What Was Said To The Rose

All is well up here at Aro-Hā in Glenorchy. We’ve had more snowfall and winter storms, but also amazing blue skies, dramatic sunrises and this week, beautiful new bird-song. Two more retreats have come and gone, and guests have left feeling energised and with renewed purpose.

A friend here told me last week that, about a week after initiating a daily habit of drinking kombucha, she noticed that she really began to crave it. Simultaneously, apparently her desire for sugar and carbohydrates disappeared – she was suggesting that her body, her inner wisdom, was somehow communicating with her consciousness about what she needs to be well.

For a long time, the scientific community were unwilling to go along with this idea – that our bodies have an intelligence that informs us of specific nutrient deficiencies. But recently, there has been evidence that at some level this IS happening, and it’s happening not via our cells or nervous system but via our gut flora; the good and bad bacteria that inhabit our digestive tracts. The scientific medical community are even referring to our micro biome as a ‘second brain’. This is one reason to be motivated to improve your gut health – they say that the make-up of our gut bacteria can transform rapidly – within hours of a meal or drink!

I’ve always been interested in this idea of inner wisdom, or intuition. It’s really interesting to me that in many dharma traditions, the pali / sanskrit word ‘citta’ is translated at times as ‘brain’ and at other times as ‘heart’. We don’t really know where wisdom comes from do we…. maybe it’s also our guts!

Still on the subject of inner wisdom, I was thinking about all this today, while drinking kombucha and listening to a dharma talk given by Ed Brown. He was talking about a time when Suzuki Roshi said to a room full of his students: Continue reading “What Was Said To The Rose”

I Am Not A Chef

Earlier today I watched the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the Korean Buddhist Nun, Jeong Kwan.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kwan, here’s a very short intro. At the age of 17 she presented herself at the entrance to a buddhist monastery and asked to be ordained as a nun. Ever since she has lived at Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, and in addition to spending many many hours every day in meditation, she takes care of all the meals. She came to global prominence after Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert met her during his research trip to Korea. That was back in 2014, and Ripert has since brought her to New York to cook for the city’s foodie elite. It’s been said that her food is ‘life changing’, and on a par with the food being created at any of the world’s top restaurants today.

As I watched the episode, I became aware that I was yearning for the bit where we are offered something concrete from her repertoire – just one complete recipe maybe, or a close up of one of her gentle and elaborate techniques. How long did she ferment her kimchi for, and what exactly are those spices that she says are essential? But nothing was offered other than serene images of her tending her garden, adding the finishing touches to a lotus flower tea, or talking in the most compassionate and respectful terms about her parents.

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Continue reading “I Am Not A Chef”

Emptiness and the Female Form

Feminist groups around the world are gearing up – protesting, campaigning, marching, lobbying politicians, donating time and money, and saying NO very loudly to sexist attitudes; it’s happening globally. Even if we are not yet seeing the results we want, women, and allies of equality in all of its forms, are being heard. I hope change is coming.

Buddhism too, is not without need of reform when it comes to equality.

I’ve read several articles recently chastising Buddhist institutions and some traditions for their prevailing sexist attitudes. It’s true – sexism and misogyny has been rife within Buddhist lineages for centuries.

There are stories that go back to the time of the Buddha and suggest he himself taught that women were ‘lesser’, although I take that with a pinch of salt. The Buddha was also recorded as saying that women and men were equally intelligent, and equally capable of realising enlightenment, so which is it? And we know he ordained 1000’s, or who knows maybe 10,000’s of women to his order. Personally I think it’s likely that the ‘women will be the cause of the dissolution of Buddhism’ stories are just made up by a bunch of bigots many years after the Buddha’s death to maintain a boys club. Because how can you vow to save ‘all sentient beings’ yet scorn half of them? But that’s just my view.

Anyway, it’s undeniable that some Buddhist traditions, particularly the monastic traditions, are still frightfully sexist. Ordained women rarely have the same status or respect as ordained males, and women are considered such a danger/distraction to the monk’s devoted practise that they are actually not allowed to be alone in the company of a woman.

Against this backdrop of deep-rooted sexism, I was happy come across some teachings from Zen Master Dōgen which revealed his deeply feminist views. By the 1200’s, sexism in some Buddhist institutions must have been already rampant, else why would Dōgen feel the need for such a long and impassioned lecture?! In a teaching* he wrote in 1240 he more or less rants for several pages about the ‘bunch of idiots’ who ‘insult the dharma’ with their misogynistic views. Here are some of his choice words; Continue reading “Emptiness and the Female Form”

Note To Self…

I write myself notes and lists all the time, but especially during a long retreat. There’s an ongoing shopping list in the kitchen, a master shopping list for the week in my bedroom/office, a to-do list for when I’m next in town, records of food spends vs budget, lists piled upon lists of recipes and meal plans, an ever changing list of garden produce ready to be harvested, and notes on meals that have been served – to remind me how they could be tweaked for the better were I to serve them again.

Writing myself notes does stop an overload of chatter in my head, though of course, voices are still there. “How about some cinnamon in that soup? You should have gone to meditation tonight. Tomorrow is preserving day – need to pick tomatoes. Must get up earlier tomorrow to bake bread. One bottle of milk out the freezer will be plenty”. Not all messages to self are helpful or even true!

Note to self – must find out who’s writing these notes!

 

I enjoy listening to other cooks’ voices when it comes to recipe ideas, and am getting better there, too, at discerning which ideas are worth following. Here are three recipes I’ve ‘pinned’ this week. Continue reading “Note To Self…”

Beginnings, Middle and Ends

So much has happened in these last 2 months… epic travels, Queenstown adventures, cooking marathons and silent retreats. Emotionally I’ve had the highest highs, and a couple of tearful lows.

Where do any of these experiences start and end?

When I cook, that day’s meals become my entire focus… but tomorrow is another day! Where did those vegan strawberry muffins go, was it a dream?!

I woke up in the early hours this morning and lay peacefully in the warm silence of the night, recalling a fragment of this Rumi poem: Continue reading “Beginnings, Middle and Ends”

‘Zazen Is The Best Thing Ever’*

So this is part two of my end of year reflections! In complete contrast to my enthusiasm for making some measurable outward changes as blogged about a few days ago, I also am thinking about how invaluable it has been for me this year to spend so much time in silent, sitting, formal meditation.

Most of my teachers are from the Theravadan / Insight Meditation lineages, although I’ve been also very influenced by Dōgen and Suzuki Roshi’s teachings from the Sōtō Zen sects. In all these traditions, it’s a given that meditation (Buddhist meditation that is, not ‘McMindfulness’) is the central practise of any person practising Buddhism. In my limited experience as a meditator, I’ve never really been able to explain how sitting still and watching my breath has brought about any benefit, insight or wisdom, yet I’m convinced it has.
dont-bea-jerk

Last week I came across a new translation of one of Dogen’s most famous texts, the 95-chapter long Shōbōgenzo [treasury of the True Dharma Eye]. The author is Brad Warner, and the title is Don’t Be A Jerk (And Other Practical Advice From Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master). Brad Warner is an American Zen monk, who has studied Dōgen and practised Zen for more than 30 years, mostly in Japan. His book is EXACTLY what I wanted – he translates the classic text paragraph by paragraph, and puts it into modern chat, giving it a whole new burst of energy. Suddenly, this undecipherable medieval, Japanese text has come to life. That’s not to say there aren’t still riddles and spiritual paradoxes – this is Zen Buddhism after all.

Dōgen was VERY big into zazen. Here are some of Dōgen’s words, as ‘translated’ by Brad:

Continue reading “‘Zazen Is The Best Thing Ever’*”

Limitless Emotion, Not One Word

I haven’t posted for a while, but my heart and mind (and the minutes of the day) have been full.

Jeremy Logan has been leading the Heart Of Understanding Insight Meditation retreat here at Wangapeka. It’s one of my highlights of the year, and I think the secret is out as this year people travelled from as far away as Auckland and Wanaka to attend. We’ve been connecting with the simplicity of present moment awareness. Last night he shared the ‘Bāhiya Sutta’, which includes the well-known pithy teaching of the Buddha: ‘In the seen is only the seen. In the heard, only the heard. In the sensed, only the sensed. In the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself…. This, just this, is the end of suffering‘.

Feeling everything, but not making a story about every experience, brings a sense of grounded-ness in the present. This is when I realise that there is a LOT going on…

The retreat ended today, and the deep silence was replaced by joyful chatter… and singing!

Here are two exquisite poems by the Japanese poet/monk Ryōkan, expressing the richness of experience that goes beyond words. And a montage of photos and links to recipes from the last couple of weeks (scroll down!) There is still snow on the mountains, but also, spring is in the air.

Continue reading “Limitless Emotion, Not One Word”

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

I don’t like making mistakes. I learnt when I was very young that the way to get approval from my parents was to do well in school exams. So I studied hard, and regurgitated the info that the teachers gave me… and got lots of A+’s. I wasn’t really learning anything fundamentally useful, but that didn’t seem to bother me or my parents. I wasn’t making mistakes, and that seemed to be important.

But this strategy isn’t working for me anymore. I can devise a menu plan and work on my recipes, but with so many variables (mainly of the human-kind) there is always a dish waiting to be ruined. The belief that I’ve failed feels kind of raw. It’s very unpleasant. My first reaction, the reaction to the feeling of raw vulnerable-ness in my heart, is obviously (!) to blame someone else – the kitchen assistant, the person who distracted me at a critical moment – or even something else – the oven, the blunt knives, the humidity (yes really!!).

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And of course there is no one actually to blame but myself, but that’s even more painful. Who wants to feel that incapable? Maybe I should never have been hired as a Chef, I am definitely, totally incompetent.

Pema Chodron chose the topic of failure for her commencement speech at Naropa University in 2014.  Her speech was entitled Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. I thought it was interesting that she wanted to prepare these young adults for the failures they would experience, and not take the more usual approach of emphasising the desirability of success. Classic buddhist! Continue reading “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”

Step Away From The Recipes!

Rolling around my mind this week are two dharma stories. First, this line from Suzuki Roshi, who was commenting on how he got to a place with his American students at Tassajara where he didn’t want to give so many formal teachings. “It’s like giving you a recipe” he said to one student, “it doesn’t work. You cannot eat a recipe”. Instead he emphasised practise – zazen – living and working together, and investigating things for oneself.

When I began cooking, back in my late teens, I would come across a recipe that appealed, try it once and if it ‘worked’ and was tasty and enjoyable I would faithfully copy it down. If I wasn’t impressed by the result, it would be discarded and forgotten. I thought this was an absolutely acceptable and sensible way of ‘learning to cook’. But how much was I really learning, or was I just collecting recipes? Now when I look back at how I ‘learnt to cook’ I realise I wasn’t learning much at all. Which is the same mistake we can make with dharma too, memorising complex doctrinal teachings and profound buddhist psychology, without deeply knowing what we are knowing. Although of course, we all need to start somewhere.

suzuki2I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think that what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food in a refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you won’t see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden – Suzuki Roshi.

Continue reading “Step Away From The Recipes!”

Just Cut The Carrots!

An old Zen story: One day, Wuzhaon was working as the cook at a monastery in the Wutai Mountains. Whilst cooking rice, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśri, (the Deity representing Wisdom, pictured above) appeared above the cooking pot… and Wuzhaon beat him! Later Wuzhaon said ‘Even if Shakyamuni [Buddha] were to appear above the pot, I would beat him too!’

This seems such a crazy story, but I’ve come to take it as a teaching that reminds us to pay attention to just what we are doing. If I am in the kitchen and my job is to prepare lunch, then nothing should distract me – not even the appearance of the Buddha himself! This story came to mind today, as I was reflecting about a conversation I had yesterday evening with one of the managers at the retreat centre where I’m soon to be working as Cook – the Wangapeka. It seems (again!) that unofficially, cooking isn’t the only task, even for the cook; it’s dealing with the personalities, attachments and desires of the people at the centre.

I wonder how well I will be able to stay focused on cooking, and not be pulled into the worlds and dramas of all the wonderful people who are booked on to this forthcoming retreat?

I very much like another, modern, Zen story which is from the 1960’s and the early days of Tassajara Centre, in California – Edward Espe Brown was appointed as Cook. The Zen Master of course was Suzuki Roshi.

Continue reading “Just Cut The Carrots!”