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Soul Food

Just finished reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki — one of the people responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the U.S. A woman named Trudy Dixon worked to edit Suzuki-roshi’s talks in a way that captured the meaning of some of his perhaps puzzling statements. Rather than edit out repetition, for instance, sometimes the repetition of Suzuki-roshi’s words were important for their meaning. I was shocked to find that she worked on the project while very sick, and up until her death, at age 30, of breast cancer.

I bring up this book, not only because meditation is an interest of mine, but because of how it intersects with cooking and eating. I see mindfulness as important to how one experiences both.

Here’s what Suzuki-roshi says:
“To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.”

“So we say, ‘When you eat, eat!’ You should eat what is there, you know. Sometimes you do not eat it. Even though you are eating, your mind is somewhere else. You do not know what you have in your mouth. As long as you can eat when you are eating, you are all right. Do not worry a bit. It means you are you yourself.”

This reminds me of the enormous experience of eating I had when I went on a six day silent meditation retreat. We had a strict schedule of waking early, walking and meditating, sitting and meditating, chores, and eating meals. It was as though I had never tasted anything as good as the vegan meals on this retreat. And I am no vegan. In fact, sometimes I think of vegan foods like characters of a new language I have not yet learned. (Brewer’s yeast?) But there I was eating with such full awareness that I tasted every single bite of salad or stewed prunes or whatever was in front of me.

As some Bay Area folks know, this book showcases some of the basis for the teaching practice at Tassajara – a Zen retreat center and also a place famous for its bread! Here’s more on The Tassajara Bread Book. Before heading to Ballymaloe, I also watched the documentary How to Cook Your Life, which follows the author of The Tassajara Bread Book, Zen practitioner Edward Espe Brown. I remember him being very hard to watch. Even though the Zen center settings were serene, and even though he was simply making bread, he seemed a pained person.

Here’s what Suzuki-roshi said about bread:
“Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character–how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice.

But we may find it not so interesting to cook the same thing over and over again every day. It is rather tedious, you may say. If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult, but it will not be difficult if you are full of strength and vitality. Anyway, we cannot keep still; we have to do something. So if you do something, you should be very observant, and careful, and alert. Our way is to put the dough in the oven and watch it carefully.”

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