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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



One day when I was the cook at Tassajara, I heard that Suzuki Roshi had broken a tooth while eating black beans. A stone which hadn't been removed from the black beans did the damage. He was going to have to return to San Francisco to have his tooth repaired. Several people came to tell me what an awful person I was for letting this happen.

I should be more careful, they said. I should make sure the crew was more conscientious. We would be missing some of his lectures, they said. He was getting older, and for us to miss some talks was a terrible disaster, which could not be made up for. I had been horribly negligent. There was simply no excuse.

I have not always had much perspective in situations like this---many of us don't. I tend to take on the burden of what people say about me. Yes, you're right, I thought, I am the worst person ever, causing our beloved teacher to break a tooth. Perhaps I should resign from my position and never cook again. Perhaps I should do penance for the rest of my life.

Even though it was just a broken tooth, I felt remorseful, quite out of scale with the circumstances. The Roshi left to have his tooth worked on, and I had to continue my job, feeling that I was an object of scorn: "There he goes, the person who has caused us to miss out on the precious teaching. It's all his fault."

After a couple days of this I got to thinking that I couldn't be the SOLE cause for what had happened. Suzuki Roshi's teeth had been around from before I was even born, and what after all had gone into them? And I started thinking about his stories about his life during the second world war in Japan.

Unlike many other Zen priests who became part-time teachers or took up other occupations to make ends meet during that time of hardship, Suzuki Roshi had decided to be simply a priest. He wanted, he said, to fulfill Dogen-Zenji's injunction that priests not work, but allow the universe to provide.

To this day I am in awe of this decision--leaving his life in the hands of others, especially under such difficult circumstances. He would not even ask others for donations, but wait for someone to notice his need. Perhaps, finally, a parishioner would be visiting his temple and realize with some surprise that he had no food. "I could get you a little rice," the visitor would offer. "I could spare some tea," someone would say. If no one noticed he simply waited.

"A lot has gone into making his teeth the way they are," I thought. "He must have gone months with rather poor nutrition. His teeth cannot be in the best of shape." After a while I felt better. I didn't feel so much to blame, and I admired my teacher for his willingness to be in our hands, eating our food, joining us in our life.

He simply ate what we put in front of him, and never said that we should be offering him foods to which he was more accustomed: white rice instead of brown, or miso soup instead of lentil. He accepted the food we served and other of our American strangeness, and bowed in respect and gratitude. He let us flounder around while trying to find our way.

When Suzuki Roshi returned from San Francisco with his tooth repaired, students at Tassajara wanted to be sure nothing like this would happen ever again. And it wasn't just a matter of making sure there were no rocks in the beans. They wanted to be sure that the food was soft enough for him, so we went to some extremes endeavoring to provide soft food.

First of all we tried serving the Roshi a special tray of food, before we brought in the regular pots to serve everyone. He refused to accept it. He made it clear that he would eat what everybody else was eating. Then we started cooking some of the food longer or cutting it finer, and putting it in a particular place in the serving bowl where the server would know to serve it to him. We had an uneasy truce with our teacher as kitchen workers outdid one another to provide easily chewable food.

Finally I felt we might be getting a bit extreme, so I decided to speak with Suzuki Roshi himself about what would be appropriate food considering the condition of his teeth. I explained that we were concerned about his health and well-being and wanted to make sure that the food was soft enough for him. How had that been working for him, I wondered.

"You have no idea," he replied, "how humiliating it is to be served mashed banana."

"Perhaps we have overdone it," I conceded, "but is there anything in particular we should be careful about?"

"No," he said, "I want to eat what everyone else is eating. I will eat whatever you serve."

"But aren't some things more difficult for you than others," I persisted. "What about raw apple slices?"

"No, something crunchy like apple is not a problem. What is more difficult is something chewy like undercooked eggplant, or something stringy like celery."

After that we stopped trying to provide super soft food for our teacher and started trying to provide everyone with well-cooked eggplant and thinly sliced celery.

It is said that a Bodhisattva's path does not vary. Certainly Suzuki Roshi's path did not waver--from rotten pickles to mashed banana he accepted what was offered. Perhaps it cost him days and weeks of his life, but then again if he didn't practice the Bodhisattva's way his spirit might have died much sooner. He joined his life to ours, and left his fate in our hands.

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