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Book Review of Crooked Cucumber

Monterey Peninsula Herald
April 11, 1999

"A serious and entertaining book for anyone; regardless of religious beliefs or philosophy."

Tassajara Hot Springs A Place Where Enlightenment Can Happen and "Crooked Cucumber" A book by David Chadwick, the Biography of a Zen Master.

An Essay and Review by Charles Page

Nearby there is a sanctuary that is so beautiful it can wrest you from your routine and change your life, if you let it; Tassajara Hot Springs. It changed my life! Judging from the powerful new book, "Crooked Cucumber," the biography of Suzuki Roshi, it helped change the life of David Chadwick, an offbeat young waiter we met at Tassajara over thirty years ago.

Tassajara is located in a remote box canyon at the end of Tassajara Road which intersects the Carmel Valley Road 23 miles from Highway One. It is a challenging dirt road for most of the way, peaking at almost 5000 feet. The last 5 miles are along a narrow ledge, carved into the mountain side, dropping over 2500 feet.

On my first visit I hiked in with a group of friends along Church Creek in the Los Padres wilderness. Since the map showed that it connected with Tassajara Creek we assumed that there was a "trail" to the Hot Springs. Terrified and out of shape we, scaled down sheer rock faces into deep pools, which provided the only access down stream. Exhausted, we arrived after dark feeling our way along a steep switch back trail down the cliffs which form Tassajara Canyon.

I had no idea what to expect. Tassajara's main buildings were completed in 1893 and had had little maintenance since then. It is tempting to describe what we found as "charming" but candor compels me to say that its facilities were dilapidated! Its charm had faded.

But who can be unhappy in this beautiful spot, with its mountain stream, its arid landscapes, high meadows, wild flowers, lupine and multi-colored Indian paint brush, sparkling forests of pine, black oaks in fall colors, madrone trees, blooming Yuccas and scarlet groves of poison oak. The constantly changing light and color on the surrounding mountains, the glittering stream lined with shrubs, vines, bushes, flowers and giant sycamores are a cornucopia of visual delights.

The creek is shallow in the summer and fall. Its bed of silica flaked pebbles sparkle in the sun. Massive polished granite boulders form deep pools which invite you in.

The climate and road conditions before April and after October, make it an unappealing spot except for the hardiest of souls. Private entrepreneurs had problems profitably operating and maintaining the resort due to its difficult access and limited clientele. Its condition in 1966 was not surprising.

In December 1966 San Francisco Zen Center bought Tassajara to establish a monastery. It is now open to the public from May 1 through Labor day.

We were so taken with the place on our first visit we returned each summer. The drive in provides a startling transition from urban life to this wilderness paradise. Once the peak is reached, the light on mountains, and the soft hazy veils which haunt the canyons, capture your soul and prepare you for your communion with nature at the end of the road.

We watched Tassajara evolve from a ramshackle resort to a place which glows with its loving care; carefully tended gardens which blend into the natural landscape, containing indigenous plants with subtle colors and ornamented with stones sculpted by nature, man made stone walls, delicate buildings, and bridges capture the feeling of the finest Japanese gardens and architecture. The remarkable ambiance results from over 30 years of labor by Zen students and their love of labor as a means of defining life.

On one visit, as I sat on a massive granite boulder looking down on a sylvan pool, the roar of the stream and the sound of a waterfall cleared my head and washed away my tensions. I realized that my life was being defined by the expectations and agendas of others. I experienced an epiphany.

Days at Tassajara are filled with joy. The faint scent of sulfur, fragrances of Bay Laurel, Sage, and other seasonal flowers accompany the visual feast. Music is always in the background, the sound of the stream, the breeze fluttering through the trees, the ceremonial crack of the Hahn (a wooden slab struck by a wooden mallet) and the gong of the massive Japanese bell, ritually tapped; building to a crescendo. The devotion of the Zen students to their service adds a personal element to the multifaceted experience.

We developed nourishing friendships with students, staff and guests who shared the fellowship, the innovative food and the ambiance of this magical place.

One of the first students we met, David Chadwick, waited tables in the dining room. He seemed uncomfortable and ambiguous about calling himself a Zen student, flippantly claiming "I just work here and do what I'm told!"

Over the years David was a fixture "just doing what he was told." He did mundane tasks, raking paths, moving stones, cleaning septic tanks and playing a critical role enabling the monastery to function in the 1960's Monterey County culture!

In the early twentieth century the Big Sur Coast and Carmel were refuges for artists, writers and mavericks who were "out of synch" with the prevailing culture. But agricultural Monterey County maintained the last vestiges of feudalism as described in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." By the late 60's little had changed. Enforcement of rights for agricultural workers was practically non-existent!

By the late 1960's even "refuge" Carmel had become cynical about non- conformists! In 1968, Carmel adopted an ordinance which recited:

"The City Council . . . has observed an extraordinary influx of undesirable and unsanitary visitors to the City, sometimes known as 'hippies' and finds that unless proper regulations are adopted immediately the use and enjoyment of public property will be jeopardized if not entirely eliminated, the public parks and beaches are, in many cases, rendered unfit for normal public use by the unregulated and uncontrolled conduct of the new transients."

The ordinance banned such types from protractedly lounging on lawns; meaning Devendorf Park! The ordinance was held unconstitutional. Carmel then installed sprinklers to discourage hippie gatherings!

Then there was the county bureaucracy from whom the Zen Buddhists needed permits for improvements to their crumbling resort and to whom they had to plead for early grading of the county road after the winter storms in order to gain access to basic needs such as food and medical supplies, and to get ready for the guest season. The bureaucracy was not receptive to strange looking outsiders with shaved heads!

David had a talent for disarming individuals impressed with their self importance. He convinced the bureaucrats that "no" was not a reasonable response. He helped the Zen Buddhists restore this ancient resort and make it one of the most enchanting spots in the world.

While remaining whimsical, David devoted his prodigious energies and intellect to Zen Buddhist studies under the tutelage of the now famous Shunryu Suzuki, known to most as Suzuki-Roshi, the author of "Zen Mind, Beginners Mind," which has sold over a million copies in twenty languages.

Suzuki-Roshi founded the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the most important Zen Buddhist organizations in the U. S. His diminutive stature, bald head, and constant smile are vivid in my mind. Only in images of the Dalai Lama have I observed such a radiance!

Roshi was a pervasive presence at Tassajara engaging everyone in a personal and intimate way. I was intimidated by him because of the students' great reverence for his wisdom and insights. I was embarrassed about not attending his lectures and ceremonies. My only contact was his friendly smiles on our frequent visits.

David began studying with Roshi in 1966 and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1971. His devotion to Zen Buddhism, and his respect and affection for his teacher, along with his desire to find himself, inspired David to go to Japan and seek out Roshi's heritage. David studied there for 4 years. With refreshing candor he chronicles his experiences in his 1994 book, "Thank You and Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan."

The contrast between Roshi, the teacher, and David the disciple was paradoxical. Roshi had a classical Japanese heritage. He had a subtle power with a rare understanding of external and internal authority. His lectures explained the necessity of challenging authority. But it is impossible to visualize him being impolite. At an early age David mastered a whimsical form of outrageous conduct, as a technique for dealing with difficult people and impossible situations. Roshi almost tamed David.

David has written a biography of Suzuki-Roshi, "Crooked Cucumber, The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki" Broadway Books (1999) This is a serious and entertaining book for anyone; regardless of religious beliefs or philosophy.

Reflecting on 30 years of stories about David, some of which are better not told, it is difficult to believe that he has produced such a fascinating book. His extraordinary research and superb scholarship do justice to Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen icon.

If "Crooked Cucumber" is read only by those interested in Zen Buddhism, it will be unfortunate. It should be read by anyone seeking answers in our complicated and paradoxical world. Suzuki-Roshi MIGHT say "there are no 'answers,' but if we hope to find approaches to our dilemmas we must define the problem; which may be ourselves!" Throughout the book Chadwick effectively weaves in excerpts from Roshi's lectures.

Read "Crooked Cucumber." If you want to experience Shangri-La, call Zen Center, after April 5 (415-865-1895) and ask for their guest season brochure. It tells you how to get there, describes the workshops, and the facilities. It is not necessary to do a workshop. Just take the baths, enjoy the food, hike the creek, plunge into a pool, hike the meadows, listen to the stream, and, at night, see stars brighter than you've ever seen.

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