The Taste of Thusness

Hoko Jan Karnegis explains how nyoho, or the dharma of thusness, guides the menu at a Zen kitchen.

By Hoko Jan Karnegis

Photo by Mike Kenneally

It was the last day of sesshin, and something about the teacher’s dharma talk puzzled one of the members of my kitchen crew. “If we are supposed to avoid picking and choosing, and not have opinions, how can we go to the grocery store?” he asked.

As the tenzo (head cook), I was in charge of food practice for the sesshin, and I had, in fact, been to town for provisions only the day before. Shopping for twenty-eight people living and practicing together was not a quick trip to the corner market. The nearest grocery stores of any appreciable size were about forty-five minutes away. Two overloaded shopping carts of food took time to fill but would only hold us for a couple of days. Then, if the other officers needed things, there might be a detour to the hardware store for drill bits or gardening supplies. All in all, it took about half a day, with myriad choices to be made and fairly immediate consequences to be accepted.

Although the grocery store was merely a handy example of daily activity, my work group member had raised an important question. Leaving the quiet restraint of sesshin at the rural practice facility, which operated in accordance with the natural world surrounding it, and going into an environment filled with golden oldies radio, blazing orange signs, the smell of roast chicken from the deli and bright lights that turn the great gray sky of a drizzly morning into cloudless fluorescent sunshine could be a shock. It was a real test of practice to maintain focus while serving the sangha in this way. Before long, I was singing along with Frankie Vallee and dancing down the aisle behind the shopping cart. Every box of Snappysnax or Sugardoodles tugged at my samue sleeve and begged to be justified as tea-break food. Sure, I’ve already got plenty of fruit, but those shiny deep red cherries look incredibly good.

Stop. Wait. What am I doing? These things are not evil, tainted, or undharmic in some way, but they are distractions.

Fortunately, I don’t need to have personal opinions about any of this. I certainly don’t need to rely on my own preferences for decision-making. I have a much more dependable set of tools for making choices: the concept of nyoho, Dogen’s teachings about menu planning, and my dharma grandfather’s advice about sangha life. Armed with these things, I can easily go to the grocery store without picking and choosing, and without opinions, and still come back with groceries.

Nyoho: The Dharma of Thusness

Many of us are first introduced to the idea of nyoho, or the dharma of thusness, when we sew rakusus. We are taught about the nyoho of tai (material), shiki (color) and ryo (size). Our robes are made from cast-off material to which no one has any attachment. The color is a blended shade that does not excite any feeling of greed or jealousy. The size is just right for the particular wearer—neither so large that fabric is wasted nor too small to cover the body.

But nyoho describes more than just the robe—the three nyohos cover our entire lives. As human beings, we need three things—clothing (our rakusa or okesa), shelter (the sodo or zendo in which we live and practice), and food (our oryoki and the food we eat from them)—and they should all be nyoho, or representations of the Buddha’s teaching. Our zendo is simple and clean, without elaborate decoration or fancy building materials, but sturdy and containing all the things we need to function there. Our oryoki are not made of brightly colored porcelain or exotic wood, but neither are they rough or cracked or too small to hold enough to nourish our bodies.

Likewise, our food follows these guidelines. As I explained to the kitchen crew, nyoho forms a sort of window of alignment with Buddha’s teaching. One morning, our second bowl was boiled vegetables lightly flavored with a little soy sauce—lightly flavored because we were nearly out of soy sauce altogether. We cooked the vegetables until they were crisp-tender, added what little soy sauce we had, and sent them over to the zendo with the usual nine bows—but we were barely inside the nyoho window. The vegetables seemed undercooked and tasteless to some of the practitioners, and we had not taken proper care of them.

It’s also possible to make food too complex to be nyoho. Halfway through the sesshin, with weather so hot and humid that practitioners were feeling lightheaded, I served hiyayakko (chilled plain soft tofu). On a scorching summer day, chilled tofu is a real relief, and I was concerned about practitioners’ health. Getting a cold protein dish into people seemed like a very good idea. Problem is, serving fragile soft tofu from a pot in the usual way of zendo gyohatsu (practice with bowls in the zendo) would be difficult for the servers and would make the food somewhat unappealing in the eater’s bowl. I decided to make it betsuzara, literally a “special dish,” that we would prepare in the kitchen and serve on individual plates in the zendo. The finished product was lovely—twenty-eight little dishes, each with a square of tofu in the middle, with yellow and white vegetables along the sides, a small nest of finely grated cucumber on top, finished with a dab of fresh grated ginger and drizzled with a little soy sauce. People loved it. They talked about it for several days afterward. One of my crew asked where it fell in the spectrum of nyoho, and I had to admit that we had come in just under the wire. We had taken good care of the sensibilities of the practitioners, and we had made an appropriate amount of food, but I had created additional work for our own ryo, for the servers who had to make an extra trip around the zendo to pick up the empty betsuzara, and for the dishwashers who had to clean them. We’d also created a fair amount of distracting attachment to the experience that persisted for several days.

The Nyoho of Tai: Choosing Ingredients

In Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun, or Instructions to the Cook, he gives us some help in making nyoho choices. With regard to the tai—in this context, the materials chosen to make meals—he writes that whether you’re cooking coarse greens or have the resources to make a cream soup, you should maintain the same state of mind. Of course, it’s possible to become just as attached to the greens as to the soup. The coarse greens can seem to represent “good” or “diligent” practice, while the cream soup can come to represent dissipation and greed. But a steady diet of nothing but coarse greens is not nyoho, just as my bland and undercooked boiled vegetables were barely in accord with Buddha’s teaching. The mark we’re shooting for is appropriateness, not extremes of richness or poverty.

The Five Pungent Herbs

Dogen further warns, “Do not come into the zendo smelling of onions!” Thus, my grocery list doesn’t include aromatics: onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, or chives. The five pungent herbs are considered by Hindus to be rajasic (expanding) foods that stimulate passion and the intellect, clouding the mind and interfering with meditation, and traditional Zen cooking also avoids them. In the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha explains:

Ananda, all beings live if they eat wholesome food and die if they take poison. In their search for samadhi, they should abstain from eating five kinds of pungent roots (i.e. garlic, the three kinds of onions and leeks); if eaten cooked, they are aphrodisiac and if raw, they cause irritability. Although those who eat them may read the twelve divisions of the Mahayana canon, they drive away seers in the ten directions who abhor the bad odor, and attract hungry ghosts who lick their lips.

The Brahama Net Sutra reiterates the teaching in the fourth of the secondary precepts:

A disciple of the Buddha should not eat the five pungent herbs. This is so even if they are added as flavoring to other main dishes. Hence, if he deliberately does so, he commits a secondary offense.

When I first learned of this guideline, I largely dropped the five pungent herbs from all my sesshin menus. I was a little concerned that the food would no longer be flavorful, but I found that without the heavy blanket of aromatics, one could actually taste carrots and potatoes. Once the meal was done and bowls wrapped, there was no lingering essence of garlic or onions clinging to the palate. People started commenting on the fresh taste of the food I had prepared, as subtle flavors emerged from their covering.

I discovered for myself the effect of aromatics when they crept back into the food one day. I had turned preparation of the lunchtime salad over to an assistant after providing a recipe and general direction. The recipe called for scallions, and before I realized that the assistant didn’t know about the guideline, she’d chopped up a handful of green tops and tossed them in. I sent the dish out to the zendo, curious to see what would happen. Since onion omission was my own practice as tenzo and not a policy generally followed at that particular Zen center, I knew the practitioners wouldn’t complain. For myself as an eater, however, I noticed that even before the meal was concluded, I was hoping there was peppermint tea out on the porch to help wash away the lingering taste of the raw onions. Stimulation, attachment, aversion, and distraction were all right there.

The Five Colors and Six Tastes

Aromatics aren’t the only flavors we’re concerned with at sesshin. The meal chant says, “The five colors and six tastes of this meal are offered to dharma and sangha.” Those six tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, mild, and spicy, and they all need to be present. Sweet fruit, sour yogurt, salty soup, mild rice and gingery vegetables may all help to fill the bill, as well as bitter tea either used to wash the oryoki or sipped during the break after the meal.

The choice of ingredients affects what the dish looks like as well as how it tastes. The nyoho of shiki (color) in traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine helps ensure that the meal is nutritionally balanced, as well as visually appealing, by including all five color groups: red, white, black, blue, and yellow. If the first bowl contains a pilaf of white and wild rice, the second might have a soup of pureed squash and the third a salad of fresh greens and tomatoes, covering all of the five colors. Standing in the produce department, I need to choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so the resulting meals are in line with this teaching—even if my tongue wants nothing but oranges, carrots, and yams.

As for ryo (size or amount in this context), Dogen advises counting the practitioners and then determining how much food it will take to feed them, including people who are working as servers during the meal and those who are out of the zendo due to illness or other things. It’s important to have enough for everyone at the sesshin without choosing and cooking an overabundance that will go to waste.

The nyohos of tai, shiki and ryo as they apply to grocery store choices, then, could be summed up like this: get good quality food—not cheap and unhealthful but not luxurious or unnecessarily expensive; get foods from each of the five color and six taste groups; and get neither too much nor too little.

Serving and Eating Without Trouble

As one last source of guidance for my grocery decision-making, I turn to the teachings of my dharma grandfather, Kosho Uchiyama. In the final talk of his life, he discussed seven points of practice. These have become the foundation of my own practice, and the seventh point holds particular interest for me: “Cooperate with one another and aim to create a place where sincere practitioners can practice without trouble.” If I buy this and cook it, can servers manage it in the zendo? Am I causing trouble for the kaisshiki (director of serving)? Can practitioners eat it using spoons and chopsticks? Will it support or hinder practice? Putting myself in the place of those who will have to get the food into the bowls, and then in the place of those who will be eating, helps safeguard sangha relationships. Casseroles with a lot of stringy cheese are difficult to serve neatly. Spaghetti noodles in the first bowl might serve easily with tongs and look and taste delightful, but they’re nearly impossible to eat with a spoon. Much as we might personally love these foods, they’re poor choices for zendo gyohatsu.

How We Choose

I originally came to Zen practice looking for the answer to a fundamental question: how do I make decisions? On what basis do I choose one action over another? On some level, many of us may feel that our own opinions are a shaky foundation for making the many choices we face every day. Indeed, our texts and teachers remind us that “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Dogen tells us that “a monk’s mouth is like an oven,” accepting whatever is put into it without discrimination or likes and dislikes. Are they all telling us to become dull and wishy-washy, floating through life without strong feelings about anything? That’s a disturbing idea, especially when we hear every day about the suffering going on in our own neighborhoods and around the world. Are we really to have no opinions about such things, just accepting them without comment or action? And how do we carry out the little tasks that we need to take care of every day?

The distinction being made is about the basis for decision-making, not the need for making decisions themselves. The issue is not that we choose, but how we choose. If our opinions come from the three poisonous minds of greed, anger, and delusion, then decisions based on them are going to be faulty. If instead we make choices based on the guidelines given us by the Buddha and ancestors, which are in accord with the way things really are, our decisions will be filled with generosity, compassion, and awareness. That means that I sometimes plan for, buy, cook, and serve foods at sesshin that are not necessarily my own personal favorites—but they do nourish practice in alignment with the Buddha way. And sometimes that tempting bag of Cheezychips really is just what the sangha needs.

Hoko Jan Karnegis

Hoko Jan Karnegis was ordained by Shohaku Okumura in 2005. She is the director of his sangha, the Sanshin Zen community.