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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




Suzuki Roshi once told us a story from his childhood that left a particularly poignant taste in my mouth. Food is not just food. The entire universe comes along with it. Human nature makes its appearance bite after bite.

As a boy of perhaps ten or eleven, Suzuki Roshi had been sent by his father to study with another Zen teacher who was his father's disciple. There were apparently four or five boys altogether. In the spring they would help their teacher make daikon pickles. The long white radishes would be put in barrels with salt and nuka (rice bran), layer upon layer.

We used to make these pickles at Tassajara. The mixture is dry at the outset, but as the barrel sits, water comes out of the radishes, moistening the nuka, and the radishes become salted. At least that's how it's meant to work. The salt acts as a preservative. The rice bran provides flavor and perhaps nutrition.

One year at the temple in Japan a batch of pickles the boys and their teacher made didn't quite make it--a number of the radishes developed noticeably 'off' flavors, which happens when there is not quite enough salt. What to do when something doesn't turn out the way it should, the way you wanted, the way you planned. The teacher served them anyway! All well and good for him, but boys will be boys, and the young Suzuki Roshi and his companions refused to eat them. Each day the pickles would be served, and each day studiously avoided.

At last Suzuki Roshi decided to take matters into his own hands. One night he got the pickles, took them out to the far end of the garden, dug a hole, and buried them. Isn't that what you do with something distasteful? Dig a hole, put the rotten stuff in, and cover it with dirt. A straightforward, elegant solution, returning earth to earth. Let it compost. Keep it covered.

Yet life is not always that simple. The next day the pickles were back on the table! Things that you bury don't always stay there. What an unpleasant surprise, and what a sinking feeling to have what you were trying to hide come out into the open. The teacher, however, did not say anything about the pickles having been buried, or whether or not he knew who had buried them. He merely stated that those pickles would have to be eaten before they got anything else to eat.

Sometimes we have no choice. At last we have to taste and digest what we find distasteful. Suzuki Roshi said that it was his first experience of "No-thought," when the conceptualizing mind stops, and one experiences something non-reactively with no added comments. Chew and swallow. Chew and swallow. He only could eat the pickles if his mind did not produce a single thought.

The world itself is swallowed up. For a time the storyline disappears. No more "This is awful," "How distasteful," "How unfair," "What did I do to deserve this," or even "Yuck,"

because then you would have to spit the pickle out, or choke it up. Just chew and swallow.

We need to be able to conceptualize, to decide what is good to eat and what is not, yet we can suffer a lot by trying to have nothing but delicious experiences. Inevitably we will have to chew on and digest some difficult, painful moments.

We would like to say, "Skip the pickles," but this is the great dilemma that life serves up: not everything is tasty and cooked to perfection and there is no way to avoid all that is unpleasant. If we become too finicky we just don't eat.

The dirt of our life contains both good and bad, sweet and pungent. The cook unearths what is there, and labors to make it nourishing.

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