Filed in Zen (Chan), Food

Instructions for the Tenzo

Zen Master Dogen

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In a traditional Zen monastery, the position of tenzo, or head cook, is held by a monk who is considered to "have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment." Here, Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) instructs his monks on the importance of the position of the tenzo as it had been established in Regulations for Zen Monasteries, a Chinese collection of guidelines for monastic life written in the early twelfth century.

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IF YOU ENCOURAGE YOURSELF with complete sincerity, you will want to exceed monks of old in wholeheartedness and ancient practitioners in thoroughness. The way for you to attain this is by trying to make a fine cream soup for three cents in the same way that monks of old could make a broth of wild grasses for that little. It is difficult because the present and olden times differ as greatly as the distance between heaven and earth; no one now can be compared with those of ancient times. However, if you practice thoroughly there will be a way to surpass them. If this is not yet clear to you it is because your thoughts run around like a wild horse and your feelings jump about like a monkey in the forest. When the monkey and horse step back and reflect upon themselves, freedom from all discrimination is realized naturally.

This is the way to turn things while being turned by things. Keep yourself harmonious and wholehearted in this way and do not lose one eye or two eyes. Taking up a green vegetable, turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body; take a sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable leaf. This is a miraculous transformation—a work of Buddha that benefits sentient beings.

When the food has been cooked, examine it, then carefully study the place where it should go and set it there. You should not miss even one activity from morning to evening. Each time the drum is hit or the bell struck, follow the assembly in the monastic schedule of morning zazen and evening practice instruction.

When you return to the kitchen, you should shut your eyes and count the number of monks who are present in the monks' hall. Also count the number of monks who are in their own quarters, in the infirmary, in the aged monks' quarters, in the entry hall, or out for the day, and then everyone else in the monastery. You must count them carefully. If you have the slightest question, ask the officers, the heads of the various halls or their assistants, or the head monk.

When this is settled, calculate the quantities of food you will need: for those who need one full serving of rice, plan for that much; for those who need half, plan for that much. In the same manner you can also plan for a serving of one-third, one-fourth, one-half, or two halves. In this way, serving a half portion to each of two people is the same as serving one average person. Or if you plan to serve nine-tenths of one portion, you should notice how much is not prepared; or if you keep nine-tenths, how much is prepared.

When the assembly eats even one grain of rice from Luling, they will feel the monk Guishan in the tenzo, and when the tenzo serves a grain of this delicious rice, he will see Guishan's water buffalo in the heart of the assembly. The water buffalo swallows Guishan, and Guishan herds the water buffalo.

Have you measured correctly or not? Have the others you consulted counted correctly or not? You should review this closely and clarify it, directing the kitchen according to the situation. This kind of practice—effort after effort, day after day—should never be neglected.

When a donor visits the monastery and makes a contribution for the noon meal, discuss this donation with the other officers. This is the traditional way of Zen monasteries. In the same manner, you should discuss how to share all offerings. Do not assume another person's functions or neglect your own duties.

When you have cooked the noon meal or morning meal according to the regulations, put the food on trays, put on your kashaya [a patched robe worn over one shoulder], spread your bowing cloth, face the direction of the monks' hall, offer incense, and do nine full bows. When the bows are completed, begin sending out the food.

Prepare the meals day and night in this way without wasting time. If there is sincerity in your cooking and associated activities, whatever you do will be an act of nourishing the sacred body. This is also the way of ease and joy for the great assembly.

Although we have been studying Buddha's teaching in Japan for a long time, no one has yet recorded or taught about the regulations for preparing food for the monks' community, not to mention the nine bows facing the monks' hall, which people in this country have not even dreamed of. People in our country regard the cooking in monasteries as no more developed than the manners of animals and birds. If this were so it would be quite regrettable. How can this be?

IN THE FIFTH MONTH of the sixteenth year of Jiading [1223], I was staying on a ship at Qingyuan. One time while I was talking with the captain, a monk about sixty years old came on board. He talked to a Japanese merchant and then bought some mushrooms from Japan. I invited him to have tea and asked where he came from. He was the tenzo of Mt. Ayuwang.

"I am from Shu in western China," he said, "and have been away from my native place for forty years. Now I am sixty-one years old. I have visited monasteries in various places. Some years ago, priest Daoquan became abbot of Guyun Temple at Mt. Ayuwang, so I went to Mt. Ayuwang and entered the community and have been there ever since. Last year when the summer practice period was over, I was appointed tenzo of the monastery. Tomorrow is the fifth day of the fifth month, but I have nothing good to offer the community. I wanted to make a noodle soup, but we did not have mushrooms, so I made a special trip here to get some mushrooms to offer to the monks from the ten directions. "

I asked him, "When did you leave there?"

"After the noon meal."

"How far is Mt. Ayuwang?"

"Thirty-four or thirty-five Ii [about twelve miles]."

"When are you going back to your monastery?"

"I will go back as soon as I have bought mushrooms." I said, "Today we met unexpectedly and had a conversation on this ship. Is it not a good causal relationship? Please let me offer you a meal, Reverend Tenzo."

"It is not possible. If I don't oversee tomorrow's offering, it will not be good."

"Is there not someone else in the monastery who understands cooking? Even if one tenzo is missing, will something be lacking?"

"I have taken this position in my oId age. This is the fulfillment of many years of practice. How can I delegate my responsibility to others? Besides, I did not ask for permission to stay out."

I again asked the tenzo, "Honorable Tenzo, why don't you concentrate on zazen practice and on the study of the ancient masters' words rather than troubling yourself by holding the position of tenzo and just working? Is there anything good about it?"

The tenzo laughed a lot and replied, "Good man from a foreign country, you do not yet understand practice or know the meaning of the words of ancient masters."

Hearing him respond this way, I suddenly felt ashamed and surprised, so I asked him, "What are words? What is practice?"

The tenzo said, "If you penetrate this question, how can you fail to become a person of understanding?"

But I did not understand. Then the tenzo said, "If you do not understand this, please come and see me at Mt. Ayuwang some time. We will discuss the meaning of words." He spoke in this way, and then he stood up and said, "The sun will soon be down. I must hurry." And he left.

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wilnerj's picture

"I peered into the kitchen and saw the tenzo working. He was without sight."

kammie's picture

I love this passage. It feels so clarifying.

melcher's picture