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Book Review of Crooked Cucumber

The Japan Times  June 22, 1999
Santa Rosa Press Democrat [CA] Sept.5, 1999 

[This is the uncut version which the author sent me.--DC]]

Reviewed by Leza Lowitz

"Gives those of us who were not there the opportunity to know Suzuki more profoundly, and offers others the chance to relive the birthing of Zen in AmericaÖ In the end, this is more than a biography. It's a record of the meeting of hearts and minds, a great testament to the universal power of flexibility and compassion."

I was an eleventh grader at Berkeley High School in the late 1970s when an intense, quiet boy gave me a copy of Shunryu Suzukiís Zen Mind, Beginnerís Mind (1970) and told me with authority that my aura was yellow. I knew nothing about Shunryu Suzuki or the Zen Center, yet my life was deeply changed by the teachings of this man whose own Zen master had called him "crooked cucumber," implying that he was shriveled on the vine; useless. History proved the master quite wrong, of course: Through Suzukiís teachings, book, lectures and Zazen sessions, Zen took root in America and blossomed for good, as he founded the San Francisco Zen Center in 1961 and the Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara in 1967. Though his achievements were vast, it was mostly through the example of his daily life that his students came to understand the true nature of Zen. Chadwickís book gives those of us who were not there the opportunity to know Suzuki more profoundly, and offers others the chance to relive the birthing of Zen in America.

In 1993, when Chadwick asked Suzukiís wife Mitsu if he could write about his former teacher, she responded, "Tell many funny storiesÖ Hojo-san liked funny stories. Everyone will be very happy to read them." Chadwick does just that. He also presents a balanced view of Suzuki Roshiís life against an often political backdrop. This greatly entertaining and often inspiring biography "by community" benefits from a collage-type narrative composed of interviews with family, friends and disciples. It contains photographs, conversations, talks, anecdotes, and many of Suzukiís Zen lectures that are published here for the first time.

With an insiderís eye that is both subjective and fair, Chadwick, who was ordained by Suzuki in 1971 and who was a founding member of the Zen Mountain Center, conveys the man and his work with pitch-perfect detail and humor. He also illuminates the profound effect Suzuki had on those around him, whether he was teaching or merely out in the garden moving stones, or even while he was dying. Through his own words, we can see that just as Suzuki taught, he also learned from his students, and over the years more of a dialogue ensued. In the end, this is more than a biography. Itís a record of the meeting of hearts and minds, a great testament to the universal power of flexibility and compassion.

Suzukiís road to America was crooked indeed. The son of a Zen master, Suzuki left home to apprentice under Gyokujun So-on and became a monk at 13, continuing in the spiritual lineage of Dogen. Suzuki suffered an accident involving a meat hook to the eye, and struggled with his difficult master at the rigid Eiheiji monastery. Eventually he became a "houseboy" to a British woman who had been the tutor of the Chinese Emperor, and slowly introduced this formidable woman to Zen, just as she introduced him to Western sensibilities and helped advance his English. His experience deepened his desire to spread Zen abroad, but his efforts were thwarted by his master. Later, after becoming a priest in a country temple, he became a pacifist during the war. Tragic personal events, such as the murder of Suzukiís former wife, shed light onto his obstinate nature and reveal a little-known darker side.

By the time the 53-year-old Suzuki finally came to California in 1959 with his "old robe and shiny head," and without his family, the Zen road had already been paved by the Beats and Alan Watts. Further, another Suzuki had arrived in America fifty years earlier to teach Zen. But while Daisetzu Suzuki lectured at Harvard and promulgated a more traditional view of Zazen, including attainment of satori or enlightenment, Shunryu focused on a more "everyday" awareness in which students could "learn from themselves in their own time." For example, when asked, "What is true Zazen?" He responded, "When you become you." Still, Shunryu was often mistaken for Daisetzu, and he once responded, "Heís the big Suzuki, Iím the little one." His humor and modesty seem to have made him more accessible and beloved.

Although Suzuki had ostensibly come to San Francisco to lead a group of Japanese-Americans in their Soto Zen practice, many artists, writers and activists showed up at the temple for meditation. The long hair and casual demeanor of many of them upset some of the templeís original members, and an interesting dynamic developed between the Japanese-American members and the new Buddhists. More people kept coming, and the Zen Center was born.

Suzuki held a very practical, "ordinary" view of Zen, sometimes confounding his students, who might have initially mystified it. In fact, when confronted by eager disciples who would ask him to answer profound philosophical questions or koans such as "What is the sound of a tree falling in the forest when thereís no one there to hear it?" Chadwick commented in a recent radio interview that Suzukiís answer once was been, "It doesnít matter."

Suzuki was also distinctly un-doctrinaire. This humorous, paradoxical statement, in a kind of telegraphic English with a Japanese heart, sums it up: "The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: not always so." Suzuki made vegetarian students eat hamburgers, and cleaned studentsí filthy apartments when invited for dinner. Zen wasnít about sitting in the dojo at the Zen Center in the city or contemplating koans at Tassajara in the country. It was how one lived oneís life anywhere and everywhere. Another example of his teaching: "`Donít kill is a dead precept. "`Excuse meí is an actual working precept."

In bringing Zen down to earth while retaining a strict respect for the Zen way of life, Suzuki gained many followers to a more simple, disciplined lifestyle that might have seemed at odds with the freedom and anarchy of the Bay Area in the 1960s up through the Summer of Love of. Yet it was Suzukiís popularization of Zen that made it appealing, and many of the precepts were actually in line with the communal-living ideals of the day.

Not to say that the students werenít disciplined and serious. Far from it. Many of the more interesting moments in the book come when Suzukiís first hand-picked "best" students travel to Japanese Zen temples and find it impossible to practice Zen there for various cultural or religious reasons. Gender issues arise as well. When one female studentís husband was being sent to Japan for two years, she was told she couldnít go because she would "be a burden on the {Japanese} priestís wife." Angrily, she said, "All of you think itís better to be a man than a woman, you think itís better to be a priest than a layperson, and you think itís better to be a Japanese than American. But I will always be a woman, and I will always be a layperson, and I will always be an American, and here I am." After she had said this, "ÖEveryone was silent. Suzuki turned to her and said, `What you have just expressed is the spirit of the bodhisattvaís way.í" Just as the American students had to adapt in Japan, many adaptations to Zen had to be made for it to be viable in America. For example, the creation of the first American Zen monastery at Tassajara came with the decision to have it be co-educationalóanother first.

Those familiar with Chadwickís previous book chronicling the collision between Zen east and west in Thank You and Ok: An American Zen Failure in Japan will recognize a warm balance of reverence and irreverence here too. It would have been easy to write a hagiography, and the book sometimes veers towards it, yet Chadwick reveals a very human side to the master. He shows us that Shunryu Suzuki was also exceedingly human and fallible, stubborn and sometimes just plain wrong. Thankfully, this is not a "tell-all" and Chadwick avoids revealing prurient details or exposing the myriad political machinations of American Zennists. In Crooked Cucumber , Chadwick focuses on what is truly important-- practice and community. In so doing, he passes down in word and deed the great lessons Suzuki imparted with humor and wisdom that would have made the master smile.


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