Episode 45: Edward Espe Brown prescribes Rumi’s STORY WATER

Here’s a jug of story water to put into your morning kettle. When I was living in Milan in the early 90s, with all the potential and fear that being a young adult entails, the floorboards of our flat would often chant to me: Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō, Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō. It was quite relentless. Mornings, evenings, a constant reverberating drone of confounding vocalisations. I would put my ear to the floor and feel it (also something in me) shiver. Later I learnt, as I started visiting the (en)chanting flat in which lived Russian expat ‘Rif’, that he and his SGI pals were vibrating in Daimoku unison for the things they desired most – more/better work, enriching relationships, a flatter stomach etc. I think he may have just packaged it in this way so that he could get on with cutting my hair and trying to convince me of the health-bestowing benefits of drinking one’s own urine without having to turn our discussions into a lumbering tutorial on The Transcendent. On Rif’s shelves I found a skyblue Ubaldini copy of  Shunryu Suzuki’s Mente Zen, Mente di Principiante [Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind] which I read and loved, loved the astringency of it, the plain-speaking poetry of Suzuki Roshi. I also loved the photograph of him and arbitrary drawing of a fly on page 69. I possibly projected (I still do) a mixture of warmth and mischief into those unabridgedly  human eyes, the folds of his weathered face. I had this picture photocopied and slightly askew in a cheap clip-frame on my wall for years. I think it was a way of having my father’s face in the room with me without actually having to have a photo of him there. This is a somewhat hackneyed story, as I am now aware that ZMBM is the book that nudged thousands of fearful and hopeful creatures like me onto the “spiritual path” (whatever that means, I no longer know). Each of our paths though have been quite unique. Mine took me down to Rome and “proper” Zen practice with the precociously bearded and somewhat scarily intense Dario Girolami and his Aikidoistas-turned-Zensters, sitting together at the crack of dawn and compassionately thwacking each other with wooden paddles about the shoulders with a no-pain-no-gain ardour. Then, because I couldn’t completely hack that, I gravitated to Corrado Pensa’s more gentle, psychologically-inclined vipassana (insight) meditation. And now, the mishmash of mindfulness-yoga-walking-shared-reading-gurning-vipassana that comprises my spiritual path. Through it all, was Edward Espe Brown. I baked from his Tassajara Bread Book, a book whose cover still evokes a certain sense of 70s counter-culture iconicity as much as The Joy of Sex, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Burrough’s Naked Lunch does. (I’m not sure how a book about baking has pulled this off, but I think  it has.) When I lived in Berkeley for six months, essentially adrift after Italy and all that fruitless (?) meditation, I thought about making a trip to Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre in the evocatively-named Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest. Instead, I spent my last couple of hundred bucks on a Green Tortoise ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ bus trip (no Acid involved, but plenty of Electric Kool Aid Hippy-friendly-folk, and me), sleeping-under-the-stars, searching for something inclusive of, but also beyond “fun”. Later, I caught up with Edward Espe Brown through the internet, listening to his talks, and watching a fantastically endearing warts-and-all portrait of him made by the filmmaker Dorris Dorrie called How To Cook Your Life. And then I heard he was coming to London. EEB was ordained by Shunryu Suzuki and has spent a good tranche of his life with the “Crooked Cucumber”. The Zenners are very big on Dharma Transmission, and I think, after meeting EEB,  I can see how this works. To sit with EEB is to sit with EEB, but also the spirit of Suzuki Roshi, the ineffably complex and simple spirit of that uncomfortable wisdom. For me, it wasn’t necessarily the “closing” of this story’s circle, it may even have been the opening of one, but I was grateful for the opportunity, and I hope this recording embodies some of that. If not, may it give you a good old chuckle or two. There’s a lot to be said for chuckles.  


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