The Zen Kitchen: Unopening the Gift of Tenzo Practice

:: Post submitted by Fukutoku, Ann Morishita ::

In this food, I see clearly the entire presence of the universe supporting my existence.

Thich Nhat Hanh

On December fourth, the annual Rohatsu (Buddha’s enlightenment) seven-day retreat was held at Clouds in Water. For the members of the Tenzo Ryo group this is one of our largest events in which we prepare nineteen meals for about ten people each day. The dishes for the meals are made from scratch by. As you can imagine, it requires hours of planning and preparation, which provides lots of opportunity to experience the feeling of anxiety, elation, excitement, and overwhelm.

This year, Kikan, Valentine, Autumn and Taizan shared the responsibility with me. Valentine provided several prepared meals. Autumn came to the center and prepared the food on site. Kikan is learning the basics of the Tenzo duties and was assisting in the kitchen with me every day of the sesshin. He showed curiosity and flexibility around all the aspects of serving and meal preparation, despite being out of his comfort zone as a novice cook. Taizan, forgoing his last leisurely lunch before the retreat started, generously went shopping for supplies at the last minute. He also provided ideas and food for delicious main courses to serve in the first meal bowl. Last, but not least, those attending the sesshin were the elegant eaters of whatever food was served up in their oryoki (meal bowls).

For me, the work in our Zen kitchen was a deep opportunity to collaborate with others and call upon “don’t know mind,” all while strengthening my understanding of giver, receiver and gift. 

I ask myself: “What will other people bring to the process of food preparation?”

I reply: “I don’t know, but, I intend to accept their gift of time and food just as it is.”

What is Polenta? Forty minutes of stirring and boiling cornmeal. Then add some parmesan cheese in the last few minutes of cooking. From another point of view, it is the embodiment of the cook’s patience, perseverance and confidence.

What are hard boiled eggs? Boiling water, eggs, and agile fingers to pull off shells. They are also Autumn’s chickens cohabiting with humans and giving up their eggs. In return, for their offering, they receive human gratitude in the form of chicken feed made of vegetable peels and leftover oatmeal.

For everyone reading this, I invite you to open the gifts of cooking in your own life. These may include giver, receiver, gift, gratitude, generosity, and fortitude. We won’t know what precisely is in that gift until we prepare the meal.

Fukutoku, Ann Morishita is the Tenzo and a priest-in-training at Clouds In Water Zen Center. 

In the Zen Kitchen, the tenzo holds the responsibility of planning, preparing, and serving meals to the community. At Clouds in Water, our tenzo ryo consists of a group of volunteers who, as Fuku shared, ensure that everyone attending our sesshins receive delicious nourishment to support their practice.

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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