Lessons from the Tassajara Zen Monastery Kitchen

The last few days, I had the absolute privilege to live and work alongside a dedicated group of zen monks while visiting Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a buddhist monastery set deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness. Our days would begin early with a wake up bell at 5:20 am. After putting on layer upon layer of dark clothing, I would step out into the twilight and crisp morning air and line up in front of the zendo (meditation hall) for an hour of silent meditation. The peaceful quiet of the zendo was calming yet intimidating at the same time. After sitting on my cushion, I once opened my eyes slightly to get a peripheral peek at the wrinkled monk assembling his robes and preparing to sit beside me. I took a deep breathe knowing there was a lot I could learn from him.

Although there is an option to stay at Tassajara as a guest, I opt year after year (this was my fourth visit) to stay as a student. This allows me to really integrate with the community by meditating and working alongside the monks and students. The most rewarding experience of all is working in the Tassajara kitchen which is famous for its healthy vegetarian cuisine. I aspire to use what I learn in their kitchen and bring it home to my own food prep and cooking. The Tassajara kitchen despite being a commercial kitchen who feeds hundreds of people each day–guests, monks, staff and students, is absolutely immaculate. Everything is labeled, there is a set place where each thing in the kitchen goes. They have a system for ensuring safety with sharps, for making sure there is no cross contamination and keeping everything hygenic. The kitchen runs like a well oiled machine and has run this way for years.

In my opinion, the best part of working in the tassajara kitchen is the mindfulness we are taught to exercise when preparing  the food. We are encouraged to bring our zazen (meditation practice) into the work and focus on bringing concentration, patience and generosity while cutting and preparing. The tasks given to each student are simple–dicing an entire case of tomatoes or just peeling cucumbers. You can be given a single task like this to do for 2 hours at a time. We were encouraged not to rush but also not to be concerned about the end result. Much of the time, we would not know what dish the ingredient we were chopping was for but were instead reminded to remain present and focus on the task before us.

The work in the kitchen, the first 15 minutes of our meals and much of the time spent at Tassajara is in silence. People travel to Tassajara from all over the world, and my natural curiousity had to be contained at most times to not want to talk and learn more about them. After a few days it became very natural to just smile or nod my head to communicate with others. The silences were anything but akward.

Here are some lessons I brought back from the tassajara kitchen. These are taken from the Tenzo Kyokun, the instructions to the main cook written by Dogen, the founder of the zen buddism soto school. I found many of the teachings to be relevant not only in what we are doing in the kitchen but how we choose to conduct our lives.

  1. Take complete care of the task before you and focus all your attention on that one thing.
  2. Do not complain about the quality or the quantity of the ingredients before you.
  3. Regard each ingredient with reverence and respect. Do not regard one ingredient as superior or inferior to others.

Next time you are preparing a meal at home, try saying a small blessing before preparing the food. Make the food preparation a special experience, light a candle or play some relaxing music. Take care to do one thing at a time in preparing your meal. You will find that even the most simple meal, prepared with mindfulness will have a special quality to it.

Are there any practices you do at home before preparing a meal? If so, please share them below.

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