As I have mentioned a time or two so far, I’m pretty excited about the upcoming retreat.  It has been fun, albeit stressful, the last several years being on the planning side of the retreat.  Last year, Walsh and I took on really the entire logistical side of things, from booking the location to recruitment to online registration…essentially, we really just left the teaching up to Master Pearson. This, I believe is a better system.  He can focus on the curriculum without having to worry about the other aspects and can simply supervise the more “business” side of the process, sharing with us his expertise from years of putting the retreat together single handedly.  Another role which I assumed last year was the role of the retreats cook.  There were some ups and downs as I’m sure people recall (cough cough…fire alarms…cough cough!) and I had some great help from people (Ms. Quandt and my mom in particular).  I had never cooked myself for a group so large before although I have planned many menus for group programs as well as done logistics for large scale retreats (I do several of these a year in my professional life) but the actual cooking I found to be a bit daunting.

This year, I approach the task a new plan, a new menu with an emphasis on more traditional asian/buddhist cuisine, and more importantly a new mindset.  The other day Master Pearson mentioned to me that I had a new nickname for the retreat…”Tenzo,” he called me, “kitchen master.”  I laughed at this title at first but the more I’ve read about this traditional role, the more I have come to respect it and the more I look forward with excitement but also trepidation to playing “tenzo” at the retreat.  You see, within Zen Buddhist tradition, the role of Tenzo is taken extremely seriously.  Dogen, the founder of Japanese Zen and certainly one of the religion’s most prolific and respected scholars wrote a manual which he entitled Tenzo Kyokun, 典座教訓 Guide or Lessons for the Tenzo.  In this book, he described what it means to be a Tenzo as well as the myriad of rituals that a Tenzo follows in his work in the kitchen (i.e. washing rice over and over and over again to ensure that one is working with the purest product possible).  Dogen’s work, which I’ve now read excerpts of — whatever is available in translation online — is very interesting and it outlined several points which I will use as my guide this retreat.  For one thing, Dogen explains that the success or failure of the kitchen can affect deeply the overall success or failure of the retreat.  If the kitchen is running smoothly and the food on time and delicious, then it makes for a good retreat.  If not, things get behind and people are left feeling unsatisfied, hence making for a bad retreat – we remember this all to well from last year.  Secondly Dogen points out that for the Tenzo, the kitchen is his practice.  I really like this concept.  Last year I felt I was being pulled in a million directions.  Everytime I would get up to check on something or work on something in the kitchen, I would be chastised to return to class or I would feel guilty that I wasn’t in class.  Perhaps also, I drew too much attention to myself and this extra set of duties and hence drew unfair distinctions between myself and my classmates.  This year, I vow to be a much humbler Tenzo.  I want to treat the kitchen as my practice and cook with mindfulness rather than haughtiness.  I hope this will also be reflected in the quality of the food that is coming out of the kitchen, which incidentally, is another one of Dogen’s points.  According to Dogen, the Tenzo traditionally works alone, unassisted – though he could, in theory, deputize an assistant.  This being alone, explained Dogen, allowed the Tenzo to focus on his tasks, work neatly and silently and really approach his role with the mindfulness it required.  While I was so appreciative of everyone’s help and input last year, I think this year I will try to take Dogen’s lessons to heart and use the kitchen as my meditative space.

In their book 3 Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery, two retreat leaders share not only recipes from their monastery’s kitchen but also words of advice for cooking with mindfulness.  On one page, the authors cite a statement from their Roshi.  He writes,

The tenzo is one of the officers of the monastery whose main function is to prepare the food for the monastery.  But if that were all he had to do, then any kind of cook would suffice.  The difference between a cook and a tenzo is that the tenzo works in the kitchen as if it were a zendo (meditation hall).  By neatly, cleanly, silently, and punctually preparing the food, he maintains a zazen atmosphere…When the tenzo is good, the rest of the sesshin goes well.  If he is sloppy, the other monks find it more difficult to go on.  Working behind closed doors in the kitchen, the tenzo himself remains inconspicuous, but his work is most conspicuous, most influential. 

I look forward to the opportunity to cook for everyone again…this time as your Tenzo.

We’ll see you there!


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