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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




My friend Alan Winter and I decided to attend meditation at the Zen Center in San Francisco. We had talked about it a lot, but now we were actually going. A decision to do something, whether it is meditation or cooking, moves one's life along.

Inside the weathered but sturdy outer door of the Zen Center was a dimly lit foyer with broad stairs, a hallway, and an unassuming darkly hued door. Left to fend for ourselves, we took the stairs with its well-trafficked carpet.

At the top of the stairs we found some bookshelves, which turned out to be a shoe rack, where one was expected to leave one's shoes and socks. The door to the left of the shoe rack was more formidable. It seemed to advise one to think carefully before entering, to prepare oneself and not just barge in. We paused while others came up the stairs behind us, removed their footwear, entered, and closed the door again. We could glimpse the interior with its golden light, its stillness and focus. On the other side of that door you couldn't fool around. What you did mattered. We finally entered.

Crossing the threshold we were in another world, a quiet, still room with a polished wood floor, mats and cushions in rows. People were already sitting cross-legged, facing the walls, and we found a couple of cushions on which to sit, facing the backs of others. We hadn't had any instruction, so we sat with our hands on our knees with the palms facing upwards, because that's what we'd read about in the yoga books we'd looked at. Time passed.

Awareness came and went. I felt a lingering self-consciousness, a feeling of being watched, and I wondered if I was doing it right, the way it should be done. When I glanced cautiously around without turning my head, others seemed to be sitting quite intently. They seemed to know what they were doing, and they weren't noticing me. I stared at the floor. Nothing happened. My attention drifted.

A loud "WHACK" was startling, riveting. The whole room woke up. What was it? Sitting in the middle of the room, facing the backs of those sitting at the wall, I could observe that the Zen master was hitting people with a long stick of some sort. Again everyone seemed to know what they were doing. The master passed me by. The room returned to stillness. Seconds ticked by. A bell sounded.

After it ended, we tried to follow what others were doing: getting up, bowing, putting away cushions and mats. Then we had a religious service, which included bowing and chanting. A wonderful sound moved through my being: harmonies, dissonances, chords, overtones, threads, pieces, the feeling of a fabric being woven, my body resonating, dissolving, being made whole.

When service was over, we lined up single-file to leave the meditation hall, exiting through another room, where the Zen master himself was bowing to each person in turn. I was meeting Suzuki Roshi for the first time, and I wondered what he would think of me, whether or not he would like me, whether or not he would approve of me. My turn came to bow.

I looked into his face, bowed, then looked into his face again. He seemed very ordinary. His face was impassive, without any trace of liking or disliking, approving or disapproving. What did he think of me? Not a clue. I felt vaguely disquieted or unsettled, yet along with his impassivity was an uncanny quality of openness. I felt received. What was going on? How unusual, how strange: I was put off by his non-reactiveness, yet blessed with acceptance.

Many times we bowed like this after meditation, and I would never know what Suzuki Roshi was thinking, or if he was thinking at all. I was sure that he could "see right through me," and I was afraid he might not like what he saw. Yet even though he seemed to see completely through me, he didn't seem to be the slightest bit disturbed, annoyed, or upset.

Though his face showed no reaction I didn't sense that he was aloof or guarded or hiding what he must have been feeling, nor did I find him absent or somehow "not there." I had never met anyone like that, someone who seemed so completely present and receptive, yet unmoved on the surface, as though events reverberated and disappeared into some vast space. I felt grateful and privileged.

Years later, long after Suzuki Roshi's death, I came across a passage in Dogen Zenji's Shobogenzo which reminded me of that first bow, that first meeting:

What it is like is to be unstained....Being unstained is

like meeting a person for the first time and not considering what he looks like. Also it is like not wishing for more color or brightness when viewing flowers or the moon.

With most people one can fairly easily attribute or project one's own thought onto the other person and determine what he or she "must think of me," but I found this to be nearly impossible with the Roshi. Nothing seemed to stick to or to 'stain' his awareness, so I could not construct or build up what his views must be. When I found myself burdened by what he must think of me, what he must want me to do, it would be patently obvious that he wasn't thinking any such thing. He was simply going about his business.

His presence, his awareness felt like such a great gift. Because he accepted himself, I was accepted, and because he accepted me, I could accept myself. What could be simpler? What could be more wonderful? Seen through and accepted.

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