The teaching must not be stock words or stale stories but must be
always kept fresh. That is real teaching.
One night in February of 1968, I sat among fifty
black-robed fellow students, mostly young Americans, at Zen Mountain
Center, Tassajara Springs, ten miles inland from Big Sur, California, deep
in the mountain wilderness. The kerosene lamplight illuminated our breath
in the winter air of the unheated room.
Before us the founder of the first Zen Buddhist
monastery in the Western Hemisphere, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, had concluded a
lecture from his seat on the altar platform. "Thank you very
much," he said softly, with a genuine feeling of gratitude. He took a
sip of water, cleared his throat, and looked around at his students.
"Is there some question?" he asked, just loud enough to be heard
above the sound of the creek gushing by in the darkness outside.
I bowed, hands together, and caught his eye.
"Hai?" he said, meaning yes.
"Suzuki-roshi, I've been listening to your
lectures for years," I said, "and I really love them, and
they're very inspiring, and I know that what you're talking about is
actually very clear and simple. But I must admit I just don't understand.
I love it, but I feel like I could listen to you for a thousand years and
still not get it. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you
reduce Buddhism to one phrase?"
Everyone laughed. He laughed. What a ludicrous
question. I don't think any of us expected him to answer it. He was not a
man you could pin down, and he didn't like to give his students something
definite to cling to. He had often said not to have "some idea"
of what Buddhism was.
But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said,
"Everything changes." Then he asked for another question.
Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese priest in the Soto school of Zen who came
to San Francisco in 1959 to minister to a small Japanese-American
congregation. He came with no plan, but with the confidence that some
Westerners would embrace the essential practice of Buddhism as he had
learned it from his teachers. He had a way with things - plants, rocks,
robes, furniture, walking, sitting - that gave a hint of how to be
comfortable in the world. He had a way with people that drew them to him,
a way with words that made people listen, a genius that seemed to work
especially in America and especially in English.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a skillfully edited
compilation of his lectures published in 1970, has sold over a million
copies in a dozen languages. It's a reflection of where Suzuki put his
passion: in the ongoing practice of Zen with others. He did not wish to be
remembered or to have anything named after him. He wanted to pass on what
he had learned to others, and he hoped that they in turn would help to
invigorate Buddhism in America and reinvigorate it in Japan.
Buddhist ideas had been infiltrating American thought since the days of
the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. At the World Parliament of
Religions in Chicago in 1893, Soen Shaku turned heads when he made the
first public presentation of Zen to the West. His disciple and translator,
D. T. Suzuki, became a great bridge from the East, teaching at Harvard and
Columbia, and publishing dozens of widely read books on Buddhism in
English. When confused with D. T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki would say,
"No, he's the big Suzuki, I'm the little Suzuki."
The first small groups to study and meditate gathered
with Shigetsu Sasaki on the East Coast and Nyogen Senzaki on the west.
Books informed by Buddhism by Hermann Hesse, Ezra Pound, and the Beat
writers were discussed in the coffeehouses of New York and San Francisco
and by college kids in Ohio and Texas. Alan Watts, the brilliant
communicator, further enthused and informed a generation that hungered for
Into this scene walked Shunryu Suzuki, who embodied and
exemplified what had been for Westerners an almost entirely intellectual
interest. He brought with him a focus on daily zazen, Zen meditation, and
what he called "practice": zazen extending into all activity. He
had a fresh approach to living and talking about life, enormous energy,
formidable presence, an infectious sense of humor, and a dash of mischief.
From the time he was a new monk at age thirteen,
Suzuki's master, Gyokujun So-on Suzuki, called him Crooked Cucumber.
Crooked cucumbers were useless: farmers would compost them; children would
use them for batting practice. So-on told Suzuki he felt sorry for him,
because he would never have any good disciples. For a long time it looked
as though So-on was right. Then Crooked Cucumber fulfilled a lifelong
dream. He came to America, where he had many students and died in the full
bloom of what he had come to do. His twelve and a half years here
profoundly changed his life and the lives of many others.
On a mild Tuesday afternoon in August of 1993 I had an appointment with
Shunryu Suzuki's widow of almost twenty-two years, Mitsu Suzuki. Walking
up the central steps to the second floor of the San Francisco Zen Center's
three-story redbrick building, I passed the founder's alcove, dedicated to
Shunryu Suzuki. It is dominated by an almost life-size statue of him
carved by an old Japanese sculptor out of a blond cypress stump from the
Bolinas Lagoon. "Hi Roshi, 'bye Roshi," I muttered, bowing
quickly as I went by.
Mitsu Suzuki-sensei was the person on my mind. We had
been close, but I hadn't seen her much in recent years. Soon she would
move back across the Pacific for good. I was a little nervous. I needed to
talk to her, and although there wouldn't be much time, I didn't want to
rush. What I sought was her blessing.
"Come in, David," she said in her sweet, high
voice from the kitchen door at the end of the hall. I stepped inside and
there she was, looking strikingly young for the last year of her seventh
decade. "No hugs," she said quickly, holding her hands out to
ward me off, then rubbing her ribs. About fifteen years earlier I had been
a bit too exuberant in expressing my affection, and my hug must have
bruised some ribs. I bowed, tipping my body as Japanese do (without
joining hands), and said something polite in Japanese.
She stood almost a foot below me. Her face was round
and childlike as ever, her hair long, straight, and black, with just a bit
of grey here and there. She wore homemade loose pants and a blouse printed
with chrysanthemums, the same material on top and bottom, an earthy brown
and soft blue. The tiny kitchen was filled with knickknacks as always, the
wall covered with art, photos, a calendar. After some polite chitchat
about family members and about a book I'd written, I brought up the
purpose of my visit.
"Some publisher may be interested in . . . it has
been suggested to me that I . . . might . . . um . . . write some on
Suzuki-roshi. Collect the oral history - stories about Suzuki-roshi,
"Oh, thank you for writing about Hojo-san,"
she said, with the pitch ascending on the thank. Hojo-san is what she
always called her husband. Hojo is the abbot of a temple; san is a polite
form of address.
"So you really think it's okay for me to do a book
"Oh, yes, yes," she said emphatically.
"Tell many funny stories."
"Umm . . . funny stories, yes . . . but not just
funny. Serious and sad ones too, everything, right?"
"Yes, but people like the funny stories. Mainly
you should tell funny stories. That will be good. Hojo-san liked funny
stories. Everyone will be very happy to read them."
"There may be some people who don't think I should
do the book."
She sat back down across the table from me and looked
directly at me. "When I speak now, it is Suzuki-roshi's voice coming
through my mouth and he says, 'Please write a book about me and thank you
very much for writing a book about me.' Those are his words. I speak for
It was time to go. She offered me a green metallic frog
that fit in the palm of my hand. "Here, take this," she said.
"It belonged to Hojo-san. He would be happy for you to have it. He
loved frogs very much," she said, drawing out the first syllable of
very. "I'm giving everything away. When I go back to Japan I go like
the cicada. It leaves its shell behind. I will do that too."
"I want to come visit you there and ask you about
"No, no, no," she said adamantly. "No
more English. I will leave my poor English behind me."
"Then I will speak in my poor Japanese," I
said, in my poor Japanese.
"Okay, please come visit then. But keep your voice
small when you do. Your voice is too big."
"Okay," I said in a tiny voice and passed her
at the door, assuring her as she instinctively cringed that I wasn't going
to hug her.
"Remember," she said, "tell many funny
stories." Then, "Why would anyone not want you to do a book on
"Various reasons. You know he didn't want anything
like that. It would be impossible not to misrepresent him. And you know
what Noiri-roshi said over twenty years ago?" Noiri was a colleague
of Suzuki's, a strict and traditional priest, now old and revered.
"No, what did Noiri-san say?"
"That Suzuki-roshi was one of the greatest
Japanese of this century and that no one should write about him who
doesn't know all of his samadhis [deep states of meditation]."
"Good!" she said clapping, with delight in
her voice. "There's your first funny story!"
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