Why Cooking Is the Best Way to Practice Zen Buddhism

I drove 800 miles to attend a private cooking workshop hosted by Zen chef and cookbook author, Edward Espe Brown. We made olive oil bread, kale salad, asparagus timbales, and a rhubarb-strawberry tart.

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Apr 11 2016, 11:00pm

How do you cook your own life?

One way is by watching Zen chef and cookbook author Edward Espe Brown in a documentary titled exactly that: How to Cook Your Life. It may ultimately make you realize that when you're cooking, you're not just working on food. You are working on yourself and your relationships with other people.

I found this out—along with many other practical ways to practice Zen Buddhism through cooking—when I went to the premiere of this movie in 2008. It was screened in an independent movie theater in Hollywood, and I remember taking the bus for three hours to get there from East Los Angeles. I was 18 years old and full of angst, depression, neuroses, and all that other fun teenage stuff. I was already obsessed with food at that point, however, and watching the documentary made me realize that everything was going to be OK.

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Brown pouring some rhubarb into a tart crust

The movie made me a dedicated Zen student of Edward Espe Brown, who was already well-known among the older home cook community as the author of The Tassajara Bread Book in 1970 and Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections in 1997. I lived in Los Angeles and Brown did most of his sesshins (the Japanese word for a period of intensive meditation in a Zen monastery) in San Francisco and Carmel Valley, but that didn't faze me. I would hop on a Greyhound Bus and hitchhike my way up to Green Gulch or Tassajara Zen Mountain Center once a year just to become a Zen hermit and live the Buddhist commune lifestyle for weeks at a time.

When steaming rice, regard the pot as your own head; when washing rice, know that the water is your own life.

As I grew older, a combination of me slowly falling out of daily meditation practice and Brown hosting most of his teachings in Europe made me lose contact with him. This past weekend, however, I made the 800-mile round-trip drive to his home in Fairfax, California for a one-day "Zen and Cooking" workshop. The menu for the day was rosemary olive oil bread, kale salad with smoked salmon and ginger, asparagus timbales, and a rhubarb-strawberry tart. The only other student—beside my girlfriend, who changed majors during college and pursued food for a living after watching the documentary—was Kay Ryan, a US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

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Olive oil bread

If you've never been to a Zen-based cooking workshop before, the main difference from any other type of cooking class is that you cook without the use of any recipes, or things like timers and electronic aids. Instead, you watch the teacher demonstrate the technique and you are expected to carefully watch and sometimes help, forcing you to rely completely on your senses to learn. Also, you taste every layer of flavor or seasoning, discussing the qualities of it as it builds up to the final dish.

Learning this way—without taking any notes—may sound hard at first ,but it is easier to do after a meditation session earlier that morning, which is also common in a Zen cooking workshop.

The other thing to know is that you do not throw away anything. If there is a tiny pinch of raw tart dough clinging to the cutting board, you scrape it off and add back to ball of dough. If there are a few shreds of kale that fell over the edge of the cutting board, you scrape that off add it back to the salad. This degree of thoughtfulness comes from Eihei Dogen's published instructions on cooking food on Tassajara Dinners and Desserts: "When steaming rice, regard the pot as your own head; when washing rice, know that the water is your own life." He was a 13th-century monk who is regarded as one of Zen's greatest teachers.

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Brown adding the water into timbales

"Gee, I think my cuts were a little irregular," said Ryan when she noticed that she hadn't minced her lemon peel for the tart crust as finely as the rest of us. "Don't worry," Brown responded to her to comfort her. This exchange between them captured the spirit of the workshop in general.

After nearly five decades of practicing Zen Buddhism, Brown is still known for being anxious temperamental. One of the most memorable scenes in How to Cook Your Life is when he loses it over not being able to open the plastic wrap around a block of cheddar. That personality trait that exists in Brown to this day, as I extinguished a potential meltdown of his over not being able to open a coarse salt container during the workshop. This goes to show you that finding enlightenment truly is still a process even for masters and teachers.

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The zen feast

The workshop concluded with a dinner featuring the food that we prepared, along with a chant: "We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us. We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offering. We regard it as essential to keep the mind free from excesses such as greed. We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life. For the sake of enlightenment, we now receive this food. May all beings be free from suffering."