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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REFINED CREAM SOUP is not necessarily better than a broth of wild grasses. When you gather and prepare wild grasses, make it equal to a fine cream soup with your true mind, sincere mind, and pure mind. This is because when you serve the assembly—the undefiled ocean of buddha-dharma—you do not notice the taste of fine cream or the taste of wild grasses. The great ocean has only one taste. How much more so when you bring forth the buds of the way and nourish the sacred body. Fine cream and wild grasses are equal and not two. There is an ancient saying that monks' mouths are like a furnace. You should be aware of this. Know that even wild grasses can nourish the sacred body and bring forth the buds of the way. Do not regard them as low or take this lightly. A guiding master of humans and devas should be able to benefit others with wild grasses.

Again, do not consider the merits or faults of the monks in the community, and do not consider whether they are old or young. 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 came 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? Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, "A monk whether ordinary or sacred can pass freely through the ten directions."

If you have the spirit of "not dwelling in the realm of right and wrong," how can this not be the practice of directly entering unsurpassable wisdom? However, if you do not have this spirit, you will miss it even though you are facing it. The bones-and-marrow of the ancient masters is to be found in this kind of effort. The monks who will hold the position of tenzo in the future can attain the bones-and-marrow only by making such an effort. How can the rules of reverend ancestor Baizhang be in vain?

After I came back to Japan I stayed for a few years at Kennin Monastery, where they had the tenzo's position but did not understand its meaning. Although they used the name tenzo, those who held the position did not have the proper spirit. They did not even know that this is a buddha's practice, so how could they endeavor in the way? Indeed it is a pity that they have not met a real master and are passing time in vain, violating the practice of the way. When I saw the monk who held the tenzo's position in Kennin Monastery, he did not personally manage all of the preparations for the morning and noon meals. He used an ignorant, insensitive servant, and he had him do everything—both the important and the unimportant tasks. He never checked whether the servant's work was done correctly or not, as though it would be shameful or inappropriate to do so—like watching a woman living next door. He stayed in his own room, where he would lie down, chat, read sutras, or chant. For days and months he did not come close to a pan, buy cooking equipment, or think about menus. How could he have known that these are buddha activities? Furthermore, he would not even have dreamed of nine bows before sending the meals out. When it comes time to train a young monk, he still will not know anything. How regrettable it is that he is a man without way-seeking mind and that he has not met someone who has the virtue of the way. It is just like returning empty-handed after entering a treasure mountain or coming back unadorned after reaching the ocean of jewels.

Even if you have not aroused the thought of enlightenment, if you have seen a person manifesting original self you can still practice and attain the way. Or if you have not seen a person manifesting original self, but have deeply aroused the aspiration for enlightenment, you can be one with the way. If you lack both of these, how can you receive even the slightest benefit?

When you see those who hold positions as officers and staff in the monasteries of Great Song China, although they serve for a one-year term, each of them abides by three guidelines, practicing these in every moment, following them at every opportunity: (1) Benefit others—this simultaneously benefits yourself; (2) Contribute to the growth and elevation of the monastery; (3) Emulate masters of old, following and respecting their excellent examples.

You should understand that there are foolish people who do not take care of themselves because they do not take care of others, and there are wise people who care for others just as they care for themselves.

A teacher of old said:

Two-thirds of your life has passed,
not polishing even a spot of your source of
You devour your life, your days are busy with this
and that.
If you don't turn around at my shout, what can I do?

You should know that if you have not met a true master, you will be swept away by human desire. What a pity! It is like the foolish son of the wealthy man who carries a treasure from his father's house and discards it like dung. You should not waste your time as that man did...

If anything should be revered, it is enlightenment. If any time should be honored, it is the time of enlightenment. When you long for enlightenment and follow the way, even taking sand and offering it to Buddha is beneficial; drawing a figure of Buddha and paying homage also has an effect. How much more so to be in the position of tenzo. If you act in harmony with the minds and actions of our ancient predecessors, how can you fail to bring forth their virtue and practice?


Excerpted from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (North Point Press), edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. This passage was translated by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi.

Image 1: Dogen viewing the moon, Hokyo-ji, Fukui Prefecture.

Image 2: Persimmons, Mu Ch'i, thirteenth century, ink on paper.

Image 3: Raizan Roasting Yams, Takuan, seventeenth century, ink on paper.


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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