Impermanence in the Spirit Rock Kitchen
By Max Swanger, Kitchen Staff
The Kitchen Staff at Spirit Rock Meditation Center (L - R): Monika Tucker, Mary Kelly, Levi Halberstadt, Leo McNickels, Eva Kaminker, Seth Kutzen, Cheryl Bates and Max Swanger
The beautiful thing about cooking in the Spirit Rock Kitchen is that impermanence becomes totally visible. I can work very hard on a meal, bringing it together with a balance of flavors and seasoning, watching the ingredients change in taste and composition. Then the raw vegetables are washed, chopped, diced and sliced and then steamed, roasted, fried, braised or just melted into soup. After, it is offered, eaten and transformed into energy in the stomachs of many yogis. In just a few hours it has gone from raw to cooked to consumed and finally gone. Or, as the Heart Sutra says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!” (Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Utterly Beyond, Enlightenment Hail!)
|| Impermanence is one of the three characteristics often taught at
Spirit Rock: No-Self, Impermanence and Suffering.
In its own way, mindful cooking can resemble how Tibetan monks may work for a week or longer, hour after hour; building exquisite sand Mandalas that are later brushed into a pot and poured into water demonstrate impermanence. The monks have to learn to not be attached to their work, and ultimately to anything in this world. As a Spirit Rock Cook, I have learned not to be attached to the food, to the yogis, or to anything compounded. If I do become attached, I quickly feel suffering as the thing changes or disappears. Thus, a cook’s heart opens with great generosity and non-attachment.
Impermanence is one of the three characteristics often taught at Spirit Rock: No-Self, Impermanence and Suffering. They are the characteristics that a Vipassana practitioner attempts to have insight into. This practice has been going on since the beginning of Buddhism. After the Buddha delivered his first sermon at Deer Park in Varanasi on the Four Noble Truths, the Ven. Kondañña realized “the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” In the same way, a Spirit Rock cook may realize that whatever is subject to be cooked is also subject to be eaten.
Seeing and realizing impermanence can be a relief, especially when things are really difficult. You know, that whatever it is, because it is conditioned, will pass. But, it also can be sad when something is really beautiful in your life and you want it to last as long as possible. The Japanese have a word for this: Mono No Aware. This word symbolizes the transience of things and the gentle sadness at their passing. Every year in Japan, cherry blossoms are enjoyed and celebrated for the week or so that they bloom. This is an example of Mono No Aware. Japanese people see the beauty and really appreciate it because they know that very soon the flowers will fall, and they will have to wait another year for blossoms to appear.
Mono No Aware often comes over me as I prepare food. I see the food coming into being, I exert effort to make it tasty and beautiful, but I always know that it will soon be consumed and disappear. But, if I look at the food as a river of changing conditioned phenomena, I will suffer less. When I reflect that this food will feed and nourish countless yogis and hopefully become inspiration and energy for practicing meditation, I feel gladness in my heart. I realize from sitting retreats myself, that the meals are important. Because of the intense concentration that arises from meditation, the flavors and smells become very pronounced.
When Ram Dass met his teacher Neem Karoli Baba (in India), Ram Dass said that he wanted to be enlightened. The Guru said: “Okay, then feed people.” In this spirit of wishing for enlightenment or complete awaking, may we all continuously feed each other and realize the constant flux of all conditioned things.
Max Swanger is a cook at Spirit Rock who writes his own blog- The Taste of Dharma.