Posted by: chrismaser | May 11, 2010


Making do with what you have brings to mind a lesson in Zen cooking. Zen masters refer to a life lived fully and completely, with nothing held in reserve, as the “supreme meal.” And a person who lives such a life is called a Zen cook because that person knows how to plan, cook, appreciate, serve, and offer the supreme meal of life.

Cooking, like leadership, is about transformation. “When we cook,” says Buddhist teacher Bernard Glassman, “we work directly with the elemental forces of fire and heat, water, metal, and clay.” When cooking or baking food, something almost magical happens as the heat transforms the ingredients, through chemical interactions, into a culinary delight. Although this kind of transformation, as does leadership, requires faith, a Zen cook follows the middle road in having faith that the food is coming along but also checking now and then to see how it is doing.

An accomplished Zen cook or leader is something of an alchemist in that they can transform poisons into virtues, not by adding a secret ingredient, but by leaving something out—attachment to the self. Anger, for example, is considered a poison when motivated by self-centered interest. When, however, anger is controlled, through detachment of the self, the irrational emotion becomes a clearly focused, fiery energy of determination, which transforms a negative force into one that is positive. Take self-centeredness out of greed, for example, and it is transformed into a desire to help. Drop self-indulgence from ignorance and it is transformed into a state of sacred unknowing in which new things are allowed to arise.

This is all well and good, you may say, but how does a Zen cook or a leader find the necessary ingredients with which to prepare the meal? You simply opens your eyes, looks around, and do the best you can with the materials at hand in each and every moment. Consider the following story:

A father sees a map of the world in a magazine, cuts it out, cuts it into pieces, then gives the pieces to his son to put back together. To the father’s astonishment, the boy hands him the assembled map within ten minutes.

“How did you put the world together so fast?” asks the father.

“On the other side of the world was the picture of a person,” replied the boy. “I put the person together, and the world came together.”

Our thoughts, emotions, actions, insights, and relationships are all ingredients for our meal, but we must be open to them. Instead of openness of mind, however, we usually create our own boundaries, our own tiny view beyond which we refuse to look. With practice, however, we can each expand our view until everything becomes a potential ingredient for our meal. Here a story from Africa might be instructive:

A little boy wanted to give his teacher a gift, but he was very poor. So he walked two miles to the beach and picked up a handful of sand. He then walked two miles back. The next day he gave the sand to his teacher.

She thanked him for the beautiful sand, then said, “But you walked so far.”

“The journey,” he replied, “is part of the gift.”

As we learn to see ourselves as part of— at-one-ment with—the world, we become attuned to the unity of all life, and the whole of the world becomes available. Then the Zen cook or leader knows that every aspect of life offers itself as an ingredient for the supreme meal.

Our natural tendency in cooking is not to use an ingredient and in leadership not to avail ourselves of a person we think will ruin our meal. In so doing, we all too often deny their existence or discard them through dismissal because we think they are of no value for our meal. But as Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, instructs us, we must take the very ingredients we think will ruin our meal and figure out how to use them to improve it because they will be there whether we like it or not.

“No matter who we are,” observes Glassman, “we tend to reject someone or something.” Some Zen students found it incongruous to cook a gourmet meal and then learn to set a table properly for rich people because to the students it did not constitute traditional samu, or work practice, like chopping wood, carrying water, or weeding a monastery garden. Many of the students asked, “How can you serve the rich? What kind of a thing is that for a Zen center to do?”1

Rejection takes many forms. A Zen student who rejects a person because they are rich has the same problem as a rich person who rejects a Zen student because he or she is poor. If you can learn to work with that which you would reject, it turns out that you are working with yourself, with both those good and bad “shadow” parts of yourself, which you reject. In other words, if you can learn to work comfortably with a rich person whom you have rejected, then you can begin to accept and work with the richness rather than the poverty in yourself, which merits a brief discussion of the “shadow.”

Many years ago, Dr. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, defined the dark side of our psyche as the “shadow.” The shadow is a handy dumping ground for all the characteristics of our personality we choose to disown, that part of us we fail to see or know, that which has not adequately entered into our everyday waking consciousness.

The shadow may be thought of as the despised quarter of our psyche and is paired with being wrong, bad, or evil. But also held within the shadow of our psyche is the pure gold, the noble, creative aspects of our personality of which we are afraid.

The root of this whole shadow-making process within us begins as we enter into culture and cultural ideals. We divide our lives and separate things into good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable because culture insists—literally demands—that we behave in a particular manner.

The bad news is that these refused, unaccepted, bury-in-the-deep-dark-basement parts of ourselves don’t go away, for all our characteristics must appear somewhere in our personal inventories. Nothing may be left out. That which we try to omit simply collects in the corners of our personalities and, when hidden long enough, takes on a life of its own, such as sudden “unexplainable” outbursts of anger, often with an energy potential nearly as great as that of our egos, which are those parts of ourselves we know about and consciously accept.

When the energy of the shadow builds up too much, it can erupt as a black mood, anger, rage, harsh words spewed out of our mouths, some indiscretion slipping past us, depression, accidents, or even psychosomatic illness. Conversely, ignoring the golden qualities within ourselves can be every bit as damaging as hiding our dark sides. It may even be necessary to suffer a severe shock or illness before a person learns to let out the magnificent inner gold.

The good news is the imagined mirror in front of us, and the work is to own every aspect of ourselves, rather than to disown those parts we do not want and thus project them outward onto someone or something else. The latter would be like the scapegoat driven once a year from a community with all the people’s shadow elements heaped firmly onto its back.

Instead of heaping all our unwanted psychological parts onto a scapegoat, our task is to restore ourselves to wholeness by putting these fractured, alienated parts together again. If each of us can learn to truly love our inner enemies, then we can also begin in like measure to redeem and love our so-called outer enemies.

Many personal and collective benefits will result if we each see ourselves in totality. For example, we would fall in and out of love a lot less frequently because we would not be initially projecting the golden parts of ourselves onto another and then, as love grows thin, replacing the gold by projecting instead those parts of ourselves that are annoying, distasteful, and even downright intolerable.

If we saw ourselves in totality, relationships in general would be truer and more enduring than they currently are. Hero-worship—the golden shadow—in its varying degrees would cease because we would each accept our finest qualities and be responsible for them, rather than living them through someone else—our hero. Conversely, we would stop making others the bad guy and look first within to assess what about ourselves we refuse to see, know, and accept.2

The shadow is the cause of war on all levels, both within and without. In addition, the process of owning our inner heaven and hell is the highest form of creativity. A great deal of energy is released and begins to flow as we reach a place of inner wholeness. This place, where light and dark touch, is where miracles arise, where personal and collective peace is possible.

If you do not think you have a shadow, ask yourself: How many times a day do I employ compulsive substitutes (such as food, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, television, and so on) for emotions? How many times do I run away from facing my emotions through the use of distractions?

You cannot run away from something that is negative; it will only grow larger and stronger each time you try. You must steadfastly confront your fears by moving through them toward something that is positive.

Dogen taught that every meal has to include a harmony of the six flavors—bitter, sour, sweet, spicy, salty, and plain—just as every leader must deal with the various kinds of personalities—exasperator, relater, fatalist, and appraiser. None of them is better or more important than the other. As each ingredient has a different flavor and a different reason for being part of the meal, so each personality type has a different strength and a different reason for being part of the team. They are all important to the Zen of cooking and of leadership. In addition to the above, if a leader is truly interested in helping followers use their creative ability to fashion what is needed from that which is at hand, the leader must be careful to establish realistic objectives.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

Return to the First Set of Posts

• Avoiding Self-Deception

• Over-Investment In Followers

• The Value Of Humor

• Coping With Someone You Dislike

• Imagine Yourself As Different People

• Inspiring Performance

• Nurturing Creativity

• Establishing Realistic Objectives

• The Need For Urgency

• Give Counsel, Not Advice

• The Questions We Ask

• Burnout

• Leadership Within Organizations


  1. The foregoing is based on an article by Bernard Glassman. The Sacred Act of Cooking. Delicious! November (1997):32-34.
  2. The discussion of the “shadow” is based largely on the book by Robert A. Johnson. Owning Your Own Shadow. Harper, San Francisco, CA. 118 pp. (1991).

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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