"How to Cook Your Life" with Raw & Refined Mindfulness

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, May 15, 2007

Dharma-Inspired Movie Review: http://www.german-ilms.de/app/filmarchive/film_view.php?film_id=1537

Singapore -- "How to Cook Your Life" is inspired by Zen Master Dogen's celebrated "Instructions to the Cook" (Tenzokyojun), which uses the preparation of food as a metaphor for the cultivation of our spirituality. Yes, there can be more to this "mundane" task often taken for granted.

As the filmmaker Doris Dorrie remarked, "How a person goes about dealing with the ingredients for his meals says a lot about him." If we learn to connect to the task at hand, no matter how routine or seemingly insignificant it might be, we learn to connect with the reality of here and now. Master Dogen (1238 AD) had founded the Japanese Soto-Zen school.

According to the film's website, he "wrote a cookbook in which he taught that it is possible to discover Buddha in even the simplest of kitchen duties, such as washing rice or kneading dough, and so reflect on one’s own actions and behaviour in the world."

Indeed. If we cannot discover Buddha-nature where we are, where can we?

The upbeat film revolves around Zen Master Edward Espe Brown, who explains how cooking and living revolve around each other. Enough about "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and such for now - this is "Zen and the Art of Kitchen and Dietary Maintenance". This documentary is definitely no preachy material. Master Brown presents himself in a disarmingly human way, with faults and all. He admits to impatience for instance - we even see him struggling to open a food package. And he also sheds tears when he recalls how the sight of battered teapots reminded him that he too can serve despite his imperfections. Beyond his role as a teacher, we also see a fellow Dharma practitioner in him.

In his words, "My teacher Suzuki Roshi said, 'When you are cooking, you are not just cooking. You are not just working on food. You are also working on yourself. You are working on other people.'" Indeed, when you are working in a Zen kitchen, cooking for the community while interacting with kitchen folks, cooking can be a spiritual challenge.

As an interviewee says, "The hardest part about cooking is working with other people." Indeed. As Venerable Seung Sahn once taught, the easiest way to wash potatoes is in tub of water, letting them rub the dirt off each other. Washing potatoes, we might be cleansing our minds instead. Similarly, we might be cooking food, but the food might be "cooking us" too. Harmony is best learnt and appreciated by practising "together action" of living, cooking and meditating together. This is the value of living as a spiritual community - even if only during an occasional retreat.

Anything wholesome we are doing can be a subject for training mindfulness. Ingredients are carefully protected, as if they were one's own eyes. Even kneading dough is part of the process of developing awareness and attention. Food is used as a vehicle to cultivate the three minds - "big mind, joyful mind, and kind mind". "When you wash the rice, wash the rice, cut the carrots, stir the soup... a lot of the time, we are going through the motions, not seeing with the eyes, feeling with our hands, we're thinking all sorts of things... See with your eyes, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue.

Nothing in the universe is hidden." In this vein of thought, studying cooking is also studying yourself mindfully. As Master Dogen taught, "Watching closely with sincere diligence, you should not attend to some things and neglect or be slack with others for even one moment. Do not give away a single drop from within the ocean of virtues; you must not fail to add a single speck on top of the mountain of good deeds."

Catch it at the International Buddhist Film Festival (Singapore) 2007

Much is explored on other aspects of food too - for instance, the culture of mechanised food that tastes artificial, that loses the vitality of life. Our whole sense of taste is skewed when we keep comparing "real" food with commercial food. Everything must have some virtue by itself… There's nothing to compare with yourself. Sincerity is with blemishes. As Suzuki Roshi taught, "So you have your own value. And that value is not comparative value or exchange value. It is that value – something more than that." This value is Buddha-nature - our ability to become invaluable Buddhas!

As a practice to treasure food, the Zen centre even sorts leftovers for the homeless who sleep in a church and on the streets. Now that is great unconditional compassion and equanimity. Don't waste even a grain of rice – it is as if your eye! "Backdoor catering service" or freeganism is also touched upon as a "radical" means to minimise waste - the salvaging of abandoned or neglected food to sustain oneself. The film also subtly hints that we can all switch to a kinder diet - that involves the minimal sacrifice of sentient beings. The food cooked in the film is vegetarian, though there was a scene where eggs were used. However, there is also a scene which asks if we know eggs come from happy chickens. If we are unsure, why risk the happiness of chickens by demanding their eggs? Most egg-bearing chickens live tortured lives and are eventually killed for their meat and other body parts. This is why many choose to be vegans.

In the film are occasional black and while footage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In one charming teaching, he says - "If you think, when you are reading something, if you think, 'Bird is there, blue jay is over my roof. Blue jay is singing, but their voice is not so good.

When you think in that way – 'That is noise!' When you are not disturbed by the blue jay, the blue jay will come right into your heart, and you will be a blue jay, and blue jay will be reading something. Bird is here, in my mind already, and I am singing with the bird.

Pee pee pee!" Master Brown elaborates that we should let things come to our hearts as there is pain when there is separation, from wanting to protect ourselves. When we distant ourselves, we ache with longing. We might even be abusive when we want things our way - thinking it is control. What we cannot control, we might think of destroying.

But "if you have a little piece of shit on your nose, everything stinks." Instead, you should wash your face and transform the negative energy to something useful. Some other Dharma lessons from the kitchen, which reflect on life beyond it... It is impossible to please all with a dish. What matters is not perfection, but making sincere efforts when preparing food. Things in the kitchen don’t always go as expected. When we are joyful, kind and big-hearted, the food we prepare will be likewise. "Nourishing" yourself spiritually doesn’t come out of a package – it comes from your heart – connecting with food and others. Is food precious? Are you precious? When you honour food that you give others and yourself, you are honouring all. Food is more than for sustenance - it is for finding peace too. You are what you eat – eat too much hamburger and you might "become" hamburger. In gardening, "ask" the plants – how can I help fulfill your purpose? Think of giving before receiving. Worthy of mention in the film is a neat little poem called "The Little Duck" by Donald C. Babcock... Enjoy!

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.

It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf, and he cuddles in the
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic.
And he is part of it.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realises it.
And what does he do, I ask you.
He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.

I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.   

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