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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

The Workers Rebel, the Real Work Deepens


After I had been the head cook at Tassajara for a year or so, a kitchen rebellion broke out. At first I couldn't understand why. I was sincere and responsible, I worked hard, and as far as I could tell, I meant well. Yet the crew had decided I was dictatorial, autocratic, and unfeeling. They had gone to the heads of the community and complained about me.

At a meeting to air their grievances one woman said that I treated everyone as though they were just another utensil in my hand, that I didn't acknowledge that they also could make decisions involving taste. "It's not as though you are the only one who can cook, you know, but you never let us. You always make all the decisions.' She wanted me to understand that there was a pivotal difference between herself and spatulas - she could think, feel, see, taste, and make aesthetic decisions.


Another woman said, "You treat us the same way you treat the bread," and then backtracked briefly, by saying, "Actually you treat the bread pretty well. You treat us worse than you treat the bread." Couldn't I be as sensitive to her and her needs as I was with the bread dough?

Later the director of the monastery, Peter Schneider, came to talk with me. "You need to give people more responsibility," he said. "Would you be willing to change the way you do things, or would you like another job?" I felt devastated and humiliated. I couldn't imagine doing things differently. "Think it over," he concluded, "and let me know."

I sat outside in the sun and cried, feeling lost and disoriented. I had done the best I knew how to do, and that was being trashed. I was shocked to learn that people saw me as using them.

Trudy Dixon came over and sat down next to me. Trudy was a senior member of the community whom I respected, and for her to take an interest in me was a surprise, especially since she was fighting cancer and probably would not live much longer. Yet she took the time to listen to my stumbling account of the situation, as well as my bewildered I just don't know what to do."

Her response, "I believe in you," stunned me. I couldn't believe it. By now the sun was even more warming, and I was touched that this person who had worked on Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind with Suzuki Roshi would say such a thing. Still, I protested that her faith was probably misplaced, and she simply repeated herself. "I have faith in you." It made a world of difference.

So I did take some time to think over what I had been doing. Why was I working so hard, and not really letting anyone help? When I considered allowing others to do more of the "cooking," I realized I had been making a tremendous effort to impress and astound people with my cooking artistry. If I let others do more of the cooking, it wouldn't be "mine" anymore, and I would not have the same supposed fame in which to bask. And I wanted to be great. Then people would like me. Then women would love me.

And what difference was that going to make? If I could get others to love me, maybe that would convince me to love myself. Only by this circuitous route was I coming to notice that I didn't like myself What a surprise that I hadn't realized it sooner. And then I saw how hard it was to please me. Yes, I would be willing to love the most perfected being ever.

Thus was I caught in my own mistaken effort. Attempting to become perfect enough to be lovable was clearly a useless endeavor. Besides, if my self-esteem depended on accomplishment or performance, then I would only be "as good as my last meal" and always have to keep surpassing myself in order to earn my own and other people's love. My self-esteem would be inherently fragile.

Besides, who could say for sure that if someone liked my cooking that meant they liked me? Quite probably they didn't really know or care about me at all and just wanted my cooking to continue unabated. To paraphrase a Buddhist teaching, "I am not my cooking. My cooking is not me."

If I wanted to like myself, I'd have to go about it more directly, and have more compassion for someone rather ordinary with problems: me. That was my work and not the work of the food. Let the food be food, and speak for itself.

Still, if I wasn't going to cook to "prove" anything, why bother? Raising this question brought into focus other threads of motivation: basic kindness and generosity, the wish for the happiness of all beings. I would cook because I wanted to cook. I would cook because I wanted to offer food, so I could be food.

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