From ancient times communities of the practice of the Way of Awake Awareness have had six office holders who, as disciples of the Buddha, guide the activities of Awakening the community. Amongst these, the tenzo bears the responsibility of caring for the community’s meals. The Zen Monastic Standards states, “The tenzo functions as the one who makes offerings with reverence to the monks.”
Since ancient times this office has been held by realized monks who have the mind of the Way or by senior disciples who have roused the Way-seeking mind. This work requires exerting the Way. Those entrusted with this work but who lack the Way-seeking mind will only cause and endure hardship despite all their efforts. The Zen Monastic Standards states, “Putting the mind of the Way to work, serve carefully varied meals appropriate to each occasion and thus allow everyone to practice without hindrance.”
The above are the first two paragraphs of the Tenzo Kyokun, an essay written in the 13th century by a Zen monk named Dogen. The title literally translates to “Instructions for the Cook”, but as noted in the paragraphs above, the tenzo is more than a cook. Instead, the tenzo is someone who does his utmost to serve his community through nourishing food that supports their practice. In so doing, his actions become a form of worship, and his selfless service becomes a tool for transformation of himself and others.
Dogen takes the role of tenzo very seriously, noting that it is held by monks who have already become enlightened or who are long-time, advanced practitioners. This may come as a surprise to those of us who consider cooking a simple matter. In the West, the role of cook has often been considered subservient, only respected if the cook has culinary prowess and can be considered a “chef”. What is it about cooking for a monastic community that is so significant that it needs to be underdone by an enlightened master? And what can we, living as householders 800 years later, learn from Dogen’s exhortations?
Do not just leave washing the rice or preparing the vegetables to others but use your own hands, your own eyes, your own sincerity. Do not fragment your attention but see what each moment calls for; if you take care of just one thing then you will be careless of the other. Do not miss the opportunity of offering even a single drop into the ocean of merit or a grain atop the mountain of the roots of beneficial activity.
Wherever we are, we can begin to be mindful of all aspects of our actions and how harmoniously they fit within the whole. We can work to be simultaneously aware of the vast universal picture in which everything is awakened presence, and of the immediate needs of the present in which we take responsibility for assessing a situation and taking practical steps to address it. We can work with gratitude for all that comes our way, neither grasping with likes nor pushing away with dislikes. In this way, even the most basic and practical actions become tools of transformation. We may not be monks in this lifetime, but we can find the opportunity to awaken in what we do every day.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. Recently, she edited Parvati’s new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, which has gone on to sell out its first printing run.