A spiritual seeker, so the story goes, wanted to know about heaven and hell. An angel offered the answers. First, the seeker was shown a room full of people gathered around a pot of food. They held spoons with handles so long that none of them could raise the food to their mouths. They were starving, and suffering terribly. This was hell. Then, another scene: same room, same people, same food. Same spoons. But here, the people fed each other. This was heaven. Bonnie Myotai Sensei, of the Fire Lotus Temple in New York City, was inspired by this story to commission a series of “Chili Sundays.” Once every month, cooks from the sangha showed off their chili-making skills, and the rest enjoyed the results after service. And in the process—just like in heaven—they fed each other. Here, one cook looks back:

Serving chili, engaging spiritual practice. For several weeks I have been trying to discern their connection. Tonight I am trying again, but the message my father left for me keeps impinging on my efforts: “I’m flying out to India tomorrow. Uncle Kupram and his wife, Mani, were killed in an automobile accident.” In time, I allow myself to settle into the fog of shock. I begin to notice phrases and moments of practice rise up out of the obscurity. The final words of the eveninggatha [chant]: “Take heed. Do not squander your life,” cried out by the teachers during a memorial service.

What is it to serve a meal? Not to serve someone a meal, but to serve the meal itself, to be the servant of the meal? Does it begin when the knife breaks the skin of the first vegetable, or end when the last guest swallows the last mouthful? We try our best not to waste ingredients, to offer only what nourishes, to take just the right amount. But is there also no edge to service, no end save what we choose to see as a stopping point? When a teacher cries out in the middle of a death poem, does her voice reach its recipient?

I recall mincing cilantro in the temple’s kitchen, the blade of the chef’s knife rocking on its curve, the delicate green leaves and stems crunching under every stroke—and scraping it all from the cutting board into the bubbling pot. An utterly forgettable act. Yet complete. Yet a part of something greater. When the lip of the ladle meets the lip of the bowl, clearly something intimate takes place. My uncle and his wife are dead. What does this mean in terms of what happens now? How to serve so that no life is squandered?

From Fire Lotus: Newsletter of the Zen Center of New York City, Spring 2003. Reprinted with permission of Prabu Vasan.

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