How to turn a cheese sandwich on the grill.

My family has really enjoyed the movie “Chef.” Yesterday in my car, I was listening to one of Linda Ruth Cutts’s lectures from SFZC and she used examples from that movie to demonstrate what Zen work is like. 

Since it seems that Clouds is embarking on the voyage of moving to a new building, there will be a lot of work. How do we do this work from a Right View standpoint? As I heard Fish say the other day, how can we bring the heart of Zen with us as we move and work together?

What is work in Zen? Why is “work” emphasized by “work practice” and sound bytes like: Chop wood, carry water ? I think the emphasis on expressing your wisdom through work started long ago when there was a shift in monastic life that included agriculture. All of a sudden, the monks were doing labor. In the earliest Buddhist days, the monks were wandering mendicants and that was their work. A wandering monk offers people the opportunity to give to the dharma, “the monks,” through begging and to allow the monks to practice deeply with no root. When monasteries started to happen, work practice and how to work in daily life became more important.

Linda Ruth Cutts said that watching the chefs in “Chef” use their knives, turn the cheese sandwich, watching their cooking, was a wonderful example of the attitude in Zen Work. Lovingly taking care of each object, paying attention to the moment and taking care of details. Perhaps what is not so evident in a professional chef’s life is – letting go of the results of your actions. But in terms of carefully caring for each aspect of the job, like how to place the side dish just so, they are a prime example of attention in work. Mindfulness in work.

She also mentioned another scene which she thought had a Zen perspective. The chef’s son is learning to cook. In this scene, some workers had helped them for free, move a large stove, I think it was, and in return, the chef was cooking them sandwiches for free as a return gift. The son had burnt a little bit one of the sandwiches and said, “Well, they aren’t paying for this, so it doesn’t matter.” The Chef stopped what he was doing, took his son outside, and explained to him that nothing from his kitchen went out burnt, free or not. This was his expression and love for what he did. This is his generosity and gift to all, to make beautiful food, delicious food, as his life’s work and not about the money.

I found these examples inspiring. How do we think about our daily work as love and practice. Even in the smallest things.

This is not to say we get stuck on perfectionism or Epicureanism. It does not mean we have to have the most gorgeous temple in town. Tomoe Katagiri has taught me that a Zen view is also to take old things, refurbish them, and find another life for them. Like taking the old cloth and making it into okesas. Like taking a building that was meant for another job in life and turning it into a Zen Temple.

Zen work means that we work out of our hearts and with care, with presence, and let go of the results of our actions. Zen work is an extension of our understanding and a gift we offer to life.