Rules to Live By- Edward Espe Brown

Once Katagiri Roshi told us, “Practicing Zen is not like training your dog: ‘Sit.’ ‘Heel.’ ‘Fetch.’ We are not training ourselves to be obedient and just follow the rules. We are training ourselves to wake up.” When a teacher says this, you know he’s seen a lot of people trying to get it right. And failing. And being miserable. What was the point again?

Katagiri Roshi would also say, “Let the flower of your life force bloom,” and, “the meaning of life is to live.” Not an easy task when so much by-the-book structure stands out from the background and appears to demand compliance. Still the wisteria grows freely using the trellis for support.

To be in the grip of rules is a fearsome place to abide. You know what you’ve done, so you are always on the run from the Zen police, trying to hide and cover up the lapses, seeing if you can face down the authorities. And how discouraging is it to find out that you are playing every role yourself—and there is no one to blame. You cannot escape the whole charade. You know what you’ve done, so you the authorities know what you’ve done and you the judge will judge you accordingly. And you, along with the others will conclude, “Darn, I’m no good at following the rules, even though I’m great at catching myself, and passing severe judgments. I’ll never be able to get it right.”

And you hear Roshi saying, “it’s the flower of your life force blooming, don’t you think?” And you don’t know what to think.

Our most common strategy is to try to measure up, to attain perfection and not have any lapses—zero tolerance, buddy. And you being the intrepid alert policeman catch the smallest infractions (“You did not stop at the stop sign. I don’t care if you’ve never been caught before in fifty years of driving. That wasn’t a stop.”) Bad dog!



Getting Out Of Our Heads: An Hour with Edward Espe Brown

Once you know the set-up, you notice that changing any part of it changes all of it. As Suzuki Roshi mentioned in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “If you want to control your sheep or cow, give it a large pasture.”

Speaking of Suzuki Roshi, the story that David Chadwick tells in Crooked Cucumber goes straight to my heart. Again, I will paraphrase here. I first met David in the spring of 1967, when I was head of the kitchen and David was head of the guest dining room at Tassajara, and though David and I rarely see each other, he abides tenderly in the sweetness of my heart. It’s one of the understated remarkable aspects of Zen practice that we have friends for a lifetime (or perhaps innumerable lifetimes).

I was extremely introverted and still tend to keep to myself, while David was brightly extroverted—probably the most outgoing person ever to practice at Zen Center, as the students spend so much time sitting silently facing the wall that they have rare opportunities to be social.  Extroverts need not apply—and usually don’t. One day at Tassajara about ten years ago, I sat with David on the side of the office in the sycamore grove, and everyone who came by stopped to talk with him. They were not pausing to speak with me—each of them seemed to be right in the middle of an on-going conversation with David: friendly, responsive updates given and received. Sunshine sparkling in the blossoming maple trees and the budding sycamores with their brilliant blue background: bright, gracious, convivial. I sit in the warm light and soak it up in silent amazement. We are such different people.

Students at Tassajara are directed not to drink alcohol. What might be challenging for some is that summer guests were and still are allowed to bring alcohol when visiting Tassajara on their summer holiday. While the winters at Tassajara are devoted to two ninety-day practice periods for Zen retreatants only, summers are open to visitors as well. Summer students follow a schedule of meditation and work (on scholarship), while summer guests pay to enjoy the hot baths, the quiet contemplative atmosphere, and three vegetarian meals. Income from the Guest Season helps to support students the year-round.

At times students see the guest season as an opportunity to develop skills and virtues that are not being cultivated in the winter: being of service, cultivating graciousness and generosity, learning to be conversant with others (in addition to perfecting the inward-looking silent gaze acquired over the winter), learning to perform when called upon, as in work where there are consequences, and potentially acquiring people skills (which are not the same as facing–the-wall skills).

Others find the summer to be a distasteful disturbance to the inner and outer peace and quiet of the winter months. If peace and quiet are the point (sit, heel, fetch!), then staying at Tassajara over the summer certainly becomes a travail. As my friend Daigan says with magnificent dry humor about a distant summer: “the heat, the flies, the madness, and the lies.”  Which life will you train for? Classically Zen students are said to have mouths like a furnace—you take it all in and burn it up, fuel for growth. (And minds like a fan in winter—useless!)

Coming back to David (!) who was apt to sit down with the dining room guests towards the end of the meal, share some of their wine, and visit. After cleaning up, he would head off to a guest’s cabin and continue visiting, often shifting to brandy or scotch. And then the following morning he would miss the student schedule of zazen, service, and breakfast. The guest season was an opportunity for him to be David.

Behavior such as this does not go unnoticed in a Zen center. One day after breakfast at the morning meeting of temple officers with Suzuki Roshi, the director brought it up. These chosans begin with silence while the Roshi’s attendant prepares tea. After the tea is passed around, everyone bows together following the Roshi’s lead. And the tea is sipped in silence until Roshi speaks. His announcements or concerns lead to his invitation for others to speak: “is there something you would like to bring up?”

With David sitting nearby (after missing the entire earlier schedule) the director  asked, “Suzuki Roshi, what do we do with someone who is always breaking the rules, drinking alcohol with the guests, and missing morning meditation?”

Apparently Roshi paused, cleared his throat, paused again, and said, “Everyone is making their best effort.”

Persisting with his inquiry the director said, “but we’ve got to do something. He’s breaking the rules flagrantly and persistently.” Roshi responded that, “it’s better that he does it in the open, rather than hiding it from us.”  

Again the director pressed his case: “we can’t just let this behavior go unpunished. It’s a bad example for others.”

“Sometimes someone is following the spirit of the rules, even if he is not following the letter of the rules.” That exemplified Roshi’s exquisitely gentle firmness,  his utter conviction.

“Wouldn’t it be better if he followed the letter of the rule and not just the spirit?” came the director’s further challenge. “Yes, that would be best,” concluded Roshi.

Right, wrong, good, bad; often I don’t know what to say. David got to stay, and he continued being David. I rarely went to the morning meeting with Roshi, as I just kept working in the kitchen, and my lessons came from cutting a hundred thousand vegetables. I like to think that Suzuki Roshi knew David’s heart, and knew it was in the right place. How shall we understand this human life, intrepidly wayward, intrepidly seeking the way?

I think that it’s well worth noting that many years later after the Roshi’s death in 1971, David was the one who championed Suzuki Roshi, telling everyone that we needed to preserve his lectures and establish an archive. Disciples much better at following the rules did not have this inspiration, and did not readily agree to support David’s efforts. Little by little David carried the day, running up large debts in the process. (I think that he should receive a grant to be David, as he is so phenomenally good at it.) It took a while, but David eventually got sober, and there is a new quietness, focused and alert, receptive and curious, that has deepened his easy engagement with others.

David’s story touches me—what is it, finally, that helps people, awakening our good hearts?—and I know that Suzuki Roshi also wanted others doubtful of their worthiness to stay at Tassajara and continue practicing Zen. I wish that I had known this story when I was head resident teacher at Tassajara in the spring of 1984. Though the chosan had taken place in the sixties, I did not know about it until David’s biography of Roshi (Crooked Cucumber) came out in 1999, so I did not have Suzuki Roshi’s example in front of me in 1984.

  The officers of the temple, serious and stern, came to inform me that one of the students, James, had been doing drugs and sharing them with others. Unfortunate news in the crisp spring air with lucid sunlight flooding in my windows. What shall we do? I said, please, let me speak with James, before we decide anything.

James was an energetic, occasionally moody young man with a disarming smile. He was by far the youngest student, perhaps eighteen (or was it twenty-two), and he’d come to Zen practice off the streets of San Francisco, after being discovered by Issan Dorsey, one of Zen Center’s priests. Rumor was that they had been lovers. And now James was following the schedule at Tassajara—Issan was not there—where he slipped easily into the role of mascot (rather than hero, scapegoat, or lost child).

Sitting down together in my cabin by the upper garden, I found James to be entirely forthcoming. It had been his birthday recently, and his mother had sent him a Care Package, only instead of the usual chocolate chip cookies, there were brownies laced with hashish, some LSD, along with marijuana for smoking. What a mom! What was she thinking—sending drugs to a Zen Center? Why wasn’t she thinking? James said that the package had entirely way too many drugs for him to consume on his own, so naturally he had shared the drugs with others—on their day off, of course.

James also expressed his remorse and his deep wish to continue practicing at Tassajara.  He loved being there, and he especially loved Suzuki Roshi. I told James that I would do my best, but I wish I’d known how to make his wish come true, known the story about David and Suzuki Roshi, known to consult with others outside of Tassajara. When I met with the officers, I told them that I wanted James to stay, but they were insistent that he had broken the rules and had to leave Tassajara. I argued that he would soon be back on the streets of San Francisco, and that he wouldn’t survive for long. The officers said that was up to him; that he had to leave. I finally agreed to go along with them. Heaven help me.

James may have lived for a while at our City Center, but shortly he was back on the streets, and after a year or so, we heard that he was dead. How painfully sad. Of course we don’t know what would have happened had he stayed at Tassajara, but an isolated canyon in the mountains does not have the temptations of the streets of San Francisco, and today I am heart-broken not to have kept him in that structured isolation. Where we could have provided him with a big brother or mentor, where the spirit of Suzuki Roshi would have welcomed him: James, please stay, do your best, let this practice take care of you. Though you break the rules, come back to the way.

Zen practice is not like training your dog: “Sit. Heel. Fetch.” Some of us dogs have taken years to mature. What finally helps is hidden in the heart, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes by a teacher. Sometimes through sorrow.

My brother Dwite attended the first practice period at Tassajara beginning in July of 1967, and when he left after a month, I didn’t know why. He went on to become first an Episcopal priest and then a Catholic lay-person. Finally, a few years back we talked about it. He said that another one of the students—he was remembering that it was David Chadwick of all people!—was  bugging him about his imperfect attendance in the zendo. He loved, he said, to sit and watch the creek, but he was being pestered relentlessly (so it seemed) to follow the schedule. David does not remember doing this, and my brother agrees it may well have been another student.

   Finally he’d gone to tell Suzuki Roshi that he was leaving. Effusively Roshi encouraged him to stay, saying, “please, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about what the other students say. I need you to stay.” And then my brother said, “Roshi got up and hugged me.” He didn’t know what to make of it: “what did he mean, that he needed me to stay?” 

So the Roshi’s efforts could not dissuade my brother from leaving, as he was set on not having to weather the harassment any longer. “I just didn’t like it,” he said.

“The Great Way,” Dogen says, “circulates freely everywhere. How could it depend on practice and realization?” On going or staying? On how well behaved you are? The meaning of life is to live. Suzuki Roshi said that the best instruction is person to person. When there are too many people for this, we have rules.

What finally are the rules to live by? Woof! May the flower of your life force bloom.  Freely and fully.



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. In addition to writing The Tassajara Bread Book, The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, and No Recipe, he is the editor of Not Always So, Zen lectures by Suzuki Roshi. The Most Important Point, a collection of Edward’s lectures, was published last year. He is the subject of the critically acclaimed movie How to Cook Your Life and also leads workshops on Liberation Through Handwriting and Mindfulness Touch.

Support The Rowe Center