Filling Your Cup

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Filling Your Cup

Object:  Tea Cup

Teacher:   Gesshin Claire Greenwood

Observation:  "A Zen riddle I often think about asks, “How can you drink tea from an empty cup?” I remember asking a monk in Japan this question. He smiled and said, “Empty cup is better than full cup, because you can always add to an empty cup.” The odd paradox of using less is that sometimes it makes us feel even more satisfied. Becoming comfortable with lack can make us feel as though we have enough.


For Americans, experiencing “just enough” when we eat will often mean preferring the riddle’s “empty cup” by eating less. But I believe this can — and should — be done with joy, grace, and pleasure. There is a beauty in just the right amount of anything: too much furniture in a room gives it a cluttered feeling, but not enough furniture means you can’t sit down. This is not some kind of mystical Eastern concept either! All good painters know the importance of negative space — the artist Kara Walker’s paintings are famous exercises in negative space, and what would Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring be without that black background? With regard to food, there are ways to eat and cook that bring us closer to this philosophy of “just enough.”


At the monasteries where I trained, there was an explicit admonition to never throw away food. At Nisodo, 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. 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 only used a fraction of what I bought.


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.


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. 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. 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.


If we bring awareness to the present moment, if we value wisdom and compassion more than material acquisition, then our lives will always feel full. They will feel full, because all that we need is awareness and the cultivation of wisdom. Within this container of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, even an empty cup seems full.


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.

Source: Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples, Gesshin Claire Greenwood New World Library