Chasing That Most Important Point

Maya Block

Stephen Kiesling and Zen priest Edward Espe Brown converse about Zen, Tassajara, the beginner's mind, and more.

I’ve been really enjoying the stories in your new book, The Most Important Point. But I want to start out with a story of my own, which was my introduction to Zen—actually, my blocking from Zen and meditation in general. I was a teenager in the seventies in Los Altos, California, and a Japanese Zen priest had an office in our basement.

Kobun Chino?

That sounds right. He was a sweet man and he would dress up in long robes and go out into the yard with a beautiful longbow.

Oh yeah, that’s Kobun Chino. He used to do Zen archery, yeah.

I stumbled into rowing in college and became an Olympic rower, which also involves sitting, but it’s the opposite of meditation. In my first book about rowing, Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said that my dualistic, competitive approach was so different from the monastic approach of Zen and the Art of Archery. But here’s the point, when I saw Kobun Chino in my backyard, he looked as if he had become one with his bow, but I had to find a couple of arrows that went over the fence. I was 16. I thought, Wow, this is nonsense. So, I figured I knew everything about Zen and meditation because I saw a master miss. That’s been a lifelong issue for me that I’d like to sort out. That’s where I’m coming from.

Good to know. Kobun Chino was later at Esalen and he got out his bow and arrow and shot an arrow into the ocean. He didn’t miss. (Laughs)

So, how did you stumble into Zen?

I was at college, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I was taking psychology. Various things happened, but at one point I wrote a paper on alienation and anxiety: What they are, what you do about it, how you get over it. I got an A on my paper—and I felt as alienated and anxious as ever. I thought maybe there’s something I can do that would more directly apply to my life and my experience in such a way that I would be happier and healthier and enjoy my life more—something.

My brother was going to the San Francisco Zen Center at that time, and he would Xerox stories and send them to me. One was about a young man who writes home to his mom that he’s doing really well in school, getting good grades, helping the other kids study, writing excellent papers. His mom writes back to him and says, “Son, I didn’t raise you to be a walking encyclopedia. Why don’t you go to the mountains and attain true realization?” I thought, That’s for me.

The end of the school year came, and I dropped out of Antioch. I had to fill out a form that said, “Reasons for leaving,” and I thought, Well, duh, “go to the mountains and attain realization.” That was 1965. By 1967, I was at Tassajara.

Tassajara was a revolutionary place at that time.

Yeah, it was the first large-scale Zen mountain retreat place in America—in the Western world. And it was a kind of wild place. We weren’t all that organized, and Suzuki Roshi was not keen on setting up a whole lot of rules.

One of the stories about that is when David Chadwick said, “Roshi, shouldn’t we have some rules here?” Suzuki Roshi looked over and saw a broom leaning against the wall with the bristles pointed down, and he said, “Okay, you see that broom there? Turn it on its handle so the bristles point up; otherwise they’ll become bent over and damaged.” That was the first rule.

Did anyone follow it?

I don’t know.

You write about somebody driving in and doing a donut in the parking lot and asking for whiskey, and you gave him Scotch. That’s not my first take on a Zen center.

No, that was the summer before it was a Zen center. People would drive down the road to use the hot tubs and they’d have parties and eventually we started trying to keep them out. But in those days, it was wild. One of my dear friends showed up at Tassajara drunk, and he said he wanted to stay and be a student, and so we put him right into the three days of sitting. He sobered up and eventually became the director of Tassajara. He was a great carpenter.

In those days somebody could come down and stay at Tassajara like that. Now if somebody shows up and says, “I want to stay,” the response is, “No, no, no, you need to go to San Francisco Zen Center and do months of practice there and make sure we get to know you and you make sure you know what you’re doing.”

You became famous for The Tassajara Bread Book. It sounds like all of you were working as well as sitting.

We built our kitchen by hand with big stone walls, as well as other buildings, and, yeah, it was a lot of work. Now the Zen Center hires crews to come in and build buildings. But in those days, we worked very hard. There was something very honest and real about working—that you had a balance between an active life and a meditative life. That’s part of the Zen tradition: spiritual life includes physically taking care of the physical world. Taking care of your body, taking care of the world. It’s not, I’m becoming a spiritual person and then not knowing how to cook or clean or do much of anything.

Another article in this issue of the magazine is about inner climate change and the idea that inflammation shows up inside bodies in the same way it’s showing up on the planet—that the first thing to do to prevent climate change is not to inflame oneself. Which seems a lot like what Zen is about: how not to inflame yourself.

That’s certainly one aspect. But at the same time, it also says the way not to inflame yourself is to be involved with things, rather than not inflaming yourself by isolating yourself from all the things that might inflame you. In Zen, I meet things and I handle things. Cooking, for instance, is stressful. Especially if you have a deadline. So, are you gonna get inflamed or not? You have things to do and deadlines and pressures and you learn how to do that without inflaming yourself, rather than, “I’m not gonna inflame myself, so I’m not cooking.”

In my last book, No Recipe, I wrote about that: Why don’t people cook? Well, because you might get upset. You might be a failure. You might get emotional. So rather than be any of those things, someone might say, I’m not gonna cook. Part of cooking and part of taking care of the world could be that you learn how to take on things—an appropriate level of taking on things—without getting inflamed, without getting stressed. I think the more common approach in our culture and to some extent with people doing a spiritual practice is, “I’m gonna not get inflamed by isolating myself from the things that could inflame me.” And that may be a stage in one’s life or one’s practice, but it seems to me the Zen idea is eventually you learn how to be in the world and relate with the world.

Suzuki Roshi said, “You should wear this civilization like you wear a formal Japanese robe.” You’re not limited by it and you’re not avoiding it. You’re at home in it and you work with it and you learn how to handle and be in that world without stressing with it. You learn to be comfortable with all the pressures of a daily life. To me, that’s important, and that’s been in some ways the real focus of my life: not to have just a spiritual life but to live in the world and have a spiritual life. Cooking seemed to me like a great metaphor for that. Cooking, baking, the bread book, various things that I’ve done.

In the new book you write about being in traffic . . .

There’s a good example. When I first got out of Tassajara, after 20 years in Zen practice, I’d get in traffic and would become upset. “I’ve done spiritual practice—shouldn’t the road clear for me?” And then I’d hear other people saying, “You’ve done spiritual practice, so all the more reason you should be patient with this.” And, OK, got it. But it’s ongoing.

Like you were saying, I was competitive, and probably in some ways I’m still competitive. I wanted to get there faster than other people, and then you have a challenge. Because basically you’re gonna drive the speed that everybody else goes and you can’t do it faster. But I was grading myself on how fast I got someplace, and these other people were slowing me down. It’s one of the manifestations of being a Type A person.

Ironically, practicing Zen did not get me over being a Type A person. For Type A, you try to do more than you can do—more than you can possibly do—and for that I worked with a psychiatrist. He said, you’re trying to do four times what you’re actually capable of doing, or three and a half. He also said that if you’re just trying to do what you’re capable of, you’re too laid back. Trying to do about twice what you can do is actually healthy: That means you’re having to study, you’re having to focus, you want to learn things so that you can do twice what you’re capable of.

But I was at three and a half. Almost twice what is healthy. And he said I was a slacker of a Type A person. Most Type A people are trying to do six times, eight times, and he said he worked with a patient who was trying to do 14 or 15 times. When you’re trying to do so much more than you can do, anything that gets in your way is frustrating and annoying, and it slows you down and you get mad. Then you get anxious about whether you can do it or not, and then you get depressed and despondent because you can’t.

This whole menagerie of my emotional life was actually because I was trying to do too much. It wasn’t some great spiritual awaking that was necessary for figuring that out—it was getting the concept. Then basically it’s a simple thing to do, which is kind of like Zen.

You do what you’re doing—just the one project or for a particular period of time, and then you stop, and you take a break, and you do something you enjoy. You can’t just recalibrate what you’re setting out to do. You need to do it very practically. Block of time, take a break, do something you enjoy. Don’t just work continuously because you can never finish. You’ll never get done and then you never enjoy yourself, you never relax, you never have a good time.

America has huge Type A behavior issues with being high-performing. Whether or not you call it competitive, you should accomplish more. If you’re spiritual, you should be more spiritual. And what would indicate that? Well, you sit for longer or you get better experiences than the other people, or something. Or you behave better to show how spiritual you are. And you never raise your voice.

Before this interview, instead of sitting still, I did intervals on my rowing machine to basically blow my mind out. That’s my practice. I’ve been doing it a long time.

Yeah, there you go. We follow our way, until we find something better to do.

So how do you invite people into Zen to sit? God knows, we need it. And we need more people to step into this path and get over whatever’s blocking them. So, what’s the invitation?

It’s just something I’ve spent my life thinking about.

That’s why I’m asking.

And I still don’t know. I keep trying different things. What I’ve come up with currently is that practicing Zen is a way to make yourself at home in your body, in your mind at this place and at this time. And maybe you’d like to feel more at home. So why don’t you sit? Let’s sit down together and you can practice feeling at home here and making yourself at home. It’s not easy to sit. So, do your best to make yourself comfortable, make yourself at home with your body, make yourself at home with your thoughts, make yourself at home with your feelings. And stop trying to tell yourself how you could get more out of your experience, or how you could become a better person, which would then grant you blessings or gifts from beyond, or something. Just make yourself at home with who you are. And let’s sit here and give it a go. That’s my theme for the upcoming year.


Classically in Buddhism it’s related to what’s called ease. Ease is where you’re at home with things. When you’re at home with things, then you have ease. And that’s different from persevering, or being strong, being tough, getting through it. It goes along with a quote in The Most Important Point that’s from Chuang Tzu: “Easy is right. Begin right and you are easy. Continue easy and you are right. The right way to go easy is to forget the right way and to forget that the way is easy.”

Let’s be at home here. Let’s make ourselves at home here, with all the things that go on in life, rather than thinking I’m defective and that if I improved or fixed myself in some way it would be easier for me to be with myself. Or it’s too painful to be with myself, so why don’t I see what I can do to distract myself—or what I can do to become a better person? Why not just be simple and direct? Let’s make ourselves at home here.

That must be too easy.

It’s in some ways very easy, but in other ways, it’s this huge challenge. Most people say, “No, I sit down and I just find I’m thinking all these things, and I can’t stop my mind.” Why would you think you need to do that? Just make yourself at home with thoughts and learn how to be with your thoughts. Basically, you’re working on how to have a good relationship with yourself. You are retraining yourself about what is other. And basically, everything is other than one’s own awareness: The thoughts are other, the feelings are other, the sensations are other. How are you gonna be with all these things that are other?

You say they’re mine, but of course you can’t control them. You can’t tell your thinking what to think or your feelings what to feel, and the more you try to do that, you’re suffering. So, let’s just be direct here. What you’re learning is how to be at home, how to have a good relationship. Do you want your thinking always to tell you what to do and what to say? Or can you sometimes talk back to your thinking and tell it things?

Where do I start?

Well, I come back again and again to Suzuki Roshi’s teaching of beginner’s mind. Which you can say in various ways. I’m finding out what to do as I go along. I don’t know what’s the right thing to do. I don’t know what’s the best thing to do. I’m finding out what to do as I go along, in situation by situation. What do I do here in this body, in this place, in this space, in these relationships, and this world? I’m in my seventies now. So, what do I do? There’s not some right thing to do or spiritual thing to do. There is something—to me Zen—about realizing that you have this capacity to know for yourself, decide for yourself, how to live your life.

I don’t feel like I’ve particularly gotten anywhere. I’m still a beginner. And is there some problem about that? People say no, no, I need to become more masterful. And it’s interesting: I only knew Suzuki Roshi for seven years, but that’s the basis for my Zen practice, for my life. Beginning in a beginning mind, not knowing what to do, and always trying to find out. What is the way to be more like me?