Instructions for the Tenzo: the Six Flavors

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!


~ by lindabeekeeper on July 20, 2008.

One Response to “Instructions for the Tenzo: the Six Flavors”

  1. […] – bookmarked by 2 members originally found by omegajs on 2008-08-22 Buddhism and the Six Flavors – bookmarked by 1 […]

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