On the Tenzo Kyokun

To my mind, Dogen’s essay ‘Tenzo Kyokun’ expresses several important aspects of our practice.  First, of course it highlights the spiritual dimension of what we may think of as mundane daily activities.  Today, we do less cooking than ever before, but for millennia cooking was the epitome of daily housework.  It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the cooks in a monastery might have just been service providers – in today’s context, maybe the monks would just hire contractors to do the cooking while they focus on more important matters of the spirit.  Of course, we know that’s not what a spiritual practice is about – if our practice doesn’t bring meaning into our daily activities, what good is it?  So Dogen really emphasizes that not only is cooking a spiritual practice, it’s maybe the most advanced spiritual practice, only for teachers who are settled in the way.  This makes sense within a monastery – you want the person heading up the kitchen to be solid, to have a good understanding of the practice and to really be able to turn the kitchen into a place of practice as surely as the zendo is a place of practice.  This is not a unique perspective to Soto Zen or to Buddhism.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who wrote along these very lines:

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

That brings me to the next important aspect expressed by this essay: the transformational quality of our attention.  When we wholeheartedly bring our attention and our efforts to what is right in front of us, we make our environment into what M.F.K. Fisher describes as a place.  “When you walk into a workshop or a studio or classroom of a dedicated teacher, you get this same magical feeling – The key is that concentrated, conscientious work is done there regularly.  In a place, something hangs in the air – a life, a spirit.  You are held there not merely by comfort, but by interest and expectation:  important things go on here.”

Finally, I think Tenzo Kyokun touches on another aspect of practice, our desire to have, as much as possible, experiences that are unmediated.  I mean this in a few different ways – Dogen emphasizes the importance of one-pointedness in the work of the Tenzo, paying close attention to the work at hand, not getting so wrapped up in one aspect of it that you lose track of the rest of the situation.  He also emphasizes the need to not judge the ingredients we are using – just do the best you can with simple ingredients, and don’t get too proud if you happen to have especially good ingredients.  So in this sense, I am referring to experience that is, as much as possible, unmediated by our own judgements, our own preferences, our own distractions.  It’s entirely enough to just cook the food.  Ed Brown tells a wonderful story about the early days at Tassajara, in fact it’s one of the founding stories of our tradition:

When I arrived in April of 1967 to undertake my role as head cook of the newly-founded Zen Mountain Center located at Tassajara Hot Springs, I soon became acquainted with the food habits and rituals of the residents. The center had not officially opened yet, but about twenty-five people were already living there. During my first meal preparation, someone informed me, “We do not use salt in the cooking.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. “You don’t use salt?” I stammered. No, of course not. The custom was explained to me as though I was from another planet, as though it were the most obvious thing. “We don’t use salt in the cooking because salt is bad for you. Everyone eats too much salt.” The explanation didn’t explain anything to me.

Arbitrary rulings are pretty common in community life everywhere. Someone knows what is right for everyone else, and although the rationale is vague and incoherent –no real information is conveyed–the authority wants you to go along with it (for your own good).

I found the idea of not using salt upsetting and disconcerting, but not being particularly adept at negotiation or inclined to throw my weight around, I went along with it until I had a chance to consult with Suzuki Roshi, our Zen teacher. These are, after all the kind of matters that can be easily resolved by higher spiritual authority.

“What shall I do?” I asked him. “Everybody has all these different ideas.”

“Different ideas? Like what?”

“They don’t want me to use salt. They say it’s bad for you,” I told him.

“You are the head cook,” he said, “you can use salt if you want.” The things a Zen teacher has to clarify. I was relieved. I wanted everyone to be happy and to agree—but they didn’t. I didn’t want to side against anybody, but the Roshi’s authority settled it for me. I could use salt.

Then I asked the Roshi if he had any advice for me as the cook. His answer was straightforward and down-to-earth: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup.”

         Zazen is close to an unmediated experience – just our senses, our thoughts, moment by moment.  When we go to the mountains and feel refreshed by the cool air and the sights and sounds of the mountains, we enjoy the unmediated quality of the experience.  There’s something wonderful about experiencing the natural world in our bodies, with no assistance from binoculars or cameras or even sunglasses – just feeling the form of the mountains, hearing the sounds of the valley streams.

Today, so much of our experience is mediated by corporate culture – we drive to work in our Honda cars and use our Apple computers and eat food from Whole Foods, we are largely separated from the basic physical reality of our lives by corporations.  Corporate culture was not an issue, as far as we can tell, during Dogen’s time, but the practice of the tenzo, that personal dedication to the daily work of living, and sharing our efforts to support our community, is perhaps the greatest antidote we have to the rising tide of disconnection we face in our society today.  So, I am pleased to be able to tell you that tonight’s period of zazen was not sponsored by Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, or Toyota.  Nor was it brought to us through a generous grant from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Instead, zazen was brought to us through our animal bodies and by our wild, fertile human hearts.


One thought on “On the Tenzo Kyokun

  1. Joe, thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt essay. Coincidentally, tricycle.com is screening a new documentary about sitting, cooking, and what it means to be in the world: Sit, by Yoko Okumura. A lovely short film, at 12 minutes.

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