Cooking for a Tibetan Lama: A Singular Experience
The photograph is from a web page titled “Chinese Buddhism.” The caption reads: “Gonpo Tseten Rinpoche transmitting the Yeshe Lama, Forestville, CA 1981” I’m almost positive this photograph was taken on the ranch that summer.
During the summer of 1981 I was living on a ranch in Northern California working on a writing project, which ultimately proved unsuccessful, however that’s a story for another time.
I rose early each morning to write before the heat of the day and would sit with my notebook, pen and typewriter on a screen porch off of the front of the house.
I had to abandon my little writing area by noon because of the heat and I’d spend the afternoon writing short pieces in any cooler nook I could find. I’d try selling these smaller pieces to magazines. While working I’d watch my daughter by the swimming pool.
There was a large barn on the ranch that the proprietor rented for events and receptions. The owner of the ranch approached me one morning during my coffee break in the kitchen. “We’re going to have a group of Tibetans here soon.” “Tibetans,” I asked? “Yeah, some Lama guy will be here for a retreat with his students.” “A Lama?” “Yeah, he’s apparently coming from somewhere like Tibet or India or Nepal. One of them countries over there,” he said point east, instead of west. “Cool,” I thought, “Tibetan Buddhist students,” and left it at that.
Soon the group began to roll in. Ten, twenty and twenty more. The final one to arrive was the teacher who came in with his translator. The first day or so I’d bump into them on the property and we would greet each other with smiles and palms folded together and that would be that. I thought, they’re nice people.
One morning while I was having my coffee in the houses’ kitchen, I overheard a couple of people of this group having what seemed to me to be an urgent conversation. Well, nosy me. I began listening in. The gist of what they were discussing was the Lama’s cook failed to show up for the retreat. Obviously no one to cook for the Lama was a crisis. “I’ll cook for him,” just rolled out of my mouth like warm honey out of an open jar on a hot afternoon.
“What?” they exclaimed together. “I said, I’ll be glad, actually honored, to cook for your teacher.” “Well, thank you…” “Paul.” “Yes, thank you Paul but cooking for him, well, it is considered something very special.” I continued to jump right in. “I’m a very good cook,” I said, maybe stretching the truth a bit. Well, all my friends had told me I was. An intense conversation between the three of us followed. It finally came down to that they would need to check with the core group of “disciples” yes, that’s the word they used, and they would get back to me.
I didn’t hear anything from them that same day but the next I was approached by his senior students. “This is very important, Paul, cooking for our teacher.” I replied, “Yes, I understand that.” “No one outside our tradition has ever cooked for him. Ever.” “It would be my honor.” “Alright, let me talk to Lama Gonpo and I’ll get back to you.” This was, I was to later learn, Gonpo Tseten Rinpoche, an artist, author, and renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, and someone venerated by thousands upon thousands throughout the world, and I had just volunteered to cook for him.
The word came down later that I was to cook a trial meal for him that evening. I asked what he liked and was told he liked barley, beef, and vegetables in a rich stew. I replied that I would go shop after lunch. “What time does he like to eat?” I asked. An important question. “Five o’clock I was told.” Okay, I’ll have everything ready by quarter to the hour. “Oh, and there’s one more thing.” he said. “He likes desserts.” “Desserts?” “Yes, something sweet.” “Okay, I can do that too.” And so it began.
I shopped that afternoon, sparing no expense for the quality of the beef. I purchased a locally raised Porterhouse steak and when I returned began cooking the barley, slowly adding vegetables. While the stew was simmering, I walked out to the barn and corralled one of the cows. “I know it’s a little early but I need some milk, Libby.” After about twenty minutes with a Libby who definitely knew that was not the usual time, I had enough milk for my recipes.
Returning to the kitchen, I strained the milk in a cheesecloth and poured a portion of it in an electric blender. A short time later I had butter and added to the simmering broth. I patted down the steak, added salt and pepper and placed it back in the refrigerator. Finding the garden strawberry patch, I harvested a baker’s dozen of the fattest, ripest berries I could find, returned to the kitchen, cleaned, sliced and stirred in sugar. I made a graham cracker crust for the pie with the left over butter, baked it for about ten minutes, poured in the strawberries and let it all set.
By quarter till the appointed hour, I had a rich beef, barley, vegetable stew and a strawberry pie with a mound of fresh whipped cream laying gently on top. I walked up the hill to small house where Lama Gonpo was staying, gave the stew to one of his disciples and the pie to another. He was settled there with his translator, a young woman who was seated on his right. I was introduced and he said something, which was then translated for me as a greeting and thank you.
I closed my palms together thanking him for being here and left. I was informed later in the evening that he had asked for seconds of both the stew and the pie. I was also told in so many words that I had the job.
Each afternoon I cooked a rich stew for Lama Gonpo, varying the ingredients, vegetables and cuts of meat, and included a sweet, delectable dessert. In the following days I was told how much he enjoyed what I had made and thankfully, the community reimbursed me for the cost of the food.
From Rigpa Wiki on the web. The caption reads: Lama Gönpo Tseten Rinpoche, photo taken circa 1979-1980 in the U.S.A. I remember seeing him as in this photograph at the conclusion of the retreat.
Soon the time came for the cooking adventure to end and I was informed the retreat would be over the next evening . I would not be needed to cook dinner on the last night. I was instead invited to their closing ceremony.
Upon entering the room, I immediately understood why I didn’t need to cook. There was a mountain of food, both fresh and prepared near where Lama Gonpo was seated. Wine beer and other beverages were plentiful as well and I was informed these would be consumed at the conclusion of the retreat. I sat there listening to he and his students chant. It was mesmerizing. Then someone who I believe was the senior student stood, and gave a brief talk about how I had stepped in to cook. There was applause and Lama Gonpo motioned for me to come forward. I did and he put a silk scarf around my neck. Once again, I folded my hands and bowed, walking slowly backwards to where I was sitting.
Shortly after the celebration began, I excused myself and went to my writing nook where I jotted down as much as I could remember about what had transpired as his cook. I saw him once again years later in Berkeley, California when he again came to visit his students in California. We had a brief exchange where he remembered me and again expressed his gratitude. He passed on a date that he had predicted in 1991.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited by Karie Engels Giffin