We’re reaching the far side of summer, when the farm stands are filling up with fresh ears of corn and the swimming holes are warm from months of sun. It’s hard to think about the cold right now, but it’s time to be getting fall vegetables in the ground, because we’re only about two months away from the first frost. Still, it’s difficult to drum up too much enthusiasm for planting kale and spinach when it’s much more exciting to be picking the first eggplants, tomatoes, and buckets of peppers. Today I hauled in about a gallon of shishito peppers, which are going to be delicious roasted up.
As I’ve been exploring this question of what garden practice means within a Zen monastery, I’m pulled back again and again to the relationship between growing food and eating it, between the earth and our lives. In many ways, garden practice is an extension of the kitchen, or perhaps kitchen practice is an extension of the garden; both request a deep alignment of the activity of our lives.
To cook from the garden instead of the supermarket requires more than simply learning lots of different ways to use summer squash. It requires flexibility, creativity, and a renunciation of the quality, variety, and on-demand availability that our industrial food system provides at a great and invisible cost. Eating from the garden is not always sexy. Often our greens are bug-eaten, sometimes we have a lot of one vegetable and none of another, and to truly eat with the seasons means a lot less variety and giving up most fresh produce in winter.
Dogen Zenji advises us to handle all ingredients as though they were our own eyes, and to wash the rice with such care that not a single grain is lost. His teaching is that there is no difference between preparing a meal and practicing the way. “When handling and selecting greens,” he tells us in his Instructions to the Tenzo, “do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind, and without trying to evaluate their quality, in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast. The many rivers which flow into the ocean become the one taste of the ocean; when they flow into the pure ocean of the dharma there are no such distinctions as delicacies or plain food, there is just one taste, and it is the buddhadharma, the world itself as it is.”
I don’t have answers here. But I can say that when I showed up in the kitchen with 16.6 lbs of Chinese cabbage last week, we made a good few gallons of kimchi with it…
Lots of love,
P.S. This letter will be taking a break for the rest of August, so look for it again in the fall.
Letters from the Garden: Digging, June 25
Letters from the Garden: Harvest, June 4
Letters from the Garden: Permission to Be, May 8, 2021
Letters from the Garden: Work Week, April 17, 2021
Letters from the Garden: Planting Good Seeds, April 3, 2021
Letters from the Garden: Dharma Blossoms, March 20, 2021
Letters from the Garden: The First Birdsong, March 6, 2021