Zen Cooking Lesson: Candescent Carrots

Carrots are extraordinarily versatile root vegetables.  They can be used raw in salads, cooked into soups and stews, mashed into pancakes, and entwined into a host of other dishes.  Recipes that involve carrots will describe the amounts needed and the size or shape to make with them.  Some books are adorned with colorful arrangements of carrot sticks alongside braised tofu with peanut sauce, making mouths water.  Many espouse the health benefits of carrots.  A quick internet search reveals that carrots:

  1. Combat cancer
  2. Are good for cardiovascular health
  3. Good for oral health
  4. Protect the liver
  5. Maintain healthy skin
  6. The list goes on.

I have yet to see, however, a discussion of carrots that encourages the cook to take the green top off the carrot in such a way so as to preserve whole as much of the carrot root as possible.  That level of detail is absent from recipe books, so I’d like to share a lesson I learned from my teacher on how to cut carrots from a Zen perspective.

Please note, though, that this requires a bit of forbearance and the willingness to be okay with ourselves and what we do.  It’s a kind of patience practice, and the more we do it, generally speaking, the better we get.  The results of our efforts are not for nothing.  We just do the best we can.

While there is a technique, it’s nothing special at all:  Lightly dig the point of the broad end of a knife into the carrot top at the very edge where the stem ends and the root begins.  Then slowly circle the knife around the stem like a can opener to a can, and delicately pop out the stem.  This technique preserves every morsel of that delicious radical.

This process may seem like a rather insignificant action.  Perhaps you were looking for something more?  All we are doing is saving just a wee bit of the edible part of the root.  Who cares if the top part of the root is discarded, and who has the time to care? 

Zen Master Dogen responds to this in his, Instructions to the Cook:

“Do not give away a single drop within the ocean of virtue;  you must not fail to add a single speck on top of the mountain of good deeds.”[1]

The reason for taking care of the carrot in this way is because it is a reflection of how we take care of our self and anything that we hold dear.  It shows our gratitude for all that we’ve been given to work with.  The food before us is the result of our good karma, and of virtuous deeds of the past.  To throw away a part of the carrot that is edible is not different from throwing away a part of our self.  How we treat the carrot reflects the state of our mind as well as the care in which we approach any activity.

Moreover, Dogen writes, “After you receive [food], carefully protect these ingredients as if taking care of your own eyes.”[2] 

When we approach the kitchen to prepare a meal, Zen teachings offer a way for us to express our gratitude for what we have been blessed to cook with, and to make the very most out of it.  Most of us, if we are being honest, chop veggies and fruits throwing away both edible and inedible parts, and scarcely give attention to these particulars.

I don’t write this to shame the way we generally cook as much as to draw our awareness to ways in which we can deepen our mindfulness when we are working in the kitchen.  If every moment is an opportunity for “practice/enlightenment,” as Soto Zen says it is, then how we do anything is important.  Given that eating cannot be avoided, that we all handle food in some way, whether it’s growing, picking, cooking, or chewing it between our mandibles, then why not notice the contours of our carrots more closely? 

The problem we encounter is that we have developed habits in the way we perceive food. We are largely unconscious about what goes into our mouth, and how it got there in the first place.  Zen practice offers an opportunity to undo this conditioning.

“If you minutely observe from different viewpoints without absentmindedness, then naturally the food will integrate the three virtues and include the six tastes.”[3] 

In other words, when we magnify our attention into the minutia of our food, then not only will the flavors of the meal come together, but we also keep the precepts.  It might seem strange to consider the way we cut a carrot as keeping or not keeping to the precepts, but Buddhism extends its level of ethical concerns into the non-human world.  The concept that all things are boundless, that all things penetrate all things means that our lives are tied up with not only human lives but also such ordinary vegetables as carrots.

I remember one time when I was training at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, and I was by myself eating a carrot.  I took the time to enjoy my meal and to look at the carrot I was eating.  I noticed the light orange color and I could see how the inside of the carrot mirrored the rays of the sun pressing out from its core.  The sun’s beams had touched this carrot, no doubt, and I was eating those rays in the form of a root. 

I could feel the hardness between my molars and perceive the rocks and minerals that helped to nurture the carrot into maturity.  And who picked it?  I don’t know.   But surely, they were in the carrot, too, for without them I wouldn’t be holding it.  Then I was reminded of that old wives’ tale that carrots are good for your eyes.  It dawned on me that they are also good for our Buddha vision, our ability to see the whole world in our palms.

One last point to consider is that in the 13th century when Dogen wrote his Instructions to the Cook, three daily meals were not assumed.  Monks did not typically eat after the noon meal.  Even my teacher, during her training in Japan in the late 1970’s suffered from malnutrition.  We can find instances of food scarcity right now in our own country, in our own state, in our own county.  We need not look far.

The message of Zen is not that we should live as though we’re in a famine, but to realize we have been given more than enough when we look closer at what we have got.  Do we notice this?  If we practice this kind of mindfulness regularly, then when the real famine comes, instead of, for example, scrambling for as much toilet paper as we can shove into our cupboards, we practice noticing that we have enough for now, and we make every effort to completely utilize it.

[1] Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A translation of the Eihei Shingi.  Translated by Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Suny, 1996, p. 35.

[2] Ibid, p. 34.

[3] Ibid, p. 35.

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