begin after noon

The story goes that Dogen saw the elderly tenzo of Mt. Tiantong drying some mushrooms.

He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat on his head.  The sun was very hot, scorching the pavement.  it looked very painful; his backbone was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as a crane.

I went up to the tenzo and asked, “How long have you been a monk?”

“Sixty-eight years,” he replied.

“Why don’t you let a helper do it?”

“Others are not myself.”

Who else would do the work of my life?  Who else can see the delusions, graspings, and blindness?  Who else can see the pleasures, contentment, and skilfulness? Are there another set of eyes that can discern better the wisdom in the choices I’ve made or the wild lack of insight in the choices that lead to disaster?

In Instructions to the Cook, Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields use Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo as a template for Glassman’s social action work that lead to the creation of the Greyston Mandala, a network of businesses and not-for-profit organizations.  With metaphoric recipes, Glassman addresses the way we can become the tenzo of our lives.  I cringed a lot through the massacre of the central metaphor of menus, courses, and ingredients and thankfully that was only the first few pages.  Once he settled down to the business of creativity, the ideas became useful.

Before diving into sharing Glassman’s occasional gems, I went back to the source, Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen’s Instructions for the Tenzo (in Moon in a Dewdrop)This sentence struck me – and perhaps only because I feel I’m at a juncture of my life where a shift is about to happen that couldn’t happen before this moment.

The cycle of the tenzo’s work begins after the noon meal.

This is when the tenzo, with the officers of the kitchen, plans the meals for the next day.  I wonder, is it past noon already in this lifespan?  What is the meal I am to plan?

From Glassman,

Zen masters call a life that is lived fully and completely, with nothing held back, “the supreme meal.”  And a person who lives such a life – a person who knows how to plan cook, appreciate, serve, and offer the supreme meal of life, is called a Zen cook….

Of course, the supreme meal is very different for each of us.  But according to the principles of the Zen cook, it always consists of five main courses or aspects of life.  The first course involves spirituality; the second is composed of study and learning; the third course deals with livelihood; the fourth course is made out of social action or change, and the last course consists of relationship and community.

Intimidating to think of my life as a “supreme meal!”  I’ve never been a good short-order cook and, in a real kitchen, the grilled cheese sandwiches are best left The Kid with the “two eggs side by each” left to Frank.  I’m more of the “supreme spread for 10,000 hungry bodhisattvas” prepared in ten courses with ingredients that require braving the wilds of Chinatown.  In the matters of life, it’s the same.  The rapid-fire decisions and changes in current generate more struggle and doubt than those with longer stale dates.  And with that comes a narrowing of vision and an unwillingness to take a chance – or in Zen koan terms – to leap off that 100-foot pole.

But there’s no one else who can prepare to cook this life of ours and we are always past noon.  The ingredients or the skills may not have been available before this but here they are now.  Time to clean the kitchen, gather ingredients, and fire up the coals!

Thank you for practicing,


5 thoughts on “begin after noon

  1. This practice reminds me of the work in the kitchen. Most times it takes much time to prepare the vegetables, grains and spices. the actual cooking requires mindfulness and involvment of all the senses. Then the eating, which often takes so little time without the care of of the preparation. this is where I challenge myself. To act mindfully in the nourishment of my self, family and community. What action is this? I contemplate this still…

  2. “…there’s no one else who can prepare to cook this life of ours…”

    I haven’t given up on Jesus who puts his Spirit of Love in our hearts:

    So if anyone is in Christ,
    there is a new creation:
    everything old has passed away;
    see, everything has become new!
    2 Cor. 5:17

    And still I practice! I think he’d want it that way.

  3. Maybe the most important thing is that we get some food in our belly. Grilled cheese is good, as is croque monsieur.

    As Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “You eat good food all your life, then what? You die!” And he would laugh hugely.

    Then he would point out that what we do with the energy we get from food is more important than anything about the preparation, style, taste, or anything else.

    Right now it’s dinnertime. I’m making grilled halibut and grilled asparagus, served over brown rice. With salad. Yum!

    Thanks, Genju!

  4. Janice, I dropped my santoku onto the kitchen floor just missing my toes! Reminded me to move slowly and pay attention!

    Barry! Yum indeed. Master Seung Sahn makes me roar with laughter! I guess he wouldn’t have been a fan of oryoki? Just wondering…

    We had tofu chick’n with sweet potato and green peas doused in an orange chipotle sauce with lemon pepper and cassava pudding cake for dessert… now I’m hungry again!

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