By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 24, 2010
The lives of the truly great are always a thrill to read. Not just because of their triumphs. Even more for the way they confront the challenges of their daily lives --- just as you and I must.
How do we make our way in this world? How can we behave so we're not cranky all the time? How can we experience pain and still appreciate beauty?
These are the questions that plague me, and may frazzle you too. How Dr. X cured a rare disease, how Ms. Y learned to sing above high C, how Billy Z mastered the 100 mile an hour fastball --- that's interesting, but not exactly relevant. And the footnotes? Spare me.
So the first thing that really fascinated me about Shunryu Suzuki --- the Zen monk who's mostly responsible for bringing Zen to America --- was his response when he was asked to summarize Buddhism in a sentence.
The audience laughed at the impossibility of that challenge.
Suzuki had a ready answer.
“Easy,” he said. “Everything changes.”
But then, in his life, easy was the way he was. Or seemed to be.
He didn't tell neophytes they needed to learn much before setting out on the Zen path. "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities," he explained. "In the expert's mind, there are few." He believed in the importance of whatever you were feeling, in the moment you were feeling it. There were no hard and fast truths. For him, the secret of Zen was: "Not always so." Which is just another way to say "Everything changes."
You could almost say he didn't care about Zen. Sitting in the lotus position and watching your thoughts --- nice, but not crucial. Ditto walking meditation. "The most important thing is to be able to enjoy your life without being fooled by things," he said.
Spoken like a very American Zen master. In fact, Suzuki lived in Japan most of his life. He came to San Francisco in 1959 and died there in 1971. Twelve years in America, that's all. But in those few years, he basically established Zen practice in this country.
But forget the practice. Consider the life. There are very, very few biographies of Zen masters, mostly because that's the way they like it --- their practice is specific, geared to the student, as impermanent as smoke. Their lives erase themselves.
David Chadwick, a longtime student of Suzuki's, thought of writing this biography. He went to ask the widow's permission. Her advice: "Tell many funny stories." Chadwick followed instructions. "Crooked Cucumber" is funny often, and where it is not, the writing is playful and light. Even if you don't care much about Zen, this book is a pleasure to read.
And it's a great story. Suzuki began Zen training when he was 11. For all his gifts, his first master saw an inauspicious future for him. He nicknamed him "Crooked Cucumber" because a bent cucumber was useless --- Suzuki would become a teacher with no good disciples. But by 24, he had his own temple. He learned to run it like a small business at the same time as he taught the dharma. "If you have a flexible attitude, you can help people quite easily," he concluded.
He needed a flexible attitude in San Francisco. When he arrived, Beatniks were hopped up about what they thought was Zen. A few years later, hippies were dropping LSD and hallucinating the Buddha. Through it all, Suzuki played the role of a simple monk with a sincere commitment. He barely taught. He didn't have to --- he embodied the teaching.
When he had to, he became a giant. A beloved student died. He delivered a measured eulogy for her --- and then, Chadwick writes, he "let out a mighty roar of grief that echoed through the cavernous auditorium." Chadwick's account of Suzuki's final illness is equally powerful. "I have cancer," Suzuki told his students. "This cancer is my friend, and my practice will be to take care of this sickness."
The scene in which, near death, Suzuki inaugurates his successor is a tour de force. As is his death. These are heavy moments. But necessary ones. "The point is to attain complete composure," he once said. Well, he knew exactly what he was talking about.
The lovely thing about this book is that it's dotted with wry epigrams which, after your initial laughter, you might underline and consider. "In reflecting on our problems, we should include ourselves." "Once you say 'sex,' everything is sex." To a carpenter who seemed to have achieved self-realization: "Yes, you could call that enlightenment --- and how's your work coming?" To a vegan: "You have to kill vegetables too."
To buy 'Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki' from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy 'Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen' from Amazon.com, click here.