Alex Wright

Crooked Cucumber

April 27, 2006

I just finished reading David Chadwick's Crooked Cucumber, a biography of the late Zen teacher and San Francisco Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki.

As one of the countless people who first connected with Buddhism through Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, I have always felt a certain fondness for Suzuki-roshi. Even though I have rarely practiced Zen - I find it a bit cold and elusive - nonetheless I have always felt connected in my own small way to his lineage. When I took refuge a few years ago, my preceptor David Schneider was a former student of Suzuki's.

Chadwick does an admirable job of resisting the temptation to glorify his former teacher. While Suzuki's positive qualities come through, so too do his human failings. He had a short temper, could be cold and distant to his family ("a good priest but a bad husband," as his third wife put it), and was even considered a second-rate teacher in his native Japan. Some of his contemporary Japanese Zen masters dismissed Suzuki as a simple "temple priest" with "weak Zen," lacking the realization of the great monastic meditation masters.

When Suzuki accepted an assignment to take over a small temple in San Francisco in 1959, he had no Japanese disciples to call his own. Over the next few years, Suzuki perfected his broken English and started sitting zazen with a handful of Western students who had started lurking around the temple. As San Francisco's counterculture emerged in the 1960s, a growing number of spiritual seekers started flocking to Suzuki's lectures. Along the way, something extraordinary happened. In America, the students asked tougher questions; they were more curious and less deferential than Japanese students. What they lacked in discipline, they made up for in enthusiasm. Men and women practiced together (this was unheard of in Japan). Somehow it all clicked. And this simple temple priest, teaching in a second language to a bunch of headstrong left coast stragglers, blossomed into a great Buddhist teacher. Even Japanese Zen students - who found his Japanese lectures dry and uninspired - recognized the genius that emerged from his English lectures. Maybe it was something about mastering a second language in adulthood. Like Conrad or Nabokov, Suzuki seems to have discovered a powerful new voice once he embraced English. Perhaps by having to reinterpret the dharma in a new language and a strange new culture, Suzuki found his own beginner's mind?

By the time Suzuki passed away in 1971, his little Zen Center had become an important cultural force, and a major beachhead in the transmission of Buddhism to America. But for all his accomplishments, in the end Suzuki comes across as what he was: a simple priest, not a spiritual superhero. Like Buddha, he was an extraordinary ordinary man.

File under: Dharma

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