Edward Espe Brown in an interview with Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
While teaching in Europe and with little time at hand for writing, I’d like to share with you some fascinating interviews I conducted as part of my Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project. These interviews are an important source of information for my work on an extensive biography of Charlotte Selver, but beyond that they are a wonderful collection of voices in their own right of people whose lives have been touched by her. Enjoy!
Ed Brown first met Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the 1960s, where he was the head cook at that time. Charlotte and Charles were frequent guests at Tassajara where they conducted workshops every summer for many years. The following is an edited excerpt of my conversation with Ed.
Edward Espe Brown began Zen practice and cooking in 1965 and was ordained as a priest by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1971. His teaching style is both light-hearted and penetrating, incorporating poetry and story-telling. Having been head resident teacher at each of the San Francisco Zen Centers: Tassajara, Green Gulch, and City Center, he has also led meditation retreats and cooking classes throughout the United States, as well as Austria, Germany, Spain, and England. Author of several cookbooks includingThe Tassajara Bread Book and Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (June, 2002), he has also done extensive Vipassana practice and on-and-off yoga since 1980. In recent years he has begun leading workshops on Liberation Through Handwriting and Mindfulness Touch, and taken up the practice of chi gung. His critically acclaimed movie How to Cook Your Life premiered in October, 2007. The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, a collection of his writings, was published in September, 2009. For more information go to: www.peacefulseasangha.com
Ed Brown: What Charlotte Selver was teaching is so unusual and it’s difficult for people to get. I remember one of the classes at Tassajara. She was instructing people: “Now turn your head to the right, and then turn it back.” And right away somebody asked: “How are we supposed to do that?” Many years later when I started teaching cooking classes I would say: “Let’s taste this”, and then people would ask: “What should we be tasting?” It’s so hard to get people to just taste. Somehow, many people would rather have the right experience than the experience they’re having.
I now teach something I call mindfulness touch. Part of the inspiration for that is having done classes with Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks at Tassajara. In mindfulness touch it’s the same thing – mindfulness is the Buddhist concept for experiencing something without judging good/bad, without assessing right/wrong. Just to experience something. This is very challenging, but I’ve come to understand that as long as you’re judging, then you’re not experiencing. Touch mostly comes with directives, and I think most moments of consciousness come with directives, and when you’re giving out directives about what to do or how to be, then how do you experience anything?
I had some experience with Charlotte and Charles finding this out. But it took years to have that really come to fruition in my life. And then it’s so hard to shift. I had terrible childhood trauma. I don’t know what other people experience but the more I started just experiencing what’s inside instead of trying to make sure I was experiencing the right thing I went right into that.
I used to go to Charlotte’s and Charles’ classes on the back porch of the dining room in Tassajara. I would be so tired in the afternoon. I was working so hard and sleeping so little. But when I would go to one of their classes I’d be refreshed after an hour of just having awareness rather than “I need to this, I have to that.”
There’s a story that Charlotte told me about how she started doing Sensory Awareness. I use it a lot when I do Qi Gong with people. The kind of Qi Gong I do is not about getting it right, it is about sensing the movement rather than executing the movement. I don’t know if Charlotte used that language, but it’s what I’ve come to: “Don’t execute the movement, sense the movement.”
Stefan: She wouldn’t use those words but that’s what she did.
Ed: Charlotte heard about a teacher named Elsa Gindler and went to see her. She told Elsa: “I’d like to study with you.” And Elsa said: “You know too much, you can’t study with me.” And somehow Charlotte persisted until finally Elsa said okay. Charlotte said for a year she just thought Elsa was teaching the most wonderful things and everything she said was so brilliant and wise but, she said, “she just didn’t seem to really acknowledge me. When she looked at me she didn’t really seem to be appreciating my being there. And then, after about a year one day Elsa turned to me and she said, ‘Oh, thank God, Charlotte, at last, an authentic movement. You’re not posturing.’” Charlotte said it got a lot harder after that.
So that’s another thing I try to teach people, the difference between being authentic and posturing, or the difference between approval-seeking behaviors and being present and alive and showing up. Sometimes I call it getting real. And I don’t see a lot of people getting real. Zen people are often in that category, but not always. There are some Zen people who seem to be more real than others.
Stefan: In Zen you have this challenge of having a very clear form and you have to be real in it. And very often people confuse that and they try to be that form.
Ed: Yes, people confuse that and they try to be the form. Suzuki Roshi said we do formal practice with informal feeling, but a lot of people do formal practice with formal feeling. On the other hand I think that it is very difficult for people coming to Sensory Awareness directly, and not having some practice of “here’s what you do and this is how you do it”.
Stefan: That is an interesting point. I have worked with people in Switzerland who were peers of Charlotte and students of Gindler and Jacoby, and I know that in Berlin there is a precision that Charlotte had left behind. Not that she was not precise, but she, in a way, I guess she went right for the heart of it.
Ed: I do think that over the years Charlotte must have noticed that a lot of people at Zen Center are pretty “fixed” and doing something the way that they should be doing it as opposed to experiencing something about what’s going on. I’ve been trying to teach that for years, and I’m about as successful probably as Charlotte was, but who knows.
I now have a lot of tasting in my classes. Sometimes I take strawberries, and we taste the strawberries and then I add a little bit of maple syrup: “Oh, that’s nice.” And then we put on a few drops of balsamic vinegar – but not so much that you taste vinegar, but that little bit of tartness and they say: “Boy, this tastes more like strawberry now.” And then a few delicate grinds of black pepper and then they say, “It’s not like it’s peppery or like it’s hot in your mouth, but it’s even more like strawberries.” It seems like you can get strawberries to taste even more like strawberries if you’re careful and you don’t over season.
Stefan: Charlotte used the analogy of tasting a lot, asking us to taste a movement even.
Ed: Yes, well, I have had the experience over the years that some movements or things are much more delicious than others.
I’m working on a new book now about my life. I’m starting out with the time at Tassajara when after nineteen years of Zen practice I one day I was thinking well what do I do today while I’m sitting, and the thought came to me, why don’t I just touch what’s inside, with some warmth and kindness. And right away the tears started pouring down my face, and a little voice said, “It’s about time.” So that’s how long it took me – nineteen years of Zen practice – to get around to just experiencing something more analogous to Sensory Awareness. I had a lot of work to do with all of that. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody but certainly for people who had childhood abuse and alcoholic parents it seems like there’s a lot of residual drama which would make it very difficult to practice Sensory Awareness. To open to a kind of internal reality or just sensing what is you have to break a lot of rules. There are rules about that that you’ve made for yourself and if you break the rules you can’t help believing that you’re going to get hurt.
Stefan: It’s interesting that one would then choose a practice like Zen that has so many rules.
Ed: Well, it’s what’s safe – up to a point. I saw Katagiri Roshi after that. He was the interim abbot then, and I said, “Katagiri Roshi, in meditation I’m just touching what’s inside. Is that okay? Is that Zen?” And he said, “Ed, for twenty years I tried to do the zazen of Dogen before I realized there’s no such thing.” There is no getting it right, there is no way you need to be.
I do understand something about being in touch with things and actually sensing things and knowing for yourself what’s what and not having a fixed body that you need to keep. But there is something about the form of Zen that sometimes there’s almost nothing you can do besides study some difficulty. There does seem to be some usefulness in that there’s enough structure. I needed structure. Emotions are mostly from our early childhood. Emotions aren’t about today. Feelings from before get triggered. I’ve gotten lost in that for years and I spent years finding my way out of all that and so it’s hard to know what is useful or appropriate to be doing with oneself. I think that Zen in theory – formal practice with informal feeling, outwardly you are manifesting your life, inwardly you can unravel – can be very useful but I don’t think most people get that. Most people think the thing to do with your life is to keep it together but ideally you keep it together and fall apart. Otherwise you’re just keeping it together and then all this stuff that you haven’t dealt with is going to get you sick.
Suzuki Roshi used to say hindrances become the opportunity for practice. Difficulties are the way. But I think most people understand no, I’ll just do this Sensory Awareness and breeze on through. And in the meantime the people who are sitting still in the zendo say: “Well, I’m accomplishing this practice.”
Stefan: We do want to keep it together. This is really interesting for me because I’ve wondered about why we do what we do – and is it really useful?
Ed: It’s really hard to know.
Stefan: Even in Sensory Awareness I have noticed that we can trick ourselves into sensing something that is not actually there.
Ed: I spent years just trying to see if I could breathe. In Buddhism over and over people say follow the breath and I’ve studied what is allowing the breath. You can think you’re allowing the breath and it turns out you’re just having it go the way you tell it to go. And then every so often you notice something about your breath like, “oh, I guess I was creating that after all.” It’s very hard to have experience that’s really actually fresh and new, immediate. But that seems to be extremely powerful, extremely important for waking up in some way rather than just “can I get better at creating the experience I should be having.”
Stefan: I’m also seeing that whatever we do will always be new experience but from some previous condition. What is fresh experience? In Buddhism you talk of original nature. I have abandoned that notion. What is that even?
Ed: It’s a word. It’s a concept. Original nature is no nature, no fixed nature. Knowing your original nature is knowing that originally you’re free. That there’s not something to do, or fix or change. Is there some point where I could just receive and be blessed by experience rather than finding the next thing that’s wrong with it that needs to be addressed and fixed? That to me is something like Sensory Awareness.
On the other hand, sometimes you want to know, well, how do I cook this? What do I do? We live in various worlds that way, and I think people think when they start to meditate that it’s going to help them figure out what to do and how to do things better and how things will work out better, but I’m not sure – maybe, maybe not. I think it’s more finally about …..
With this our conversation ended suddenly when the phone rang and Ed went to answer it. When editing the transcript for this article I contacted Ed and asked him what he might have said there. His response: “Perfect timing! I think it is finally more about answering the phone when it rings.” He did offer another ending too, though, namely that it is not about things working out better but to be more intimate with our experience, to live from the heart rather than to function in survival mode.