Eat a ducky, Muss!

“Who’s Muss? And why do Japanese people eat so many ducks?” my five-year-old son asked me when we first went to Japan. On sight of my puzzled face he continued, “Well every time Japanese people start to eat, that’s what they say – eat a ducky muss.”

In fact, what they say is “itadakimasu,” which means “I humbly receive” with the implication in this humility of offering gratitude for the meal. This is very similar to the traditional grace before meals that is familiar to many readers, “For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful.” As a practicing Buddhist, awareness is centred not on the food itself, but on the generosity of the person who has taken the time to prepare it. This appreciation extends to the person who bought the food, who packaged the food, who drove the delivery truck, who grew the food – and even to the earth, the water and the sunshine that nurtured the food. In this way, “I humbly receive” reflects the awareness of a profound connection in that moment to all the living beings and components of the universe that made this meal before me possible.

This deep awareness and appreciation can also challenge the ideas that we may cling to as our fixed beliefs, such that if the dish that I am being offered by another person contains meat or fish, and I am a vegetarian, then I am tempted to politely but firmly reject the offering, based on my personal beliefs. However, I feel that it is much more important to recognise the gift of the offering from this person who has gone to the trouble of feeding me, rather than focus on my own likes and dislikes. This is one of the principle reasons why Buddhists cannot be said to be strictly vegetarian – when collecting alms of food, in times gone by, monks and nuns would gratefully accept whatever was offered and this was an important part of their training. So whilst I have the freedom of choice when I make my own food, my own preferences are overruled by the need to open up to the generosity being offered by another person. Acknowledging generosity with gratitude is more important that having narrow fixed views. When confronted by the limitations of our own beliefs, there is no way to expand our spirit – our hearts cannot reach out and embrace kindness if we are chained in our minds by our fixed ideas.

And this receiving with gratitude does not just apply to food: When you hear a bird singing – receive the sound with gratitude; when you smell a flower – receive its scent with gratitude; when you feel the sunshine on your body – receive its gift of warmth with gratitude. It is a rewarding spiritual practice to try and be aware all the time and to be open to these offerings. In this way, you can open up all your senses to receive the gifts being offered all around you, in every moment, filling your life with unexpected blessings. In this way, being “humble” doesn’t mean grovelling subservience or feeling inferior in some way, but instead it is quite the opposite: grateful awareness opens us up to receive so many wonderful gifts that will make our lives filled with joy. Really! Try it!

Cooking up a stink

Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimbaldo (1527-1593)

To meat or not to meat… Is that the question?
(With apologies to Shakespeare!)

Even though the Buddha ate meat and the Dalai Lama has said that he eats meat, people generally assume that to be a Buddhist you also need to be a vegetarian. But this is a misunderstanding of one key aspect of the Buddhist approach to food and eating. Before I go on, if you would like to read a balanced and informed article about the Buddhist ethics of eating meat I highly recommend Bhante Sujato’s blog entry “Why Buddhists should be vegetarian”. Bhante is a well-respected Australian Theravadin monk who writes in down-to-earth way and the many many comments in response to his writing are also very interesting and shows that this is a really heated topic!

So I won’t go into the pros and cons of vegetarianism, instead I want to share with you what I learned this week whilst translating material about shojin-ryori (Japanese Buddhist cuisine) from a Japanese book written by a Shingon Buddhist priest from Mt Koya (where I was ordained). This follows on from my entry “Cooking up a Spiritual Storm”.

In shojin cooking, as well as the absence of meat, there are no ingredients that have a strong smell such as onions and garlic. From an aesthetic point of view, this is because those strong flavours overwhelm the delicacy of the cuisine. But there is also another reason that relates to spiritual practice. The word that is given as the opposite of shojin, is namagusa, which literally means “the rank smell of raw flesh” but also refers to any “bad smell”. It is also used in the same way in English when we are suspicious or disgusted, when we say “That’s fishy!” or “That stinks!”

Interestingly, this is the word that is also used to describe a Buddhist monk or nun who has broken their vows, so it also has the meaning of losing the way in one’s spiritual practice. In fact, the word namagusa appears in a very early Buddhist sacred text called the Nipata Sutta, which was written in response to asking the Buddha about whether to eat meat or not. However, the Buddha deflects the question and instead says that this concept of “stinking food” applies not only to what we put in our mouths but what we put in our minds and consequently display in our actions. If we fill our minds with harmful or malicious thoughts or unjust criticism and then speak badly of others, engage in lying or arrogant boasting or gossip – these thoughts and actions are like eating poison that harm not only those we denigrate but also ourselves.

So the discussion of what food we eat can be distracting to the real purpose of spiritual practice. If we continuously practice being mindful of what we are thinking and how our thoughts impact our actions, which in turn affect those around us, then we will also be mindful of how we nourish our bodies because if we look deeply into ourselves, ultimately we can find no separation between our mind and our body. In fact, in Japanese the word kokoro means mind and heart and feelings and thoughts (it also means warmth, love and compassion!) So if we focus on mindfulness in what we feed our minds, then what we feed our bodies will be a natural consequence of this awareness. This is the root meaning of namagusa.

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


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!

Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 2)

“Does the end justify the means?” is a question that has challenged philosophers for centuries. In the case of the fake guru Kumare, does the fact that many of his followers experienced significant spiritual self-transformation justify his unethical behaviour in lying to them about who he was, by claiming to be a guru from India rather than a film-maker from New Jersey? In other words, he used an unethical method that achieved positive results for the duped participants, but does that make it right?

When discussing the methods of achieving awakening, Buddhism uses the analogy of the boat crossing the river. The boat is the method that helps you to cross over the river of delusion and life’s vicissitudes so that you can reach the other shore, which is wisdom. However, once you have reached this destination, you don’t need to continue on the path carrying the boat with you. This is a caution not to hold onto spiritual doctrines and ideas in the mistake that they in themselves are the Truth. Rather, spiritual methods are merely a tool for getting you across the river, that is, tools to help you deal with the obstacles that obstruct your journey towards self-transformation. However, you do need to have a good strong boat, made of sturdy materials and made by an experienced craftsman to weather the storms and currents of a swift and mighty river, with plenty of obstacles, rocks and dangerous animals that might hinder progress. This is such a good metaphor for the chaos of our journey through life!

Now, as for Vikram Gandhi’s experiment in proving that you don’t need a  “real” spiritual teacher to achieve self-transformation, my feeling is that he started to cross the river with a very leaky boat! He was responsible for a group of people who thought that he was an experienced sailor in a well-crafted vessel that they could trust. But his boat was merely a movie prop made of flimsy materials disguising the leaky raft! Luckily for him, as he continued on his journey he was able to keep putting patches on the leaks and in the end no one drowned… Or so his documentary made out. Whilst a number of the participants forgave Gandhi’s deceit because they had in fact benefited from the exercise, on the other hand, I think there may have been considerable harm done to the participants who chose not to tell their story in the end and abruptly left when he revealed who he really was. We don’t get to hear about their experience.

My conclusion is that this was a very dangerous and irresponsible experiment that may have had profoundly injurious consequences for the vulnerable people who followed him. Each individual is a precious spiritual being and making an experiment like this is not skilful in its actions, words or thoughts; it is not relating to other beings in a compassionate and wise and respectful manner.

One positive outcome is to raise awareness that we need to take a responsible approach in seeking a spiritual teacher: make sure that you look very carefully at the credentials of your teacher in an open and honest way. If the teacher is genuine, they will welcome your questions. And if you have any intuitive feelings that perhaps something is not quite right, then you must trust this deeper wisdom that is speaking to you. If it doesn’t feel right but you  can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, talk to your teacher about your doubts – a skilful teacher will be able to help you distinguish between doubt that arises as a natural consequence of stretching your practice and doubt that arises in response to a deeper wisdom that something is not right and needs to be changed. Spiritual practice is about learning to open your eyes, so look with gentle compassion and wisdom at your teacher as well – a genuine teacher will welcome your scrutiny.