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Buddhist Cooking in a Christian Kitchen

April 23, 2013
'Disaster' by liquene via

‘Disaster’ by liquene via

The Joy of Cooking, the 1974 edition, sits on my bookshelf.  I don’t cook.  Don’t get me wrong.  I can cook, but I don’t enjoy it.  Several years ago I gave it up, to the measurable improvement of my life and mood.  Yet I keep the book, partly because it was my mother’s and partly because one never knows when the need to prepare wild boar (yes, it’s in there) will arise.

Likewise, I study pastoral care, but I’m not Christian.  Christians are to pastoral care what Julia Child was to American cooking in the 1960’s and 70’s.  In his essay, “Much Depends on the Kitchen: Pastoral Practice in Multicultural Society,” (in the book Healing Wisdom: Depth Psychology and Pastoral Ministry, 2010) K. Samuel Lee likens his education as a Korean man studying in an American seminary to that of a Korean cook trying to make a dish in an American kitchen.

I have to become familiar with the ingredients: mango, plain yogurt, cardamom, syrup, and coconut. I grew up in Korea, where I had no experience of tropical fruits, other than banana and canned pineapple. What makes yogurt “plain”? What is cardamom, and how is it used in cooking? Also, the recipe assumes that I know specific measuring systems. How much is a “pint” and a “teaspoon”? What temperature is 350°F in Celsius? Further, I have to be familiar with the tools used in this recipe. Do I use a regular teaspoon to measure “1/2 teaspoon full:’ or is there a special measuring spoon? What is a “cookie sheet”? How do I use an oven? So many things are assumed in this simple recipe. (p. 35)

Although my own situation is somewhat different, I can relate. I was lucky enough to be raised Christian, so many of the kitchen utensils are familiar to me. But I left the church at 15, so I missed out one a great deal of the technique.  How much more difficult for my classmates who lack even a passing familiarity with Christianity? Or any Abrahamic faith? And who are new to America and speak English as a second language? Aya!*

It does, however, make for some interesting discussion.  A Chinese classmate of mine recently observed “There is only one incarnation of Jesus? How sad. If one is good, more would be better.” In Asian culture, religious leaders and saints (bodhisattvas) are reborn lifetime after lifetime to continue their work of aiding suffering beings. The idea that Jesus Christ was born and died only once for the sake of humanity left him feeling very disappointed, as though he’d just tasted crème brulee only to be told there was no more cream in the whole world.

We are baffled by the Trinity, stumble to understand the differences between process, systematic, and liberation theologies, and the metaphor of the shepherd commonly used in Christian care simply does not fit. At the same time we are trying to understand our own religion to the best of our ability. We’re trying to cook an authentic Buddhist dish in a Christian kitchen.

Although difficult, this process does have an interesting side effect – it leads to common unveiling of our cultural unconscious(es), or the unconscious pool of mental patterns shared by persons of a particular culture which manifest as archetypes, symbols, rituals, and behaviors.  Merely placing a bunch of American Buddhists and Asian Buddhists in a room together accomplishes much of this task; throwing us together in the proverbial Christian kitchen accelerates it.

Lee points out that

In order to achieve an adequate relationship between one’s interiority and exteriority – an important goal in depth psychology – one must also pay attention to the relationship between one’s intention and practice. Our practices often betray unconscious and culturally bound assumptions and values that contradict our consciously held intentions to be practitioners for all peoples. (p. 53)

One of the great things about being in a multicultural classroom (where even the professors are figuring it out as we go) is that the links between our intentions and practices are constantly being called into question. Actions have implied meanings and assumed intentions which are far from universal across cultures. What seems caring in one cultural context is horribly rude in another. And my classmates are not shy about demanding “Why would you do such a rude thing?” To which I might respond “Rude? My intention was to act compassionately.”  Discussion ensues.

Of course, we (Buddhist chaplains) should and must continue to pursue the development of our own discipline. I sometimes lament the time we waste in figuring out not only how to cook in the Christian kitchen, but how to redesign it as we go!  How much more efficient and effective it will be when we’re cooking in a Buddhist kitchen! Then we can raise issues of cultural unconscious and multiculturalism actively rather than accidentally. But in the meantime, we can learn from the process and pass those insights on to the cooks who come after us. Thanks to K. Samuel Lee and his great insight into this phenomenon.

*Asian version of Oy Vey!

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 23, 2013 7:08 pm

    Thanks Monica. This is great. I’m waiting for your book on Buddhist Pastoral Care.

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