Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Living Below the Line - When Food Becomes Medicine

Yesterday was a really good day. My body, for the most part, has adjusted to the Live Below the Line challenge and both my mood and my strength were high pretty much all the way through what was for me the first day of the workweek. It was also a very beautiful warm spring day of a season that has been very chilly and rainy so far. I wanted to garden! I wanted to go for a run! Unfortunately, though, by the time I got home from work my strength was quickly waning and I just didn’t think that my rice and lentils would provide me enough fuel for such activity. I know, I know, that’s highly debatable, and nutritionists and strict vegetarians alike might decry what I did next… I used some of my “banked” money to buy a tin of tuna fish and a slice of bread. I prepared a dinner of half a tuna sandwich and I was good to go.

We don’t usually ponder such things, do we? We eat what we want when we want it. We feel entitled to whatever fuel of whatever octane we might desire. This point first really dawned on me some years ago while I was pedaling my bicycle across the country on my very own vision quest of sorts. On the second day out I stopped in a restaurant for lunch and proceeded to devour a good 4,000 calories in that single sitting! I NEEDED it, yes. After all, I was carrying an appreciable amount of gear. But did I NEED to be riding my bicycle across the country? If I didn't NEED to be bicycling across the country, then I was essentially killing living things unnecessarily. And so I reflected on the fact that living things had been sacrificed and would continue to be sacrificed so that I could be doing what I felt I needed to do. With gratitude and humility I vowed to make the most of their offering for the betterment of the world.

Such an attitude is not a new one in the practice of Zen. During prolonged practice periods at many practice centers meals are taken in the very ritualistic manner of oryoki. Perhaps one way to think about oryoki is that it is not just a prayer before eating a meal – the eating of the meal itself becomes a prayer. Consider the Verse of Five Contemplations, for instance:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.

We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offering.

We regard [this food] as essential to free ourselves of excesses such as greed.

We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.

For the sake of enlightenment, we now receive this food.

Thinking of food as medicine is kind of intriguing, isn’t it? When we take food as medicine we take it with a specific purpose in mind; there is a physiological necessity for our taking it. When we take food as medicine we neither take too little nor too much; we recognize that there is a dosage that is appropriate to our true needs, which are, of course, very much in line with the needs of all life in totality. And so it is that the Bowl Raising Verse is recited and eating commences:

The first portion is to end all evil,

The second is to cultivate all good,

The third is to free all beings.

May everyone realize the Buddha Way.

I’m grateful for this challenge allowing me to take this lesson to heart. No matter what religion we may practice, we can all make better use of that which we eat for the sake of our families, for the sake of our communities, and for the sake of our world. Let our food be medicine for our bodies, and let our actions be medicine for the world.


Image Credits

Oryoki image filtered by the author from one obtained via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Monday, April 29, 2013

Living Below the Line - Settling into it with a little Dogen

I suspect that most readers of this third piece in my Live Below the Line series will not have all that much experience with going hungry. Sure, we’ve all gotten to the point where we’re just dying for lunch or dinner only to have it superseded by some fairly rare event – we’re in the middle of a project, for instance, or we’re travelling in between towns. And so we become ravenous – feeling as though we could “eat a horse”! Thankfully enough, though, the moment soon arrives when we simply go get something to eat. End of story.

If you’ve ever fasted, you have a little bit more realistic view of hunger. As dinnertime comes around you do indeed feel as though you could eat a horse. But as the karma of your dinnertime subsides so do your hunger pangs, and in their place is that low blood sugar sensation of lightheadedness, weakness, headachiness, and whatever other sensations you might associate with your body tapping into its stored fuel and starting to burn it. If you’ve embarked upon a planned fast you can simply ratchet down your activity level: sit quietly, pray, meditate… In fact, this subsidence of mental and physical energy is precisely what makes fasting such a useful spiritual exercise. But what if you’ve got work to do? What if you’ve got to get up and tend to your crops, or a crying infant? What if you’ve got to go to school and learn algebra?

Me, I had a rather mellow day yesterday. After finishing my previous post I did a little laundry and read some of Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun – Instructions For The Zen Cook, written in 1237. In the afternoon I joined my partner and her church’s youth group on a tour of a local Hindu temple. No snacks for me! Upon returning home I meditated and read the remainder of Tenzo Kyokun before going to bed. I was too tired to write anymore, even though it was only 9:00. Regardless of what I was doing, however, I was mindful throughout the day of the fact that my body was craving just a little bit more fuel than I had given it. I was balancing one of my most basic human needs with one of a much higher order; I was balancing the satisfaction of physical hunger with the satisfaction of spiritual hunger.

I was thinking about Tenzo Kyokun as I prepared my big batch of soup for the week. In the Tenzo Kyokun, the cook monk’s role is elevated to one that is only worthy of being performed by the most advanced of practitioners – one who will, with utmost diligence and an appropriate attitude, fulfill the task of deeply caring for his or her community. In Dogen’s words:

The three aspects of this attitude are to see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself; to understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one’s own character; and to know that endeavoring to succeed and to surpass the patriarchs of past generations means to learn from their lives and to value their examples. p. 15

Mindfulness is something that we Buddhists strive to continually maintain, and yet we so often fall short of even a modicum of awareness. However, there’s nothing like having our attention drawn toward how our actions in the present moment directly affect our own personal wellbeing, safety, or survival to raise our level of mindfulness to the red line – like when we’re walking down a deserted city street after dark and spy some movement in the shadows…, or when we’re washing the limited supply of rice on which we will live for the coming week.

When washing the rice, remove any sand you find. In doing so do not lose even one grain of rice. When you look at the rice see the sand at the same time; when you look at the sand, see also the rice. pp. 4-5

As I prepared the vegetables to add to the soup I found myself taking far more care than I usually do. I kept the broccoli leaves that I would have otherwise discarded. I kept much more of the stalk than usual – merely dicing it into finer pieces. Likewise, I removed the stiff veins of the leaves of the kale and collard greens and diced them up finely rather than composting them as I might otherwise do.

When you prepare food, never view the ingredients from some commonly held perspective, nor think about them only with your emotions. Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens, that expounds the ‘buddhadharma’ through the most trivial activity.... Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. p. 7

My mindfulness extended, as well, to the washing of the pots and bowls and utensils. I soaked the rice pot in water and scraped the remains into my soup. After cooking and eating my oatmeal I rinsed the pot and bowl and added it to my soup. Even the simplest of gestures can enhance the life-giving potential of the moment, no matter how humble it may be.

A dish is not necessarily superior because you have prepared it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens. When handling and selecting greens, do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind, and without trying to evaluate their quality, in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast. p. 13

Dogen was a great teacher – showing us the great truths to be found in even the most ordinary of activities. We might forget his exact words, but he’ll be there each time we pay attention to even the smallest detail with the intention of serving our community. Here is my wish for all who might be reading this: When you look at the meal before you, see also the entire world of all people and all living and non-living things. When you look at the entire world of all people and all living and non-living things, see also that which sustains you.
Please check out the Live Below the Line donations page if you would like to help fund one of their



All Tenzo Kyokun quotations are from From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment – Refining Your Life, by Zen Master Dogen and Kosho Uchiyama; translated by Thomas Wright, published by Weatherhill.


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Living Below the Line - Understanding the Challenge

I must admit that I felt just a little bit of trepidation as I contemplated the terms of the Live Below the Line challenge – live for five days on only what food and drink can be purchased for $1.50 per day. What if I totally underestimate my caloric need and end up spending the whole week with plummeting blood sugar levels and gnawing hunger pangs? What if it turns out that I’m essentially clueless as to my nutritional requirements and I end up getting a little loopy by day three? Yes, and as soon as I recognized this most central of human fears – the fear of not having enough – I realized that I absolutely had to accept the challenge. Over a billion people, without having any choice in the matter whatsoever, live day in and day out for years on end or for the entirety of their lives with the uncertainty that I was fearful of experiencing for just five measly days. Okay, then, count me in.

The Buddhist practice that I embrace encompasses the bodhisattva ideal – the vow to save all beings rather than merely working for the liberation of oneself. In reality, such a vow is so incredibly huge that it becomes all too easy to pay it lip service in lieu of really taking it to heart. Sure, I vote with a social conscience. Yes, I embrace the philosophy of living simply so that others may simply live. Yeah, I embarked upon a career change in order to better align that which I truly am with that which the world truly needs. Unfortunately, though, it’s all too easy to become complacent or self-congratulatory about the role that we play in making this big huge world what it is – teetering, as we often do, between thinking that we’re doing quite enough and thinking that we can never do enough, anyway, no matter how hard we try, so why bother. And so it is that with this Live Below the Line challenge I am reaffirming my bodhisattva vow to save all beings. For me to really take seriously this vow I must be willing to feel at least a little bit of what all beings feel.
Five days worth of food?

After much reflection and exploratory shopping, I assembled the food cache displayed in the photograph above. Excluding the one-pound bag of brown rice at upper left the total cost came to $6.05, or $1.21 per day. The $0.99 bag of brown rice represents my “food bank.” If it turns out that I’ve underestimated my needs, then I’ll break it out. Otherwise, I’ll have a modicum of leeway with which to “purchase” something as yet unforeseen – some soy milk perhaps, or a bit of sweetener, or maybe a tin of tuna fish or some olive oil.

Some truths become readily apparent as one begins to assemble such a cache of food as the one above. First and foremost is the fact that most of the food by volume will be in the form of dried grains, beans, or legumes. Thus, instead of making food-buying decisions based upon nutritional need, one makes them on the basis of that which will most adequately stave off hunger. I’ve tried to achieve something of a balance with my purchase of some fresh vegetables, but a diet of all fresh fruits and veggies would be both cost-prohibitive and not very filling. Can you imagine living for an indefinite period without the means to adequately address your nutritional needs?

Another fact of being challenged in such a way is that variety is of secondary or tertiary concern – or of no concern at all, for that matter. I quickly went from thinking that I might be able to have a regular dinner of fresh greens with home-made salad dressing to realizing that I’d have to make one big pot of something that I’d end up eating for both lunch and dinner for the entire five days. This lack of variety encompasses a virtual lack of anything that might be considered a luxury or an indulgence. For instance, this coffee shop frequenter must now get his caffeine fix from a ration of four teabags per day, at a cost of 1.1 cents each. I didn’t even know tea could be purchased so cheaply, but I'm glad for it being so!
Another “luxury” that I’ve allowed myself is that of continuing to take my usual B-vitamin supplement. I priced these at 6.1 cents each after managing to find a 90-count bottle of NatureMade multi-vitamins marked down to $5.49 from $10.99. One might be able to indulge in a few such “luxuries” by teaming up with others who, due to this challenge or necessity, are working within similar dietary constraints. For instance, the fact that my girlfriend and one of her daughters are also taking the challenge allowed me to purchase a variety of green vegetables which we then apportioned amongst the three of us. The curious and the fact-checkers amongst my readers can check out my receipts and menu below.


So, the challenge has begun! I’ve had my 1.5 cups of unadorned oatmeal for breakfast this morning and I’m sipping on 2.2 cents worth of tea! My lunch and dinner soup/stew is in the fridge. I’ll have more to say about its preparation in my next installment. Thanks for checking in! And please don't forget those who have no choice but to live with so many constraints. 


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Living Below the Line - An Introduction

Consider for a moment what it would be like to be out on the street with nothing but the clothes on your back and a buck and some change in your pocket. How will you make it to tomorrow? What will you eat? Where will you stay? Forget your cable bill and your internet charges… Forget your car payment and all of the cool stuff you still want to buy… Forget your health club membership and your yoga classes… Forget your insurance premium and your retirement account… Forget your tall skinny lattes and your hip new eyeglasses, as well, for crying out loud! You’ve got a buck and some change to make it to tomorrow. Period. And don’t even begin to think that tomorrow brings a sigh of relief and a clean pair of underwear and a return to your “normal” existence! When tomorrow arrives you’ll have just another buck and some change to make it to the day after that…, and so on and so forth until perhaps the end of your days.

Sound harsh? Do you wonder whether it’s even possible to feed and clothe and shelter yourself with just a buck and some change per day? Well, impossible as it may seem, $1.50 is the U.S. dollar equivalent of the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty – a way of life for well over a billion people living today.

The Global Poverty Project’s Live Below the Line campaign is raising awareness of this reality by encouraging people to challenge themselves to live for five days on only what food and drink can be purchased with $1.50 per day. Challenging, yes, but thankfully enough it doesn’t require us to factor in whatever pro rata share of our clothing or mortgage or rent or toys would accrue to those five days. Good thing, too, because it’s probably a safe bet that if we were challenged to keep the totality of our living expenses below $1.50 per day, we’d have to move into the alleyway and wear the same old clothes for five days straight!

The challenge officially begins this Monday, April 29th, and continues through the following Friday. For personal reasons I’ll be starting this Sunday, tomorrow. I plan to post something daily until the challenge is over, so please stay tuned. Please keep in mind, though, that for many the challenge continues for the rest of their lives.

Oh, and if at any time you become moved to donate to the cause, you can certainly find a charity that resonates with you by accessing the Live Below the Line donations page. If you'd like to donate on my behalf so that I might reach my ever-so-modest fundraising goal, you may search for markfrank on that same page. Donations will be accepted until May 31st. Thank you! 


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Forgiveness, Part 2 - Part of it, anyway!

Please forgive me for straying so far from the usual rhythm of my posts. It’s been a busy spring so far! Yes, there’s been the usual pruning, transplanting, brush removal and garden preparation. Unfortunately, though, I’ve also had to cut down a forty foot tall bald cypress tree whose roots had breached the sewer line, causing it to clog and begin to buckle. It was difficult work, and solemn, too – both for the fact that it was dangerous for me, and for the fact that I was ending the life of something just as it was beginning to bud again.


Cutting short the life of anything is not something that I relish doing. I hope the tree forgives me, likewise the animals and humans that enjoyed its beauty, shade, and shelter. I’ve managed to forgive myself, I think, both for cutting the tree down now and for not being mindful enough regarding my choice of where to plant it in the first place. We can never count on being forgiven, though – at least we Buddhists can’t. There's always the karma of past words, deeds, and intentions acting in the present moment in ways that we rarely fully understand. All we can do is ask for forgiveness as we embrace the task of clarifying our lives in this present moment. In this regard, forgiveness has a prominent place in Zen practice, even if not specifically referred to by name. Consider the Verse of Repentance as it appears in Okumura’s Living By Vow, for instance:

All the karma ever created by me since of old

Through greed, anger, and self-delusion

Which has no beginning,

Born of my body, speech, and thought

I now make full repentance of it


Whether they be plants or animals, relationships or possibilities, we cut short the lives of many things as we go about the process of living our lives. In solemnity, let’s ask for forgiveness – from others and ourselves. In joyousness, let’s embrace the task of clarifying both our actions and our intentions in this present moment.

Please look for the "remainder"of Part 2 soon!


Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.


Image Credits

Bald Cypress image courtesy of Mindy Newman via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank