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Book Review  of Crooked Cucumber
Nob Hill Gazette - December, 1999

Crooked Cucumber - Beauty & The Beats

By Sandor Burstein - Sandor Burstein is a retired physician and collector of books. He has been observing San Francisco for seven decades. [That's what it says at the bottom of this review he wrote. He also has a long time relationship with the SFZC as a practitioner,friend, and doctor.--DC]

"Chadwick's skillful writing makes the book as readable as a fine novel and as enthralling as a mystery."

"' Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?' Everyone laughed, hut Suzuki did answer: 'Everything changes." Then he asked for another question. " - David Chadwick

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi founded the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere at Tassajara in the Los Padres National Forest near Carmel in 1967. His fascinating history is chronicled in a new book, Crooked Cucumber, The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki by David Chadwick (Broadway Books, 432 pages, $26).

Suzuki grew up in Japan. When he became a monk at the age of 13 his master stated that he felt sorry for the young man who, because of his notorious forgetfulness, would never have good disciples. He called him by a nickname that persisted thereafter, "Crooked Cucumber."

Crooked cucumbers were useless; farmers composted them, children would use them for batting practice. For many years it seemed the master might be correct. Crooked Cucumber was not noticeably effective in Japan, going from one center to another, studying and teaching the "just sitting" principles of Soto Zen. Then, fulfilling a lifelong dream, he came to San Francisco in 1959, at the age of 50. He attracted many students, garnered great respect, and profoundly changed not only his life but the lives of many others.

Author Chadwick is among those whose life was redirected by Suzuki-roshi. ("Roshi," meaning "venerable old priest," is a term of great respect.) Chadwick has prepared a thoughtful and carefully researched biography of an influential teacher, a warm human being, and a philosopher who made his learning available to a wide audience. The "cucumber" had bumps on his skin, it's true, but bumps and all, his life was productive, fruitful, and in many ways, exemplary.

In some respects, this biography is not what the roshi would have liked to see published. He wished to be remembered not for himself, but only for what he taught.

"Buddha is always helping you. But usually we refuse Buddha's offer. For instance, sometimes you ask for something special.. refusing to accept the treasures you already have. Just to cause yourself more problems, you see for something. But there is no need for you to seek for anything. You have plenty, and you have just enough problems. This is a mysterious thing, you know, the mystery of life. We have just enough problems, not too many or too few."

Chadwick was ordained by the roshi in 1971 after six years of intense study, and now lives in Sonoma County with his family. In preparation for this book, he read and re-read some 300 of Suzuki's lecture notes, listened to hours and hours of tapes, interviewed more than 150 people, traveled to Japan for original source material, and spent nearly six years writing.

To read this biography is to learn or to remind oneself of some of local history's more remarkable spiritual episodes. In the 12 years of his residence in the Bay Area, Suzuki-roshi brought Zen to the Beats and the Hippies, to academia and scholars, to acolytes and to the national consciousness. Trying to imagine the subsequent decades without Zen would be inconceivable.

Chadwick's skillful writing makes the book as readable as a fine novel and as enthralling as a mystery. The author's scholarship is impressive, and the love he had for his roshi gives the pages a rosy glow. "Crooked Cucumber's" accomplishments are not, in Japan, considered major contributions; here, he is a cultural hero.

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