Lute Recipes by Dōgen

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part three in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this third lesson I freely adapt some of Dōgen’s ancient recipes to cook up a new lute dish.

Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun, 1237) was written by Eihan Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253). Dōgen was a Zen Buddhist priest who founded the Sōtō school of Zen. The first Sōtō temple was located in Uji, just south of Kyōto. In 1246 it moved to the Eihei-ji in Fukui Prefecture. This temple is still in use today as the main training temple of Sōtō Zen, where you can learn to practice zazen according to Dōgen’s teachings in an uninterrupted tradition of nearly eight centuries. Instructions for the Zen Cook is the first chapter of a book dealing with various aspects of monastic life. These instructions were intended for the tenzo, the monk responsible for the kitchen in a monastery. The office of tenzo is usually held by a senior monk and comes with great responsibilities. Dōgen respected the office of tenzo because a tenzo serves the Buddha, his teachings and his community. In our lutedō we would say a lutenist serves the music (Buddha), the truth or beauty in it (the teachings) and the audience (the community).

What can a book of instructions for a cook of a temple, written nearly 775 years ago, mean for a lute player of today, and how will it fit into our lutedō? For an answer we must first know a little more about Dōgen and his Sōtō school of Zen. According to Dōgen, Zen equals zazen, which is sitting cross-legged in meditation. When you are practicing zazen all you do is sit, be alert and have a mind empty of thoughts. For Dōgen the practice of zazen equals enlightenment, the state of Buddhahood all Buddhists try to reach. Also, for Dōgen there is no difference in attitude between doing zazen and the practices of daily life. Doing everything in your life with such attitude is called leading the life of a living Buddha. And this is where we can learn a lesson in lute playing. If Dōgen teaches us that there is no difference between going about our daily business and Buddhahood, it follows that taking care of the kitchen in a temple or lute playing can equal enlightenment. What enlightenment means for a cook Dōgen explains in his book, but what does it mean for a lute player? Enlightenment is being one with what you do, so for us it would mean playing lute without distractions from our minds and doing everything right without conscious effort. Such an enlightened state is desirable for a lute player, so let us turn our attention to Dōgen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook to see if we can come up with some good lute recipes for our lutedō.

Dōgen urges us to put our awakened minds to work. What he means is that we must be alert like in zazen and without thoughts that distract our minds, so that we can become one with our work. When we practice or play lute, we should become one with the instrument and with the music. Dōgen carefully examines every aspect of a cook’s job to show how he should put his awakened mind to work in simple, practical ways. Let us examine some aspects of studying and playing lute to see if we can do the same.

An important part of the work of a tenzo involves planning of the meals. The majority of the food eaten in monasteries comes from gifts, so preparing a nutritious meal for all the monks can be quite a challenge. Dōgen stresses the importance of good planning and he explains about every aspect in great detail. Likewise, we lute players should make a good plan for our every day’s practice routine. See what needs to be done, and do everything in the correct order. Also, like a cook serving meals full of variety that are appropriate to the need and occasion, we should make our concert programmes full of variety and appropriate to the needs of our audiences. Likewise, we should make our practice routine full of variety and appropriate to our own needs of the moment. Take your time doing this.

Even though a tenzo might have attendants to help him, he should not rely on others to do the work for him. He alone is responsible. For us this means we have to figure out our own continuo figures, decide upon our own interpretations and make our own fingerings. So don’t copy things thoughtlessly, always question the edition you are playing from, always question the answers others gave you and even the answers you have found yourself before.

There is much general advice in Dōgen’s instructions which can be read as a guide to living, and some of this advice can be adopted into our lutedō. Dōgen tells us to put our whole attention to the work, being aware of what the situation calls for. But, although we have to keep our minds on our work we should not be so absorbed in one aspect of a matter that we fail to see its other aspects. For example, if you keep making mistakes in a certain measure, see what causes the mistakes and change for example the fingering if that is where the fault lays. But, studying a difficult fingering can make you blind for the musical phrasing of the passage. So, on the one hand do what the situation calls for (e.g. change the fingering), but on the other hand don’t become too absorbed in the fingering to ignore the phrasing. Likewise, don’t become a lute player that knows everything about historical aspects of lutes, strings or manuscripts, but forgets to make beautiful music. Or a student that cannot continue with the next piece because there is a small detail in the current piece he is studying that he still cannot play perfectly. In other words, regularly take a step back to see how what you are concentrating upon fits into what you want to achieve as a whole.

Dōgen tells the cook when he gives instructions on how to wash the rice: “When you look at the rice, see the sand at the same time; when you look at the sand, see also the rice. Examine both carefully.” In other words, when studying, remove the mistakes and preserve the good parts. But examine both carefully, as both contain lessons. You must examine the good notes to know why you are doing it right; all too often we play something well without realizing why, or what is particularly good about what we are doing. Knowing why something is good teaches us a lesson how to do it well again in the future. Obviously, we must examine our mistakes to know how to improve them and how to avoid them in the future.

Work with a clear vision and be efficient with your time, your body and your energy. A tenzo of a large monastery has to do a lot of calculating to make sure he makes the right amount of food. Enough for everybody but not too much either, as he is not in a position to waste anything. Likewise we should not waste our time by aimlessly studying for hours, don’t wear out our bodies by playing in a bad position and don’t wear out our concentration by studying without breaks. Also, like a cook who has to make a meal of whatever he receives as gifts, we have to use ingenuity in our practice. Be clever, don’t repeat what you already can do without looking for new things to discover, learn from your study method and think of new exercises to help you with particular problems. You should not only improve your playing, but also your study method.

Don’t complain about the quality of your instrument or of the music you are playing, but always handle everything with the greatest care and attention – Dōgen says we should handle our ingredients as carefully as if they were our own eyes. Even a simple lute deserves your best playing and even works of lesser composers or simple study material needs your full attention. Maintain the same attitude towards a top quality lute and the best pieces of your favourite composers. As Dōgen tells his cook: “Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens.” Dōgen, as he does more often, broadens this instruction to a cook into an advice on how to live: “Your attitude towards things should not be influenced by the quality of a thing. Also, who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a man working in the Way.” There is a deeper lesson behind this simple one of playing inferior lutes or lesser pieces with the same attention and devotion as quality instruments or great music. In the words of Dōgen: “Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf.” For our lutedō this advice has a very practical application. If we play our best on a lesser lute, it will sound better than if we treat it as an instrument not worth our attention. The same is valid for music we think inferior, or music that is not our favourite: if we play it with the same devotion, attention and care as we reserve for what we consider better music, the result will be better than if we are negligent in our performance because we don’t care.

How good should we become in lute paying? Today a little better than yesterday, obviously, but is there something to aim for, an ultimate goal? Dōgen teaches us to reach for the stars by urging us to devote our life to “surpassing the refinements of the ancient patriarchs”. Who do you admire as a lute player? Your teacher, one of the great players around today or one of the great of olden times such as Weiss, Dowland or Da Milano? You can be better than any of them. This is one of the appropriate attitudes to working, because endeavouring to succeed and to surpass the lute players before us, means we must learn from their lives and value their examples. Studying the examples of others is clearly good advice, but why not aim at becoming just as good as those whom you admire? In Dōgen’s own words: “Being scrupulous in our actions and pouring our energy into those actions, there is no reason why we cannot equal the ancient masters.” But Dōgen is quick to give some additional, tempering advice to his hard working cook: “We must aspire to the highest of ideals without becoming arrogant in our manner.”

Can just anyone become a good lute player, in other words, is it possible for every person to reach enlightenment in our lutedō? No. Dōgen is clear about this. If you “lack the aspiration to walk the Way, you will return empty-handed from the mountain of goodness and the ocean of virtue”, as he says poetically. So, even if you are lucky enough to hold a great lute in your hands and have beautiful music on your music stand, you still must work at it with all your mind in the manner described above. There is no other way. However, don’t despair, as Dōgen has some reassuring remarks for those not yet following the Way of the Lute. He says that a good teacher can help you to become better, and that even if you cannot find a good teacher, if you have “a deep aspiration to live this incomparable way of life, surely you will become familiar with the practice of such a Way”. But Dōgen thinks a good teacher is the best to help you forward, as “not to encounter a true teacher will result in being led around by your feelings and emotions.” I think this is a statement all too familiar to many of us who have to struggle along without the guidance of a good teacher. A good teacher will show you how to improve yourself without struggling.

Somewhere in his book, Dōgen has a moment of reflection on his own instructions. He is in the middle of telling the reader how to be a good cook by giving much practical advice on many of the every-day details of running a kitchen for a large monastery. And he is putting all this practical advice into a broader perspective by saying you should do whatever you do with care and attention, when he suddenly takes a step back and says: “These things are truly a matter of course. Yet we remain unclear about them because our minds go racing about like horses running wild in the fields, while our emotions remain unmanageable, like monkeys swinging in the trees.” And perhaps his next remarks are the best lesson he is giving us: “If only we would step back to carefully reflect on the horse and the monkey, our lives would naturally become one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them. It is vital that we clarify and harmonize our lives with our work, and not lose sight of either the absolute or the practical.”

Dōgen has given me much to think about and his instructions have yielded many practical additions to my lutedō. I invite you, too, to consider his lessons as you might find them useful for your own Way of the Lute.

David van Ooijen 2010

The translations of Dōgen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook are by Thomas Wright, and taken from the book How to Cook Your Life by Kōshō Uchiyama Rōshi (Shambhala, Boston & London, 2005).