I was watching a British TV chef, one who doesn’t really inspire me, on his travels through India.
He wanted to speak to the Dalai Lama about food. He believed that the staff were a trifle bemused that he wanted to speak to his holiness about food, just food.
The interviewer knew what he wanted to talk about, about his experience of the importance of food in a religious setting, from the Christian eucharist to the daily meals served at Sikh temples.
But that was not what the Dalai Lama wanted to talk about.
Instead, he spoke of his personal experience with food. He laughed as he talked about when he was a young monk, a time when what he got in his begging bowl was limited; no meat, fish eggs. When he visited his family, though, he sat up like a panting dog as his father ate pork, hoping for a treat. And his mother made him egg, which he scooped right up with joy.
His holiness said that Buddhist monks eat breakfast and lunch, but not dinner. Yet, there are times, he admitted, when he is very hungry, that after a blessing, he will have a little biscuit in the evening. Buddha will understand, he feels.
I was moved. He wasn’t being a religious leader who talked about how holy it was to follow all the strictures of his faith, rather he was talking, even as the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism, about his human relationship with food. He talked about loving it, about how it connected him with his parents, about how the Buddha understands that while we want to be like him, we have to honour our humanity too.
This was his point, that when it comes to food, we get down to what humans share, the essential and nourishing, not just of body. Of course, this is why food is so powerful when we do share it in ritual and tradition, because our relationship with food and the people who feed us is so personal.
The host didn’t quite get that in the midst of His Holiness’ laughter, but it was clear that the Dalai Lama was pleased to speak about something not deliberately spiritual or political, but rather something as human as our need and desire for a good feed. He didn’t lecture, wasn’t holier-than-thou, but rather exposed his humanity with delight, sharing his hunger and satisfaction with all of us.
I have had Buddhists lecture me on the importance of non-attachment, but when His Holiness talks about his desire for nourishment, I feel much more connected, which seemed to be his point. No spiritual bypassing, covering everything with pretty pink paint, for him.
Food connects humans. I know that feeding my parents was always a joy for me, even at times when I wanted to explode from carrying their twists. Food was one of the most important ways I could give them another good day, as was my quest for them.
Last year at this time I was processing cantaloupes into puree to take to the hospital, then making sure my mother’s breakfast was set for when Hospice workers came. My mother liked to imagine her dinner and have it brought to her, but when she was in the hospital, my father liked me to come home and make dinner for both of us, then sit together at the table to eat it and recap the day, sometimes with my sister conferenced in on the speakerphone.
Especially at first, but even now, shopping was a time when I missed them most. I would see something in the market that I knew they would enjoy, but I couldn’t buy it for them. Sad.
I remember driving to Canada, telling the customs man that I was up for my grandmother’s birthday. He looked skeptical when I said I had nothing to declare, apparently assuming I would have a gift.
“She’s 98,” I told him, and his face relaxed. Some flowers and ice cream would do for her, he knew. We took her out to a hamburger joint, where she would have rather had the onions grilled, and even toothless worked her way through a maple walnut cone.
I miss having someone to cook for, miss having people to share food with. It’s so basic and human. Food is, in many ways, our shared expression of love.
But then, even the Dalai Lama knows that.