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
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
*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
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
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
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
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
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.