A Zen Monk on Her Vegan Diet

Myungju Hillary talks spirituality, a plant-based diet, and more

I believe that every human being has an innate desire to be in harmony with nature.

Concepts like sustainability, zero-waste, and farm-to-table, are philosophies that help us fulfill this desire. These words came recently, but they simply describe how we all lived before industrialization. Perhaps they feel exciting and new because we lost that way of life. Coming back is always a beautiful thing — the way that reuniting with a long-lost love feels sweet and fresh. I hope, however, that we can come to value these ideas not because they are trending, but because they are instinctive, basic, and eternal. Zen Buddhism structures those questions into a way of life.

Zen, while rooted in Buddhism, is not a religion itself. It developed in China during the T’ang Dynasty, at a time when monks and Temples were becoming wealthy and politically tied. Disillusioned monks left the City Temples and shaved their heads in an act of rebellion. The movement became known as Chan or Zen. These monks moved to the mountains and formed self-sustaining communities. They grew their own food, sewed their own clothes, and built their own temples. In Buddhism, we learn to address problems in society by creating alternative solutions, rather than trying to impose change head-on.

The Detroit Zen Center flows through that vein. Founded in 1990, our Abbot Hwlason Sunim grew up in the ’40s on Detroit’s west side. He taught at Cuyden Elementary and the Sophie Wright Settlement House until the riots, which devastated him. Though he and other teachers tried to keep the peace, he eventually left Detroit and took up a professorship in Toronto. He began studying meditation, and eventually delved into spiritual life by becoming a monk in Korea. Eighteen years later, he returned to Detroit to teach.

From left: Abbot Hwalson Sunim, visiting monk Hyangil Sunim, and resident monk Daniel Brenner.

I met Sunim in the summer of ’94 when I was teenager. But it wasn’t until several years later — after my undergraduate studies at The University of Oxford, studying meditation, herbs, and cooking in the traditional monasteries of South Korea, and being ordained as a monk — that I returned to Abbot Sunim and The Detroit Zen Center. In 2012, The Detroit Zen Center board and Abbot invited me to become their director and spearhead Sunim’s vision of a sustainable community. The goal was to make a business that would support the Zen Center financially — Zen monks do need to work — but would also be inclusive for all skill levels and provide a useful service. We chose to approach this through food.

Felicia Smith preps food at the Zen Center.

At 4:50 every morning, the wooden clappers of the Zen Center go off and I wake up. After I wash up, I go outside. If it’s raining, I get wet. If it’s cold, I let it sink in for a few moments. I experience myself as a small but connected part of this universe. Some days I garden or do farming, but every day I prepare food.

Through our food business, Living Zen Organics, we make and distribute affordable fresh food, serve farm-to-table organic meals, compost, recycle, use biodegradable packaging, I could go on. We try to hit all the marks. Sometimes we miss, but it’s ok. It isn’t a competition. The value of “sustainable practices” is in the relationships — with ourselves, with others, with the world. How we eat directly impacts our environment. On a global scale, eating a plant-based diet reduces the need for factory farming, a practice that has a devastating impact on the environment at multiple levels. From antibiotic-resistance, to industrial farming for animal feed, to water waste and pollution, to animal treatment. Plants are easier to raise, and to digest.

Flax bread with a sumac-tomato sauce, fresh basil, and sunflower seed cheese; Cauliflower Lasagna Alfredo with baby yukton potatoes.

Yet sustainable practices need to cross socio-economic barriers in order to take root. I consider Felicia, our senior production leader. She began working at Living Zen Organics four years ago.  At first, she turned down eating lunch with the crew. She would go to the corner store and get a Faygo Red Pop and smoke a cigarette. One day I said, “I’m amazed because you’re 20 years older than me, but if I drank soda and had a cigarette for lunch, I’d be in bed!” She laughed, we started talking, and she told me that high fiber meals hurt her teeth, and the dental work needed to fix them was too expensive. One of our members is a dentist, so he helped her out, and now Felicia eats kale salads with the rest of us.

Before our food business, I had no avenue for friendship with Felicia. She’s a black woman from Montgomery, Ala., from a different generation, who moved to Detroit for opportunity 30 years ago. She has had to work hard just to survive. I’m a Scot-Irish-Russian-Korean woman from a more privileged background. Having lived in Detroit, Canada, California, England, Mexico, and Korea, I also chose Detroit for opportunity, and have my own challenges. Both of us, however, need support. Felicia has sensitized me to racial and economic inequality in food access and education. To eat well you need a decent income, a car, and social support. It takes time, money, and know-how to have a proper kitchen. The kids who live across the street from the Zen Center are going to eat a $5 Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready right out of the box. They’re not going to Uber to Midtown for an $8 salad. Access to healthy food and lifestyle is unfortunately easier for those of higher income and educational brackets — the more privileged class. I don’t know how to address that issue, even in our own food business. But how we live and eat as individuals forms a collective reality. We are in this together. Beyond Detroit, to address global concerns, we need healthy and fulfilled individuals. For that, we need nourishing food, people that care, and time to enjoy both of those things together. I hope our work at the Zen Center helps a little.