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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

Coming to Your Senses


Back in the sixties at Tassajara our diet was fairly austere. Nowadays we have a "back door café" where we put out fruit, breads, jams, peanut butter, and other leftovers for snacking, but in those days our hunger was focused on the three meals. So these few occasions to eat took on great significance. Some of us ate voluminously and ravenously. Especially at lunch a feeding frenzy would often unfold.

A group of us would eat sixteen, eighteen, twenty half slices of bread, the equivalent of eight to ten full slices, and this was not light and airy but homemade, chewy, dense bread, plus gobs of spread. And very few people gained weight. Perhaps all those calories got burned up in the frenzy to eat more, though I was working pretty long hours, too.

All this eating was done in just a few scant minutes. In Zen practice apparently it was not appropriate to savor food or linger over it. Within five or six minutes after we had finished our pre-meal chanting and begun eating, seconds would be served, so after an initial taste of each bowl, a quick decision was needed. "Which bowl do I want more of the most? Oh, oh, here come the servers. Stuff it in." It was painful to be so driven.

I noticed several things even in those times of seemingly insatiable appetite. Initially during a meal I would be aware of the flavor and texture of foods - the creamy nuttiness of oatmeal, the crunch and earthiness of carrot - and with this experiencing of the food a wonderfully sweet pleasure arose. Yet as soon as I decided, "I want more of that!" the pleasure ceased; the flavor and texture disappeared. All that remained was craving, a focus on "getting more" (receiving seconds), even though I already had "more" right there in my bowl (which I had to get rid of in order to get more).

Since we were sitting cross-legged for our meals, my sore legs were also a pivotal factor. Being absorbed by eating meant that I would be less preoccupied with my aching knees and painful legs, so if anything, I wished that the meal would go faster. I wished that the pain would go away, that this would all be over with. Having food in my bowls and in my mouth to occupy my awareness seemed like a useful way to take my mind off the pain. Isn't that the reason to overeat? To make the pain go away?

Looking back at this I am reminded of James Baraz, a Vipassana teacher, describing his infant son eating strawberries: If he couldn't have both hands full of strawberries while eating strawberries he would start screaming in frustration, even though you could see his mouth was full of strawberry.

A little awareness is such a difficult thing. You see what a fool you are being and continue helplessly in the grip of the same foolishness, but the awareness does not go away. What an embarrassment.

At some point I took a simple, yet momentous step against the current: I would just eat. I would just taste and experience each mouthful, setting aside all considerations of the future and whether or not it would bring more of the same or not. When the meal was over, I would have eaten instead of having chased after imagined delights overlooking what was already in my mouth.

Overnight I started eating half as much and feeling more satisfaction than ever. I learned to ignore all of my scattered-brained objections: "But this is so dumb and boring," "How will I get more if I don't rush through what I have?" "Where's the fun and excitement of chasing after things?" Still I knew that I didn't want to end up being at the mercy of my desire, missing out on the pleasures of root, shoot, leaf, and fruit.

Come to your senses. It is not the things of this world, be they chocolate or brown rice, that lead you astray. Losing your way comes from giving no mind to what is present while chasing after imaginary pleasures which are illusive and unobtainable. To wake up is to know what is already yours.

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