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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

This selection was not used in the book, but was sent to me by Ed while he was working on it. - DC



When I first began doing meditation at Sokoji, I didn't realize that it would be physically painful and difficult to sit cross-legged. I imagined that it was a kind of mental training, so I was surprised the first time my foot fell asleep, curious and a bit dismayed when my knees began to ache. Nobody had warned me about this. None of the Zen stories mentioned the physical pain of sitting. You were just advised to understand that, "Mind itself is Buddha," or "Emptiness, nothing holy." To understand, that was supposed to make all the difference, but what about the pain? Did it just disappear or what?


I was unknowingly awakening to the fact that "Life Hurts," yet I was slow and thick-headed, young enough and naive enough to somehow blithely believe that one could go through life unscathed, pain free, immune. Initially the pain seemed mild and was not particularly disturbing, "Sure it hurts a little, but not that much." Still my conceptual framework did not acknowledge that one might somehow be obliged to be in pain--for whatever reason: sickness, ill-health, a break-up in relationship, financial setbacks. So the fact that meditation was physically painful snuck up on me.


Saturday mornings turned out to be especially trying. That was when we sat more than one period at a time. Following the initial sitting around 5:45 AM, there was morning service and breakfast. For breakfast we filed through the kitchen and picked up trays which already had bowls of food on them, and returned to our seats in the meditation hall to eat. After a short break and a period of cleaning, we sat a couple more periods before a lecture at ten. These were the periods when the pain finally got to me.


My knees began to ache fiercely, burning and throbbing. I did not know what to do. This was uncalled for, and I found myself gritting my teeth and breathing in a shallow, gasping fashion. Presumably this was an effort to not "give in" to the pain, but in any case, it was not doing much good. The intense throbbing worsened.


Then I felt a hand on my knee. That was another surprise, since I had presumed that one did not "interfere" with another's sitting, but I didn't argue or protest or push the hand away.


The hand didn't "do" anything--it simply rested there, warmly, reassuringly. It did not press or squeeze or pat or pet. Calmly, quietly present without striving to be calm or working to be present. Gradually my breathing returned to normal, deepening, smoothing out, flowing easily. I felt my body grow warm and soften, as the outlines disappeared. The hot, sharp, throbbing in my knees became a pleasant glow without boundary---no arms, no legs, no body. A vibrant, melodious tingling.


Then little by little shape returned. The hand was gone. The bell rang to end the period.


Later when beginning to get emotionally upset or discouraged, I would sometimes feel that hand on my knee again, only no hand was there. That would be reassuring, but more importantly I knew that transformation was possible, that how events were experienced was equally important or even more pivotal than what the events themselves were.


Cooking in and of itself is not anything in particular: a chore, a bore, a joy, or a sorrow. How you do it, how you approach it makes all the difference.

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