Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How To Cook Your Life

I just watched a remarkable documentary, How to Cook Your Life, about Buddhist priest and cookbook author Edward Espe Brown (the title comes from Kosho Uchiyama Roshi's updated treatise Instructions for the Zen Cook by the 13th-century monk Eihei Dogen). I've written on Brown before, with regards to mindful baking, because his Tassajara cookbooks have been very influential. So, I was really interested to see the film.

And it was worth it. But in case you don't have Netflix, and also so I can reflect on what I saw, I wanted to share with you the bits that stuck with me most.

The Tenzo Kyokun
The film followed Brown into several kitchens, introducing us to the ritual of the Zen kitchen. There are chants from Dogen's treatise, Tenzo Kyokun, a reading of what seemed like gentle rules or "forms" of the kitchen, offerings to the Buddha, and "functional silence" so that everyone can work mindfully. Advises Dogen,
When washing rice, preparing vegetables, and so on, do so with your own hands, with close attention, vigorous exertion, and a sincere mind. Do not indulge in a single moment of carelessness or laziness. Do not allow attentiveness to one thing result in overlooking another. Do not yield a single drop in the ocean of merit; even a mountain of good karma can be augmented by a single particle of dust.
Attention is paid to everything, for Dogen suggests, and Brown repeats, "Having received [vegetables and rice] protect and be frugal with them, as if they were your own eyes." This reminds me of my in-laws adage about respecting and eating food because "each grain of rice is three drops of sweat on the farmer's back." Numerous shots in the film show Americans gorging on huge amounts of food, wasting much of it; people who live off dumpster-diving and urban foraging are interviewed about the waste in our culture.

Also appearing in the film are several cooks, both students in Brown's cooking classes and the staff of the Zen kitchen (I think it's the San Francisco Zen Center). The various cooks who speak talk about the give and take in Zen cooking, how they cook the food and the food cooks them. Says Brown, "When you're cooking, you're not just cooking. You're not just working on food. You're also working on yourself, you're working on other people." I might add, you're working for other people.

Walking Meditation
I've read about walking meditations but never seen one in action. It's so slow, so much slower than I could walk and balance at the same time these days. Brown, in one of his dharma talks, explained the technique: Lift. Step. Place. Sounds straightforward, but as he notes, a thought will come into your head. And it will be persistent. Just note, "thinking," like you would "lift, step, place," and go back to your walking. With my walking 10 minutes four times a day, I should try this meditation, again, but perhaps not as slowly. I imagine I can maybe keep up a pace like "step, step, step." My usual meditation practice, albeit in bed, of counting breaths, continues.

Big Mind, Kind Mind, Joyful Mind
In the Zen kitchen in the film are displayed the words "Grande Parental Mind," "Big Mind," and "Joyful Mind." The first Brown also describes as "kind mind." These ideas come from Suzuki Roshi, from whom Brown received the dharma, and they are guiding principles in this Zen kitchen. It rather reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate, the idea that the cook's feelings were transmitted through the food to the recipients. I can see how this would easily translate to the 5 o'clock dinner rush. If I keep a joyful mind, I don't get upset that recipes aren't working out or that I feel rushed--and I won't grump at the kids as they come into the kitchen. Instead, I can be happy that I'm preparing healthy, tasty food for my family to enjoy together, maybe even get them to help. Kind mind, which Brown compared to being like the kindness of grandparents to children, has to do, I think, with making right choices at the store and using ingredients that are kind, instead of rushing boxed mac and cheese or frozen nuggets on the table. But also creating a warm environment, making foods that they want to try, laughing and sharing. And the big mind keeps it all in perspective, as I stay mindful of the goal not only of my specific meal prep but the gift of food and togetherness, which we can recall with our candle-lighting blessing ritual. And if I can manage all that, dinner time will not only be food for the body but food for the soul.

The Teapot
I liked Brown's discussion of a beat-up old metal teapot, which seemed to touch him deeply. Examining its flaws, Brown drew a long metaphor to our lives. We get beat up with age, but we are still useful and willing to do our work. But our dents show our experience. Brown notes that sincerity is showing imperfections, instead of covering them up. It reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony and the imperfect tea bowls, which exhibit the aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, or imperfection, asymmetry, and the like, which are to remind the tea participants of nature and life.

The Biscuit
I love making biscuits, sourdough ones, with my starter. And so I was interested to hear of Brown's early troubles with biscuits: they weren't right. So he tried everything--butter, shortening, eggs, no eggs, different milk. Still not right. But what was his standard? He realized it was the Pillsbury biscuits of his youth. And so, he decided he needed to taste his biscuits, "the biscuits of today." And he realized they were delicious. We need to quit comparing ourselves, our lives, our creations to some impossible, artificial, unachievable, marketed standard. And homemade biscuits are wonderful.

The Duck in the Ocean
I will end this post in much the same way the film ends, with a poem Brown reads, from his mother's last letter before her death when he was only three. It's not about cooking, specifically, it's about everything:
"The Little Duck"

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.

It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf,
And he cuddles in the swells.

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic.
And he is part of it.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.

Probably he doesn't now how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.

And what does he do, I ask you?
He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity -- which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

I like the little duck.
He doesn't know much.
But he has religion.

--Donald C. Babcock, New Yorker, 1947

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