(If Zen Master Dogen had written the Tenzo Kyokun in 2011)
If we would understand the duties of the Cook, we must study the Health Department Regulations thoroughly. Food workers must wash their hands, avoid cross contamination, and always refrigerate potentially-hazardous foods within two hours. They should rotate food stocks so the oldest items are used first. However, just cooking is not enough. The Tenzo must keep his mind as spotless as his counters. When sautéing, he should maintain equanimity toward all ingredients being neither attached to virgin olive oil nor judgmental towards oils that pack clean panties in their purses for nights out with someone named Rocco. The Tenzo must be single-minded yet practical, wasting not even a single corn chip not even the broken ones in the bottom of the bag. His view of Enlightenment must be so kaleidoscopic that he can produce a sixteen-foot Buddha from a tofu hotdog or enough flapjacks to feed Paul Bunyan’s big blue ox from flour and baking powder.
When I was a young trainee who’d just gotten off the I-5, I came upon an ancient Tenzo standing in a long line at the 7-Eleven. The customers in front of him showed little respect, leaving cases of beer at the counter and returning to the aisles for forgotten items. His aged eyebrows were like two albino caterpillars. Bags of chips and jars of salsa weighted his arms as if he were holding up the very Earth. Feeling concern for him on account of the cashier who was preoccupied with the Lotto machine, I asked him, “Why don’t you give these duties to a junior trainee?”
“They are not me. Since this is the training of my old age, how could I delegate it to others? The abbot has entrusted me with the preparations for the May 5 celebration. Who but I can ensure the trainees relish the six tastes: original, nacho cheese, cool ranch, chili and lime, spicy Italian, and onion-garlic?”
“But wouldn’t it be better to spend your time in a jeweled monastery washing rice, pressing tofu, and grinding sesame seeds?”
“My young new-ager, you know nothing of the true meaning of Buddhist training.”
Somewhat ashamed of my ignorance I asked, “What is it?”
“No task is more common than providing nourishment for the body. If you cannot find Enlightenment in your everyday life, where will you find it? I suggest you come to the Zen center some time and we can discuss this matter further. Now if you’ll excuse me, the game is about to start in fifteen minutes.”
Some days later I found myself at the Zen center. He greeted me warmly. Over a lunch of Tofurky brats with hot mustard and corn on the cob dripping with butter, we continued the discussion that started in the 7-Eleven.
“To understand the true character of the Buddha’s teaching you must penetrate deeply into the discipline.”
“What is that discipline?” I asked.
“Always preheat the oven to four hundred degrees for twenty minutes.”
In the early years of my training I did exactly as he said but now I recognize the merits of heating my meals in the microwave.
It is said that we live in the age of degenerate Dharma and that none can match the understanding of the masters of old. Indeed even I, when standing on tip toes and reaching overhead, cannot touch the soles of the ancestors’ Doc Martens. Few these days can season a cast-iron skillet, cut butter and flour into a pie crust, set the correct temperature to deep fry potatoes, or heat water and sugar into a fondant. Yet even though we live in this degenerate age if we apply ourselves diligently, we may embrace the True Way.