The Zen of Food
Download a PDF of the complete published version of The Zen of Food at East Bay Edible magazine.
You’re making an apple cake. You slice your crisp and juicy Gravenstein into a bowl. So what is it you’re slicing? Well, there’s the sun and the rain that helped the apple tree grow; the farmer who tended the tree; the earth with its rich nutrients that supported growth; the harvester who plucked the perfectly ripe apple from its bough; the driver who took it to the marketplace; the various people who picked up the apple and felt it, and maybe sniffed it, before you purchased it to bake and serve, as a cinnamon-infused afternoon treat, to friends who will hopefully relish it — and at some point return it in a different form to the earth.
That’s a short story of interconnectedness and one choice morsel in the paradoxical buffet served up here as “the Zen of food.” Signature dishes in this telling include the famed vegetarian delights of the summertime guest season at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness, the organic bounty of Green Gulch Farm (aka Green Dragon Temple) near Muir Beach, and the heaven-from-earth culinary pleasures that have given legendary status to Tassajara–inspired Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.
“When I think of ‘Zen food,’ I think of something simple, balanced and attractive to all the senses,” says Laurie Senauke, who has lived and practiced at the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) for 18 years. “[The food] smells, looks, and tastes great and in preparing it, the cook is thinking of the experience of the guest.”
“Zen cooking in my opinion is about allowing the food to be what it is; bringing out the inherent quality rather than trying to manipulate it,” observes Ron Nestor, a regular Saturday breakfast cook at BZC.
Zen practice, in essence, is about paying attention and being present. Kitchen work, food preparation, and feeding people have traditionally been seen as a complement to sitting, in silence, in formal meditation (zazen).
“In Zen practice we want our intuition — our universal self — to come forth,” says Berkeley Zen Center abbot, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi. “When you’re doing simple tasks [like peeling broccoli or breaking lettuce into bite-size bits], your body, mind, the broccoli, the knife, your hand, the breath, are all involved. When you keep bringing your attention back to what you’re doing — when you are simply one with your activity — it’s the same as sitting zazen.”
“We are what we eat and we eat what we cook; so in a sense, we’re cooking ourselves,” observes Jerome Waag, Zen student and longtime Chez Panisse chef.
And when we eat?
“Just eat,” says Weitsman. “Simply be direct and total.”
Similarly, going back to the apple cake: When you slice, just slice. “When you’re thinking (about it),” says Weitsman, “you create a separation. That’s why chopping vegetables is such a great activity; because you can get beyond the thinking mind.”
And not thinking, you are the apple.
When Slow is Fast
If you think that Zen is about slowing down and blissing out, you most likely haven’t tried the oryoki experience; the formal and highly ritualized form of eating spawned in the Zen monasteries in Japan and practiced as a morning tradition at BZC every Saturday.
“I got performance anxiety every time I went to oryoki,” says Oakland painter Meg Kiuchi, who tried it several times — then admitted defeat.
Kiuchi — a Japanese-American Francophile and something of a gourmet who regularly conjures up exotic feasts for friends — was raised Buddhist, but in the Jodo Shinshu tradition. “They have the teachings, but they don’t meditate,” she explains. And they don’t have oryoki.
Detailed how-to directives for oryoki date back to medieval Japan. The text, “Instructions for the Zen Cook,” completed in 1237, also gives specific guidelines for preparing, cooking, serving — and even eating food in ways that even Miss Manners would approve. One should not, for example, make noises when chewing, scratch ones head and let dandruff fall in the bowl, or pick out food bits from the teeth without covering one’s mouth, to quote from the translation.
“When you do oryoki,” groans Kiuchi, “you have to follow all these forms and know all these hand positions (gestures that tell the server, in the silence observed throughout the meal, that you want more, don’t want more, or want just a little). And you’re supposed to eat, like it or not, whatever is put in your bowl.
“Well,” she continues, “that might be the ideal, but I couldn’t do it. My discriminating mind came into full play. First I’d be thinking, ‘Will I get it all down?’ Then I’d pray that I wouldn’t barf it up. Then I’d wait for it to get locked in my throat, and I’d worry: ‘What if I can’t finish it? How can I clean my bowl?’”
More specifically, three bowls. They nest one inside the other and when not in use, are wrapped in a napkin-like cloth. You eat with a spoon and chopsticks. Opening the bowls, laying out the lap- and wiping cloths, serving the food, eating it — all follow form and ritual. At the end you’re given hot water to wash your bowls; you wipe them dry and wrap them up again. There’s no dishwashing. “It’s a very efficient and concentrated way of having a meal,” says Weitzman.
Also very green.
“Green came afterward,” he notes.
There are many, of course, who relish oryoki. “If done correctly, there’s a flow,” Weitsman explains. “It’s rhythmic. There’s no wasted motion. It becomes sort of like a very sophisticated dance. The way the servers come in and serve; the way you come into the zendo (meditation hall); it’s all kind of choreographed.”
Except, in Kiuchi’s case, oryoki choreographed up nightmares.
“It’s all done is such a hurry,” she laments. “You have to chew quickly and swallow fast. In fact, I don’t think many people chew. There just isn’t time. How some manage seconds, I just don’t know. I’d start to hyperventilate and curse the server. It drove me crazy. I think it’s all created to make you feel tense.”
“Some people feel like that. We say, OK, just stumble through it,” says Abbot Weitsman. We’re talking in his book-lined studio at the Berkeley Zen Center, a short stroll from the Berkeley Bowl. He must have been asked these questions many times before, yet he’s patient and playful in his responses.
“There are obstacles in practice and the obstacles are usually your own mind,” Weitsman continues. “So you just notice: I’m anxious, I’m worried, I don’t like the food; and you keep going. That’s practice.”
And, he says, eating fast is the monastic way. “You just eat. It’s only fast when you think it’s fast.”
What about the chewing?
“I chew everything completely and I always encourage everyone to chew everything completely,” says Weitsman. “But I’m just chewing. I’m not dawdling and thinking about something else. Well, I am thinking about something else,” he chuckles, as he does often, in that classic long-time-Zen-monk/Dalai Lama sort of way. “But I come back.”
So, Zen food can be fast. And as Kiuchi and any new or long-time meditator knows, Zen silences while eating, same as while sitting (meditating), can be deafening, as thoughts, ideas, prejudices and resistance shout to be heard.
“Our usual meaning of good is that some things are good and some things are bad according to our likes or dislikes, which is OK,” says Weitsman, getting back to Kiuchi’s oryoki issues. “But the true meaning of good is that good includes bad. We can’t have everything according to our likes.”
And when we think we can, we suffer?
“That’s suffering,” confirms Weitsman. “So, because ‘good’ includes what I like and what I don’t like, we eat whatever is served.”
Suffer on, Kiuchi.
So what is Zen food?
Weitsman established the BZC in 1967 at the request of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the legendary Japanese monk who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The SFZC has grown from a single location in the city across the Bay — now known as City Center — to include the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, and Greens Restaurant.
Zen priest Mary Mocine, founding teacher at the Vallejo Zen Center, got the flavor of assorted Zen kitchens during stints as tenzo (head cook) at Tassajara and the San Francisco City Center.
She explains: “The menu at Tassajara during winter practice period (when it closes to the public and functions as a monastery, for meditation and study) is classical oryoki; three bowls at breakfast and lunch and two at dinner and always a plain grain in the main bowl.”
Mocine labels it “wholesome feeding-family food.” “There’s a saying that it needs to be interesting enough that people want to eat it; but not so good that they’re talking about it afterwards.”
Summertime food at Tassajara, meanwhile, is similar to the Greens experience; “probably a little heartier,” says Mocine. “It’s vacation food.” Some would call it sublime food. “You want people to feel nurtured in all senses.” So, same as Greens, it’s fresh, seasonal, flavorful, creative, beautifully presented, fantasize-about-forever food.
At the City Center, there are residents who eat the food every day, so the menu varies. The approach is home-style fresh, seasonal, and local, and there is a focus on flavor and presentation.
Given these differences, what identifies Zen food?