February 24th, 2008

operesque

Eat your philosophy

About ten of us -- Japanese, Germans, one Scot, one Hong Kong-ite -- gathered at Jan Lindenberg's place last night to eat the food we'd all brought and watch a projection of How To Cook Your Life, an evangelical cooking documentary by Doris Dörrie featuring the Californian Buddhist chef, Zen Master Edward Espe Brown. Here's the trailer:



Now, I cook very little, but I think cooking is one of the cool things, the life-affirming things. I cluster it with walking and gardening in a bouquet of skills it would be worth dedicating more time to (instead of, for instance, the bloody internet). While I found Brown -- author of "Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings" and "The Tassajara Bread Book" -- likable and sane in the movie, I have to say that attacking the mainstream American food industry is like shooting fish in a barrel (not that Buddhists would ever do anything so cruel). American food (which of course means the relationship of the American body to the American soul) is a system so self-evidently broken it could be criticized from a hundred different angles, with or without the ideological help of a hundred different imported, Californicated cults.

My comment when the movie ended was basically "Interesting, but I don't want to learn Buddhism from an American... unless it's John Cage!" Here's a clip of Brown's master, Suzuki Roshi, imparting wisdom:



Even that -- and I appreciate what he's saying about the bird being one with us, and so on -- strikes me as a discourse full of slightly wobbly assertions. When things (Japanese philosophies, for instance) get boiled down and spelled out in a foreign language, a lot gets lost, especially when the philosophies have cultural work to do in the new soil, and in the new air (by which I mean the mediascape, the ideological battle with Kraft and McDonalds). You begin to wonder if anything remains of the original feeling and thinking.

I spent the afternoon yesterday writing a column for Frieze.com about how superstition, far from being banished in the consumer era, persists in all sorts of assertions -- dispensed by marketing gurus, fashion experts, economic advisors, political commentators -- about the true meaning of this, that and the other. These assertions depend, for their acceptance, on the charisma of the person retailing them. It was hard, after writing that, not to feel that Brown was simply another American patter-merchant selling an admirably organic brand of snake oil.

Ultimately, How To Cook Your Life is a dialectical response to the low quality, industrialised food industry in the US, with its cornoil, transfats and gasoline, its waste, its eco-unfriendly logistics, its immigrant labour and machine processing. Japanese Buddhism is called on to exemplify the "alternative" to this system, becoming an "other" which has essentially lost its particularity somewhere midway across the Pacific Ocean and become what it needs to be in America -- a salvation from canned soup and freedom fries. And so, up in our green Buddhist retreat, we see food being treated as something precious ("as precious as your eyesight," Brown likes to say, a metaphor which obviously resonated with me) and food-making as a meditative, collaborative, loving activity.



The Japanese in the room were rather quiet after the film. They mostly found the English-language Zen prayers (affirmations of the holiness of food preparation, recited in unison at the start of the day's work) amusing, and marveled at how one organic farmer featured in the film used liquidised turkey fertiliser on his organic vegetable patch ("It doesn't seem wrong to me," he said, answering the charge that this made the vegetables somewhat carniverous, "we Buddhists believe that everything is connected to everything else, so of course there's meat in vegetables".) But as we walked home, Hisae told me she was shocked at how over-emotional Brown was -- he actually burst into tears describing the humble goodness of a battered kettle -- and how aggressive he seemed to be as he tried to tug open a shrink-wrapped slab of tofu or hacked at the plastic sprinkler top of a vinegar bottle, cursing. No Japanese Zen master would give in to these fits of pique, she thought.

I wondered, as usual, whether you could ever embrace Japanese philosophy without being Japanese (a thought which also seems to have crossed the mind of the Financial Times Japan bureau chief recently), and I noticed that, although there'd been so much mention of Japanese Buddhism in the film, we hadn't heard a single reference to Shinto, the agricultural folk religion which, I'd say, has much more to say about our relationship with food than Buddhism. Though both play a part, it isn't Buddhism ("worldly attachment is suffering") or capitalism ("time is money") which have made Tokyo the world's best food city. If anything, it's the attitudes contained within Shinto that make for great respect for food. It seems that E.E. Brown has picked up a lot more Shinto from his Zen teachers than he realises, but is somewhat in denial about it.

I have to say, though, I've never seen anyone chop a carrot so skillfully.