Spiritual Eating; The Teachings of Sonjae Sunim and Rick Jarow

This week we traversed the culinary realm in a metaphysical sense, considering the spiritual connections between our palates and our mind’s eye. From mindfulness to meditation, the Coop explored- with the guidance of two wise scholars- a profound aspect of food too often left out of our everyday gastronomic conversations.

South Korean Buddhist nun, Sonjae sunim, is a scholar and master chef of Buddhist temple food, as well as a practitioner of environmentally conscious cooking. Sonjae sunim is also president of the Sunjae Temple Food and Culture Research Center. In addition to lecturing and publishing worldwide on Korean Buddhist temple food, she hosts the program Green Flavor, Green Cooking (or Food) of a Monk on the Buddhist Television Network.

Sonjae Sunim in our very own Taylor Hall!

On November 13th, a chilly Tuesday evening, Sonjae spoke about Buddhist temple food and the Buddhist philosophy of eating at Vassar’s Taylor Hall to a diverse, attentive crowd. Sonjae sunim also led an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating on Wednesday evening and a cooking demonstration on Kimch’i, the famous fermented Korean vegetable on Thursday in the kitchen of Ferry House.

Professor and Chair of Sociology, Seungsook Moon introduced Tuesday’s lecture with the assertion that “food is a sociological issue.” and the importance of food in a contemporary context- namely eating environmentally and mindfully. One of the first buddhist priests interested in buddhist temple food, Sonjae sunim graced the front of the room with a refreshingly happy glowing face, a muted pale blue grey robe draped over her frame. Sonjae spoke with a refreshing, pleasant demeanor throughout the lecture, her never smile faltering nor the twinkle in her eye ever fading. Her enthusiastic hand movements made for a dynamic and engaging lecture; the energy and passion with which Sonjae approaches her work, values, beliefs, and life as a whole.

Sociology Professor Moon helping translate the audience’s questions

Sonjae sunim began her talk by sharing a solemn note of how she fell ill many years ago, and was told she only had one more year to live. Following the wise inquiry of Buddha- one of his first questions asked being “What do you eat?” – Sonjae decided to take control of her life, changed her diet, and proudly proclaims is still here after 20 years of her diagnosis!

This inspiring anecdote of immense strength and self-reliance in the face of adversity, above all fatality, ignited the rest of Sonjae’s words about happiness and the nature of being healthy. According to Sonjae, happiness lies in maintaining a fit body and mental state, the basis of which starts with healthy eating. Furthermore, the basis of health eating stems from healthy ground, soil, and water. “Nature is the basis of my happiness” says Sonjae. Additionally, Sonjae sunim spoke about the inherent connection between food and the natural ecosystem of Earth, “Food makes a person. Food makes me. Eating a tomato is a way of getting in touch with nature.”

The impact of the food we eat on our bodies is simple and direct, according to Buddhist ideas. “If you eat violent animals, you take that in with your nature. Artificial flavors destroy the body” says Sonjae, “If I put something that was grown in polluted soil in my body, I am polluting my body.” Specific foods are also completely banned, such as meat and seafood, because eating meat is attributed to eating flesh, and therefore life. This violates one of the first doctrines of Buddhism, which is to not kill. Buddhist ideology views the self in the middle with Buddha, plants, and animals all existing equally around  us. Sonjae articulates, “We all coexist;” the universe consists of sentient (meat, animals, seafood) and non-sentient beings (plants, wind, water, soil) all of which are “a part of nature, a part of me.”

Buddhist Wheel of Life

Additionally, there are five ‘taboo foods’: garlic, scallions, onions, chives, and leeks. These foods are thought to change one’s temperament if ingested, just as different cuisines from different parts of Korea affect temperament. For instance, great artists tend to come from mountainous regions where they eat lots of vegetables. Finally, the Buddhist tradition emphasizes a cuisine of simplicity, with the least amount of ingredients. How do Buddhists flavor their food then? wondered a member of the audience. Condiments such as ginger, soy sauce, fermented soy bean paste, and shiitake mushrooms, replied Sonjae.

“I can teach life views of Buddhism through food” Sonjae explained as she recounted a story about how she fed children kimbap without ham and egg (ham is an unclean meat because it has artificial flavoring and has been slaughtered; egg is viewed as a growth enhancement in children’s bodies). After trying the rice and vegetables, the kids asked their mothers to prepare the same vegetables. Though the children have eaten vegetables before, they were unfamiliar with the sweet taste of pure vegetables since they are usually fried in egg.

kimbap, a popular Korean delicacy similar to sushi

“We don’t just eat with our mouth, we eat with our whole body. We eat with our eyes and ears, consume with our skin and nose” asserted Sonjae. Sonjae drew a parallel between eating ‘polluted’ foods and moving to a place with bad air and atmosphere- these toxins are taken into the body. Essentially, the central theme of temple food is what you eat makes you who you are, “you can either eat to live or eat to live and be healthy. Healthy eating and vegetarianism gives you life, fitness, and wisdom.”

In Buddhism, food is considered medicine, and not just for people who are ill. Medicine can only preventing disease in the present moment, says Sonjae, whereas natural eating can be just as effective as medicines. What people are eating corresponds to the diseases they incur; for example breast cancer is the result of too much fat blocking the veins, thus the body is too heated and humid- it should be colder like in nature. Though Sonjae sunim admits she is not a certified doctor, and therefore cannot claim food is medicine, she has seen temperaments change, cancer going away and health getting better with a shift to healthier diets.

The audience was stunned in awe when Sonjae challenged us to try and guess her age- some called out “35! 40!”- and then revealed she is actually 57 years old (33 years of which have been spent in the monastery)! Sonjae’s glow and youthful visage fool many people into thinking she is younger than she appears, which often prompts questions about what she eats on a daily basis. However, Sonjae, like the Buddha, simply replies with the question, “What do you eat?” Sonjae stresses the importance of not thinking about what you should eat, but what shouldn’t eat. Consequently, if you need to eat meat, says the Buddhist nun, eat clean meat and avoid artificial ingredients that a 5 year old would not recognize.

Sonjae closed her lecture by highlighting how her personal story has turned her into a public figure. She advised the audience to always eat foods that are in season (i.e. cucumbers in thesummertime) and try to eat foods grown naturally as much as possible. The order we take in food is also very important (i.e drinking alcohol after eating). Likewise, our first meal and first bite are important. Consuming salty/spicy items for breakfast negatively affects the entire day’s digestive process. During the day, one’s digestive process is more active and can handle the largest portion of food. As we wind down to dinnertime and our digestion slows, we should eat something light, advises Sonjae; “Eat in accordance with nature” meaning from the hours of sunrise to sunset, “or at least try to eat 2 hours before going to sleep.” Finally, drinking green tea is seen as something akin to meditation, with tremendous calming effects. Drinking fresh, clean, good water is considered essential to health. Sonjae stressed the importance of regular exercise as part of a healthy, balanced life- this can be as simple as walking or the Buddhist practice of bowing.

an illustration of the Buddhist bowing exercise

The next evening, Wednesday November 14th, Sonjae sunim followed her lecture by leading an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating. “You must have a clean state of mind to make Baru” said the Buddhist nun. Baru is the food bowl of a Buddhist monk, includes four bowls: one for rice, soup, water, and a side dish. In accordance with the guidelines Sonjae explained Tuesday evening, the bowls contain no meat, seafood, alcohol, garlic, scallions, or artificial additions, but instead vegetables, kimch’i, and bean paste that has been fermented for three years. The menu is also prepared in a lotus leaf, which is said to help the immune system. This “clean, healthy food” carries the “energy of the universe in it.”

a variety of fermented foods including kimchi

The workshop centered around mindful, conscious eating- taking the time to eat and only eat. Sonjae advised the eager participants to only take “as much as you can eat” and to “chew slowly, soaking up the taste” and “straighten your back” as you eat. It usually takes an hour to go through the process. Sonjae had the group do a practice round, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, noticing how they picked up their utensil, paying attention to the food entering their mouth, the sensations on their tongue, teeth, jaw, and feeling the food go down into their digestive system. From bowl to mouth, the experience proved to be an incredibly meaningful, transformative moment, inciting us to reconsider our relationship to food and the ritual of eating.

That same night, Rick Jarow, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies joined us for house dinner- a scrumptious vegetarian meal of tofu, sauteed Brussels sprouts, sweet potato chips, sweet potato salad (a delicious recipe from Maddie’s mom), and baked portobello mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella cheese!

Rick has lived extensively in India, mostly in North India in the areas of Braj and Rishikesh. Jarrow received his Ph.D. from Columbia University (1991) in Indian Religion and Literature. His dissertation, “Language, Love, and Silence: Readings of Separation in the Sanskrit Epic, Poetic, and Puranic Traditions,” is a discussion of the theme of loss in Indian literary and religious traditions. His research interests include: Religions of South Asia (Hindu Traditions and Buddhist Traditions), East/West Studies, The Eastern Romance of Jack Kerouac, Indian Languages and Literatures (Indian Epic and Puranic Traditions), The Poetics of Religious Experience, and Vocation. His book, Tales for the Dying: The Death Narrative of the Bhãgavata-Purãna was published by SUNY Press in 2003.

Alicia and Maddie’s roasted portobellos and mozz! YUM

Rick teaches healing Ayurvedic traditions, a native Indian form of medicine that emphasizes health and digestion. One of the most significant parts of healthy eating relies on the very basic act of chewing ones food. Rick shared with us that a healthy individual should chew his or her food 50 times, someone who is ill should chew 100 times, and those fatally ill should chomp their morsels 200 times! Rick informed us that chewing is not only essential for proper digestion, but also viewed as a meditative process in the Ayurvedic tradition.

Rick divulged that he was a college dropout turned yoga madman, moved to India, and eventually moved back to America. An ideological vegetarian for many years, Rick, like Sonjae, fell very sick once and almost died which spurred his interest in Ayurveda. “Vassar is a part time gig for me,” quipped Jarow as he explained his broader identification with spiritual teaching through the Indian chakra system and vocational alignment which questions what does it mean to be in harmony with life? According to the chakra, the body is considered energetically from root to head and eating is deeply connected to survival and consciousness.

We were all curious to hear more about Ayurveda and Rick was more than pleased to share! We learned that the Ayurvedic tradition maintains the ego, that in order to survive, your ego must dominate whatever you are eating. Hinduism apparently finds this a problem. Therefore, when one takes (eats) something, one must give something in return. According to Rick, ‘we’ think a lot, talk a lot- are unaware, our bodies ‘someplace else.’ Instead, like Sonjae, Rick urges us to be in communion with the food we are eating.

Professor Jarow went on to explicate the ritual of offering food in Buddhist practice, where food is left on an altar, intended for the gods to enjoy first with the understanding that ‘we’ will eat what is leftover. Professor Jarow explained how this is considered a tantric act, where the divine is eating ‘through’ us.

Along his spiritual life journey, Rick was once told “your job now is to go home and cook slowly.” And so he listened. The professor sees cooking as a form of meditation where everything turns into divine substance. Furthermore, every form lives off another,  so then who eats us? “Human beings are being cooked and eaten by time” Jarow answered himself. “When yogis know they are about to die,” Rick says, “they stop eating in order to offer their last breath to the universe.”


Enjoying our groovy guest and delicious grub

Professor Jarow challenged us that night at dinner, urging us to think outside the plate. “Embodiment, what does it mean?” pondered Professor Jarow. “Its not what you eat but how you eat” he surmised.

I was curious to know if Rick’s family abides by the same doctrines as he, being an ideological vegetarian who believes in chewing one’s food more than the average hungry person. He replied that his family supports him though they do not follow the Buddhist diet strictly. He knows he must let people “be who they are” and finds it interesting to watch his childrens’ journey with food.

We spent the rest of the evening discussing everything from Ayahuascaholotropic breathwork, and holistic centers like Omega and Esalen Institutes, to Vassar’s Carolyn grant fund and the “dead idea of college”- going somewhere for four year and leaving. (He then went on to explain his idea for Vassar to adopt two graduate programs, one in health and one for a writing program; this would create a more vibrant, enriching learning community beyond the typical 4 year experience according to Jarow.)

Rick spoke passionately about the economic pressure students face today to get a job, not like in ‘his day’ when you could “work at a coffee shop or book store” rent a cheap room, and read and study all day and it be ok. Rick decided “I’m only going to do what I love and teach what I love.”

Aside from imparting his extensive wisdom upon eager Vassar students, Rick is also a   teacher at the Omega Institute, practicing career consultant and founder of the “Anti-Career” process. He is author of many books and CDs, including Creating the Work You Love, Alchemy of Abundance, and The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide

In this video uploaded from Omega called Kosmos, Rick conjectures, “anything that afflicts you is an angel, that is, giving you a message of what your full possibility can be and that is its value.” He goes on, “My sense is that every human being comes onto this planet with a healed vision, with a piece of the puzzle that they have,  and that when they put that piece together, their ancestors become proud, their parents become proud, generations rejoice because you’ve nailed it. I can’t imagine a better feeling than saying ‘I’ve come to this Earth and I did what I was supposed to do’ and move on in peace.”

The evening grew dark and so we bid our guest goodnight, leaving the table with plates empty, but our tummies and stomachs full with satisfying “food for thought.”