Cooking down the middle path

“Give yourself to what you're doing,” such as cooking, he said.

“Take some time and do something that shares your heart. You give your body, your mind, your spirit to something, and that's nourishing. It's nourishing to you and it's nourishing to others [who share your food].” Mr. Brown, 65, will be in Toledo on Friday through Sunday to talk about food and life, about a way to offer emotional healing just by touching another person, and to give tips on cooking.

Reached last week on the phone at his home in Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco, he had just finished a lunch he called “very simple, but good.” In a sense, the meal was a manifestation of the Buddhist principle of The Middle Way — a path that avoids the extremes of sensuality and total self-sacrifice.
It was a salad that began with red cabbage (he put salt on it and squeezed out the liquid to make it easier to chew). Sweet and sour flavors came from honey and lime juice, with a bite provided by julienned radishes. He added pieces of apples he grows in his yard and some peppersmoked salmon, topped by chopped green onions and roasted sunflower seeds with just a little sugar on them for

“I studied Chinese medicine, and it says each of the five flavors has its value for nourishing the body: salty flavor, sweet flavor, sour flavor, bitter flavor, and spicy. And the colors have their value. There's a kind of poetry to it. Why not live by poetry instead of being told what to do?

“Whatever happened to pleasure and enjoyment and ease and comfort?”

For 20 years, Mr. Brown lived at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the United States. Located south of San Francisco, the center is known for its rigorous schedule of meditation, study, and work.

And thanks to Mr. Brown, it is also known for its food.

In 1970, he wrote The Tassajara Bread Book and essentially launched a breadbaking revolution. The book used one basic method to create a number of baked variations, and reminded the Baby Boom generation, and the generations that followed, that the act of baking bread can be enriching for the soul.

Three years later, he wrote Tassajara Cooking and then The Tassajara Recipe Book, both of them classics of vegetarian cooking.

“I wanted to encourage people to go ahead and do something. Don't be intimidated, don't be scared. Not everything will turn out perfectly, but you'll do something you like to do,” he said.

The Zen center serves only vegetarian food, but whenever he would leave to visit family or friends, as he did several times a year, he would eat meat if they served it. Ever since he left Tassajara in 1985 he has incorporated more meat into his diet. He said he now eats it four or five times a week.

Young people are idealistic and many are vegetarian, he said, but he does not recommend it as a way of life. He cited the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, who was a vegan for 20 years. It ruined her health, he said, giving her a degenerative bone disease that caused so much pain she eventually could not stand for more than a few minutes at a time. She only returned to health after she was convinced to start eating meat.

In addition, he said, vegetarians tend not to look at the totality of where their food comes from. Trees were killed and plowed over to create fields, and the gasoline used to haul the crops and put the fertilizer in the ground was made from animals who died long ago.

“There's already killing to get the habitat,” he said. “At some point it seems sort of facile: ‘Let's not kill the animals that have a face like us, let's only do the killing of things we can't see.”

Mr. Brown said he has seen any number of diet fads come and go, and he is on a quiet quest to get people to think and judge for themselves. He recommends that people who are interested should learn for themselves about health and food. Then they can judge what works best for them and not do something simply because someone else told them to or out of habit.

And that idea is at the heart of what he calls “mindfulness touch,” a way of healing by putting your hands on someone else.

“When you touch someone, you can receive them and allow them to be who thy are, instead of telling them who to be. And it turns out that can be healing,” he said.

“Mindfulness is the ability to perceive without immediately judging ‘this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong.' You're letting go of diagnosing and letting go of fixing.

“Boy, is that a relief when the world stops telling you how to be. After awhile, they realize they can let down their guard, their barriers.”

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