Eat Your Good Fortune

This coming Sunday, 29th of July, is celebrated as the Day of Good Fortune, also called the Day of the Seven Lucky Gods, in Japan. The Seven Lucky Gods (including the goddess Benzaiten, the patron of all artistic endeavours) are known as “Shichi-Fukujin”: shichi means seven, i.e. the seventh month; and fuku means good luck, but it is also one of the ways of pronouncing the number 27 when it is written in Japanese. On this day it is a tradition to eat “Good Fortune Pickles” (fukujinzuke), which are made from seven different vegetables, each one representing one of the lucky gods and an aspect of good fortune.

One of my favourite cookbook authors, Elizabeth Andoh, has a great recipe for making your own fukujinzuke in her gorgeous cookbook “KANSHA“, which means “appreciation” and “gratitude”. Here is how Elizabeth explains kansha:
“Kansha — appreciation — is an expression of gratitude for nature’s bounty and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform those gifts into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Japanese Buddhist philosophy, can be experienced and practiced by anyone, anywhere. Kansha encourages us to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve and sustain our natural resources.”

You can find an online version of the recipe here.

However, you don’t really have to go to all the trouble of making a traditional Japanese pickle to celebrate the coming Day of Good Fortune. Instead, why not create your own special meal using seven different ingredients. As you select the ingredients, try to choose a variety of colours and textures and find the freshest produce that you can.

With each of your seven ingredients, as you chop and prepare them for your meal, think of one special blessing in your life that can be symbolised by each of them. This can be someone who is special in your life, who brings you joy, who you feel gratitude to; or it can be elements of nature such as sunshine, rain, trees and so on that make you feel connected to the earth; or things about your own life that you are grateful for such as your health or having a warm home to live in. In this way, when you eat your meal you will be bringing your awareness to the blessings you have in your life and feel those blessings nurturing your body and your heart as well. This is a wonderful meditation that satisfies our physical and spiritual hunger on many levels. Ideally of course this meditation would be a wonderful spiritual practice that we can bring into our lives every day, with every meal.



Tea Ceremony for Dummies

I have an interesting book that outlines the steps involved in the tea ceremony… the manual details 331 steps! But actually you can partake of the tea ceremony in just six little steps: 1) heat water, 2) put tea leaves in a pot, 3) pour hot water in the pot, 4) pour tea in a cup, 5) offer the tea, 6) drink the tea. Or even just these three: make – share – drink!

At the heart of the tea ritual is the practice of awareness and sharing, of being totally in that moment of tea-making, without thinking about other things that are going on in your life or what you have to do afterwards. Just making tea. And once the tea is prepared, offer a cup to your friend with a loving heart, or offer it to yourself with a loving heart! And when you sip the tea, as I mentioned before, ponder on the journey that the tea has taken to be here in this moment, in your cup, in your mouth. Taste the earth, taste the sunshine – doesn’t that warm your soul?

Traditionally, tea ceremony is held in a small single-room hut, shut away from the mundane world in a peaceful garden, in which you can enjoy a cup of tea prepared carefully, mindfully, and lovingly by your host. The ritual involves the offering and receiving of tea, of sharing a moment, both persons experiencing this quiet moment together. Stillness, warmth, sharing a moment far from the madding crowds. How wonderful!

The lengthy training required and the 331 steps described to create that experience is the Way of Tea: just as in learning any skill or a martial art or any kind of art, to excel and be able to smoothly and effortlessly prepare tea with an open heart in full awareness requires time and discipline. However, the essence of sharing a cup of tea is to just keep practicing being in the moment of tea-ness, every time you make a cup of tea. So, when you put tea in the pot, just put tea in the pot; when you pour in the water, just pour in the water…. you get the gist! It sounds so simple but how difficult this actually is! As soon as we are doing something repetitive our minds just seem to drift off to all kinds of other things that are happening around us. But if you can remember to just watch the movement of your hands as you prepare the tea, hear the water boiling, smell the delicate scent released by the leaves, then this process becomes a gentle meditation that is very restful and, like the traditional tea ceremony, casts away that stresses of everyday life.

The Japanese Zen master, Soen Nakagawa, who was one of the first Zen teachers in America, is famous for making ‘tea ceremony’ using instant coffee and a styrofoam cup! He always taught his students that what mattered most is your pure intention and the importance of offering your heart with humble respect.

Here are a few tips about making delicious green tea…
1) The water shouldn’t be boiling for green tea, so after the kettle has boiled pour the water into a separate cup so that it can cool a little
2) Use about a heaped tablespoon of tea leaves – although that seems a lot, you can use it three times
3) Steep the leaves for only one minute
4) Pour a little tea in each cup and alternate cups as you pour – this helps to make each cup of tea the same strength
5) For the second and third cup, use hotter water


“I Forgive You”

In response to “Letter from Deborah”, a fellow pilgrim has alerted me to this powerful artwork by Australian Indigenous artist Bindi Cole, made with emu feathers, currently on display at the Queensland Art Gallery. Whilst Bindi’s artwork can be seen as a response to the public apology given by Kevin Rudd in 2008, on behalf of settler Australians, to Indigenous Australians , it is also a very intimate work that addresses her own personal trauma and pain. In the video below, rather than feeling as though the act of forgiveness was giving something away, Bindi talks about how the act of forgiveness empowered her and helped her to heal.

What it means to “forgive” is a uniquely personal response to pain and healing. In 2007, when I went on pilgrimage to the 33 temples dedicated to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in Japan, I carried prayers on behalf of others that were specifically about “forgiveness”. “Forgiveness” was the theme of the pilgrimage that year.

For so many people that act of writing a prayer offering forgiveness to someone for having hurt them was a transformative and powerful act, even if the one who had inflicted the hurt had passed away or would never receive the words of the offering in person. Sometimes we may think that we have already forgiven the hurt, or that it doesn’t matter, or that it’s better to just forget it and move on, but this action of writing and bearing witness to ourselves is a very important part of our healing journey. Just as Bindi was able to express this forgiveness in her art, so too can we all participate in a creative act of healing by writing down those words – “I forgive you”. There it is – right in front of you – real, tangible, indelible.

For me, offering all those prayers with the recurring mantra “I forgive you” was also a very powerful and transformative experience. As I progressed from one temple to another I became quite overwhelmed by the tremendous energy that was being generated by this act of saying “I forgive you” over and over again. These prayers were being offered to individuals, to communities, to the planet – creating a wave of emu-feather soft energy that swelled in intensity until it was a capital-letter roar! It was such a cleansing and yet profoundly empowering act. And I cried a lot – for my own pain and the collective pain of all of us, sharing in one another’s suffering and yet feeling the tremendous release and freedom that came from the performance of the rituals of prayer. Afterwards, many people wrote to tell me that they felt a great weight had somehow been lifted from their hearts. And so we can help to heal ourselves and one another through these kinds of creative and declarative actions.

A fellow pilgrim asked me recently, “But what does that really mean: to forgive someone?” This is a very good question because it certainly isn’t as simple as it may sound. My feeling is that, although the words themselves are very powerful, somewhere deeper in our heart, forgiveness is an experience of an honest acknowledgment that there is pain, and that this still hurts, even if we are ‘supposed’ to have let it go. However, when we act upon our own pain with the compassion of a mother holding her child who is hurting, a mother who acknowledges the pain and at the same time offers a gentle whisper of unconditional love and support, without anger or recrimination, entirely focussed on the act of loving – then healing begins. I think this is the core of forgiveness – in some ways it is not even about the aggressor, who may never know of this offering of forgiveness, but instead it is about approaching our own pain with softness and dignity. Perhaps it is also about forgiving ourselves for still holding on to past hurts and allowing that this is okay and not to judge ourselves too harshly. Compassionate gentle loving – that is the start of healing.

You can read more about Bindi Cole’s journey of forgiveness in this article here.

Here are two videos about Bindi Cole’s artwork “I Forgive You” – one 25 minutes, one 2 minutes – I recommend the long one!

Letter from Deborah

As my blog progresses, I would like to share with you some of the stories that other fellow pilgrims have sent me which I think are inspiring. Here is a letter from Deborah, who shares the story of her family’s involvement in helping to heal the wounds of the past in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. You can read more about the events that Deborah refers to in the article on the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Wikipedia. It is a very shocking event, including the following laxity in obtaining a trial for the offenders. But Deborah’s letter shows that it is never too late to try to heal the wider big wounds that affect whole communities across generations. In contemporary Buddhism, this compassionate approach to connecting to others in a public way is known as ‘socially engaged Buddhism’. This means that although it is important to develop our own spiritual practice, it is also important to be active in helping to heal the collective wounds of the past by engaging in community action.

Dear Cate,

Recently I made a donation to a church in the US which is very dear to
my family. On September, 15th 1963, the KKK bombed Sixteenth Street
Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four African-American girls
who were putting on their choir robes were killed instantly. Their
names were Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and
Cythia Wesley. I was 12 years old when it happened and I just
couldn’t understand why almost all whites in the South were
thrilled about it. My parents were appalled and I am so grateful to
them for raising us to treat all with equality. In 2003, Andrew and
I visited Birmingham. We went to Sixteenth St. to take the church
tour. We met the most amazing African-American woman
who has now become a dear friend of ours. I apologised to her and, to
my utter astonishment, she said no white person had ever asked her
forgiveness during the 20 years that she had been conducting her
‘tour ministry.’ The three of us sat down in the sanctuary and

Next year will be the 50th commemoration of the bombing and I asked
my friend to tell me how to send a donation to Sixteenth St. She
told me that her pet project was to finally install a handicapped
accessible bathroom in the church. I wrote a long letter to the
pastor, Rev. Arthur Price. I’ve met him several times and he is a
wonderful man and a great preacher in the African-American tradition! I
told him how much my mother loved Jesus and that she always told
us,’ a person’s character is what really matters. The colour of
their skin is irrelevant. Watch how a person, white or black,
treats others and you’ll know what kind of values they live by.’
Such incredible words from a woman who had grown up surrounded by
racism in her native Arkansas.

My friend just e-mailed me yesterday to say that Pastor Price read my
letter out to the Sunday congregation. That’s about 500 people with 2
choirs and a band! Well that made me weep for quite some time. I’m
so happy to be able to make sure that Alice is not forgotten. Andrew
and I are determined to be in Birmingham next year as Sixteenth St.
is going to honour Mom during the 50th commemoration activities.
I’m so proud!

Much love,

Cooking up a spiritual storm

In my blog I will often refer to “shojin-ryori” (pronounced “show-jin-ree-or-ee”), which loosely means “Japanese vegetarian cuisine” and I usually suggest “Zen cuisine” as a translation but actually its not that easy to translate into English. Google Translate says, “vegetarian meal”, whilst my dictionary goes a bit further saying “vegetarian cuisine originally derived from the dietary restrictions of Buddhist monks”. Mmmm, that doesn’t make it sound very tasty! But I hope you’ll see from my blog that shojin ryori is truly delicious for the body and the soul.

Well, the second part “ryori” has a straightforward meaning of cooking or cuisine, and is a very common word in Japanese – such as, “I like cooking” or “Let’s have Italian food”. However, the first word “shojin” has meanings that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with cooking. This is a specific Buddhist term that means “effort; diligence; enthusiasm; zeal; pure or unadulterated spiritual progress; the strenuous and sustained effort that is required to overcome laziness or lack of meditative concentration; courageously progressing with the good and eliminating the evil; persistent effort for the well-being of others; developing strength of character.” In fact, this is one of the foundational elements of Buddhism that is found in the Noble Eightfold Path, which was the Buddha’s prescription for living a fulfilling life.

Now imagine if we could bring that kind of enthusiastic effort to bear in the process of cooking! We’d certainly cook up storm! However, it kind of brings to mind a manic contestant from My Kitchen Rules and I don’t think that applies to most of us when we’re standing at the fridge peering in and trying to be creative with what’s left in the veggie crisper!

But rather than emphasising manic zeal, “effort” in this case means that we practice bringing a concentrated awareness to the whole process of cooking. For example, when we go shopping, effort means being aware of  what season it is and buying food that is appropriate to the season because in winter, for instance, our bodies need sustenance that warms us like root vegetables and we need protection from colds by eating food full of vitamin C like oranges. And whaddaya know! Root vegetables and oranges are seasonal to winter, giving us just what we need. But with all the foods that we can buy that are out of season these days, it is quite difficult to learn to hear what our bodies need to best sustain us through the season. This is one way that we can bring awareness into shopping for food; this is the meaning of shojin = effort.

Likewise, this effort of practicing awareness can be brought into our preparation of the food, in the way that we serve it and even in the way we clear up. Spend some time just carefully looking at the marvellous colour of a carrot as you cut it up, recognise that is has been in the ground slowly growing by drawing in all the goodness of the earth, that someone’s hand pulled it out of the ground, that it has had a long journey encountering many people, all who have their own life stories to tell, and in this way, that one carrot becomes a source of beauty and connection to the earth and many other living beings. If we can practice being attentive to just the task at hand, rather than letting our minds wander all over the place, this is the practice of awareness, this is the effort of shojin. There are a lot of other considerations in shojin ryori as a spiritual practice, which I hope to explore in this blog. I like to think of this practice as “Kitchen Sink Zen”! Try it!