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Instructions to the Cook

Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters
by Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields
Boston, MA: Shambhala Press, 2013
169 pages
Reviewed by Monique CM Keffer

In American philosopher Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he writes, “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling” (5). This statement impresses upon readers the importance of finding Zen, or enlightenment out in the world, rather than hiding away where life cannot touch one. This misconception—that Zen is only found by meditating on a mountaintop—is one many spiritual directees (and spiritual directors for that matter) believe. For that reason, the search for enlightenment becomes not only impractical but almost impossible. Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters, by Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields, smashes that pervasive myth, showing how one can live out dreams and find Zen in the process.

A mathematician, entrepreneur, and Zen master, Glassman knows how to achieve Zen in “the real world.” Readers get a front-row seat to his journey as he simultaneously gains a fulfilling livelihood, social action, and spiritual fulfillment. These elements are necessary “ingredients” in his recipe for life. As he says, “Zen is life—our life” (3). Through the lens of thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen’s “Instructions to the Cook,” Glassman utilizes a metaphor everyone understands: making a meal. With that metaphor he creates a familiar foundation and sustains it with clear, simple prose. The product is an easy-to-read book that seamlessly illustrates the mystery of Zen.

As it leads us gently along Glassman’s winding life path, this new take on “Instructions to the Cook” illuminates many areas of spirituality often explored through spiritual direction: boundaries, discernment, integration of spirituality into work life, and the goal of selflessness, or indifference, to name a few. Of particular interest to spiritual directors, chapter eight discusses how to nurture the self while serving others to then serve others more. The epilogue proposes an alternative retreat to supplement traditional ones. In addition to retreating from the world to still the mind and gain a better perspective on life, Glassman encourages readers to “retreat into the problems” by retreating toward that chaos found all around (165). Glassman displays one example of how he and others in his community experience homelessness during their retreat. Also helpful for spiritual directees and spiritual directors is Glassman’s step-by-step guide to meditation in chapter three.

Though meditation is an important aspect of achieving enlightenment, as Glassman’s Instructions to the Cook and, indeed, his life display, it is just one step of preparing the ultimate meal of life so that when truth knocks on the door, spiritual seekers can say, “Come on in and sit down. I’ve set a place for you at the table.”

Monique CM Keffer, MA, is a writer and spiritual director in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, USA.

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