I have spent the last 22 years on a lonely, seemingly odd quest to put food back into Buddhist thought. When I started, eating wasn't even acknowledged in the Tibetan tradition. Feeding monks and nuns was not the last thing on any lama's mind: it was no thing, nothing, a void avoided. The thousands upon thousands of dollars donated to these extraordinary beings were invariably spent on buildings, paintings and statues. Oddly for teachers who emphasize the ephemeral in everything, they deemed these things worth the investment because they didn't seem to be all that impermanent. On the other hand people were for sure temporary. They didn't last as long and were more easily replaced. So the gurus didn't seem to care if the true believers in their buildings, praying to their paintings and statues, had anything to eat.
The gurus themselves, whether great or ordinary, ate out of habit, without reflection, ignorant of health consequences. Every one I met had the same physical ailments: high blood pressure, diabetes, constipation, high cholesterol and a heart on the verge of attack. Thinking a different diet might save their precious lives, I volunteered to cook for them.
I studied Tibetan and Nepali cooking, because people--all people including eminent Rinpoches--have fixed eating habits ingrained early on and so deeply embedded that people have actually starved themselves to death rather than ingest "weird" unfamiliar food. What's most likely to be eaten with relish and relief is food from mother or the motherland. So serving their comfort food, tweaked for their troubles, was my way of pleasing these great gurus, my way of saying thank you for taking all the trouble to travel to my side of the planet just to bring me food for thought.
About 12 years ago, I went from feeding lamas and the occasional Dharma group to feeding everybody. . I couldn't stand all the scraggly bodies, runny noses, scratches and unhealed sores of schoolchildren and monastics in my Rinpoche's care. Hunger, fatigue and sickness are major impediments to practice and activity, yet they can be avoided with nutritious food. So I couldn't stand by. I impulsively started to cook, starting in the boarding school whose kitchen had no electricity, running water, floor, furniture or a stove. There was just a pile of mudded bricks with a hole in the top and another through the side, into which three men shoved a flaming tree trunk.
I wanted all these children, monks and nuns to have enough strength, energy and focus to keep their vows to benefit beings, or at least enough to do their daily work without the distraction of hunger pangs, weakness or worry. It still pains me to remember how after I raised $100 and sent a truckload of apples to a monastery, their first fruits since who knew when, the monks treated me with all the deference they would have given His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Someone had remembered them and liberated them a bit from suffering. Just apples. It was that fast and that easy and very sad to realize it had taken over 1,000 years to accomplish.
We live in a souped up world addicted to the hot sauce of excitement, a world in which food is taken for granted. Since it's a given, we play with it, exploit it for status or sexual innuendo, or gin it up into the blood sport of Roman gladiator bread and circus. But for these people like most people, just having food was the excitement. All the excitement they needed. They had been given the gift of life.
I kept up my quest to feed these people and as the difference in their energy and attitude became significant, the lamas' wisdom eye opened and they saw what had happened and saw that it was good. Nuns who were fainting from malnutrition only five years ago were now studying to be doctors, or they had become environmental activists and teachers of small children. Because immune systems had been fortified, nasty diseases no longer rampaged through the school like an unstoppable tsunami. All that for peanuts. Sometimes literally.
So the gurus stepped up to the plate. They realized having food close at hand, especially in times of political or natural disaster, is vital for freeing the mind from fear of hunger, freeing the body to meditate. So they diverted some of their donated dollars and now there are orchards and vegetable gardens at the monasteries, nunneries and schools. There are cooking classes and courses in nutrition too.
It is still an uphill battle to get enough nutritious food on a Dharma table. Two weeks ago I got an email from Nepal saying my small easily thwarted effort to improve the monks diet by insisting for dhal the monastery kitchen stop skimping and serve protein rich beans and split peas had shown positive results. Several volunteer doctors had just finished a three-day gastric clinic, and found 80% of the monks to have digestive problems. But, they said, it would've been worse without the more nutritious dhal. The energy levels were higher and immune systems slightly stronger because of it.
Several months ago, I answered an SOS to come to Mongolia to teach vegetarian cooking at a Buddhist cafe. There was no pay, but I went because it's vital that people eat and be well so they can pursue the path to enlightenment for all of us. Also because eating a vegetarian lunch would be a teaching from the Buddha to Mongolians, heirs of Chinggis Khan fiercely addicted to and obsessed with meat. I stayed over 5 weeks and worked over 14 hours a day everyday but two. I taught the cafe staff of six how to make healthy, balanced and delicious meals featuring local products, particularly dairy because Mongolians invented it and literally lap it up. The dishes--eggplant Parmesan, potato/turnip gratin, mushroom stuffed cabbage, grilled cheese sandwich, cream soups, raita-- threw the Mongolians headfirst into the wider world and joining pans with the rest of us elated them, and their male manager Oyunbaator. They were conquering all over again. The new menu also brought ka-ching to the cash register, money to fund the Dharma classes.
I came home severely exhausted and afflicted by something scary and mysterious. The only thing that made me feel better for the two months I was so sick were the emails that kept coming from Ulan Baator.
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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