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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

Unearthing Greed



When I started Zen practice I maintained an inflated level of self-esteem by protecting all my pain and nastiness onto other people. They were greedy, they were mean, they were angry. I thought I didn't have problems like that: I was a Zen student; I was spiritual. I was getting enlightened. It turned out that what I was getting enlightened about was my own delusion.

One of the first things I discovered was greed. I would watch other people at tea time strategically position themselves to move in for the biggest pieces once the chanting was concluded.

"Me? I'm not greedy like that," I would observe from a distance, "I can wait. Look at how greedy they are. Even if I was that greedy, I wouldn't be so obvious about it." No, certainly not, I had it pretty well hidden, even from myself Greedy? No, I was going to be an outstanding Zen student, better than the others.

Suzuki Roshi's words wouldn't catch up with me until later: "To be better or worse than other students is not the point. As long as you are comparing yourself to others, you are not practicing our way. Your practice may be quite good, but when you stop to compare, you lose the way."

Yet try as I might I could not keep all my faults hidden. Once Mrs. Suzuki, the Roshi's wife, gave me a big box of mixed salted nuts. I was elated. What a sign of my good practice! I kept them sitting around my room for some time, their presence reassuring me that I was chosen. I assumed that I would find some occasion to share them with others, but then the chink in my armor of denial appeared, not obviously, but slowly and insidiously.

In the silence and aloneness of my room I opened the box of nuts and ate a few. I savored them, and found them exquisitely delicious. Still, I thought, I would share them - tomorrow. Yet day after day went by, and each afternoon I would sneak back to my room and eat a few nuts, while day after day it became more and more apparent that I had no intention of sharing them. I felt ensnared, helpless. "No," I realized, "I am not going to share them."

I felt petty, yet the nuts were excruciatingly tasty. I wasn't going to give up even a single second of that delight. I ate them secretly and intently, savoring each one. I'm not sure the experience could be called pleasurable, but it was certainly riveting. After more than two weeks, the box of nuts was gone, and I had to admit that was greed, I am as greedy as the next person.

Although I hadn't wanted to see how greedy I was, the evidence was too plain. I couldn't really say that those nuts were mine, that they belonged to me, and that I could do with them what I wanted. They had been a gift, and I had appropriated the gift all for myself, instead of sharing it. To share the gift would have given others some of the same satisfaction and delight I had felt initially, before my stinginess turned it into something cold and banal.


Suzuki Roshi had said that the point of Zen is to own your own body and mind. I was only beginning to realize that meant owning up to my shortcomings.

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