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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 Benefits of Watermelon
Once a student asked the master, "What about the student who leaves the monastery and does not return?"
Perhaps this is dry Zen humor, but it is also a wonderful answer, to be reminded that there is a benefit, a simple beauty in the way things are. Not that I always understood or appreciated this when I was actually living at Tassajara. Up to a point, certainly, but heat and cold were often a torment.
At times the usual conceptions of heat and cold were inadequate to describe what we experienced, and so the words lost their meaning. One summer working in the old kitchen I found out how relative heat can be. During one hot spell the temperature was over 115 degrees. This heat met the body head-on. It was no longer just the surrounding environment, but an independent presence, a being that licked at our faces and pushed its body up against ours, took hold of us and squeezed out our vitality.
The kitchen was hotter by ten degrees or more than the baking outdoors. Sweat would pour down our faces and soak through our clothes. We'd walk outside every now and again to cool off. So what was hot? What had been sticky and oppressive a few minutes earlier was now cool and breezy. "Hot" had lost its relevance. Hot compared to what? This morning, last winter? A few degrees less, and it would still be "hot." Twenty degrees less and it would still be "hot."
Everything in the world was the world of heat. Doorknobs felt different - no longer solid, but alive and pulsing. Large stones seemed to breathe. Here and there the air would shimmer and vibrate with reflected heat, making objects look twisted and wavy-edged.
The little voice that liked to whine "If it was just a little cooler ... then I would be alright," was silenced. Awe took over. Incredulousness. Adventurousness. The response to that dear little voice would come back loud and clear: "If it was just a little cooler, you'd still be hot! so forget it." Here was hot that could not be escaped, hot that transcended hot.
One late summer day Roovan, who was the gardener, and I took advantage of the heat to have a special dinner. Roovan had somehow gotten hold of a large watermelon, and he offered to share it with me.
To make it a real dinner though, we agreed to have "courses." We sat outside where we could spit out the seeds in a civilized fashion, and began our meal with some thin slices for hors d'oeuvres, then some wide wedges for "soup."
"Are you ready for the entree?" Roovan wanted to know. "Let's have watermelon steaks."
So we cut big thick rounds for the entree. Sure was delicious: juicy, fragrant, sweet, succulent, that slight crispness which dissolved away into elixir.
Our hands and faces dripped, the rinds piled up. "Now let's have some salad." The pieces got more misshapen. "How about dessert?" "Would you like some coffee?" We cut out lengthy cylinders for after-dinner cigars. "Brandy?"
The world appears in infinite forms and shapes that we could never imagine, often beyond the limits of what we consider comfortable or pleasant. To find benefit in the way things are frees us from trying to make everything conform to our standards. Like watermelon on a hot day - what a relief.
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