Book Review

Lessons on life

Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life That Matters by Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields (Bell Tower, New York)

by George Mokray

he cover of this book is a circle of gray stones against a white back ground. Each stone has a stratum of white running through it and the stones are arranged so that the white line is a continuous oval. It is a striking cover, beautiful in its simplicity. The pages it encloses are much the same.

Bernard Glassman was an aeronautical engineer at NASA working on the Mars mission who began to practice Zen Buddhism. Eventually, he became a master and set up a monastery in the Riverdale section of New York City. To support the monastery, they began the Greyston Bakery, preparing gourmet baked goods and providing some of the ingredients for Ben and Jerry's ice cream. When the bakery was successful, they decided to provide food for a soup kitchen in Yonkers, NY. Through that experience, they started Greyston Family Inn, a homeless housing project that provides not only housing but childcare, job training, couseling and job creation all together what Glassman would call "a full course meal." Now Bernard Glassman is a director of the Social Venture Network, expanding these ideas to the rest of the business community.

Instructions to the Cook is a guide to preparing your life as if it were a supreme feast, full of all the tastes and savors possible. It is based upon the book of the same name by Dogen, the thirteenth century founder of the Soto Zen school. "The work of the Zen cook is cooking meals and cleaning dishes. It's an endless process." It is also a homely and necessary process that we all can relate to. In the matter-of-fact way that Zen cultivates, Glassman says, "...The first principle of the Zen cook is that we already have everything we need." This is a simple statement that has a profound effect. We start from just where we are with the resources we have at hand. There is no reason to wait for something else or something better. We can begin right now with what we have available. How empowering! How difficult to give up all our excuses!

We begin with what's in our hands and look at it with a Beginner's Mind, eyes open to all possibilities. "Acording to the way of the Zen cook, Beginner's Mind has three basic ingredients. These three basic ingredients are doubt, faith, and determination. They're like air, water, and heat. You need all of them for every meal you cook." Where "doubt leads directly to faith" and faith leads directly to determination. That foundation of doubt also keeps us from being too sure of ourselves.

The work proceeds in mindfulness, as meditation and religious practice, with great attention to detail for "details are all there are" or as my friend Ann Stewart said last week, "Everything is secretarial." Glassman tells us:

"There is a famous Zen story about a teacher who was asked about the highest teaching of Zen. He wrote the word 'Attention' on a blackboard. But isn't there anything else, he was asked. Yes, there is, he said, and he wrote the word 'Attention' again. But there must be something more, insisted the student. Yes, there is, the teacher said. And he turned to the board and once more wrote: 'Attention.' Now the board said, 'Attention. Attention. Attention.'"

That story describes the attitude of mind necessary for Zen study. It also describes the attitude needed to care for homeless kids."

The work proceeds from step to step, from choosing the ingredients, preparing them for the pot, stirring and seasoning, serving the meal, eating it, clearing the table and cleaning up. It is a natural progression and the discipline can go far beyond our household chores. "There is an expression, 'Do the right thing.' But how do we know what the right thing is? We can't know for sure. Maybe we should just say, 'Do the next thing.' And if we do that - whatever it is - to the best of our ability, chances are it will turn out to be the right thing as well."

Glassman tells us, "Before they eat, the monks recite a chant documenting the 72 labors that went into making the food ... reminding theselves to live in such a way as to be worthy of all the effort that has gone into this meal." He also tells us, "And after each meal, we offer leftovers to the hungry ghosts." Who are these hungry ghosts? "In Buddhism, the hungry ghosts are pictured as miserable creatures who have huge, swollen bellies and needle-thin necks. Even though they are surrounded by food, they can never satisfy their hunger or thirst because they can eat or drink only one drop of food at a time. Their necks are thin as needles because they are so caught up in their conditioning that they can't accept or appreciate the food that is actually in front of them." Sound familiar?

Glassman offers us a vision based upon these hungry ghosts:

"There is an ancient Zen scroll that shows heaven and hell. In hell, the hungry ghosts are all sitting at a great banquet table filled with all kinds of delicacies, trying to feed themselves with very long spoons. But no matter how hard they try, they cannot reach their mouths.

"In heaven, the hungry ghosts are sitting around the same banquet table. But these hungry spirits are feeding each other with their long spoons, so that they all can eat.

"This is the way to transform our world from a hell to a heaven. Only when we offer a portion of our food to our fellow hungry ghosts can we satisfy our own deepest hunger."

He offers us another vision that extends directly to what I am trying to do with "A List...": "The Zen cook's way of working with others is based on the vision of Indra's net, which is the Zen model of life. Indra was an ancient king of India who thought a great deal of himself. One day he went to the royal architect and said that he wanted to leave a monument of himself - something that all people would appreciate.

The king's architect created an immense net that extended throughout all space and time. And the king's treasurer placed a bright, shining pearl at each node of the net so that every pearl was reflected in every other pearl. And each single pearl - each person, each event - contains the whole of Indra's net, including all of space and time."

It is also a vision that informs the way Greyston manages its business and trains its workers. "In the first phase, workers are closely supervised. the emphasis is on developing basic workplace skills, such as showing up on time every day and getting along with coworkers and supervisors.

In the second phase , workers are organized into work teams, which take on much of the supervisory role themselves. Pay is linked to production.

In the third phase, the workers will manage the business through self-directed work teams. In this phase, the workers will own shares in the business.

Self-directed management teams may have an economic motive, but they also have far-reaching educational, psychological and even spiritual effects. They lead to self-sufficiency and pride and teach people how to help each other and work harmoniously together towards a common goal. In addition, they can play an important part in revitalizing our inner cities by creating a well-trained, socially responsible, and autonomous workforce."

The meal does not end with the end of our own hunger and offerings to the hungry ghosts unseen around us.

"In the Zen monastery, after the monks have eaten everything that's in their bowls, they clean the bowls with tea or plain hot water. Then they drink the water. The water that's left over in the bowls goes back into the gardens.

"This traceless 'nothing left over' has a very profound spiritual meaning, but it also has a very ecological application. If there's any trace left over, it should be used again - and again until nothing is left over. If you're a manufacturer you have to take into account what happens to a product after it's used up. You have to think how your product will go away. Whether you create a new car, a new refrigerator, or a new cookie tin, you have to create a way for your creation to be recycled.

"If you do that, if you get rid of the traces of the car you've built, or of the wonderful banquet you've just eaten, you open up the space so that you can see a whole new set of ingredients. So eliminating the traces is really another way of saying we're cleaning up, which is where we began."

Instructions to the Cook is a simple and profound book. Last week, I wrote about my feeling that we've known for a long time what should be done in order to deal with the present rolling ecological disaster. Bernard Glassman confirms that opinion. We've known all along how we must live with each other. It is not easy but it's simple. That's what makes it so hard to do. Having grown up in Yonkers, NY, his work strikes deeply into my own life and memories. I will try to do the next thing with all of my attention and have faith that it will be reflected throughout Indra's Net.

There is much more in the pages of this book. If you want to learn more, I urge you to read it or contact Greyston Foundation, 21 Park Avenue, Yonkers NY 10702.

This review was excerpted from: "A List..." a listserv and a Webpage