An eight-course meal in Kennin-ji, as an insight into Zen Buddhism.
“It’s so un-Buddhist to be having a fancy Kaiseki,” I thought to myself as the Kimono-clad waitress set plate after plate of food on my tray in 10-minute intervals. We were in Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. This meal seemed never-ending; it felt a tad excessive and I was stuffed by the time the fifth course arrived.
Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course haute cuisine from Kyoto. Its origins can be traced back to the Cha Kaiseki, a meal served in a Japanese tea ceremony. Maruta Jukō – who studied Zen under the monk, Ikkyū – founded the Japanese tea ceremony in the 15th century, and developed it as a spiritual practice. Cha means tea, and Kaiseki means breast stone. The name originated from a time when Zen monks used to eat two meagre meals a day. To curb their hunger pangs, some would place breast stones in their robes. The aristocrats adopted the tea ceremony, and Cha Kaiseki evolved into the lavish Kaiseki we know today.
My shallow, uninformed perception of Buddhism was that it’s about simplicity, austerity, and vegetarianism. But this meal, which contained seafood, contradicted these values. This contradiction piqued my curiosity: Are Zen monks allowed to get married? Do Zen Buddhists have to be vegetarian? I later learned that Zen monks, especially in Japan, don’t have to strictly follow the monastic vinaya – the moral code of conduct for Buddhist monks and nuns.
After all, Ikkyū was an iconolast in Zen Buddhism. He rebelled against the monastic life, wandered the streets, and gave teachings to laymen. He was known to drink in excess, hang out in brothels, and believed that sexual intercourse was a religious right. Above all, he believed in living an ordinary life with mindfulness, and refused to be bound by the rules associated with Buddhism. While his version of Zen died with him, it seemed like we were all practising elements of it whilst dining in Kennin-ji.
The rustic meal came in an elaborate order, starting with an aperitif of a sake shot, and ending with a dessert of grape jelly atop a vanilla cream custard. We enjoyed ocean-fresh sashimi, and a light yet flavourful seafood broth, amongst other dishes in between.
Kennin-ji’s website states that Zen Buddhism imposes on its monks “a strict training system stressing work and mediation.” Even though the chefs who cooked us this meal weren’t monks, Kyo ryori (Kyoto cuisine) showcases the rigour of its craft, grounded in Zen Buddhism. The principles of the Japanese aesthetic values of “wabi-sabi”, which also has its roots in Zen Buddhism, were also present. According to tea master Sasaki Sanmi, and author Taro Gold, wabi represents quiet refinement that celebrates the time and care imparted to an object, while sabi represents the material side of life. The food we ate involved highly sophisticated cooking techniques that brought out the natural flavours of the seasonal ingredients; that was simplicity right there. Every course was beautifully plated on patterned serving dishes and elegantly simple utensils. It goes without saying that the food tasted as good as it looked.
I wasn’t expecting anything less from the Japanese, who are known to take immense pride in everything they do. This pride stems from Bushido (the way of the warrior/the samurai code), which “comprised an ethos of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, single-mindedness.” Bushido – born from Neo-Confucianism and influenced by Zen Buddhism – is deeply embedded into the Japanese identity.
In a paper on Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy, Shigenori Nagatomo states that “Zen cherishes simplicity and straightforwardness in grasping reality and acting on it “here and now””. By savouring the dishes before me, engaging my senses, and focusing on the flavours hitting my tastebuds, I was acting on the here and now. And for two hours, I was fully present in this unique experience that combined two traditional aspects of Kyoto’s culture. I was Zen.