“E is for Ego” is an excerpt from Wake Up and Cook: Kitchen Buddhism in Words and Recipes, a Tricycle Book edited by Carole Tonkinson, available in January 1997 from Riverhead, a division of the Putnam Berkley group.

It is odd how some very delicious meals seem to have no authorship and other ones seem to scream, “Look how clever I am!” If you’ve cooked very much, you’ve undoubtedly experienced both kinds of cooking. Typically, there are those wonderfully creative moments of flow in the kitchen when everything seems right-and then that moment when flow stops and some awkward, arch, or stilted thing emerges. We can see it in art and in writing, in all aspects of life: it is that self-consciousness that is a fixed notion of the self, going out to impose itself on the universe, rather than be confirmed by the universe.

It’s such a subtle thing, that difference which starts somewhere in the breath, in the mind, and then spreads out to everything we touch. The difference between reaching out with “my” idea of what to cook, how to cook, and instead allowing food and cooking to, as Dogen says, “realize the self.”

It is not just a question of flow, either. Rather, this approach to cooking arises out of a profoundly different sense of our relation to the universe. It is my Zen practice that helps me see the difference.

Long before I started Buddhist practice, cooking had always settled me down, allowed me to simply be in each moment. Whether baking bread or reducing a sauce, I enjoyed the purely physical process of cooking, slicing, and chopping by hand for the sheer sensual encounter with texture, fragrance, color, and shape. I took pleasure not only in cooking but also in serving an uncommon, delicious meal to others. I loved to delight my family and friends with insistent spices, rare flavors, the unusual in aroma, texture, temperature. There was a joy in giving, and certainly an enjoyment of cooking, and a pleasure in my reputation as a good cook.

After a few years of Zen practice, it began to fall to me to prepare meals during retreats. I was excited at the prospect of presenting some extraordinary delicacies that would dramatically contrast with our black oryoki bowls and would tempt the palate of our retreatants, tease and delight their senses. I would really demonstrate what awareness and mindfulness in the kitchen could produce!

But as I began to plan menus, an odd thing happened: I realized how inappropriate were the impressive menus I had in mind. I needed to think differently about it.

Wasn’t it more appropriate to notice what food was available? (It was a cold New York winter.) And the situation? (A New York City sangha who typically had access to every kind of food imaginable.)

My impressive ideas about cooking began to slip away. Didn’t I simply want to provide an appropriate meal that would call no attention to the food, or the cook? In fact, in this case, wouldn’t a simple meal be more suitable to the context of a retreat? And I began to see the whole function of the cook in a different way. The cook must be awake and responsive to the needs of the group: meals that steady a nervous group, that enliven the sluggish, that feed us all without distraction. That these meals are appropriate to the circumstances, that they are an advancing of the “ten thousand dharmas” doesn’t make them less delicious or varied or playful. It is more that the elements of the world come and connect with the cook, and out of that is created the meal that serves all sentient beings.

So that’s how I came to personally hear Dogen Zenji’s couplet in Genjokoan:

“To carry the self forward and realize the ten thousand dharmas is delusion. That the ten thousand dharmas advance and realize the self is enlightenment.”

—from Dogen Zenji’s Genjokoan translation by Maezumi Roshi

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