Sunday, January 13, 2013

Adapted for the American Kitchen by Jon Wesick

(If Zen Master Dogen had written the Tenzo Kyokun in 2011)

Among the chief officers of a Zen center that of Tenzo or Chief Cook is always held by a senior trainee. It is important to understand that the Tenzo is utterly different than a waiter or short-order cook. The Tenzo must infuse even the simplest vinaigrette with the flavor of Liberation. None but the finest have ever been entrusted with the office of Tenzo. They are the choicest cuts, the sweetest potatoes, the most tender bamboo shoots of all the trainees. Such ancient worthies as Zeppo have held this office. Consider his exchange with Zen master Nicholson as an example of the depth of his training.

“If I remove the chicken salad from a chicken salad sandwich, what remains?” Nicholson asked.

“No tip remains.”

“One day you shall be enlightened,” Nicholson said, “but I will not be dining here when you are.”

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.

Sadly, these teachings are not well known in this country. At one Zen center I met a cook who had never heard of the Health Department Regulations. He didn’t bow nine times toward the meditation hall before serving lunch and allowed junior trainees to leave leftovers unrefrigerated while he watched the Food Network. It is a great pity that he squandered such a valuable opportunity for training, except, of course, for watching the Alton Brown show, which is truly spectacular.

The Tenzo must care for the Three Treasures like a mother cares for her children. Our mothers prepared decades of tuna casseroles, mac and cheese, and frozen pizzas for us. If they offered us these meals, surely we can offer the same to the Three Treasures.

We must always keep in mind the importance of the Tenzo. How would our lives be different if a herding girl had not offered the Buddha a meal of rice and milk? And how would that movie have ending, if Rémy hadn’t made ratatouille for the food critic Anton Ego? All trainees should understand these matters and apply themselves mindfully.

Author bio:

Host of the Gelato Poetry Series, instigator of the San Diego Poetry Un-Slam, and an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual, Jon Wesick has published more than sixty short stories in journals such as Clockwise Cat, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Space and Time, Zahir, Tales of the Talisman, Blazing Adventures, and Metal Scratches. He has also published over two hundred fifty poems. Jon has a Ph.D. in physics and is a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts. One of his poems won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest.

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