A Zen master and chef reveals the most important point of living

Warning: The ingredients of life require careful handling.
Warning: The ingredients of life require careful handling.
Image: Reuters/Sam Mircovich
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You only have one life, so you try desperately to get it right. To this end, you plot and plan and do a lot, accumulating accomplishments, possessions, titles, and ties as evidence that you’re worthy of approval, a loved person who is winning at existence.

The Zen teacher and chef Edward Espe Brown thinks this is a losing proposition. You won’t win your own approval that way—that’s just something you give yourself, he argues in The Most Important Point, a new book being released today (April 2).

The book compiles Brown’s lectures and recollections on a half-century of cooking and contemplation. It’s a guide to life that also happens to contain advice on how to make perfect biscuits, the right consistency for oatmeal, and the proper approach to managing leftovers.

Brown’s view on leftovers mirrors his existential take: In the kitchen and beyond, everything is useful. No food or experience should ever go to waste. Just as he saves the remains of today’s dishes for tomorrow’s meals, the chef suggests we relish everything life brings our way, or at least learn to resist less. Instead of always trying to control things, which is impossible, the chef argues that we can get better at dealing, making delicious recipes in the kitchen and in our lives by using limited ingredients and learning to savor the flavors that arise naturally.

The grain’s flavor

This approach was honed over the course of 50 years. In 1966, Brown began working in the kitchen of Tassjara Mountain Retreat in California. The center was headed by the Japanese Soto Zen master Sunryu Suzuki—author of the seminal text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (pdf)—who helped popularize Zen in the US. It was the first Buddhist monastery founded outside of Asia. Brown was at the first meditation sessions with the venerable teacher and he stayed on for years, training in working with whatever was in the kitchen and on the meditation cushion. He explains:

My teacher Suzuki Roshi would say, “Sitting meditation is to practice being ready for anything.” Being ready for anything is different than gearing yourself up to defend or to attack things as they come toward you. You sit, and you’re ready for anything.

The center was humble in the beginning, and Brown didn’t have much experience cooking. But he was quickly promoted from dishwasher to chef when the cook quit abruptly that first summer. Every morning, Brown was tasked with making oatmeal for the Zen practitioners, and there were always complaints. Some liked it thin as gruel, others liked it thick and hearty. Brown wanted their approval, but he never managed to please everyone.

One day, after breakfast and before meditation, the Zen master called students in for a special lecture. Suzuki didn’t address the students’ complaints about their oatmeal’s consistency, but he did ask why they drowned their cereal in milk and sugar. Were they afraid to taste the true spirit of the grain? Did they believe that they could add flavor to every moment of their lives to make it taste just right? Suzuki suggested that the students consider how their breakfast habits mirrored the rest of their lives.

The next morning, Brown began to eat his oatmeal plain, and his understanding of flavors changed. Being less afraid of what he might taste taught him to explore more, to be less afraid of his mind and the experiences that arise in life. In his book, Brown asks, “If you are not willing to taste what is distasteful, how are you going to taste what is pleasant and delicious and worth savoring?” Having contemplated and lived this lesson for more than 50 years since, Brown contends that we spend so much time trying to avoid unpleasantness, crouched defensively, that we end up failing to experience delight, joy, intensity, vibrancy, and creativity as well.

Amusingly imperfect

Brown sees these existential lessons manifest in everything, even something as mundane as how he handles a broken egg. For example, he observes his frustration and anger when one accidentally cracks in the fridge while he’s trying to gently extract it from the carton. However, he’s detached enough to see what’s amusing about his irritation as he watches yellow yolk drip down the shelves. Brown, who hates wasting food, doesn’t love the fact that he’s sometimes careless—spilling and breaking things despite himself, even after a lifetime of training in being present and careful. But he’s come to appreciate that our faults are also our flavors.

“I think the biggest burden in life is not to like ourselves,” he explains. “We think we need to improve a lot before we can like ourselves and we forget that we could accept or appreciate someone who is quite sincere, with good intentions, with a good heart, who isn’t perfect.” We can extend this simple courtesy to ourselves, as we would to anyone else, and with that become less reliant on the approval of others. Zen, Brown contends, teaches you to be confident in your own resilience and resourcefulness and to see opportunity in every experience.

Similarly, frustrations with biscuit-baking proved illuminating for Brown and offer lessons for the rest of us, he says. For a long time, Brown tried to master what he thought would be the perfect recipe, but he was always disappointed with his results. He couldn’t get his biscuits to match the picture of the ideal in his mind. Unlike the oatmeal, which everyone complained about, Brown’s biscuits were a big hit with his fellow Zen students at the monastery. Yet he refused to be satisfied.

One day, he finally realized that this image of ideal biscuits that plagued him was based on the processed biscuit mixes he recalled from childhood. In fact, he’d never had a biscuit made from scratch before he began baking them himself. With that, Brown saw the extent to which he resisted reality for failing to conform to his fantasy when in fact, it was just fine—reality is actually delicious as it is, Brown says.

The most important point

When Brown first began studying with Suzuki, he asked the teacher what the most important point of meditation practice is. In a typically mystifying response, the Zen master answered that the most important point is to reflect on the most important point.

In the years since, Brown has himself become a master. He came up with a different answer: The most important point is acceptance—of the moment, ourselves, others, of the lives that we can’t control. Instead of grasping, loosen your grip, go easy, and taste the flavors of every day, the cook suggests. This openness is freedom.

Brown’s recipe for success in the kitchen and in existence is simple—no recipe. He explains, “In Zen it is better not to know where you are going or what you will find… Please enjoy your breath, the heat, the cold, whatever happens to come. See what you can do about being with your life each moment.”