Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA, on solstice night itself. I’ve been going to VMC to sit and serve since 1985, and have participated in many courses over the years. The daily program and technique remain the same at every 10-Day Course, but each time I go, the experience has its own unique characteristics and flavor, depending on the various changing factors of the time—both outside and inside my mind.
This year’s solstice course was unique in a very particular way. It was a bilingual course, conducted in English and Burmese. More than half the students were Burmese, the assistant teachers were Burmese, audio instructions and discourses were given in both Burmese and English and, as a very special treat, the food was bilingual, too!
Typically, VMC serves very tasty, high quality, vegan and lacto-vegetarian food (i.e. yes milk, no eggs). Dairy products are offered primarily as an option—containers of organic yogurt set out at breakfast, for example, or butter alongside of Earth Balance at the toast station, 2% milk as well as organic rice and soy milk for cereal/tea, and grated cheese at the salad bar. But the majority of the food is strictly plant-based, consisting of fresh and dried fruits, raw and cooked vegetables, whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, sprouted Ezekiel and gluten-free breads), beans (including tofu & tempeh), nuts/seeds, and natural condiments (South River miso, wheat-free tamari, nutritional yeast, tahini, etc). There’s usually an Indian day and a Mexican day, but I'd yet to see a Burmese day, let alone ten in a row!
So it was, I must admit, quite quietly exciting to be introduced to Burmese cuisine on this retreat, during our twice-daily mealtimes. To clarify, only two meals a day are served during a 10-Day Course: breakfast and lunch. This is in accordance with the dietary rules followed by Buddhist monks and nuns, who are required to abstain from taking food after twelve noon. In lieu of dinner, a light tea is served at five o’clock, at which time new students may also have fruit and milk (dairy or non). Old students (such as yours truly) take only clear liquids—tea or lemon water—at five PM.
Eating in silence in a room full of silent people tends to make one quite attentive to one’s food, and this is intentional. Vipassana meditation involves developing a keen awareness of one’s actions at the physical and mental level. Hence at silent mealtimes, we are well-supported to eat with mindful awareness—fully conscious of the food on our plate, our fork, our lips, our teeth, our tongue...bite by bite. Conscious, mindful eating is a meditation in itself, one which we are given regular opportunity to practice during ten days of retreat.
So, practice I did. And what food with which to practice on this English-Burmese course! At breakfast, alongside of the usual oatmeal and stewed prunes with cinnamon and oranges (delicious! trust me) there was always a Burmese breakfast dish. Most often this was white rice studded with soft, roasted peanuts, but one day, a kind of rice noodle salad was given. Personally, I eat very little at breakfast to begin with, and I never eat white rice, so I skipped the noodles and only tried one tablespoon of the peanut rice, just to see how it tasted (answer: yummy), after following the lead of my Burmese co-meditators and sprinkling my portion with fried chili peanuts, a red hot Burmese condiment. A crock of these fried chili peanuts was set out each day at breakfast and lunch, along with other unusual and tasty Burmese condiments such as mango pickles, homemade ginger soy sauce, and spicy potato chips.
Yes, that’s right: spicy potato chips! My “official weakness” was offered twice a day during this course. What a golden opportunity to burn through a food addiction! And burn I did. Not at breakfast, mind you—I am a nutritionist, after all, and not so far gone to be eating chips at 6:30 AM! But at lunch, on several of the days, I did put a few spicy potato chips on my plate. I enjoyed them slowly and mindfully, as part of my meal. I also observed how their particular taste and texture automatically stimulates craving in me, the moment this food item comes in contact with my mouth (if not my eye). And I remained equanimous with the changing sensations I experienced. This is Vipassana!
Vipassana meditation, whose ultimate goal is total liberation from suffering, uses awareness and equanimity as tools for eradicating craving, attachment and misery. For the technique to work, it is very important that awareness is focused on the right objects, and that understanding takes place at the experiential level.
The “right objects” in this teaching are sensation—both physical and mental—and respiration. Why? Because sensation and respiration are two objects that directly and continuously link our conscious mind with our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is where the roots of our reaction patterns (those pesky, self-perpetuating causes and effects of endless misery) are buried. By providing a means to connect our conscious to our unconscious mind, via respiration and sensation, Vipassana allows us to pull out these roots which bind our suffering. The method, when properly taught and practiced, is brilliant in its simplicity, and dramatically effective. Leave it to Buddha to come up with something like that! What a genius, lol!
Gotama the Buddha lived and taught in Northern India circa 500 BC, but after some centuries, his valuable discovery of Vipassana meditation was lost in its country of origin. Burma was the only place on the planet where Vipassana was maintained in its pure form... until the mid-20th century, when it begin to spread around the world thanks to the efforts of my beloved teacher, S.N. Goenka, and a handful of others.
“But what about the food, Diana!” I hear you asking. Ah, yes. Vegetarian Burmese cuisine—what is it like? Well, it’s incredibly delicious, to begin. It’s full of heat, color and texture. There are plenty of peanuts, plenty of rich savory flavors, and lots of crispy bits, too.
Two dishes I particularly enjoyed, and hope to recreate, were Steamed Eggplant, served in a brown sauce fragrant with sweet fried onions and garlic, and Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, made from a base of shredded cabbage and chopped tomato, to which pickled tea leaves (who knew?), peanuts, sesame seeds, green chili, lemon juice and a surprising assortment of hitherto unheard of, crunchy fried ingredients (i.e. split peas, green beans, sweet potato, crispy rice) are added.
Other Burmese culinary delights served on the course included Shredded Ginger Salad (quite similar to the Tea Leaf Salad, but loaded with shredded ginger), creamy Steamed Beans (made with small white beans and mild spices), and a thick, flavorful Spicy Tomato Sauce unlike any I had ever tasted before.
I naturally became curious about all these new foods, ingredients, and how to make them. But with work to do, I focused on my practice and set these thoughts aside until Day Ten, when silence is broken in the morning, following the teaching of Metta (loving-kindness). For the rest of Day Ten, except during group meditation hours, students are permitted to speak freely with each other and the volunteer staff who run and manage the courses.
When this day came, as it always does too soon, and after adjusting to talking again, I gathered my courage and asked Aye Aye, our wonderful Burmese cook, if she would be so kind as to share some recipes with me. These she sweetly did, and I now have two in hand. However, because the portions are for 150-175 people (think 70 pounds of Chinese eggplant!) I’m going to have to modify before I begin, a task I will attempt with the help of my dear friend and gifted chef, the Burmese Mermaid. Stay tuned to see the results of our efforts in future posts.
In the meantime, if you have the desire or the inclination, please do consider taking a 10-Day Course as soon as time allows. Vipassana has been such a gift and blessing in my life, as it is for the many thousands of human beings fortunate enough to come in contact with this wonderful technique. I feel so honored to share it with you today, and hope that you may also benefit from its ageless wisdom.