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Spiritual Life

Nourishing the body can feed the soul

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rich Barlow
May 31, 2008

A Buddhist master had a cook who was a simple man. One day, the cook burned his hand while preparing a meal and suddenly achieved the Buddhist goal of enlightenment, as the nature of all existence became clear to him. Excited, he asked the master what he should do next.

"Keep cooking," came the answer.

The story comes from Tibetan lamas by way of Lama Surya Das, a Buddhist teacher and author in Cambridge, who values its elemental wisdom: You don't need a house of worship to encounter the spiritual; it's found in the pattern of daily living, such as cooking the food we need. (Emily Dickinson made the same point in a poem, though not about food, that Das likes to cite: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -/I keep it, staying at Home -/With a bobolink for a Chorister -/And an Orchard, for a Dome.")

The story of the cook is Das's contribution in a forthcoming anthology, "Bread, Body, Spirit," which draws on numerous traditions and their takes on eating. Explaining the motivation behind the volume, editor Alice Peck, writes in the introduction: "Everybody needs to eat, to be nourished. It's simple. It's unending. Food presents us with a vast opportunity: through our experiences of food we can sustain a constant connection to the Sacred that pervades our lives."

Glimpsing the divine in a hot dog won't surprise devout believers who say grace before every meal; gratitude for plenty in a world where many starve is a recognition of blessing. Yet "Bread, Body, Spirit" includes contributions from outside organized religion. "Since You Asked," a poem by Williams College English professor Lawrence Raab, comes from the pen of a self-described agnostic.

The poem ponders an imaginary dinner attended by "everyone you expected, then others as well:/friends who never became your friends,/the women you didn't marry, all their children./And the dead -I didn't tell you/but they're always included in these gatherings."

Reached on his cellphone during what Dickinson might call a moment of mundane spirituality, walking his dog, Raab says that as a nonbeliever, "what's sacred [in the poem] would be the communion of one's self and one's family and friends, extended imaginarily outward" to include phantoms from an existence that might have been. The only overt reference to religion and food in this particular poem is a playful mention about multiplying "wine and chickens." Tweaking the Christian story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish was a bit of "sly humor" aimed at his Jewish brother-in-law, Raab explains.

The spiritual backgrounds of the contributors are as diverse as cuisine. Das's biography, for example, contains as much kosher as karma. Born Jeffrey Miller in Brooklyn 57 years ago and bar mitzvahed on Long Island, he quips that he's "Jewish on my parents' side." Study and tragic experience (he knew one of the students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970) drew him to Eastern religions, and he became a Buddhist.

Julius Lester is the son of a Methodist minister who found Judaism in midlife. His essay in the book, "Braiding Challah," describes how he used to bake the Shabbat (Sabbath) bread on Fridays. A retired academic who lives in Belchertown, Lester had been intrigued by Judaism since learning as a boy that his maternal great-grandfather was Jewish. As an adult, he had a vision in which he was Jewish and happy. He converted in the early 1980s.

His essay highlights one of the many ritualized uses to which religions put food. "Cooking for Shabbat each week," Lester writes, "I am becoming a part of the Jewish people. Every dish I cook has been cooked and eaten on Shabbat for centuries." But it's his second sentence that leaps at a reader: "Judaism is not in the knowing; it is in the physicality of doing."

Downplaying knowledge seems an odd stance for an intellectual writing about an intellectually storied religion. Yet in an interview, Lester noted that Jewish ethical teaching stresses mitzvot, the commandments to moral conduct.

His is also one of the more mouth-watering entries in the book. "I especially like the Sephardic dishes like fassoulia, a simple but delicious stew of beef, green beans, and pearl onions, or lamb tangine, a lamb stew with prunes, and almonds."

Comments, questions, and story ideas may be sent to spiritual@globe.com.

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