As those familiar with Dogen’s Instructions to the Tensho know, the cook is considered to be the most important person in the monastery because he is responsible for the welfare of all the other monks. Like Dogen, Roshi Tetsugen Glassman believes that one of the most useful metaphors for life is what happens in the kitchen. Indeed, Zen masters call a life that is lived fully and completely, with nothing held back, “the supreme meal.” So the “menu” of Glassman’s new book, which describes his vision and his work, is divided into the five main “courses” or aspects of life: spirituality, knowledge, livelihood, social action, and community. In it he draws upon Dogen’s precepts to tell the story of the Zen Center of New York and the Greyston mandala of businesses and not-for-profits, which seeks to integrate the economic, social, educational, and spiritual dimensions of each endeavor. Rick Fields, author of How the Swans Came to the Lake, is a contributing editor to Tricycle. Instructions to the Cook will be published by Bell Tower this spring.

 Five Part Piece: Five Tin Bowls (detail), by Jan Hashey. Magic marker and carbon on paper, 1990.
Five Part Piece: Five Tin Bowls (detail), by Jan Hashey. Magic marker and carbon on paper, 1990.

When [13th-century Zen master] Dogen asked the Zen cook in the Chinese temple why he didn’t have his assistants do the hard work of drying mushrooms in the hot sun, the cook said, “I am not other people.” In the same way, we have to realize that this life is the only life we have. It’s ours, right now. If we don’t do the cooking ourselves, we are throwing our life away. “Keep your eyes open,” Dogen instructs. “Wash the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire, and cook it. There is an old saying that says, ‘See the pot as your own head, see the water as your lifeblood.’”

When we cook—and live—with this kind of attention, the most ordinary acts and the humblest ingredients are revealed as they truly are. “Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha,” says Dogen. “This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf.”


Cooking, like life, is about transformation. When we cook, we work directly with the elemental forces of fire and heat, water, metal, and clay. We put the lid on the pot and wait for the fire to transform the rice, or we mix the bread with yeast and put it in the oven to bake. There is something hidden, almost magical about it.

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