Shojin Ryori: Just Stir the Pot.
In Japanese Buddhism, Shojin is a word used to denote elevation of the soul through intense focus on a single task.
It’s most often used to describe the ritualized cooking of vegetarian meals in Buddhist temples, known as Shojin Ryori.
During the preparation of Shojin Ryori cuisine, monks go to the market and greet their vegetables. First, they smell each one individually. Then they use their fingers to massage the plant, and investigate its texture. After that, they return home and slowly chop each one by hand. Nothing is wasted.
The use of machines (including refrigerators) is frowned upon in Shojin Ryori, so cooks buy only as much as they need for a meal, and utilize every part of the plant.
They spend hours grinding spices with a pestle and mortar. And then they create a dish which carefully balances the colors, textures, and flavor profiles of every ingredient. The end result is that the mundane task of cooking vegetables is turned into a work of art. But more than that, it becomes a lesson in how beautiful life can be when we put our whole heart into the present moment.
“Just stir the pot,” the Shojin teacher says. “Just chop the vegetables. Just serve the food. Do it over and over again. Do it until your mind explodes. Do it until the training takes away every hope, dream, and desire that you have. Do it until you realize that ‘this’ is all you have in life. And then learn to cherish this — whatever it might be.
Cherish the pot, cherish the vegetables, cherish the long commute, and the annoying relatives. Cherish your boring, everyday life, and appreciate how lucky you are to have it.”
This is an important lesson for anyone who chooses to walk the Buddhist path. It’s tempting to think that our ordinary lives are a hindrance to spiritual practice, that any time not spent meditating is a waste. But what is Buddhism if not training in how to live our normal lives wholeheartedly?
What is meditation if not the stripping away of every trick, technique, and piece of technology that we use to escape this present moment?
That being said, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that living in the moment is preparation for something else. We wait with bated breath for the lesson that will be revealed by washing dishes. We watch sunsets in the hope that we’ll feel something special. In short, we think that if we can learn to be ordinary enough, then something extraordinary will happen.
But if Shojin teaches us anything, it’s that washing dishes is the lesson, and the sunset is already special. But we don’t realize that because we’re not paying attention. We’re so wrapped up in our search for something better that we miss out on the perfection of the here and now.
That’s why the Buddhist practice of Shojin Ryori is so powerful. It strips away any hint of glamour or mystique that could be attached to spiritual practice.
The monks use plain rice and ordinary vegetables in their cooking. They prepare food using age-old techniques that require countless hours of chopping vegetables and grinding spices. They stand over hot stoves, and pay attention to the minutest details in their food presentation (color, texture, symmetry, etc.) until their intense devotion to the ordinary task of cooking bears extraordinary and tasty food.
In this way, Shojin Ryori practitioners are able to turn vegetarian cooking into a pathway towards awakening. And we can do the same by simply living every day with a full heart. When we practice Shojin, we go to work, we pay our bills, we cook our food, and enlightenment takes care of itself.
Alex Chong Do Thompson is a former Marine who now earns his living as a Business Analyst. He splits his free time between social justice work, cycling, and deepening his meditation practice. Alex has been a Zen practitioner since 2013, and he is training to become a lay minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. You can read more of his writing by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen.