Instructions for the Tenzo: Preciousness of Food

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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~ by lindabeekeeper on March 22, 2008.

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