminate on the basis of conflicting or congruent opinions. Although someone “may have been mistaken in the past,” Dogen notes, “he may very well be correct in the context of things now.”

Underlying these attitudes of equality and full engagement is a fundamental principle of Zen practice, which Dogen calls Magnanimous Mind. One of a trio of “minds” recommended for the Zen cook (the other two being “Joyful” and “Parental”), Magnanimous Mind is “like a mountain, stable and impartial.” It is also like the ocean, insofar as it is “tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective.” It is without prejudice and refuses to take sides. To cultivate the quality of Magnanimous Mind, one should “write, understand, and study the character for magnanimous.” Having understood the profound meaning of that character (daishin, or “Big Heart / Mind,” in Japanese), one should endeavor to apply that understanding, first to cooking and ultimately to every dimension of one’s life.

Not long ago, I discussed Dogen’s attitude toward cooking with a former sous-chef, who had worked in a high-end Boston restaurant. Such a philosophy, he remarked, would never fly in that fast-paced urban environment. Analogously, Dogen’s calls for equality, wholeheartedness, and magnanimity, timely and well-founded though they might be, run against the grain of competitive Western culture. But as a statement of values and intentions, Dogen Zenji’s “instructions” have much to recommend them. Put into practice, however imperfectly, they promise more than wholesome meals. They also chart a path toward wisdom and compassion, both in our personal lives and in the wider arena of human affairs.

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Eihei Dogen, Instructions for the Zen Cook, translated by Thomas Wright, with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, in How to Cook Your Life (Shambhala, 2005), 7, 18, 14, 13, 18. I am indebted to Uchiyama Roshi’s explication of this text.

 

 

 

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