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Book Review  of Crooked Cucumber

Shambhala Sun  September, 1999
Reviewed by Tensho David Schneider

"[In this] marvelous biography of Shunryu Suzuki does indeed feel that he breathes, sits, speaks, suffers, and acts in these pages."

Like a Rock

It's shocking to learn, in the epilogue to Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick's marvelous biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, that this roshi is neither widely known in Japan, nor regarded as an important teacher by the Soto Zen hierarchy. It's shocking because having come with Suzuki Roshi through his long and extraordinary life-and it does indeed feel that he breathes, sits, speaks, suffers and acts in these pages-and having come with him to the fulfillment of his lifelong dream of firmly planting Zen practice in America, the only appropriate response would be gratitude and veneration.

Perhaps Suzuki's own style is responsible: humble, steady, warm, rarely given to any sort of flashy display. Perhaps it was that he was adventurous enough, outrageous enough, or foolish enough, to leave Japan and take his chances among the barbarians. Or perhaps it was that he was simply someone dedicated to a life of practicing and teaching meditation, and couldn't have cared less about recognition-let the chips of fame fall where they may.

In any case, Suzuki Roshi's impact on Buddhism in the West has been profound. Among his more well-known students one finds Richard Baker Roshi, Jakusho Kwong Roshi, Tenshin Reb Anderson, Issan Dorsey, Yvonne Rand, and author Chadwick himself. Others, like Les Kaye, Blanche Hartmann or Mel Weitsman, have practiced and taught locally with their students in a quiet, enduring way, much like their master.

Beyond this traditional measure of a Zen teacher, one can in the twentieth century also look to publications. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a short, edited collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks, stands as an indispensable classic for the Buddhist meditator. A perennial steady seller, the book finds readers in all contemplative schools and lineages. Tantric sadhakas take it into their extended retreats; Vipassana teachers quote it; Zen students naturally cherish it. You can also give it to your mother, your uncle, your children.

It appears, however, that Suzuki Roshi's most penetrating quality, his most important gift, remains ungraspable. The late Taizan Maezumi Roshi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, pointed to it this way: "When he came, there was none of this [ i.e. San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara, Green Gulch Farm, sitting groups all over America and Europe]. Many priests came before him. Even before this century, all kinds of priests in the Zen tradition came to America. We don't really know why, but until he came, no one started anything that lasted. After him, so much happened."

To writing about such a towering spiritual master (whom, it must be said, took a diminutive human form-Suzuki Roshi often looked frail and was a scant five feet tall) David Chadwick brings all necessary skills. Chadwick is a Zen student himself, though a hopeless one he insisted in his first book, Thank You and OK: An American Zen Failure in Japan. No hint of arrogance or possessiveness creeps into this biography. Rituals, traditions, and quirks of Zen life are simply and clearly explained, then woven into the narrative drive. Chadwick also avoids the temptation to marvel overmuch, or gawk at the "otherness" of Japanese culture, having worked this out of his system by writing Thank You and OK. Instead, he describes early- and mid-twentieth century Japan with sympathy and understanding.

Crooked Cucumber is marvelously researched; one wonders, time and again, "How did he find out THAT?" Suzuki Roshi's life began in a rural, functionally medieval Japan. The domestic and social mores were hierarchical, strict, and sexist. The family cooked with wood, and when they wanted to go somewhere, they walked. Suzuki's father walked seventy-five miles once to check on his son after a violent earthquake. Seeing everyone healthy, the father spent the night, then walked the seventy-five miles home.

From every period of Suzuki's life, Chadwick seems to have coaxed out good stories from informants-not an easy task. Zen folks can be tough conversationalists, and the Japanese in general seem quite reticent when speaking with outsiders. Chadwick however, with his bear's body, wild visage, big voice and booming laugh, has managed to dig up detail after detail. Particularly well handled are the years of World War Two, with their disturbing background of Zen's active support of the war, and Suzuki Roshi's subtle, skillful path through them.

When Suzuki was not skillful, or not subtle, Chadwick includes this as well. There are tragedies in this life, miscalculations, embarrassments, losses of temper or of mindfulness, recriminations, but one feels a genuine human being emerging through the tales. Or rather one hears such a person emerging, as the book pairs excerpts from Suzuki Roshi's own talks with the events of his life. The effect of this can be choppy, but one is frequently stopped cold by the profundity of Suzuki Roshi's reflections and teaching. In the course of researching the book, Chadwick has pried open the lid to a great archive of Suzuki Roshi's work-some 300 recorded talks-very little of which has seen any sort of publication to date.

It is perhaps Chadwick’s greatest accomplishment that he himself, a long-time student of Suzuki Roshi's, is largely absent from the book. Even the stories in which he appears have a sort of selfless feel to them; they're simply stories, like all the others and he's a minor character in them. This from a person possessed of a nearly unstoppable urge for self-expression.

An aside: in the early 1970's, for some no doubt good reason, Zen Center's abbot forbade Chadwick from speaking aloud for a period of six months. Chadwick served at that time as Work Leader, and with a hand-held acetate little flip pad, by vivid attempts at pantomime, and by covering every available writing surface anywhere with his frantic scrawl, he accomplished the job. He also managed to make more noise being "silent" than most people could ever manage with speech. In Crooked Cucumber, he reverses this process, doing all of the talking but refining himself away, so that what remains, and what haunts a reader long after the book is closed, is Suzuki Roshi's voice.

Crooked Cucumber is indeed a very good way to get to know Suzuki Roshi, but it is not the only way. If you should climb once to see Suzuki Roshi's grave at Tassajara, you'll emerge, after a challenging, thirty minute uphill hike, on a silent, magical spot on a California hogback. The gravestone there, chosen by Roshi himself, is a very large, very heavy golden-colored rock that looks like nothing so much as a person sitting cross-legged in meditation. The message seems to be: "If you want to meet me, meet me here. Sit. I'm always there. Sit still. Sit. Like a rock.

TENSHO DAVID SCHNEIDER began to study Buddhism in 1971 under Suzuki Roshi and was ordained in 1977 by Richard Baker Roshi. He is author of Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey and co-editor of Essential Zen. He is currently the Director of Shambhala Europe.

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