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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 began working as a cook in 1966 I developed cook's temperament within a few hours. Previously as the dishwasher I had been calm and serene, and when the cooks threw an occasional tantrum I was amused and a bit embarrassed. I had trouble believing that cooks could actually scream as venomously as they did, when it was obviously so ineffective in getting results. "That's stupid and ridiculous," I would gently remark to myself, while perhaps lifting an eyebrow or two. Well, eat my words.

Sometimes the people working with you are too polite to actually confront you about your behavior, but you know for sure that others have noticed when they start having meetings to discuss, "What are we going to do about Ed?" Two people were needed to replace me as dishwasher/baker, but that didn't help me to relax in my new position. "Get these eggs out while they are hot!" I would bellow. After all, shouldn't everything be perfect? And shouldn't everyone be doing their utmost and more to make it that way? At the urging of my fellow workers I agreed to make efforts to calm down.

In December of that year Tassajara was bought by Zen Center. Because I was already a Zen student and had more than two months of experience cooking, I was offered the position of head cook for the new center. I made it up as I went along, and everybody knew that the kitchen procedures were not very well worked out. But I took refuge in just doing what I was doing, "When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you stir the soup, stir the soup...." I realized pretty early on what every cook realizes--the food more or less takes care of itself, the people are what's hard.

I realized pretty early on what every cook realizes; the food more or less takes care of itself; the people are what's hard. They don't do what you want. They don't behave the way you would like them to. They don't treat you the way you want to be treated. They point out your faults...over and over again. They won't put up with you and the repertoire of coping behaviors you've worked out.

They don't applaud your every move. For goodness sake, they aren't mom and dad. They want you to be their mom and dad. They don't read your mind. Good grief, you have to talk with them.

The women with whom I worked were especially likely to object to my style of management, "Why are you talking to me like that?" "Like what?" "Like you were angry with me about something. What have I done?" "Look, I'm under a lot of pressure okay? Can we just concentrate on getting the work done and not have to analyze every word?"

People sometimes came late to work, took long breaks, and often when I watched them working, they didn't seem to be very present in their activity. I couldn't tell what they were doing but the rice would take a long time to get washed. Finally one day I complained to Suzuki Roshi.

I told him all the problems I had with people not behaving the way I thought they ought to behave (if they were really practicing Zen): arriving late, taking long bathroom breaks, gossiping, being absentminded or inattentive. Then I asked him what advice he had on how to get everyone to work with more concentration and vigor.

He seemed to listen quite carefully, as though he understood my difficulty and was entirely sympathetic. (Yes, you just can't get good help anymore, can you?) When I finally ran out of complaints he looked at me briefly, and then responded. "If you want to see virtue," he said, "you have to have a calm mind."

"That isn't what I asked you," I thought to myself, but I kept quiet. I gave it some time to turn me around. Was I going to spend my time finding fault or seeing virtue? It had never occurred to me that I wanted to spend my time seeing virtue, but my teacher's mentioning it made it seem obvious.

Later in our conversation he said, "When you are cooking, you're not just working on food. You're working on yourself. You're working on other people." Well, of course, I thought, that makes sense.

Without really having any idea how to actually do it, I began to try "to see virtue." Whenever I found fault with someone, I would remind myself to look again, more carefully and more calmly. I began to recognize people's basic good intention, to sense people's effort, the effort it took even to stand on-the-spot and exposed for all the world to see. I would catch glimpses of our shared vulnerability.

It got to be quite laughable at times. Once I asked someone to get 18 cups of black beans from the storeroom. About twenty minutes later I realized he hadn't come back. "How difficult can it be to get eighteen cups of beans?" I righteously raged to myself as I headed for the storeroom. Yet before arriving I cautioned myself to look for virtue: what was going on? Sure enough, there he was, sorting through the beans, pretty much one by one, making sure that each was not a stone.

I felt an upsurge of impatience, and then I thought, "Well, he is being thorough! He is being conscientious!" I don't remember what I said, but my response was at least somewhat softened from what it would have been. Something more articulate than, "You idiot!!" emerged from my lips, and then I explained that he could cover a white plate with beans and easily scan through to check for small stones. Perhaps the sorting would go a bit more quickly that way.

Ironically, seeing virtue cultivates virtue. If we want to bring out the best in others, it helps to see the best in others. After a while we might even acknowledge the best in ourselves. A lot of struggles were still ahead of me, but over the years I have continued to cultivate my capacity to see virtue. While it's an on-going challenge, by seeing virtue we can transform ourselves and the world.

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