A life dedicated to service...

Week 31: Cut carrots like you mean it

Big deal. Anyone can do it. Take a knife, a cutting board, and off you go. Be careful not to cut your fingers. Start with one and stop when you’re done. Nothing to it. What’s next?

Now imagine your first day at a Zen monastery. One October morning 16 years ago, near Woodstock in upstate New York, first ever work assignment in a Buddhist monastery. Lucky me, a kitchen job; beats digging in the garden in the rain. I know what to do. After all, I’d been a cook’s apprentice in my youth, had taught at a hotel school, given fancy cooking classes in my Galiano home.

The head cook didn’t seem to notice my arrival. I put on an apron and stood there, trying not to get in the way. And waited. Hey, I’m here to help; I know a bit or two! And waited. Eventually she stood next to me, pointed to a basin filled with peeled carrots, but didn’t say a word. Simply bowed, gestured to some knives and a display of pre-cut carrots. Will do, I bowed. And began to slice, routine motions, nothing to it, bit flying every which way. Chop-chop-chop. Bang-clang-boing. Done. What’s next? No-one seemed to have noticed my efficient style and smooth knife handling.

So I waited, again. Everyone else seemed occupied, one washing lettuce one leaf at a time, another stirring a pot ever so slowly — barely a word being spoken. What kind of place is this? How are they going to get ready on time?

Eventually, head cook takes me aside, out of earshot: bows. Here comes, I’m thinking, job well done, good to have you on board. Instead she tells me that I worked too fast, made too much noise. Slow down and pay attention: each carrot, each slice, each moment. Less commotion, more concentration. You’re dismissed (without a thank-you).

What do you make of this (true) story?

A parable from an ancient text, Instructions for the Cook by Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200-1253):

Xuěfēng once practiced as cook under Zen Master Dòngshān. Once when he was washing rice, Dòngshān said, “Do you wash the sand away from the rice, or the rice away from the sand?”
Xuěfēng said, “I wash them both away together?”
Dòngshān said, “Then what will the community eat?”
Xuěfēng overturned the washing bowl.
Dòngshān said, “You should go and study with someone else. Soon.”

photo of kitchen: Zen Mountain Monastery

About the Author
Peter lives in Victoria, BC, where he volunteers in health-care. teaches mindfulness meditation, and offers end-of-life care.
  1. Ellen Chapple Reply

    Should a Zen kitchen produce no meal until very late in the day, then your hunger will be not only “the best cook” (according to a German saying) but also a Zen teacher: acceptance of what is.

  2. Daishin Reply

    Letting go of “me”-centered expectations,
    looking for accolades for doing an ordinary job, and
    judging other’s skills and behaviour without knowing the context.

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