The Zen Kitchen: Carrot as Dharma Gate

:: Post Submitted by Autumn Amadou-Blegen ::

Perhaps you will know what I mean when I say, that, in the past, practice was needy for me. Knowledge, enlightenment, and peace seemed to be obtainable if I sat enough, read enough. Being in service to the Sangha was not something to do: too busy to get to the Sunday Dharma talk, much less do all those other things. 

Cooking was similar: peel this tangerine, chop this carrot, slice this fennel, cook this dish, all to get a result: make sure the children are fed, and on to the next thing. For many years, within the various identities I have and responsibilities I carry, being in the moment was not “it.” The “it” was to get through and make it to the next moment.

In the rush, being already beyond the meal, the moment…so much is missed.

Scrubbing and chopping a carrot is different than many other vegetables. It produces a very faint, sweet, almost honeysuckle scent. And, until last year, it was something I had never paid attention to – because I was in a rush to the next thing.

Last spring, I joined the Tenzo Ryo at Clouds in Water. Having just started a sabbatical, I was searching for ways to volunteer and be out in the community. Through a series of happenstance events, I found myself cooking for sesshin. 

In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Tangerine Meditation, we are invited to the present moment of eating. It is one of my favorite meditations, something that can be practiced with a tangerine, a sugar snap pea, a raspberry. Yet, until last year, that kind of mindfulness wasn’t something I applied to cooking or eating.

The first sesshin I cooked for was early summer. Not knowing fully what I was doing – and having only been to a half-day sesshin years prior – I made some salads, all with too much onion and too much garlic (I always figured there was no such thing as too much garlic, but apparently there is). 

After that, I pulled down one of my favorite macrobiotic cookbooks off the shelf (One Peaceful World, linked below) and started to cook food at home to make sure they were nurturing, enjoyable, and not full of garlic. 

Next, I cooked on-site at Clouds during sesshin, and my practice changed again with cutting that carrot. I was alone in the kitchen, preparing food with love and joy, cooking for Sangha members who had been, and are, teachers to me. The sun shone through the window, leaves shimmering, the faintest hint of incense, and there I was, slowly cutting that carrot. The next sesshin, it was the fennel for a fennel potato soup (also from One Peaceful World) that woke me up.

Being in the moment with the New Contemplations, something our family reads at shared meals (see below), has slightly shifted the way I experience gratitude for food: Shifting towards the gift of cooking for others as part of the journey of this energy from the sun, the food fostering energy to practice, and the practice nurturing the energy of the Sangha. 

Being part of the Tenzo Ryo brought my practice to the kitchen, and my enjoyment of cooking in general increased, including at home (a gift after years of not finding the moment or joy in cooking). My appreciation for and understanding of Sangha also expanded as I began to meet others in the Clouds community through cooking and sesshin.

I have meandered a bit in this writing, but I will close with a book recommendation and cookbook recommendation. 

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh & Lilian Cheung

The One Peaceful World Cookbook: Over 150 Vegan, Macrobiotic Recipes for Vibrant Health and Happiness by Alex Jack and Sachi Kato

Autumn Amadou-Blegen (she/they) has been a member of Clouds in Water on and off since 2000. Most recently, Autumn joined Tenzo Ryo, cooking for Sesshins and helping out where needed, and also recently joined the Clouds in Water Board of Directors. Autumn hopes to begin work towards Jukai this fall. In professional practice, Autumn has worked in various sectors and industries, currently serving as the Head of Human Resources at the Guthrie Theater, with part time side work as a pro bono HR consultant, and as a staff member at Eggplant Urban Farm Supply. Autumn lives in St. Paul with their partner Joe, eight chickens, three cats, and two dogs, and has two grown children, Elton and Oliver. Her hobbies, apart from cooking, include gardening, permaculture, bike touring, bikepacking, backpacking, swimming, and in general being outside as much as possible and an art practice of both painting and writing.

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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