Zen Cuisine at the Berlinale Seeking Enlightenment in the Kitchen of Life

Chopping carrots, stirring soup, washing rice: The essence of Zen is captured in a new documentary by German filmmaker Doris Dörrie about the Zen priest and cook Edward Espe Brown. But can the path to enlightenment be filmed?

By David Gordon Smith in Berlin


Edward Espe Brown and Doris Dörrie are trying to inspire people to cook their lives at the Berlinale.
berlinale.de

Edward Espe Brown and Doris Dörrie are trying to inspire people to cook their lives at the Berlinale.

Dorris Dörrie and Edward Espe Brown don't exactly stand on ceremony. As our interview begins, Brown is giving Dörrie a massage. "Here?" he asks, rubbing her back with the authority of experience.

Dörrie moans gently in contentment. "This is the only film so far that has an outcome which is really worth it," she murmurs, then asks "Are you taping this?" with a mock-horrified expression. "We're going to be live on the Internet with me squealing like a pig."

The German film director Dörrie and the American Zen priest Brown make an unlikely pair -- Dörrie with her trademark bleached-blonde crop, loveheart pendant and fashionable Nikes, Brown in his priest's robes. But their closeness adds zest to Dörrie's intimate documentary "How to Cook Your Life," currently showing at the Berlin International Film Festival as part of the food-themed "Eat, Drink, See Movies" series. It's like a feature-length cooking show seasoned with Brown's Zen wisdom -- and garnished with a little gentle criticism of Western consumerism.

The film is partly inspired by a 13th-century Zen cooking manual -- and named for an elucidation of that text carrying the subtitle, "From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment." And Brown does his best to guide his viewers toward satori, talking at length -- and with great humor -- about the Zen approach to food and life.

"I do think practicing meditation can add a great deal to your own and to other people's happiness," says Dörrie. "I try to spread the rumor that there is a very simple way of being in this world and not getting too desperate all the time."

With "How to Cook Your Life," she says she wanted to give people unable to attend Brown's workshops a chance to participate in what he is doing, and encourage them to "go to the kitchen, take out a knife and just start cutting the carrots, stirring the soup, and washing the rice."

Cutting carrots, stirring soup and washing rice: that just about sums up Zen. The Japanese philosophy shuns wordy explanations, focusing instead on the attentive performance of daily tasks. And food is often featured in the stories found in Zen scriptures. "Have you finished your rice?" asks a Zen patriarch of a novice in one famous anecdote. "Then you had better wash your bowl."

Time out from the world

Dörrie and Brown first met a couple of years ago at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. Dörrie gave film workshops in the morning and went with her 16-year-old daughter to Brown's cooking classes in the afternoon -- and was amazed how much the teenager enjoyed it. "Take a 16-year-old to a Zen retreat and after two hours you'd expect her to be ready to run away, because of course there is no TV, no electricity, no nothing," she says.

"But she really had a good time. It was interesting that Edward gave her the capability to do something with her hands and to be present in a way that nobody is present when you're watching TV. It made me wonder if it's about time to connect with traditions that are not entirely lost yet, or to start to learn them again if they're already lost."

Brown himself has helped keep those traditions alive in his native United States. His "Tassajara Bread Book" was published in 1970 and became a bread-baking bible for many, and he co-wrote "The Greens Cookbook" together with Deborah Madison with recipes from the popular San Francisco vegetarian restaurant "Greens." The restaurant opened in 1979 under the auspices of San Francisco Zen Center, where Brown lived for almost 20 years, and was instrumental in establishing vegetarian cuisine in the United States.

Coming to Zen

Brown says that nobody comes to Zen unless they are "at the end of your rope." And Dörrie's experience tends to support that claim. She explains that she came to Zen 15 years ago when her husband Helge Weindler was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"I had to do something to be present for my family and not jump out of the window because of fear and panic," she says. "Somebody sent me a book and I did what it said -- sit down, shut up and don't do anything -- and it worked."

Making a film about Zen, though, isn't so straightforward. A famous Zen saying has it that "the koan arises naturally in daily life," referring to the famous paradoxes (the best known being "what is the sound of one hand clapping?") used in Zen training. Which koans arose during the making of the film?

"For me filmmaking, especially making this film, is full of koans," says Dörrie. "Like the question: where do I cut away from what Edward is saying? Is it okay to insert this brief scene where (Brown's teacher) Suzuki Roshi is laughing, even though he's laughing out of context?"

In one of those challenging scenes, the camera team is following a woman who claims to collect most of her food from scavenging in San Francisco. The woman, who seems to be a few grains short of a bowl of rice, tries in vain to dislodge fruit from a tree.

"If only I had a stick," she mutters to herself before turning to the camera team: "You have a stick." In the next shot we see the sound technician's boom being successfully used to pull down the fruit. Hardly orthodox documentary filmmaking, but very Zen.

Being yourself

Brown says one of his own koans is, "Is it okay for me to be me?" It's a question the film addresses directly; in several scenes Brown is shown getting annoyed with students, while in one significant shot he sits at a table in tears, apparently because he doesn't have a sponge to clean his cutting board. "Is it okay to have everybody see me being me, rather than me being together and masterful and capable and competent?" he asks. "Mostly I say yes, and occasionally I go, uh oh."

But isn't there something paradoxical about making a movie about Zen, a philosophy which emphasises direct experience of reality?

"On a theoretical level, of course," says Dörrie. "Intellectually you could question it a great deal. But then, on a very practical level ..."

"You got to eat," Brown says.

"You got to eat."

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