INSTRUCTIONS TO THE COOK: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters, by Bernard Glassman & Rick Fields (Bell Tower/Crown, 1996).

Reviewed by Claude Whitmyer for Shambhala Sun, April 1996.

The Ch’an/Zen tradition has a long history of teaching stories that center on the cook. From the Taoist tale of Prince Wen Hui’s cook in The Inner Chapters of Chuang Tsu to the koan about Guishan kicking over the water pitcher in the Wumenguan, the cook plays a central role in the practice life of the Zen community.

It seems quite in keeping with that history for an American Zen Roshi to create a collection of autobiographical teaching anecdotes that use the cooking metaphor.

COVER-Instructions to the Cook

Instructions to the Cook is written in honor of Zen Master Dogen and his Tenzo Kyokun (which also translates into English as “Instructions to the Cook”). But our Zen Roshi author is Bernard Glassman, abbot of the Zen Community of New York and founder of the Greyston Mandala, a network of businesses and not-for-profits doing community development work in southwest Yonkers. Glassman created the book with Rick Fields (author of such notable works as How the Swans Came to the Lake; Chop Wood, Carry Water; The Awakened Warrior), but the voice of the work is Glassman’s and recounts his first-hand experience with the founding of Greyston Bakery and the engaged buddhism/social action work of the Greyston community.

Instructions to the Cook is divided into a menu of five main “courses” or dimensions of life: spirituality, learning, livelihood, social change, and community.

When I first began reading Glassman’s book, I thought, “Oh, no! Not another one of those self-indulgent ‘Isn’t my Buddhist life cool?’ autobiographies.” And I was a little put off by the masculine tendency to be long on conceptual teaching and short on the kind of tales that could provide emotional rapport with the author or the Greyston community. But as I moved from “The First Course: Recipes for Spirit,” and through “The Second Course: Recipes for Learning,” the book began to grow on me.

When I reached “The Third Course: Recipes for Livelihood,” I knew that Glassman had entered the realm of his strength. This section and the one that follows it on social action, are clearly the heart of the Greyston community experience, and, by themselves, these two sections make the book worth reading.

The story of Greyston Bakery is simultaneously inspiring and practical. It can easily serve as a blueprint for budding social entrepreneurs. I have been helping workers and entrepreneurs find their right livelihood for more than twenty years and, until now, I had not found a description, so clear and present, of what it’s actually like and what it really takes to start and run a business that provides right livelihood for owners, workers, suppliers, customers, and community alike.

There hasn’t been as realistic and helpful a description of the problems and proper view of money since Salli Rasberry and Michael Phillips’ Seven Laws of Money. And the reminders about our attitudes and uses of time are equally valuable. As Glassman reports, “One of the things I’ve found is that as I get to a place where there appears to be absolutely no more time, there’s suddenly a tremendous amount of time.” And, “The situation is always changing. If something can’t be done today, I’ll do it tomorrow, or the next day. It’s always just step-by-step. One day at a time.”

Equally compelling are the lessons in “The Fourth Course: Recipes for Social Change.” For example, talking about the obstacles we often face when taking social action, Glassman tells us, “Usually we think that we have to go through or over the rock that seems to be in our way. But the river never goes up against the rock directly. Water is gentle, but it is also the most persistent of the elements. It always finds a way to go around the rock.”

“In the same way, we can always figure out another way around the rock. We can always find a way to work within the constraints. This may not be as difficult as it sometimes seems. You need to find the place where your goal—or some part of your goal—falls within the constraints set by the rules. You might not be able to get everything you need, but you might be able to get some part of it.”

“Look for people who can make changes in the rules or who can tell you which rules are in the process of revision. Stay in touch with these people even—or especially—when you don’t have a specific need. Send them progress reports, photographs, press clippings, and releases. Invite them to informal social gatherings and other events where they can see (or taste!) your service or product.”

In “The Fifth Course: Recipes for Community,” Glassman ties it all together by describing the practical relationships that demonstrate interpenetration of the self, business, and community. Important reframings are offered, including the idea that

  • It is a superior strategy to abandon the notion of competition;
  • Business can be both about making a profit and serving the community;
  • Successful work, successful relationships, and a successful community are things that we purposely build;
  • Servant leadership and self-managed teams are more egalitarian and sometimes the best way of running a business or a community.

The epilogue gave me a stirring experience of the emotional rapport missing from the earliest parts of the book, in the story of a “street retreat” in which twenty-one members of the Greyston community spent a week wandering the streets, eating in soup kitchens, sleeping in shelters, and practicing zazen in the park. I was moved to tears relating to what it must have felt like at the end of that week, when the Greyston Zen students served an Easter/Passover meal of matzo ball soup to the street people they had been living with—people who, unlike the students, would not be returning to the warm and nurturing hearths and beds of the Greyston community.

Throughout the stories that are related in this book, Bernard Glassman and the Greyston community demonstrate through their actions the wisdom of Prince Wen Hui’s cook, who explained to the Prince why his nineteen-year-old knife was still as sharp as the day he began using it: “When I come to a difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, keep my eyes on what I am doing, and work slowly. Then, with a very slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open. It falls apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there with the knife in my hand, looking about me with a feeling of accomplishment and delight. Then I wipe the knife clean and put it away.”

Well done, Glassman and community! From your words, we may learn the secret of right living. 

CLAUDE WHITMYER is a consultant in the multi-media delivery of university and corporate training programs. He also provides career guidance to executives and managers who want to master the new workplace requirements.

Mr. Whitmyer is also coordinator of the Briarpatch, a world-wide network of businesses that practice right livelihood and simple living. He is co-author of the best-selling book of its kind Running A One-Person Business: Business as Lifestyle (Ten Speed Press, 1994, 2nd edition) and editor of Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood (Parallax Press, 1994).

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