At first, all I could see was a porous white surface. Not completely white, actually. It was kind of yellowish with traces of what seemed to have been a brown fur-like cover, also black stains, probably dirt or soil. The moist and sticky consistency reminded me of a cactus we eat in Mexico. Slowly, as if a camera was zooming out, my view becomes wider and I can see my hand holding this roughly pealed vegetable. I stare at it for a while, I am vaguely aware of things happening around me, people walking and talking, I ignore everything. I cannot seem to focus my attention on anything but this Satoimo. A Satoimo, it finally sinks in… a Japanese potato is what I’ve been holding this whole time. The dream goes on for what seems like an eternity. Nothing changes. I realize it is a mother Satoimo, “Can you tell the difference in the texture? These are harder and more bitter, difficult to cook. I think good for Miso soup.”, Dōsen-san’s words are fresh in my mind. My attention doesn’t drift. Nothing else happens.
My Iphone starts vibrating on the floor next to my futon. It’s 3:20 am, I would normally hit the snooze button a couple of times, but today I jump immediately out of bed and start checking all the windows and doors. Winter is near and no one in their right mind would leave them open but there is no room for mistakes. I hurry to the kitchen and check the pots of hot water in the coffee area. They are still half full. Early-risers start showing up to drink tea or coffee. I light a fire in the kamado to prepare more water for them and start working. Time flies. I hear the jikidō ring the bell three times and Zazen starts along with the two hours I have to cook a traditional Japanese breakfast for eighteen hungry men.
I get my phone out of my pocket. An expensive piece of technology that has now been reduced to function as an alarm clock and a lantern. Dozens of ignored messages from friends and family have been on the screen for days. I slide my finger, go directly to the search engine and type “cooking with Rosemary”. I’ve heard that some herbs are not kind on the stomach when used raw. My fellow practitioner’s digestion could depend on what I decide to do with that Rosemary I found yesterday in Ochi’s garden.
The meal is served. I’m sitting in front of my ōryōki set and when the chanting ends I become conscious of the fact that I’ve completely lost my appetite. I eat as fast as I can and, as I wait for everyone else to finish, the first of my three five-minute breaks in the day starts. Later that morning, I realize I forgot to put on a bra and brush my teeth. These makes me notice my almost-painful need to pee. Right, I haven’t been to the toilet all day, I guess I also forgot to drink water. I will go as soon as I finish cutting this pumpkin. On my way to the toilet Armin tells me there is no more coffee. I hurry to the closet where we keep it. I forget to go to the toilet again and keep on cooking. It’s already time for lunch. I guess my bladder will have to wait a little longer.
It’s the third day of my “tenzo-cycle”. The final phase of a “tenzo training” that has, for a couple of months now, become my life. It’s time for tea-meeting and Kanda-san announces the theme for 2016’s yearbook. “What do you expect from Antai-ji?”. At that moment, the answer is crystal-clear: Absolutely nothing.
Deciding to stay as a long term practitioner in Antai-ji has made me see how absurd having expectations can be. Last cycle I experienced what felt like the biggest challenge of my life. Being tenzo required me to forget everything else. It all had to go to make room for what was happening right there and then. Each day, all of me went into the kitchen, my mind and body, my heart and soul. I dreamed of potatoes and forgot to change my clothes. I ceased to be Fernanda and became the tenzo at Antai-ji. Why? Simply because it was the only way I could manage to do the job correctly. I gave it all in, and what was I to get in return? Absolutely nothing.
We humans, rarely do things without expecting something out of them. But when we sit Zazen, we just sit. And how can anything be expected out of that. Complete lack of action. We sit facing a wall but we might as well be facing a giant mirror. Just as being tenzo, Zazen inevitably turns our attention to the present. Sitting quietly, doing nothing, we are left alone with our own mind and body at that precise moment and we are the only ones who can have an impact on what is happening in there. Expecting any results is useless because we have full control over it in the first place. Anything that comes, excruciating pain, bad thoughts, unbearable sleepiness, we can decide to react to it in any way we want. This can apply to any situation. If we do something just for the sake of doing it, we end up focusing on what is actually happening instead of on the “getting somewhere with it” part. This practice and the act of “just sitting” are so pure and so beautiful precisely because we cannot expect anything out them. And as painful and exhausting as it was, my tenzo training led me to understand a little more about it. I now think about those five days as one of the most honest and enjoyable times of my life.
So, after living here for a few months I can only say that anyone who comes to Antai-ji expecting to get something out of it will end up terribly disappointed to see their expectations not to be met. The only thing we can do here is, to forget about any preconceptions, preferences or hopes for personal gain, and empty ourselves to make room for what is happening at this moment. It is a lot, and it is enough.
“Ashta no wa, nyojo desu. Ashta no tenzo wa, Jinen-san desu. Tenzo assistant wa, Murilo-san desu. Jikidō wa Fernanda-san desu.” A new cycle begins bringing a new job for me to learn. Zazen has never been less painful. The soreness of my knees and neck has been replaced by the fear of falling asleep and failing to ring the bell on time. Dreams about vegetables turn into nightmares about watches that stop working and doors that are impossible to close. Three alarms go off at the same time, two wrist-watches and an Iphone.This time it’s 3:00 am. I jump out of bed immediately. I need to drink something caffeine-loaded. I hurry to the coffee area only to find that the tenzo is still sound asleep and both pots of hot water are completely empty.