The Extraordinary Retreat

It’s been more than a week since I left the retreat with Edward Espe Brown, the Zen priest and beloved chef who has been such a inspiration and spiritual mentor to me for the last 10 years. Ed was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and many people will know him from his bread making bible “the Tassajra Bread Book.” Even though we had never met before, he has been like a friend reaching out to me through his books and online talks, so finally being on retreat with him was something very special.

Writing about retreat experiences, generally, is difficult. Even profound experience, in fact especially profound experience, is usually subtle and beyond words.

What is common for us humans is to seek out extraordinary experiences. This you could say is the ordinary wish. What is extraordinary therefore is to be content yet engaged, utterly at peace with the ordinary. That really is extraordinary, and in many ways, that is what Ed offered on his retreat.


After an early wake up gong at 5.30am, we did 45 minutes of qigong before a silent sitting meditation in the zendo which took us to about 7.30am and breakfast. After breakfast we spent the morning as a group in the kitchen, preparing lunch plus dessert, led by Ed who had prepared recipes. Also, he taught knife skills; encouraged careful tasting of all the dishes at every step of the process; we learnt his technique of kneading bread; we chopped the onions, smashed the garlic and stirred the soup.


And the energy throughout the retreat was joyful, appreciative and relaxed. How many kitchens throughout the world are like that I wonder?! What I witnessed and absorbed from my time with Ed were qualities of patience, acceptance, humour and something like appropriate ambition. Meaning, although the aim was to have a delicious lunch on the table by 1pm, there was no striving for perfection, no need to create a masterpiece, no looking back saying ‘I should have done things differently’, and no claims that his recipes were THE ULTIMATE and LIFE-CHANGING, like so many introductions to recipes I see everywhere these days, especially on social media.

The combination of cooking and spiritual practise has been taught for centuries in Dōgen’s Zen lineage, and being on retreat with Ed brought the connection into such clear focus for me. I left feeling all I wanted to do is attend and offer cooking retreats! I’m trying to delve into why I feel like this, why Dōgen and Ed (and thousands of others) have felt like this.

Cooking is in our DNA – we need to eat to survive. Unlike practising yoga, or meditation, or reading spiritual scriptures therefore, eating is not optional. So despite our mood, our enthusiasm (or lack of), our energy or our audience, we need to show up in the kitchen day after day. If we pay attention whilst we are there, we can learn an awful lot about ourselves, and our likes / dislikes, action / reactions. Zen master Tenskei said “See with your eyes. Smell with your nose. Taste with your tongue. Nothing in this universe is hidden.” The encouragement is to have and know your experience, to empower you to respond the way that your inner buddha nature already knows how.

I used to be worried that my cooking wasn’t turning out the way it should i.e. the way the recipe creator expected. Now I live my life my way, and sometimes the results are delicious and sometimes not so much! I’m a work in progress and that’s ok. All I really need to keep doing is showing up.

Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand. Still I go on. 

It’s this honest attitude that helps and inspires me. No vanity or guru-like status. I can talk to Ed. I can be myself and I know he is there with me, laughing, crying, agreeing that often life feels impossible… how are we meant to do it?! And the next morning, I am back in the kitchen chopping yet more onions, trying to get them to behave the way I want them to behave. Maybe one day I’ll realise that my strategy of coercion, manipulation or sometimes straight forward avoidance isn’t the answer. Same as I can’t just put maple syrup on everything to make it (life) taste sweet.

My first connection to Ed was in 2010, which was a hugely pivotal year for me. I left my home town of London, I left my 15 year career in advertising, and I also left my old friends and my family in search of something new. You could say I left my biological family in search of a logical one. A few weeks after starting work in my first kitchen-hand role, the chef lent me a DVD of a documentary about Ed called How To Cook Your Life. Something in my heart came alive.


What I most admire and value in Ed is his human-ness, which includes all his insecurities and neuroses. Yet he owns and loves his ‘quirks’ in a way maybe a kindly grandfather loves a grandchild who is still making mistakes, yet is unquestionably a total sweetheart. Since we are not here to become anything but ourselves, the goal is peaceful coexistence with all the parts of oneself. We can learn to hold it all in loving-awareness, and this is what Ed exemplifies.

img_0570Ed gifted me a copy of a new book of his talks, called The Most Important Point, which I can’t recommend enough. If you are human, this book is for you. And just so you know, the most important point is……… to keep finding out, what is the most important point. We train for this in the kitchen of course. We taste a sauce, and think what does it need? More acid? More sweetness? More earthiness, more zing? More time, more love, a bigger container? More fire? Then we apply the same attention to our lives, our relationships, our bodies.


Here is a link to an recent interview Edward gave, taking about his spiritual journey and his special relationship with his own teacher, Suzuki Roshi. There is a lot of laughter and a lot of wisdom in just over an hour 🙂

Thanks for reading….




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