Writer Kimberley Snow lived in a Tibetan Buddhist community in Northern California for six years with her husband, poet Barry Spacks. She cofounded the Women’s Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of Writing Yourself Home and Keys to the Open Gate. A former executive chef at the Kentucky Horse Center in Lexington, Ky., Kimberley has a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. She is also the webmaster of the websites quietspaces.com and snowlight.com.
Kimberley Snow’s new book, In Buddha’s Kitchen: Cooking, Being Cooked, and Other Adventures in a Meditation Center (Shambhala, May 2003), is a first-person account of her experiences living and working as a cook at a Buddhist retreat center.
Matt Borondy: In your book you mention the extreme differences between a Japanese Zen kitchen and a Tibetan Buddhist kitchen: "Forget the bowing, the silence, the respect. Add color, noise, and chaos." Why is there such a marked difference between the two, and how did the disorder of the latter help you along your path?
Kimberley Snow: Wherever it has spread, Buddhism has changed and adapted to that country, so over the years some striking differences have developed between Japanese Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana that reflect the style of their cultures.
At the time, it didn’t seem that the "Tibetan disorder" helped me along the path at all. I thought religion should be cool and dry, not hot and wet. But becoming high and holy was just my concept about how a spiritual life should be. Now I really appreciate the fact that from the beginning there was no split between everyday life and religious aspirations. It’s all one, all here, all now.
MB: You helped found the Women’s Studies program at UC- Santa Barbara. At one point in IBK you comment that women’s studies seems to have evolved into a "bitchy recapitulation of male academics." Do you continue to do any work in women’s studies, or have you been completely turned off? Is there hope for that sector of academia? What would you change about it?
KS: That was an unkind thing for me to say, and I hope it isn’t altogether true. Although I’m still a feminist, I’m not involved in women’s studies at this point. Most of the time, I can’t really tell what they are talking about. The language is very opaque to me, the arguments abstract in the extreme. But it’s more than that. Back in the old days there was a sense of community with the early women’s studies groups, an alternative to the overly rational academy. Maybe it still is in some places, I hope so. For a while there in the ’80s, women who weren’t even feminist would go into women’s studies as a career move and it seemed to me that a lot of the heart went out of the field around then.
Also, today many of the female students have incorporated the changes of the early movement and just don’t want to hear about how we used to walk three miles through the snow to burn our bras. Nowadays, I can’t even get some of them to use the "f" word [feminism]. This isn’t such a bad thing—they have their own lives and problems plus expectations and demands created by the early women’s movement that they are trying to deal with.
I think less political correctness and more compassion is what is needed in women’s studies now, a real concern for other people. Not just in women’s studies, but in politics as well.
MB: My favorite phrase from your book is one of Atisha’s slogans, "Don’t expect applause," which you use as the title for part two of IBK. Who was Atisha? What are some of his other slogans?
KS: Atisha, born in Bengal in 982, was the teacher who brought the "Seven Point Mind Training" teaching from Sumatra to India and then later transmitted it to Tibet. The Seven Points, which stress loving kindness and compassion, consist of 59 proverbs divided by subject into seven sections. A few of the other slogans:
*Always apply only a joyful mind.
*Don’t ponder others.
*Abandon any hope of fruition.
*Don’t be so trustworthy.
*Don’t malign others.
*Don’t wait in ambush.
*Don’t bring things to a painful point.
*Don’t transfer the ox’s load to the cow.
*Don’t try to be the fastest.
*Don’t act with a twist.
*Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.
*Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.
MB: You’ve spent a lot of time cooking for Buddhists, and there is substantial debate concerning vegetarianism among various sects. What was the attitude at your Tibetan Buddhist community regarding this? Do you personally think it’s appropriate for Buddhists to eat meat?
KS: Vegetables just don’t grow well in Tibet, but sheep do, so Tibetans tend to be heavy meat eaters rather than vegetarians. When asked about killing an animal in order to eat it, Tibetans will say that one sheep will feed a lot of people, but to raise vegetables, one must kill many, many insects. At the center where I cooked, we served both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. I’m not personally a vegetarian although the older I get, the more inclined I am in that direction.
MB: You run a couple of Buddhist websites, QuietSpaces.com and SnowLight.com. How do you relate the building of websites to your dharma practice? What does the internet generally have to offer the modern Buddhist?
KS: The first site I ever designed was for the retreat center where we lived, and I’m still doing their websites—two in California, one in New Mexico and one in Brazil. For me, it’s a form of volunteer service that isn’t as messy as cooking. At first (1995), I used this funny little editing program called "Hotdog," but the software has gotten much easier since then and a lot more fun.
The internet offers to Buddhists what it offers to everyone: connection and information. And both on an enormous scale. I once went to "Ask Jeeves" search engine and asked, "How do I reach enlightenment?" and it took me right to the Four Noble Truths.
MB: You’ve also taught classes on writing and on science fiction. What are some of your favorite books to teach? Are there prominent sci-fi books in the Western literary canon that have a sort of unconscious Buddhist flare to them?
KS: My favorite SF writers to teach are Marge Piercy (He, She & It), Ursula leGuin (Left Hand of Darkness) and Doris Lessing (Marriages Between Zones Three, Four & Five). The way they imagined gender in their novels broadened and enriched our thinking on the subject in ways that critical analysis never could. Like many science-fiction writers, they sort of dip into the future and bring it back to us. Left Hand of Darkness has decided Taoist undertones and Lessing’s books are influenced by Sufism, but no particularly Buddhist book especially comes to mind although I do get little dharma whiffs from time to time.
MB: Do you spend more time writing or meditating? How do the two practices inform each other?
KS: I usually do both every day but the proportions vary. Writing, like meditation, can be a path for developing compassion as well as bringing things up into consciousness. Something about picking up the pen, or letting my fingers just sort of dance over the keyboard, helps to by-pass the normal busy mind and take me somewhere else. When I’m writing about someone, I have to pay close attention to them and their lives, thus it is a good way to "walk in their shoes." A loving kindness meditation does something very similar.
MB: What writing projects are you currently undertaking? Are you still writing plays?
KS: I’m between "big" projects right now, and most of my writing is for the web, mainly www.quietspaces.com which I started in tandem with a class I taught at UCSB called "Choosing Peace." The class is over, but I keep adding to the site. I used to think that anything I did in html wasn’t "real" writing, but this is no longer true.
I haven’t written a play in a long time although it is really my favorite form. It’s like cooking a very complicated meal where a lot depends on the timing. But to be successful as a playwright, you have to be committed to a life in the theatre, which I’m not. But I loved the way different characters would emerge out of nowhere and try to take over the play as if each and every one of them wanted to be the lead.
MB: How much attention do you pay to the horrible situation in Tibet?
KS: Although I’m deeply sympathetic to the plight of Tibet, lately I’ve been paying more attention to the horrible situation in Iraq. I’ve been involved in the peace movement here in Santa Barbara, helping to organize the Women’s Peace Walks and teaching workshops.
MB: About seven years ago a friend sent me a bizarre postcard with the word "wagamama" on it. That was the only time I’d ever come across the word until visiting your website the other day and seeing that it was the name of your cat. What inspired you choose that obscure name for your pet?
KS: When I first got the cat, I happened to be reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan which defined wagamama as "someone who puts their own wishes ahead of those of the group." It seemed a perfect name for this little eight-pound creature of unabashed self-expression. Later, I found out that it also means someone who is very picky, which was certainly true of the cat as well. When my daughter married a Japanese-American, his family all thought it was very funny that wagamama was almost the only word we knew in Japanese.