Edward Espe Brown: No Recipe

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Edward Espe Brown. Edward Espe Brown was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and later helped found Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Tassajara Bread Book, and the subject of the 2007 film How To Cook Your Life. With Sounds True, and has written a new book called No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Ed and I spoke about the Zen teaching to feel your way along in the dark, both in the kitchen and on the spiritual path, and how embodiment is what is needed for this type of sensitivity and feeling. We also talked about how to work with difficult emotions in the kitchen, such as anger and sadness, and how they can be embraced and included, and can even energize and sensitize our cooking. We talked about making food as an offering, empowering our hands to function as alive and awake hands, and the role of sincerity and wholeheartedness—both in cooking and on the spiritual path. Finally, we talked about aiming for our true heart’s desire, and how that is actually the central theme in Ed’s new book, No Recipe. Here’s my conversation with Edward Espe Brown:

Ed, your new book is called No Recipe, and I was talking to some of the people in our publicity department here at Sounds True, and they said, “Yes, people love this new book, but they miss having the recipes,” even though the book is called No Recipe!

Edward Espe Brown: [Laughs] Yes, yes, exactly. I may try to remedy that in the future, but we’ll see.

TS: I wanted to begin with this concept of “no recipe,” because I think people, they want to know—not just when it comes to cooking, but when it comes to our spiritual path, our spiritual journey, that if I do this—

EEB: Yes, they want a recipe.

TS: Yes; “If I do this and I do that, it’s going to turn out all right, right?”

EEB: And it’s going to turn out all right, right? Yes.

TS: Question mark?

EEB: [Yes]. And I’m trying to say it’s not necessarily so, which is close to the title of my teacher’s book, which I edited, Not Always So—the book is Suzuki Roshi’s. No Recipe, though, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use any recipes; it just means that finally, or in the long run, it’s up to you to figure out how to live your life—and if nothing else, which recipe to use. [Laughs]

TS: You have a quote in the book, “Zen is like feeling your way along in the dark.”

EEB: Yes.

TS: I love that quote. It seems that in a way, [with] No Recipe—I know the book has been many years in the making, but you’re really trying to say a very mature discovery, both about cooking, and about the spiritual journey; that, at the end of the day, you can’t cook someone else’s meal, or live someone else’s spiritual path. Tell me more about why this idea is so important to you, the idea of No Recipe.

EEB: Well, if nothing else, like most of us—probably all of us—I’ve spent a good number of years trying to follow the recipe and get things to come out the way they should, or the way I wanted them to. I presumed that I was following recipes that would help me do that, and that was very important. At Tassajara, we had a sesshin one time, and that was Suzuki Roshi’s theme for the week of our intensive meditation, that Zen is feeling your way along in the dark. He would sit there and reach out his hand and feel the air in front of him. [Laughs] It was very charming. And he said, “You might think it would be better to know where you’re going and how to get there, but usually when you know where to go and how to get there, you’re in a hurry.” You’re not so sensitive, so you want things to get out of your way, or to assist you more than they’re assisting you, and to help you get to your destination.

Then he said, “When you don’t know where you’re going and how to get there, then you become, you have to be very sensitive. It’s more important to be sensitive to what you bump into than it is to get to some destination or goal.” This—I mean, it’s in a spiritual sense, but it also applies to cooking because finally what you end up with is not necessarily your picture, or the picture [that] the person or people present in the recipe.

Of course, after that I still tried to get to where I was going [laughs], and I couldn’t do it. In all of my failures since then, I keep coming back to, “OK, back to feeling your way along in the dark.” My life has been like that. I don’t have a Zen center, and it never occurred to me—it’s not that it never occurred to me, I just, why don’t I start a Zen center? Why don’t I start a cooking school? Why don’t I? I’ve never had the—I don’t know if it’s the lack of vision or lack of imagination, being rather rational and know better. I don’t know, but all I know to do is feel my way along in the dark, and that’s all I know to do.

So at this point I go on, and every so often, I’m helped out by other Zen teachers who—one of my favorites Yueh-shan said, “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on.” [Laughs] There’s just such a big emphasis in our culture on being masterful and accomplished, and better than the others. Then how are you going to have friends? [Both laugh] Who’s going to be your friends, then? Then you’re going to be the lord and master, but who do you have for your friends? I mean, your pets or something? Anyway.

TS: One of the interesting comments you make in No Recipe has to do with how we practice mindfulness in the kitchen, and you draw some interesting cautionary notes. You say, “As often in practice, mindfulness in the kitchen can be a hindrance.” You go on to say that it can eliminate playfulness or spontaneity. It’s almost like some people are turning to mindfulness—and I’d love to hear you talk more about this—as a way that they’re going to have their recipe. They’re going to just do everything in mindfulness.

EEB: Yes, it becomes a recipe, and they’re going to be—the problem with mindfulness is, you can be mindful of being angry. You can be mindful of being inconsiderate. You can be mindful of leaving a mess behind, but if you leave a mess behind in the kitchen then people say, “Oh, he wasn’t being mindful, she wasn’t being mindful.” They don’t say, “Oh, gosh, they may have noticed they weren’t cleaning up after themselves [laughs] and then kept going.”

It seems to me that mindfulness has come to be another way of saying what’s right and what’s wrong, and using it in places—because Buddhists aren’t supposed to say good and bad, right and wrong, mindfulness becomes a way to say, if they’re being mindful, they did it right, the way I want them to. If they weren’t being mindful then they say, “Oh, they weren’t being mindful, they do what they were supposed to, or what I wanted them to.” People use it that way in their own lives, too; rather than just acknowledge, “Oh, I didn’t clean up after myself. OK, I can go back and do that,” or whatever it is. Or, “Gosh, I’m going to think about how I express myself. I got little too upset there,” or whatever it is. You could look at that and acknowledge it without making it good and bad, without making it—anyway.

It’s not the mindfulness—mindfulness is a great tool, to be aware without judging good and bad, right and wrong, but it seems to be very easy, at least for some stage of practice, for people to use it as yet another way to judge good and bad, right and wrong, and just call it mindfulness, being mindful or not being mindful.

TS: So, Ed, if a traditional approach to mindfulness [is] “I’m going to do this right, and I’m going to breathe quietly while I’m chopping the vegetables.” If that has value, but can also be limiting in some ways, and if recipes have value, but can also be limiting in some ways, what are the orienting principles that work for you?

EEB: Yes. Well, I feel fortunate to have studied with Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara. I mean, I’d been practicing Zen for a couple of years, and it’s kind of a fluke, but here I was, 21 years old, and asked to be the head cook for Tassajara, with—I’d had three months of experience cooking. [Laughs] The first thing that happened was, I came into the kitchen at Tassajara and there were all these people who were already there, and had been there for a while. They said, “Oh, here at Tassajara, we don’t use salt.” I said, “What? Huh? You don’t use salt?” They said, “No, salt is bad for you.” I said, “Really? How is it bad for you?” “Well, you know.” People who are spiritually oriented are often also not interested in the details of the concept, but they latch on to concepts, and in that case, salt was bad for you. Of course, then the whole contingent of macrobiotics came in and said salt is good for you, much better than sugar, so OK.

But in the meantime, I didn’t know what to do. How am I going to cook without using salt? I didn’t want to—I’m not very argumentative, and I’m not very bossy in certain ways. In other ways, I can be bossy, but I didn’t know what to say. So I asked Suzuki Roshi, “What am I going to do? They told me I can’t use salt in the kitchen.” He told me, “You’re the cook.” And that was a good place to start. You’re the cook, so you do what you want. Other people say, “Well, we like that, we don’t like that, that’s not the way to do it,” and you keep deciding for yourself what to do. You’re the cook when you’re in your house. If you come to my class or something, yes, you go along with me, and you maybe learn something, or you don’t. You go home, and you keep doing what you did, or you try to do something that you learned in the class, or you find out something for yourself, and life goes on. That was very empowering to realize. In that position, I’m in charge. I get to decide. That has a drawback of having to feel your way along in the dark [laughs] and not really know what the answer is, but in the meantime, [you] have to do something.

Anyway, the other thing that Suzuki Roshi told me which very much stayed with me, and of course it’s in the book, is when you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup. That’s the basic Zen: do what you’re doing, and at times, depending on who the Zen person is, throw yourself into it, burn yourself completely. To me, there’s a difference between that and then trying to be mindful.

I put somewhere in the book about the story of my friend, Gil Fronsdal, who practiced Zen for a month, and then went to Southeast Asia and studied Vipassana. He’s now become primarily a Vispassana teacher, although he’s also recognized as a Zen master. He said, “In Japan, they say, ‘When you rake, just rake.'” Similar, same idea. In Southeast Asia they say, “When you rake, watch your mind.” So in Japan, they’re out there raking, and it’s energetic, and lively, and maybe they’re stirring up dust. In Southeast Asia, they have the rake in their hand and they just stand there.

My idea is, when you’re cooking, you cook, and yes, be mindful, but if you focus on that, you may find that you are not putting as much of your body and mind into the activity, and studying and observing as closely as you can what’s happening, and how things are coming out, and being alert to whether things are cooked enough, or not cooked enough, or the temperatures and all the rest of it.

So I like the Zen approach—and the washing your rice, by the way, we were using at times Japanese white rice, which you had to wash five, six, seven times to get [out] the—I don’t remember what it was, talc or something, that they put the rice in to keep it from getting infested. You had to wash it and wash it.

TS: Ed, one of the things you said that got my attention, “Throw yourself completely into it.”

EEB: Yes.

TS: What do you mean by that?

EEB: Well, partly that’s a business of incarnating, and entering into your body, and finding your hands, finding your feet, finding your pelvis, finding your back. And so much of the time, most of us have grown up and we’re not particularly embodied. We’re in our heads. This is another way in Zen of not just meditating, but when you do something, see if [you are] being in your body, doing something with your body, with your arms, with your hands, with your legs.

Even back in the day, at Tassajara in the ’60s, there were people who showed up there who did not know how to sweep, and it’s only gotten worse. My partner, Margot, used to teach at her own—with two friends, they had their own school, and they taught the kids to sweep, and to clean the bathrooms. That was part of school. It was called the real school. [Laughs] Along with their strong academics, they had these kids who came from wealthy families that only had maids, had to learn how to clean house. There’s just so much of it—I don’t know, it’s just very mysterious. Things are supposed to just happen, and using your body to do things has kind of gotten—it’s lower class or something. I don’t know, it somehow fell out, way out of favor. The whole business of getting a college education and everything seems to have taken over, and now everything is by the head.

That brings you back to the recipe business, because then the idea of how to live a life is, “Get the best directions, and follow them. [Laughs] If that doesn’t work, it was a bad recipe.” Not—or, “I have too much resistance.” It’s not finding out for yourself what to do, it’s, “Oh, I guess I need some different instructions to send down to my body and mind to impose on myself as to what to follow.” Rather than, “How do I have some life in my body, and find out what information and sensitivities and so on that it has to share?”

TS: So, let’s get more specific, Ed. Someone is going to go into their kitchen, and they want to approach it in a very embodied way, instead of just, “OK, I have this clipped out recipe, and I’m going to follow it in a technical way.” What kinds of ways will they tune in to their body, so that they’re coming from the inside out, in the darkness, with sensitivity to their experience?

EEB: Well, you start wherever you start, but I start with emptying out the dish strainer and clearing the sink, so that anything that comes along, I have a place to wash it, a place to put it, and all of that process is going on. But what you’re talking about is like when you go to cut something. Let’s say you have a decent knife, but people think there’s a way to cut, and then they go to cut that way, rather than, “I could try cutting it like this, and I could try cutting it like that.”

One of the first things that occurred to me is, rather than most people, when they first go to cut something in the kitchen, move the knife up and down, up and down, instead of back and forth, back and forth. I thought, “Why don’t I move the knife back and forth?” Because that’s sawing, rather than chiseling. Then you’re asking your hands, “Which feels better to you? Which works better for you?” You’re trying to get beyond when your hands say, “That’s awkward, that’s not something I’m familiar with.” You’re trying to look at what’s truly awkward, as opposed to easy, and what’s just unfamiliar, as opposed to familiar. You want to identify what’s actually easy, easier for your body to do.

How do you stand? Where are your hands? What’s the level of your—sometimes your counter is too low, and then you need to see if you can get a bigger cutting block, or put down a box on the counter and put the block of wood on top of that, so that you have a higher counter. Or if the counter is too high, you want to find something to stand on. And so, I think people often are giving up before they even make these kinds of adjustments. “It’s awkward to work in the kitchen, the counter’s too low, the counter’s too high. I don’t want to do that.” Then when you’re cooking, I keep coming back to, taste what you put in your mouth. Over many years, I more and more have been tasting, and finding out from my experience what things taste like. Why is their salt in things? Well, make it without the salt, and then make it with the salt, and see what the difference is.

That’s what I do in my cooking classes. Like recently, among other things, we did the kale salad, which actually is in the book—and in disguise, that’s a recipe, right? Because it’s the kale salad, my neighbor and I making a fresh kale salad. We cut up the kale—she’d already cut up the kale, and then we put salt on, and then we do what’s called hand frying. You squeeze it with your hands. It’s an old macrobiotic technique, among other things. The salt brings water out of the kale, and the salt goes into the kale, the water comes out, and there’s a shift in the flavor. I call that, the flavor comes into focus. It was a nice flavor before. It’s juicy, it’s fresh, it’s grassy, and now it’s like, “Oh, this is kale! [Laughs] Oh, there’s spring blossoms, too, and there’s green onions.” So you start to taste things, and then the other thing about the salt is, when it goes in with the kale, then the water coming out means the kale is easier to chew. Why not have kale that’s easier to chew? I don’t know, my mouth gets tired chewing on some of these rough salads.

Anyway, you get the information from your hands, you see with your eyes. I use that quote from Tenkei, Zen master Tenkei: “See with your eyes, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue. Nothing in the universe is hidden. What else would you have me say?” Usually we say, “Well, how do I get it to come out the way I want?” rather than, “Oh, I get it. I could be experiencing things closely enough to know for myself what I like, and what I want to do.” What else? That’s, in a sense, feeling your way along in the dark! You find out something, you get some information, and then you act on that. Rather than, “Is this matching what the recipe says?” It’s amazing to me, it’s just amazing.

We tried—Deborah and I, I worked [with] Deborah [Madison] on The Greens Cookbook. Deborah and I wrote all these things like, “Cook the onions until they’re translucent, and season to taste with vinegar.” We got back—at that time it was all pink press-apply labels sticking up the right side of the manuscript, and there were dozen of them. Many of them said, “Cook the onions until they’re translucent; how long? Season to taste with vinegar, how much?”

TS: Right.

EEB: And then, in the pasta section, there was a recipe that said, “Cook the vegetables until they’re as tender as you like.” How do we know? Well, if you don’t know what you like—and somehow the editor seriously and strongly believed that there is a way that this should come out, and you should follow what the experts tell you, and Deborah and Ed are the experts here. They’re going to tell you how to do it so it comes out the way it’s supposed to, so it comes out right; and I wrote a two page preface or something to that book that said, “No, we’re in the business of learning how to cook, which means to be aware of your own aesthetic, and more and more be aware of your own aesthetic, and let that come into play in finding out what to do.”Along with the information you’re receiving, you also have an aesthetic. Cook the onions until they’re translucent, so you can watch the onions going from white, to more glassy and so on.

So we changed it. “Cook the onions until they’re translucent, about two to four minutes. Season to taste with vinegar, starting with about half a teaspoon,” and so on. We had to keep putting in these little clues so that you didn’t just pour in a half a cup of vinegar. [Laughs]

TS: What do you think, Ed, is the inner quality that allows somebody to have confidence in their own sense experience, versus, “No, I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re tender enough.”

EEB: I don’t know, either. [Laughs]

TS: Right, but at a certain point you came to trust your own aesthetic, or you trusted what you like.

EEB: Yes, I think so. I think that’s what is necessary, that you try something out, that you do it enough that you begin to know that you can trust yourself. I started with vegetables, and eventually I’ve worked up how to maybe do this with people. [Laughs]

TS: [Laughs] No, I’ll tell you something—

EEB: That’s not something I’m supposed to say here! [Laughs]

TS: No, that’s fine. I’ll tell you, Ed, something I have trouble with; I’d love to hear what you have to say about this. I actually love to cook. I love to cook, and when I go on a solitary retreat, or I just cook for myself, I make it exactly the way I like it, and I just love it. I have these moments of, “Oh my God, I just love this.” I love my own cooking.

EEB: Yes.

TS: OK. But when I cook for other people, that’s when I get all fershimmeled, to use a technical term, because I know that other people go, “Tami likes too much salt, she likes things too spicy, she likes things too oily,” whatever other people think, too much butter.

EEB: Yes.

TS: So then I started getting all confused about, “How am I going to find a way that’s going to please the people I’m cooking for, and myself?”

EEB: Everybody. Everybody, throughout time in history.

TS: Yes.

EEB: And then it’s going to have to be really bland, honey. [Both laugh] Well, that’s part of what’s happened to me. At some point I realized, “Oh my God, I cannot please everybody.” I probably wrote about this in the book, but we used to make oatmeal. We had a different breakfast here each day: oatmeal and ground, cracked rice, and cracked wheat, and corn meal, and whatever. The oatmeal, especially, somehow was—in those days, people didn’t know any better. We were just starting out, and the administration didn’t know any better, and people would just walk into the kitchen after a meal and say, “That oatmeal was too thick.” “Oh, really?” “Yes, don’t you know that in the morning your digestion is really weak, and that you need to have something easy to digest, and really well cooked, so that you can just—it slides down your throat and it nourishes you?” So I tried making some oatmeal like that, really well cooked and really soft. Then another group of people came into the kitchen—this is the men who had been working outside, digging a septic tank by hand that’s 20 foot square and 12 feet deep, or whatever it is. There’s rocks, and they’re working at this six hours a day or something. They say, “We’re not getting any meat, at least we could have some oatmeal that we could chew.” [Laughs] OK, so there’s a problem.

Then I thought, “Well, just to be on the safe side here, setting aside too thin or too thick, I’ll put raisins in.” Then a third group of people came in, the macrobiotics who said, “Why are you poisoning us? Didn’t you know that raisins are poisonous?” They were so fierce about their beliefs and their understanding about what you should and shouldn’t be eating—and of course I joke about that, because if you ate what you were supposed to eat on the diet, you would be calm and peaceful, and if you didn’t, you might get angry like this. “Why are you poisoning us?” [Laughs] Anyway, at some point I’m like, “OK, I’m going to have to just offer what I have to offer, listen to what people have to say, and then see what I think.” I’ve got it, I don’t have it, and it depends. In the meditation hall, you’re sort of stuck, because people are being just served what you’re cooking in Zen. In Vipassana, you go through the buffet line and take what you want. I don’t know about Tibetan exactly; I guess they do both.

TS: For our listeners, Ed, who might not be following there, could you explain what you mean?

EEB: Oh, in Zen we have meals in the practice period times. We eat—we have meals in the zen-do. We have a set of eating bowls called Oryoki, which has also cloths. It has a lap napkin, it has a tablecloth, it has a drying cloth. Part of the meal ceremony is to—you’re served food in the zen-do, and then after your food is eaten, you clean your bowls with water that’s served, and then you put them all away. Wash them, dry them, put them away. It’s all part of the meal ceremony. And so, when you’re eating in the meditation hall, you are obliged to just receive what’s offered.

For the Zen people, that goes back to the original Buddhism of when you go out begging for food, which the early Buddhists did, and Buddhists have done for centuries, and sometimes still do. When you are begging for food, you do not say, “I want that, I don’t want that.” You’re not picking and choosing; you receive what’s offered. Then you go back to the temple, and the food is divided up, and so you end up eating what you’re offered. In Zen we say, “Take some of each bowl, and eat what’s offered.”

But in Vipassana, of course now it’s gotten way, way, way more complicated since I was cooking at Tassajara in the 60s, because now there’s way more food allergies, and sensitivities, and people going to the hospital. They can’t have garlic, they can’t have beets, they can’t have tomatoes, bell peppers, eggs. There’s a lengthy list of—so now you have to publish ahead of time your menus, if it’s Zen. In Vipassana, partly they don’t have to worry about that so much, because there’s always various dishes, and it’s in a buffet line, and you go through the buffet line and you take what you know you can eat, and the ingredients are often listed right there by the dish that’s being served, so that you only are going to take what you want, and what your stomach and your digestive system can manage.

It is, by the way, said colloquially—which I haven’t looked in detail, but obviously in the early days stomach ailments were part of being a Buddhist monk, because you went out begging for your food. Of course, the story is that the Buddha died of eating infected pork, and that he knew that it was infected, but he felt he should eat it anyway because it had been offered to him. I don’t know the details of these things, but he was 80 or something, and so maybe it was about time anyway. One doesn’t know about these stories, how much truth there is to them, or if it’s part of the myth, etc. But in Zen, we eat what’s served, and in Vipassana, you can go through the line, and pick what you want.

Anyway, I learned that for Zen, I’m going to do something, and it’s just my offering. It’s just the way I’m doing it today, and some people are going to like it, and some people aren’t. There is no way to do it so that everybody loves it and says, “Great.” At some point, yes, you can say, “Too many people don’t want it this spicy, I’ll have to”—see, in Vipassana, you can have your dish of salsa out on the table for people to add to it. In Zen, you might not have it as hot and spicy as you want it as the cook, but you’re aiming for some middle ground, or something distinctive, but not too plain, etc., etc. I think over the years, what’s happened is that oftentimes people end up making bland food, because they don’t want to hear from anybody about anything.

TS: Right.

EEB: Oh well.

TS: Now Ed, here’s something I want to talk to you about in the book that I thought was seemingly paradoxical. At one point you write, “Food tastes better when the cook is joyful,” and I thought, “That’s true.” Then at another point you write, “If I were to cook only when I was feeling the most loving, kind, and benevolent, I would have starved long ago.” I thought, “Well, that’s true too.” So, how do we approach cooking when we’re in a foul mood?

EEB: [Laughs] How do we approach cooking when we’re in a foul mood? Somewhat carefully, [laughs] somewhat awkwardly, and again, feeling your way along in the dark, so you’re going slowly. I’ve found that with most anything—and I’ve noticed this pretty early on that you’ve got to give yourself about 10 minutes anyway. If I went out jogging, the first 10 minutes out, “What am I doing? This is stupid, I hate this.” After about 10 minutes I’m like, “Oh, not bad.” If you’re washing dishes, “Oh gosh, the dishes again.” If you’re cooking, if you’re doing meditation, the first 10 minutes, you’re like, “I can’t believe I decided to do this. What am I doing? I’ve got other things to do. I’ve got some stuff to take care of.” You need to be somewhat patient there at the beginning of the process to say, “OK, I’m going to give myself 10 minutes, or 15 minutes to see if I can settle down on this, and find my way into the activity, into the work, into the study and the practice, and see what happens.”

It did help me, too, to—again, it helps to not be too ambitious, certainly. At some point it’s like, “OK, well I’m going to do what I can do here, and I’m not in some fancy restaurant, I’m not under a lot of pressure. I’ll offer what I have to offer, under all these circumstances—the food, the ingredients, the time, the energy, the attitude, the circumstances I’m working with.”

It’s kind of an extension of Dogen’s teaching—receive the ingredients that you have, and work with them sincerely and wholeheartedly. It’s different to handle your emotions with sincerity and wholeheartedness, because the usual attitude with emotions is, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you, and if I’m going to cook, you can’t be here.” That, to me, was always impossible. I say “Come along, see what you can do to help out. Help me out here. You’re welcome to participate in the cooking. I’m not going to be going off with you to scream, or hit pillows, or cry, or sob, or whatever you think might be the appropriate activity. It’s all going to come now to the kitchen, and we’re going to see what we all can do together, and to have a meal come out, to have the food come out.”

There’s an important shift there from wanting to get rid of the emotions to—it’s not the emotions themselves that are problematic, it’s the attachment to a fixed expression of them that’s the problem. Once you let go of that fixed expression, then you realize the emotions are perfectly capable of helping out in the kitchen.

TS: Can you give me an example of that? How?

EEB: You just never invited them before.

TS: OK, so give me an example. Let’s just say somebody’s angry about something that’s happening in the world.

EEB: Yes, you’re angry about something, and then—

TS: I listened to the news on the way home, and I got all riled up, and now I’m going to cook dinner. OK, how is my emotion going to help me?

EEB: Well, we’re going to ask it to come into the kitchen with us, and participate. It’s also related, then, to throw[ing] yourself into it, do what you’re doing, and anger is very serious about that, can be very serious about that. You wash what needs to be washed, and the anger can do that, and it can certainly help with cutting. It loves to cut, [laughs] whack whack whack. But you’re not just whacking, you’re training it. You’re retraining your anger, and inviting your anger to participate with you. Anger is more angry when you don’t want to allow it any space, and you’re trying to get rid of it—then it can explode. But if you’re using it, it’s really capable.

I’ve found at times, with anger, a huge rush of energy, when I invite it. “I know you don’t like [that] you’re angry. Well, I invite you to, let’s do something here.” Then the anger is more like, throw yourself into it, including the anger. Pretty soon it’s not angry anymore, because it’s able to participate in your life. The anger isn’t just anger, it’s something closer to the fundamental energy of your being. Then you’re able to use that fundamental energy to cook, rather than just to be captivated by the emotion and the usual way of expressing it; actually, there are other possibilities.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to go back later and tell somebody what you had to tell them, or set different boundaries, or whatever you’re going to do. I mostly found out, after years and years of mis—what is that? Of expressing my anger a little too provocatively or openly, and people don’t get it. You think that you can be—[that] when you’re angry, they’ll hear what you have to say, but they don’t hear anything that you’re saying. All they hear is, “Oh, you’re angry, aren’t you?” They don’t hear, “Clean up after yourself. [Laughs] Stop talking, don’t talk in the kitchen.” They’re like, “You were really angry.” They don’t hear, “Oh, excuse me, I was talking when you wanted us to be quiet, and was interrupting the work.” They don’t hear that. So I keep studying how to express things without actually expressing the anger, but that doesn’t mean not to be firm or clear, and anger helps with that. Anger helps with that firm determination, persistence, clarity. When you ask it to help—you have to ask it to help.

TS: How could our sadness help us, just to use a different example?

EEB: I’ve found that I’m kind of in that Robert Bly school of sadness. What is sadness for? It’s a storehouse of barley, corn, wheat, and tears. “One steps to the door on a round stone,” and “the storehouse feeds all the birds of sorrow.” Do you know that poem?

TS: I don’t, no.

EEB: “I say to myself, ‘Will you have sorrow at last?’” Oh, go ahead, be stoic in the autumn, be tranquil and calm, “or in the valley of sorrows spread your wings.”

I’ve found that sadness really connects me with things, and Bly says that same thing. How can I be close to you if I’m not sad? That’s Bly for you, partly, but also the sadness starts to reach out for connections. Then pretty soon you can be connected with the food you’re working with, with the utensils, with the activity, with doing the dishes. You start to see things that you weren’t seeing before, because you were busy getting something done, and you didn’t have time for sadness.

In our haste to be busy, and getting things done, we don’t have time for sadness. It slows us down, but the slowing down is also how we become more intimate and more connected with things. But again, it’s like you’re inviting sadness to reveal more about what’s really beneath the surface than just, “Oh, sadness. How do I get over this, or through this?” I mean, I’ve studied with a lot of teachers over the years, I’m afraid. [Laughs] I tell people, “I’m a work in progress.” There’s many, many skills and things to learn, certainly, but that’s what I would say about sadness in the kitchen, is that I started to feel.

Recently, I was reminded of—I started to feel connection. Recently, I was remembering the teapots at Tassajara. How To Cook Your Life, Doris Dörrie’s movie, really the finality of the movie is where there are these dented, golden-colored teapots. It’s actually kind of aluminum that’s somewhat gold-colored, or kind of pale yellow, and they were all dented from people, the way that people carried them, and banged them into each other. In Zen, you’re supposed to carry one thing with two hands, but people would carry two teapots in one hand and two teapots in the other, and then you got to your break center. I mean, who cares about practicing Zen and taking care of something or honoring something when you can get a break center? Sometimes people would carry four teapots in one hand, and then race across some place, so the teapots were all banged up.

Then when they were washed, they would sit on this particular shelf, the teapot shelf, and I would look at those dented teapots, and they seemed so bright and cheery. Here I am, all sad and tired, and anxious or lonely, or whatever. I’d see those teapots, and they looked so round, and ample, and cheery, and bright. They were ready to be of service, and then my feeling would go out to them, “Oh, you sweethearts. If you can do this, I can too.”

So, that’s the sadness. You’re much more in connection with things, and realizing how hard it is for everything in our life, in this world. Nothing gets through unscathed, whether it’s the teapots, or . . . and what gets valued? And so many things are lost. We don’t value our anger, our sadness, our energy, our intuition, our imagination. It’s just, get it done. At some point, of course, “use it up, wear it out, make do, do without.” That’s an old New England saying. [Laughs] But Zen says, “Let’s value something. Let’s start by—let’s value this moment, which is valuing the things, and valuing your effort, your sincerity, your wholeheartedness, and be awake and alive yourself; and then put that awakeness and aliveness, give them to the things to bring that alive, and to the food, to bring it alive.”

TS: I notice, Ed, when you talk about sincerity and wholeheartedness, I’m moved by that. I feel touched by that.

EEB: That’s nice, thank you.

TS: In my heart. And what I would love to know is, what in your life has increased your sincerity and wholeheartedness?

EEB: Well frankly, it’s all the things that broke my heart, and then to go on—there’s sincerity and wholeheartedness. Because again, the recipes didn’t work. I remember this—I know I sometimes come back to—well, two things. First of all, one time I was sick at Tassajara, and we were cooking for hours a day, and we were short-staffed. Sometimes I would work for a week, two weeks, a month without a day off, and I was exhausted. Finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. I just lay in my room, I could hardly move. I started thinking, “Why am I doing this?” And I thought, “Well, I want to make good food. I want people to like my food.” Then I thought, “What difference does it make? Can you really tell if they like your food? They seem to want you to keep cooking it. Not that they really appreciate your effort, they’re just not really appreciating you much. They’re bowing to receive their food, but it’s kind of going through the motions. Why anyway do I want them to like my food?” “Well, that would mean that they liked me,” and then of course I had to distinguish between what’s my performance, and what’s me? Do they just like the performance, or do they like me? “No, they don’t care about me, just keep working. They don’t care about me, so OK, but let’s say that I could get them to like me through cooking, through my performance. Why would that be important?”

I realized then, “Oh, if enough people like me, then maybe I could like me. If I got enough evidence that I was likable, then maybe I could like myself.” That’s when I realized, “Uh-oh. I guess I don’t like myself very much. [Laughs] Oh.” I hadn’t realized. Then, if you are going to go back to work after that, it’s just your sincerity and wholeheartedness that’s going to bring you back. It’s not the reward that you’re going to get, which you can’t get. It’s not producing the evidence that people like you—and you can never get enough evidence from others to like yourself. You just can’t. So I decided, “OK, I will practice loving myself, somebody who is not that accomplished, is not that good a performer, can’t do that much.” I’ll have to like myself.

And the sincerity—at one point I understood, of course, that sincerity goes back, apparently to the French. The S-I-N is “without,” like “sans” in French, and “cire” is wax, so it’s “without wax.” The wax was what was used in statues, and people would clip parts of coins, and filling the part of the coin with the wax, and of course the blemishes in metal sculptures are still filled in with wax and patina, and you can cover up all the blemishes. That’s using the wax to cover the blemishes. At some point, you’re shifting to, “OK, I’m going to have to learn to appreciate the wrinkles here, and the cracks.” Like Leonard Cohen, let the bells that can be rung—there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I had to start learning to appreciate the cracks, and the blemishes, and then share that. Rather than trying to hide it, and not want to hear what other people’s problems about my performance. I know I made a sincere offering. I know it was sincere. I gave my best. I did my best, I offered it, and then the world out there, I can’t control it. So much of our suffering is trying to control how other people see us, and then they don’t see us that way. But the point was just to begin to appreciate yourself, sincere, honest, goodhearted person doing, making their offering, making their best effort, OK.

That is part of the No Recipe, of course, because so much—again, we’re shifting from make a spectacular performance, do something spectacular and masterful so that everybody can offer a claim, and that was great, and you say, “Yes, it was.” If it didn’t come out, you say, “That was a lousy recipe.” But if it came out all right, then you could take credit for it. At some point, couldn’t we just cook for ourselves, and our friends, and our family, and make a sincere, goodhearted effort? Why do people keep thinking that you have to do something masterful, or don’t even cook? I mean, it’s crazy. No wonder people don’t cook, if the only way you are going to go in the kitchen is, I can’t do something masterful in the kitchen. No, you’re going to have to do something less than masterful, maybe indefinitely. [Laughs]

TS: This idea, Ed, of our cooking being an offering to other people is something that moves me. There’s a quote from the book, “Work itself is making your love manifest.” You talked about how hard it was to be the head cook at Tassajara, how much work. How much actual, hard labor, and there’s another quote from the book that “Sacrifice is necessary to bring forth the sacred.” I think I’m just moved by that because I don’t think that we honor, necessarily, the act of offering that there is, whether we’re doing the cooking or receiving cooking from someone else.

EEB: Right. We don’t always recognize it, so more and more these days I’m saying thank you for your effort. It’s not, “That was great”; thank you for your effort, thank you for your offering. Thank you for putting yourself out there in food.

It’s so rare that anybody does that for me, anyway. “Oh, we couldn’t cook for you. What does [he] think? [Laughs] Oh, we could just offer you food. We can’t offer you masterpieces. You might not think that highly of us if we just offered you food.” Anyway, yes, this is part of why I finally put this book out there, whether or not people get it, or receive it. Thank you for your sensitivity, and understanding, and appreciation. Because exactly, it’s just these simple offerings of our life that really, it’s what some people call ceremony. It’s spiritual activity. It’s letting the spirit come through.

And the sacrifice is interesting too, because yes, you do sacrifice the chance to watch television, or play video games, or go out to a nice restaurant. You give up doing other things to be in the kitchen, and you’re also, in a sense, giving up control. I say you are shifting from control to compassion; you are having more compassion, rather than being in control. You want to control the other people, and make sure their experience of your performance is worthy of their acclaim. Sometimes it’s hard, because your audience is like that, and they are going to let you know if your performance is not worthy of their acclaim. That could be stressful.

I’ve been in houses like that, and families—very challenging. I don’t know what people do sometimes, but the worst was an old girlfriend whose sister was anorexic, and her husband was like that. She finally didn’t make it, in her early 40s, but just way too much. It was the most intense place I’ve ever been in my life. Way too much judgment, and tension in the room around, “Is it the way it’s supposed to be? Is it the way it should be?” Rather than, “Let’s enjoy this food. Let’s enjoy this moment. Let’s enjoy our breath. Let’s enjoy each other’s company, and so on.” [Laughs] Good old Thich Nhat Hanh there, huh?

TS: Well, I know I would love to just stop what we’re doing right now and cook a meal together. That would be fun.

EEB: Oh, let’s do that. [Laughs]

TS: Yes. While I was reading No Recipe, I just started thinking of all the meals I wanted to cook, all the people I wanted to offer these meals to, and have over, and also how I was going to really cook for myself, and just make some things that I just love.

EEB: [Laughs] What I say is, one thing about that is you’re cooking by your aesthetic, and then your aesthetic gets informed, and shaped, and reshaped by your experience as you go forward. Your aesthetic is not something that’s fixed, which is good to know. It’s what you like today, and the way you like it today, and then maybe next week it will be different. What do we know? So, that’s nice.

TS: Yes. Here’s the note I wanted to end on, Ed, which is the note that you began the book with. At the very beginning of your introduction you said, “Please, honored readers, aim to fulfill your true heart’s desire.” And I thought, “Huh.”

EEB: Oh gosh, I said that? [Laughs]

TS: You said that. You invited the readers, “Aim to fulfill your true heart’s desire.”

EEB: Good. That’s what the book is about. I’m glad that was in there someplace.

TS: What that brought up for me was, what is your true heart’s desire? Why is that so important to you, and what is your true heart’s desire?

EEB: Well, of course I’ve studied that a lot over the years. Again, that’s something that keeps shifting and changing, and there is another chapter later in the book where I talk about some of the things that have been important to me. At one point it was, for instance, to feel at home here, in this body, in this time, in this place, on this planet. Which is a little bit like Raymond Carver who said—somebody asked him, or at least in his writings, somebody asked him, “What are you here [for]? Did you get what you wanted, being here?” He said, “Yes I did.” “And what was it you wanted?” He said, “To feel beloved here on Earth.” He said, “Yes, I felt that.”

So at one point, that was my—and that’s still a big piece, to feel beloved. That beloved comes from your heart, and it comes from above, from below, from the east, west, from the sky, from the earth. But anyway, it also comes from your heart. Our hearts—in Buddhism of course, we say we want to be a benefit to others. Our heart wants to benefit. Our heart wants to not cause harm. But I think that feeling at home, to me, was extremely important, and that goes back to my personal history, which we don’t have time for.

But more recently, then at some point it became much more important to feel connection, to feel in connection. Which is another way of saying to feel at home here, to feel in connection, and to have intimacy with myself, intimacy with things, intimacy with people. To be capable of intimacy, which is again, a very interesting word. I mean, I don’t know the details of it, but oftentimes people think intimacy is where you understand the things the same way with somebody else. Intimacy is where, “Oh, you see it like that, I see it like this,” and you can feel close, even though you see things differently. You feel close, even though you feel differently about something. You can still have closeness, and that’s real intimacy, because the other’s not intimacy; it’s some kind of abandoning yourself from the other, or somebody is abandoning something so that you feel the same thing, and think the same things, and like the same things.

So you honor something there about the differences in things, and through the differences, you start to have connection, and warmheartedness, and worth. Intimacy became more and more important to me, and connection, along with that sense. I’ve had various expressions of the same, but I think feeling at home here—and of course in Zen, the notion is, well, if you want to be at home here, make yourself at home. Start taking care of these things that are in your home—the ingredients, the utensils, the kitchen, the space you live in, and start taking care of it. Start honoring it. You want to feel at home here, weed your garden.

I don’t know, I’m not in the business of trying to do much to save the world, I’m afraid. I don’t know that it can be saved, et cetera, but I can work on being at home here, and making myself at home, and taking care of things, and offering what I have to offer, and so on. Anyway, there you have it.

TS: You know, Ed, when I said that you put this at the beginning of the book, “Honored readers, aim to fulfill your true heart’s desire,” you said, “Oh, I’m so glad that made it into the book. That’s what the whole book is about.” How is that what the whole book is about? Not having a recipe, learning to trust yourself in the kitchen, following your senses, being present. How is that what the whole book is about, aiming to fulfill your true heart’s desire?

EEB: Yes, and there’s no recipe for that, which comes up in so many ways. There’s recipes for how to make something come out the way it’s supposed to, but there is not a recipe for beginning to have—and many people talk about this, whether it’s therapists, or psychologists, or Michael Mead, Robert Bly, all kinds of people. We abandon ourselves growing up. We have to learn to fit in, and get along here on planet Earth. If we have time for it, I’ll tell you a quick story about that.


EEB: Do we have time?

TS: We’ll make time.

EEB: Anyway, a dear friend of mine, who I haven’t seen now in years, because I don’t get back to Maine anymore, she’s a healer. I’ve studied something from Richard Unger about fingerprints, and by golly, she’s got the marks of a healer on her hand, on her palm especially. Anyway, one day a woman comes in to her with this three-year-old boy and my friend says, “Well, what are you doing?” And she says, “He’s refusing to eat the food. He’s refusing to speak the language. He says it’s not the food or the language from where he comes from.” [Laughs] How are you going to grow up here if you say that?

It’s kind of a strange story, because then at some point, after seeing him two or three times, she had a dream and some aliens came to her in her dream and she thought, “Oh gee, what do I want with aliens?” Then she thought, “Well, I’ll talk to them.” And she said to the aliens, “I’m working with this little boy, and he’s refusing to eat the food or speak the language. You need to talk to him and tell him to eat the food and speak the language or he’s going to have a really, really hard time here, because he’s on Earth.” The woman called in the next morning and said he’s eating the food, he’s speaking the language. [Laughs]

Anyway, there’s more to that story, but it’s so interesting. We do learn when we’re small how to speak the language, and depending on the circumstances, I learned, certainly to, how to have a pretty tough exterior to defend myself, to defend against more heartache and heartbreaks, and to defend against intimacy, and to defend against love, because you can get hurt. We’ve developed the toughness, and various things, and strategies, and then how do you ever re-own your own heart, open up again to your heart? It just seems like, again, whether it’s therapy or the spiritual path, some big piece of that is, how do I receive my own heart, and know what’s in my own heart, and how can I offer and share that?

It becomes—and then, if one chooses to, because it’s definitely a choice at that point; whether it’s when you’re a teenager, or whether it’s in your 20s, or a midlife crisis, at some point you go, “You know what? I need to start living my life, and sharing, and finding out my heart, and not just being a success in these exterior terms, because that’s not satisfying me and fulfilling me the way I thought it would.” We forget how—we don’t remember how we abandoned ourselves, and so there’s a whole lot of work, whether it’s in meditation, or in the course of life, to begin to study what, in the vernacular, what did I come here to do? What am I here for?

Which is another way to talk about true heart’s desire, and it’s not coming in words, dammit. It’s not some wonderful directive from beyond: “Oh, this, that.” [Laughs] That’s like you’re back in your head, if it’s in words. That’s not your heart. Your heart is in feelings, and it’s, “Yes, move that way; no, not that.” We’re back to feeling your way along in the dark. There’s no obvious—and there’s no way to stick to it. If you have a recipe, you stick to it. If you know where you’re going, and how to get there, you stick to it. Without sticking to anything, and feeling your way along, what’s going to guide you? Well, it’s your ascetic, and then your heart, it’s going to guide you.

Then sometimes—interestingly enough, of course I’m in this particular Zen tradition with Suzuki Roshi. His idea of Zen, another idea he expressed was that Zen is to realize your true nature, and to express yourself fully. True nature is—depending on how you understand it, but the core, essence, which includes your heart, or maybe there’s another word for heart. When your heart is in alignment, or in alignment with the core, then that’s important. Then you have a lot of support for your heart from below and above, in your core.

When you understand or have a sense of your core, then you’re living from there. Rather than, “Do this, don’t do that,” and the directions, it’s coming from inside. Then he said, “That’s how we understand the precepts.” So there’s advantages and disadvantages in how different people understand the precepts, but his idea was, “When you’re in alignment with your essence, your core, with your true nature, and you express that, you can’t break the precepts.” Then he said, “You need to be ready when somebody confronts you, or brings up something. You might have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I apologize, you’re right. That’s not my true heart. Let me try that again.'”

But you’re offering—rather than trying to get it right enough and correct enough for long enough that it shows that you have your heart in the right place, and that you can finally accept and appreciate your heart, it’s like you’re aiming to live from your heart, and then you—this is also the big emphasis in Soto Zen, of course, that heart is another word we could say in this sense, for enlightenment. How do you bring your enlightenment to today? Setting aside what enlightenment would be like, what would you do with it if you had it? Let’s just say you do. [Laughs] Then what is it your true heart, your true enlightenment wants to do here today?

TS: I notice, Ed, in talking to you, I feel a tremendous warmth, and a real sense of connection.

EEB: Thank you, sweetheart. Thank you.

TS: I feel so grateful with that, in this rollicking conversation.

EEB: [Laughs] It’s lovely to be able to talk to somebody who is going to be so receptive, Tami. [Laughs]

TS: I feel that way. You’ve inspired me to cook for my friends and family, and I’m sure they are going to love that. I’ve been talking with Edward Espe Brown. He’s a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, teacher and chef. Known as the author of The Tassajara Bread Book, he’s written a new book with Sounds True. It’s called No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice. Ed, thank you so much. Thank you so much.

EEB: Thank you, Tami.

TS: Yes, just for the raw, rollicking ride. Thank you.

EEB: Yes, blessings. Love and blessings. It’s been wonderful, thank you. I really do appreciate the care and attention you put into preparing, and listening, and receiving. It’s wonderful. A great gift, to me, and I’m sure to others.

TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.

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