Did you notice that when you are totally immersed in cooking it feels like meditation? When your focus is entirely on it, the knife appears to move by itself, you see every detail of the textures, hear the sound of the boiling water so vividly, and the smells … You are completely aware of the moment.
A few weeks ago we saw this wonderful documentary about Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun chef from Korea. It inspired us so much and gave us a whole new perspective on food and cooking. If you get the chance, make sure you watch this amazing story. We highly recommend it.
“With food, we can share and communicate our emotions. It’s that mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating. There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way.” – Jeong Kwan
Baekyangsa Temple is situated 169 miles south of Seoul in a dreamy green forest inside Naejangsan National Park. It is a head temple of Zen Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Ancient buildings filled with golden Buddhas are encircled with tranquil surroundings of maple and oak. The only sound that occasionally disturbs this peace is the bell that announces to 58 monks and three nuns that it is time for the prayer.
Jeong Kwan is a 60-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who prepares vegan meals for this small community. Terms like “farm to table”, local, organic and seasonal take the whole new meaning when it comes to Jeong’s kitchen and garden. The mindful and thoughtful way that she handles her kitchen and garden is nothing short of hypnotic.
Jeong’s role is more than just a cook in this place. There is a strong spiritual component to her cooking.
She says: “Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free. There is no way you can’t open up your creativity. There is no ego to speak of. That is my belief.”
The food she prepares should keep a person’s mind calm and static. Garlic, onions, scallions, chives, and leeks are not part of her cooking. In her own words: “Those five spices are sources of spiritual energy, but too much of that energy will prevent a monk’s spirit from achieving a state of calmness. This is a distraction to meditation.”
One of the main elements of her cooking is time itself, she uses the natural process of fermentation to develop subtle flavors and fragrances. Some of these ingredients like soy sauce, kimchi, doenjang (soybean paste) and gochujang (red chili paste) have been fermenting for 100 years.
She adds: “Soy sauce makes me excited just thinking about it. Every food is recreated by soy sauce. Soybeans, salt, and water, in harmony, through time. It is the basis of seasonings, the foundation. There are sauces aged five years, ten years, aged for one hundred years. These kinds of soy sauces are passed down for generations. They are heirlooms. If you look into yourself, you see past, present, and future. You see that time revolves endlessly. You can see past from the present. By looking into myself, I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple, and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors. I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I’m doing it in the present. I use soy sauce, and I acknowledge its importance. It is no longer just me that’s doing things. It’s me in the past, in the present, and even in the future. Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.”
For her, the best cooking comes from intimate connection of the cook with the ingredients. For Jeong, food preparation begins with planting the seed. She pours mindfulness and compassion into her garden by sharing it with the insects and accepting the weather conditions as they come. She explains “That is how I make the best use of a cucumber. Cucumber becomes me. I become the cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.”
Rare times when Kwan leaves the temple she spends at a nearby Jeonju University where she teaches students to respect food by minimizing waste and cooking mindfully. “I teach because I want the world to be united through healthy and happy food and to thrive together,” she adds.
The words of journalist Jeff Gordinier who visited her for the purpose of writing the article for the New York Times described her spirit in the best way “One day after we have toured the temple, she leads me down to a small bridge that crosses over a creek. We stand on the bridge and she touches her hand to her ear. She wants me to listen. So we listen: She and I simply stand there by the water for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the current. Then she smiles — it really is like a ray of light, this smile — and points to the creek and utters a single word in English, as she looks into my eyes. ‘Orchestra’, she says.”
Few recipes from Jeong Kwan
Episode of Chefs table on Netflix featuring Jeong Kwan
Resources: Chefs table – Season 3, episode 1, Director: David Gelb, Release Date: 17 February 2017 (USA)