At the beginning of my time with [Hirokazu Kobayashi] Sensei, I had no idea of the various fundamental differences in attitudes between Asians and Westerners. I had always been very reserved, and almost never spoke, and so I never really became aware of Sensei’s thinking about silence: I simply assimilated it to my own habitual reticence, and inhibitions.
The excellence of the food which we generally found ourselves eating also had a definite – and positive – role in my initiation into the practice of silent conversation. It worked this way: every time that an exceptional dish or wine was placed in front of us – and that happened on an almost daily basis – Sensei would fall into so deep a concentration that I could not possibly have dared to interrupt it. His whole body was focused on the perception of tastes and aromas, intensely involved, inspired even, in a way that could come only from the glass or the plate; and then, when, after several minutes, he raised his eyes in my direction, he would say nothing, but his lit-up face, and his grateful smile told me so much that I could never possibly have interrupted that communication with [mere] words.
He would several times more become deeply re-absorbed into those depths of sensory contemplation, immersed in the same communion with glass and plate.
These frequent moments of absorption, with the extended absence of his conscious awareness, accompanied by the advent of a fresh sense of communion, lent a rather solemn air to our mealtimes, where the outward silence was as extensive as the inward communication. I felt him react to the aromas, I sensed his body change, open up further, I felt his emotion rise as we conquered these oenological summits and, frequently, after we’d each been singly absorbed in our glass for a long moment, we would both look up at the same time, and the tears of joy visible in our eyes would banish definitively any desire to speak.
I have never since met anyone capable of tasting and enjoying with such intensity, and I am sorry for that, because this experience of intense dégustation was for me a narrow bridge to the expressive silence common in the Far East. We spent innumerable moments together without speaking, and the uninformed spectator would have thought us alone in our thoughts, except that sometimes he would turn to me to reply out loud to a question a had not posed – except in my thoughts – or, inversely, I would reply to a question that he had not yet asked. That is not all.
He also had his moments of silence, during which I could sense that he was in absolute serenity, and I would notice that I, too, had at that time no questions, no worries, no expectations of any sort, and that my only thoughts, if I had any, were limited to the apprehension of my own well-being. And it was marvelous to part after these long silences, with the feeling of having exchanged more than would be possible by any other means. “To be at ease together, in silence.” After each of these moments, he would thank me out loud, without expressing why.