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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




As most of us know from first-hand experience, the gift of food nourishes our spirit as well as our body. We feel that Divine Providence or someone in particular cares about us, and we may offer thanks or gratitude in return. A word or gesture can uplift or cast down, and a material gift, as well, can have the power of food to nourish far beyond the substance itself. Something of the heart is conveyed and received.

Beginning in May of 1967 when I returned to Tassajara to be the head cook, I lived in the same room for nearly three years. It was in the back of the first cabin across the bridge heading toward the swimming pool and had its own toilet and sink with cold running water. Those who lived in the front room would use my room as a passageway to and from the bathroom.

Sitting in this same room today while I write more than twenty-five years later, I find it much more pleasant with the addition of a large picture window on the back side overlooking Tassajara Creek. I can gaze at the bay and alder trees and the occasional maple branches showing here and there. On the far side of the creek a steep hillside is home to a number of oaks. It is a sweet view that I didn't get to enjoy when I was living here previously, but during that time my teachers found various ways to make 'improvements' in the space.

The cook in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition is encouraged to cultivate the three minds: Joyful Mind, Kind Mind, and Big Mind. So Kobun Chino, one of our teachers, wrote out the Japanese characters on three small plaques made of cross sections of a tree branch. These were attached to the door of my room so that I saw them whenever I returned.

Coming back to my room I would be reminded that someone was thinking of me, someone believed in me. And I would be reminded of the mind which is buoyant and rejoices in offering its efforts for the benefit of others; the mind which nurtures and cares for all beings and things as a parent does for a child; and the spacious mind that attends equally to each thing small or large, and where everything has its place.

I certainly couldn't 'maintain' those three minds, but some times I would get a taste. One time Suzuki Roshi gave me a taste of his mind. I was standing on the bridge with him, and he remarked that the pile of rocks outside my door-- which I was using for steps --was rather unsightly. "In Japan," he continued, "sometimes we pile rocks like that on a grave. Those rocks have a forlorn and melancholy feeling --- feels not so good, you know."

I explained that I didn't know much about working with rocks, so I had just piled them up the best I could. "Yes, you're right," I said, "They don't look so great, and you know what else--they wobble when I step on them." And I tipped my hand back and forth in the air to see if I could make him grin. He nodded and went back to viewing the rocks and the creek, serene and impassive. You never knew what he was thinking.

Weeks later when I had forgotten all about this, he stopped me as I was leaving his cabin, as though he had just remembered some small matter. "Oh Ed," he called out waiting for me to turn back to the room, "do you know that rock in front of the office? I asked Paul to move it to your cabin this afternoon to be your doorstep. Is that OK?"

I was flabbergasted. The big flat rock outside the office had a central place in the community. Often there seemed to be a cluster of people around it sitting and reading their mail or smoking cigarettes. "That rock," I answered, "is a real focal point for the community." "We'll get another one," was his response.

Sure enough, that afternoon as I sat in my cabin, I began hearing the sound of the rock being towed along the ground in a metal sled behind the power wagon. Coming across the bridge produced an especially loud screeching, and then the sound stopped as the truck halted at the front of my cabin.

I went outside, and there were Paul and Roshi and one or two others, and I think they used two-by-fours for track and short pieces of two inch pipe for rollers to move the rock from the roadway to my door. The pile of rocks which had been my steps was heaved over the edge into the creek bed. Then they moved the new rock into place: about five feet long and a foot and a half high, a big beautiful, flat, solid rock: gray with streaks of tan and beige, an occasional vein of white, somewhat pointed at one end and rounded at the other.

Everyone seemed quite happy, and I couldn't believe how wonderful and reassuring it felt to step on a big, stable rock instead of that uneasy pile of stones. Nothing wobbled, and I felt a tingling and a warm joy as something more solid settled into place inside me. In and out of my cabin, stepping up and stepping down, my teacher was there for me. My teacher supported me, gazed back at me, accepted me. These are the best gifts, the ones that move us to feel how very deeply we can trust the universe, trust our own body and mind.

When the spirit is fed, we grow larger-hearted, and we want to pass on the gift.

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