A Practice of Mindfulness from Seed to Plate


By Angela Madaras

I reflect on my experience with learning mindfulness cooking and eating practice during silent retreats at a Zen Buddhist Sangha in North Carolina. I examined the concept of gratitude when planting, harvesting, preparing and consuming food. Although these times were for deep contemplative study and complete silence, there was a common language spoken around the kitchen counter and table that I call reverence. Each Tenzo (cook) held a deep appreciation for the vegetables, herbs, grains and beans we lovingly turned into vegetarian meals for all to enjoy. I noticed that the attendees could feel the love and care that went into their meal as if it filled them with something deeper than just food. With my head humbly turned down, I could see out of the corners of my eyes the faces of people eating. I could hear the deep sighs of satisfaction filling the air. This gave me great joy.

The intention of Mindful Cooking Practice is to maintain the highest vibration while engaging in food preparation. Food carries energy. It emulates the grower, harvester and cook’s mood and feelings. I want people to feel nurtured and content after a meal I have created. This too is why I choose to grow food in an organic and conscious way. I take great pains in planning, planting, seed sourcing, harvesting, preparing and preserving what I grow. There exists a chain of consciousness that starts with the seed and ends on the plate, both for eating and for sustaining life. I attempt to bring this practice into everyday life, but without the ceremony and ritual of temple life. In this way anyone can beget some sense of the sacred into the kitchen on any given day, even in the reheating of soup. 

I recently caught up with Tongsan Catherine Brown who taught a class she calls “The Way Seekers Guide to Kitchen Practice.”  I spent a Saturday with other seekers of conscious cooking at the Zen Temple in Ann Arbor gleaning knowledge from Tongsan (a name given to her when she took her precepts meaning “East Mountain”). She reflected on her studies of Zen Master Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook found within a small paperback book titled From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life (Dogen and Uchiyama 2005). Dogen was a great Soto Zen Master during the 1200s who had many lessons for the Tenzo. As Tongsan read verses from the book, I had to bend and sway my mind through some of the translated text she shared. Each passage carries nuggets of wisdom wrapped in obscurity. For example: “Throughout the day and night, practice the coming and going of things as arising in the mind, the mind turning and displaying itself as things.” I appreciated so much Tongsan’s deep reverence for Dogen’s teachings, and the joy she gleans from cooking with all her senses for others to enjoy. It is a gift she offers freely. Another wonderful practice she shared is gratitude for the food donated to the temple by way of the “Begging Bowl” (tangible donations to the temple). Whole Foods had offered up a couple boxes of provisions which we used for class. In this way the menu is guided by what is available. While she no longer lives at the Temple, Tongsan graciously offers a dinner to be purchased at the temple’s annual “Zenefit” auction. The highest bidder gets a vegetarian meal for six prepared to the poem of their choice. She also is often the Tenzo for Buddha’s birthday dinner.

What attracted me to Catherine’s class was a statement in the Temple bulletin about the class: “The way-seeking mind finds wonders in the kitchen: garlic juice on the cutting board, the shimmer on the surface of hot oil, a good knife biting into an onion, sesame seeds dancing as they toast in the pan.” The sensual nature of this statement was the same feeling of reverence I felt when making meals. It overtakes all senses and becomes a tango dance for lovers of food. Tongsan brought our attention to the way food smells uncooked versus cooked, the sound of tofu being pan-fried for “Temple Tofu” (see recipe), seeing the deep redness of beets, and feeling the texture of ground garlic paste on our fingers. We tasted everything in all stages of cooking as a way of paying homage to all involved in bringing the food to the kitchen. When the meal was ready to serve we plated the main dish, salad and dessert, then set the tables with intention and an obvious style of tradition. The main dish was set in the center of each place seating. Chopsticks and silverware had their own home around which were water glasses, the salad of the day and dessert. There was a lovely Raku tea pot in the center of the table along with a bowl of Gomassio (toasted sesame seeds with sea salt). After the table was staged with care we rang the dinner bell, and once all were seated we recited a “Meal Gatha” before eating in silence. This is similar to a blessing before a meal. It is recited with head bowed slightly down with eyes almost closed or closed. There is a gesture we made called “Hapchang” which is a sign of gratitude shown with hands facing palm to palm in a “prayer” position placed at the area near the center of chest-heart, then heads are slightly bowed. In Soto Zen Buddhism we call this “Gasho,” meaning respect or reverence. It is also used as a greeting and when entering or leaving a temple.

Meal Gatha: 
This food comes from the labors of beings past and present. From this, our body-mind is nourished, our practice sustained. Gratefully, we accept this food.  

Finally we ate our meal together in silence. Hot tea was poured into the main dish bowl after every morsel was eaten. We used the tea to “clean” the bowl, and then drank the tea. This serves as a metaphor for respect for the labor that went into the meal at all stages. This instills the concept of wasting nothing. The table was cleared and the dishes were washed in joy and conversation. I ended my visit with a few questions for Tongsan Catherine and a walk through their lovely vegetable garden cared for by Haru Sara Juster, who also raises bees.

Catherine, what sparked your interest in cooking and how long have you been tending to the practice of mindful cooking?
My mother was a very good cook in the Julia Child generation. I remember talking with my mother about cooking as I was growing up. When I went off to college, she took me out and bought me two chef’s knives. She made sure I knew how expensive they were, and then said, “It’s worth it because you’ll use them all your life.”  That was 1977. I still use and care for and love those knives.

 In graduate school, I discovered that cooking as a practice (though I wouldn’t have called it that then) was essential for keeping my balance. It brings me out of my head and in contact with my senses. In my other creative activities (writing) it takes a very long time to see a project through from conception into the world. In cooking there’s immediate gratification.

What are your top 3 tips for cooks starting mindfulness kitchen practice?

  1. Engage your senses. Listen to frying. Feel the knife bite into tomato skin. Smell the heating oil. See, really see, the colors. 
  2. Taste everything. Taste it raw, taste it cooking, and taste it cooked. 
  3. Dogen says: “Build temples out of ordinary greens. Wash the rice as if it were your own eyes.”

emple Tofu: Compliments of Tongsan Catherine Brown


Cut your extra-firm tofu (best to use fresh and locally made) into slices about ½” thick. If you have time, it’s nice to blot the slices dry on a clean kitchen towel. Then cut into fingers about 3/4” wide, then into squares ½-3/4” wide. Eyeball it: is this enough to feed who you’re feeding? If not, make more. If it looks like enough, make a little more anyway. 

Put a heavy frying pan (we use cast iron) on the flame to heat. Pour in vegetable oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Get this nice and hot — but not smoking — and drop in the tofu. Even it out quickly so that the bottom is evenly covered.

(The size of your pan — i.e., how full it ends up being — will have an effect on the final product. At temple we tend to crowd as much tofu into the pan as we can. This makes for a soft, almost creamy dish. At home, because I’m not cooking for an army of meditators, I tend to crowd my pan less, and the tofu comes out crispier. Both methods give delicious results. See which one you like better.)

Sprinkle with salt and nutritional yeast. Let it cook undisturbed over medium heat for about three minutes (the more full your pan is, the more time you can wait). Now get out your spatula or stir-fry flipper and loosen the tofu from the bottom of the pan, flipping it around so that another side gets the heat now. Sprinkle a little more nutritional yeast and a little more salt. Cook undisturbed for another three to five minutes. Flip the tofu around again. Keep doing this until a little nibble makes you want more. Now splash in some soy sauce. A whoosh of steam billows up. Cook until the soy has evaporated, drizzle on a little dark sesame oil, and you’re done.

A garnish will give extra joy. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, chopped peanuts, gomasio, paprika, chopped cilantro, or anything else that you have on hand that looks nice on the golden cubes of temple tofu.

Tongsan Catherine Brown is an associate professor in the Residential College and the Department of Comparative Literature at University of Michigan. She studies the European Middle Ages, especially manuscript bookmaking. The Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple is located at 1214 Packard Street. For information about classes and events, visit www.zenbuddhisttemple.org. All are welcome.

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