Preparing the monks’ daily meals is an important practice of the tenzo (temple cook). Another role of the tenzo is to carefully prepare meals for guests.
A beginning cook may mistakenly believe that to show warm consideration to the guests he should prepare many dishes or use expensive and rare ingredients. This is not necessarily the case with shojin-ryori.
Even if only plain ingredients are available or only a few dishes can be prepared, the cook should spare no effort in preparing the meal. If he puts his heart into his cooking, his spirit of hospitality will be felt by the guests. In other words, in Zen hospitality is not something that can be measured in material terms alone. The spiritual aspect is valued much more highly. From long ago, shojin-ryori has been orally transmitted as hospitality that spares no effort. A lowly potato in the hands of the tenzo can be transformed into something of jewel-like rarity through his efforts.
The recipients of the meal must also have the same attitude. They must neither praise the ingredients nor look for poor cooking skills. It is important that they have an attitude of gratefulness for all the interconnections that lie behind the meal.
In the Verse of Five Contemplations (Gokannoge) chanted before a meal there is the sentence, “We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.” When we reflect on those who grew the food, those who transported it, and the tenzo who spared no effort in preparing it for us, a small bowl of simple boiled vegetables becomes replete with the limitless taste of Dharma.
At times we have the chance to prepare a meal in an affluently appointed kitchen. We may be able to make use of expensive ingredients like yuba or matsutake mushrooms. On such occasions we may make the error of treating ordinary ingredients casually or valuing expensive ingredients excessively.
However, Dogen Zenji wrote in his Instructions to the Cook (Tenzo kyokun), “Do not make any distinction between expensive ingredients and those that are not. Abandon the mistaken view of things as either coarse or refined. You must always prepare meals sincerely and with the same attitude.” To a person on the path of Zen, all ingredients have the same intrinsic value, and all are equally precious. Because we use such precious ingredients, the cook must always be careful not to waste anything. He must not let a single grain of rice be washed away, and never throw away any edible parts of the ingredients. He must apply himself to making full use of the precious lives of the ingredients in preparing the meal. For example, the kelp used to make a broth should not be wastefully thrown away when done. It can be reused by boiling, or carefully prepared and deep fried as another dish. The peel of carrots, eggplants, or giant radishes can be added to soups or other dishes. It is important to note that almost no garbage is produced in the kitchen of a great tenzo.