The Cold Season And A Black Sesame Caramel Tart

IMG_2518

The frost is on the leaves, the leaves are on the ground, and bare branches begin to pierce the clear, cold sky. I saw my first French chickadee this morning. They’re fatter than the chickadees I have known in Arizona mountains and New England woodlands. It must be all the cheese. 😉

Oh wait, it’s just me that dosing on delicious French dairy these days. If you live near a decent cheese shop, go ask for roquefort, morbier, and tomme catalan straightaway. Eat the roquefort with golden delicious apples, the morbier with grilled mushrooms, and the tomme catalan with quince jelly and toasted almonds.

IMG_2498

I’m a bit giddy and heady these days. Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah, by the way, to all the other Americans and Jews out there. In lieu of celebrating proper Thanksgiving today, I’m commemorating my own favorite version of the holiday this weekend: Friendsgiving! It’s Thanksgiving with your friends, when you want, how you want, in whatever country you want, and one step further removed from the massacre of America’s indigenous people that Thanksgiving so handily sweeps under the rug. Hehe.

And then I am heading into a week of retreat at Kundreul Ling, the monastic sister center of the Buddhist center where I live. And then I’m heading to Bordeaux to get my visa properly validated. And then to Paris to visit my French family, the incredible people who put up with me when I was a headstrong, naive teenager (now I’m a headstrong, moderately-less naive young adult…it makes all the difference). And then to Cal-i-for-nigh-ay to visit my actual family.

For all my heartache and sadness and frustration, I am very, very happy to get to see my family. My faaaamily. My fambly. The folks who hold my heart close to their own, who have done so as long as I’ve been present in this world. The folks who know what I like to eat on Christmas morning, what the feel of sand under my toes does for me on blue days, what color shoes to get (and not to get) me for Christmas. Who know to look for good museum shows when I’m in town, to plan our schedules around the restaurants we want to try, and to not hesitate to invite me to this year’s super cheesy, hilarious kids Christmas movie (but only if it’s animated).

IMG_2520

When the weather gets cold and the air smells like ice, I start to think of things like hearth fires and the scent of cinnamon. These things are awesome, but they are also mostly cultural proxies drilled into me by American holiday culture. What all that actually stands for is the comfort of home, wherever that may be.

I am lucky to have and have known many loving homes in this life. Home is the invisible ties to the people who color my life. It is profound love expressed through the everyday. Cinnamon is cozy and I’m as much a sucker for that as every other American, but actually, the taste of black sesame renders me much more nostalgic. Not homesick but home-well, heart-happy, for memories of basement Chinese restaurants, my mom’s favorite brittle candy, sharing chocolate halvah with my dad, and not wanting to say the word “furikake” (my favorite condiment on earth; comprised of salt, sugar, seaweed, and sesame) at four years old because it sounded too much like “kaka.” Oh yes, I was refined as a toddler.

IMG_2499

Enough years in the woods has worn down my modesty for bodily-functions, but I try to keep my culinary tastes at least a little refined. Though I can’t deny having a serious weakness for snack food; in France we have these peanut flavored corn puffs that are basically like peanut-butter flavored Cheetos, which sounds weird, but is actually delicious and addictive. Ahem, anyway, all that to say that, unlike my strange ramblings today, the recipe that follows is reliable, sophisticated, and complex. It’s a bit of East-meets-West, which I guess I am too, with Oriental flavors of black sesame and orange flower meeting classic French caramel and flaky pastry crust. While the feeling of home this tart brings about may be particular to me, its deliciousness expresses love under any roof.

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

Emptiness and Interdependence

This is home now. Not like any home I have known before, and yet only a week has passed, and I find myself at ease here.

IMG_0342

Welcome to KIBI. This is the gompa, or the temple building. It’s also where we have class, and it houses the library, student lounge, dining hall and living space for important people. The rest of us live in dorms that ring the gompa and surrounding courtyard. The compound and structures are built in the style of a Tibetan monastery, which is what they are. In addition to the forty ragtag Westerners here for the course, there are about twenty monks living at KIBI. I’ve met a few of them, and am becoming friends with a couple, but I must admit, I am a little shy of them, and they, I think, a little shy of us. Our lives and histories are vastly different, and our language too, which is perhaps the defining barrier. But slowly, slowly, we exchange smiles and good mornings, and there is the comfortable comradeship that comes from knowing you are in pursuit of the same good.

And as for that good, what a pursuit it is. Classes started on Monday. There are three classes a day, which focus on different topics depending on the day. Essentially we are studying two main teachings plus the foundations of meditation. The teachings are called Madhyamika and Abhidharma, and I don’t recommend trying to figure them out on your own. Here is a teeny bit of explanation based on my own understanding, which is a student’s view and not necessarily correct, but all these things are muddling about in my mind and it helps to write them out. If you find this stuff interesting, I recommend finding a Buddhist teacher who comes from a traditional lineage and can explain it properly to you. They are around, surprisingly enough, and not hard to find via the great internetz.

Anyway, here goes:

Madhyamika focuses on the emptiness of phenomena, that what we perceive is based on concepts we apply rather than any intrinsic nature to objects and experiences. Simple right? But think about emptiness long enough and your head will start to spin and the floor will drop out from beneath you, which is the point, I think. All of your ideas about the world become ungrounded in the face of emptiness, which, in the long run, makes us flexible, and in the really long run, makes us enlightened, but which, in the short run, mostly makes us dizzy. Makes me dizzy, anyway, and that was the general consensus over dinner last night, hehe.

Abhidharma focuses on what is translated into English as “dependent origination,” which is immensely complicated but which I often think of as the way that our sense of self arises in conjunction with our perception of external phenomena. The thing about dependent origination is that it applies not just to self but to everything. It is the idea that causes and effects exist entirely interdependently; there is no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause, but they don’t appear one and then the other. They come about simultaneously. The moment the correct conditions come together, they are the cause, which in that same moment manifests the effect, without any time lapse. Fine, makes sense. But there are so many causes and conditions in the world, and they are all intertwined, so it’s very hard to know what leads to what. The study and practice of how this all works gives us some ability to distinguish causes and effects, which is important because then we can engage in positive actions that will have positive effects, i.e. benefit ourselves and others and help us to experience less unnecessary suffering. Sounds good to me.

That’s the word these days. Love to all. Also, words are getting emphasis over pictures because pictures take bandwidth, which is scarce in India. But there was plenty of great travel-writing before photoblogging, so hopefully I can live up to that tradition a bit. I’ll try to supply imagery when I can.