What’s in your Fridge?
I’m about to leave for a two week Zen retreat in southern Utah—and all I can think is, “Damn, they’d better not feed us McDonald’s.”
Let me explain. This will be my first retreat with a new teacher, and while she comes highly praised, I’m wholly unsure what to expect on the breakfast table. I know I should probably be spending more time preparing my body and mind for long bouts of zazen, but the question of what to eat during a Buddhist retreat touches my heart and points to a pressing concern in the mindfulness community.
I’m careful about my supermarket footprint, but my dietary standards for meditation retreats are particularly stringent thanks to my main teacher, Jun Po Roshi. My first exposure to him was an interview with Ken Wilber in which he exclaimed, “You want to talk to me about enlightenment and higher states of consciousness? I want to see what’s in your fridge!”
I knew immediately I needed to study with this man. Jun Po is emphatic that our mindfulness practice must extend into our daily lives. Any retreat he leads serves almost exclusively organic, vegetarian food, down to the tea and coffee. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you fiercely, heart broken wide open, why he’ll never eat or serve another non cage-free egg. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that we’re good little Buddhists when we’re on the cushion, all samadhi’ed out [samadhi means, roughly, the state of enlightened wakefulness, often accompanied by blissful feelings]. But for Jun Po, failing to embody loving kindness to all beings—or at least striving toward that—indicates that one’s insight has not rooted deep enough. Not nearly.
Waylon Lewis’ recent, scathing article, “7 Reasons Buddhists don’t give a shiite about the Environment,” ruffled some feathers—of overly contented, misguided birds, if you ask me. There was a bombastic display of dharmic acrobatics as people groped for rationales to excuse their lifestyles—or at least to claim that their environmental impact has nothing to do with their Buddhist practice. Comments such as, “when we are sitting we are not consuming!” sound to me like ego at its most insistently unconscious, and smack of spiritual bypassing—using spirituality as a way to remain disconnected from and unconscious of the world around us.
There’s a slightly lazy nihilism that tends to infect we spiritual practitioners with the notion that, well, if it’s all samsara [illusion; suffering; confusion] anyway, why bother? On the contrary, mindfulness practice does not secure impunity from activism—rather, deepening awareness and widening compassion impart a simple injunction to act.
Therefore, I find it all the more disturbing when we contemplatives (Buddhist or not) skip out on eco-responsibility, since I tend to hold our “mindful” crowd to a higher standard of awareness and caring. For how can we possibly claim to be leading a mindful life if we don’t take that off the cushion into how we interact with the world around us?
When I assess a new spiritual teacher, then, environmental responsibility is definitely on the rubric. And while I’ll still gladly learn from someone who doesn’t say, compost, I do think caring for our home, our earth is a legitimate requirement for a spiritual teacher. Certainly, we don’t learn about our environmental impact on the cushion, but through news outlets, and friends. Mindfulness practice itself does not teach us to be ecologically responsible. But it does train us not to look away when information that wakes us up to our present reality is presented. And when both of these factors—information and concentration—are present, yet people still choose to act irresponsibly, I wonder where to look for hope.
I can’t fathom the fare in Utah will be anything less than conscious. Here’s to hoping.
Jun Po Roshi with Stuart Davis on Sex, God, Rock & Roll:
Ken Wilber discusses seeking enlightenment: