Thursday, July 9, 2009

David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber: The Life & Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki": Book Review

Few books about Zen near 400 pages; this balances Suzuki's unpublished reflections deftly with an in-depth, but briskly told and slyly affectionate biography by an early American follower. At 55, in 1959, Suzuki left Japan to fulfill his dream of spreading Zen in America. His success in founding the San Francisco Zen Center came just as Westerners began to seek out a Zen master; Tassajara retreat also proved well-timed with the rise of the hippies in the mid-60s. Chadwick, who joined Suzuki's circle in 1966, adds a personal touch to the saga that enlivens the tale.

The first half of the book precisely stays in Japan; the subject's called here "Shunryu." Nicknamed "Crooked Cucumber," he was raised within the rather moribund tradition, following his father as a priest. In 1924, he has an early epiphany while in a market as he looks at the tawdry merchandise readied for export: he wonders why the best of Japan, its Zen teaching, cannot instead be sent abroad. Learning English, quietly asserting the ways of peace within a frenzied patriotic regime, surviving the hardships of WWII and its aftermath that included the murder of his first wife at the hands of a demented monk, Suzuki struggles against the tired systems of monastics, bureaucrats, and politicians in his own modest way.

Chadwick is not a showy writer, and as with many who practice Zen his prose stays simple and steady. As one who'd previously written about his an "American Zen failure in Japan," this volume benefits by his careful context that shows readers unfamiliar (as I am) with Japanese culture and Zen terminology employed over 1500 years of tradition. (No index, but a glossary helps and all terms are introduced within the text smoothly.) You may not learn as much about Zen itself as abstract, but here it is dramatized-- by its embodiment within one of its foremost practitioners. I never thought four hundred pages of such a life would prove engrossing. I was wrong.

By interspersing Suzuki's own unpublished recollections and correspondence within the follower's recounting of his life, you gradually learn how Suzuki's mind worked, and how his low-key appeal might have effected those who met his penetrating gaze, under what seems in photos a left eyebrow quizzically raised a fraction. He battled anger and impatience, and in his outbursts one recognizes a frailty beneath what may have often been a rather imperious mien. Still, deep down there's a still center that calms us. Chadwick pauses to convey his last glimpse of his homeland in 1959.
"As the western sky turned pink in Yaizu on May 21, Shunryu stood by his pond in the chilly morning. He had concluded his last morning service at Rinso-in. Carp swam in the murky water as tadpoles darted about. Goodbye to the big living stone, now covered in moss. Goodbye to the frogs. As the rays of the sun struck the bamboo on the hill, the air heated quickly, and the stalks expanded, emitting sharp, pinging noises of different pitches, a strange little song of farewell in the still morning." (161)
Such passages, filtering Suzuki's own perspective, dramatize well how he saw the world he loved so well even as he strove to separate himself from attachments to its beauties.

Without comment, "Suzuki" replaces "Shunryu" as he arrives in the converted synagogue that comprised Sokoji, the temple he took over in San Francisco. Soon, Americans sought him out for 'zazen' and his reputation grew. This led to tension with the Japanese American immigrant congregation, and the Zen Center took over a Jewish women's residence for its own growing needs. Tassajara followed, Suzuki shared a dais at a Be-In in Golden Gate Park, and his transcribed talks as "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" led to his own minor celebrity within the counterculture.

Yet, unlike his own American-born successor, Suzuki avoided scandal. His practice as it had all his life remained modest; he stayed humble. He lived austerely and with grace (except for a temper, and even then one feels that Suzuki knew he was half-serious, half-playacting). He stepped away from the limelight, showing by example. As conveyed through Chadwick's narrative of an early adept: "All he had to do was face the wall and follow his breath-- no faith, nothing to hold on to, just the nagging question to solve for himself under the guidance of this marvelous, dignified little man." (209) Or, later as at Tassajara, Chadwick tells of their daily regimen. "It was waiting patiently like a hunter, not moving for hours." (287)

Who would find such a routine appealing? Chadwick introduces those who gathered around Suzuki, and their brief stories enrich the milieu recreated by one who had been there early on. The doctrine they learned emerges slowly, as it may have been for a seeker, and while largely clear of philosophy per se, Chadwick does take care in elucidating the teaching. "Things-as-they-are" link to the multiplicity, the seeming solidity, the realm of forms we see around us; "things-as-it-is" refers to the underlying, often unseen or ignored level of oneness, that beyond the empirical, that emptiness sought by Buddhists in meditation. The "first principle" might be buddha-nature, absolutes, God, the Tao, truth, reality or simply what "I don't know"; the "second principle" becomes all the rules, dharma-teaching, explanations and interpretations we build up as we try to understand the ultimately inexplicable.

Shifting ancient methods of seeking such wisdom into Western terms proved challenging. "Establishing Buddhism in a new country is like holding a plant to a stone and wanting it to take root," Suzuki mused. (252) Still, realizing his life's dream, he loved sharing what he knew by decades of training. He could be unpredictable. The FBI investigating Tassajara's sponsorship of conscientious objectors found that Suzuki fit in with pacifist and Quaker terms of resistance, but he then told them that his son was serving in Vietnam. Suzuki expounded on karma with the caution that many antiwar demonstrators "talk about peace in some angry mood, when actually you are creating war with that angry mood." (317) As with many Buddhists, he sought to change the way people acted with one another once they got off their meditation cushions. He strove to eliminate the root causes of war that even peaceniks might carry within themselves to the detriment of all around them.

By such nuances, Suzuki emerges as a tolerant, admirable man. He eschewed dogmatism, insisting that "not always so" remain the touchstone for testing theory against practice. He comforted a woman who transcribed his talks as she died of cancer, recognizing the "buddha-nature" within her poignantly. At 67, when he was himself dying of cancer, he rejoiced that at least it was not hepatitis, and he could eat whatever he wanted. Even as he was dying, Suzuki told Chadwick about his concern for taking care of guests at Tassajara and for Chadwick to pursue scholarship that would keep himself out of trouble and "express my true nature." It appears that his master's advice paid off. Chadwick directly but effectively transmits the dignity and compassion that his role model demonstrated. He does not avoid his failings, but he does emphasize his strengths, which far outnumbered his shortcomings.(Posted to Amazon US 7-6-09 and my blog 7-9. Author's website: "". See also my recent blog post and Amazon US review of Kaoru Nonomura's "Eat Sit Sleep: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple.")

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