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Book Review  of Crooked Cucumber

New Ch'an Forum, a publication of the Western Ch'an Fellowship in the UK. This review by Eddy Street can also be read on the website of the Western Ch'an Fellowship  You can also go to their homepage and learn more about them. [See Comments on Reviews]

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September '99

"This book has a story of a man that is well worth hearing and it can help us understand the processes we are involved in and the tasks at hand. Not just our personal paths, but also our culture’s path"

I am not normally a consumer of biographies but this is one I wanted to read. One of the first things I did when I began the Buddhist path was to buy a copy of Suzuki’s ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’. I can still recall standing in a bookshop in London, wondering which book for beginners to buy. I choose the thinnest, what seemed to be the simplest and the one with a picture of the nice man on the back. I found the book to be a very good teacher and it has served me very well over the years. Having a close knowledge of this teaching I often wondered if I knew the man; immediately on reading Chadwick’s book I realized that I didn't and indeed I also became aware that my understanding of bringing Zen to the West was very limited.

The book is divided into two sections; one covers Suzuki’s life in Japan, the focus of the other being the period when he was in San Francisco. The first section provides a very good introduction to what life was like for a Japanese Zen priest - the training, expectations and culture of that role. In this we see that Suzuki is expected to follow in his father's footsteps and this is what he does. He clearly performs his routine priestly duties well. He is however something of a delinquent as particular ideas and attitudes of his do not quite fit in with some of his temple members and the Soto Zen hierarchy. He attracts a small group of young people who sit and discuss internationalism and the war. He becomes too involved in the movement for peace for likes of some. Despite this he remains a small town priest and the reader senses some dissatisfaction within him. He encounters many personal difficulties; a problematic relationship with his father; a very strict and somewhat controlling teacher; an annulled first marriage because his wife was unable to perform her priest’s wife duties; his second wife being axed to death by a disturbed monk and a rather estranged relationship with his children. The usual biographer’s methods of analyzing motivations and delving into the influences on people are missing from Chadwick’s simple narrative framework. I felt that all the layers and contexts of the central character in the story were not quite revealed. We do however see Suzuki as a man who is accepting of his lot with equanimity even though some of his interests and desires are frustrated by his environment. The Zen Master is not evident in Japan, but one is never a pioneer in one’s own garden!

When the book moves to California new perspectives and dimensions are revealed. The developing story changes, not least because the author is one of Suzuki student's and was an active person in events. One sees Suzuki’ essential approach to life as being the same in the US as it was in Japan however, the new situation creates something very different for everyone. Suzuki always wanted to teach his Buddhism to the western mind and even though he clearly took the opportunity to go to San Francisco to do this when he got there his essential activity was to do no more than he did in his small town in Japan. Suzuki arrives in San Francisco to be the Zen priest to the Soto Zen community in the city. Within this job his long standing interest in the language and culture of the west and his abiding internationalism allows him to be very open to the culture that was California in the 1960’s. He just sat and when some western students asked to sit with him he said "Yes" and then he offered teaching to them and they like it. The Zen Master emerged. 

This second half of the book is, in fact, a history of the development of the Zen Centre in San Francisco. Suzuki is the central character around which events happen. He sits and teaches and has some basic ideas of what might be needed organizationally and others take up the activity. His sheer presence ensuring the development of what took place. It does not seem that Suzuki had an instinctive understanding of what sort of Buddhism the west would accept, it is that his understanding and way of teaching had a direct impact given the time and the place he found himself. His simple acceptance of this undoubtedly inspired those around him. Continually throughout this section we are constantly reminded of the frailty of life and the fact that we all have to face death at some point.

A feature of the book is that it intermingles narrative with Suzuki ‘quotes’. The author attempts to have Suzuki comment as Zen teacher on the processes of his own life. This is a very useful device though not quite of consistent quality. It however fully fails to capture the personal koans that the man Suzuki must have had to deal with. Overall however, I greatly enjoyed the book even though I found some of it dissatisfying in its simple uncritical narrative approach. I enjoyed reading about the development of the San Francisco Zen Centre and thinking about the parallels with the problems that we have faced and are facing in Britain. I also saw the difficulties there are in transplanting Buddhism to the West. Suzuki’s great contribution was that he allowed a Buddhism to develop rather than attempting to transplant another culture’s experience of it. And he did this whilst maintaining the basis and foundation of the tradition itself. In this I can now see what our teachers have explained and taught us about this issue in new light. This book has a story of a man that is well worth hearing and it can help us understand the processes we are involved in and the tasks at hand. Not just our personal paths, but also our culture’s path.

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