Being Tenzo

SimonHaving had some experience of Zen training, I had settled on the approach of ‘sit at the back, say nothing, and never raise your hand, no matter how hard said appendage tries to raise itself skyward’. It was with quite some surprise then, that I found my hand shoot up towards the zendo ceiling and the fateful words ‘I can cook!’ come flying out of my oh-so-big mouth. Thus had destiny sidled up to me, grabbed me by the hand and said, “Come on, let’s see what’s down this one marked ‘Tenzo'”. We were running a centre with a skeleton crew (sound familiar?) and desperately needed someone to cook for a beginner’s mind weekend sesshin. Looking back, I realize that until that point I had never really thought about doing Tenzo, which surprises me now. I had watched a good friend of mine, on older monk, gradually drift into insanity as the travails of being Tenzo during a three month ango wore on. We heard his cries from the kitchen, sometimes all the way in the zendo, but rarely did we brave going to his aid, they have sharp knives in kitchens you know.

Simon with noshDuring that weekend, I vividly remember exiting the zendo after the first sit and walking into the kitchen in the adjoining house to cook breakfast. It was winter, still snowing, all the neighbourhood trees were like huge Christmas trees and first light was creating wonderful effects through the snow. It was so quiet. For some moments I sat and listened to the snow, listened to the silence of the sitting next door, felt as if I had entered my own world. Pretty soon, thoughts of porridge stumbled through into my reverie and activity beckoned. The greatest challenge was to make sure I could heat enough water to cook with and also for washing of the oriyoki* bowls, as we were at some altitude and only had two kettles. I had spent much of the previous week trying to find suitable bowls for those who did not own a set to be used for oriyoki. In the end I had struck a deal with a very helpful man at one of the local Chinese supermarkets, thus unknowingly continuing the great western Zen tradition of Chinese blue and white melamine oriyoki sets. When the porridge, called ‘oatmeal’ in those parts was ready, the team of servers appeared, ruddy faced and eager at the door. Four bowls of porridge, four of fruit, four of yoghurt and condiments of gomasio (roasted and salted sesame seeds) and sugar disappeared into the snow, carried away by billowing black shapes like black plastic bags in a storm. More bowls of hot water for cleaning the oriyoki sets, then everything returned for washing up by the wash up crew, and the first whispered greetings of the day. It was a relief to have got the first meal over without a hitch but of course the day had only just begun, as had my ‘career’ as Tenzo.

Since then I have served as Tenzo in many different situations and places. I have often cooked under canvas in desserts, where I had only to look up to see some of the most wonderful views on the planet. On one such retreat we were about sixty people and I had to rent a large truck to carry all the food in that was needed for the week. The first morning was cold and utterly beautiful, I made scrambled eggs and had to use up the whole weeks rations in one go to satisfy everyone’s hunger. I guess that’s what happens when you use cream and butter to make the eggs, people can’t stop eating them. So the gofer** had a sixty mile trip each way, thirty of those off road, into the local store for that one. Cooking in different countries and for different teachers always has its challenges. Strange to say, different people often have different views on what exactly should be served as the appropriate food for Zen training. On one retreat the teacher insisted that we had a full i.e. meat breakfast every day, and also a cooked dinner with meat each evening. The fridge was packed full of meat for the whole week, with chicken portions squeezed in at the very top which I had decided to cook on the last evening. Come the last day and I retrieved the chicken from the fridge and was intrigued to find it fully cooked. Remember, this chicken had spent the last week nowhere but the fridge, how could this be. After some investigation i realized that as the fridge was so full the light had remained on even when the door was shut and it’s heat had ‘cooked the goose’ (ok, the chicken). What to do? Forty or so hungry retreatants and a last night’s dinner to prepare. I did the only thing any reasonable man could do under the circumstances, I made a curry! To the best of my knowledge no one died.

During last winter I was the Tenzo for the Japanese Soto training ango, this was a great experience. Before the ango started, I had the honour of being ‘coached’ by the Tenzos of some of the main monasteries in Japan in the finer points of rice gruel and pickle making, amongst other things, which was great fun.  During this time I re-read Dogen Zenji’s Instructions to the Cook and also Uchiyama Roshi’s commentaries. In future blogs I’d like to share more about these experiences. Thank you.


*Oriyoki: A ritualised form for meals used in some Zen training centres.
** Gofer: One person’s job on retreat is to be the person sent to ‘go fer’ shopping and other errands!