Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eat. Pray. Eat.

Last weekend I traveled to a Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery. No passport required, I hopped in my Honda Civic and headed west—not east—and drove to Mississippi, almost to Memphis. There, in the heart of the Bible Belt, in the middle of cotton fields and white clapboard churches with dizzying steeples, resides a tranquil community of Buddhist practice called Magnolia Grove Monastery.
    From the winding country road, Magnolia Grove looks much like a Girl Scout camp with a modest buildings scattered along 120 acres of lush, rolling landscape. There is a common dining hall and simple dormitories for men and women. One distinguishing characteristic gives it away as a Buddhist retreat: A large, pale statue of Buddha, which stands nobly on an island in the middle of a lotus pond. As I drove up, I noticed half a dozen or so monastics, dressed in a brown robes and conical straw hats, arranging bouquets of bright wild flowers at the base of the statue.
   Magnolia Grove is home to thirty Buddhist monks and nuns from Vietnam who have claimed this remote southern locale as their retreat. Each has traveled his or her own journey to arrive at this slice of Nirvana. They are all followers of of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for a Noble Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vegan fare never looked, or tasted, so good.
The secret ingredient? Mindful intention.
   Far from the hum of highway traffic, the air was eerily quiet and yet filled with the familiar hum of birds, crickets and frogs. I quickly acclimated to the absence of commercial sound.
   My friend, Morgan, who visited Magnolia Grove a few months ago, traveled with me. I was grateful she filled me in on the customs during our four-hour drive. No sooner were we out of the car, stretching our legs,we heard the low moan of a gong. Morgan, who was chatting excitedly like a little girl returning to see her favorite grandmother, stopped in mid-sentence and bowed, and I quickly followed her lead. At the sound of every bell—even a cell phone chime—it is tradition to stop in silence and bow—like a spiritual version of musical chairs. This was one of the many mindful traditions practiced at Magnolia Grove. Here, every action—walking, meditating, talking, not-talking, eating, even washing dishes—is performed with mindful intention, underscoring the sense of meaning in every single step of life.
   Soon, a nun who spoke English with a beautiful Vietnamese lilt came to welcome us. We bowed deeply to her, and her to us. She showed us to our bunks in the women's dormitory, and asked us to join the Sangha (Buddhist community) for dinner.
   "Do you like vegan food?" Morgan asked me tentatively as we settled into the modest quarters. "Sure," I replied. "I mean, I guess I do." I admit I've been an omnivore most of my life. I did a brief stint as a vegetarian years ago, but found it impossible to resist the sweet, salty, smokiness of bacon. Yet, I felt certain that for twenty-four hours I could politely eat whatever was served by our gracious hosts. 
   The dinner bell rang and after our customary bow, Morgan and I walked to the dining hall. The aroma of the food told me I had nothing to fear. This was not going to be a meal of seeds and lentils. The food was laid out buffet style on a long table, and we were invited to help ourselves to the fragrant dishes. A large caldron of noodle soup, punctuated with fat, round dumplings floating amid tomatoes and mushrooms, perfumed the room. There were other Vietnamese delicacies, too. Dumplings wrapped in banana leaves and gelatinous, pale triangles that resembled flan were pilled upon trays. At the end of the table, a large wooden bowl overflowed with fresh greens and herbs. My stomach let out a happy gurgle.
  I watched as Morgan bowed before picking up her bowl, and I followed suit. Yes, I felt a bit conspicuous bowing to Chinette, but no more than I did bowing my head in prayer in the middle of Lubby's Cafeteria when I dined there with my parents. In that moment of pause, before I selected a large plastic soup bowl and wooden chop sticks, I gave thanks for entrance to this world, which was so very different than the one I left behind only four hours ago. Then I moved along the table and ladled steaming soup into my bowl, garnishing the top with clean-smelling cilantro. I piled greens in a smaller bowl and carried my dinner to the communal tables outside.
   We ate in Nobel Silence—which is a pretty way of saying, "Don't talk with your mouth full." This practice of focusing on the act of eating reminded me of the imposed silence in Jack's school cafeteria. The children are required to eat without talking for the first 10 minutes, but the sole purpose of that rule is to encourage them to actually eat! Here, Nobel Silence provides a means to truly appreciate one's food. Since you are not distracted by chatter, each bite is savored and appreciated. (And yes, using chop sticks to eat noodle soup was a practice in patience for me.)
   The food was simply delicious. Any swanky, five-star health spa would be proud to boast such fare. Consumed in Noble Silence, I tasted the exotic, yet comforting food as if it were my very first meal. It was exquisitely prepared, to be sure, and made from the purest, freshest ingredients, but the deliciousness of the food was magnified by the sense that I could truly relish the complex texture of the dumplings and each sweet note of fresh mint. I considered, too, the time it took the monastic chefs to prepare this feast. Hours had been spent chopping, rolling and steaming. Of course, preparing meals is opportunity for mindfulness practice, too, each dumpling created with intention to nourish our bodies and minds. (As much as I'd like to believe that the guy behind the counter at Subway gives a lot of thought to how my tuna on whole wheat, no cheese, is going to influence the rest of my day, I highly doubt that's the case.)
  Once finished with our meal, each diner took his or her plate to the wash station, which consisted of a series of six water-filled basins lined up on a table near the dining hall. The first basin contained clean water for rinsing off food particles. the second and third, warm, sudsy water, for washing. And the last three, clean water for rinsing off the soap. I followed Morgan as she dipped her dishes into each basin, and scrubbed and caressed each piece, until finally, bowls, cups, chop sticks and plates emerged clean at the end of the line. In this way, even washing dishes became a ritual of Buddhist practice. Yes, I actually enjoyed doing the dishes, and felt a twinge of guilt for all my teenage complaints regarding my mother's lack of electric dishwasher. This was a lovely way to end the meal.
  On Sunday night, I returned to Birmingham and western civilization with a greater appreciation for the simple tasks in life, and an affection for the traditions upheld by these Bible Belt Buddhists. As it happened, later in the week, I was given the perfect opportunity to put into practice what I learned there.
   I was asked to prepare dinner at Birmingham's Community Kitchen. The Kitchen is run by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and serves daily hot lunches to homeless men and women. But in the wake of the recent tornadoes, the Red Cross asked the Kitchen to provide an evening meal as well to accommodate victims of the storms.
   So on Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in St. Andrew's commercial kitchen preparing pasta for 125 people. I have done this type of work before—about fifteen years ago—and I've watched more episodes of Iron Chef and Kitchen Impossible than I care to admit. I wasn't intimidated by the task. In fact, I looked forward to it. With so much in flux at this point in my life, getting out of my own drama and doing something for others is a great reality check. Inspired by my experience at Magnolia Grove, I planned the menu, adding one special ingredient to the grocery list: Fresh basil.
    Some friends, including Morgan, joined me in the kitchen. We didn't uphold Noble Silence, nor did we prepare vegan fare, but as we stirred enormous pots of steaming pasta over the large, hot stove, I did think about the men and women who would eat this food, hoping they would enjoy it.  I found a renewed affection for browning thirty pounds of ground beef and sauteing piles onions and garlic. When the red sauce simmered near completion, I added the fresh basil. The sweet, spicy scent permeated the air. Would the hungry diners notice the delicate brightness this fresh herb added to the otherwise hearty ragout? Maybe not. But it was an ingredient I would include if I were cooking sauce for my closest friends and family, so why provide anything less for this meal? I feel sure that's what the nuns at Magnolia Grove would do—if they were to forgo their vegan ways and find themselves stirring pots of meat sauce, that is.

1 comment:

  1. A great piece. If all meals were consumed like this I bet there would be less obesity. Americans tend to shove it down (I for one can be guilty in my hectic life, no savoring the flavor). I got such a chuckle out of the Subway thought ;). I would love to go visit there!

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