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About the Book           

About Suzuki Roshi    

A Review of   Crooked Cucumber
Turning Wheel, a publication of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF)
Summer, 1999 

Reviewed by Shannon Hickey

[The listing on the book said it was a hardback at $36.95, a mistake - the list price for the hardback is $26.00. As of spring of 2000, they're almost gone and there will only be the paperback at $15 list Thanks for the great review.-DC]

David Chadwick has woven a beautiful narrative biography of Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971). It is a rich, multi-layered portrait of a key figure in the development of American Soto Zen, and heartily recommended. The story is arranged chronologically and reads like a novel, vivid with scenery and dialogue. You’ll find nary a footnote for facts or quotations, but Chadwick does seem to have done his homework. In an appendix, he says his sources include nearly 300 lectures by Suzuki; letters and other documents from the San Francisco Zen Center archives; his own memories; conversations with Suzuki’s students and others; and interviews, conducted by various people over three decades, with Suzuki, his relatives, friends, students, and acquaintances, in both the U.S. and Japan. 

It’s a remarkable compendium, but the scholar in me wishes for an annotated edition that cites these sources more specifically. Chadwick studied with Suzuki for five years and was ordained by him in 1971. Chadwick clearly loves and respects his teacher; he writes with great care and sympathy, and scatters wonderful quotations throughout the book. He portrays Suzuki as a person of simplicity, subtlety and depth, who passionately loved Dogen’s Zen and strove to convey it to his American students. But he was no saint, and Chadwick does not romanticize him. 

Suzuki was an ordinary man, with foibles, biases, and limitations. He was extremely absentminded, sometimes “borrowed” things without permission, and could hardly be called a family man. He also firmly planted the seeds of dharma into American soil. Suzuki was trained by a Zen teacher who mostly comes across as mean, derisive, and abusive. Suzuki loved him, and learned to be respectful, alert, understated, and indirect. But the abuse may also have fueled Suzuki’s fierce outbursts of rage. 

During World War II, Suzuki opposed Japanese militarism, and led discussions of alternatives in his temples, but overt protest was extremely dangerous. (In 1911 one outspoken, pacifist Soto priest had been defrocked and executed for treason.) Japanese soldiers and Korean slave laborers were housed at Suzuki’s temple, and its bells were melted down to make cannons. 

Suzuki was married three times, and suffered two tragic deaths in his family. He was well-liked in the Japanese temples he ran, but yearned for the adventure of teaching Buddhism to Americans. 

During his 12 years in San Francisco, he founded a thriving Zen Center for western students and the first Zen monastery in the West. Chadwick has made a wonderful, valuable contribution to Suzuki’s legacy.

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