This past month, an academic study called “The Joy of Cooking?” Got some media attention, which I have been following with interest. The study documents how in the U.S. we teach parents — especially mothers — that they have an obligation to provide healthy, home cooked food for their kids, and then ignore the practical barriers that those moms face, putting them in a shaming and impossible position. Low income moms who work full time cannot possibly find the time and money to consistently  provide healthy and home cooked meals for their family. Here are some of those barriers:

  • Lack of time. By the time they get off work, pick up the kids from child care, and commute home (often by underfunded public transportation) it is past dinner and everyone is exhausted and starving. Who will cook?
  • Lack of access to affordable and healthy groceries.
  • Lack of adequate housing.
  • Lack of proper kitchen equipment and utensils. It is an absurd middle class fantasy that all families can afford pots, pans, knives, and a working stove.
  • Lack of community support.
  • Lack of education.

The study’s conclusion is worth noting:

The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring. Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the frontline in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held. Our conversations with mothers of young children show us that this emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.

So let’s move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.

Let’s work together to solve these problems. Our country has more than enough wealth to make sure every child in the world has adequate and nourishing food. We just need to  figure out how to make that happen, replacing greed with generosity and kindness.

The original study can be found here:

And here are some other articles discussing the study:


— Polly Trout

virtue photoBuddhism encourages people to practice virtue and avoid non-virtue. Virtue is the pathway that allows a person to accomplish goals defined in a Buddhist path. From Buddhists and non-Buddhists, I have learned about the concept of Sunyata (emptiness) in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. The idea is central to the four Noble Truths that guide all schools of Buddhism. To reach this state of emptiness, we first endure suffering to dispel ignorance, and then relinquish it when we gain enlightenment. Emptiness as such does not carry a negative connotation in Buddhism, but stands as its ultimate truth. Many question why one should practice virtue and abstain from non-virtue, if in the end neither feature in the state of emptiness. Indeed, why should we practice virtue?

Through meditation I have found that Buddhism requires intellectual exercise. This has helped me observe that many Tibetans do not question why it is good for people to help each other. Their attitude is culturally typical, not intellectually passive. In western societies we learn to question everything in relation to our experience in the world, but this is an uncommon practice in Asian cultures. The differences can manifest as the western concept of individuality vs. the eastern traditions that extol humility and communal identity. This may help explain why many Tibetans—including the Dalai Lama—seem puzzled by the ideas of guilt and self-loathing. These words in fact do not exist functionally in Tibetan.

Before we can engage in a Buddhist journey, we must examine how context alters the meaning of virtue. In many places, stereotypes and social stigmas guide or accompany the definition of good and evil. This can exhaust and desensitize people, and move them far from the true meaning of virtue. Consider the religious focus on gay marriage and birth control, as manifested in some groups of the United States; here a religious moral is characterized as good, and anything opposed to it, as evil. This deems evil or immoral anyone whose lifestyle or opinion falls outside the definition.

Different people tend to judge virtue according to their upbringing and experience in life. This may include those who do not admire the charitable work of the late Mother Teresa; and others who perceive the pacifist legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as ultimately ineffective or even cowardly. So what is the true meaning of virtue?

 Tibetan Buddhism has a helpful analogy about a snake and a rope: Although they are different in many respects, the rope and the snake are similar in shape (both long and narrow, without appendages). However, one of them can bite a person and insert its deadly poison into his or her bloodstream. The analogy shows that while neither the rope nor the snake are inherently evil, one of them can cause great detriment.

 When we strip virtue of social constructs, we find that its true meaning is truth. We can only, from the viewer, know this truth in another by their acts. If, in ourselves, we understand this truth, we practice virtue that manifests into generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, wisdom and compassion. When we practice these virtues regularly, we strengthen our ability to dismantle ignorance—the root cause of evil in the world—and we experience a profound transformation that makes us wiser and more aware. With greater practice the act of ‘will’ in the sense of ‘work’ decreases. The acts of virtue become ever increasing natural expressions of our character — closer to breathing than thoughtful expressions. Then our happiness is no longer confined to a focal point or singularity. The ability to experience joy on a grand scale follows when a person reaches a stage undetermined by the needs of the self. Once freed from self-centered desires, people may experience more harmony with the universe, enjoy a peaceful existence and approach enlightenment. The process requires that the self, as we conceive it in western civilization, become weaker and undergo benevolent destruction.

When I ask my students to draw a diagram representing love, many of them include arrows pointing outward in their drawings. If I ask them to demonstrate hate or anger, they tend to draw arrows that point inward. We can say from this that love is an outward flow (thats material artifact is known through the service we perform to help a fellow being), which eliminates those negative arrows pointing toward the center of the diagram. The absence of negativity helps liberate the self.

I have also asked other students (many of whom had been involved with street gangs and the juvenile justice system, and stopped attending school or struggled academically) to discuss the happiest moments in their lives. The stories of these young men and women are moving and almost always are about acts of kindness, during which they volunteered to help another person. Many of them begin with “When I helped my mom” and “When I took care of my sister.” One particularly moving story falls in these lines:

 One winter a student was working his spot in downtown Seattle, selling narcotics, and chatting with friends. When it began to rain, his buddies left and he headed toward the nearest bus stop. On his way, he saw an elderly woman in a short sleeved dress pushing a grocery cart in an alleyway. She seemed “crazy” dressed like that in cold weather. The image moved the student, and without thought he ran to the woman, removed his thick jacket, placed it around her shoulders, and left running. When he stopped, breathless, he realized he had run passed several blocks. When I asked him why he did this he could not answer. It arose in him spontaneously as a reaction to a person he perceived to be in need. It arose, in my understanding, from the innate, dynamic, benevolent universal base we all share.

The story illustrates how virtue forms our core. It is tragic when we live disconnected from this natural gift, in favor of material or frivolous interests, but stories like these remind us of our human potential for good, and renew our faith with hope and, hopefully, expectations of ourselves. The sense of self alone does not motivate compassion for others, but our innate capacity for compassion can drive selfless behavior. This is clear in the story of the student I had the great experience to know, who now recounts his reflex to comfort a stranger as one of the happiest events of his life.

Compassionate action is in harmony with our true nature, and when we treat others with compassion, we practice virtue. Virtue and Non-Virtue are to be seen as closer to, or further away, from happiness. One is a tool to attain it, get closer to it, and the other is one that produces barriers to it and keeps us further from it. They are means and ends in themselves. They are means in the sense that they can be tools or hindrances to our ultimate goal, as Buddhists, but also ends in themselves. They are ends in that they are either expressions of our natural state or not, they either serve for the happiness of others or they don’t. Dr. King’s quote from his speech, “Conquering Self-Centeredness” resonates with me often, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” and what I hear, from the Buddha in addition, when I think of this quote, was his admonishing the monks who had let one of their sick brethren wallow in his filth, “Whoever serves the sick and suffering serves me.” And, I ask, upon reflection of the 3 types of suffering-who is not suffering? Who is not sick?  Herein we find our calling to virtue, the effectiveness of virtue, and the Buddhist pathway to happiness.

Guru Dorje is the secretary and treasurer of Patacara’s board of directors. At Shoreline Community College, he directs Learning Center North, a program that supports youth at risk. Guru earned his M.Ed. from Antioch University, and a B.S. in biology from the University of Washington. He has lived in the United States since age two, when his family fled Tibet via Nepal. As a youngster, Guru experienced poverty in Seattle, and this motivated him to help others. He has taught for nearly two decades, applying models that help students succeed against the odds. Outside work Guru enjoys spending time with his family and participating in community projects.



By Polly Trout, Executive Director, Patacara Community Services

At Patacara we find refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. People unfamiliar with Buddhism ask, “What does that mean?” This is a valid question because different branches of Buddhism translate these Sanskrit words differently, and as a nonsectarian community we work to build bridges between different traditions within the faith. At our first board meeting we discussed how to translate these terms for our website, and decided it was better to leave them untranslated and invite everyone to contribute their own interpretation. Each of the three words has at least two levels of meaning: A historical level and an existential level.

On a historical level, Buddha usually refers to Siddhārtha Gautama, also called Shakyamuni. Gautama Buddha lived roughly 2,500 years ago in northern India and is the founder of Buddhism. After he became enlightened his followers began to call him “Buddha,” which means “awakened one.” It is an honorary title applicable to any enlightened being, and different schools have multiple theories about how many enlightened beings the universe holds. On an existential level, Buddha may also refer to luminous mind that transcends the artificial limitations imposed by ignorance, greed, and hatred.

When Buddha began to teach he taught mostly Hindus, so he borrowed the word Dharma from them but gave it a new definition and perspective as he taught them to view the world through his eyes. In both traditions Dharma means the objective truth about how reality functions, untainted by human subjectivity. Because we believe that Buddha saw and understood that truth, we call his teachings the Dharma. Dharma also means natural law, which includes ethics and the art of character building, because humans are a part of nature and behave according to predictable patterns.

Buddha taught that we should strive toward enlightenment, and that it is easier to become enlightened as a monk or nun than as a householder, burdened with work, children, and worldly responsibilities. Monks and nuns sacrifice the ordinary pleasures of domestic life so that they can turn their entire attention and energy toward achieving spiritual liberation. Sangha originally meant just monks and nuns, and many people still use it in this traditional sense. Other Buddhist groups use Sangha more loosely to refer to the community of believers or serious practitioners. When I seek refuge, I find it in two different interpretations of Sangha: The elders and teachers who have gone before me to light the way, whom I can trust because they have gone farther along the path than me; and the fellow travelers who surround me, support me, and encourage me (and this influence can come from a person of any age, whether it is an elder or a small child).

No matter how we define the words of Buddhism, the importance is that they give those who choose a Buddhist path toward wholeness something true and good to orient life, a place of safety and shelter when the storms threaten to overwhelm our human experience. How do you define them?


The Winter 2013 issue of Tricycle magazine has a lovely interview with Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of Catalytic Communities. CatComm is an NGO in Rio de Janeiro that works to bring visibility to the positive qualities of favelas, low income neighborhoods that are sometimes demonized as violent slums. While poverty causes suffering in the favelas, it also stimulates solutions that arise within the community.

Theresa, a Buddhist, discusses the connection between her practice and her social justice work:

We’re not attached to outcomes in the same way that a lot of organizations are. We look at our projects as experiments, and we gauge things as we go along. We also fundraise accordingly. We almost never fundraise from foundations, because they expect long-term deliverables, and those don’t allow us to have the flexibility we need to respond to and be supportive of communities in Rio’s fast-changing environment. And when we start projects, we look to see if anyone else is doing it already. If they are, we think: Are they doing a good job? How can we support them? We don’t need to be the ones doing it—it just needs to get done. The idea that permeates this is that it is about helping people. This is about commitment to improving things. This is about reducing suffering.

Theresa’s thoughts resonate with me, and connect to themes that I have been considering in the past year, as we have worked to establish Patacara’s Café. Like CatComm, Patacara will fundraise primarily from a grassroots base of individual giving, rather than expecting large grants from formal foundations. The latter almost always demand “measurable outcomes.” Efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability are necessary, but often “measurable outcomes” place quantity over quality, and compromise workers’ ability to greet participants as human beings, with an open heart in the present moment. I have joked that at Patacara we will focus on “immeasurable outcomes”—loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We will count how many meals we serve to people suffering from hunger and poverty, but we will measure our performance based on the way we serve those meals. Do we serve with respect and kindness? Do we take time to listen? Do our guests feel honored as human beings, and leave standing a little taller?

We have much work to do before we open our doors for service in the fall of 2014, and establish a strong organization that can deliver service with joyful enthusiasm and outstanding quality. We appreciate your generosity and support during our creative and incubating stage. The yeast is proofing and the bread is rising, and we will be baking soon!

The Northwest Dharma Association’s Fall Newsletter includes this story about Patacara Community Services: