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Zen Food ?

An interview with Capucine Graby on Zen Buddhist temple food

The concepts of "Zen food", Japanese charity cuisine or Korean temple food are developing at a rapid pace. Why do you think this is?

The way in which we have built the management of food production in our societies has been based on criteria that have not integrated the systemic reality of living beings, and after 50 years of this logic of exploitation we are realising the interdependence of our global system and the danger that this entails for humans and for the entire chain of links in food production, which will ultimately fall on us.

In a more subtle way, I think that the industrial process of food production has deeply affected us all: who, even those who like to eat meat, can not be touched by the terror and suffering of animals in slaughterhouses? And who, even vegan, can not feel powerless and responsible for the destruction of the earth? Often forced into a posture of denial in order to compensate for the emotional burden of the impact of our food production on the earth and the animal world we now feel a call towards a nourishment of reconciliation with the world and what we deeply are, cooperative beings.

The ancestral approach of the Shojin Ryori of Japanese temples, that of Korean seon temples or the secular approach that I have created with the cuisine of benevolence in France are all based on the observation that nothing is separate and that rediscovering the link to the community of living beings via our food brings us joy and the desire to contribute to the good of all beings, including the earth.

This call for more connection and solidarity is latent in the state of transition we are currently experiencing, we are all thirsty for a way of life that is no longer destructive but regenerative.

Also, a proposal that is kind to oneself because it is kind to the world of our food, is necessarily very much heard at present.

And more than a forced march, I would say that we want to make ourselves available to listen deeply to what our food has to tell us, we want to contemplate it and because seeing is acting, we thus rediscover the regenerative power of compassion.

- Do you think we are only at the beginning of "Zen Food"? Why is that?

We are in France, so I think it is dangerous to copy and paste terms that take away from concepts that are universal. We live in an incredible time and the Asian Buddhist concepts are currently meeting those of deep ecology and systemics, so there is no need to cling to them.

These "Zen foods", namely the Japanese Shojin Ryori and the cuisine of the Seon temples (Korean Zen), were developed in the 9th century in Korea and since the 12th century in Japan in a monastic setting, in the heart of the sangha (community).

The ethical and ecological drift of our food production questions our society as a human community within other communities (animal, vegetable, mineral...) and the cuisine of benevolence (the updated version of this Zen practice) answers this questioning of the relationship with the living through food. So yes, and I hope so, this holistic approach to our food, which goes beyond the reductive framework of our personal health, our taste, our needs, to include them in our inter-elite identity reality, will certainly count in the societal transition that we are beginning.

- Does this type of gastronomy have solid foundations? If so, which ones?

Because of their histories and the cultural contexts in which they developed, in Korea, Japan and today in France, this universal practice of benevolence of food can take the gastronomic form. This being said, there is only one root: that of Zen practice with the question of living: how to manifest the full reality of our life? And a proposal: that of living in the present moment, which is nevertheless elusive.

Whether it is in sitting without method, in cooking or in eating, Zen has proposed a framework for activating the living beyond the thought that is observed. It is through daily life, put on the same level as the study of texts or contemplative absorption that this practice is activated. I am from the Japanese Zen tradition so I don't know the Korean history of Seon but it is in Soto Zen that Dogen in the 13th century will place food at the heart of the practice with two main texts: instructions to the Zen cook (tenzo kyokun) and the practice of bowls (Fukushu hampo). And it is also in Japan that a ritual of meals (practice of Oryoki) was built in this same school so that the days, from sitting in the kitchen to eating, are one and the same movement, that of the life which circulates in us and which is given back.

- Does cooking in a meditative state really change the "power" of food? And the state of mind of those who eat it?

We talk a lot about meditation, imagining that we are talking about the same thing, but there are many types of meditation. Whether they are secular (in the secular world) or monastic, they can be classified into two main types: those that try to frame the mind in order to bring it to calmness and then live more freely (traditional vippassana or mindfulness are part of it) and those without methodology that seek to merge with reality as it happens and it is that of dynamic Zen contemplation, both monastic and secular. It is also known as objectless meditation because it does not wish to reach any objective, not even the one of not reaching one. It is a practice that passes through the posture of sitting granted in the abandoned space of our opinions. It is zazen, sitting absorption. With the back stretched out without tension, we let thoughts, emotions and sensations pass without rejecting or keeping them... It is a process and not a state to be reached.

When we eat in this practice, it is the same thing, we only eat without any other objective than eating. Sitting with dignity, not slouching, but without any tension, we put ourselves in front of this gift of life which nourishes us, but we do not observe ourselves (it is therefore different from mindfulness while eating, even if all these practices can be complementary). But because this cuisine does not use lilies, because the cook (tenzo) takes care to bring back to our plate all the flavours, textures and colours of the reality of the moment, there are no longer any borders between us and the outside world and without having to do anything, we feel loved and connected to the world. From this unconscious reconciliation which passes by the balance of the flavours, textures, colours and (in Soto Zen) by the 6th Awami flavour, the one which springs from all the gathered flavours, a space opens and a new satiety is offered to us, the one of completeness.

It is obvious that from this state of availability we receive the full benefits of our food. This does not change the reality of the food but our capacity to benefit from it (the nutritional power being largely linked to our digestive capacity, we know that a stressed organism will not benefit from these foods in the same way as a calmed organism)

But more globally, our state of being is uncovered: by feeding on this wholeness our perception of the world changes and with it the joy and the desire to contribute naturally arise.

- What do you think of Korean Temple food?

It is the same practice since its origin is that of the realization of non-separation with a practice based on the recognition of a suffering of shifted perception (stemming from our fear), gratitude to the stars and to the ancestors, the attention not to waste the life offered, the desire to honor this gift by a respectful way of living and the pleasure of living in cooperative joy with the earth and all beings.

- Is it useful to ban certain foods from one's diet, such as onions or leeks, which are considered too exciting by some?

It is never useful to ban anything, the cuisine of benevolence is above all the practice of the situation and not a dogma. If you want to experience the "centred" taste (what I call the silent taste) and a satiety different from what you usually know, you can experiment by not using onions or garlic for a while, so that during mourning or retreats you can protect the blandness in order to open yourself more easily to the absorption of the whole.

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