Last April I was at Blue Cliff Monastery for a six-day retreat. I had been to other retreats in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, but this was the first at an actual monastery. Blue Cliff was a former resort in up-state New York, that has been converted by brown-clad Buddhist monks and nuns (mostly Vietnamese, but not all) who practice mindful, compassionate living in the present moment. Being there with these monastics was a wonderful experience, and their presence rubs off in such a way, that you come to appreciate the joy of a simple smile or the preciousness of a shared meal.
But as the following article explains, when at Blue Cliff, you eat your meals together, in silence, and mindfully. So you also get your food, silently, buffet style. Most of the meals are excellent, beautifully laid out, completely vegetarian, and obviously healthy. Since there is no talking, however, one can never ask what the menu is. Some of the dishes are unfamiliar and to a Midwestern boy, such as myself, bordering on exotic. At one such lunch I was going through the lunch line where there was a kettle of dark, enticing looking stew that I plunged the ladle into with curious eagerness, only to raise a substrate that resembled the fertile loam that collects in my rain gutters in a wet Fall day. In normal circumstances I would have put it back, but being the middle of a crowded buffet line with silent mendicants to the front and back, it seemed only proper to put the compost-like soup into my bowl. I watched the monks and nuns filling their bowls with alacrity, so I thought “it might be good, give it a try.” This notion was short lived, though, for sitting down at a table, just like the one you see in this NYTimes story, I discovered the soggy-leaf soup, was every bit as bad as its appeared. So I sat mindfully, quietly across from my table mates; living completely in the present moment and gagged down every leaf and stem of my soup. To this day I remember this meal as one of the longest of this particular life.