Dharma Doodles, Real Words, And Blueberry Chèvre Salad

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Pre-study session whiteboard doodles. “When we take to the road, we don’t know where we will wind up in the end.” Walking the Buddhist path, the goal is to wind up enlightened. In order to do that, I have to understand where I am now, as this allows me to choose the road that leads from here to there. My life is a constant ping-pong between developing an understanding of what enlightenment means and developing an understanding of myself. I wanna connect the right dots, you know?

Yesterday my friend Katya and I presented a segment of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation in the main hall of the Institute.  Gampopa wrote the text in the eleventh century, and it describes the path to enlightenment in logical, step-by-step detail. Gampopa wrote it based on his own experience of realizing enlightement. Thus, what he described was not an abstract philosophical treatise, but something more along the lines of his field notes. “Go left at Bodhi tree to find spiritual master. Pause for homage to Three Jewels.”

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I, as it happens, have not attained enlightenment. Presenting this text put me face-to-face with my actual experience of the world in relation to the experience I aspire to embody. I can say the words. I did my best to say them clearly and with a touch of humor to keep things lively. I can grasp that old age is painful and death is frightening. I can even cogitate that we will all experience these difficulties and thus, we are all in this together. Better to care for each other than go it alone, in other words. But I don’t know it in my bones, not really.

You want to know what surprised me the most about presenting a teaching for which I have the utmost respect and which I feel ill-prepared to truly transmit? Rather than dragging me down, the enormity of the gulf between my understanding and my aspiration became an anchor. Crossing this gap is why I am here. If I want to get where I am going, I have to start somewhere. And the only place I can start is where I am. So here we go.

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I’ll choke on a French word or two, talk a little too fast, and my answer to most questions will be that I don’t know, because I don’t, and that’s perfect.

In the meantime, people keep having birthdays, so I highly recommend this pineapple upside-down cake from Epicurious. And for my birthday, some one gave me organic dried blueberries, which turned into a Perigord-inspired (minus the duck confit, but I guess you could add that if you had the fancy) salad of endive, walnut, aged goat cheese, fresh pear and dried blueberries. Tossed with walnut oil, lemon juice, and a smattering of fresh parsley, it proves both that I live in an awesome region and that I am capable of making food other than cake. I encourage you to give it a go. If you also live in a place where you can find local walnuts and goat cheese, A+.

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Anticipation And Spring Blossom Panna Cotta

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I am sitting at my desk in the office, tapping away in the ever-too-few minutes before dinnertime. Dinnertime here is a fixed affair. If you don’t show up to the dining hall between seven-thirty and eight in the evening you’re out of luck, your soup and salad and quiche or other go to some hungry Jack on the prowl for leftovers and, what’s more, you get a light slap on the wrist for missing a meal you signed up for. Thus, this time is precious, as it is limited. Whatever activity I choose to engage in must be done in twenty-six minutes. I can stretch it to forty-six if I don’t mind dirty looks or guilt-inducing jokes from the kitchen crew for showing up at the last minute.

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Not that I mind, just that I’m conscious and try to be conscientious of the fact. Which isn’t easy on a day like today, when my brain jangles with ideas edging their way hurriedly toward the exit, but my fingers can’t type fast enough and the thoughts seem to risk disappearing out my ears or back into the vortex of dark matter that is my cerebral functioning or intangible mind or whatever you prefer according to your tradition.

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Apparently, sudden doses of concentrated sunshine makes me slightly high, if we take this rush of thoughts and words to be the effect of springtime. Could also be that I just got handed the schedule of events for this summer, and the anticipation of future activity revs my excitement-ometer far beyond its recent norm.

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Last week I wrote about sadness and hardship and an ineffable vision of pain. I also made a remark about how joy seems to be deeply entwined with future happiness. Now, I’m noticing some nuances. The levity I feel today comes both from this and from the simple fact of being occupied. My thoughts have things to do other than observe the parts of themselves that are rooted in fear and doubt, which is what they seem to do when they lack distraction. Also, my vision of the future is tied to meaningful work. Summer means lots of visiting teachers, lots of coordination and big, fancy meals and content people with sated appetites and tickled palates. Summer means using the random assortment of talents and skills I’ve got in this life for the easily-observable benefit of others. Summer means affirmation.

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It also means working like a crazy person until I fall on my face, come Semptember–in a caffeine-and-possibly-sugar-induced stupor and the waves of befuddled loss that accompany too much free time after having none at all. Interesting fact about vision, at least at the level at which I’ve got it: seeing what happens inside of me doesn’t change what happens. At least not very fast. Understanding the source of my anguish, when it arises, doesn’t make it go away. Realizing the temporal nature of my anticipation doesn’t make it any less consuming. But perhaps it does give me a bit more patience with the ups and downs and ins and outs.

And this is a worthwhile affair. Because whether I’m overwhelmed with anguish or carried away by joy, there are things to be done in this life. And it is useful to be capable of action, regardless—no, not regardless—with great regard and kindness for the storm inside.

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In the meantime, it is springtime, and impermanence is showing its finer features in a sudden flurry of fleeting floral display. Possibly too much alliteration; I apologize. In any case, as a cook, springtime means to me short windows of awesome flavor potential. Trees that have edible fruit also have edible flowers, and many that don’t have edible fruit also have edible flowers (but in this case it’s best to ask some one who’s very well informed). Springtime flowers taste at once familiar and unexpected. We’re all used to vanilla, which is, at its base, a floral flavor, and many of us have also come to know orange blossom, lavender, rose, and others that have recently become popular. So why not walk out your front door and try the neighborhood special?

My favorite way to capture a clean flavor in a dessert without it getting lost in a bunch of caramelized sugar/flour/cake madness, is in a cream. Panna cotta is the simplest, purest way I’ve found, and it’s also ridiculously easy to make. I used the flowers of an ornamental Prunus variety, a close relative of almond and apricot trees. The flavor is lightly astringent and well…flowery. Basically, find a flower that smells great and comes from a plant that produces other things you can eat. Be bold; have fun; it’s springtime.

(Four minutes to get to dinner and hopefully not too many typos!)

Recipe…

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