The person in charge of cooking in a Zen temple is called the tenzo Dogen Zenji viewed meal taking, indispensible to our daily life, as an extremely important act. In “Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Zen Cook)”, he describes the responsibility and the necessary attitude of those who prepare meals. In “Fushuku Hanpo (The Dharma of Taking Food)“, he explains the manners and state of mind for eating meals.
A major point emphasized throughout the Tenzokyokun is that preparing meals is a precious activity of the buddha and an important method of cultivation. This point is mentioned from various aspects repeatedly and carefully.
While having a Zen practice group, the participants are often assigned various functions, such as sounding the instruments or preparing the zazen hall. Many beginner participants are unwilling to take on the task of preparing meals. They claim that they did not join the group to cook for others, and that they only want to practice zazen. Unfortunately, this is the thinking of a person who does not understand Dogen Zenji’s teachings.
Cooking and zazen are not two separate things. It is necessary to learn that they both have an equal value as important forms of cultivation. Of course, it is difficult to fully understand this. Also, careless cooking without giving any thought to others is not a form of cultivation.
That is why Dogen Zenji repeatedly mentions that the position of tenzo was held by the great practitioners of the past who had the highest aspirations. He warned that halfheartedly working as the tenzo without understanding its significance will result in nothing but hard work and wasted opportunity.
Dogen Zenji also taught that the tenzo should personally do the work in the kitchen with care, and never leave it for others to do. Having others do the work means the chance for cultivation is lost. Avoiding the work of the tenzo in a Zen practice group means that you will lose that opportunity to understand Dogen Zenji’s true intention.
From the large viewpoint, this applies not only to cooking but also to carefully folding the futons after getting up in the morning, washing your face, brushing your teeth, using the latrine, and also to sweeping the temple precincts and placing the shoes neatly. Zazen is not practiced only on the meditation cushion. It is important to learn that all daily activities are also Zen.
An indispensable and staple food at Zen temples is okayu. Softly boiled okayu is gentle on the digestive track, and allows for the easy absorption of nutrients. Rice cooked with a large amount of water means that a smaller amount of rice can be used to feed many monks in training, and so is an economic choice.
To prepare the okayu, first wash the rice in a large amount of water, changing the water several times until it is no longer cloudy. Next, add a little salt to water five to eight times the volume of the rice and let it stand for 15 minutes to soak the rice. The amount of water determines the thickness of the okayu. Bring the rice to a boil over a high heat, and then change to the lowest heat setting and continue cooking for about 20 to 25 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let it stand covered to steam for about 10 minutes. Avoid stirring unnecessarily to prevent crushing the grains of rice and making the okayu overly sticky. Serve soon after cooking to prevent the rice from absorbing too much water. If adding solid ingredients to the okayu, add any harder ingredients that need cooking such as root vegetables to the pot and cook together with the rice from the beginning. Softer ingredients may be added at the steaming phase, or when serving.