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One particular episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table (season 3) captured the minds and hearts of viewers, long after it was first aired. The imagery from Baekyangsa (Chunjinam Hermitage), the temple located within South Korea’s Naejangsan National Park in the Jeollanamdo, delved into the life and food philosophy of Buddhist monk, Jeong Kwan.
Against the tranquil backdrop of ethereal emerald forests and still water, the monks perform their tasks of pre-dawn meditation, cleaning, growing, harvesting and meal preparation. We listen to chef Éric Ripert, also a Buddhist, praise Kwan’s cookery skills – so much so that he invited her to New York to cook. We’re quickly reminded that while the monastery’s idyllic setting may appeal to the weary and frazzled, this isn’t a retreat, nor does it contain a traditional restaurant. The hermitage is open to the public for pre-booked stays, but monastery life is based on austerity, labor, devotion and the pursuit of an ego-less existence. And it is these principles that inform Jeong Kwan’s cookery.
Jeong Kwan teaches classes on temple cuisine, including barugongyang - the four-bowl formal monastic meal. She also teaches at the university in Seoul and presents classes around the world. We caught up with her before a presentation on barugongyang in Turin. And about the idea of a cookbook, Jeong Kwan said: “A cookbook is just a formality and once I write one, I may find myself trapped in it. Instead, I want to continue to find myself through food.”
These are some of Jeong Kwan’s core beliefs and teachings, in her own words.
Korean Temple Food
Korean temple food is about connecting the body and the mind. [Kwan is a vegan]. You take only the amount you need for sustenance to practice in the temple and nothing more. With barugongyang, the four wooden bowls contain the meaning of the universe. These rules signify peace with the world – and it teaches you not to waste. You have to consider others. Equality, compassion, that’s the ritual of barugongyang.
[On Buddhist teachings tying with Slow Food principles]: Buddha wanted to share and live with a lot of people and one of his teachings was to only take the amount that you need. That is what Korean temple food is about. And it is very actionable.
Communicating Through Food
Food is an expression of what you hold in your mind. I’m not just talking about the being in front of you right now; I’m referring to myself as I have existed before this life, and myself, as I will exist after this life. What I cook now comes with the essence of me, the identity of myself. In this universe, we have nature’s streams, mountains, hills, oceans, and within that there are plants, animals and human beings. Plants have their own self-identity as well as their own feelings. Each plant has its own season and has its own essence. So, the cooking is a process [of] matching these plants with my own essence, and in that way I try to communicate through the food.
Almost every week we have a temple stay [with visitors] and through food everyone is brought together. Although we have never met before, we communicate many things with our eyes, our hearts and also with our food. In this way, we become one.
A Close Connection to the Land
A seedling relies on nature: with the help of the breeze, humidity, the sun, moon and the stars, everything around it, the seed grows. After a week it sprouts and after another week it grows a little more and it blooms flowers. The process of its growth is parallel to how a practitioner practices life. So, when I see the process of nature growing its plants, I see myself in that process, and so, I have a blissful heart.
The essence of nature and the essence of the human being are one and the same - I rely on nature and nature relies on me. If you think about it, the human beings exhale carbon dioxide and inhale oxygen, whereas with the trees, it’s vice versa. So, should I be thankful to the tree or should the tree be thankful me?
Growing Wild and Free
When a person feeds plants with fertilizer, the plant is not able to give its own energy, to grow unassisted. When you leave it to nature, the plant will go through hardships, gaining its own energy. It may take a little longer, it may be a little slow, but I want to give the plant time to get through it on its own and grow naturally. Bugs may eat some parts. But by giving it more time, it may last for a year, whereas if you force it, it may only live three months.
A Gateway to the Higher Self
I believe what connects the energy from the body and mental energy is food and I’m hoping to share that experience with as many people as possible. I believe everyone should practice to find themselves through food. To ask themselves: “ Who am I?”
When you cook, your own unique creativity emerges, depending on who you share the food with, the occasion and cooking methods. A person’s energy continues to change depending on the situation. So, we adapt and the food we prepare does too.