Book Review: Just Enough – more than just a cookbook.

Gesshin Claire Greenwood, author of Just Enough: Vegan recipes and stories from Japan’s Buddhist temples and the popular blog , That’s So Zen, has put together a tantalizing book of practice disguised as a cookbook. Taking a page out of her blog post, How to Hack an Academic Book, I will admit I stayed close to the tasty parts of each chapter and tended the file the recipes away for a kitchen test in the future.

Greenwood writes with a delicious style, never pushing the components of her experience or expecting them to zap us with insight and release from suffering. But maybe they do because I did have several moments about broth, bamboo, and ramen noodles.

SIDEBAR: My Grandestdaughter called me on the “last evening I will be 5, Pika,” to explain that being six the next day would involve “rum and noodles!” I understand my daughter has taken her cooking skills to enviable heights but this modern parenting seems excessively licentious.

Greenwood was an ordained nun in a Japanese temple and writes with an ease and flow that speaks well of her embodied practice. To my joy, she begins with oryoki – likely my favourite part of a sesshin and the most challenging for someone with an approach-avoidance relationship to food. In her hands, the ritual of eating from three (or five) bowls becomes a practice of experiencing “just enough” and an art of finding freedom in ritual. In Broth, she walks us through the very potent sense of the “stink of Zen”; I emerged too afraid to check the miso paste in my fridge. Still, it is a powerful truth that if your Zen practice dominates the landscape of your life, it’s likely not your life anymore. And, much of Just Enough – as with any cooking – is about reclaiming our life slice by slice.

So, we “practice in secret, like a fool, like an idiot”, freeing ourselves of the chaotic circumstances of mind and environment. Then, as she instructs the cooks in Bamboo, we learn how to transform the ingredients of our life that are by nature poisonous into nourishing delicacies. Relationships are prominent in Greenwood’s book. Naturally. After all, what is Zen if not relational. What is any practice if not relational. How else can we adapt without an irritation, a bruise, a graze of whatever will scrape the peel off, soften the tough shell of Self.

Just Enough Lust is delightful if only for the deep truth that “life is too short to eat plain cabbage dumplings.” No, seriously. It’s not long enough to wash out the bland of spiceless, limp, dough boiled to imperfection. (Try some harissa or Korean red peppers, btw!) And it’s about balance. Circling back to Broth, Greenwood teaches the value of using ingredients in a way that they are almost “too much but not too much.” Now that’s a lifetime practice.

SIDEBAR: My mother eventually became an amazing cook. None of us could replicate her dishes no matter how much time she spent showing us what to do. Her instructions were always “just put a teaspoon” of (whatever spice) into the (whatever dish it was). She used a plastic spoon from some picnic we must have gone to, clearly a magic spoon, and coveted by all the generations. When I decided to calibrate it – yes, I’m that obsessive – everyone laughed, until we discovered the “teaspoon” actually held a tablespoon of spices.

Greenwood’s point is not to make us terrific Japanese vegan cooks. That would be lovely but perhaps an unrealistic expectation. In Ramen, she argues* for a “throwing away” of our preconceptions of how a dish should turn out or how our life should turn out. It touches on that sense of entitlement we all have about our right to have X-Y-Z because we did U-V-W. As if life is ever that linear and compliant.

Life, like practice and cooking, is best approached with abandon, spiced with an apprentice-mind and a willingness also to let go of incompatible ingredients. When Zen, recipes, and personality become a protective gear against being vulnerable and open to that one continuous mistake, it’s time to find fire the the stove and cooking.

*In How to Hack an Academic Book, Greenwood writes: “2. Hunt for the phrase “I argue” in the introduction.” I didn’t put this in the Introduction.

Quintessential Watts

Zen – A short introduction with illustrations by the author by Alan Watts (New World Library) is unbelievable at many levels. Small – actually tiny – yet huge in what it promises. Can Zen be compressed into a short telling? Most important, can it be introduced?

Or perhaps Zen only has this formidable mythology of something one drowns in, surrenders to, arises within. The brilliance of Watts writings is so clear and precise, unstintingly sharp and demanding. Still, it’s hard to imagine Zen captured in a slim volume one quarter a thumb’s length.

Prefaced by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, Zen (originally published in 1947 in England was published in 1948 and in the US at the same time as the second edition The Spirit of Zen. Watts intended Zen to be a “corrective to the first edition” and, as Chayat notes, it was also an expression of his growing disenchantment with Christianity. What we are left with then is a journey through the evolution of Zen through the eyes of a teacher, at once at ease and discomfited by the profound awareness Zen can evoke.

There is nothing that men desire more than life – the fullness of life, Reality itself.

And, this desire easily slides into a craving that kills the life as “(l)ife drawn from the stream is no longer living water, for it ceases to flow.” Watts recognizes that all religions are a way of trying to grasp this mystery and the paradox is to release the hold on that desire.

Watts outlines the influences out of which Zen emerges. A short line drawn from Brahminism to Mahayana prompts a quick dismantling of our thin understanding of non-dual reality. Through Taoism, Watts highlights the flowing power of wu-wei. Contrasting Indian Buddhism with Chinese, there’s an implication of shift from a desire to transcend life to freeing the life to be what is it. Out of this “Momentous Harmony, Zen emerges as the “finger pointing to the moon”. Not a set of beliefs on how to be but a way of being fully alive.

There is only one place where we are truly alive, where we come into immediate contact with Reality and that is now
the present moment.

While Watts is precise in his description and explanations of the complexity of Zen, he is also cautious – frequently reminding us that these words too as prone to mislead us, quickly and easily.

The book closes with a commentary on the cultural impact of Zen in poetry and art. Haiku, brush painting, tea, and gardening are only a few domains of its influence. In all, Zen allows for an experience of harmony in asymmetry and a creative, wordless pointing to life as it is.

Zen is a welcomed re-addition to our shelves. It reminds us through its simple presentation that our striving is an unnecessary waste of the power of life. It tucks itself into the shoulder bag and heart easily – as easy as taking a breath; as easy as putting down the weight of desire.

Final thoughts: Because of the excellent work by scholars like Ann Gleig (American Dharma) and Ira Helderman (Prescribing the Dharma), I’ve become more aware of the origins of Western approaches to Buddhism and how we have filtered it through our cultural and psychological needs. While Watts’ Zen opens a window into the origins and practices of one aspect of Buddhism, it is a product of its time and culture. And, briefly, his need to fit Buddhism/Zen into a Christian template surfaces. Still, I think he does better than most in allowing Zen to be Zen. Without apologizing for his perspective (as it arises from his own zeitgeist), I am sympathetic of it and remain attentive to how mine evolves.