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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

The Trouble With Thinking



During a week long period of intensive meditation practice, I had my first opportunity to meet with Suzuki Roshi in a formal interview. I was making every effort to practice meditation the way I thought it was supposed to be practiced. I wanted some accomplishments to show for my effort. Perhaps I could attain a state of 'not-thinking' or a 'calm mind.' Perhaps I could attain 'true realization.' These sorts of attainments would certainly be better than making a lot of money or gaining other kinds of success or fame, wouldn't they? Well, I thought so.

The problem was I wasn't getting anywhere. Try as I might to concentrate on my breathing, I found I was almost constantly engaged in thinking: planning, remembering, evaluating, assessing, a perpetual sorting out of how I am doing, where I am now, where I need to get to, how to get there.

So when I went to speak with Suzuki Roshi I did not have any 'thing' to show for my efforts. I felt humbled and somewhat frustrated and discouraged. What would the master think of this poor excuse for a Zen student? I wanted him to like me, but I didn't see how he could. I certainly didn't. There wasn't much to like as far as I could tell. I entered his cabin and performed the required half-prostration bows, not directly to him, but towards the altar with its Buddha image, candle, and burning incense.

One bows forward, kneels, touches the head and forearms to the floor, and then raises one's hands, palms upward. He corrected the way I was positioning my hands during the prostration: "When you lift your hands from the floor, hold them flat," he explained, gesturing, "as though you were lifting the feet of the Buddha. When you cup them like that, it feels as though you are trying to grasp something and being greedy." His voice was pleasant and matter-of-fact.

Ok, I thought, I do that. It was a relief to have something to work on, something to keep in mind, and, he had shown an interest in my practice! Still I felt flustered and not particularly comfortable in his presence.

Then I sat down on the cushion opposite him, crossed my legs, and adjusted my posture. I didn't know what to expect, or what was expected of me, so I just sat there quietly facing him. The world turned. I don't think he had the slightest thought about my attainment or lack thereof. He seemed contained, quiet, and alert in repose. I began to relax. Finally after a few minutes, he inquired, "How's your meditation?"

"Not so good," I replied.

"What's not so good?" he asked.

"I can't stop thinking," I lamented.

"Is there some problem with thinking?" he questioned, and right at that moment when I looked directly for the problem, I couldn't actually find it. I felt relieved and lightened, but I wasn't ready to admit I couldn't find the problem. Besides, didn't he and the other teachers keep instructing us to follow the breath rather than think?

"When you sit zazen, you are not supposed to think," I explained.

"It's pretty normal to think," he stated, "don't you think?" His way of speaking was so innocent of attack: not contradicting, not belittling, not finding fault.

I had to admit that thinking was pretty normal, "but we're not supposed to think, are we?"

"The nature of mind is to think," Roshi explained, "the point of our practice is to not be caught by our thinking. If you continue to practice your thinking will naturally change. Sometimes it will stop. Your thinking will take care of itself."

Reassured I continued to sit quietly, again waiting to see what would happen. The room was still and peaceful. After awhile the Roshi's voice was there again, "What is it you want most of all?" he asked.

A word came to me instantly, but I hesitated, and stopped to think it over. Was it really the answer, really what I wanted? Was it right? Was it good enough? Nothing else came to mind, so at last I voiced it, "the Truth."

I felt awkward saying it, uneasy admitting it, but there it was, "the truth." Yet the Roshi's silence, the silence of the room swallowed it up. There was a lot of room to grow in that silence.

After a while he said, "Please continue your practice." We bowed to each other. The interview was over.

I left feeling relieved, overjoyed, and eager to go back to sitting meditation. I was relieved that my teacher had not criticized me or condemned me for what I viewed as my poor practice; overjoyed that he actually seemed to appreciate my efforts; eager and willing to return to the meditation hall and try some more.

Meals I prepare do not always come out as well as I would like, and I can be critical or judgmental, but also I know not to worry too much about my thinking. I can appreciate my on-going effort and return to the kitchen. My wish to nourish and feed myself and others sustains me.

If you have a similar wish to offer sustenance, I hope you will find ways to act on it. What you think one way or another about being a good cook or a bad one is of little concern. Once you acknowledge it, your wish will fulfill itself.

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