How can contemplation be a form of activism in the face of ongoing collapse? This is one question that has been at the base of our very modern, vocal and open meetings for over a year now, as we have held a space to actively contemplate many existential subjects – from powerlessness to death to failure. The group is made up of people with differing life practices and ideas, with several practising Buddhists among us (though I am not one).
Valerie practises Zen Buddhism of the Soto lineage. Born and raised in France, she spent many years in Japan, where she eventually took the Buddhist vows and became a nun, though she is secular and not attached to any monastery. Her specific role as tenzo, or cook, within a community, has a more multifaceted meaning than is ordinarily understood by the word ‘cook’. A tenzo is responsible for providing meals by working with ‘just what there is in front of them’, and also, through the food, for being ‘a bridge between the external and the internal’ and for mirroring and balancing the emotional state of the community.
In the meetings, what stands out are Valerie’s spontaneity and directness, her knowledge of food and Zen traditions, and the way she can bring you right into a story, so you feel you’re there experiencing it alongside her.
This May we spoke about her role as tenzo, the Japanese earthquake of 2011, paying attention to what is, and what contemplative activism has to do with the food we cook and eat.
Did your interest in food come before your involvement in Zen Buddhism?
Well, first it’s always about lineage, whether spiritual or familial. My mother is a great cook – she’s probably the biggest tenzo I know – she’s still cooking at home in Brittany for everybody at 83! When I was growing up she taught yoga in the evenings, so I was often alone, with both parents working. But she cooked all my meals in advance, and every night I had her food. Then at weekends we’d always cook together and make chocolate mousse and desserts. So I never really felt alone. The relationship was through the food, and for me it’s always been about joy and love.
What led to your involvement with Zen and becoming a tenzo?
It was by chance, really. I was working in Japan promoting movies for the French Ministry of Culture, and around the time of the 2008 economic collapse, something strange happened.
It suddenly didn’t make sense anymore. I’d previously been a short film producer, which involved physically being around people, and also cooking and making sure the crew had decent meals during very long working days. Now I was promoting and writing contracts and talking with other producers on the internet. It was just admin. And then one day I couldn’t do it anymore.
I couldn’t sit down at the computer. I let the date of the annual Clermont-Ferrand short film festival (where I’d look for new films) go by. I just couldn’t register. I couldn’t present anything to my sponsors, and so I knew it was over. I thought I’d gone crazy.
At the same time I had this intense urge to cook. I baked so many cakes I started donating them to local homeless people. Then some Japanese friends suggested I run cooking classes. So that’s how my life changed through cooking without even deciding it. Around that time I felt very oppressed and paralysed, and I decided to sit, even though I wasn’t attending any Zen temple yet. After a while I decided to go to a temple.
At my first Zen retreat, I was fascinated by the approach towards food – which was exactly the same as for the meditation. We also ate in the same place we meditated, and I was right in front of where all the food was placed and served. The monks would appear and put everything in a certain place with these beautiful gestures – like a choreography for serving, which included the people receiving the food.
Then there was the oryoki ritual, where we have our three bowls, and a certain way to deploy them, which is the same for everybody. And something just happened. I went every Sunday, and I continued to do retreats. I was so in love with the mystery of this food, that after about a year, I’d become closer to the tenzo of Sōji-ji, Koganeyama Roshi.
So you learned hands-on from a tenzo?
Strangely, he didn’t talk to me directly at first. But at some point he asked me: ‘How did you eat tonight, Valerie?’ I was surprised he’d even seen me. He ran a monthly cooking class for people outside the temple, mostly grandmothers – two of them were real guardians of old Japanese recipes, like uzubeshi, uzu (a citrus fruit) topped with miso, nuts and sugar that you dry for three months and then cut in slices. They also knew how to make umeboshi (salt fermented prunes) and omochi (steamed rice filled with azuki bean jam). So I became friends with them.
Once, in a sesshin (retreat), when we did the ritual of putting the rice at the level of our mouths, then eating three spoons of it – it tasted and smelt exactly like this delicious cake my mother used to make when I was a child. I thought: I’m in a temple, it’s white rice, what’s going on? I had another spoonful, and again the smell and taste of this cake, just out of the oven and still warm. I asked the cook if he’d done something to it. He said no, he’d been doing the same rice the same way for years. That’s when I understood that something mysterious was there. If the rice was the same, what had happened for the flavour to change so much?
Later I moved from Tokyo to work in a deli with two other macrobiotic cooks, where I made vegan food with ingredients from the temple and began to teach cooking classes. I’d make ginger chocolate truffles from the red bean azuki used in traditional Japanese sweets – the Japanese people loved them.
You experienced the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, didn’t you?
Yes, I was working alone in the deli at the time. In Japan they don’t hide the electric wiring, and I hated that, especially when there’s so much other beauty. It was Sunday, three o’clock, the shop was quiet, and I decided to do something about the wiring. As I moved the fridge, everything stopped, and I thought I had broken something. Then I felt the earth start to move. The deli was on the seafront, it was quite scary. That day felt like a week, no electricity, nothing. I was alone, it was cold, and so I emptied the fridge, which was full of food, and decided to take it all to another café on the seafront – the last place you’d normally go in an earthquake. But often when you’re in danger, you look for companionship.
What a surprise when I arrived at the Magokoro café to discover a dozen others who’d had the same idea, including people who couldn’t get back to Tokyo because there were no trains. Shin-ji the owner started cooking all the food, because there was no fridge to keep it from spoiling.
We couldn’t see anything and it felt very intimate, like we were alone in the world, with all the fantastic food. The feeling faded when the electricity suddenly came back on. But we carried on eating.
The government sent a text message to everyone warning of an aftershock in the Tokyo area with risks of a tsunami. And we were on the seafront! I jumped up to go, but nobody else moved. After a silence, someone said, ‘Mmm, those look tasty,’ and people started talking about the food and their memories of particular dishes. I thought at first, ‘These people are crazy. Don’t they realise?’
And then it occurred to me: ‘Escape to where? And from what? If something happens, then it happens.’ So we just sat, and in the event there was no tsunami.
The aftershocks continued for several days, and you never knew whether there’d be another big earthquake or not. It was like a complete confrontation with the fear of death. At some point you go, ‘I’m just going to live my life. Yes, I might die, but if the earth is moving, it could move here, it could move there. And what am I running for?’ A lot of people went through that process.
When the news reached the West, we were bombarded by everyone’s hysteria and worries. I went to Nagasaki, more to calm my family down than myself. Then we heard about Fukushima. My father phoned and said I must leave because the second reactor had gone into meltdown.
I’d only gone to Nagasaki because of other people’s fear, I actually felt very anchored in my life. So I decided to go back and reopen the shop, and the Japanese all reopened their shops, because the most important thing was to really be there. It was crazy, but that was the spirit – you’re human and you can only live your life, whatever the circumstances.
And then it occurred to me: ‘Escape to where? And from what? If something happens, then it happens.’ So we just sat, and in the event there was no tsunami.
This practice of just living your life feels like a physically embodied, grounded and existential awareness of actually being alive right in the moment. Something very different from the tropes of the industrial-consumerist machine constantly repeating Live your Life, Be Yourself, Fulfil Your Potential etc. as a kind of cliché or cheap commerciality.
Yes, they are two very different attitudes.
How would you describe the basic role of a tenzo?
A tenzo is one who ‘ordains the seat’, and their main function is to help everyone find their place, to find harmony, organic adjustment to what is, and acceptance of all phenomena as they occur.
Firstly, there is the posture of ‘just sitting’ and then ‘just cooking’ with what there is. So the practice of the situation. That’s why a tenzo never judges what they have – they just work with what there is in front of them.
The tenzo nourishes the practice, meaning (s)he protects the capacity to be porous to all the ingredients of the world. So, as a tenzo cooking for the community you go out and sit with the heat, the joy, the tiredness, you tune into the weather, what’s going on in the season, what’s happening with the heart of the most vulnerable person in the group. A tenzo will always sit in order to be attuned to their community, and then through the food, try and help balance any situation.
Also when we receive the food we are literally eating the world, so we let the world become us, let life be us, let the Earth be us, let the ancestors live with us.
When they compose the menu for the community, a tenzo will basically try to mirror the outside, try to bring whatever there is around onto the plates in terms of flavour, colour, texture. In Zen cuisine it’s through variety that we arrive at the centre. So we pay attention to acidity, for example, and bitterness, and salt. And from all these different flavours comes the centre.
We do the same with the colours, always paying attention to the main tonality of the season, whether that’s green (spring leaves) or red (summer berries) or orange/brown (autumn). And also the texture, always making sure there’s something raw, something cooked, something steamed. Of course at every meal there might not be all these things, but the tenzo just pays attention including as many as they can, with the intention of protecting the flavour of reality as it is.
It’s above all about the practice of the situation and not a culinary dogma. During retreats or funeral ceremonies, we take care of the flavours, we do not use garlic or onion, but in our daily life we simply aim to remain in conversation with what there is.
So through this variety the body finds its own equilibrium. And as it is always a body-mind posture, the mind follows the general centred posture of the sitting, which the food also brings.
When we receive the food we are literally eating the world, so we let the world become us, let life be us, let the Earth be us, let the ancestors live with us.
What about oryoki – the practice of the bowls?
It’s a very beautiful practice. The first bowl always has the cereal, for example rice, which is never seasoned. There are two reasons for that: one because this bowl represents our awakened selves when we are fully alive, the pure taste of our life, as it is. And two, a non-seasoned cereal is very useful to a tenzo, because you can use it for porridge the next morning!
The second bowl is for a soup, or a mix of things, and the third one is for raw food, a salad or something lacto-fermented.
Are there any gender barriers to becoming a female tenzo?
In the Zen monastic tradition there is no difference between men and women in terms of enlightenment, although different monasteries exist for women and men. There is no discrimination other than in a socio-economic context – in Japan, women’s temples have no land or cemeteries and often have no other resources than catering.
Zen is as much secular as it is monastic, though – it’s simply the dynamic contemplation by which we live. It’s about cultivating a space of deep relationship to what we are, to what is – on one’s cushion, yes, but then in the kitchen and in the subway, in the temple chanting a sutra or in the street demonstrating, one cultivates openness to what happens, from which right action arises (meaning adjusted, tuned to the moving situation).
As a Frenchwoman, I’ve chosen the secular path, and my aim is to extend this practice to anyone who wants to live cooking as they live their lives, with what is, and without being attached to an identity, without crystallising things, and to allow everyone to realise that each kitchen is a temple, the most precious one, that of our life.
Finally, in the face of the collapse of the world as we know it, what would be the one thing you would most like to see make it through to whatever comes next?
Basically, cooking and eating together. In the end of the end of the end people will always sit and cook and eat together, even if it’s one grain of rice, because this is where their existence comes from.
Everything in the Zen practice of eating is an invitation to be with life:
Sitting: with all that is continually happening, committing to be at the heart of sitting
Cooking: adapting to the situation, reflecting life as it is, not wasting, protecting the silent taste (awami)
Eating: unfolding and closing the oryoki, washing bowls, eating with alternating bowls
Acknowledging: recite the five contemplations before meals:
I contemplate all the energy and efforts it took to get this food to me;
I contemplate how I honour this gift of life on a daily basis and how I give back for what is offered to me;
I contemplate how this food protects me from the greed of anger and the illusion of being separate;
I contemplate how this food nourishes my body and maintains my health;
I contemplate how this food awakens me to my life and instils in me the joy to keep walking.
A summer oryoki menu
1st bowl: Coriander quinoa
A non-seasoned cereal with fresh herbs: for example local quinoa (white +boiled) with coriander (green)
Prepare the quinoa in twice the volume of water. Cut herbs and mix into the quinoa.
2nd bowl: Fried (deep texture) aubergine (violet + salty) with sautéed tofu (white/yellow + salty) and vinegar (acidic)
Ingredients : aubergines, sunflower oil, cider (or rice) vinegar, agave syrup, salt , hard tofu, sesame oil
Cut the aubergines into 2 cm strips along half their length and fry them in sunflower oil until they are soft and golden. Season with vinegar and agave syrup (or cane sugar) with a little salt.
Cut the tofu in cubes and sauté in sesame oil.
3rd bowl: Ginger (yellow + hot) and carrots (raw + orange + sweet) with pink peppercorns (dry + pink + sweet and bitter)
Ingredients : carrots, ginger, pink pepper
Grate the carrots, slice the ginger very finely, season with salt and put pink peppercorns on top.
In this menu we have a diversity of colours, flavours and textures, with a bit more acidity than other seasons.
Dessert suggestion: Take soy yogurt and mix with a little cashew nut purée. On top add some fresh red fruits and agave syrup.
Here too we have the complementary contrast of colours and flavours. Or even more simply, just slice a melon and let it sit for 15 mins in salted water before serving.
Contemplative activist and secular nomadic Zen nun (Soto lineage), Valerie Dai Hatsu shares the tenzo path of Zen community cooking wherever she goes. She is a member of the Collective Intelligence Cooperative in France, teaches The Work That Reconnects, and is an advisor to communities on food practices. Her book Le Goût Silencieux: la pratique zen de la nourriture was published by Actes Sud, France in 2018. For more about Valerie’s work, see her website La Cuisine de la Bienveillance (in French).
Mark Watson will be teaching plant contemplation and practice as part of the upcoming Dark Mountain online course ‘When the Mountain Speaks With Us’, hosted by Schumacher College this September.