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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

[Ed's stonework is beautiful and sturdy and will be there at Tassajara long after we're all gone. - DC]



After I had worked in the kitchen at Tassajara for three summers and two winters, I was put out to pasture, a pasture that turned out to have rocks in it. I felt lonely and forlorn, but also unburdened of my identity as a cook. The autumn leaves were dropping. I had been used up and discarded.

First I was asked to work on removing the rocks from the lower garden. We did this by tossing shovels-full of dirt against a wire screen propped at an angle. The dirt and smaller rocks went through, while the larger rocks remained on the screen. The stones had to be shoveled into wheel-barrows and hauled away.

After the stress of preparing three meals a day, this was really simple, uneventful work. Loosening a large rock from the soil can be the big event of the day. Not much progress or accomplishment to speak of: just dig and toss, shovel and haul-- no deadlines and no pressure to impress others with my talent or skill. Some days I worked with one or two other people, on other days I had the field to myself. Days turned to weeks, and weeks became months, as the area of sifted soil expanded. Twenty-five years later I still find it gratifying when I walk through the garden.

Once the dirt had been sifted we started building a stone wall on the far side of the garden against the hillside. None of us had done rock work before, but we puttered along, learning as we went. After a time Suzuki Roshi began to notice us, and I told him how much I liked working with rocks.

Later he invited me to do rock work with him around his cabin. Watching his steady pace, unrushed yet intent and absorbed, made it clear to me that even though I had slowed down since leaving the kitchen I was still too fast for rocks, particularly as they got bigger.

The Roshi wasn't in a hurry to get things done. He just kept working at making the rocks fit. Where I would become discouraged or depressed that the rocks didn't fit, he just kept going: tried something else, started over. A large rock which didn't fit after much effort, which would have been a 'defeat' for me, was just another event for him. Yet he wasn't a perfectionist either. Where I might have searched for hours or days for a more perfectly fitting rock, he simply wedged in smaller rocks to secure the bigger one or chiseled off rough edges.

He had his eye out for rocks, and knew where each one lived. Once he had us get a large rock forty feet up the hillside above the lower barn. We couldn't understand what he wanted that rock for until we finally got it in place, and it turned into a solid cornerstone. I began to live rocks the way I had lived flavors and menus: shapes settled into place, pieces fit together.

I also noticed that Suzuki Roshi moved rocks the easy way, utilizing iron bars and stone fulcrums to move larger rocks this way or that with minimal physical exertion and maximum delicacy and exactness. He wasn't impressed by senseless exertion. "Just a moment," he would say, beginning to fiddle with his little curved iron bar.

He meticulously completed each step, especially the finishing work: wedging small stones in behind the dry wall, pounding dirt under paving stones. This is the part of rock work which is most like washing the pots or cleaning the dishes: time-consuming and not particularly creative.

I felt unworthy of his attention, but I appreciated his generous and warm-hearted interest in me. Even though I wasn't always very happy with myself, that seemed okay with him.

Then one day he moved me more firmly into place inside. I hadn't known what he saw in me any more than I had known what he saw in that cornerstone-to-be, so far up the hillside. Yet he watched and waited, and when the time came, got out his lever, inserted it just so, and shifted me.

I was in his cabin, and we had just completed a conversation around some troubling issue-- I don't recall which one it was: anger, frustration, discouragement, sorrow, grief, abandonment, there were so many. I bowed and got up to leave, and Roshi surprised me by getting up too. Then he walked over to where I stood, put his arms gently around me, and said very simply, "I'll always be with you."

And he hugged me, which he had never done before. Tremendous joy and energy soared through me, and I knew it was true: he would always be with me. What had been the solidity of my body was a trembling mass of warm vitality. This incredible being, this pure heart, this kind mind, would never leave me. Ever.

Sometime later I realized he'd always been there.

So with each of us, our sincere heart can be awakened, touched, moved, by a smile or a gesture, by being seen and known, respected and appreciated. And we can do that too: awaken others.

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