To Shine One Corner of the World:
Moments with Shunryu Suzuki
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Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Soto Zen priest from Japan, arrived in San Francisco in 1959 at the age of fifty-five. He came to minister to a congregation of Japanese Americans at a temple on Bush Street in Japantown called Sokoji, Soto Zen Mission. His mission, however, was more than what his hosts had in mind for him. He brought his dream of introducing to the West the practice of the wisdom and enlightenment of the Buddha, as he had learned it from his teachers. To those who were attracted to the philosophy of Zen, he brought something to do—zazen (Zen meditation), and Zen practice (the extension of zazen into daily life). A community of students soon formed around him; many of them moved into apartments in the neighborhood so that they could walk to Sokoji for zazen in the early mornings and evenings.
In 1964, a small group of students began to meet for daily zazen in Los Altos, south of San Francisco. Other groups formed in Mill Valley and Berkeley. Suzuki Roshi, as he was called, would join each one once a week, when he could. He lived exclusively at Sokoji until 1967, when Zen Mountain Center was established at Tassajara Springs, deep in the wilderness of Monterey County. This mountain retreat was not only the first Buddhist monastery for Westerners, it also broke from tradition in allowing men and women, married and single, to practice together. It is the setting of many of the accounts in this book. In November of 1969 Suzuki Roshi left Sokoji to found the City Center on Page Street in San Francisco as a residential Zen practice center. He died there in 1971.
To Suzuki Roshi, the heart of a Zen temple is the zendo, or zazen hall. There he would join his students in zazen (often just called "sitting"), formal meals, and services in which sutras, Buddhist scripture, were chanted. There he would also give lectures, sometimes called dharma talks. Dharma is a Sanskrit word for Buddhist teaching. Usually one or two forty minute periods of zazen were held early in the morning and in the evening. Sometimes there would be sesshin, when zazen would continue from early morning till night for up to seven days, broken only by brief walking periods, services, meals, a lecture, and short breaks. During sesshin Suzuki would conduct formal private interviews with his students called dokusan.
Suzuki’s main teaching was silent—the way he picked up a tea cup, or met someone walking on a path or in a hallway, or how he joined with his students in work, meals, and meditation. But when the occasion arose to speak, he made an impression. This book is a record of such impressions, each brief exchange stored away in the mind of an individual who carried it along for thirty years or more. Their glimpses of Suzuki Roshi show that his way was not systematic or formulaic. He emphasized that the ungraspable spirit of Buddhism is what continues, while the expression of that spirit always changes. The teachings of Buddha, he said, were for particular moments, people and situations, and were relative and imperfect.
Shunryu Suzuki touched thousands of people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, many directly and many more through a now well-known collection of his lectures called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Today there are small Buddhist groups all over the West, of his lineage and of other lineages, that exist in no small part because of the efforts of this man.
In 1999 I published a biography of Suzuki titled Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. I continue to collect the oral history of those times, to interview and correspond with people about their experiences with Suzuki Roshi and Zen practice, and to reflect on what I learned in the five years I studied with him. To Shine One Corner of the World is drawn from these records, the Zen Center archives, and from a few other sources.
The title of this book is a well-known phrase from the Lotus Sutra attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha. Suzuki referred to it on a number of occasions, usually translating it "to light up one corner," but in one lecture he said:
We say, to shine one corner of the world—just one corner. If you shine one corner, then people around you will feel better. You will always feel as if you are carrying an umbrella to protect people from heat or rain.
Suzuki Roshi often played with words, and his use of the word "shine" that day may have been a whimsical substitution. It lends itself to various interpretations—as do many of the encounters in this book.
I hope you enjoy the wisdom of Suzuki Roshi; he had great confidence in yours.
Sebastopol, California, 5/29/2000
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