Among Monks, Mastering the Discipline of Breakfast
A changing taste for breakfast at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in South India.
The Taming of the Mind
I have been living in Tashi Lhunpo monastery located in Bylakuppe, South India for the past three months, studying Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. I live among 380 monks. In this serene sanctuary, I have come to discover that I own a mind. It is wild, unruly and constantly busy — or like the Buddhist saying, my mind is like “a wild and drunken elephant.” Learning how my mind works and ways to tame it is an arduous job and difficult commitment, one that requires great concentration, patience, effort and courage. With guidance from kind teachers, I am beginning to learn how to take charge of it to serve me, instead of me serving it. Even with little gains, I marvel at the smallest changes within me. For instance, taste. My taste for breakfast has changed drastically while living here.
Each morning at 6 am sharp, the sound of a conch shell calling the monks to puja or prayer and offering service can be heard echoing through the vast quiet ground of the monastery. The scattering sound of monks’ rubber sandals hitting and sliding against the hard surface of the road are reminiscent of dancing soft-shoes gliding along with the long melancholy tone of the conch shell. The monks rush to temple, hoping to arrive before the official calls for prayer. Late arrivals are out of the question.
Outside the massive doors of the the temple stand a group of 20 to 40 young monks, ranging from the age of five to twelve years old. They begin to sing — or rather, shout on the top of their lungs — the melodic mantra of Lama Tsongkhapa, the 14th century monk and founder of Tashi Lhunpo monastery’s Tibetan Buddhist sect, Gulukpa, the Virtuous One. This powerful and centuries old mantra sets into motion a melding together of body, speech and mind, connecting it with the spirits of three Buddhas of the Gulukpa sect: one of compassion, another of wisdom, and a third, one that helps stabilize and take charge of our mind.
The mantra navigates and energizes the mind into a calm abiding space, preparing the monks for more prayers to come. It is repeated as many times as necessary under the command of an assistant discipline master whose main responsibility is to take charge of attending monks. Loud repeated recitation of the mantra is also used as a beckoning call for puja. It allows the time for the young and adult monks alike to quickly come to the temple. When they arrive they walk past the singing monks to enter the temple. The assistant discipline master signals for the chanting to stop when he thinks that enough time has passed. The chanters rush in to find a choice seat, joining the others who are already seated on rows of long maroon color cushions, protecting them from the cold and hard granite floor. The chanting master, sitting in the middle of the temple on a raised seat, sings the first prayer into a microphone. His deep throaty voice resonates a powerful sound that streams into the emotional space within me, illuminating my mind and heart with a sense of mystery and serenity. The seated monks join in the recitation, recalling from their memory one prayer after another.
Discipline master and his assistant survey the monks with their watchful eyes, making sure that young monks behave themselves during the service. Small monks constantly make mischief to stay awake. Several simply give up and succumb to sleep, doubling over the top of the cushion. They are saved from a beating by the discipline master or his assistant by their friends, who nudge them awake minutes before these “police” monks are able to make it to their row.
By and by, ten to twelve teenage monks are signaled by the assistant discipline master to bring breakfast from the monastery kitchen located several buildings far away from the temple. They run as if they are in a race, their maroon robes billowing behind them.
Pak Leb is a flatbread. The monks called it pah lay, and so I shall refer to it here. It is a slightly sweet and dense bread cooked on a griddle. Depending on who made the pah lay, the size ranges from 25 cm (10-inch) rounds, to slightly smaller or bigger. It is about 1.3 to 2 cm (1/2 to 3/4-inch) thick, again depending on the hands that shaped it. It should resemble a full moon, with whitish and shallow craters scattered on its golden-brownish color surface, but I have been given pah lay that was oddly shaped and partly burnt. A perfect pah lay is very much sought after by monks when it is being distributed. How they manage to finagle one I will explain later.
Pah lay from Tashi Lhunpos monastery is very famous in the Tibetan Settlement Camps. The territory, resembling a city, is a huge settlement with over 50,000 Tibetan refugees living in twenty-two camps. Tashi Lhunpo monastery is located next to Camp Fourteen, a newer settlement.
My friend, the Venerable Kunchok Tenzin, is the present elected general secretary at the monastery. He is my educator in regard to pah lay and its origin. According to Ga-chin (a title earned after the completion of Buddhist philosophy degree) Kunchok La (an honorific used to address a person by Tibetan), pah lay is either Tibetan or Indian. He is not sure where it came from.
Ga-chin Kunchok La was a young boy of eight when he was ordained as a monk at Tashi Lhunpo monastery in the city of Shigatze, Tsang province, Tibet before escaping to India at the age of thirteen. He has lived in this monastery for the past 20 years. Some think, he said, that perhaps pah lay is an attempted version of a flatbread from Amdo, another province in Tibet. However, he doesn’t agree because the Amdo bread is similar to Mongolian bread, with a lighter and fluffier inner texture and a harder and crispier crust.
All monks must rotate to work in the kitchen. In Ga-chin Kunchok La’s case, he was put to work in the kitchen as soon as he arrived at the monastery and remained there until 6 years ago, when he began to study for his bachelor degree in Buddhist Philosophy. He knows the ins and outs of the kitchen, including how to make a good pah lay.
During his time in the kitchen, he was one of only two young monks who cooked for one hundred or so monks. Today the monastery kitchen is manned by sixteen to twenty monks, ranging in age from early teens to twenties, who cook three meals a day for 380 monks. In addition, they also make Tibetan butter tea and Indian chai for special puja prayer services during the day and evening. They are under the supervision of a senior monk.
During Ga-chin Kunchok La’s time, the supervisor monk was a strict and skillful cook. Back then, pah lay was a special breakfast food offering, not a daily staple as today. Coming from Tibet and unfamiliar with pah lay — not to mention lacking any cooking experience — he was terrified. On top of it all, most of the monks at the monastery came from Ladakh, a region located in northern India that bordered Nepal and China. These Ladakhian monks had learned Tibetan, a new language for them, at the monastery and had developed a strange accent of their own. Ga-chin Kunchok La could not understand them. The combination created a problem for the young and forlorn teenager who was often beaten and humiliated. However, within a short time, he became a skilled cook and pah lay maker. He also learned the art of persuasion that would serve him well for years to come.
Pah lay during Ga-chin Kunchok La’s time was not as sweet as today because less sugar was added to the dough mixture. Vegetable oil gave it a light texture. Monks in the surrounding monasteries and Tibetan lay people loved Tashi Lhunpo monastery pah lay. Any pah lay left after the monks’ breakfast was sold to them. Other nearby monasteries sent monks to learn how to make pah lay but were unsuccessful duplicating it.
A Request for Kitchen Duty
I made a request through the monastery administrative office to ask if I could learn how to make pah lay. They readily agreed and introduced me to Chung-Chub La, the monk in charge of the kitchen. He is a jovial, slightly overweight, middle-aged monk with twinkles in his eyes. He was surprised that I would want to work in the kitchen. Due to various Buddhist and school activities, it took me several times to watch and participate in the different steps of the process. During these numerous visits, I became friendly with the young monks on kitchen duty who practiced their English with me.
Around 10:30 in the morning, the monks began to mix the dough for pah lay. The main cook monk, Tenzin La, is in his early twenties. He is rail-thin with a dark complexion. Tenzin La displayed great confidence and skill as a cook. He spoke English haltingly but had no qualms about making himself understood.
In the middle of the kitchen, under a roof overlooking an open-air area, stood a very large and well-worn wooden table. A couple of monks spilled wheat flour from several plastic bags onto the table, and created a large snowy-white mountain in the center of it. I guessed it to be about 45 kilos (100 pounds). Later I was told it was 30 kilos (66 pounds) of flour. Under the watchful eyes of Tenzin La, one of the monks used his hands to spread the flour into an oblong shape and made a shallow crater in the center. Another monk scooped cups of sugar and spread it on top of the inner crater. I was told the amount was about 5 kilos (11 pounds). He then brought over a 19-liter (five-gallon) container of oil and proceeded to empty some into a pitcher, then poured it into the crater. He would repeat it until he thought it was enough. When I asked, he said he’d used about 5 liters (5 quarts) of oil. By now, you have gotten the idea — nothing is measured. They did not know that measuring cups exist. When I told them that precise measurement of ingredients could make a big difference in baking, they thought it was rather funny and strange.
By this time, another monk started to fill a metal pail with water from a faucet against the wall in the open-air area. Once he decided on the right amount, he hauled it over to a large brick stove where a big caldron sat filled with boiling water. Another monk used a huge ladle to scoop the hot water into the pail. The stove, the main heat source for cooking, was fired by a large pile of burning wood, stuffed and overflowing from underneath, spilling half burning logs on to the ground. It radiated red-hot heat, and the billowing smoke suffocated the precious air in the poorly ventilated kitchen. No one noticed except me.
Tenzin La put his hand into the pail, testing the water’s temperature, and signaled a monk to pour it slowly into the crater. When he thought it was just the right amount, he signaled him to stop. He then took a metal ladle and filled it with about 473 ml (2 cups) of the warm water and added about 44 ml (3 tablespoons) of yeast from a plastic container. He then poured the mixture into the crater. Two monks slowly pushed the flour from the edges around the crater into the center, while at the same time mixing and kneading. They occasionally splattered handfuls of warm water onto the huge mound of sticky dough. Although the dough was not completely mixed, with bits of loose powdery flour still visible, they divided it into several mounds, each about 76 by 102 cm (30 by 40 inches), at the edges of the table. They wet the surface of the center of the table slightly with water and then moved the mounds onto it, kneading all the separated mounds into one. The dough was then covered with a plastic sheet and blanketed with several empty burlap bags. The dough had to “sleep,” as they called it, for at least 4 hours or longer before it could be shaped. The kitchen was hot; a good place for the dough to sleep while the monks cleaned up and finished cooking lunch.
Kneading and Resting
March is the beginning of summer at Tashi Lhunpo monastery. By mid-afternoon, the sun seemed to stand transfixed in the cloudless sky radiating intense rays of dry white heat. Walking a short distant from my little room to the kitchen was punishing. By the time I entered the kitchen, the heat from the cooking fire had raised the temperature of the already unbearably hot room. The monks wore only their yellow undershirt and shan thap, a heavy cotton maroon sarong-like bottom. They perspired heavily. No one complained. Instead, they got down to the work of shaping pah lay.
Sometime during the sleeping period, the plastic and burlap bags had been replaced by a blue plastic sheet. I gathered that the dough was probably kneaded several times in between, but no one seemed to understand my question when asked. The rested dough looked well-kneaded. It had risen to at least twice its original size into a beautiful, light and smooth mound. I stuck my finger into it. It felt like perfectly well raised bread dough.
Keeping the dough under cover, one of the monks took charge by cutting a large piece from it with a knife. He then kneaded it into a long and thick rope, before cutting it again into even pieces a bit larger than a tennis ball. Another monk joined in, taking a piece of the cut dough, kneading it without adding any flour. Because of the oil in the mixture, the dough did not stick to the table or his hands. He covered the dough with both of his hands, and made a quick, rounded, evenly timed movement around it while pressing inward and against the surface of the table. It took less than a minute before the dough turned into a perfectly rounded and smooth ball. He pinched the bottom to close any visible gaps and placed it on one side of the table before picking up another one to repeat the process. I tried to imitate him with great difficulty. It took several tries before I began to get hold of this rather strange kneading method. I concentrated on the dough, stopped treating it as some delicate matter but simply as a malleable thing that could take the pressure and movement from my hands. It adhered to my touches, moving as one with me. The good-natured monks praised my work, although I knew I could have done better. With their kind encouragement, I worked with them to shape all the dough into balls. Once again the balls were covered with another plastic sheet. “Let it sleep for little,” one of the monks said.
And so, I sat with them while the balls were put to sleep, drinking water from my bottle while they drank ice-cold Pepsi someone had bought from the monastery store nearby. Unfortunately it is their favorite drink, and a reward for their labor in the kitchen. Ga-chin Kunchok La would confirm later that Pepsi and other soft drinks were very expensive. They were used as a powerful enticement and bargaining chip to get other monks to help in the kitchen, especially making pah lay.
A Lesson in Rolling
Sitting near the pah lay table was a large and archaic looking gas griddle. It was powered by propane gas and had been turned on for quite sometime, adding to the oppressive heat of the kitchen. Its oily surface shimmered. I followed the lead from a monk who took a ball of dough from under the swollen plastic sheet. Using a long plastic tube, about 4 cm (1 1/2 inches) in diameter and a bit over 30 cm (12 inches) long, he skillfully rolled the dough into an oblong shape, stretching its length away from him. He picked it up and turned it horizontally before rolling over it, shaping it into a circle. A plastic tube is an odd substitute for a pastry rolling pin, but it made sense because of its lightweight and smooth surface. The dough never stuck to it or to the table. He picked up the shaped pah lay and gently tossed it to the other side of the table near the griddle, before picking up another to work on.
After watching the process that seemed so easy and effortless, I tried to do it. However, I did not pay close attention, thinking, “I could do this.” I rolled the dough as if I was rolling it for a pie. I picked up the dough, rolled it into an oblong shape and flipped it over while at the same time setting it horizontally. The dough was light and airy. It stretched easily but immediately shrank back. It wouldn’t stay rounded. I started to pat and shape it with my hands. Tenzin La happened to come around and paused to watch me. “Su-Mei La,” he said laughingly. “We want a moon shape, not the map of India.” This got the other monks attention and they gathered to watch my pah lay, laughing. Tenzin La took the plastic tube from my hand and showed me how to roll it correctly. He watched as I tried to repeat what he did. The pah lay turned out better, not a moon shape or the map of India. I worked together with another monk to roll out all the balls, slowly mastering the shape, toward the end, into an almost perfect moon.
As the pah lay began to fill the table, a monk gently picked one up from the table, spreading it over the palm of his hand. He flipped it onto the hot griddle. One by one, following the instructions of the monk who manned the griddle, he expertly flipped the wet and stretchy dough onto the hot surface in a neat and uniform row. Two other monks came to help flip the pah lay. Instantly, after it hit the hot surface, the flat and soft dough began to set. The yeast, sugar and oil started to work their magic on the gluten, creating airy bubbles that swelled bigger and bigger. With no place to escape, trapped inside the firm outer surface of the dough, the bubbles doubled the height of the pah lay.
The monks used a thin metal spatula attached to a long wiry handle to flip the pah lay as the bottoms began to brown. When the griddle was filled with pah lay, close attention was required. The pah lay needed to be flipped constantly to keep from burning. When the cooked ones were taken off the griddle, and the new uncooked ones were added, the monks needed a system to help them remember which was which. Otherwise, one would end up with an overcooked and slightly burnt pah lay. This happened quite often when these young monks got carried away with conversation. While the pah lay were being cooked, sweet, yeasty bread aroma filled the air in the hot kitchen.
Cooked pah lay were laid to cool on metal shelves next to the griddle, then stacked. They were kept overnight in the kitchen and would be loaded into several large plastic crates early next morning for the monks to haul them to the temple for breakfast.
Tea with Butter and Salt
Hot butter tea, another famous Tashi Lhunpo monastery product, was brewed early in the morning to be eaten with pah lay.
Gachin Kunchok La explained that traditional butter tea served in Tibet tasted like strong brewed buttery-tasting tea rather than the milky drink made at Tashi Lhunpo monastery. In Tibet, it was made with a very strong, reddish Chinese tea. Salt and yak or cow butter were added. Very little milk, if any, was added to the tea. At Tashi Lhunpo monastery, however, the tea is made from weaker Indian tea leaves with a lot more cow milk added, turning the tea into a light yellowish milky color. Then some salt is added together with the soft thick butter, separated earlier from fresh milk.
The tea is kept hot in a large caldron over a slow burning fire. When the monks come running to the kitchen, they ladle the tea into several huge metal teakettles. It takes great skill and strength to carry the heavy kettles filled with hot liquid from the kitchen all the way back to the temple.
I have learned the signal when the pah lay and tea have finally arrived at the temple. Next to the temple door inside is a raised seat with a cushion for the discipline master. Beside it is a small wooden table with a couple of shelves underneath. Several plastic plates are stored on one of the shelves. I sit on a long cushion against the wall next to them. When the monks return from the kitchen, one of them comes in to get the plates. Three perfectly shaped and cooked pah lay are placed on each of the plates. Three monks, each carrying a plate of pah lay enter the temple. The first monk stops briefly at the entrance and raises the plate high above his forehead. He then walks to the far end of the temple toward an immense altar set against the back wall. It is a glass floor-to-ceiling cabinet.
Inside the cabinet are several huge golden statues: the Buddha; the Fourth Panchen Lama, the 16th century monk and prolific author and teacher of Tashi Lhunpo monastery; Lama Tsongkhapa, the monk who founded the Gulukpa sect and his disciples; Milarepa, an 11th century aesthetic who became enlightened in one lifetime; and Tara, the Buddha of compassion and one of the main deities of the monastery. In front of the cabinet are several offering trays and in front of them is a huge throne for the present and the eleventh Panchen Lama, the head lama of Tashi Lhunpo monastery. In 1994, at the age of five, he was recognized as the reincarnated Panchen Lama. Together with his parents and the monk who recognized him, the Chinese Communist government arrested him. They have never been seen since then and their whereabouts is unknown. In his absence, his ceremonial robe is neatly folded and placed in the center of the throne. On each side are offering trays of food and money. A young monk places a plate with the pah lay on a tray. Shortly after, another will fill an empty cup next to it with hot butter tea.
A monk puts a plate of pah lay on a small table in front of the chanting master. Another will fill his empty cup, which he brought with him to puja, with butter tea. The third plate of pah lay is given to the discipline master and his little orange cup on the table is filled with hot butter tea.
The rest of the pah lay, at least a dozen or so at a time, are stacked together and carried into the temple by the monks. They spread throughout the temple, starting from the far end near the altar and slowly working their way toward the entrance, handing the pah lay one by one to the chanting monks. This is when the smaller monks make mischief. Some try to reach over and unravel the stack in search of a perfectly shaped and cooked pah lay. The monk holding the stack steps back and throws a pah lay at the naughty one, and quickly moves on. Within minutes, pah lay are set in rows, leaning against the cushion in front of each monk.
Followed closely behind are monks bearing kettles brimming with hot butter tea. They use part of their zhen or wrap to cover the hand that supports the hot metal surface of the kettle. Again, they start from the far end, pouring the tea into cups that each monk has brought with him to puja. The filled cups are placed on the floor in front of the pah lay as the chanting continues.
The Discipline of Breakfast
I first visited Tashi Lhunpo monastery last year for four days during the Tibetan New Year. I knew almost nothing about life in the monastery. As a stranger, I wanted to take part in the monk’s daily activities, starting by attending the morning puja. Not knowing that breakfast was a regular part of it, I was served and accepted a pah lay and butter tea. I remember my reaction after taking a bite of the sweet and dense bread and taking a sip of the tea. I was close to being repulsed by them. The pah lay tasted like Hawaiian sweet bread that has been flattened. The butter tea tasted like liquid salted butter. After that, during my remaining attendance of puja, I would refuse breakfast.
This time, when I came back to live at the monastery and first attended the puja, I had nearly forgotten about the breakfast ritual. As the monks began their distribution of pah lay and butter tea, a temple maintenance monk graciously placed before me a beautiful Chinese porcelain cup for my use. As the monks began to eat their breakfast and I joined in and took a bite of the bread and drank the buttery salty liquid, my memory suddenly clicked in. It was as I remembered. I ate several bites of the pah lay and wrapped the rest with a piece of tissue to be taken back to my room. I took several drinks of the tea, just enough to wash away the sweet and dense taste of the pah lay. The rest I would empty outside the temple when the service ended.
As weeks progressed, I found myself taking several more bites out of the pah lay and drinking more of the butter tea. At a store in one of the camps I even bought a traditional Tibetan wooden teacup used especially for butter tea. I could not explain what changed my attitude. I was never told by anyone what the breakfast ritual meant until weeks later when Gachin Kunchok La and I had a conversation about my love of puja. By then, I had come to love the breakfast of pah lay and butter tea. The only explanation I had was the change that took place in my mind.
As the pah lay and butter tea were being carried into the temple, I came to imagine them as blessed offerings for us to partake together in the presence of the Buddhas and deities. The celestial sound of chanting did something rather magical to me. Its melodic sound, unique to Tashi Lhunpo monastery, seemed to stream into my heart and mind, the words of prayer strung together like mala or prayer beads. One by one, I began to count the invisible beads along with the words, easing away the clutter in my mind and replacing it with light. My heart slowed and was calmed by the indescribable power of the prayers.
Breakfast and Gratitude
I would learn later that Buddhist prayers were written and recited as a reminder of the root of Buddha’s teaching. That is a request for Buddhas and deities to bless and help all sentient beings. Request prayers for ourselves are recited to help us be better human beings and in turn bring benefits and blessings to others. The breakfast offering prayer is called the tea offering prayer, requesting Buddha for love and compassion for us to live for the benefit to others.
Of course, I knew nothing of their true meanings at the time when I found myself being affected by the puja ritual. Besides the prayers, I was moved by the graciousness and kindness so visible and true on the face of the young monks as they went about doing their part. It is this same spirit that defines Tashi Lhunpo monastery. The breakfast ritual triggered in me an overwhelming sense of gratitude and blessing. When the tea offering prayer was said just before the breakfast was eaten, and as everyone raised their cups together, my mind filled with a deep feeling of joy. As we all joined in to eat this blessed breakfast, the temple became silent.
Pah Lay and Happiness
Gachin Kunchok La said that, for him, pah lay and butter tea never tasted the same when they were eaten outside puja. My meditation teacher, without knowing that I had learned to make pah lay and wanted to write about it, used pah lay as an allegory of how to train the mind in order to understand wisdom, one of Buddha’s teaching on the six perfections.
Eating pah lay during puja, according to my meditation teacher, Gachin Thur Tem La, is happiness. It is because our heart and mind are filled with gratitude for the countless people who have made it possible for us to enjoy pah lay. In doing so, and as we eat the pah lay, happiness fills our heart and mind, reminding us of two of Buddha’s teaching on the six perfections: giving and effort.
Gachin Thur Tem La went on to explain: It is not possible to make pah lay without wisdom. To make pah lay, one needs to learn and understand the ingredients and how their chemistry marries with one another. It also takes mindfulness, effort, patience, and concentration to produce good pah lay. Training our mind to understand wisdom is the same. It requires knowledge together with constant learning, contemplation and meditation.
Attending a puja, for me, is meditation. It is the place where I begin to truly meet my mind with its ever fleeting and escapable qualities. If and when I am mindful, I can reach into the depth of busy and countless thoughts packed with emotions, and feel quiet and colorless space, the mind still and at rest. In many ways, it is like the spaces created by the air pockets in the pah lay, as they swell inside the dense surface of the dough. Space, whether it is inside our mind or pah lay, might be invisible to our eyes, but its presence is undeniable. For the pah lay, it renders a quality of lightness to the dense texture of the bread. In our mind, in the busy, never quiet existence, the lightness radiates clarity. For both matter and space, whether they are within the pah lay or our minds, are interdependent on one another and become one.
Learn more about the Tashi Llhunpo Monastery.