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How A Buddhist Nun Is Demystifying The Meaning Of Life Through Food!

Sitting at home lately, I’ve been seeking solace in things that soothe my soul. Looking to escape the mundane, I dove into the world of OTT platforms and fortunately discovered Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The series is quite voluminous, with stories of ordinary people being transformed into extraordinary chefs at the hands of fate. I admit I haven’t watched all the episodes, but sifting through, looking for stories that would interest me, I came across the story of Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan.

Born in 1957, Jeong Kwan left her home at 17 to become a Buddhist nun at the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baekyangsa Temple. Describing herself as a ‘monk’ and not a chef, Jeong Kwan dedicates her food to her parents for letting her become who she is today. When Kwan was still a teenager, her mother left the mortal world without influencing Kwan and teaching her how to cook.

Image source : NY Times

By her admission, Kwan, who lived with her family on a small farm, became increasingly depressed when her mother passed away. However, after a period of intense grieving, she decided to go out and leave behind the material world in a bid never to pass down the pain of loss. Most importantly, Kwan wished to live a life of freedom, and this she achieved when she left home and walked up the steps of the Baekyangsa Temple.

Probably like I found solace in watching Kwan, she found her solace in food. Being a Buddhist, it was natural that Kwan’s cooking was an exercise in mindfulness and meditation. ‘Temple food’ as she calls it, Kwan’s all vegetarian cooking unhurried, simple and yet exotic. Whether it is the sheer Lotus Tea, the white, pink, or yellow Pickled Lotus Root, orange Kimchi, Shiitake Mushrooms boiled in a silken brown homemade soy sauce, or the Steamed Eggplant with Kidney Beans and Hot Peppers, Kwan makes sure that each ingredient she puts into a dish adds to the purpose of calming the mind and body.

I’m no expert on food, so apart from talking about Kwan’s recipes’ freshness and simplicity, I cannot speak much on the fare she lovingly and peacefully makes for her fellow monks and nuns. However, what I must speak about is the way Kwan cooks. Watching a petite Kwan on the Chef’s Table, cooking away in the monastery’s wooden kitchens, is an exercise in awareness. It is like a concerto, an amalgamation of earthy notes and colours working towards integrating the five senses.

However, with Kwan, the magic is that she doesn’t just touch upon the five senses we routinely talk about — sound, touch, taste, sight, and hearing; her food, she says, is meant to impact in a greater way, touching upon the body, feeling, perception, intention, and consciousness.

Just as the orchestra builds up slowly, Kwan’s cooking is an ensemble of patience — not just when cooking, but the evident patience of the skills she has honed through years of practice. Kwan’s aura is that of a Kung Fu master practising most meditatively, like shaping air, water, and ether with each action.

Whether it is picking vegetables from the monastery garden, carving patterns on the mushroom, stirring a pot of ageing soy sauce, or even tasting the dish to make sure it is perfection — everything from Kwan’s tiny but stable hands to one-pointed focus on how the dish looks is an exercise in mindful meditation.

Kwan’s stature may make her seem meek and reserved, but it is quite the opposite. With a calm smile on her lips, Kwan routinely manoeuvres through Seoul’s capital city to teach vegetarian cooking to children at various universities. A ‘Woah’ or ‘yeah’ after a class or her visible excitement over soy sauce is quite unexpected of the seemingly bashful Kwan, but these expressions are the most charming, giving you a peek of the child in her.

Image source:  Pinterest

Buddhism, as we all know, is formed on the premise of compassion and respect. Kwan, through her cooking, transcends this idea of compassion from the worldly to the universe. For Kwan, food is not just a means to energize the body, but to energize it in the right way.

Every handpicked ingredient and the handmade ingredient is added with a purpose to nourish you physically, mentally, and emotionally as you traverse through life. The food Kwan cooks lights a fire inside you, not the literal kind, which is the case with most popular South Korean cuisine, but the kind that propels you to tranquillity. She cooks to honour and respect the mind and body and nature and the planet — all working in tandem to provide for us.

Part of what pulled me toward’s Kwan’s story is how beautifully it is shot. For that, I must thank the Netflix team, which I’m sure worked to capture every essence of Kwan’s philosophy. From the stunning temple to the beautifully messy garden extending into the larger wilderness, this episode’s cinematography cannot be described in words.

For the unfortunate like me, who may not ever be able to visit nun Kwan, the images of the food she cooked are gift enough. Eric Ripert, the Chef and Co-owner of Le Bernardin, and Jeff Gordinier, a writer with The New York Times, who brought Kwan’s other-worldliness to us, must also be profusely thanked because, without them, we could never experience Kwan’s gentle magnificence.

My heart holds a lot more about Jeong Kwan’s cooking, but my words fall short. In her own words, Kwan relives her ancestors’ wisdom through the food that she cooks; and I say that I inherit the heirloom of patience and purity as I watch her do so.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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