There is Nothing In The World That Is Hidden

June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

Studying ancient writings means to study our lives.
Thomas Wright

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book called How to Cook Your Life. It’s not a cook book, although it does deal with the job of a cook in Zen temples, a job called the Tenzo. The book is made up of a short essay called Instructions For The Zen Cook by the great Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200- 1253) and a commentary on that work by a contemporary Zen master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998). Uchiyama wrote an excellent book about zazen (zen meditation) called Opening The Hand Of Thought.

What is so great about this book? What’s great about it is how it deals with the levels of life and practice, and manages to show how the obvious and the subtle are both existing and interpenetrating each other at the same time. So on the surface the book may describe how the Tenzo manages his task of feeding the Zen Community, while at the same time the book explains how by viewing these tasks in the right way they become the essence of the Tenzo’s practice of Buddhism. He feeds and nourishes the bodies of others while he spiritually feeds himself.

When he was a young monk, Dogen went to China to study Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. He arrived in China in April 1223, but couldn’t disembark immediately so had to stay on the ship. One day in May an elderly monk came on board to buy mushrooms from Japanese merchants on board. Dogen invited him to tea, and the two talked.

The monk explained that he was 61 years old, and had been a monk for 40 years. He had recently been made Tenzo at his monastery, and wanted to make a noodle soup to celebrate May 5th, a festival day. However, he had no mushrooms for the soup and so had walked the 14 miles to the port to buy them. Dogen asked him to stay and continue talking, but the Tenzo insisted that he had to go back that night to prepare the soup for tomorrow. A 28 mile walk to buy mushrooms.

Dogen asked, “Why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of a Tenzo? Why don’t you spend your time practicing zazen (meditation) or studying koans? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a Tenzo?”

The old man laughed and remarked, “My good friend from abroad! You do not yet understand what practise is all about, nor do you know the meaning of characters (Chinese writing).”

When Dogen heard these words he was taken aback and felt greatly ashamed. So he asked, “What are characters and what is practice? “

The monk replied, “ If you do not deceive yourself about this problem, you will be a man of the Way. “ Dogen admits that he had no idea what the monk was talking about.

In July Dogen was at Mt. Ayuwang, and the Tenzo came to visit him. Dogen asked him about their earlier discussion. The Tenzo said,
“A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to practice the Way must understand what practice is.”

Dogen asked, “What are characters?”
The monk said, “one, two, three, four, five.”
“And what is practice?”
“There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”

Kosho Uchiyama in his commentary on this story, gives us a version in contemporary dialogue:

What are characters?
This, that and the other; in other words- everything!
What is practice?
Everything you encounter in your life is practice.

He then explains what the old monk was conveying to young Dogen:

In living this life day by day, we encounter innumerable things and situations, and when we try to search for some fixed truth about them, we always fail. This is because the truth of life is found in each and every activity. Life is not a thing which is substantial or fixed; rather, it is our everyday activity. There is no way to see life outside of the vivid functioning of our every activity.

Meaning does not lie in any particular thing or in any particular practice, but in everything we do and everything that happens to us. This is our life. It is what we do and what happens to us. This was how the Tenzo looked on his life and how he fulfilled his job.

Kosho Uchiyama adds that the spirit running through Dogen’s text is that we must function with a clear mind and true sincerity in the actual situation in which we find ourselves, and not in one we have fabricated in our minds.


Entry filed under: Ancient wisdom. Tags: , , , , , .

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