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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




One of the primary ways we connect ourselves, one to another, is by eating together. Some of the connecting happens simply by being in the same place at the same time, sharing the same food, but we also connect through specific actions such as serving food to one another or making toasts: "May I offer you some potatoes?" "Here's to your health and happiness." Much of our fundamental well-being comes from the basic reassurance that there is a place for us at the table. We belong here. Here we are served and we serve others. Here we give and receive sustenance. No small matter.

I found that serving food in the meditation hall at Tassajara was an extremely powerful practice; powerful because it was a deeply intimate activity. Taking place in silence, the basic transaction of serving food is vivified, so that the subtle inner workings become apparent. The mind of the server and the mind of the recipient are transparently revealed ---you don't have to be a genius.

Suzuki Roshi often said that when we all sat in the same posture, as we did in meditation that it was easy to tell the differences between people. Sure enough, serving one person after another, the flavor of each was apparent: anxiety, greed, calm, respect, anger, fatigue. We were all so nakedly revealed for what we were. And people receiving their food could tell the mind of the server: ease or awkwardness, nervous or composed.

Suzuki Roshi's mind was unique, vast and spacious rather than small and petty. He seemed to be neither conniving to produce particular results nor struggling to avoid other outcomes. His movements were ordinary and unremarkable, yet he was vitally present and precisely responsive. Without rushing or being hasty, his bowl would be in exactly the right spot to receive the food, to receive me. Over and over again, when I served him he was like this. A wave of tenderness would come over me: he was just there, ready to be with what came.

Once in the question and answer ceremony after sesshin someone asked Suzuki Roshi what he felt when she was serving him food. Yes, I thought, what is his mind at that time? "I feel like you are offering me your most complete love, your entire being," he answered, and I knew it was true, because that's what I was doing when I served him, and I knew he was receiving me thoroughly and wholeheartedly, without reservation. I felt healed each time I served him.

It wouldn't last long though. As I proceeded down the row after serving the Roshi, my more ordinary mind would return, and I'd become progressively more speedy, running a silent critical commentary: "Can't you get your bowl out here more quickly? Where's your mind anyway?" "Do you have to be so greedy?" "Stop being so picky." I had something to criticize about everyone except Suzuki Roshi.

A part of our training was learning to move energetically, the Japanese Zen ideal of movement with vigor and enthusiasm. So I would try to serve as many people as I could as quickly as possible, which is not the same you might note (as I was studiously not noting) as being polite or gracious. Basically I would be racing the server on the other side of the meditation hall to see who could finish first.

The people being served tended to get in my way and not cooperate as effectively as they might to see that I got down the row as quickly as possible. Once in a while I would remind myself to try to see virtue. Calm down, I'd tell myself, don't be in such a hurry to get to the end of the row. Yet this was difficult because I prided myself on being the fastest server.

I wasn't happy being caught up in this obsession, but I didn't know what to do. Then one day I had a sudden inspiration, "Why don't I treat each person as though he is Suzuki Roshi?" Is there fundamentally a real difference between people or are there just these differences that I make up and believe are important? Isn't everyone basically worthy of respect and careful attention? Why don't I treat everyone as if she is Suzuki Roshi, because each person is at some level Suzuki Roshi. I saw that I could bring the same mind which I brought to serving the Roshi to serving each person: the same respect, courtesy, tenderness, and patience.

Doing this was difficult at first. By the second or third person after the Roshi my habitual mind was back in play, but gradually I slowed down. I don't know if anyone noticed a difference---no one commented to me about the change---but I felt lighter and more connected, not only to others but also to my own being. The fact that I was no longer belittling and demeaning others meant that some part of me could relax and be at ease as well, no longer in fear of being attacked. To honor the person being served is to grow larger-hearted and honor oneself as well.

I have kept up this practice for many years now, so that even when I became a waiter at Greens I continued to make this effort to serve each person as I would serve Suzuki Roshi. I did my best not to get involved with who was who, how they behaved, or how they 'deserved' to be treated based on how they treated me. "Here is your food, my heartfelt offering for your well-being." "May your heart be at peace, and may you grow in wisdom and compassion."

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