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Instead of tying yourself down so that nothing volatile arises, use what is vibrant and volatile—feelings—to energize your presence in the kitchen. Invite them to handle, stir, wash, touch, scrub, scour; invite them to see, smell, taste, and delight in the play. Cook’s temperament is a passion for life: give it a field in which to practice—put it to work. If I were to cook only when I was most loving, kind, and benevolent, I would have starved long ago. I am not telling you to act out in the kitchen; my encouragement is to turn afflictive emotions, as well as enthusiasm and exuberance, into something edible and nourishing—food.

So along with mindfulness, washing the rice when you wash the rice is putting more emphasis on concentration, focus, attention, and energy. These actions rather blend together: Prepare food! Make it happen! Wash, cut, cook, taste, savor. Gather yourself, as many disparate parts as you can muster. Zero in on the activity and how to do it easily, effectively, effortlessly (not just going through the motions). Give your attention to observing and perceiving rather than giving out directives and enforcing rules. Let your life force bloom and sparkle. Interact. Study how to use your body to do the work of cooking.

This kind of instruction accords with the oneness of practice and realization. When you make food you are actualizing the fundamental point. You are making food real. It’s not just talk; it’s not just a head trip—we can eat it.

Engage in what you are doing. Zen Master Dogen’s advice is to let things come and abide in your heart. Let your heart return and abide in things. All through the day and night. To engage is to meet and connect, and out of that meeting and connecting, to respond. Responding from the heart, your implicit intention is to bring out the best. This is learning to relate with the things of this world and your own body–mind, rather than seeking to hide out in a place where you don’t have to relate with anything. There are recipes to follow in order to get it right and gain approval. There are no recipes for telling you what your heart knows, and precious little workable advice for trusting your heart rather than your head. You choose to do it, and practice finding your way in the dark.

Manufactured products say, “I’m quick. I’m easy. You won’t have to relate with me at all. Put me in the microwave and I’ll be there for you, just the way you want me to.” Recipes say, “Do what I tell you, and everything will be okay—you too can make masterpieces (and if it’s not going to be a masterpiece, don’t even bother).” To engage with the world is to study what to do with a potato, a carrot, cabbages, and bell peppers. What to do and how to do it. Are you in the dark yet?

Touch with your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue: let things come and abide in your heart, let your heart return and abide in things. Your capacity for cooking will grow and develop from your devotion to being in the dark, not knowing what to do, but carefully finding your way. You enter the kitchen and become intimate with cooking through cooking. You begin to trust your own aesthetic, and your close experiencing of cooking (and the sometimes uncomfortable feed-back from others) starts to inform your aesthetic further.

After a number of months as the cook at Tassajara Zen Center, I went to Suzuki Roshi with another problem: “How do I get my fellow workers to practice the way they should?” I explained to him that I was endeavoring to practice his instruction to wash the rice, but that others in the kitchen often came late to work, disappeared for long bathroom breaks, and that when they opened their mouths, their hands stopped moving. “How do I get them to really practice?”

Roshi did not say, “Tell them to be more mindful.” He listened attentively, as his nods punctuated my litany with what I took as confirmation: Yes, I know, it’s hard to get good help these days. He seemed so completely sympathetic. When I finished speaking, he paused for a bit, then startled me by saying: “If you want to see virtue, you’ll have to have a calm mind.”


“That,” I protested to myself, “is not what I asked you.” I had something new to study.

How will you survive the kitchen? Make it through the fire? One key I found is not to calm my mind first and then look for virtue, but simply to look for virtue. There it is. What you look for—you’ll get more of it. When you look for fault, you’ll find it. I started looking for virtue.

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