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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ZEN MONASTERIES have traditionally had six officers who are all Buddha's disciples and all share buddha activities. Among them, the tenzo is responsible for preparing meals for the monks. Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "In order to make reverential offerings to monks, there is a position called tenzo."

Since ancient times this position has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment. This is so because the position requires wholehearted practice. Those without way-seeking mind will not have good results, in spite of their efforts...

The cycle of the tenzo's work begins after the noon meal. First go to the director and assistant director to receive the ingredients for the next day's morning and noon meals—rice, vegetables, and so on. After you have received these materials, take care of them as your own eyes. Zen Master Baoning Renyong said, "Protect the property of the monastery; it is your eyeball." Respect the food as though it were for the emperor. Take the same care for all food, raw or cooked...

When you wash rice and prepare vegetables, you must do it with your own hands, and with your own eyes, making sincere effort. Do not be idle even for a moment. Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another. Do not give away your opportunity even if it is merely a drop in the ocean of merit; do not fail to place even a single particle of earth at the summit of the mountain of wholesome deeds.

Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "If the six tastes are not suitable and if the food lacks the three virtues, the tenzo's offering to the assembly is not complete." Watch for sand when you examine the rice. Watch for rice when you throw away the sand. If you look carefully with your mind undistracted, naturally the three virtues will be fulfilled and the six tastes will be complete.

Xuefeng was once tenzo at the monastery of Dongshan Liangjie. One day when Xuefeng was washing rice, master Dongshan asked him, "Do you wash the sand away from the rice or the rice away from the sand?"

Xuefeng replied, "I wash both sand and rice away at the same time."

"What will the assembly eat?" said Dongshan. Xuefeng covered the rice-washing bowl.

Dongshan said, "You will probably meet a true person some day." This is how senior disciples with way-seeking mind practiced in olden times. How can we of later generations neglect this practice?...

Personally examine the rice and sand so that rice is not thrown away as sand. Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "In preparing food, the tenzo should personally look at it to see that it is thoroughly clean." Do not waste rice when pouring away the rice water. Since olden times a bag has been used to strain the rice water. When the proper amount of rice and water is put into an iron pot, guard it with attention so that rats do not touch it or people who are curious do not look in at it.

After you cook the vegetables for the morning meal, before preparing the rice and soup for the noon meal, assemble the rice buckets and other utensils, and make sure they are thoroughly clean. Put what is suited to a high place in a high place, and what belongs in a low place in a low place. Those things that are in a high place will be settled there; those that are suited to be in a low place will be settled there. Select chopsticks, spoons, and other utensils with equal care, examine them with sincerity, and handle them skillfully.

After that, work on the food for the next day's meals. If you find any grain weevils in the rice, remove them. Pick out lentils, bran, sand, and pebbles carefully. While you are preparing the rice and vegetables in this way, your assistant should chant a sutra for the guardian spirit of the hearth.

When preparing the vegetables and the soup ingredients to be cooked, do not discuss the quantity or quality of these materials which have been obtained from the monastery officers; just prepare them with sincerity. Most of all you should avoid getting upset or complaining about the quantity of the food materials. You should practice in such a way that things come and abide in your mind, and your mind returns and abides in things, all through the day and night.

Organize the ingredients for the morning meal before midnight, and start cooking after midnight. After the morning meal, clean the pots for boiling rice and making soup for the next meal. As tenzo you should not be away from the sink when the rice for the noon meal is being washed. Watch closely with clear eyes; do not waste even one grain. Wash it in the proper way, put it in pots, make a fire, and boil it. An ancient master said, "When you boil rice, know that the water is your own life." Put the boiled rice into bamboo baskets or wooden buckets, and then set them into trays. While the rice is boiling, cook the vegetables and soup. You should personally supervise the rice and soup being cooked. When you need utensils, ask the assistant, other helpers, or the oven attendant to get them. Recently in some large monasteries positions like the rice cook or soup cook have been created, but this should be the work of the tenzo. There was not a rice cook or a soup cook in olden days; the tenzo was completely responsible for all cooking.

When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind. Take up a blade of grass and construct a treasure king's land; enter into a particle of dust and turn the great dharma wheel. Do not arouse disdainful mind when you prepare a broth of wild grasses; do not arouse joyful mind when you prepare a fine cream soup. Where there is no discrimination, how can there be distaste? Thus, do not be careless even when you work with poor materials, and sustain your efforts even when you have excellent materials. Never change your attitude according to the materials. If you do, it is like varying your truth when speaking with different people; then you are not a practitioner of the way.

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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