February 1, 2012

Kitchen Sink Dharma: Foundation. ~ Rick Gilbert

sea turtle

Kitchen Sink Dharma Part II: Laying the Foundation.

Some schools of Buddhism introduce beginners to “shamatha” meditation.

Shamatha is roughly translated as “residing in peace.”  It’s sitting meditation, with an upright posture of “good head and shoulders.”

Shamatha instructs practitioners to place gentle attention on a particular object when discursive thoughts threaten to crowd out a general sense of being present in the moment.  Often, the object of light focus is the breath.

Training the mind this way, over and over again, gives the mind flexibility and allows a practitioner the ability to see through the fog of discursive thoughts and prevent the tendency to get lost in them.

Contrary to what many think, it’s not the “goal” of shamatha to eliminate thinking or to push away the thought process. It’s more of a process of restoring balance: recognition of the power and color of thinking, while working from a ground of always coming back.

Without this foundation, the more “exotic” Buddhist practices are at best little more than pretty window dressing.  Worse, they can become further reinforcement for the ego, because the structure of one’s practice is built upon discursive thought and not on the stable platform of egolessness that shamatha promotes.

The concept of “mise en place” is the shamatha of cooking.  Don’t let the fancy-parts French phrasing fool you.  It simply means “putting in place.”

It is very much tied into clearing the space of one’s kitchen.  A cluttered countertop makes it very difficult to set up good mise en place.  It can often mean prep cooking.  Chopping vegetables, grinding spices, measuring liquids, putting ingredients into manageable and easy to reach containers—these are a few components.  It’s basic organization of ingredients, done ahead of composing a meal.

Rick Gilbert

Mise en place operates on a variety of levels.

Traditionally, the term applies to professional kitchens and cooks and their work stations.  They have all the ingredients for various dishes at hand and ready to go to facilitate the creation and distribution of the imposing number of meals on a given shift.

Mise en place at home may not be the difference in keeping or losing your job as the home cook, but it’s still a very important place to come back to, again and again.

Think about it:  in your home kitchen, not only do you have discursive thoughts; you may also have two kids with gaming systems, or an episode of “Jeopardy!” on television to contend with.  Think of it as an island of sanity.

For me, with a busy house with a working spouse and two children, Sundays scream out for getting my mise en place up and running for the coming week.

I’m not always successful, but my week of cooking is always less stressful when I’ve done some prep.

Some good tools to have on hand in your fridge come Monday morning:  a good homemade stock, both for the week and some left over to freeze; a good homemade marinara (again, to use that week and freeze for later); easy vinegar pickles for snacking and to add a brace of acidity to dishes; basically, any food element that stands up to refrigerator storage or freezes without loss of quality is a good candidate for Sunday prep.

There are layers of mise en place, much as there are stages of shamatha.

For something like a stock, you set up your ingredients cleanly and carefully to put the stock together.  This is often the traditional way the concept is defined.  Then, once the stock is made, it becomes a base ingredient for another dish.  I use my stock as a base to make miso soup, for example.  So there’s the mise en place of stock ingredients, done on Sunday afternoon.

During the work week, it becomes a component, together with miso paste (right now I have doenjang, the funkier Korean equivalent), tofu, scallions, and maybe some furikake.  I’m thrilled that my 10-year old son loves the stuff—a small victory!

Rick Gilbert

Mise en place instills some structure in the kitchen, and makes for more relaxed cooking.  It can also make the unavoidable intrusion of life’s demands and distractions into the kitchen seem more manageable. Rather than a hassle before the “real magic” of cooking can happen, it’s an old friend there to support you.

It’s the reference point that grounds you during the creation of dishes that stretch your skills and imagination. Your stainless steel prep bowls can be your cushion in the kitchen!

When you lose your mind, come back.

Edited by Hayley Samuelson.


Rick Gilbert is a married father of two sons, 10 and 6.  He manages a hazardous waste collection program for the public and small businesses in Kitsap County Washington.  Rick’s cooking skills don’t match up to his ambition, but he’s fine with that.  His culinary heroes are David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Jim Harrison and Jonathan Gold.  He’s very fond of Korean food, while knowing very little about it.  Rick is a wayward student of the buddhadharma and really needs to spend more time on the cushion.  Rick also likes SpongeBob Squarepants, King of the Hill, the Washington Redskins, and Arsenal Gunners.  His favorite wineries are Turley and Orin Swift.


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