It’s been two weeks since I took a vow of silence and as far as I can tell, no one has noticed. When people come into the kitchen, I simply nod as they talk, mastering the art of “um,” that neutral little sound that expresses so much, reveals so little. I sense that my reputation as a good conversationalist increases daily.
When I first went silent, I brought a small pad and pen with me into the kitchen at the retreat center. I kept fingering the pad and pen in my pocket, planning to write, “Silence.” Or maybe, “Silent Vow,” but I’ve never had to use either.
Instead of basking in a round of applause, I stand by the big Hobart mixer, dumping in flour and salt, listening to its steady drone, hearing it for the first time as a sculpture of sound rather than an irritating noise that you have to talk over. The slosh-slosh of the dishwasher, the hiss of the burners, the controlled clamor of the fan in the hood of the stove – all have become my friends, allies in a world without speech.
I remember the long Sunday afternoons in South Carolina when I would hide under the giant ferns and listen to the streams of talk from aunts and grandparents, all mingling in a living river of familiar voices. It seemed normal to me that the same stories, with the same digressions about who was kin to whom, would be told over and over. I took it for granted that when a gap opened, someone had to rush in to fill it up with words, sounds, stories.
But when talk is happening, other things can’t, don’t. It is these other things that I am seeking. Something new is coming; this need for silent disengagement is just a sign. I have a decision to make and don’t want to contemplate it with a cluttered mind.
This caution is something new. Usually, I just leap without thinking. Move across the country on a whim, marry someone I barely know, walk out of an ideal situation into chaos, let myself be sucked into an unknown future by who could say what force. It seems to happen about every four years.
It’s been exactly that length of time since I became a chef, since I left behind the cool, dry order of the academy for the hot, wet chaos of the kitchen.
Before I landed on the pizza line, I had combed the want ads for a week. I hated the sound of most of the jobs “suitable” to a well-brought-up, overeducated thirty-six-year-old woman who suddenly finds herself out of a relationship, out of a job, and out of money all in the same week.
Assistant Museum Curator; Manager Trainee; Executive Secretary: All required subservience, respectability, pantyhose. When I saw the ad for Assistant Chef, I felt my inner landscape shift.
Why not? I loved food, loved to cook, loved to eat. In the past few years, only food had seemed real, tangible. Everything else had become words; words about words. And I was good in the kitchen—our dinner parties were famous throughout the English Department, if not Arts and Letters. To be able to create an intricate meal and then not to have to sit down and eat with the guests was a pleasure I’d never even imagined.
When I answered that ad, life as I had always known it stopped dead in its tracks at the restaurant door. In its place, I entered a world of heat and pressure that seemed always to be on the verge of explosion—a threat to those within.
The pizza parlor eventually led to a job as executive chef at the Bluegrass Horse Center, getting out meals, driving that train. By the time I first came to the retreat, at a place I’ll call Dorje Ling, I was tired of having to manage an unruly crew, sick to death of food and more food. All I wanted was a vacation from cooking. I looked forward to the promise of peace, balance, relaxation into emptiness.
The first night during the evening session, Lama P. announced that the cook’s back had gone out again. Could anyone take charge of food service?
Forty pairs of eyes turned to look at me.
I can do it, I said, waving my hand.
We’ve all heard about Zen kitchens. The sense of order, focus. Everyone silent, bowing respectfully to each other, to the food, mindful of every minute detail. I’ve read Zen Master Dogen with delight, applauding the idea that only senior students should be allowed to cook.
But just as Japanese Zen Buddhism is very different from Tibetan Vajrayana, the kitchens of the two differ in the extreme. Forget the bowing, the silence, the respect. Add color, noise, and chaos. Add a kitchen full of people—construction workers looking for a snack, children playing hide-and-seek in the pantry, visitors using the only phone on the first floor, monks making statues out of butter and oatmeal—fit these in the spaces around the cooks and the food, and you’ve got the sort of kitchen I’m supposed to take in hand.
The idea of a food fair comes to me during the middle of morning meditation the day after I volunteer. Hardly noticing the pain in my knees, I contemplate a variety of booths: salad bar; soup station; potatoes with toppings; rice…Maybe we shouldn’t have rice and potatoes on the same day; better on alternate days. When the lunch bell sounds, I am surprised at how short the session has been.
As always, we end a session by dedicating the merit generated by our practice to the welfare of all sentient beings, and I realize that I’ve done hardly any real practice. But doesn’t planning count? Helping to feed real people?
In one of the many ceremonies at Dorje Ling, a specially marked tray is passed around and each person throws a flower onto it. The flower will land to the north or east or wherever, indicating the particular Buddha family with which the individual has the strongest connection. My flower always falls to the north, on the green area of the Karma family, the one involved in activity. In fact, the person representing this family is usually shown in profile, because she doesn’t have the time to turn around fully to face you. No matter how hard I try to make my flower hit somewhere else on the tray, it always lands on the Karma Buddha family.
“What doing?” Lama Tashi catches me by surprise as I sit on the floor of the pantry with my laptop and portable printer, surrounded by written-over lists and schedules, books, banners of material that say, “Potatoes,” “Salads,” and so on.
“Meditating not?” he asks. I shake my head and try to get up, but he motions for me not to. The laptop is indeed on top of my lap. He just stands there, interested, present. I tell him that I am planning the food for the retreat.
“In Tibet. One pot. Big spoon.” He picks up a plastic pail from the corner and mimes dishing out a spoonful of food in waiting bowls. Does he really expect me to use a pail and a big spoon?
“Lama Tashi, I’m a professional chef”—it comes out in a rush—“and I thought if I just planned enough that we could have sort of like a food fair with different booths. One for salads, one for soups, another for sandwiches and so on.”
I’d actually planned to have the shop make small booths and the sewing group to run up some signs in the colors of the Buddha families and string prayer flags in between, but suddenly I see all this production as the sheerest folly, excessively elaborate in a way that only Southern women can manage.
Lama Tashi doesn’t say a word, just stands there in silence as the contents of my mind open to me in a new and not very flattering light.
“You good worker,” he says finally, nodding approvingly. “But you so busy being you!”
He flashes a big smile, and is gone.
One morning, I get a postcard from Kentucky with horses grazing by a white picket fence.
“Really envy you all that quiet and peace, but aren’t you ever coming home? We miss you. Your friend, Sallie.”
Sallie runs the front office at the Horse Center where I used to run the kitchen. All my friends and family seem to think that since I’ve signed on for the long retreat, I now live in a blissful cocoon, wrapped round with serenity and love.
My mother, with her Presbyterian sniff: “You’re being so selfish, going off like that. So self-centered. And those Ricochets of yours…”
What did they know? How could I explain that moments of quiet and peace were few and as rare as daytime stars?
I think a lot about anger these days. How the commercial kitchen used to run on rage. Hadn’t I worked my way up from kitchen help by being unrelentingly precise and demanding? Hadn’t I made a point of never faltering in my zealous control of both the process and the product? The staff, beaten at last into submission, left me alone, didn’t talk back. Among themselves, they referred to me simply as “God.” “I don’t know,” they’d say without rancor, “I’ll go ask God.”
Anger released adrenaline, force. It kept the kitchen going. But it has a big price tag hanging on its toe. People dislike you afterward, so you have to keep feeling angry, feeding it, keep pushing that energy outward in order not to take in the effects of your anger on other people.
A professional chef is almost always furious on some level. Why? Control and perfection. Entitlement. In the kitchen at a Buddhist center all this starts to feel like damage rather than privilege. I begin to track the impact of anger. An inner dialogue rages over the rightness—of my position, my method, my perfect food, my idea of how a dish should look or taste. The center of energy is myself, inside my own being.
Anger comes in waves, say the psychologists. The first wave tends to be fairly mild, but then, after we’ve pumped it up a bit, it becomes much stronger. I try to remember what the teachings have said. I ask Lama P., head of the local hospice, who has come into the kitchen to melt coconut oil for butter lamps. The oil comes in five-gallon tins from somewhere in Thailand. When visitors melt it, they tend to mess up the stove, slopping it over the burners, creating a fire hazard. Lama P. never spills a drop.
“So, what do you do with anger? Stuff it?”
“Watch it. ‘Liberate it in its own ground,’ as they say. Don’t identify with it. See it as a poison. Different from stuffing it. Oil’s melted, got to go.”
Lama P. picks up the huge pot of hot oil and heads toward the porch where he’s already set out the butter lamps, each with its wick in a brass goblet-like holder.
One thing about this center, the one with lamas rather than horses, they throw you in at the deep end. Sink or swim. Whatever personal assistance I get, I usually receive on the fly, while working by the stove. I sometimes watch the lamas with the newbies, answering questions, being patient, kind, loving. I’m not a newbie anymore. I’m supposed to know what’s what.
I begin to think about how much better the newbies are treated than I am. Even though I work long hours in the kitchen while some of them just sit around soaking up the sun, chatting up the lamas. Pretty useless in the kitchen, too, most of those new people.
Oh, grow up, a voice in my head interrupts my rant. I was just given instruction and blew it by concentrating on the newbies and not on my own mind.
During the first month at the retreat center, I’d gone in tears to Lama Tashi, the acting head of the center, saying that I was hopeless, that my mind seethed and wriggled with poisons, that I had the attention of a flea, the motivation of a cat.
He’d smiled very kindly, nodded cheerfully. Oh, yes, he agreed, my mind had always been hopelessly out of control. Now I was beginning to pay attention. This was a good sign.
“Progress having,” was the way he put it.
The most recent crisis in the kitchen has to do with Nina, the neurotic teenage sister of our chief mechanic. She enjoys playing the evil elf: switching labels on the spices, turning the oven controls to 500 degrees, putting a cupful of salt in the sugar bin, hiding the masking tape and pen used to mark the leftovers. Then she blames whatever she’s done on someone else. After one infuriating day when I made her leave the kitchen, she told her brother Jorg that I wasn’t being nice to her and he went to Lama Tashi.
“She crazy, you not,” the Lama said to the assembled kitchen staff. The bottom line at Dorje Ling was that everyone had to get along.
“But, Lama Tashi, how can we fix lunch for sixty-five people when she’s all over the kitchen getting into everything?”
“Good practice for bardo,” he calmly proclaimed.
He said we should thank Nina for showing us the limits of our patience. Most of us hadn’t developed what he called large patience, an ease of mind that could see the world like an old man on a park bench watching children at play. At most, what we practiced was restraint, and while that was better than anger, it still wasn’t large patience. Some of us hadn’t even learned restraint.
“Lama Tashi.” I almost said that I was tired of being jacked around by that bad-news piece of Eurotrash, but stopped just in time.
“I have a job to do. In a place this size I have to have things organized, under control. Just yesterday I came into the kitchen to cook lasagna and she’s drying her boots in the oven and won’t take them out.”
Even as I talked, I could see how many times “I” and “my” snuck in, how much of my own suffering came from wanting control. I seethed. And went back to the kitchen.
A few weeks later, after much talk about the Nina situation, I go to see Lama S., a woman originally from Idaho and just out of a three-year retreat. Lama S. has a rare beauty that seems to start deep in her bones. I can sit next to her and never want to be anywhere else.
I show her my list of projects. Most of these entail my transfer out of that damnable kitchen into the relative calm of the Center’s office. I’d designed a web site for meditators called QuietSpaces.com and devised a plan to hypertext various sadhanas used in morning puja.
“When you click on Tara’s name,” I explain, “you see a slide show of thangkas, hear her mantra, then a menu comes up and you can read up on her historical significance as a female Buddha in Tibet, then go right to teachings on the text.”
She looks at me.
“It’s not that hard, really. The material is all there in the library. It just needs to be entered into a database.”
Lama S. listens intently. When I finish, she flips a few beads on her mala, looks at me, goes back to her mala.
She says: “You know, all these projects, you’re just rearranging the clouds. What you really need to do is to concentrate on the nature of sky.”
As she speaks, I experience again a sense of unobscured space I’d glimpsed the first day I came to Dorje Ling. I’d been hoping and straining to catch another hint of that openness ever since. And yet sky had been there all along, waiting for me to stop straining, to quit pushing the clouds around.
“How about,” Lama S. smiles, “you become QuietSpaces.com?”
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