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!!).


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!”

Studying With A Warm Heart

Today I found myself on the roof-tops of Auckland University’s School of Hospitality & Tourism. Invited in by friends who teach the Hospitality and Culinary Arts diplomas and BA’s, we were up and out in the blazing sunshine tasting herbs I never knew existed. They had tubs of Winged Beans (a cool Asian plant with edible leaves, pods, flowers, seeds and roots), Betal Leaf (heart shaped glossy edible leaves that you can use as a wrapper for yummy fillings, not just tobacco!), Cha Om (fern-like feathery fronds, commonly used in South East Asia), Vietnamese Mint (not a mint at all, but fresh and tasty raw or cooked), alongside all the common herbs and some very hot chilies. I had a guided tour of the professional teaching kitchens, the lecture rooms, the fine-dining restaurants where the BA Culinary Arts students cook for paying guests, and saw how they brilliantly they managed all the food waste with effective composting and large worm farms (best fed worms in NZ without a doubt!)

Who does all the washing up I wondered, (and wished I had asked). There is a lot you learn about yourself when facing a mountain of washing up day after day.

Zen master Suzuki Roshi emphasized; “We have to study with our warm heart, not just with our brain”. For many of us, we may have to go looking for our warm heart – it can often be rediscovered down in the basement of our being, rather ignored, whilst we’ve been living on the roof-tops; in our heads. When you’ve located it and re-familiarised yourself with your own goodness (meditation helps here) then we can live, study, work, interact from our true nature. Our core essence. Have you noticed how your warm heart has different motivations and goals than our busy, bossy brains?

6903711925_88ee295a0c_zAuckland University has seven (SEVEN!!) spiritual / multi-faith chaplains who are available to assist with spiritual and personal development. There is a Zen priest who leads interested students in regular meditation sessions. Wow, what a fantastic education these students are having.

It was a really fun and interesting day, made more so by the friendliness and passion of the lecturers who took care of me. It must be no coincidence that it’s a school of Hospitality as well as a school of Culinary Arts. Thank you, friends, for such a inspiring day.


Baby Herbs photo by Abby