I first visited the Jain Center of Southern California in Buena Park to meet someone I needed to interview for a class project. We had made arrangements by email, but I did not expect that on the day I visited the Jain Center they would be hosting a large ecology conference. I had no idea how to find my contact in the sea of people and exhibits. I inquired of several people who looked like they could be leaders of the Jain community. The second person I asked informed me that I was likely pronouncing my contact’s name incorrectly. All four people I chatted with invited me to join the community for lunch in the underground parking lot. The fourth person I talked to finally offered to answer my interview questions, but only after I ate lunch with them. So, I conceded to deter from my primary task of interviewing and I followed him down to the underground parking lot set up with folding tables and folding chairs with a couple hundred conference visitors partaking in Jain hospitality. I grabbed a paper plate and went through the serving line as several different colored curries and sauces were scooped on my plate. I made sure to grab sufficient naan and rice to go with what I knew would be a spice-filled and flavorful meal. Strangely, my original interview contact found me as soon as I finished eating lunch.
My Jain informant took me on a tour of the new Jain Center away from the main hall and conference facilities. He showed me the cleansing area, the teaching room, and the sacred temple where practicing Jains were quietly engaged in religious practices. These areas were clean and white, but it was the taste of the multi-colored flavors on my paper plate that day and the echo of people gathered in the parking garage that made the greatest impression on me of the Jain community.
Taste is the most intimate of all the senses and closely related to the senses of touch and smell. In fact, the tastes of food are often indistinguishable from the smells as well as the temperature and textures we feel. The nutrients of food affect our bodies in various ways, but the taste itself can also stimulate our moods. Taste is very much tied to a cultural aesthetic as to taste is also to partake of flavors, spices, and ways of cooking from various regions of the world. The sense of taste is often tied to a communal practice of religion. The primary place of the Eucharist meal in any Christian sanctuary is a clear example that the savory bread and tart wine can hold great significance of faith, and the weekly practice of eating and drinking connects individuals to a practice that is shared around the world and through many centuries of history. Similarly, the fellowship halls of many immigrant sacred spaces reflect a spiritual practice of sharing and community for those that are far from home. To taste as a spiritual practice is to bring into the body the sustenance we need to survive, just as our prayers, practices, and rituals also sustain our capacity to live. The flavors, savory, sweet, bitter and sour, reflect the many unexpected occurrences of life that may be just as sweet or bitter.