Edward Brown was ordained to Zen priesthood by Suzuki Roshi. He teaches at the San Francisco Zen centers Tassajara, Green Bulch and City Center and holds meditation and cooking classes in the USA, Germany, Austria, Spain, and England. He is the author of several cookbooks, including Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings. He is the subject of the documentary How to Cook Your Life. This interview was provided by Roadside Attractions.
Edward Brown: I was 19 or 20 years old when I started to cook. I had a lot of fun. There is something simple and direct about cooking, and something so esthetically pleasing, something primal. We do so many things in our life that are intellectual. I was unhappy in school with all its mental exercises of "show me what you know and show me what you have learned." This was not what I wanted for my life. It was absolutely not satisfying. When I started cooking, I found something really fulfilling: I could actually do something with my body and it tasted good.
Is intuition an important part of cooking?
Edward Brown: Yes, sure. But intuition in my world is based on careful observation, on carefully sensing the flavors of numerous different foods, spices, and herbs. I always tell my students to "catalogue" the taste of what you put in your mouth. So when you compose new dishes this information appears as if by "intuition." It is your thorough study and examination of different foods and flavors re-appearing. Of course delight stimulates the process.
You have a special mindset towards cooking: Cooking is a way to practice Zen; it is a metaphor for attention, and it is a means to nourish yourself and others.
Edward Brown: Careful attention, sincere and wholehearted effort go a long way to making delicious food. The Zen students who cook at Tassajara are not professional cooks, but they cook with love and care and that’s why it tastes so good. If you treat food with care and appreciation it shows the heart of the person who handled it. It is like a good parent who treats her child with attention, approval, and warm-heartedness, with caring support. This child will feel loved and grow-up well with a positive sense of self.
Many people attend your cooking classes. What are they looking for?
Edward Brown: When I started this cooking class in 1985 we had a lot of fun. We cooked and I told stories while cooking. Time has passed and today some people are talking through much of the class. I often ask myself: Why are they here and how will they learn anything if they are talking so much? People get confused and think that happiness is never having to really relate to anything.
Everything would just be there for you. You would not have to feel, sense, think, decide, respond, confront. You’re privileged. When people are not relating to what’s in front of them, the result is an uprooted and lonely society with a lot of disconnect by cooking for others, you can overcome this separateness and nourish yourself and others.
What is your opinion on the time we live in? What is our approach to food and cooking?
Edward Brown: It is obvious that here in the USA manual labor doesn’t count anymore; it’s devalued and not honored. Not only when it comes to cooking, also the carpenter, the mechanic, the plumber, the farmer, the gardener and the seamstresses are affected by this. Their knowledge and craft are devaluated. We don’t have time for all those things anymore. We are too busy earning money at often uninteresting jobs. If people were to do more simple, down-to-earth activities like gardening, sewing or cooking they would feel more satisfied and fulfilled, more connected. You won’t get this from watching television. Working with our hands nourishes us. It doesn’t matter, if you cook or do garden work, it will give you a feeling of being connected to the world. You work with the things of this world. Today, if you are a successful person, you hire a cook, a housekeeper, you buy your clothes and somebody buys your food. Nobody touches a broom anymore to sweep the floor. What are hands for? To put chips in your mouth and punch the remote?
Are we disconnecting ourselves?
Edward Brown: People feel estranged because they lose connection to the world and to other human beings. There is little closeness anymore and people often have few real friends. Our lives are too busy; we have a lot of fears but hardly any happiness. So people seek fulfillment in entertainment. Many people in the USA watch up to six hours of TV every day and again they are all by themselves or if someone else is there, there is little opportunity for interaction.
Our modern lifestyle shows our inability to be deeply rooted and connected with people and things and to bring out the best in ourselves and others. When cooking, you bring out the best in the food and you serve it to yourself and others. When watching TV nothing really happens, it is pure consumption. It can be fun and a terrific release, but for six hours?
Do you have to learn how to cook?
EDWARD BROWN: Perhaps you have to learn how to cook, but your willingness to be in the kitchen kick-starts the whole process, which means that your willingness to not already know and to be finding out is a tremendous asset. Zen Master Dogen stresses that your wish, your choosing to cook, and your interest and curiosity along with your passion sparks the process of learning. You want to know how to do it, so you study and find out more about how to do things. Of course you are "learning to cook," but you are also becoming the embodiment of a cook: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, meeting, greeting.
Suzuki Roshi was your teacher. Does on need a teacher?
Edward Brown: Not necessarily, but I think a teacher can help you find the teacher within you. The teacher guides you to finding the part of yourself that is a good student. When you open your heart and your soul to the world, you learn. A teacher can help you to be more conscious of yourself and to inspire you in opening your heart and soul to the world.
Did you like being filmed?
Edward Brown: Yes, I had a lot of fun. Doris was very supportive and positive during the filming. It was awesome working with her. It is so rare to meet someone who truly appreciates your gifts.
You use a lot of metaphors. Like the example of the old cracked teapot which is still doing its job. Are those metaphors typical for Zen?
Edward Brown: Zen finds poetry in everything, sees the profoundness of the ordinary. My favorite sentence of Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook is "Let your heart go out and abide in things. Let things return and abide in your heart."