AsiaViews, Edition: 37/VII/December2010
If going green is becoming part of the modern day conscience, then a dhamma retreat is not just a religious practice.
Recently, I noticed friends of mine were attending spiritual retreats _ usually spartan 10-day meditation courses where practitioners are banned from talking to one another, weekend spiritual trips at a resort by the sea or dhamma talks given by Tibetan gurus.
I decided to join them and give my soul a cleansing by joining a spiritual retreat at a resort in Nakhon Nayok province in October. The spiritual guru for the first dhamma retreat of my life was the famous Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has been living in exile in France due to his opposition to the Vietnam War angering the North Vietnamese government in the 1970s.
Called "Thay" by his devotees, the monk, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King in 1967, was visiting Thailand for the second time to promote Zen Buddhism _ the applied Buddhist canon that focuses on attaining nirvana in everyday life by being mindful at every moment. Zen Buddhism is an alien concept for local Buddhists because Thailand is a land of Theravada Buddhism, the conservative Buddhist doctrine that adheres to original Buddhist scripture. It might be out of place to discuss religious beliefs in this column; however, I discovered that Thich Nhat Hanh's style of Zen Buddhism relates to the concept of ecological and environmental conservation.
One example is the act of eating, which we cannot live without.
At this retreat, the act of eating was taken seriously as a vehicle to assist practitioners to reach nirvana at the present moment.
Before every meal, practitioners were asked to sit in silence and reflect before chewing vegetarian food.
Five points of reflection that we were asked to ponder focus on the teaching of Lord Buddha on consumption without greed. In relation to environmental conservation, the first reflection reminds us to think about the source of food and the fourth urges practitioners to consciously consume in a way that does not aggravate climate change or violate the rights of other living beings.
For five days, I spent time _ perhaps for the first time in my life _ looking at the food on my plate.
Instead of gobbling up my meals, I stared blankly at my vegetables, brown rice and tofu that had been cooked very simply, before chewing these foods placidly, like a cow chewing grass.
I did not reach nirvana at the dining table. Worse, I kept thinking of restaurants that I planned to visit after checking out from the course. Being a so-called foodie, I would say that the absence of the kind of food I like to eat was the only aspect I disliked about my first spiritual retreat.
Needless to say, I went to a food shop immediately on coming back to Bangkok, ordering a roast beef sandwich. My stomach craved the taste of meat.
However, I couldn't help imagining the previous life of what was in my sandwich. Certainly, a cow had to be killed. But what was its condition before? Was it allowed to enjoy wide open spaces and fresh air before being rounded up to the slaughterhouse? Or was it incarcerated on a crowded and dirty farm, fed with corn-based feedstock, injected with medicines, like cows in the cattle industry depicted in Food Inc, a must-see documentary that exposes the effects of the food production industry in the US on the environment and health.
Disgusted and losing my appetite, I changed my mind and ordered a vegetarian-style sandwich with avocado and cheese with a French name that I couldn't pronounce. No lives were lost for this sandwich except gallons of fuel that were used to ship the Swiss cheese, avocado and mustard from other continents to Bangkok.
Despite my feelings of guilt, I chewed my sandwich with relish. Bon appetit!
I am the kind of person who would rather search for good noodles than nirvana. Yet Thay's teaching about food reminds me about ecology. Zen Buddhism focuses on the interconnectedness of all beings.
In that respect, food, farmland, farmers, chefs, water, the sun, the food industry, marketing tactics, our demand and the environment are all intertwined. It is not just another meal.
Yet, I still go on culinary excursions with gusto _ enjoying such dishes as Singapore-style chicken rice in Samut Sakhon province where the chef raises and butchers his own fowl. I also enjoy pla thoo (mackerel) at Soei, a highly recommended small eatery at Samsen railway station.
Small mackerel, especially those from Mae Klong's famous fishing pier in Samut Sakhon, are always my preference because the flesh is much sweeter and more tender. Never mind that these fish are caught prematurely to satisfy the tastes of pla thoo lovers like me.
Next stop is Jib Kee, my favorite roast duck shop opposite Nang Loeng Market in Bangkok's Pomprap Sattruphai district. Wood charcoal, a source of carbon emissions and deforestation, is still being used to stew my favorite duck soup. It is the best duck soup I've ever tasted _ good enough to make me forget the warmer planet.
Could Thich Nhat Hanh save my soul? I believe that I am lucky to learn from him. Yet Thay has not been able to save me from my gluttony.
My dilemma remains: Can we cleanse our minds while cleansing the taste of meat, and imported wine, from our palates? Is it possible to plant trees to offset our carbon and kharma footprints?
We have five copies of a book on food, our health and the environment to give away to readers who share their ideas and experience on the impact of eating on the environment. The book is Rok Klome, a Thai translation of The World is Fat by Barry Popkin, which explores the connectedness of the food industry, health and environmental problems. Share your ideas and experiences by emailing
by Jan 30. Write 'The World Is Fat' as the subject.
By: Anchalee Kongrut
Bangkok Post 12 December 2010