Deer Park, Day Fourteen
(written on Friday January 24th)
After morning sitting meditation the monastic that has been leading the stick exercise didn’t offer them so I took the lead. The exercises are usually attended by only a few of us lay friends. Today there were three of us. Our working meditation assignment after breakfast was to wash banana leaves in preparation to make earth cakes, a traditional food item especially made around TET (Vietnamese New Year). I have not yet learned of the significance or origin of the earth cakes but perhaps will find out more tomorrow, when much of the day will be spent wrapping and cooking the earth cakes. Seven or eight of us spent over two hours today alone just unpacking, cutting, and washing the banana leaves, which are used as the exterior wrapping. And there were many other leaves and cakes that have already been prepared.
I was part of a group of three at one of the washing stations for the leaves that was set up outside of the brothers dining hall. There were different sizes (from different parts of the banana leaves) and each one got washed in three separate bins of warm water and then arranged around a large strainer. The fresh gentle fragrance of the banana leaves enhanced by soaking them in water was simply lovely.
OK – suddenly an internet connection appeared and so I was able to look up more information about TET and about the earth cakes. Thank you internet for being such a great resource :) TET is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture and occurs on the same day as Chinese New Year. The word TET is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán, meaning “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.” It celebrates the arrival of spring based on the Vietnamese calendar and takes place from the first day of the lunar month until at least the third day. There are many customs practiced during TET, such as making certain foods, decorating, visiting family and friends, worshipping the ancestors, and having celebrations. The earth cakes are part of this tradition and involve forming balls made of rice and bean paste or rice and meat placed traditionally inside of the dong leaf (the banana leaf is an acceptable substitution if the dong leaf is not available). The earth cakes are used as special offerings to the ancestors and also as gifts to family and friends. They are made in such a way that they are able to be stored for a long time without need of refrigeration. All of the ingredients in the earth cakes are medicines (according to Oriental Medicine) that act to keep harmony between the positive and the negative, thus helping the blood circulate well and preventing diseases.
The rest of the day was spent without any scheduled program activities except for sitting meditation followed by chanting at 4:30. Two new friends arrived in our cabin today to stay for the weekend and today marks the halfway point of my time here.