The Synchronicity of Jeong Kwan Sunim
By Lynn Arimoto
Jeong Kwan Sunim visited Chozen-ji from March 5-8, 2018. How did a highly sought-after Korean Zen Buddhist nun, famous for her temple food (See Netflix Chef’s Table, Season 3, Episode 1), come to Chozen-ji? As Jeong Kwan Sunim remarked, “we were meant to come together.” Carl Jung defined such experiences as “synchronicity” an “acausal connecting principle” or more simply, meaningful coincidences.
Jeong Kwan Sunim is the tenzo at Chunjinam Hermitage in South Korea. Although she has no formal training, famous chefs like Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin (New York City), Corey Lee of Benu (San Francisco) and Rene Redzepi of Noma (Copenhagen) came to learn from her. Jeff Grodinier, The New York Times food writer, proclaimed her food “as good as any meal you could get from any chef on the planet.”
Because shojin ryori or temple food is served during sesshin, I dreamed of Jeong Kwan Sunim coming to Chozen-ji to learn how she uses cooking as her meditation practice. According to Sayama Roshi, “delicious, nutritious food can make the difference in whether a student gives up or transcends their self-imposed limitations during this grueling training.”
Meaningful coincidences began in the Fall of 2017 when I met Minny Lee for the first time. This encounter led to a generous donation from the Paul S. Honda Foundation to invite Jeong Kwan Sunim. This was followed by an unexpected introduction to Yoon Hee Kim, a professional chef and Korean Tea Master, who was able to make Jeong Kwan Sunim’s visit a reality by the following Spring. Jeong Kwan Sunim calls her visit a “homecoming” and believes we were brought together because of our journey of self realization.
Jeong Kwan Sunim arrived with suitcases filled with special ingredients she prepared such as aged rice syrup and soy sauce, fermented raspberry juice, sesame seeds, dried mushrooms, dried lotus flowers and much more. She generously conducted a small, private cooking demonstration (See March 29, 2018, “Jeong Kwan from Chef’s Table Just Cooked Temple Food in Kalihi” by Grace Ryu.) and Dharma talk.
Through her translator, Yoon Hee Kim, she taught us there is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s Way. At her temple she uses food from her garden that she plants from seeds and nurtures until harvesting, infusing the food with good energy and gratitude. Instead of using recipes, she uses her intimate connection with plants and relies on innately knowing how best to prepare it. The energy of the food, the environment, and people for whom she is cooking help to determine how she will prepare it. She emphasizes food is about sharing love and connecting people. It does not have to be fancy or even tasty. Cooking with a “motherly heart” and “becoming one” with the ingredients create the best food for our mind and body. She reminds us, plants give their life energy that we transform through cooking to nourish our body. Our interdependence with nature reminds us to waste less and eliminate greed.
Before her talk, Jeong Kwan Sunim prepared bowls of bibimbap, rice with several kinds of cooked vegetables, and banchan, small side vegetable dishes, beautifully presented on Chozen-ji yaki, ceramic dishes made at Chozen-ji. The elegant Lotus Flower Tea, a symbol of enlightenment, was served during her talk, assisted by Korean Tea Master, Yoon Hee Kim and Urasenke Tea Master, Yumiko Sayama. Each warm and delicately fragrant sip of tea created a unifying calm among the guests.
She summarized her Zen practice as, “I make food as meditation. I teach because I want the world to become united through healthy, happy food and to thrive together.” She believes when you cook with compassion and generosity, food will sustain the world and create peace in the universe.
Gassho. Thank you, Jeong Kwan Sunim.