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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



Once I began to study anger I noticed that sometimes I could invite it to join in what I was doing: wash the dishes, scrub the pots, cut the vegetables--with a lot more spark than I was used to doing these things.

That didn't necessarily work though, because I often thought my anger was justifiable and appropriate. Where I had been saying that 'I' was overcome with anger, that 'I' couldn't help myself, I started owning that 'I' am angry, and 'I' have a right to be.

Doing this in a Zen monastery doesn't go over very well. Repressing anger may not be healthy, but expressing it all over others is not met with approval either. One resident said to me, "You can invite the visitor in, but you don't have to serve him tea." I couldn't understand the distinction. This visitor barged in unannounced, and I was trying to focus his energy a bit.

Suzuki Roshi spoke with me. When I confessed to not knowing what to do with anger, he responded rather slyly, "You can get angry if you want...but DON'T." I was startled. His timing had been impeccable. He had been so gentle, so understanding, "You can get angry if you want...." then a pause, while I relaxed. "How nice," I thought, "he's sympathetic. What a relief, he's not telling me I can't get angry." Then that startling, "Don't," a "don't" which had such an unusual quality: not angry, not threatening, soft yet completely firm, rock solid, straight to the bottom. Stopped me cold, yet I wasn't angry or resentful.

Then after another pause, he was warm and friendly. "OK?" he beamed, as though it were no big deal. None of that, "Is this clear, young man?" stuff. Just clearly, "I'm with you," spiritual friend as much as a spiritual master. "OK," I agreed. If Suzuki Roshi said it, it must be possible.

But it wasn't easy. I kept getting angry, yet I also kept coming back to, "You can get angry if you want, but don't." Maybe I was following the first part of the statement more than the second, because one day someone told me Katagiri Roshi wanted to see me. Katagiri was Suzuki Roshi assistant for several years, and I had known him since he gave me meditation instruction the first day I arrived at Zen Center in San Francisco. Customarily the student requests the interview rather than the teacher. "Oh, oh," I thought with foreboding, what now? Although respectful, I think I also must have been a bit surly, "You asked to see me?"

Katagiri Roshi said yes, that my anger was a concern to the community, that I needed to do something about it so that I could live in peace and harmony with everyone. Everyone was quite concerned. I would have to do something.

"But," I protested, "If there is a problem with my anger, then other people will have to learn to live with it, won't they?"

"You must learn to control it," the roshi replied.

"But isn't this Zen?" I demanded, "I'm just being sincere and honest about my feelings."

"Zen is to live in peace and harmony," was the roshi's even response.

I continued to protest until finally the Roshi cut me off, "I'm giving you," he said with barely a trace of change in his demeanor or intonation, "a piece of advice." The room got very silent. His expression hung there. Take it or leave it? I felt no choice.

"OK, I'll work on it." I replied, "But how?"

Katagiri Roshi suggested that when I became angry while doing zazen, I could practice chanting to myself. My immediate response was to tell him that was not the correct way to practice zazen. Again he was quite patient with me, "Try chanting," he said.

The amazing thing was that it worked. Within two or three days I experienced a release from the pervasive feeling of tightness and rage. The practice of chanting or bowing, I have found, often works this way ---to occupy the awareness so that it can let go of obsessive thoughts or emotions. Then when anger returns, it isn't as painfully afflictive.

Learning to live with anger: how to use it, how to let go of it, is a more effective strategy than either exploding all over the place or always trying not to be angry. Shall we slice the cucumbers together?

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