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VIFF – Cooking as Orchestration as Living

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of heading over to the Ridge Theatre on Arbutus to watch How to Cook Your Life, a fun, serene documentary looking at the intersections of Zen Buddhism and cooking. I haven’t been to The Ridge for a good long while, so their renovations were a pleasant surprise – you mean there’s more than six inches between the seat edge and the back of the next row?!?! Scandalous! – and it’s absolutely gorgeous now, both comfortable and somewhat old-worldy.

For the movie itself, I enjoyed the presentation and the flow, much of it grounded by Zen Master Edward Espe Brown, who is teaching students about cooking at a Buddhist Centre. Admittedly, the content was pretty much a perfect fit for me – they delve into cultures of eating (fast vs. slow), values behind food, the reflective mindset that comes during the preparation of meals that segues nicely into Buddhist mindfulness, the role of anger, along with some great insights via archival film footage of the Zen Master’s mentor, Suzuki Roshi. Also, demonstrations of knife technique appeal to me, what can I say.

It was also an interesting look into the phenomenon that has always raised a bit of an eyebrow for me, North American Buddhism. It’s such a different beast, and as a person of Asian descent who speaks mostly English, I am accutely aware of the odd potential for discombobulation. There’s also no real other way for me to be exposed to Buddhist thought because I was reared in the North American cultural milieu, so I just have a good laugh about it. (It was the article on Boomer Buddhism at Salon that first piqued my awareness of this.)

An example of this: there’s a scene at the beginning of the film where the entire class is reciting Zen Master Dogen’s “Instructions to the Cook.” I have no idea whether the instructions were originally written in English but I suspect they weren’t. It’s somewhat comical to hear English rendered in that even, low chanting tone, especially when it’s about washing rice and other practical advice on how to conduct one’s self in the kitchen. I know I wasn’t the only one trying to suppress the giggles, because the rest of the theatre started laughing near the end of the segment.

Overall, the stories, the anecdotes, and the pacing of the film really appealed to me both as a foodie and occasional Buddhist. I just love the great connections that can be made between the sources of our selves, both spiritually and physically, and how they can complement each other so well. There was a section of the film that went astray a little bit, to talk about current food culture, freeganism and organic farming, but I recognized those as parts for people who were less acquainted with it than I am.

(I used a review from the Buddhist Channel to track down some of the film’s references. It is also great reading for the very touching poem used in the section “A Duck and Infinity” in the movie.)

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