‘If you are resolute in your intention and are most sincere, you will vow to be more pure-hearted than the ancients and surpass even the elders in attentiveness. The appropriate manner of putting the mind of the Way to work on this is to decide that even if the old masters got three coins and made a broth of coarse greens, now with the same three coins you will make a high-quality cream soup. This is difficult to do. Why is that? The difference between the ancients and people of today is as remote as that between heaven and earth. How could we ever stand even with them? However, when we attentively undertake this job, we can definitely surpass the old masters. This principle is a certainty that you still do not yet clearly understand, only because your thinking scatters like wild birds, and your emotions scamper around like monkeys in the forest.’ (Tenzo Kyokun)

This is not one of the most famous passage from this well-known writing by Dogen for the head of the monastery kitchen, but I have always enjoyed the flow of this particular section. The last line usually gets a laugh when I teach or discuss this, and the contrast between the broth of course greens and a high-quality cream soup runs through the whole text – though of course he is not just talking about soup. As to how we can possibly surpass the ancients: while acknowledging that Dogen is now an ancient master rather than a person of today, as when he was writing for the benefit of the nascent Japanese practice community, I like to draw attention to the repetition in the passage of ‘attentiveness’ and ‘attentively’.

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