If learning to eat at the monastery was acclimating to the practice of consuming whatever was put in front of me, learning to cook at the monastery was a lesson in how to take care of ingredients. Dogen Zenji wrote, “Not to waste a single grain of rice is called the mind of the way.” This has a similar but slightly different meaning from “A monk’s mouth is like an oven.” The emphasis is on the cook rather than the eater. What Dogen is saying is that not wasting food—taking care of the material around you and preserving what you have—is the totality of Zen life. Zen is difficult, but it is not complicated. It is simply taking care of things.

At the monasteries where I trained, there was an explicit admonition to never throw away food. At Aichi Senmon Nisodo temple in Nagoya, Japan, meals were calculated down to the precise half-bowl of soup, and any leftovers were eaten at dinnertime, mixed into soup or savory rice porridge. We first figured out how many people were expected at the meal. With soup, for example, each person was allotted a bowl and a half; this assured that everyone had at least one serving and then that those who wanted seconds could have them. This is actually very basic common sense. It just involves foresight—for example, knowing how big the bowls are, how much food fits into one bowl, and how much vegetables shrink during cooking.

Related: Food for Enlightenment

The Japanese phrase mottainai is used to express displeasure about wasting. It can be translated as “Don’t waste!” and it’s used to describe instances of throwing away either tangible or intangible things. For example, when I told a young woman in Japan that I didn’t want to get married, she exclaimed, “You’re young! Mottainai!” Back in the United States, when I lament my declining Japanese skills, people often agree, “Mottainai!” And of course, in Japan, if the nuns and I ever considered throwing away some week- old tub of leftover soup, someone would inevitably utter “Mottainai!” And the soup would end up as part of our dinner or creatively incorporated into another dish.

Conserving and respecting food involves equal parts planning how much to cook and repurposing leftovers and old produce. I am not quite sure why I never questioned the reason for peeling carrots until I worked in a monastery kitchen. But really, what is the point of peeling carrots? Mottainai! They taste the same with or without the peel, and the peel contains extra nutrients.


It is fairly easy to preserve food and deal with leftovers in a Zen monastery, where there is an explicit value placed on not wasting. It is harder to do in a contemporary American household, which is not set up the same way. When I first moved in with Gensan, I tried to save as much as I could. I kept every last scrap of leftovers in the refrigerator and refused to throw away vegetables until they were rotten. If vegetables did go bad before I had a chance to cook them, I mourned their loss. I put old vegetables in soup. I conserved.

But after six months of comfortable domesticity, I found that the refrigerator was packed full of rotting leftovers, half-eaten or rarely used sauce, and obscure oil that I bought on a whim. I had slipped right back into the American way of grocery shopping when I was anxious, stressed, or upset. I stocked the pantry to feel I had a handle on my life, that I was competent as an adult, that I was taking care of my family. I used only a fraction of what I bought.

If you notice you have fallen into this habit, make a list of everything in your refrigerator. That’s right—get an actual piece of paper and write down each and every vegetable, plastic container, and sauce. It’s helpful to divide things into sections like leftovers, produce, and so on. For example, the current contents of my refrigerator are:

  • Leftovers: takeout rice and vegetables with peanut sauce from a Thai restaurant
  • Old produce: green onions, cilantro, cucumbers, baby bok choi, avocados (very brown), carrots, onions, garlic, limes, cherry tomatoes
  • Other: salsa, mustard, peanut butter, sambal oelek, ketchup, tomato sauce, Sriracha, miso, tahini, soy sauce

When you look at these items as a list rather than as amorphous unwanted refrigerator contents, it becomes easy to figure out ways to use them. Stare at your list for a bit and allow the ingredients to dance in front of you; then look for natural resonances between foods and flavor profiles. For example, in the above list avocados and cherry tomatoes with some minced onion, garlic, and lime juice would make a nice guacamole-salsa dip (and I do have chips!). The tiny amount of leftover Thai food could be revamped with the addition of stir-fried onion, bok choi, and carrots in a spicy peanut sauce. If I combined peanut butter, soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil, and sugar, I would get a delicious sauce (with a kick) that I could garnish with the aging cilantro and green onions.

This is a chance to be creative, to utilize and make the most of the material at hand. Then when you go grocery shopping the next time, write down what you put into the refrigerator and on what date. Cross out food that gets eaten or discarded, so you always know what you have. Using this method, you can keep your refrigerator a lot more civil, and you can train yourself to take care of produce and old food.

Eat what is put in front of you and take care of leftovers. Consume the circumstances of your life, whatever they are, and turn them into fuel. Take care of your community, your house, your family, and your pantry.


American culture is not set up in a manner that values preservation. In fact, the message our culture sends us says the opposite—that we should always purchase the new thing, the coolest or freshest thing. We are told that if our refrigerator and pantry are not completely stocked to the brim, we are not successful, we are not providing for our family. The problem with this is not accumulation in and of itself, but that we are not taught how to take care of and value the things we already have.

The same is true with people. People are only worthy of our time and attention if they have value to us personally, if they conform to social norms, if they are easy, pleasant, and attractive. We divide people into categories like “successful,” “failures,” “contributors,” “leeches,” “motivated,” “useless,” “lazy.” Then we allow these words to become the totality of a human being.

We are afraid of difference and weakness. We are afraid of poor people because of the labels we create, and then we become ashamed of our hate and fear. Instead of examining our shame and fear, we keep society’s outcasts at a distance. We treat them like trash and throw them away. We make laws saying they cannot sleep in tents. We make laws saying they cannot sleep on benches. We say they did this to themselves, that they “chose” this life, when nothing could be farther from the truth. (No woman wants to sleep on concrete; it is very painful, not to mention unsafe.) We say they are someone else’s problem. We forget they are human beings just like us.

Bernie Glassman, the Zen teacher famous for his work with the homeless, explained that when we care for the outcasts in society, we are caring for the parts of ourselves that we have rejected, the parts of ourselves we hate or feel shame about. It took me many months before I realized that this is what I was trying to do in my work with addicted clients. Working with people who relapsed over and over, I saw how easily I was frustrated by my clients, how quickly I moved to judgment and then to an impulse to discard them, to punish them by withdrawing kindness and compassion.

Abbess Aoyama Roshi would often say, “How you spend your time is how you live your life.” Spiritual practice shows us that the way we relate to small things—washing dishes, cooking, waiting, cleaning—is indicative of how we relate to everything else. The training in Zen practice is learning how to take care of even the smallest, most mundane task, because the task in front of you is the totality of the universe. So eventually I began to see that the way I was relating to addicted people was how I related to myself. I saw that when I was tired, sad, or struggling, when I didn’t receive labels like “successful,” “beautiful,” “rich,” and “competent,” I hated myself. I felt like trash.

I want to have compassion for the parts of myself I hate—my anger and selfishness, my lust, my introversion, my seriousness. I want to have compassion for these because they are everything that makes me me. But it is hard. We are taught to hate difficult things, difficult emotions, anything that does not contribute to a well-functioning individual. Part of me knows that, in order to have compassion for the world around me, I will have to radically transform how I take care of myself.

Ten years ago, when I was in India on a Buddhist study-abroad program, I had the opportunity to meet the Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of the two claimants to the title of 17th Karmapa, a reincarnating authority figure in Tibetan Buddhism and head of one of the largest denominations. At the time, he was only about 20 years old—the same age I was. The study-abroad group and I gathered in the Karmapa’s ornate meeting chamber. To my surprise, rather than acting compassionate and expansive, the Karmapa seemed grumpy, restless, and uncomfortable.

A question-and-answer session ensued. Someone from our group asked, “How can I be a good Buddhist?”

The Karmapa scowled. “Don’t try to be a good Buddhist. Go home to your country and be a good citizen, a good family member, a good neighbor. Work on doing good in your community. Don’t worry about Buddhism.”

At the time, I thought he was just being cynical. I thought this was a cop-out answer from a young monk who resented the position he was born into. I now understand what he meant.

What will you do with the hours in your day? How will you treat your heart and the people around you? How will you care for your house and the houses around you? These are questions that our lives continually pose for us, no matter where we are, no matter how fucked-up or enlightened we are. In the East or the West, they are wonderful questions to engage. The best place to find the answers is right where you are, right now.

Zen is famous for its enigmatic riddles and jokes. An empty cup is better than a full cup, because you can fill it with anything. Failure is the mother of success. Mind and body are not one, not two. These may seem confusing at first, but they are descriptions of reality. This isn’t Zen; this is how things are. Nothing cast away is truly trash. What is unlovable deserves love and belonging. Leftovers and old vegetables are new dinner. You must embrace paradox to transform yourself and your life, to create possibility from nothingness. End means beginning.


Golden curry is a meal so easy to whip up it does not really warrant its own recipe. It’s one of the few meals I trust my husband, Gensan Thomson, to prepare without my looking over his shoulder the whole time, offering neurotic suggestions. It’s a not-so-spicy Japanese take on Indian curry, most commonly made by using packets of roux that dissolves easily in hot water and thickens into a curry sauce. I mention it here because curry is one of the best ways to get rid of leftovers. Anything can go into curry—old noodles, vegetables, and even lettuce. It’s best not to add anything that already has a distinctive flavor, such as potato salad or vinegar-flavored dishes.

Serves 3

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ½ large onion, diced medium
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 carrots, cut into bite-size pieces
  • Water
  • 1 cup leftovers you feel bad about wasting, such as plain tofu, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, etc.
  • 4 squares (1 x 1 inch each) curry roux

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan, pot, or wok and add the onions. Stir-fry on medium for 2 minutes, until the onions begin to soften. Add the carrots and potatoes and continue to stir-fry for another 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables are beginning to soften but have not yet browned.

Add water to the pan until it is 1 inch above the vegetables. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are completely soft, another 10 to 15 minutes. If your leftovers are raw, add them so they get their requisite cooking time and are done when the potatoes are fully cooked. For example, if you are adding green beans, add them about 2 minutes before the potatoes will be done. If your leftovers are already cooked, you can add them at the very end.

Add the roux squares to the boiling water in the pan. Stir, breaking up the roux, until it is completely dissolved (you can also dice or slice the roux before adding it to make sure it doesn’t clump). Continue stirring until the sauce thickens. The consistency should be like yogurt—thick enough that it is clearly not liquid, but soft and gelatinous. If the curry sauce isn’t thickening, add more roux, one piece at a time, waiting a minute between each piece and stirring constantly, until it reaches the desired consistency.

Excerpted from the book Just Enough. Copyright ©2019 by Gesshin Claire Greenwood. Printed with permission from New World Library

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