I like breakfast, but I usually don’t eat it. I drink coffee in the mornings, and that holds me up until lunch. I don’t eat breakfast mostly for two reasons; I’m lazy in the mornings to prepare it, and early in the morning my stomach doesn’t handle food very well. As a chef, I know the importance of the morning meal, and I appreciate it when I get a chance to have it, which happens maybe only on weekends or when going out to brunch.
Every morning, during Sesshin at Spring Green Dojo, we woke up at 4:00 am. After rushing out of bed (a sleeping bag laid on hardwood floors), we quickly got dressed in our gi and hakama and began morning meditation. Two and half hours later or so we set the tables for breakfast. I wasn’t hungry; I’m usually not around 6:00 am even if I have been awake for two hours. While I sat crossed-legged on my cushion, waiting for the bell to signal time for breakfast, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get through this. One of the rules of Sesshin is that you eat what you take. So I planned to take just a tiny bit of it. But that’s also frowned upon because it means you’re not appreciative of the Tenzo’s (temple cook) efforts. As a chef myself I understand that, however after 18 of cooking professionally, I can’t help but to have strong opinions about certain types of food.
The jiki (the zendo’s director) rang the bell. We grabbed our jihatsu (eating bowls) sitting behind us, stood and headed to our chairs at the table to wait for the bell to signal we could sit down. The Tenzo and her assistants were already in the zendo ready for service to begin. I discretely observed them. I appreciated and enjoyed the service attitude; all the attention to details, and the precise movements. But I also saw the tall soup pot with serving spoons in it. I knew what was coming. I’ve had it before, and every time I eat it, I can’t stand it.
The traditional breakfast meal during Sesshin is okayu. Rice is cooked in a large amount of water, usually a 5 to 1 ratio, and served with umeboshi (dried salted pickled plum). There are several reasons to serve this dish during Zen training. For one, traditional Japanese Zen monasteries are self-sufficient, and they rely on donations given to the monks during beggings. Because the rice absorbs so much water it is easy to digest, makes you feel full and you can feed a lot of people with a little bit of rice. The salted plum serves to season the rice, which is cooked without flavorings. It is quite an acquired taste to eat mushy rice with salted plum at six in the morning, and it is one I haven’t yet grown to like.
As a Latin American, I grew up eating a ton of rice. However, rice in Japanese culture is handled a lot different than in Hispanic culture. We cook rice in a 1 to 1 ratio, season it with rice and olive oil and gently boil it for 20 minutes. The rice must be cooked entirely yet loose; each grain must be intact. Rice is served with beans, beef stew or as a side dish. Another popular rice dish in Puerto Rico is Asopao; a savory rice soup served with chicken or beef, vegetables, tomatoes, and sofrito. However, many people don’t like it because the thought of eating rice with large amounts of water make them gag instantly. Needless to say, Japanese style rice gruel is unheard of in Latin culture. I’ve had my fair share of tasting what my culture will label as weird food and ended liking it. Iced coffee is a good example. But I haven’t been able to enjoy rice gruel, no matter how they prepare it. Some recipes make it sweet with a bit of sugar and cinnamon, but most keep it savory with scallions and nori (seaweed) for toppings.
I had my hands in gassho waiting for the Tenzo to stand in front of me and serve me a bowl of rice gruel. I held my bowl and after a big spoon and I made the hand signal to say ” that’s enough.” I set my bowl down and noticed something looked different. The rice gruel seemed thicker than usual, and it was brown. One of the Tenzo’s assistants came by with a platter of dried apricots. I took two. This also was strange. Where is the umeboshi? Service was over, and the jiki clapped to signal it was time to eat. I grabbed my chopsticks, held my bowl close to my mouth and immediately smelled it. This was not a porridge. I took a bite, and I knew it. It was oatmeal! It was sweet, with diced pears and walnuts mixed in. The Tenzo had masterfully cooked it thick enough, so it was easy to eat with chopsticks, yet the grains were tender and not mushy. When the assistant came back for the second serving, I asked for more. The dried apricot was used at the end to clean the bowl with a little tea. It was the most delicious oatmeal I’ve ever had. I savored every grain and was so happy that my mindset had changed entirely. I was hostile against formal Zen meals mostly because of the rice gruel, but I was into it now. Give more of that oatmeal, and I’ll eat in silence, bow, chant, and do whatever!
The last sitting meditation session of Sesshin ends at 11:00 pm. After it, we are invited to head up to the kitchen for snacks and converse. The second night I had a chance to speak with the Tenzo and thanked her so much for the oatmeal breakfast. I wanted her to know how appreciative I was, and how a little thing as a small bowl of oatmeal can make or break the experience of Sesshin. I know how important food is and how it can affect your psyche. She took her job as temple cook seriously, and she knew how important was to serve delicious nutritional food during Sesshin, a period of intensive physical and mental training. The most interesting fact was that when I asked why she was not serving the traditional rice gruel, she said: ” Gordon doesn’t like it, so he wanted to change it.” Gordon Hakuun Greene Roshi is the Zen master of Spring Green Dojo. Right there I knew I was in a special dojo with meaningful training taking place.
It goes without saying that the recipe for this oatmeal is highly sought after but hasn’t been published until now. Spring Green Dojo is currently building a traditional small, single-chamber wood-fired ceramics kiln, built in the anagama style of Japan. The creation and firing of ceramics is considered an intense pathway into Zen training with a number of benefits. To fund this project, they are running a Kickstarter campaign that ends on November 1st. With a $75 pledge you can get the recipe for Tenzo’s oatmeal, but not only that, you also get an oatmeal bowl fired in the kiln! Of course, I’ve already made my pledge, and I encourage you to do so as well. You will not be disappointed.