Direct and enigmatic, profound and embarrassingly simple, originating in China in 520 CE, Zen Buddhism has taken root in American culture in the last several decades. No longer the province of Beat poets, artists, and countercultural types, Zen influences how we play sports and parent, work and love.
Students of Zen attest to its life-changing impact. But it's often difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is. Suspicious of verbal descriptions and conceptualizations, notoriously resistant to categorization, Zen eludes our efforts to define it or put it into a formula or sound bite.
And stating what it is --- like offering a prose summary of a great poem --- not only misses the point, it betrays the spirit of Zen. Books about Zen and Zen centers abound, often obscuring its marrow; authentic Zen, immediate and unadorned --- a flash of lightning through the summer sky --- is rarer.
From all accounts, Shunryu Suzuki, author of the classic "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", embodied Zen. In his twelve years in the United States, from 1959 to 1971, he not only established a vibrant Zen community in San Francisco, he planted seeds of Zen practice in America that are still bearing fruit.
"To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki" was edited by David Chadwick, author of "Crooked Cucumber," the thorougly enjoyable biography of Suzuki. Here he gives us the flavor of his revered teacher --- and Suzuki's authentic Zen --- through stories that portray his wisdom, humor, and grounded spirituality.
"Each of you is perfect the way you are," Suzuki said in an impromptu talk one day while his students were meditating, "and you can use a little improvement."
A woman told Suzuki she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a housewife. "I feel I'm trying to climb a ladder. But for every step upward, I slip backward two steps." "Forget the ladder," Suzuki told her. "In Zen everything is right here on the ground."
Suzuki's style was different than the gavel-pounding we often get from the self-aggrandizing preachers and spiritual hucksters who crowd today's airwaves. You gleaned his teachings in how he lived, not in what he professed. So....Suzuki and his students took some tools and walked up a hot, dusty trail to work on a project. When they got to the top, they discovered that they had forgotten a shovel. The students began a discussion about who should return to get it. They soon realized that Suzuki wasn't there. He was already halfway down the mountain trail, on his way to pick up the shovel.
Suzuki cared passionately about Zen --- he'd studied it since he was 11 --- but it was Life that his Zen served, not the other way around. A student told Suzuki about a powerful experience in which he felt amazing spaciousness. "Yes you could call that enlightenment," Suzuki said, "but it's best to forget about it. And how's your work coming?"
His Zen thrived in the ordinary miracles we often take for granted, rather than rarefied ideas. A psychiatrist asked Suzuki about the nature of consciousness. "I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing," he replied.
And his Zen was truly inclusive. Suzuki bought old vegetables from an old woman at a grocery near the San Francisco Zen Center. One day the woman said, "Here are some fresh ones. Why don't you take them?" His response: "The fresh ones will be bought anyway."
"To Shine One Corner of the World" is a succinct, engaging, accessible book that will be an inspiration for novice and experienced spiritual seekers alike. David Chadwick's collection of stories about his unassuming teacher --- who comes across as a warm, wise and tender-hearted friend --- not only gives us glimpses of genuine Zen; it inspires us to engage the world and each other with new-found respect, vitality and whole-heartedness.
-- Guest Butler Jeffrey Rubin, a therapist based based in Westchester County, New York, combines Eastern and Western wisdom in his work. Read more of his writing at DrJeffreyRubin.com.
To buy "To Shine One Corner of the World" from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy "Not Always So" from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy "Crooked Cucumber" from Amazon.com, click here.
To read more about Shunryu Suzuki on HeadButler.com, click here.