Cooking up signs

In a Zen community, the monk in charge of cooking for the other monks is called the tenzo. Zen master Dogen, in his youth, learned some very important lessons from the tenzo of one community. Later he incorporated those lessons into a manual written as guidance for his own community. Here are two translations of a short passage from Dogen’s Tenzokyokun (Instructions for the Tenzo):

If you cannot even know what categories you fall into, how can you know about others? If you judge others from your own limited point of view, how can you avoid being mistaken? Although the seniors and those who come after differ in appearance, all members of the community are equal. Furthermore, those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today. Who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary?

— Tanahashi 1985, 62

Even the self does not know where the self will settle down; how could others determine where others will settle down? How could it not be a mistake to find others’ faults with our own faults? Although there is a difference between the senior and the junior and the wise and the stupid, as members of the sangha they are the same. Moreover, the wrong in the past may be right in the present, so who could distinguish the sage from the common person?

— Leighton and Okumura 1996, 45

Charles Peirce would regard these as two interpretants of one sign. As he remarked of a proverb, ‘Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of, it is one and the same representamen’ (EP2:203). In Peircean texts like this one, ‘representamen’ and ‘sign’ are two words for the same thing – which is obviously not an existing physical “thing,” since it can be embodied many times in many ways. But each translation, each embodiment, is also a sign in its own right; for ‘every representamen must be capable of contributing to the determination of a representamen different from itself’ (Peirce, same paragraph).

Each person who actually follows Dogen’s guidance has to translate it into a functional part of his or her own habit-system, an interpretant sign which will in turn determine actual behavior. That interpretant behavior may contribute to the guidance systems of other monks … and so on. If that happens, the monk’s potential to be a sign is realized. All of this is part of what it means for Dogen’s expressed thought to mean anything. And part of what it means for you to read the two translations above is to read them as interpretants of one sign even though they are two signs. Try that …

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