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Edward Espe Brown

Excerpts from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections

Stories of Ed's life and practice at Tassajara and with his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki




When I arrived in April of 1967 to undertake my role as head cook of the newly-founded Zen Mountain Center located at Tassajara Hot Springs, I soon became acquainted with the food habits and rituals of the residents. The center had not officially opened yet, but about twenty-five people were already living there. During my first meal preparation, someone informed me, "We do not use salt in the cooking."

I was stunned. I couldn't imagine such a thing. "You don't use salt?" I stammered. No, of course not. The custom was explained to me as though I was from another planet, as though it were the most obvious thing. "We don't use salt in the cooking because salt is bad for you. Everyone eats too much salt." The explanation didn't explain anything to me.

Arbitrary rulings are pretty common in community life everywhere. Someone knows what is right for everyone else, and although the rationale is vague and incoherent --no real information is conveyed--the authority wants you to go along with it (for your own good).

I found the idea of not using salt upsetting and disconcerting, but not being particularly adept at negotiation or inclined to throw my weight around, I went along with it until I had a chance to consult with Suzuki Roshi, our Zen teacher. These are, after all the kind of matters that can be easily resolved by higher spiritual authority.

"What shall I do?" I asked him. "Everybody has all these different ideas."

"Different ideas? Like what?"

"They don't want me to use salt. They say it's bad for you," I told him.

"You are the head cook," he said, "you can use salt if you want." The things a Zen teacher has to clarify. I was relieved. I wanted everyone to be happy and to agree---but they didn't. I didn't want to side against anybody, but the Roshi's authority settled it for me. I could use salt.

Then I asked the Roshi if he had any advice for me as the cook. His answer was straightforward and down-to-earth: "When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup."

"OK," I decided, "I'll make those words my life." They became a life jacket, the proverbial Buddhist "raft," something which keeps you afloat, 'afloat' even when you are going under.

Some of my companions complained about missing meditation or lectures in order to prepare meals or to clean up after them. They seemed to think that 'Zen' was happening somewhere else, and that we kitchen workers were missing out.

I would remind myself what our teacher had said, that work was equally spiritual practice, another opportunity to see into the nature of things. I decided that I would prove it was true, that I would work as though it was indeed spiritual work. I didn't know any better.

So I worked hard. I worked at washing the rice when I washed the rice, cutting the carrots when I cut the carrots, scrubbing the pots when I scrubbed the pots. Complaints, fatigue,

daydreaming, obsessive thinking, everything was met with a kind of admonition, a kind of reminder, "Just do it. Do what you are doing." I tried in a simple, direct, awkward way to be present, to see the rice with my eyes, to feel the rice with my hands, to have awareness in the movement of my arms. It certainly wasn't glamorous, and nobody said, "Why, thank you so much."

Day after day I put my awareness into activity, trying to find out how to cut vegetables, mop floors, clean sponges. I held the knife this way and that, trying out various cutting motions. Feeling my hands, I sought to use them more effectively and proficiently.

Overlooked details of activity would bump into my awareness. While intent on cutting, I would hear the knife clatter carelessly onto the table. Not just cutting the carrot took attention, but picking the knife up, putting the knife down, wiping the knife, cleaning the knife, sharpening the knife, storing the knife.

I noticed that I needed to develop a more relaxed form of concentration. I would be concentrating so hard on cutting something that the smallest interruption, "Where's more salt? " "What shall I do next?" would be shattering. My awareness would have to be more resilient than that, less brittle: focused, but willing to be interrupted and responsive to the next moment whatever it turned out to be.

Within my body also my awareness was too narrowly focused. While my hands and arms were actively engaged, my shoulders were aching with stiffness. I would have to let my awareness spread out, encompassing shoulders, back, stomach, hips, legs, feet, as well as hands and arms.

Anyone can do this kind of work. Whole worlds come alive.

Entering the world of activity, of actualizing being, the world appears vivid with spinach, lettuces, and black beans; with cutting boards, baking pans, and sponges. You let go of the imagined and hypothetical so that awareness can function in the world of things. Where previously you may have hesitated or waited for the world to provide entertainment or solace, here you enter a world vibrant with the energy and devotion flowing out of your own being.

Food appears.

Note on first story: There were frequently power struggles going on over food. Whoever told Ed that we didn't use salt was just on some sort of silly food trip and did not control the rest of us who were on other silly food trips. The anti-salt people might have been in charge for that meal or that day, but not usually. But back then at the first, whatever food trips people were on, if the food served wasn't in accord with it, they'd often come down on the head cook for poisoning them or bringing them down. - DC

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