Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote about how to do all the ordinary tasks of monastic life: how to use the toilet, how to open doors, how to brush your teeth. It’s all there. But one of his favorite topics was how to cook—not recipes, but how to work in the kitchen. His instructions for the cook are vivid: he says to treat ingredients, for example, as you would “your own eyes.” Try that.
Perhaps his most famous teaching from within that set of instructions, though, is about the “three minds” of the cook: big mind (daishin), parental mind (roshin), and joyful mind (kishin). These three minds inform everything the cook does—and, if we take them up for ourselves, everything we do, wherever we are.
Big mind, as one might suspect, sees the big picture. Working with big mind, the cook works with whatever is on hand; the ingredients determine the menu, not the other way around. This is a mind that sees past preference and bias, past having things “my way.” That can be a hard thing to put into practice, especially in a world where groceries can be delivered to your door—cooks with just a little extra time and resources can follow their own preferences without limit. Outside the kitchen, it’s hard to apply for a different reason: unlike the cook, who can always go to the store and grab that missing spice, in our lives, what we have in this moment truly is all we have. Anything can change, but in this moment, as I take this breath, I can’t be taller or smarter; I can’t be more loved; I can’t be safer or wealthier; I can’t forget my past. These are the ingredients of my life, period. Big mind is fine with that. Big mind can make a meal of it. Whatever’s in the fridge is enough.
How you hear “parental mind” will have a lot to do with how you see your own parents. Some people, I know, immediately hear “parental” to include some element of judgment, or maybe of distrust, of always seeing the other as a child. That’s not what this is about. Parental mind is the mind that doesn’t feel separation between self and other, the way an actual parent can suffer when their child is in pain. The way you hold a baby, the way you worry about someone who’s late coming home—these point to parental mind. The cook who treats vegetables as if they were their own eyeballs is working with parental mind. Same for the cook who sees food as nourishment for the body, rather than just a treat for the mouth. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a hugging practice in which, in one prolonged hug, you imagine in one breath that you’re holding the other person as a baby, in another as they are now, and in a third as if they were dying. It’s a beautiful practice, but you don’t need the hug. You can do it on a street corner, or over Zoom. It’s taking care of the “other” with such attention that the idea of “other” dissolves.
I find people can also feel thrown by the phrase “joyful mind”—it can feel like a pressure, like we’re supposed to feel happy all the time. But joyful mind is something closer to gratitude. When I was cooking in the monastery, I would sometimes choke up a little watching the other monks make whatever simple thing I’d prepared. Everyone was always so hungry, so available to whatever came their way; their gratitude sparked gratitude in me for the opportunity to serve them. I feel the same thing now, with my kids—when your own child really tears into a peanut butter sandwich that you made, it’s magical, like the universe meeting itself. Joyful mind sees that opportunity everywhere and embraces it. Joyful mind doesn’t mean you’re always getting that opportunity right—it means being thankful for the chance, even when you’re failing.
Obviously, these three minds aren’t separate. In the Venn diagram of big mind, parental mind, and joyful mind, we might see more overlap than separation. When I serve my kids that peanut butter sandwich, I’m doing the best I can with what I have, I’m taking care of them, I’m delighting in the fact that I can do it at all. It’s always like this, or it can be. We’re all cooks; we’re all in the kitchen; there’s always someone at the table, hungry, waiting. We can do it. Whatever’s in the fridge is enough.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.