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Book Review 
of Crooked Cucumber

Houston Chronicle  March 21, '99
by Rick Mitchell

"The first definitive biography of a Zen Master… Crooked Cucumber portrays Suzuki as a fully rounded human being, dedicated and wise, but not infallible."

In the ZEST section of the Sunday paper.

Zen's messenger in America Disciple David Chadwick writes about late Shunryu Suzuki's life 

AUTHOR David Chadwick remembers the first time he laid eyes on Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.

A native of Fort Worth, Chadwick had dropped out of college in 1964 and drifted to San Francisco with the hippie migration. After experimenting with psychedelic drugs, he discovered meditation.

So in 1966, at age 21, Chadwick found himself at the San Francisco Zen Center, where Suzuki presided over a bohemian community of individualists drawn together by the simple yet subtle, strict yet compassionate teachings of a 5-foot-tall, 62-year-old Japanese Buddhist priest.

"I could barely see him through the million thoughts that raced through my mind," Chadwick writes. "A moment later I was in the hall putting on my sandals. I could see Suzuki in his office, behind the crowd of people on their way out. Still my mind was bubbling. He turned, caught my eye, and for the tiniest increment of time everything stopped, and I saw him. . . .

"More than anything, it was in small, seemingly insignificant, non-verbal exchanges that Suzuki established contact with students and guided us along our invisible paths. We were almost entirely on our own."

Some 32 years after that initial encounter, and more than 27 years after Suzuki's death, Chadwick has published the first definitive biography of a Zen master in America.

Crooked Cucumber portrays Suzuki as a fully rounded human being, dedicated and wise but not infallible. In the process, the book offers profound insights into the transmission of Buddhist dharma - the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha passed down for 2,500 years throughout Asia - from East to West.

Chadwick's previous book, Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan (1994), was an amusing account of his experiences negotiating the cultural contrasts between Japanese and Americans while living in a Zen monastery. That book now can be seen as a training exercise for the historical scholarship and anecdotal storytelling employed here.

Suzuki-roshi, as he was known to his students, was not the first Buddhist priest to introduce Zen practice to America, but he is probably the most influential. His book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - a collection of his talks - has sold more than 1 million copies since its publication in 1970. The book remains the clearest, most concise English-language introduction to Zen meditation.

In addition to the San Francisco Zen Center, Suzuki was the founder of the first Zen Buddhist monastery in America, Tassajara, on California's Big Sur coastline. Tassajara's former monks include a number of the most experienced and respected Zen teachers in American Buddhism.

Little in Suzuki's early years indicated the inspirational impact he would have later in life. He was born in 1904, the son of a Japanese country priest. He followed his father into the priesthood as a young teen; the book's title is taken from a derogatory nickname given to him by his first teacher, who felt he would never amount to much.

In recounting Suzuki's story, Chadwick investigates the relationship of Buddhism to Japanese culture. Zen, which originated in China and spread to Japan in the 12th century, is a school of Buddhism emphasizing the role of meditation (or zazen in Japanese) in Buddha's spiritual enlightenment.

But as practiced in prewar Japan, the religion complemented nativist Shinto beliefs to fulfill a largely ceremonial function in Japanese society. Parish priests such as Suzuki's father officiated at weddings and funerals, and hosted community functions. Even in the monastic training temples, there was not much focus on the teaching of zazen among either priests or laypeople.

While he eventually inherited his father's temple and assumed its ritual duties, Suzuki dreamed of a way to point people to the deeper meaning of the core teachings. He was inspired by his youthful experience with an aristocratic Englishwoman for whom he served as a valet. Through patience and clarity, he overcame the woman's arrogant assumptions about his faith.

Suzuki considered this encounter the turning point in his life.

"I developed some confidence in our teaching and in the thought that I could help Western people understand Buddhism," he wrote. "For Japanese people it is pretty difficult to study Buddhism in its true sense, because the tradition has been so often mistaken and misunderstood. It is difficult to change the misunderstandings once we have them.

"But for people who don't know anything about Buddhism, it's like painting on white paper. It is much easier to give them the right understanding. I think that the experience I had with Miss Ransom resulted in my coming to America."

Suzuki waited most of his life for the chance to fulfill his dream. In the years preceding World War II he acted as a mentor to a progressive group of students who advocated alternatives to nationalism and militarism. During the war he kept his beliefs to himself as a matter of survival. But the Buddhist establishment's wholehearted support of the expansionist military effort only strengthened his conviction that Zen in Japan had lost the way.

In 1959 Suzuki surprised his family and his parish-ioners by accepting a position ministering to a Japanese-American congregation in San Francisco. Almost immediately he began attracting spiritual seekers from the city's artist/bohemian community. Despite the cultural barriers, there was something about his calm presence and humble manner that convinced these beatnik converts they had at last found the real thing.

The story of Suzuki's last 12 years is that of an essentially ordinary man rising to greet the opportunity implicit in an extraordinary time.

The countercultural climate of San Francisco in the late '60s made it unusually open to alternative approaches to spirituality. The fact that Suzuki was himself something of a rebel from Japanese Zen's rigid emphasis on ritual and hierarchy may have made him more willing to overlook the foibles and eccentricities of his would-be students.

As Chadwick explains, "The countercultural credo of the times was, `Do your own thing,' and vague yet passionately held ideas of love and freedom were in the air. Many of Suzuki's students had ridden the waves of hippiedom into the Zen Center. . . . Now they were getting up in the dark, practicing zazen in full or half-lotus, chanting in an ancient, unfamiliar language, wearing robes, eating in silence, working hard, and making every attempt to follow a life far more structured than the ones they'd rejected."

Many of Suzuki-roshi's American students were inclined to regard him as all-knowing and imperturbable. Yet, as Chadwick makes clear, he made his share of tragic mistakes.

For all his wisdom and compassion as a Zen teacher, Suzuki considered himself a failure as a family man. His second wife was brutally murdered by a mentally disturbed monk whom Suzuki stubbornly insisted on taking in when no other temple would have him. One of his daughters never recovered from the shock of seeing her mother murdered and committed suicide in a mental institution.

His other grown children eventually forgave him for his lapses as a father, but Suzuki's American students were occasionally embarrassed to overhear him bickering with his third wife, Mitsu. She liked to tease him by telling bystanders, "Good priest, bad husband. Verrry bad husband."

But the spiritual seed planted by this Crooked Cucumber has taken root in American soil. Suzuki's influence can be seen in the growing number of Zen sitting groups all over the country, and in the open-minded way Westerners are integrating Buddha's ancient teaching with their own cultural heritage.

In the book's epilogue Chadwick writes, "Zen Buddhism is now an established part of American culture. I can buy a zafu (meditation cushion) at a local store. There's a quote from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind on a carton of soy milk in my refrigerator. . . .

"But there is no cult of Shunryu Suzuki. Rather there is gratitude to this man who added some important threads to the emerging culture - a way of living with humility and dignity in this transient world, with a tolerance for imperfection."


David Chadwick will speak on Shunryu Suzuki's teachings at 7 p.m. March 28 at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5200 Fannin. The talk will follow a one-hour meditation period hosted by the Houston Zen Community. Chadwick will sign his book 7-8:30 p.m. March 29 at Alabama Theater Bookstop.

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