The spiritual life


POLAND – Twenty-three-year-old Eric Wilson is wearing a chef’s jacket and has a rolled white napkin tied across his forehead, and he is busy incorporating his hand-pressed tofu into an enchilada dish.

Despite a small crowd hovering around the open kitchen in anticipation of his food, and a growing pile of dirty utensils, he moves with calm deliberation, layering homemade sauce, the tofu and his own tortillas.

It’s a strong sense of spirituality that guides his work. A student of culinary arts and hospitality management at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Wilson also is a practitioner of Shambhala Buddhism and takes Buddhist courses online from Naropa University in Colorado.

“I think they complement each other,” he says of the two seemingly divergent interests. He actually has pursued the culinary arts degree because of Buddhism, many branches of which believe cooking can be a selfless act leading one toward enlightenment.

“I knew this would be a very easy way to have a sense of livelihood,” Wilson says of his developing cooking career – he already does some catering.

It’s not just a sense of livelihood he is after, but a sense of purpose and meaning. Wilson graduated from Brunswick High School, then spent two aimless years at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“I had no direction in my life,” he says, recalling the experience. “My first year I did quite a lot of partying.”

During his second year, he one day found himself in a shopping district and entered a book store. Already interested in spirituality and Eastern religion, he purchased Phillip Kaplow’s “The Three Pillars of Zen.” That was the beginning of a new path in his life.

He has since started practicing Shambhala Buddhism through a center in Brunswick, and while pursuing his culinary arts degree, he’s had the opportunity to study, travel and attend retreats across the country, in Ireland and in India. After finishing his two-year program at CMCC this spring, he will head for France to cook at Dechen Choling, a Shambhala Buddhist retreat center in Limoges.

Today, Wilson rarely drinks alcohol and he’s more inclined to listen to Buddhist chants than rap or rock. He eats little meat, and is dish-by-dish making his way through a book called “108 Recipes: Gourmet Vegetarian Cooking from Nyingma Institute.”

As the rectangular dish of enchiladas goes into the oven, he says he’s spent a total of 10 hours preparing this meal. He’s made everything from scratch, carefully creating, concocting and adapting the food to his tastes. Not just the enchiladas, but also an unusually decadent miso soup, a colorful egg and beet salad, and ginger ice cream with spice cake. He serves the later with strong coffee, and his guests are delighted.

Wilson has thought about the connection between food and spirituality often. In an essay on the topic he wrote: “Good cooking is about being conscious and aware of even the minutest details and offering your love to others. To be fully in the moment with the task at hand with no distraction is the art of meditation in action.”

Shambhala Buddhism helps him engage in and make life worthwhile, he adds. And through his philosophy and cooking, “hopefully, I can give other people inspiration.”