Vegetarian food and 死话头 at the Chan Meditation Center

In one tray, glistening patties of tofu lay in neat rows. Another tray contained a salad with cooked greens, wood ear fungus, and roasted tofu. The row of trays contained other treats: pickled bamboo, spicy noodles, figs, and cookies. And, of course, a pot of rice sat at the end of the table. This is the kind of vegetarian fare that has drawn people to Buddhist temples in China for centuries. Standing over this display of foods, one can understand why the kitchens at these temples are often called Fragrant Vegetarian Kitchens.

But this was not China. I was at the Chan Meditation Center in Queens.

The nuns at the Chan Meditation Center refer to it as a temple, and indeed it performs all the functions of a temple, but its appearance might surprise people used to the most spectacular Buddhist temples of China, with their imposing architecture and statues. Within the Chan Meditation Center is a long room that feels a little like a lecture hall, with folding chairs facing a table at the far end. Behind the table is a modest shrine made of unpainted wood, on which rests a Buddha, flanked by a bronze bowl-shaped gong and a large gourd. Behind the Buddha is a line painting of Guan yin and two pieces of Chinese calligraphy.

This Sunday, open house at the Chan Meditation Center began with a discussion by the Venerable Chang Zhai on the essentials of Chan practice. In particular, her discussion focused on stopping wandering thoughts. This proposal requires some soul-searching for me, since I more or less make a lifestyle of wandering thoughts. It is comforting, however, that one of the methods she described uses rather than rejects words. She spoke of huatou (话头), which can be translated as “origin words” (literally, “head words”). These are questions that cannot rationally be answered. She gave three examples: “Who drags this corpse around?”, “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?”, and “What was my face before I was born?” These are all what she called sihuatou, or dead huatou, since they have come down to us from antiquity—but we can make up our own.

When the discussion was over, someone clapped with wood blocks, the Venerable Chang Zhai retreated to another room, microphones and cameras were rapidly removed, and the trays of food were brought out. A nun came to the table and helped herself to a modest portion of food, and then turned to me and invited me to follow.

I tried a little of everything. All of the dishes had been prepared with a similar vision: they all highlighted the natural flavors of their ingredients, mild with a cleansing freshness. The tofu was savory but light and the salad was rich with different flavors, but left the palate clean. This was an excellent meal.

“Have you ever been to any Buddhist events before?” a fellow sitting next to me asked. I told him I had some exposure to Tibetan Buddhism.

“Same thing, different flavor,” he responded.

Chan Meditation Center
90-56 Corona Ave
Elmhurst, NY 11373

Open house
Sundays, 11am – 4pm
$5 donation suggested for lunch

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