Instructions for the Tenzo: the Six Flavors

•July 20, 2008 • 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about the next section in Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo for a long time.

The Zen Monastic Standards states, “If the six flavours [24] are not in harmony and three virtues [25] are lacking, then the tenzo is not truly serving the community.”

Why would Dogen spend so much time and emphasis on insisting that the monks have food that embodies the six flavors and three virtues?

The six flavors are bitter, sour, sweet, hot, salty and mild according to the Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi and Anzan Hoshin roshi translation.  I believe that mild refers to the flavor umami, which is little known in the West.  The umami flavor is based on the presence of glutamates found in protein-rich foods like meat, cheese and stocks. Truly, a meal that balances these flavors would delight a gourmet.  But why would meals like this be important in a monastery?

In traditional chinese medicine, balancing the first five flavors will improve and maintain health.  Meals with all of these flavors would probably be nutritionally well balanced.  So, Dogen and his Tenzo are looking out for the wellbeing of the community. And, there would be something here to please everyone’s palate.  But, there would probably also be something in the meal, some dish or flavor, that would not be preferred.

The Tenzo has something to contribute, then, to the spiritual practice of the community.  The monks take their highly anticipated main meal of the day, knowing they must eat each morsel with awareness and not waste any.  But, they must cope with flavors that are pleasant, indifferent, and unpleasant to them with equanimity.  In monastic practice with little outside distraction, what an important practice mealtime can be!


Instructions for the Tenzo: Preciousness of Food

•March 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In Dogen’s mind, food is precious. The Tenzo should care for the rice, vegetables and other ingredients as if they were the pupils of his own eyes and respected as if they were for the emperor.

Food is extremely precious in all societies except where eating is totally separated from the labor to produce it. Farmers who grow food, gatherers who find it, hunters who pursue it and cooks who prepare it all know the work involved in feeding a family or community. When you nurture a plant for months, fighting off drought and pests to get the sustenance that will carry you through the winter, the harvest is a blessed event. And each grain is precious–precious enough to make it worthwhile for gleaners to come through a field after harvest making sure every kernel is found and saved.

I often think of the movie “The Seven Samurai” by Akiro Kurosawa. Rice is the theme running through the movie. A village is robbed of its rice crop each year by bandits. Village leaders get together a decide to hire Samurai to defend them against bandits. At this time, there are roving Samurai, not under any master and the village leaders find some who will work for the small amount of rice that the villagers save from the bandits. I remember one scene, where rice is thrown to the floor, and the villagers dive to pick up every grain. When the Samurai discover that the villagers are eating millet (thought to be an inferior food) to provide them their rice, they offer to share it. This powerful scene is a great visualization of how much even one bowl of rice is to these farmers.

Thomas Tusser, in his poem A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, talks about the necessity for prudent farmers to use every bit.

47 Be gredy to spende all, and careles to saue:
And shortly be nedy, and redy to craue.
Be wilfull to kill, and vnskilfull to store:
and sone giue vp housekeping longe any more.

All food providers know that eating requires killing. In my garden, no matter how careful I am, worms get cut in half by the spade. Even vegetarians cause the death of the plants that they eat. Native Americans, dependent upon the hunt had a very intimate relationship with their prey. According to Nathan Sherrer in an article entitled “Probing the Relationship Between Native Americans and Ecology” in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of Science and Health at the University of Alabama.,

“A key theme in Native American religion is the understanding of hunting as a reciprocal relationship between the hunter and the hunted. They also think of game animals as those that give themselves to the hunter for sustenance. Thinking about a successful hunt as primarily the receiving of a gift puts the emphasis, not on the actions and skill of the hunter, but on the violation of the animal who is killed. To give thanks for such a favor, the hunter in return reciprocates by observing a series of ritual gestures that communicate his respect and gratitude to the animal.”

In Zen, cooking is also seen as spirituality. In the book 3 bowls: Vegetarian Recipes from an American Z,aen Buddhist Monastery, author Seppo Ed Farrey observes:

Cooking is not only the preparation of food but a practice of spirituality. A practice of spirituality means not wasting even the stem of a vegetable. It involves economy of movement, punctuality and beauty of presentation. These are the elements that make our lives spiritually rich. We can be rich without a dollar. We can be destitute with a fortune.

Compare this approach to our modern American feelings about food. Not only are most of us separated from its production (The average food item travels about 1500 miles to our table) but we have increasingly less to do with its preparation. According to NPD Group’s 2006 report “Eating Patterns in America” only 47% of in home main meals included a fresh product. Michael Pollen in his new book In Defense of Food refers to most of what we eat as “edible food-like substances”. No wonder we, as a nation, are fat and unhappy. Whomping stuff in the microwave is generally not a spiritual practice. Not only that, as millions starve, we have the audacity to waste half of the food harvested. (Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, in a study from 2004 found that 40-50% of the foodstuffs ready for harvest never get eaten. And households waste 14% of their food purchases.)

Dogen wisely realized that if his monastery became too separated from the preciousness of their food, if they wasted it, they would soon find themselves without donations. In the Tenzo’s care, Dogen assured that food continued to have the status and honor that it had in the homes of its givers.

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Instructions for the Tenzo–Offerings

•March 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo (cook), he refers to the Zen Monastic Standards which states: “the tenzo functions as the one who makes offerings with reverence to the monks.” I am taken with the link between the cook and providing offerings. Of course, the laity have long provided food offerings to Buddhist monks. But in Japan, the offerings are brought to the temple daily, not distributed to the monks directly. Thus the Tenzo is intermediary for the laity’s gift. The Tenzo is responsible for adding (or at least maintaining) the value of the gift through the cooking process to its final destination. And in this way, the layperson, the gift of food, the Tenzo, the cooking, and the monk become one. Diminishing the value of any step in the diminishes the whole. In the verse for setting out the bowls, we refer to the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver and gift. The three wheels are empty of individual identity: they are one.

In real life, though, it takes a very strong person to prepare food for a group. Of course, tastes differ. But with a group sitting zazen for much of the day, thoughts have drifted to food more than once and expectations are high. How difficult it must be to plan a menu when food is donated and hoards of hungry monks are focusing on the result. How can a menu be varied when you don’t really know what you will get each day. I know that just planning a menu for my family, when I have control over the ingredients and their quality, is a challenge. And, my family is probably kinder to my failures than the monks would be. You have to really be enlightened to look upon each day with fresh eyes and unflagging vigor. It takes great mindfulness to be one with your ingredients and their recipients every day.

May I find the wisdom and mindfulness to make offerings with reverence to my family every day. It is truly actualizing the Way.

Instructions for the Tenzo by Dogen–Respecting our food and our cooks.

•February 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

My teacher, Jundo Cohen ( has suggested that I read Instructions for the Tenzo by Dogen.   (A Tenzo is a cross between a cook and a high executive in a Zen Buddhist community.)  How fitting, since I have been obsessed with local eating over the last couple of years and have just finished Michael Pollan’s insightful In Defense of Food. 

It may be surprising to Americans that Dogen placed such a high regard on “the cook”.     He says that

“Since ancient times this office has been held by realized monks who have the mind of the Way or by senior disciples who have roused the Way-seeking mind.”

This is good advice, since any institutional chef knows that no matter what they do, someone is bound not to like the food!  Monks who are focusing on the now will be intensely focused on their food.  And since Buddhist tradition mandates only one or two meals per day, the food increases in importance.  You have to be an enlightened individual who has a well balanced view to do your job well yet survive the inevitable criticism.

Also, it makes sense for the Tenzo to have a senior position in the community since food is probably the biggest line item in the budget.  Donors will expect that their donations be used well, not wasted, and that the community respects the effort that went into obtaining it.

Americans generally do not respect their food, spend their money on obtaining high quality food or spend much time preparing it, enjoying it or eating it.    I like to think that the things we eat contain the Universe and deserve great respect.

Take honey for example.  Bees gather the nectar of flowers and take it back to the hive in their honey stomachs.  There they transfer the nectar to other bees who chew the honey for about a half an hour.  They then place the honey in the cells of the honeycomb and other bees fan the cells to evaporate the water and make the syrup thicker.  When it is ready, the cell is capped and kept to feed the hive during the winter.  According to the Honey Association of the UK, it takes about two million flowers to produce a pound of honey and one bee makes about one twelfth of a teaspoon in its lifetime.  So, for the teaspoon of honey in my tea, it took 12 bees their entire lives to collect nectar from about 7,800 flowers.  How can one not respect that?

I really like the meal gatha that begins “72 labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us.”  I think if Americans spent more time knowing how their food came to them, we would be healthier, less obese, and a whole lot nicer to farmers (and bees).

We are all knots of awareness

•January 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment

String theory, as I understand it, says that the universe is made of strings and matter is knots in the string.  I like to think that we are all knots of awareness in the string of the universe.

A friend just sent me this link about Bose-Einstein condensates.  When an atom sits still, he says, it loses its sense of self too.

Bose Einstein Condensate 

Check it out!

2007 is one of the warmest years on record

•December 31, 2007 • Leave a Comment
Another warm one.
clipped from

ScienceDaily (Dec. 31, 2007) — The year 2007 is on pace to become one of the 10 warmest years for the contiguous U.S., since national records began in 1895, according to preliminary data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The year was marked by exceptional drought in the U.S. Southeast and the West, which helped fuel another extremely active wildfire season. The year also brought outbreaks of cold air, and killer heat waves and floods. Meanwhile, the global surface temperature for 2007 is expected to be fifth warmest since records began in 1880. Preliminary data will be updated in early January to reflect the final three weeks of December and is not considered final until a full analysis is complete next spring.

  blog it

The tyranny of stuff

•December 31, 2007 • Leave a Comment

A few years ago, I came across a thought from John Daido Loori, a Zen Master who has developed a training method called the Eight Gates of Zen. Work Practice is one of the eight gates and in a discussion about this practice, he said that you must have respect for your tools.

This dislodged a memory for me. My grandfather was many things but he began life on a farm and returned to farming during the Depression. He always had a garden and I helped him with it when I was a little girl. Every fall, he took the hoe, shovel and rake; sharpened them, put linseed oil on the handle, and hung them up on pegs for the winter. I’ve always had a garden as well, but I can’t say that I have had respect for my tools. It was a good day when my tools were not left out in the rain. They spent the winter with mud on them. The handles cracked and split from the elements and I just bought new ones when they no longer worked.

So many of my things met a similar fate. But, when I read Daido Loori’s Work Practice that included respecting tools, it got me thinking that each thing that I have is worthy of respect. It should be cared for, put away, appreciated. And, if I couldn’t care for it or appreciate it, I probably shouldn’t have it.

This new thought was mind blowing. First, it made me appreciate the tyranny of stuff. All the stuff that I have accumulated over the years was taking a toll on my psyche. My brain was always thinking that stuff needed to be dusted, put away, or mended. As I tried to meditate, stuff called to me to deal with it. I began to appreciate monks who only have three robes and a bowl to deal with.

This began my crusade to get rid of my stuff and to care for the things that remain with me. Sometimes it was difficult to part with things. But the more I sent to Goodwill or was able to discard, the less attached I was to the rest. And, the less stuff, the easier it is to clean, maintain or repair.

Also, respecting the things I do own makes me want to take care of them right away. To clean them as I use them and to place them where they belong. All of a sudden, housekeeping began to take less time. My house become more serene as there were less things that needed doing.

Of course, I haven’t always been able to respect my belongings as much as I should. And, periodically, I seem to need to purge accumulated stuff, or I find that I am no longer attached to certain items and can send it to a new home.

Christmas is often the time to merge new stuff with the old. Perhaps it is also a good time to find new homes for things we no longer use or need but can be of use to someone else. I feel another purge coming on and hope to be relieved of some of the tyranny of stuff. I may not get down to three robes and a bowl, but I’m working on it.