Zen and the Art of Food Maintenance

By Robin Bradford
Illustration By Kylie Budge

Everything in our lives is practice.
—Dogen, Instructions for the Zen Cook

Our group of 20 Zen students ranges in age from 25 to 75, and when we’re not chasing enlightenment at Zen camp we love burgers, Diet Coke, wine, M&Ms and seaweed. It’s up to me to feed us for a week, even though with the exception of a long-ago fling with an Italian who taught me to turn Romas into marinara sauce, I have no training as a cook.

That’s 18 meals, 12 dozen eggs, 15 pounds of tofu and a six-page shopping list. I am the tenzo, or head cook, for a silent meditation retreat.

For seven days we will wake early, sit in meditation, quietly walk among the pine trees at the retreat center near Houston, eat, sit, meet with our teachers, sit, eat, sit, sit, sit, eat and sit, sit, sit. The schedule is full, but there’s not a lot to do.  My teacher likes to call a Zen retreat a “manufactured crisis.”

In a traditional Zen community, the tenzo is one of the most experienced monks; but in Western Zen, we all pitch in with work assignments to prepare meals, wash dishes, clean toilets and take out the trash. Four years ago, on my first retreat, I was assigned to help with breakfast. What luck! Instead of counting 400 breaths on my meditation cushion to stay awake, I was in the bright kitchen peeling mangoes, slicing apples and boiling water. Last year I rose to Zen middle management, serving as head lunch cook, where I met my Waterloo on the fifth day with a meal that included four jars of thick peanut butter, jalapeños, a wad of sticky rice noodles and a mean-spirited food processor. While the Thai-inspired dish was a hit, my fingers were on fire from the peppers until dinner.
I volunteered to be tenzo this year because I thought that mindfully planning a big project might make me better at my job as a nonprofit fundraiser—or even make me a better person. Here’s what I learned:

Instructions for the Zen (or any) Cook

1. Know what you’re getting into. Was it really my brilliant idea to upload the mish-mash of past retreat recipes into a computer program that would make the menu scaling and grocery list easy? Yes, it was. Just days before the retreat, ingredients and quantities accumulate into a disorganized mess. At 6 a.m. I am editing, not meditating. My teacher, who shared with me the highs and lows of her own tenzo experience, e-mails me, “This is your practice now.” So I approach the monotonous, frustrating work with gentleness and compassion, like I try to do while sitting still on the cushion.

2. Work with what you’ve got. Six of us arrive a day early to shop at the H-E-B in Tomball, Texas. I’ve already bought eggs from a local farm and bulk tofu and Asian ingredients that I wasn’t sure we could find here. We’ve picked up some homegrown tomatoes and peaches at a roadside stand, but everything else, we’re getting now. I invite the group to strive for locally grown, organic and reasonably priced. “What does a mango look like?” asks Aman, a software engineer and bachelor. Aman is the head breakfast cook. In a week, he will know how to make fruit salad, prepare a perfect hard-cooked egg and even bake oatmeal. Right now, he has a beginner’s mind—a Zen way of saying he’s clueless.

3. Set an intention. A Zen kitchen has rules, and a Zen cook works with intention. Rule number one is put on an apron. A dozen black chef-style aprons hang on a hook in the kitchen. It takes a moment to adjust the neck strap and tie a bow in the back. The rules that follow include gathering by the little altar set up on a kitchen stool in the corner, watching as the cook lights the incense and inhaling the woody scent that reminds us of sitting in the quiet meditation hall. We remember everyone we’re cooking for—they will be hungry. Bow, wash hands, fill the sink with soapy water. The head cook tells us what to do for today’s meal. It is our job to have no opinion. Nod and set to work. After using a knife, immediately wash and put it away. Know where the first aid kit and fire extinguisher are. Cook.

4. Trust others and yourself. This one is particularly challenging for me because I’m a worrier. I obsess about all the bad things that can and might happen, like heatstroke. Though the meditation hall is air-conditioned, the kitchen and dining hall are not. By lunchtime, the thermometer under the shaded patio says it’s a few notches over 100 degrees. I line up tumblers of water in the center of the kitchen counter as a reminder. When I check on the cooks the first day, they look cagey and reckless, like children asked to perform surgery. I worry my math is wrong and we’ll have enough carrot soup to fill a bathtub. On day five, we discover there is no pasta for dinner—we’ve simply forgotten to buy it. So I change the meal to black bean chili. Now the cooks work quietly and easily, trusting one another and themselves. It’s a beautiful, silent dance involving food and heat and knives.

5. Be grateful. We silently file into the dining hall and say a prayer which ends, “Let us be like the lotus at home in the muddy water, living life as it is.” Then the cooks, still in their black aprons, lift the lids and offer their miracles: perfectly hard-cooked eggs with yolks yellow as the feverish sun; chilled soup that cools us from the inside out; hearty black beans and bread to satisfy. We eat on the patio, unrushed. I take a bite and put down my spoon, taste, chew, taste. I watch the sparrows, the rustling pine needles, the blank sky.

In Zen practice, there’s nothing special about cooking, or eating, or the sky. The heat, the worry, the perfect soup—it’s all just life unfolding as it is. Cooking Zen, what happens in the kitchen doesn’t stay in the kitchen. When the cooks work with patience and steadiness, even hours later in the meditation hall as joints ache and exhaustion moves in, everyone sits with strength and courage. Zen helps one develop the skills to trust that we’re connected to one another, to accept that most things are out of our control and to respond to life’s current crises (manufactured or not) with equanimity and resilience. Sometimes cooking isn’t just about eating; it’s about how to live your life.