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Book Review of Crooked Cucumber

Fish Drum Magazine Vol.14, summer '99
Santa Fe New Mexican [date? spring '99]

Tom Ireland

"A thorough, graceful, frank, and loving account… Passages from Suzuki Roshi's teachings, beautifully edited, salt the narrative. One need not be a practitioner or even a student of Buddhism to enjoy them."

[This review was first printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Fish Drum is a wonderful bi-annual literary magazine founded by Robert Winson, an old friend and Zen student who sadly died in his mid-thirties. He'd been at the SFZC and had studied with Baker-roshi in Crestone Zen Center in Southwest Colorado. He and his wife, Miriam Sagan, wrote an account of his/their experience there called Dirty Laundry. Fish Drum is carried on in excellent fashion by Robert's sister Suzi Winson. Back issues are $6.00. Subscriptions are $24 for four issues. For submissions or subscriptions write Fish Drum Magazine, P.O.Box 966, Murray Hill Station, New York, NY 10156, Attention: Suzi Winson.

Incidentally, I referred to the same Gahan Wilson Cartoon mentioned below in Thank You and OK!--DC]

Shunryu Suzuki, "the marvelous, dignified little man" who came to the United States in 1959 to look after an established congregation of Japanese-American Buddhists in San Francisco, could not have known then what a stir he was going to cause in this country. Suzuki had dreamed of coming to America since he was a young man. In Japan, for all the formal responsibilities placed on him as a Buddhist priest, he had no students and was considered a monk of no great distinction. But in California, a crowd of sincere and enthusiastic Americans gravitated to him, wanting to know what this Zen business was really all about.

The country was at the height of the "Alan Watts boom," but until Suzuki and a few other Japanese teachers arrived, Zen was more something to read about than to experience. People were drawn by his good looks, vitality, and compelling presence. "There was something about his bearing," said Della Goertz, who had studied Eastern religion in school, "a look in his eye that made me feel that whatever he said was something I could trust. He was a rare person."

For Suzuki's part, he relished the opportunity to practice with these outlandish Americans, who, for all their ignorance, were eager to learn. They had what Dogen Zenji, a Japanese monk of the thirteenth century and Suzuki's spiritual ancestor, had called beginner's mind-the mind that is open to all experience and free of expectations (Suzuki was careful to point out that it differed from the mind of innocence). Characteristically, he approved of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, an edited collection of his lectures published in the 1960s, because it revealed the understanding of his students, those who had compiled and edited it." Good book," he said when it came from the printer. 'I didn't write it, but it looks like a good book.

Suzuki joined his first master, Gyokujun So-on, when he was eleven. So-on, a fierce Zen man, called him Crooked Cucumber-the half-formed runt at the end of the vine-because he was "such a dimwit." Throughout his life, Suzuki was famous for absentmindedness, not exactly what you expect of a Zen adept (he lost a coat his wife had made for him the first day he wore it, missed the train stop on his way home when his mother died). Even his crookedness was a teaching because it confounded his students' ideas of perfection and encouraged them in the faith that if this absent-minded, sugar-addicted, thrice-married little man could realize Buddha nature, they could too.

David Chadwick, who represented himself as a "Zen failure" in his previous book, Thank You and OK! studied with Suzuki and was ordained by him. He's written a thorough, graceful, frank, and loving account: the rigors of Suzuki's education and training amid the political strictures of the Buddhist establishment in Japan; the axe murder of his second wife by a monk, for which he blamed himself (some thought he came to the United States to escape the disgrace, if not the memory of it); the founding of the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara, the first Zen monastery in America; the passing of the teacher's seat to Richard Baker, an American, before Suzuki's death in 1971.

Suzuki was reluctant to become an object of interest to his students, a celebrity, lest that interest divert attention from what he was trying to convey. Questioning his own qualifications to write about the great man, David Chadwick sought and received the blessing of Suzuki's widow, Mitsu Suzuki. She encouraged him to "tell many funny stories" about her husband. The resulting history, much of it unknown in the West until now, was gathered from hundreds of interviews conducted in the U.S. and Japan, where Suzuki spent the first fifty-five years of his life.

The subtext of Suzuki's family life in Crooked Cucumber relieves and tempers the facts of his brilliant Zen career. A Zen man first and a family man second, he admitted being a neglectful husband and father. (I'm reminded of a Gahan Wilson cartoon of a monk meditating in a perfectly empty room, while behind the shoji screen, junk is piled from floor to ceiling.) Among the most telling anecdotes in the book, and for me the most affecting, are those about the tug of love and war between Shunryu Suzuki and Mitsu Suzuki, in whom he definitely met his match.

Passages from Suzuki-roshi's teachings, beautifully edited, salt the narrative. One need not be a practitioner or even a student of Buddhism to enjoy them.

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