on Buddhist soul food
The Japan Times: Sept. 2, 2001
Tokyo -- I
have always believed cooking is more religion than art. We expect our artists to entertain
us and elicit emotion. What we ask most of all of our chefs and our spiritual leaders,
however, is that they soothe us.
Traditional temple fare
is good for both spirit and body. When we think of really good food, food that satisfies
our souls, we call it "comfort food." In our not so distant past in the West, we
considered meat and potatoes to be the ultimate comfort. But with society's changing
mores, increasingly, people are turning away from meat and animal products, and
redirecting their attention to the plant kingdom.
It is ironic, however,
that Japan, a country with one of the richest traditions of religiously mandated
vegetarianism, is not line with the trend and would appear to have fewer non-meat eaters
in total than Western countries such as the United States and Britain have under the age
The religious practice of
vegetarianism in Japan is preserved today mostly in cloistered temples. Few Japanese have
eaten Zen Buddhist cooking, called shojin ryori; fewer yet have ever cooked in this strict
Shojin cooking as it has
been handed down and treasured in Japan today may be credited to a great extent to the
discipline of the monk Eisai. When he began the Zen sect with the establishment of Rinzai
Zen in 1168, Eisai emphasized the first of the five tenets of Buddhism -- "thou shall
not kill" -- a proscription that had been observed generally but not always applied
to animals intended for slaughter. Within the Rinzai sect, a grand tradition of cooking
and dining for religious enlightenment was born.
Shojin ryori, written
with the kanji for spirit and to proceed or progress, is a direct descendant of the
culinary tradition observed in early Buddhist tea ceremony. One of the most important
offshoots of shojin tea-ceremony cooking, kaiseki-style cooking, has become modern
Japanese haute cuisine. Its roots are sunk in the religious practice of fasting and
placing a warm stone on the stomach to stave off hunger, and it was originally written
with the kanji for breast and stone. As kaiseki moved away from the religious circles in
which it was developed, new characters were chosen for writing the wholly secular version
to remove any shojin connection.
Dining in the shojin
style means much more than just eating. Food is approached as a vehicle, a part of a much
larger daily practice that is the path to nirvana. The last of the five reflections
uttered before eating -- "I accept this food so that I will fulfill my task of
enlightenment" -- make it clear that dinnertime is for more than just partaking of
physical sustenance. It is an opportunity to reflect on how the food was prepared and
brought to the table and whether one is truly worthy and deserving of accepting it.
Just as vegetarian
traditions in other countries reflect the variety of available foodstuffs and natural
bounty, shojin ryori clearly reflects the climate, geography and topography of Japan. The
two most basic flavors -- the two dashi, or stocks -- used in shojin cooking are made,
respectively, from the bounty of the mountains and of the sea. Dashi made from dried
shiitake mushrooms and stock made from konbu (giant kelp) act as the canvas for most
With a canvas of light
stock, the tenzo, or temple cook, uses the five methods -- boiling, grilling, frying,
steaming and serving raw -- to present the six tastes -- bitter, sour, sweet, hot, salty
and delicate -- in a way that will delight those partaking. In shojin cooking, there is a
stark contrast between the austere -- the simple morning rice gruel -- and the grandiose
-- the many-layered feasts that are presented during festival observations.
Each of these
incarnations of shojin serves a single purpose: contemplation. While preparing temple
food, the tenzo and his or her apprentice -- who stands beside the hearth and chants the
sutra while the master cooks -- focus on contemplating the task at hand.
This conscious reflection
and contemplation is what really separates shojin from the laissez-faire vegetarianism
practiced in the Western world today. As much as it survives as a way of cooking and
dining, shojin is, at its heart, a way of life. While we may not all have the patience or
commitment to devote so much energy to our food and its preparation, there is much to be
learned from simple, elegant shojin ryori. At least once, take the trouble to seek out a
meal of quiet and contemplation -- and feed your soul.