Friday, April 23, 2010

Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Book Review

Beginner's minds: many possibilities; in experts: few. This sums up the optimism and clarity in these transcriptions. These talks were collated and edited by his students who organized these Zen pep talks into Right Practice, Attitude, and Understanding. They flow, summed up in epigraphs and pithy examples that open up into profundity. As with the Zen message itself, deceptively simple on its surface.

This can be, as Amazon reviewers have cautioned, not the best book for absolute beginners. I liked David Fontana's "Discover Zen" and pondered its contents for a few months before tackling Suzuki's classic. This will not give you a true primer for Zen; it's a guide for those already "sitting"-- that's the audience for the talks edited here. You can find out about Suzuki's life and career in David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" (I recently reviewed Fontana and Chadwick); the contents of "ZMBM" strive for a sense of what a master might advise for his followers, but the aim's always to get beyond teacher-student dualities, and all barriers between you and the teaching. So easy to compress, yet it expands into infinity and nothingness from the brief chapters compiled within a few elegantly designed pages.

No inspirational fluff, this can be demanding, no-nonsense, and sobering. Basically, "just sit." Eat when you should eat, work when it's time to work, sleep the same-- and practice meditation regularly. Stay disciplined but free from habit; composed yet able to stand up for righteousness; detach from the world but marvel at it.

It's often moving. "When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and the pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual. That is, I think, the way everything is." (88) This gives a flavor of the calm tone and steady pace of these reflections from the Japanese-born founder of the San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Centers, responsible for the great 1960s expansion of Soto Zen into America. Anyone will find here wisdom, common sense, and the same peace that must have permeated the "zazen" sessions that inspired this book. (Posted to Amazon 9-26-09)

1 comment:

tamerlane said...

This is a great little book to relieve 'brain cramp' from trying to think too hard about buddhism. To quote not Suzuki, but the fictional Don Draper of MAD MEN, in giving advice to the aspiring young copywriter, Peggy Olsen: "Think deeply about the subject, then forget about it. Later, the answer will just well up in your mind."