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.

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!

Sharing a cuppa

my hands
warmed by the cup
become the potter’s 

It’s a beautiful sunny winter morning here at Wabi’an, so I decided to sit out in the garden with a cup of fragrant soba-cha (buckwheat tea) and listen to the thousands of bees busily collecting nectar from the flowers in the grevillea bushes. They made me feel deliciously lazy!

As I sat there listening to the bees, I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the tea heating up the cup and traveling into my fingers which were really cold from the brisk winter air. I took a moment to imbibe not just the warm smoky taste of the buckwheat tea, but its popcorn-like fragrance, as well as the visual pleasure of the green-brown glaze of the teacup through the clear straw-coloured tea. And, in this way, all my senses seemed to be absorbed in this moment of tea-ness which was ‘delicious’ on so many levels.

I also enjoyed the texture, shape and feel of the cup as I wrapped my hands around it. This cup is one of my favourites – it was made by a Japanese artist who lives in an artist’s community in a small village in the mountains near Koyasan, where I was ordained. The cup was a special gift from a fellow nun from my home temple, Muryoko’in, and although Buddhists are not supposed to be “attached” to the material world, I treasure this cup.

Then, in my moment of tea-ness, I suddenly felt that my hands were holding this cup in exactly the way that the potter had intended when he made it, and I felt too that his own hands were held in just such a way when he fashioned the cup. At that moment, with the warmth of tea coming through the cup, I felt the warmth of the potter’s own hands as he had so carefully caressed and shaped this cup from its raw state that had come out of the earth. The unknown potter had gifted me this moment of profound awareness that engaged all my senses and connected me with his creative spirit and with the earth herself. I was deeply grateful to him and said a prayer of thanks for our connection.

Do you have a favourite cup? What is its story? Next time you make yourself a cuppa, take a moment to feel the connection to the creator of the cup and, through that person’s hands, connect to the earth. I can assure you it is at the same time a very grounding as well as uplifting experience – and it’s right there for us to experience at any time of the day!

Notes:

I wrote the little introductory poem as a ‘haiku’ – a very brief form of traditional Japanese poetry in which the experience of a single moment is encapsulated in three brief lines. Try it!

Soba-cha is a delicious tea made from roasted buckwheat – I don’t know if its available outside of Japan, but if you can find it it’s very healthy and tasty.

I highly recommend a book called “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty” by Soetsu Yanagi, which explores the value and essence of art by craftsmen who remain unknown, and how “objects are born, not made”. Wonderful book!