An interview with Sandie Sedgbeer of OMTimes. The original was published in May 2019: Venerable Thubten Chodron: The Compassionate Kitchen and the Economy of Generosity.
The compassionate kitchen and the economy of generosity (download)
Introduction to the OMTimes article:
Venerable Thubten Chodron is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, teacher, and the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States. Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives. Her latest book is The Compassionate Kitchen.
Food is undoubtedly one of the greatest pleasures in life. We all spend a good time thinking about it, preparing it, eating it, and then cleaning up afterward, but how many of us have ever thought about the many activities associated with food as a spiritual practice?
What if instead of seeing these activities as chores or engaging in them purely for pleasure, we could use them to increase our kindness and care and as reminders of how we wish to live out the values that bring meaning to our lives?
The Venerable Thubten Chodron has been a Buddhist nun since 1977. She has been a close student of the Dalai Lama with whom she’s co-authored several books. She is also founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries for Western monks and nuns in America.
Known for her warm, practical, and humorous explanations of how to apply Buddhist teachings in daily life, Venerable Chodron joins us today to talk about her latest book, The Compassionate Kitchen, in which she shares some of the practices from the Buddhist tradition that help us make eating become part of our daily spiritual practice. Venerable Thubten Chodron, welcome to What is Going OM.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Now, you were born in Chicago, and you grew up near Los Angeles. You graduated with a B.A. in history from the University of California, and after traveling through Europe, North Africa, and Asia for 18 months, you received a teaching credential, after which the University of Southern California to do post-graduate work in education.
You also worked as an elementary teacher at the same time in the Los Angeles city school system, and then in 1975, you attended a meditation course, after which you went to Nepal to study and practice the Buddhist teachings. What did you find in Buddhism that took you away from your Los Angeles teaching career to become an ordained Buddhist nun?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Well, I was looking very much for meaning in my life, some long-term meaning, and I was asking a lot of questions about this. I thought meaning had something to do with helping other people, so that’s why I went into education, but then when I went to a meditation course in the certification and encountered Buddhism, it really made sense to me.
The teachers encouraged us to think about what they said, to test it out with logic and reasoning and see if it made sense and also to test it through, the meditation practice and seeing if that helped us.
So, I did both of that. Looking at it through reasoning and also doing the practice, I found it really made sense, and it helped me quite a bit. So, I wanted to learn more. I had a very strong feeling that if I didn’t learn more about Buddhism that at the end of my life, I would have a deep regret.
So, I quit my job, and I went to Nepal and India, where these teachers were because it was very difficult to encounter Buddhist teachings in English in the US at that time. So, I went back to Asia and spent time in the Tibetan community.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Had you had any religious upbringing, particularly?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yeah, my family was Jewish. It wasn’t very religious; I had a spiritual upbringing. But it didn’t really make sense to me. So, I realized a lot of the ideas about a Creator God, they make sense to other people. They help other people, but it just didn’t resonate with me.
However, I am very appreciative to my Jewish upbringing for teaching me good, ethical conduct and also the concept in Judaism of Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, to heal the world, and so, that already had in me the ideas of love and compassion and service. When I encountered Buddhism, it just really took off and showed me how to develop those qualities in a very practical way.
Sandie Sedgbeer: When you left America for Nepal, did you have any idea at that point that you may one day become Buddhist nun, or were you just following your heart and seeing where it led?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Actually, after encountering Buddhist teachings, I knew rather quickly that I wanted to ordain, which is very surprising, and now, when I meet people who have a bad experience, I’m a little bit skeptical, well, why so soon do you want to ordain?
But with me, it’s like I knew; I went to Asia. And after living there for a while in the monastery, then I requested my teacher for ordination.
Sandie Sedgbeer: You studied and trained all over the world. Practicing Buddhism in India and Nepal under the guidance of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, and other Tibetan masters. You directed a spiritual program in Italy for two years, studied at the monastery in France.
Was a resident teacher at a Buddhist center in Singapore, and you spent 10 years as a resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle. You’re on the of the first generation of bhikkhunis who brought the Bodhadharma back to the USA. Tell me first, what is the Boddhadharma?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: The Buddhadharma refers to the Buddhist teachings, yeah, the Buddhist doctrine. That’s the meaning of the word.
Sandie Sedgbeer: You then went home to establish, the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries for Western monks and nuns in America. What inspired that decision? Did you just wake up one morning and think, I’ll start a monastery, or was it a long thought-out process?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Well, when I first went to Nepal, I was living at a monastery, I liked very much living in the community. Of course, it has its challenges, but the Buddha set it up so that we lived together, a live-in community, because that way you have a lot of support from your environment and from the people around you.Being one of the first generations of Tibetan monks and nuns, Westerners, in tradition, we didn’t have any monasteries. There were Dharma centers, but the Dharma centers were geared towards the lay people and not towards the monastic way of life. So, I always had this feeling, I just want to live in a monastic environment so that we can really practice according to our precepts. I lived alone, and–but all the time in my heart, I really wanted to start a community, we need this for the Buddhadharma to spread and prosper in the West. So, that was kind of the inspiration to start a monastery.
If people had told me when I was 20 that I would be a nun and that I would start a monastery, I would’ve told them they were out of their mind, but our life often turns out to be very different than we had initially thought.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Absolutely. So, what were the challenges that you had to face? How were you going to support it?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: That was exactly what I went through because there was no big organization behind me. It was relatively easy to support me, but starting a monastery, entailed a property. So, there was some money that I had saved up from offerings that I had received. When we found a property, which was gorgeous; the owner offered to carry the mortgage for us, then I used that bit of savings and then just put out the word to other people, that this is what we’re doing.
If they would like to join, in supporting it, and miraculously, we were able to get the property and then pay off the mortgage. I think, due to the kindness of other people and the enthusiasm of other people because they had encountered the Buddhist teachings. They had found the teachings useful in their life, and they wanted to help start a monastery.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Reading your book, The Compassionate Kitchen, found HERE on Amazon, which I found interesting and enlightening, it seems to come across to me that you’re the kind of person who really likes a challenge. You pushed yourself all the way through to do things that perhaps are not expected.
I can imagine that you just trotted out, a very nice, neat explanation of how you came to find the abbey, but I’m sure it wasn’t that simple. It was such an intimidating undertaking must’ve had it some glitches.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yes, it did.
Sandie Sedgbeer: But even when you got the abbey, you then decided that you would challenge yourself even further by setting a goal that you were not going to purchase any food for yourselves but instead would be reliant on the generosity and offerings of others.
You tell in the book the story of the origin of the alms round or pindapata, where the monks would stand silently in front of a house with their alms bowl and await offerings, but tell us a little bit about that and why you decided to implement that at the abbey?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: When Buddhism began in ancient India, there had already been a culture of wandering mendicants, spiritual people, who went, who, when it was mealtime, went into the city with their bowls and people would support him.
This is part of Indian culture and Indian traditions. So, the Buddhist disciples did the same thing, and there are a few reasons behind doing this.
First, it makes you very, very grateful to other people, and you don’t take your food for granted. You really appreciate that people are giving you food, that they are keeping you alive by the goodness of their heart because they go to work every day and work hard to get the money or get the food, and then, they’re sharing it with you.
It really helps your spiritual practice because you realize that you have a responsibility to practice well, to repay the kindness that you’re receiving.
The second reason was to cultivate satisfaction or contentment because you eat just what people to give you. So, you don’t go and say, oh, you’re giving me rice. I don’t want rice. I want noodles, or you’re giving me that? It cuts out the pickiness and challenges us to be content with whatever people give.
So, you can see, because I had lived alone for a while, and had to go to the store to buy food, then, of course, I could get things I like and go to the store whenever I wanted. But none of that was good for my Dharma practice. So, in starting the monastery, I really wanted to go back to the idea that the Buddha had for his community.
And although we, it’s a little bit difficult in the US to go on pindapata, to walk with your alms bowl in town–we have some friends in California who did that. So, I thought the best way to do it would be, just to say that we’ll only eat the food that people offer us. We won’t go out and buy our own food, and so, when I set the monastery up like this, people told me, you are crazy.
We were not in the middle of the town. They said you will starve to death. People will not bring you food. And I said, well, let’s just try it and see what happens. when I arrived here to move in, people had already filled the refrigerator. There was only one time when we had finished the food in the refrigerator, but there was still some canned food. That was the lowest we ever got. Ever since the beginning, we haven’t starved at all.
We don’t charge for the retreats. We depend on the food people bring to see not only the community but all the people who come here to study and meditate with us. They come, and they offer it. I think being generous makes people’s minds happy, and so, doing it this way, people are generous to us. That enables us to be generous in return. So, we give all the teachings free of charge. It is the economy of generosity.
Sandie Sedgbeer: So, in The Compassionate Kitchen, you talk about intention being the most important aspect of any action and how this relates to our motivation for eating. Can you expand on that for us?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: In Buddhist practice, our intention, our motivation, is what really determines the value of the action that we do. Okay, so, it’s not how we look to others and whether others praise us or blame us. We all know how to act phony and pull the wool over people’s eyes and make them think we’re better than we are, but in Buddhist practice, doing that is not a spiritual practice. Our spiritual development does not depend on people praising us.
It depends on our motivation, our intention. Why are we doing what we do? With this fast-moving world and with our senses always directed outwards towards, the things and people in our environment, we so often don’t really checkup, why am I doing what I’m doing. Generally, we just act on impulse.
So, in spiritual practice, it kind of slows you down, and you have to really think, why am I doing what I’m doing, and so, in terms of eating, we have in the book the five contemplations that we do before we eat. It really helps us set our intention for why we’re eating and the purpose of eating. Then having accepted the food, what our job is to repay the kindness of the people who offered it.
Sandie Sedgbeer: There’s been an explosion of late in interesting cook, in food preparation, in food competitions, food TV programs in the technology of food. Many regards preparing food as a meditative practice, but the motivation, I’m not sure that the motivation, the intention, is the same intention as we’re talking about in The Compassionate Kitchen.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yeah. I don’t know other people’s intentions, but I do know that it could be very easy to have the intention of producing something pleasurable, who knows?
But let me just tell you about the five contemplations that we think about before we eat because this really sets the stage for the motivation.
So, the first thing we recite together is “I contemplate all the causes and conditions and the kindness of others, by which I have received this food.”
It is thinking about the causes and conditions of the food, the farmers, the people who transported the food, the people who prepared it, and what we did in our lives to be able to receive the food.
Then to contemplate the kindness of others, to really see, people are going to work every day. They work hard. It’s difficult in modern society, and then out of the goodness of their heart, they share their food with us. So, to really think about that before we eat.
The second one is, “I contemplate my own practice, constantly trying to improve it.”
So, this is really seeing our responsibility, to look at our own spiritual practice and then to try and improve it, to better it as a way of repaying the kindness of other people.
In other words, not just taking food for granted, not just thinking, well, it’s lunchtime.
It’s taking our mind away from all that grasping and self-centered attitude.
The third contemplation is, “I contemplate my mind, cautiously guarding it against wrongdoing, greed, and other defilements.” So, when we’re eating, to eat mindfully, to eat tentatively, to keep our mind free from wrongdoing and greed and other defilements, so, the mind that is always saying, I like this. I don’t like that. There’s not enough protein. There are too many carbs.
The mind is constantly dissatisfied. And so, determining before we eat, we’re not going to give way to that kind of mind, and we’re going to stay in a mind of cultivating contentment with what we have and of appreciation and gratitude.
The fourth contemplation is, “I contemplate this food, treating it as wondrous medicine to nourish my body.”
Okay, so, instead of seeing the food as, oh, this is good stuff. I’m going to, inhale it and get it into my stomach as soon as possible. We see it as medicine, and it nourishes our body and to really feel how what we eat affects our body.
I read The New York Times, and there was an article entitled, “Does What We Eat Affect Our Body,” and I thought, oh my goodness, they have to ask that question. It’s so clear that it does, and what we eat affects our feelings too. If we don’t eat a balanced diet, our body gets out of whack. So, if we eat a lot of sugar, then we get the sugar highs and the sugar lows. So, it’s very clear that the food really is like medicine to us, and it affects our mental state and our spiritual state.
The last reflection is, “I contemplate the aim of Buddhahood, accepting and consuming this food to accomplish it.” And so, seeing that the causes and conditions for receiving the food, and making a determination to keep our mind in a good state while we eat and seeing the food as medicine.
I have this responsibility to do my practice, and I’m aiming for complete awakening or Buddhahood. And so, I accept this food to sustain my body and mind so that I can accomplish the spiritual path. I’m meditating and practicing the spiritual path so I can be of the greatest benefit to other living beings.
So, our practice is not just for ourselves. It’s really to improve our self, gain new qualities so that we can really be of increased benefit to other living beings.
Sandie Sedgbeer: You also say that many aspects of this apply to family life as well. Tell me about how we could introduce our children to mindful eating, how could we develop this as a practice at home.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Those five contemplations that I did, I think those are very suitable for a family to do. What an incredible way, if you have children, to get children thinking about the causes of the food, where their food came from, and all the people that were involved in growing and transporting and making the food. So, to really get them to think about the whole process of growing and producing food and learn about the lives of people who do that. I think that’s a good thing for kids.
So, getting the kids involved in–in preparing the food, and I think that’s a great thing for kids, because then, when they go out on their own, in their teen years or early 20s, then they know how to take care of themselves and, cook food themselves.
It’s important for families to sit down and have time to talk together every day, and dinner time is a good time to do it. We’re a family, and we share the day. And so, sitting down to eat and, taking the time to really talk to your kids. I know one family that goes around, and in the evening when they eat dinner, they each say something that they learned that day, including the parents,
So, that everybody is sharing how they’re growing on a day-to-day basis, and so, taking the time to have these kinds of conversations about what you’re feeling, how–what you are seeing and experiencing and what that means to you as a human being, even, what you hear in the daily news and how that’s affecting you and, to communicate with your family members about that.
It’s a wonderful kind of thing to do, starting when the kids are little and, growing through teenage years because that way when you do that, you’re able to teach your kids values. If you don’t have time to listen to your kids and what’s going on in their lives, then there’s no time to discuss how do you handle difficult situations, or what do you think about when somebody does this or when this is going on in the world.
Sandie Sedgbeer: What’s the reaction that you’re receiving to this book, which, is probably different but maybe not so far removed from what you share in your other books, in terms of philosophies?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yeah, the reaction’s been good. the people have been very interested in it, the publisher especially. I was a little bit surprised actually how interested the publisher was in this book because they really promoted it. So, they see something, that is a need in society that the book fulfills. So, we’ve had a very good response to this.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Yes. So, let’s talk about some of the other things that the abbey does and other resources that you offer to people. I mean, you’ve done a lot of work in the community. You’ve done work in prisons. You’ve done work with homeless teenagers, etc. Tell us about some of the outreach that you do in the community.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Part of our philosophy is, to cultivate loving kindness and compassion in our hearts but then also to show them, and to be of service to society.
So, for example with the prison work, I never intended and again, another thing I never intended to do, but one day, I got a letter from somebody in federal prison in Ohio, asking, for Buddhist resources and having questions about Buddhism. So, we started corresponding, and I didn’t think twice about answering his letter. There wasn’t a thing of, oh no, there’s a prisoner who’s writing me, ahh, it’s dangerous.
There wasn’t that thought because I’ve taken precepts to, when people ask for help, to do whatever I can do to be of service to them. So, I thought, yeah, I can send this guy some books.
I can answer his questions, and then, he began to tell other people that he knew in prison.
And the word kind of spread, and then, other prison groups contacted us. And then, soon, it just developed organically, and now, we correspond with over a thousand inmates in our database. We send them books. We send them materials. We do a retreat every year that we invite them to join, even though they’re meditating in prison, and I go and do talks in prisons, prison visits, and other people in the abbey do.
It’s a program that just developed very naturally, and it’s so rewarding because these are people that society has thrown away. They just say, they’re worthless, and that’s not true at all, these people have talents. They have interests. They have feelings, and through our work, we can really see some of the people change and develop, to think about their lives, to think about what is valuable.
There’s a lot of discussions now in the press about prison reform, and I really see the value in this because by talking to guys who are living in prison, I’ve really come to see what the system is like and how much it needs improvement.
With the work with the homeless teens, somebody in the local community came to talk to us one day about, they were doing work with homeless teens, and we just said, wow, we want to help because I know, as a teenager myself, I was quite confused. I can’t imagine not having a stable living situation as a kid, especially because of your body’s changing, your mind is confused.
So, we wanted to help with that and, help provide services to the kids.
We get a lot of requests from different places in the community. When hospitals are having an in-service about helping the dying, they often ask us to come to present the Buddhist viewpoint on death and dying and how to help the dying.
We get requests and last night, I was at a synagogue. They had a, as part of their youth group, where they want the kids to learn about different religions. I was invited to come and speak. We have all sorts of people in the community calling and asking us to come to speak and to share ideas.
Sandie Sedgbeer: You have an online education program. You also have thousands of teachings on YouTube, and you’re very active on social media. You have two websites full of Dharma materials. Again, all of this freely offered.
How are you supported? I mean, when you go out, and you do talks, do people make donations? Do you get paid for the work, the lectures, etc., because there must be something coming in to support the expense?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yeah, for sure. But we do everything free of charge. It’s like I said, we want to live a life of generosity, and people reciprocate. So, when people, invite one of us, to go and teach, they cover the transportation cost. They make all the arrangements, and then, they usually give a donation. We don’t stipulate the amount of the donation. Again, it’s this thing of whatever people want to give, we accept with gratitude.
I think when you live your life like this, then people reciprocate and, at the very beginning when we first moved into the abbey, the original residents were two cats and me. And I remember sitting here as you said at the beginning of the interview. I was sitting here and wondering how in the world are we going to pay off this mortgage because I ordained when I was 26–I had never owned a house or a car. In short, everything is by donation basis.
Sandie Sedgbeer: There is a wonderful saying, virtue is its own reward, and clearly, what you’re giving out to the world, you’re getting back, and being supported, it becomes this beautiful flow, doesn’t it? You give, and others give in return. And that allows you to give more.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Exactly.
Sandie Sedgbeer: You talk about ethical behavior and that we cannot separate the way the government operates and ethical behavior. This, of course, applies to all governments.
What we’re witnessing today in so many countries and cultures falls way, way short of being ethical. How do Buddhists respond to that? How do we, as individuals, cope with that, and what could we personally do to change it?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Whoa, yeah. I think about this a lot. I think the first thing we need to do is as individuals get our own ethical conduct in shape because accusing people in the government of doing things that we do, that’s quite hypocritical. So, to really work on our own ethical conduct, then when we see things that are not fair, that are not just, to speak up, to say something.
It’s really our responsibility as citizens I think to speak up when the government is doing harmful things or when companies are doing harmful things. When they’re putting out products that are not tested well enough, or, in the case of the opioid crisis, advertising things that they know are addictive, to doctors and to consumers.
So, I think it’s important that we speak up about these kinds of things in the press and to, put pressure on companies. We live in this world, and we need to take care of it. And we need to take care of each other because if we don’t take care of each other, then we’re going to live in a world with a lot of unhappy people, and when other people are unhappy, they’re going to make our lives miserable.
So, the Dalai Lama says, if you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish and take care of others because if we care for others, we’re going to be a lot happier ourselves. But of course, we also want to care for others because they’re living beings and, just like us, want happiness and don’t want to suffer.
Sandie Sedgbeer: Thank you for this enlightened Interview.