the breakfast cook

Written without the assistance of any glossary :-).  But for the curious, this Zen glossary will explain any words written in green.

I’m awake before the alarm, which arrives as a soft knock-knock-knock: a low-volume digital han offered by my Enso alarm clock, recreating the pattern of the roll-down used in this temple to call people to zazen.  It’s 4:50am;  the fukudo begins his/her daily run through the halls with the wake-up bell as I head out the door.

Some parts of my brain house what I refer to as my “triple-yang-wood,” a Chinese astrology description resulting from the year and day of my birth. My “Nine Star Qi” numbers are 3, 3, 5.  The first two numbers – 3, 3 – refer to yang wood, which in Chinese Five Element theory represents action, enthusiasm, the outdoors, the tangible, the plant pushing forward from the ground.  To me it’s the Go-Go-Go I feel when things are intense at work and I’m juggling ten different tasks, prioritizing and re-prioritizing, and executing them in (hopefully) just the right order.  The 5 at the end stands for “triple what was before.” When I get too caught up in this thing it’s like my brain is on frappe.  I get irritable and unfocused.  Zazen is good medicine for that.

Debates about astrology aside, in some contexts “triple-yang-wood” as a concept is not a bad place to come from.  For example: cooking breakfast for forty people. It’s not a high-stress endeavor, but a number of tasks need to be choreographed such that a meal is prepared and served and the pots cleaned and put away within the allotted time, so it’s good when you’re someone who can be organized and task-oriented and likes to punch out a nice list of to-dos.

Today it’s pretty simple, tofu cabbage with semolina and veggie juice. To engage all this I head down the back stairs and into the kitchen.  A few people are entering and moving about in the semi-darkness, some in robes, the vast majority in something dark, something plain.  They are in the side kitchen seeking caffeine’s assistance to get them through an hour of sitting and staring at a white wall during the morning’s zazen.  The caffeine I ingest gets the triple-yang-wood activated but not over-revved, and I unhurriedly fire up the oven, put three gallons of water to boil, take the tofu out of the walk-in, light the candle by the kitchen altar, and begin laying out in my mind the various pieces of the puzzle, starting with the known events:

  • 5:10am the han starts beating
  • 5:17am the first roll-down begins (for real, not my alarm clock)
  • 5:17 to 5:25am the doshi arrives to make an offering to the kitchen altar
  • 5:55am  kinhin starts downstairs in the zendo
  • 6:35am end of zazen, and the work leader appears to ask how many people I will need to help me finish cleaning up during soji
  • 6:55am-ish the light-up chiden shows up for the food offering tray
  • 7:05am-ish  the doshi arrives to make an offering to the hallway altar
  • 7:05-ish plus one:  soji
  • 7:15-7:20am all arrive for breakfast

(I’m aware that this precise scheduling is counter to most people’s imagination of a peaceful, laid-back Zen life. Perhaps more on that later.)

So then it’s 5:17am and I’m standing in shasu position, hands folded just underneath the breastbone.   Today’s doshi arrives with his jisha.  There is an incense offering at the kitchen altar and then they move off to the next altar and then the Buddha Hall, that offering accompanied by the big Bong, Bong, Bong of the Buddha Hall bell. The bell tells the fukudo that the doshi will soon be appearing in the zendo. The fukudo responds – a second roll-down.  More time elapses. Then a third roll-down as the doshi enters the zendo and zazen begins.

But most of this is happening outside of the kitchen. I know the movements of these people without actually observing them; in the kitchen I cannot hear the big Bong of the bell unless I stand at the doorway. The longer I live here, the more I pay attention out of the corner of my consciousness, some part of my awareness tracking the movements of zen practitioners in their choreographed travels up and down the stairways, moving between altars in time with bells and drums.   In the morning, in the evening.  There is a rhythm and it can be watched and listened to.

And as I follow this rhythm, I map out a project timeline for breakfast, with parallel processes and critical paths clear in my mind.   And then I go to work, and today the tasks are executed efficiently and easily. Tofu is heated in the oven; cabbage is stir-fried in the wok; all is combined and the Buddha trays are filled with their offerings.

At 6:35am the work leader comes in wanting to know how much help I will need in cleaning up and I tell her “I think today, just one person.” A normal day would be maybe 2-3.  She raises her eyebrows.

And then after juggling more tasks, by the time the light-up chiden has come in for the offering tray I know that there will be nothing left for the soji help OR for me to do during soji.  Everything is ready.

I go out to the hallway and light the candles there, and listen to the sounds coming from the Buddha Hall.  Service also has a rhythm and is in two parts: a grouping of chants, then All Buddhas, then a second grouping of chants, then Ji Ho San Chi. Since my work is done I stand in the hallway, listening to the chanting, listening to the quiet in the rest of the building, letting my sweat cool, my heartbeat slow down.  When I hear Ji Ho San Chi I move toward the altar and pick up an incense stick and stand still.  In the Buddha Hall they are doing prostrations and standing bows; bells mark each set and I follow this pattern auditorily. At the last single bell I light the incense and extinguish the small candle. The doshi and jisha slowly process down the hall toward me.  The doshi offers the incense, then doshi and jisha move upstairs to the Kaisando.

The work leader is ready to give out soji assignments but I grab her attention. Walking toward her I say softly, “It is done.”  Meaning, don’t send anyone into the kitchen, there is nothing to do.

“It is done?!”  She responds, in astonishment that borders on alarm.

I smile.  I rather like mornings like this, when the concert of assembling breakfast comes together so smoothly, although I am also rather fond of the other kind of mornings, when the time goes by too fast, when I end up with piles of muffin tins that I have no hope of tackling before the soji crew comes in. It all gets done somehow, efficiently or sloppily, with composure or with anxiety, and I am just another one of those practitioners moving according to my choreography within the rhythm of this temple:   the breakfast cook.

About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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