Kitchen Zendo and The Art of The Mississippi River

Image by ivabalk from Pixabay

When chopping the carrots, I chopped the carrots. Measuring the rice, I measured the rice. And in between this task and that task while taking on the role of Tenzo at a Zen meditation retreat in Minnesota last week, I scoured that Airbnb’s kitchen looking for measuring spoons. There were none to be found.

I can’t say that when I was looking for the measuring spoons that I was just looking for the measuring spoons. In those particular moments, my mind was also stumbling around thoughts of Why doesn’t this kitchen have everything I need, this is crazy. But funny.

Cooking for 11 people was a new challenge for me, but one that I wanted to take on. After watching Edward Espe Brown in How to Cook Your Life, I knew it would be a worthwhile effort even though I lack patience most of the time in the kitchen. I can cook, but I don’t usually have that much patience to sacrifice a chunk of my free time. That impatience, that reluctance, was all the more reason to volunteer to be Tenzo at No Barriers Zen‘s Minnesota sesshin.

Part of being the Tenzo meant drafting a meal plan and running it by our teacher for feedback, then figuring out the shopping list, and then shopping for everything. Yet a series of travel obstacles threw a monkey wrench into my plans, which affected others, including leading to someone else shopping and me missing the first day of the retreat.

The short version of this story is that my flight the night before day one got delayed twice, then canceled. Then my afternoon flights were both delayed, the Dallas connection even more so, which led to be being picked up at the Minneapolis airport at the blurry hour of 2am in the morning. I am still thinking grateful thoughts to my fellow sangha member who was willing to get me so late (so early?) and then make the long drive down to the Airbnb in Wabasha, Minnesota.

We got there at 4am. I managed to sleep by 5am, when everyone was waking up. Got up an hour and a half later, the shortest night of sleep in my entire life, I think.

I got dressed and headed to the kitchen, knowing another sangha member had been gracious enough to take over the breakfast duties since I needed some sleep, then just dove into helping.

Recalling the words of Edward Espe Brown and Suzuki, it didn’t take long before I directed my attention toward practicing being fully present with the cooking. Everyone else was right there in the living room adjacent to the kitchen, meditating.

Not all of us are Deaf. This is notable because I’m not normally quiet in the kitchen. And I don’t normally have a roomful of meditators in the next room to consider. But the oatmeal, the soups, the stir fry, the bread – this all needed to be made. Therefore, I add now something I neglected to say at the time: sorry for any ruckus of pots and pans and spoons and whatnot. Hopefully the few who could hear used them as mindfulness bells.

It didn’t take long to discover the lack of those spoons. And then then lack of regular bowls, the general lack of utensils enough for 11 people. It’s alright though, I could only find it funny, and wondered who would draw the large spoons from the mug like pulling the short straw.

Being Tenzo meant that instead of sitting meditation before each mealtime, I practiced my chopping meditation, my stirring meditation, my measuring-salt-in-my-hand-rather-than-a-measuring-spoon meditation instead. I tried to practice lift-the-pots-and-pans-and-place-them-on-stove-quietly meditation. I don’t know how that went.

But I did practice plenty of zazen (sitting meditation) and kinhin (walking meditation) as well, more than enough for my back and my legs to ache and my monkey mind to feel both defiantly wild and at times, just at times, calm. It was all a good study of my mind.

I kept returning to the breath. I kept noticing my monkey mind and worked to accept it. It’s really easy to have thoughts take over, sometimes in such sneaky ways. And thoughts of What do I need to do first in the kitchen? kept arising in those sits before I had Tenzo duties, but I just reminded myself (over and over and over) to be present and that it would work out when it was time for it to be worked out.

Before we ate each time, we’d gather in a circle and I’d explain the meals. “You should be able to taste every vegetable,” I said, of the soup, a line that later our teacher added to his dharma talk. A touching moment that was, for me, an acknowledgement perhaps that sometimes I might have an inkling about what this Zen practice of mine is about.

Meanwhile outside the Minnesota sky watched over us, and the sun shone most of the time aside from a crazy storm that had us bringing in furniture from the deck and retreating into the basement. The Mississippi River glistened and flowed nearby, a hundred or so feet away, rich with algae and hidden frogs. Eagles flew not far off, settling into a distant nest. The Mississippi painted a watercolor for us, using algae and frogs and reflections of clouds as its medium.

The setting was beautiful, a welcome introduction to the Mississippi river for me. And my fellow sangha members radiated with kindness toward each other, really embodying the meaning of community. We had a few newcomers who seemed to fit right in with the regulars. We shared more than a few laughs, more than a few stories, and truly enjoyed both the company and the intent that we had all brought with us: to practice.

I am flooded with memories from just a few days there, far more than I’ve shared in this post. We made an Airbnb our temple, we turned a living room into a Zendo, and we practiced being present with ourselves and each other. Those are memories to cherish.

Kitchen zen, river zen, it’s all the same.

By J. Parrish Lewis

J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

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