The Extraordinary Retreat

It’s been more than a week since I left the retreat with Edward Espe Brown, the Zen priest and beloved chef who has been such a inspiration and spiritual mentor to me for the last 10 years. Ed was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and many people will know him from his bread making bible “the Tassajra Bread Book.” Even though we had never met before, he has been like a friend reaching out to me through his books and online talks, so finally being on retreat with him was something very special.

Writing about retreat experiences, generally, is difficult. Even profound experience, in fact especially profound experience, is usually subtle and beyond words.

What is common for us humans is to seek out extraordinary experiences. This you could say is the ordinary wish. What is extraordinary therefore is to be content yet engaged, utterly at peace with the ordinary. That really is extraordinary, and in many ways, that is what Ed offered on his retreat. Continue reading “The Extraordinary Retreat”

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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”

‘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’*”

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”

How To Cook In The Dark

Suzuki Roshi said that Zen is like feeling your way along in the dark. I think this means – go slowly, go carefully. Keep all your senses open, feel your way with tenderness. Pay more attention to where you are now rather than focusing on the destination.

I’ve been hibernating of sorts lately and not doing much, or so it would appear. This is not that typical of me really, I am often more of a “get out of my way I have somewhere I need to be!” type of person, and how different it feels to take tiny steps (or no steps) instead of rushing forward. I can’t really say I am able to see any progress at all.

There is an expression in Zen – take off the blinkers and take off the saddle bags; i.e.  you’ve arrived. Unpack. There is no further destination to focus on, your belongings can spill out of the saddle bags. Sit still. Take a look at what you’ve got. What serves you? What might actually be unnecessary baggage?

Cooking wise, I’ve been loving Emma Galloway’s latest book A Year In My Real Food Kitchen and have made many successful meals, led by her hand. It can sometimes feel too much of a stretch to try out brand new recipes when we’re low on energy, doubtful, but I also find that following the guidance of someone you trust feels very supportive, a way of being kind to yourself.

Continue reading “How To Cook In The Dark”

Beauty is life unveiled

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil”

Winter in NZ is just as beautiful as any other season, and with some time off work I find myself nourished by beauty, along with a feeling that I have been in a beauty-drought for some time (although actually I have just been too distracted, too veiled, to notice it.)

When I pause to appreciate and even celebrate beauty – in nature, in art, in music, in people, then I relax a little more, feel more connected, feel more joyful. So how to connect with the beauty of this life without getting all graspy?

Continue reading “Beauty is life unveiled”

Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher

I’m going to share with you an old Italian soup recipe. It has only 5 simple ingredients and simmers for just 10 minutes. It costs less than a dollar per serving, yet is a life-changer! What are your expectations? I came across it on Food52 who labelled it ‘genius’ – opinions are divided.

The recipe is credited to the father of the legendary, Italian-American cookery writer Marcella Hazan. Marcella was born in 1924 in northern Italy, so we can confidently say that this recipe belongs to a certain era and tradition. It’s said, that from necessity as well as inclination, Marcella’s father, Giuseppe, was an extremely frugal cook. At the time, apparently the most expensive ingredient in this soup was the salt. The context is important and should be taken into consideration before we judge it.

Or on the other hand, we could decide to not judge it. We could just cook it and offer it with love and sincerity. Receive it with love and sincerity. Maybe it’s a bit bland, or maybe it’s heavenly, but we are a step closer to magnanimous mind. But it’s soooo hard not to judge, isn’t it?

In the Tenzo Kyōkun, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we should handle all food with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor. ‘A dish is not superior because you have made it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens,’ Dōgen teaches. Why is this attitude so important?

Continue reading “Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher”