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

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).


~ by lindabeekeeper on February 14, 2008.

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