One of the youngest people ever to receive dharma transmission (the authorization to teach Zen) in the United States, Gesshin Claire Greenwood is also a skilled vegan cook, feminist, and author of the book Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples. When Greenwood was twenty-two and fresh out of college, she found her way to a Buddhist monastery in Japan. She was drawn deeply into Zen’s all-encompassing approach to life and how to live it, the way Zen practice does not shy away from the big questions of life while still resting in the perfection of the present moment. While at the monastery, she discovered a particular affinity for working in the kitchen, especially the practice of using what was at hand to create delicious, satisfying meals.
We hope you’ll enjoy this interview with Gesshin Claire Greenwood about the experiences that led her to write Just Enough.
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Why did you name your book Just Enough?
I named the book Just Enough because I thought it encapsulated my philosophy both on spirituality and on cooking. A very basic skill in cooking is being able to add just enough salt, for example, but knowing how much salt is “enough” is actually quite hard for people! It’s also subjective.
When I began writing this book I was also reintegrating into modern secular society after many years in the Japanese monastic system. I was taking a real look at how my life had been on these poles of extremes: first hedonism and luxury as a young person in the West, and then self-abnegation and discipline as a Buddhist nun. When I started writing this book I was clear that neither extreme worked for me anymore. So an underlying theme in the book is how to arrive at balance or moderation in our personal and spiritual lives.
You trained as tenzo (head chef), serving traditional Buddhist vegan and vegetarian food to temple members and guests. What did that time cooking and serving teach you about your life as a woman, a Buddhist, and a vegetarian?
Cooking is a great joy. I always loved working in monastery kitchens because it illuminated to me how spiritual practice is not separate from daily life. Daily life is spiritual practice. What else is there to work with? Oftentimes we think of meditation or spirituality as this rarified, special thing. But there’s nothing rarified about peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots.
Training as head chef did not change my views on being a woman, other than to clarify for me that I love cooking. I’ve always been a feminist, and there is a current of thought in contemporary feminism that recognizes how women have been confined to domestic spaces, to activities like cooking and cleaning. I agree with this and also am aware that I will always love cooking. It’s not contradictory to be a feminist and a home cook. I think what would be contradictory is cooking primarily from obligation and expectation rather than genuine interest.
You’ve trained as a cloistered Buddhist nun, and you have also been a Buddhist teacher living out in the “bigger world.” What are the pros and cons of monastery life? Should everyone spend some of their life in a monastery?
It is much easier to practice Buddhism in a monastery. By this I mean that the schedule and institution are set up to include meditation, chanting, etc. You are also surrounded by people who hold the same values and priorities and who encourage you to follow the Buddhist precepts (ethical guidelines). As opposed to capitalist structures, Buddhist communities value qualities other than productivity and earning money. While hard work is valued, money is not the goal. This really shifts one’s relationship to work, self, and value. I found that when I was in a monastery I felt okay being poor. Poverty didn’t matter to me because I was in an environment that prioritized spiritual practice over the accumulation of wealth. The monastic container allowed me to focus on my own heart and mind in a way that other environments do not.
There are many wonderful things about not living in a monastery. Romantic love, for example, is a really wonderful part about being a layperson in society. So is building and raising a family. There is more freedom of thought and emotional expression outside the monastery. When I left the monastery, I felt like the lid on my heart was blown open. I couldn’t find anywhere to land or rest. On the other hand, I had everywhere to go. The world was open to me. It was terrifying and liberating. When I was younger, the infinite possibilities of the world scared me. I needed limits. I needed my options to be restricted for me. Now I am strong enough that I can look at the world and answer fairly confidently, “Who do I want to be in it? What sliver of consciousness am I going to inhabit? What communities do I want to be a part of?” I don’t need to be in a monastery anymore to give me a sense of purpose and belonging; I can create that wherever I am.
If you have an urge to go to a monastery, then go. You don’t need to go, but if you have the longing, then honor that. If you don’t have that desire, then stay where you are. Both are valid.
What did practicing with other Buddhist nuns teach you about gender and all-women spaces?
That is a big question! I suppose the biggest takeaway for me was that women’s spaces are important. When Buddhism came to the West in the ’60s and ’70s, we were quick to want “equality” of the sexes and never established women’s communities. But those are so important. There are a few all-women meditation retreats around the country, but it’s not the same as living residentially with other women.
Practicing with Buddhist nuns also expanded the definition of womanhood for me. So often in spiritual spaces, womanhood is tied with children and motherhood (think of “Mother Nature” or even “the mother of all buddhas”). But for most nuns, children don’t factor into the equation, and marriage doesn’t factor into the equation, yet they are still women. Or not. Days and weeks would go by in the monastery where I wouldn’t see a man. If there are no men, can there really be women? Lots of us stopped thinking of ourselves as women, or we would transition in and out of thinking we were women. It wasn’t a big, explicit identity crisis, but it was something we definitely talked about.
What is your favorite recipe from the book and why?
Marinated fried eggplant is a favorite. I dream about it. Of course, this isn’t my recipe. It’s a common Japanese side dish, and I learned it from the Japanese nuns around me. I enjoy that recipe because so much of it is about transforming the vegetable. You need to score the skin with a knife. Then you deep-fry it. Then you put it in broth. Then you add toppings.
And it tastes really, really good.
How has the rise of secular mindfulness impacted Buddhism and meditation in the West?
I think of secular mindfulness in the same way that I think about Starbucks. On the one hand, it’s a big corporation designed to make tons of money. On the other hand, the coffee is really good and has a lot of caffeine in it. My father recently noticed that when a Starbucks moves into a neighborhood, it forces the local coffee shops to up their game. They start making better coffee.
I think secular mindfulness has had a similar effect on American Buddhism. More traditional Buddhists now have to reconcile the surging popularity of secular mindfulness and figure out ways to compete. Not to sound like a capitalist (I’m not, I swear!), but I think this kind of competition is good for Buddhism. We need to adapt and address the needs of average people. Mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry and it’s not from nothing. It’s because it helps people, often quite profoundly.
Of course there are going to be people who complain that Starbucks is ruining the local coffee culture, or that mindfulness is ruining Buddhism, but I sort of feel like if an artisanal coffee shop is good enough, it’s going to stay in business no matter what. The same is true with traditional Buddhism. If it meets people’s needs, it will survive. If it doesn’t help the community, it will die out. Secular mindfulness and Starbucks can seem impersonal and heartless, but they do some things very well and very effectively, and we ignore that to our own detriment.
Can non-Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics still enjoy your book?
Of course! It is a cookbook first and foremost. Really, it’s two books for the price of one — a cookbook of vegan Japanese food and also a meditation on the philosophy of “enoughness.” You could just read the narrative parts, or just use it as a cookbook. It’s designed to be both.
If readers could take away only one thing from reading Just Enough, what would you want that to be?
Salt is your friend. More salt than you think you need. But not too much.
If you’d like to hear more about Gesshin Claire Greenwood’s life as a queer Buddhist, check out this video interview that was recorded at New World Library in March 2019:
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Gesshin Claire Greenwood is the author of Just Enough and Bow First, Ask Questions Later. She also writes the popular blog That’s So Zen. Ordained as a Buddhist nun in Japan by Seido Suzuki Roshi in 2010, she received her dharma transmission (authorization to teach) in 2015. She returned to the United States in 2016 to complete her master’s degree in East Asian Studies. A popular meditation teacher, she lives in San Francisco. Find out more about her work at Gesshin.net.