Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Movie review: How to Cook Your Life (2007)

Getting it right: perfection in intention

This delightful and insightful film from German director Doris Dorrie (Enlightenment Guaranteed) demonstrates, in the tradition of great Buddhist teachings, the marvel of life that is and always has been right under your nose, right at your fingertips, right there waiting for you to really see it, really feel it, really smell and taste it.

Ostensibly a profile of American Soto Zen priest Edward Espe Brown , for 30 years the head cook of the California Tassajara Zen Center, the film is in the end more about how we relate to food, and ultimately how we relate to life. In Japan's Soto Zen tradition, cooking is more than just feeding the monks. It's about close attention to detail. It's about respect for the produce of the Earth. In the process, its as much about preparing yourself as it is a meal.

13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen elevated the position of cook within his monasteries to near the importance of the abbot. He saw in the handling and preparation of food a means for cooks to practice mindfulness, and through careful attention to detail maintain the health and morale of the monastic community. He wrote a treatise on the subject, Instructions to the Tenzo, that is still studied in Soto Zen monasteries. In fact you'll see in the film some of the cooks at Tassajara studying this very text.

These days Edward Espe Brown leads cooking, health and meditation seminars in the US and Europe, at which much of the footage for this film was shot. Director Dorrie doesn't shy from showing us more than the wise, Zen-master side of her subject, including segments in which Brown loses his temper with his students, as well as with a plastic wrapper and a bottler stopper. As he remarks to a class at the beginning of the film, he may have been practicing Zen for 40 years, but he's still a human being subject to nervousness and anxiety at the beginning of each new retreat. He notes as well that he still makes mistakes, that mistakes are part of the process of cooking, as they are with life. Perfection, he adds, is to be found in the effort.

While not a kinesthetic subject, Dorrie does a good job of keeping the viewer's attention by mixing up shots and breaking the film up into thematic units. Except for a small diversion on the homeless and a woman who survives by living off supermarket discards, Dorrie remains tightly focused. The understated jazz soundtrack is perfect accompaniment to themes of spontaneity and authenticity.

You won't come away from this film with a handful of new recipes, but you might have a new respect for cooking and the practice of mindfulness.

  • Director: Doris Doorie
  • Studio: Lions Gate
  • DVD Release Date: May 6, 2008
  • Run Time: 93 minutes

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