This post is sooooo late. I wanted to have it done soon after “Rohatsu,” the eight-day retreat from from November 30 to December 8. The week was long and abundant with challenges, joys and insights… I could write a chapbook. Between catching up on rest after the retreat, and on-going monastic life, I was not tapped in to the muse to distill it all for you. Now I am in Ohio visiting my parents and family for the holidays, and have some respite to edit my jumbled draft. Hop on; here goes….
“Rohatsu” means the 8th day of the 12th month, which is supposedly the day that Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, became enlightened (more on this another time). It is also known as “Bodhi Day.” The week is intended to be the deepest dive of the year in to meditative mind, and even to fully awaken. One must bring great determination and courage to engage in the rigorous schedule and to see deeply in the pure nature of human consciousness. The days are longer than regular retreats (4:00AM-10:30 PM). Plus, every two days a half an hour is added to the schedule, and on the last night one has the option to stay up and meditate all night, as Siddartha did. By that time, “all night” only means from 12:00 AM until the wake up bell at 4:00 AM when a new day starts.
I was very much looking forward to this sesshin, to immerse myself in the kiln of long and profound meditation. It was to be my third Rohatsu ever, but my first at DBZ. Thirty four people in all attended, a nice amount to make a strong meditation container. A couple of days prior, I was told my officer role would be assistant jisha, or temple attendant… lots of care-taking of the space, organizing temple cleaning, serving of beverages and treats, and the like. Then I was asked to make breakfast everyday. OK, but darn, as that would cut in to meditation time, but not too much. Soon after I was told I would not be assistant jisha, but assitant tenzo (kitchen help), as I was on the prior retreat. But, I was told, I would only have to help periodically; I would still get to sit a lot.
It is important to know that the role of tenzo, or head chef, is taken quite seriously in Zen monastic culture. Tenzo means “heavenly monk,” and the person selected must first and foremost be deeply spiritually committed, and infuse the food with reverence and care. Naturally, the same ethos applies to tenzo assistants. How a tenzo handles the food influences the quality of the monks’ bodies and minds, and thus their practice and the community as a whole. Actual cooking skills were secondary in olden times when meals were quite simple. Now there is a higher culinary expectation, and planning and executing the meals is quite an organizational and creative task.
On day one, I prepared breakfast per usual, which is “okayu,” or rice porridge (the toppings are toasted sesame seeds, nori seaweed flakes, and soy sauce), pickled vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and sliced fruit. The prep is routine for me now, but I always delight in making food for people. Particularly, accurate and efficient use of a kitchen knife is a joy and meditation for me, so making the fruit mandalas is quite satisfying. After breakfast I helped with lunch prep, then spent the rest of the day in meditation, yoga and a dokusan session with the abbess. Sweet! The best of both worlds.
But starting on day two, part-time became full-time, and I was in the kitchen from 5:15AM to 6:30PM every day, plus at 10:30PM to start the next day’s okayu. I only got to go to the zendo in the evening (which was about three hours of meditation). But by then I would be very tired from the kitchen bustle, legs aching and knees a bit swollen from standing all day. I had to fight sleep and was doing “bobbing zen,” dozing off and drooping forward until reflexes jerked me back upright, and maybe a bit awake. Each time I would get determined: “OK, that was the last one. I’m staying awake now.” One or two or maybe three conscious breaths, and the next thing I know I’m startling myself out of slumber as my slumping body yanked itself upright again. Sigh…
Before I tell more of my story, I will introduce you to the tenzos. In Buddhism (and other traditions), there is an ideal of two or more people doing something together as “one mind.” In the unity of all things, this one-mind is already the case, and the appearance of separate selves with separate perceptions is just fanciful display. But since this display has its own realness to it, we look at this one-mind state as something to strive for, or cultivate (If this perspective is new to you, chew on it a while…).
In a community or group that regularly does things together, a collective awareness and functioning tends to be the norm, of course in varying degrees depending on the people, the culture, the activity and so on. It is even more the case in a setting like a monastery, where there are practices, beliefs, language, and intentions that are already collectively engaged in, so being in this one-mind comes easier (wouldn’t it be an interesting social experiment to teach meditation to groups and communities, offering this perspective?)
I never saw one-mind so amazingly displayed as by the head and second chefs during this retreat. The head chef, Jusui, is Korean and grew up in South America. The second chef, or better yet, the other head chef, Keigetsu, is Chinese. They have both collaborated in this kitchen before, but other than that have not necessarily spent all that much time together. However, watching them co-create meals and work together, you would think they had spent their whole lives cooking together. Their interplay and coordination and spontaneity were uncanny, much like well-structured yet improvised jazz (which, done well, is sonic zen). The dishes reflected both the roots of their cultures and the freedom of contemporary fusion. If you had come to this retreat only for the food, there is a good chance you would have left enlightened due to it. These radiant cooks a good indicator of that!
As the week progressed, to remain meditative became a struggle as incessant mind chatter increasingly infected my day. It was a lot like that tickle at the back of your throat that hints that you may be getting sick, and perhaps you do something to stave it off, but to no avail: the illness takes over and there is no getting out of it quickly. I yearned for the silence of the zendo, but eventually remembered, “Wherever we go, there we are,” and that “peace” is found neither in an external circumstance, nor in repression of internal noise: it is a state inherent within, to be chosen, at will, moment to moment. So, I continued to practice returning to the present best I could, not giving in to nor fighting the mental chatter, nor trying to stop the frustration that arose in me.
Contrary to the stillness and silence in the zendo, being in the tenzo necessitates talking and activity, which is often a flurry of tending to multiple stages of meal preparation, and of multiple dishes, all at once. At each meal, everyone has their own three bowls to eat from, called a jihatsu set, and so the tenzos must prepare a dish for each bowl, or nine different dishes a day. Plus there is the never-ending washing of pots, pans, bowls, utensils.
Sometimes our planning and prep talk slid in to non-essential chatting as we sampled each other’s dishes and discussed past culinary experiences. That could start us dipping in to topics having nothing to do with food or the intention or spirit of the retreat, which can become a self-perpetuating slippery slope. We would help each other return to silence, and when the focus was strong it was its own unique vibe: three individuals each doing different things, yet in and as “one mind” exclusively focused on preparing high quality meals with great care.
During an officer meeting (of which I was not a part), a concern was expressed that the ambiance in the kitchen had gotten too noisy. There was certainly some truth to that, and yet Roshi interjected that the quality of the food being served showed that the level of attention was “impeccable.” Both comments were helpful feedback.
Despite the flow we were in, getting meals completed on time and enjoying a high-speed co-creative ride, I could not shake the frustration of the blabber going on in my head. I was discouraged, yet fortunately kept fueled by my fierce sense of persistence. As the week progressed I was brought in closer to Jusui and Keigetsu’s creative process, and asked to make dishes. A new level of focus was required of me. An asparagus soup was suggested, and I picked a recipe from one of the many cookbooks available. We did not have the exact amounts of ingredients the recipe called for, including not enough asparagus. However, I like to improv on recipes anyway, so the soup quickly became my own creation… a greater leek-to-asparagus ratio, a hint of my favorite spice: coriander, more garlic…just because. I was not thinking much of it, just making soup with a passion to create and to feed people well, while juggling the many other tasks at hand.
The next feedback from the officer meeting was that Roshi loved the asparagus soup. To hear that suddenly cut through the trap I had been in, the “good-versus-bad” judgment I had been making of my practice, or specifically, of me. And that despite the times I am not laser focused, and maybe spun off in thoughts and/or emotions, I do sustain a deep commitment to the awakening process and to be of service to the world with that awareness, and it does come through, like sunlight through clouds. This helps me see myself and others with clarity and compassion: At any given we’re all doing our best, and learning as we go.
Jusui had a similar experience, in which we collaborated on making kubocha squash baked with a miso-rice syrup glaze, topped with black sesame seeds. At the last minute before setting the dish out, she was sprinkling the seeds on. “Oh no!” she said. “The seeds look like mice pooped on the squash.” I went over to look, and indeed, they did. We were too close to meal time to back-peddle, so she just sprinkled more on, so they were seeds would be more obvious. She still was not confident with the presentation. After the meal was finished, there were very few leftovers, so again, good feedback: despite our judgments in the flurry of a time-crunched creative process, our intention and focus created something that pleased and nourished. We had a good laugh about it, as while we were eating the leftovers (tenzos eat after dinner is done, not with the community), we saw Jusui’s notebook cover, which had the perfect reminder…
So, wherever you go, there you are, and remember you are doing your best. Sure, we get reminders we could be doing better, but that does not negate what one has brought and offered in the process of cooking and serving this mysterious meal called “Life.” And as you inquire more deeply in to this being human, who is doing?… who is experiencing?…
P.S., when not being an awesome chef, Jusui makes a line of skin care products called Eir. Check it out.
Also, a great cookbook called “Three Bowls” came from the Dai Bosatsu kitchen and one of its former tenzos. It’s been one of my favorites for years. I highly recommend it.