When Edward Espe Brown was head cook and baker at the Tassajara Zen Center in the mountains above Big Sur, he had a serious problem with biscuits. As described in the recently updated, Complete Tassajara Cookbook, no matter what he tried, he couldn’t get them “right” – right to himself that is. Other people raved about the biscuits.
Then one day he realized he was comparing them to the Pillsbury biscuits that he had enjoyed as a kid. He actually tasted his own biscuits and was amazed at how delicious they were. Brown writes:
Those moments – when you realize your life as it is is just fine, thank you – can be so stunning and liberating. Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product makes it seem insufficient. The effort to produce a life with no dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger is bound to fail – and be endlessly frustrating.
The Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group, http://www.sbmg.org/, hosted Brown for a one day retreat last Saturday. First you need to know that Brown is an ordained Zen priest and Dharma heir of the late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the teacher who, more than any other, first put Zen on the American cultural map.
Then you need to understand that Edward Brown is one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. A lot of Zen teachers and students come off as stern and unsmiling, but Brown reminds me of Steve Martin and the late Leslie Nielsen, in his ability to crack up a room of 50 people with the lift of an eyebrow or the subtlest “Who, me?” expression. As in his cooking, so in his teaching, Brown has gone his own way. Learning to trust your own heart and find your own way was the core of the message he gave on Saturday.
Brown relates that one time he was the meditation leader during a three month retreat with 20 students at Tassajara. One day, as he debated which technique to practice, an unexpected thought bubbled to the surface: “Why don’t you just touch what’s inside with warmth and kindness?” He spent the rest of the session in tears and left the organization not long after.
No cookie-cutter biscuits, no cookie-cutter Zen, no cookie-cutter life. “Are you going to be a rule follower or are you just going to be you?” he asked on Saturday. That particular quote is highlighted in my notebook for its importance to anyone trying to write.
“Are you going to be a rule follower or are you just going to be you?”
Edward Brown leads The Peaceful Sea Sangha. The website has a calendar of his activities, a recent article about his cooking, and a large number of Dharma talks available for free download. http://www.peacefulseasangha.com/default.html