In his classic work, The Gift; How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, Lewis Hyde posits the qualities of a true gift: It is not one gained through effort, it is artistic and mysterious in nature, and it only realizes its greatest value if freely passed on to others. Think music, art, and poetry.

One of the most valuable gifts, particularly in indigenous societies, notes Hyde, is food. “Another way to describe the notion of the gift is to say that a gift must always be used up, eaten,” he writes. “Food is one of the most common images for the gift because it is so obviously consumed.”

A student asked Zhaozhou, “Teacher, I have heard that you have personally seen Nanquan. Is this true or not?” Zhou responded, “They grow big radishes around here.”

—Blue Cliff Record Case 30

When I read this koan, as I have done many times, I think of how Zhou is giving the inquiring student a tremendous gift: one of plain radishes. Zhou’s gift is not created through his own effort; it appeared from some mysterious source, as most koans do. It is artistic and strangely magical. And it is appreciated in the moment while being gifted forward for the good of the many. After all, we are still talking about this gift exchange 1,300 years after it first occurred.

A couple of years ago I got a seed packet of daikon (大根),“large root” in Japanese) in my Christmas stocking. I planted the seeds early the next summer. Perhaps it was too hot or maybe I should have sprayed on some Neem oil, but only a couple of daikon grew and they were wormy and pretty much inedible. After a long period of benign neglect, I pulled out the survivors which by then had gone to seed, and threw their stalks in the compost bin where they moldered for many months.

Last fall I spread the mulch on three fallow vegetable beds. In early winter after the first rains, I noticed a new weed carpeting my garden. The weeds grew larger, and when I pulled one up, a slender daikon root came out of the soil. To my astonishment I now had a winter garden absolutely stuffed with large, gorgeous daikon.

Thus far I have gifted about twenty pounds of this radish harvest to neighbors, friends and family, and am only about half done (call if you can use some!). The daikon appeared of themselves from the mysterious source. They have been in motion, arriving as seeds and departing into the gift exchange as wonderful radishes. And they will be wholly consumed, as soup, pickles, and condiments. They are a simple gift, one of mystery and wonder and value. Something like the gift of our lives, I think.

—Jon Joseph