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The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life Lessons from Masterchef Nun Jeong Kwan

--by Virginia May-Schiros, Jul 26, 2017

A Remberance of Peace 

Several years ago, I traveled for two days on planes, trains and in a tiny car to sit at a Buddhist retreat in the French country side.  The hope was to discover what the Buddha could teach me about how to be alive in the present moment and experience peace. This was the peace I remembered as a child while standing by my mother’s side in the kitchen where we made peanut brittle together, canned tomatoes and washed dishes. It was the peace I felt sitting next to her in church.  It was the peace many others felt too as they would sit with her at the kitchen table, drinking endless cups of coffee as she would laugh and talk with visitors—anyone from my father’s legal clients, to neighborhood women, to the workmen fixing up our old house. All felt welcome in her kitchen. Traveling to France was a little like trying to find that peace again. The irony of course, in traveling far to find inner peace, is that the present moment is here and now, not across the ocean and in the French country side. But even the misapprehension of meditation is all part of the lesson.  There are some journeys we all have to make before we can come home to ourselves. 

Food as Meditation

If I could make another trip to remind myself of my inherent tranquility, one trip I would make is to South Korea to meet an unlikely celebrity of the cooking world who lives in the present moment via the joy of cooking and gardening. Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist nun and renowned cook who brings people home to themselves in her kitchen and garden. Anyone who refers to her garden as “my playground” and to the plants as her “children” has a perspective on gardening, cooking and life that resonates deep within me.  Kwan resides at the Chunjinam hermitage of the Baekyangsa temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, South Korea where she cooks vegan meals for her community.  She was also the unlikely guest on Chef’s Table in February 2017 where many world class chefs have competed for accolades and fame; not so for her though. Fame and competition aren’t even remotely part of her recipe for creating meals that are extraordinary.  For Kwan, the connection between the earth and enlivening, delicious food is a journey inward that can’t be separated from meditation. She identifies herself not as a cook but as a nun. In her closing comments on Chef’s Table, she said, “I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom. I wish you a healthy, happy life. Thank you.”   In accordance with her Buddhist beliefs, Kwan’s meals are made without meat, fish, garlic, scallions, leeks, chives, or onions—ingredients essential to nearly all cooks.  Even without those ingredients, the dishes she prepares have a complexity and flavor that has caused fans to travel thousands of miles to visit her openhearted kitchen. One such visitor is writer Mina Park who was on a hiatus from her legal job when she made the trip to Baekyangsa temple. She was in awe when she finally found herself standing in Jeong Kwan’s kitchen. “In her kitchen for the first time, I was swept immediately into the warmth and bustle of a morning at Chunjinam…  I was in Jeong Kwan’s kitchen. I tried not to pass out. ”  Kwan is full of warmth and laughter in her kitchen, yet has a focus on her food preparation that is akin to meditation.  People come not only for her good food, but because she is a force of love in her simple wisdom. 

The Garden is the Kitchen

Writer Jeff Gordinier is a New York Times writer who was lucky enough to make a trip to meet Kwan. In an article about his expedition in 2015, he illuminated the philosophy that begins in Kwan’s garden and culminates on her plate.  Reflecting on what makes her dishes so compelling, he says, “Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains.”  His words remind me of my own garden and the visceral need so many of us have to grow our own food, to be connected to Mother Earth and share in the creative power to generate vegetables from soil that we have dug our hands into.  The Guardian food writer Jonathan Thompson cited Jeong Kwan’s love for her garden as the source of her incredible success in the kitchen. “ ‘These are my children,’ says Jeong Kwan as she ushers me through her garden. ‘I know their characters well, but even after all this time, they surprise me every day.’ ” With that she chuckled as she gazed over her garden.

Cucumber Becomes Me

It is in this way that Kwan’s own garden is the source of the magic she creates in her kitchen.  She gives herself over to being a part of nature, and in turn nature does not hold back from her. Her garden is abundant but it is not an orderly, controlled plot. It is more of a patch that is a haven to the animals as much as a food source for the monastery. Gordinier says, “The garden has no fence around it, and it seems to blur into the surrounding forest in a way that suggests the playground remains open to beasts of all types.”  He says Kwan is not afraid to let the pigs roam and root in her garden for the occasional pumpkin they may run off with. The coexistence seems to work for her and, in her own way, she sees herself as being one with the gifts from her garden. Gordinier also noted her meditative connection to the vegetables she works with.  Kwan told him, ‘‘Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.’’ The result is making meals that are almost transcendent for the fortunate guests at her table.  For Kwan, sharing food is a moment of communion because when we cook for someone and share a meal we are partaking in the feelings we have for one another—the gift of ourselves in the food we make. 

Buddha’s Way

At the opening of her appearance on Chef’s Table in 2017, Kwan said, “With food we can share and communicate our emotions. It’s that mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating. There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way.” The wisdom in this reflective way of eating makes our modern way of eating “on the fly” a real travesty. Fast food drive thrus, meals eaten while standing in lines or in front of glowing screens all degrade our ancestral rituals of meals shared in common to connect with our inner emotional and spiritual lives. Meals prepared and eaten mindlessly form a stark contrast to the mindful and loving meals prepared by Kwan. Her goal is to enjoy the gift of being alive in growing, making and eating food that deepens life.  Like Kwan, I want to remember to embrace the wisdom to treat each meal as a chance to practice spirituality both in the way we prepare our food and in the way we eat our meals together.  In our best of times, how many of us can recall those unforgettable meals shared with family and friends that still linger in our memories for the sense of joy felt by all around the table?  Do we gloss them over as just another good time, or do we recognize those meals as Kwan does as sacred gatherings in the presence of our most holy selves? 

The Shadow in the Kitchen- “Patiently Funkified”

If Kwan’s relationship to her garden is her source of creativity generated in the light, a further source is the wonder of what can be created in darkness and fermentation. Just as in life, the products Kwan generates in the darkness of a fermenting vat is the measure of the success of what she can create in the light of her kitchen.  This really is something for me to ponder on a deeper level. I have never been one to embrace the idea of letting food sit out for the fermentation process to do the magic of creating the likes of kimchi, sauerkraut and kombuchu.  The line between rotting and fermentation seems too blurred for my own comfort in practicing this art, yet Kwan skillfully cultivates a garden of fermenting vessels.  Jeff Gordinier noted that “She specializes in pairing what’s freshly plucked with what’s patiently funkified. On a roof at the monastery, just up the way from her garden, she keeps an open-air arsenal of urns and vats that teem with invisible activity. These are her secret weapons: condiments like soy sauce, doenjang (bean paste) and gochujang (chile paste) that have been fermenting and evolving in slow motion. Some of these age not for weeks, but for years.”  The metaphor here is in the mystery of the Shadow and how fruitful and enriching those things in life can be that we bury and push away as being unpleasant because of personal or societal criticisms or aspects of ourselves that we think have become undesirable due to age.  These Shadow aspects of our inner selves become a source of richness that adds flavor to life—just like Kwan’s treasure of vats and urns full of condiments that spice up her vegan meals. I am inclined to look within and consider the parts of myself that I have buried away. Could those very same things become a source of flavor in my life?   Some things I have left untouched for years, only to later discover a latent talent that I had earlier discarded.  Some experiences that were too painful and I wished to run or hide from, later became a source of beauty and richness in my life. I have a feeling Kwan would appreciate the metaphor here and invite me to look within for the smallest things I have rejected and take them into the kitchen of my heart to see what wonderful meal I could serve up to the world in this thing called my life.

Coming Home to You

Though I doubt I will ever have the chance to travel to Korea or to meet Jeong Kwan, I am learning that not all trips have to be made to reap the inward benefits of the journey.  In my own way, I have met Jeong Kwan in my garden and in my kitchen. Her story speaks to me as a reminder that the beginning is the end. We come home to ourselves when we have truly made the trip inward to love and transcendence.  I have learned that it is important to treasure what is grown in the garden so that what is created in the kitchen is wholesome and life-giving. She has taught me to treat Earth with respect as a partner and to take time to be present in every moment, including in the kitchen. She has taught me to enjoy life. Love the people you are with and feed them generously with good food. And finally, hold and nurture the Shadow, and allow some things to ferment until their proper time has come. You will discover a treasure that makes life delicious. And finally, be the cucumber. 

***

For more inspiration join this week's Awakin Call with Anil Ananthaswamy, an award-winning science writer who uses neuroscience to explore the nature of the self. RSVP and more details here.

Reference sources for above article:

Zen and the Art of Korean Vegan Cooking

Jeong Kwan the Philosopher Chef

Chefs Table Recap: Jeong Kwan

The Most Popular Buddhist Nun Cook -- In Manhattan

My Time With Jeong Kwan, The Philosopher Chef




Virginia May-Schiros has been teaching children with special needs for 25 years. In addition to being a DailyGood writer she is an active volunteer in her local community where she gardens, serves the homeless, leads walking pilgrimages and more.     


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