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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

An Offering


What is it that brings people back, again and again, to the task of feeding, whether the work be a drudgery or a joy? Back to dreaming up what to cook and how to cook it? Back to agonizing over or delighting in what to serve? And back to wondering whether the results are praiseworthy and whether those eating are sufficiently appreciative of all the sacrifice?

Years ago at Tassajara, we had a festive picnic in the early afternoon. I remember walking over the hill to the Horse Pasture. A great deal of effort had gone into the preparations, and people ate eagerly and with gusto. Walking in the fresh air stimulated our appetite for good food, laughter, gaiety, companionship.

Sometimes one attains, for a few moments at least, a heavenly state: sunshine, grasses, wild flowers in bloom, the fleeting and buoyant fragrances of spring, and food. Without having to do a single thing food appears, miraculously, as though borne on the wind. Even before the wish is made, everything is there.

As often happens when things come unasked for, both pleasant and painful, people did not think to say "thank you" that day. joy, ease, well-being arose, and everyone was replete and sated, and not especially interested in lining up to thank the cooks, the gods, or Divine Providence. Oh well. The euphoria of the cooks on a bright spring afternoon was edged with bitterness: Maybe next time we won't work so hard, if you cannot express more appreciation.

Later in the afternoon I was back in the kitchen at the appointed time. No one else appeared. The other cooks had joined in the general day off, ignoring the well-known dictum that cooking never stops, the kitchen never closes. Even though we'd had a large picnic lunch, people would be expecting a little something when the dinner bell rang.

Unthanked, and now abandoned by my crew, I had little sympathy for what anyone might be expecting. I was, after all, expecting gratitude and plaudits. I was expecting assistance. If you're not going to notice that I'm cooking, let's see if you notice that I'm not. Why don't I disappear? That will show them.

But will it? What will it show them? I fear they will not understand that it's all their fault for not thanking me enough. Before I can get out of the kitchen, further reflection sets in. Do I just give to get? That's not really giving then, that's called buying; and trying to work a favorable deal, that's called bargaining. I want to be more generous than that. I want to really give, no strings attached.

Could I do this, no strings attached? just cook, and let it go at that? I began sorting through the leftovers. Dinner at the usual time.

The cook's job is to embody generosity, just as it is the work of the people eating to be grateful, even if wordlessly. Still cooks survive better when they focus on their own endeavor and don't try to tell others how they are supposed to react. Cook, and let it go at that. To wit, a story.

In our meditation tradition we have a custom which for many years I found peculiar - offering food to Buddha. Before breakfast and lunch the cooks make up a small tray of food. In its way it is rather cute, suggestive of dollhouse cuisine. Food is put delicately into each little dish, and then a miniature spoon and chopsticks are set ready to use.

When I was cooking, I found this rather annoying. Wasn't I busy enough serving food to the community without having to serve food to someone who's not even going to eat it? You have to be kidding. Whatever is the point?

Later, when I collected the uneaten food, the Buddha didn't say anything about liking this or not liking that, no "Loved the seasoning on the carrots." No, the Buddha just goes on sitting there completely unconcerned. Good food the Buddha doesn't praise. Bad food the Buddha does not complain about. Not a word escapes his lips just as no food escapes his bowls. "How inane" I thought.

When Jakusho Bill Kwong came to visit the first summer I was cooking at Tassajara, I watched him make up the offering tray. Jakusho teaches now at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, and he had been the cook at Zen Center when I first arrived. I could not believe how polite and respectful he was while putting food into those tiny bowls: careful, sincere, unhurried, as though serving the most honored of guests, "Please, try this. I'm sure you'll like it." How sweetly he served the food which was to be uneaten and unremarked upon.

Perhaps twenty-five years later it occurred to me that serving food to Buddha in this fashion was utterly profound: This is the way to cook. Cook the food and serve it. Bow and depart. You've done your part. Offer what you have to offer, let go, and walk away. 

That's the end of it. How the guests receive it is up to them.

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