Notes on Cooking, Compassion and Buddhism

“With food it is the mindset of sharing that we are really eating” — Jeong Kwan.

This year I sat down to watch a Netflix film about cooking. What I did not expect was  a gift. These are my notes from a film about the Buddhist Nun Jeong Kwan. She lives in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baegyangsa temple in South Korea. I have watched this film repeatedly, every time something new reveals itself.

Jeong Kwan has influenced chefs including Mingoo Kang, of the Seoul restaurant Mingles, and René Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen. She is friends with Éric Ripert, a fellow Buddhist, who invited her to New York City to cook for private audiences at Le Bernadin.

“I wanted to go and learn and test the food. I was very curious about it. Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist nun, extremely compassionate, advanced in Buddhism, she also happens to be a very good cook” — Éric Ripert, Michelin Star Chef  and Buddhist.

“With food we can share and communicate our emotions. Secular food is focused on creating dynamic energy. But temple food keeps a person’s mind calm. I seek sources of spiritual calmness.

When making temple food there are five ingredients we don’t use, garlic, onions, scallions, chives and leeks. Those are pungent spices. These five spices are sources of spiritual energy – but too much of that energy will prevent a monks spirit from achieving a state of calmness. This is a distraction to meditation.

Temple food the monks eat is flavoured with nature” — Jeong Kwan.

“Temple food is extremely simple but uses lots of seasonings like, curcuma, Sichuan pepper, brown pepper and, shiso. These ingredients awaken your mind. They keep aware. Temple food is deeply connected to spiritual energy. We never use instant flavourings, the flavour is based on salt, soy paste, soy sauce and chilli paste” — Jeong Kwan.

“When I prepare food for many, I work with the ethos of a mother, for the community” — Jeong Kwan.

“I wish I could eats JK’s food every day, for a month and see what happens.  Have a feeling that would feel so good. JK is a walking advertisement for cooking. She looks so young, she’s so much energy. I really think she’s aware, she’s aware of the weather, aware of your mood. Incredible deliberation and care — more care than you find the best restaurants”. — food critic.

Buddhism and mindfulness is about paying attention, her cooking is about paying attention. A good example of this is the tea. The Lotus tea, the delicate example of enlightenment, it’s a study in subtlety.

Her work is in the everyday, at every moment, she cares and creates bringing only nurture into this world.

The constant work on oneself is the preparation and practice to bring your best self into this world. Your individual work may seem unimportant yet it is the quality of your thoughts, and the quality of your actions that brings love, compassion, wise thought and right action into this world. Your personal work affects many people even those you do not know.

Time

The most remarkable thing about JK’s cooking is to do with time. How does she achieve so much impact? She is playing a long game with time. It’s a practice centuries old. She is using fermentation, the slow undercurrents of flavour. Kimchi is a perfect example of this: salt+air+time = transformation.

We can also transform with care and attention with time we can step into an improved more beautiful version of ourselves. How do we see ourselves in this world, isolated or connected, suffering or joyful?

Growing

“I let my plants grow in the garden as they want. If we are part of nature how do we grow spiritually, mentally, emotionally — how do we feed ourselves?”

“JK is trusting air, sunlight, rain and the earth will produce the best ingredients”.

“Plants grow not only in sunshine, but they need rain, need snow, the cold. Why would we be different?” — Jeong Kwan.

“Sometimes I leave the temple and travel to the city. I want to communicate with everyone through food. Fast culture, fast food, what does it give us? I teach because I want the world, its people united through healthy happy food” — Jeong Kwan.

“I see my work not as teaching but communication about how to be in this world. There is a difference. I lecture on the spirit, the definition of temple food, why the monks eat simple food and how you can change yourself with temple food, even if you are not a monk” — Jeong Kwan.

Senses

“The five senses are body, feeling, perception, intention and consciousness” — Jeong Kwan.

Moving forward

“The action of progressing with the greatest passion and the greatest energy” — Jeong Kwan.

How we give ourselves the freedom to be, to become who we truly are.

Foundations

“There has to be a basis, a foundation from which everything comes. Soy sauce is the foundation for all temple cooking. These sauces are aged five years, ten years to one hundred years. They are passed down through generations. They are heirlooms. Time revolves endlessly. By making with soy sauce I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors.

Its no longer me doing things – it’s me in the past, in the present and even in the future” — Jeong Kwan.

On being

“Being a Buddhist is not about learning more, but ‘living with it’. Prayer, cooking, chopping wood, pulling weeds – all these become a study. This is perhaps Buddhism itself. Living this way requires discipline” — Jeong Kwan.

“In professional kitchens we are cooking with ego, tempted by the rewards, are we getting the ratings etc., In temple food cooking its not about competing with another monastery. Jeong Kwan has no ego” — Michelin Chef.

On being free

“If you free yourself from the comparing and the jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle, you must not be owned by the environment you are in, you must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free” — Jeong Kwan.

“Her philosophy is what is important. Being present, respecting ingredients, the planet, making people happy, how to be happy in the process, how to put good energy into food” — Chef.

“Listen to the running water, the world is an orchestra. I live my life with a blissful mind, and I am free” — Jeong Kwan.

. . .

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