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Book Review of Crooked Cucumber
San Francisco Chronicle 4/4/99 
by Don Lattin

Forty years ago, a short and somewhat absent-minded Buddhist missionary named Shunryu Suzuki came to San Francisco to serve a three-year stint as the resident priest at a small Soto Zen temple in Japantown.

Whether through luck, fate or good karma, the Rev. Suzuki landed in the right place, at the right time. He thought he was coming to provide the weddings, funerals and other ritual needs of, the Japanese American community, but something else was brewing here in the spring of 1959.

"Japan was still poor, and America was enjoying seemingly endless affluence," writes David Chadwick. "American Christianity and Judaism were generally supportive of society and its materialism. Only a few voices were pointing out the dangers of nuclear weapons, the narcotic effect of pop culture and the soullessness of assembly-line products, but there was a concentration of these voices in the San Francisco Bay Area."

In his engaging new biography, "Crooked Cucumber," Chadwick tells how Suzuki found fertile ground in the beatnik scene of the "Alan Watts Zen boom" and the later hippie counterculture of the 1960s.

Chadwick, a 21-year-old college dropout from Texas, arrived in San Francisco in 1966 with the free-wheeling wave of hippie disciples and stuck around long enough to be one of the last students Suzuki ordained before the Zen master died of cancer in 1971.

Suzuki founded the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the nation's most successful Buddhist meditation networks. His legacy lives on at the center's headquarters at Page and Laguna streets, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a monastery and Buddhist retreat center in the mountains east of Big Sur and at Green Gulch Farm, an oasis of zazen and organic gardening near Muir Beach.

Chadwick, a self-described "loose cannon" among the California Zen intelligentsia, offers an informed, loving rendering of Suzuki's life but throws in enough spice, secrets and innuendo to keep skeptical readers turning the page.

Suzuki was in his mid-50s by the time he came to San Francisco and did not like talking about his Japanese past. Perhaps one reason for that was that his dedication to Zen meditation was much stronger than his dedication to marriage and family. Even his third wife, the one who eventually joined him in San Francisco, liked to say he was a "gooood priest, but baaaaad husband."

Suzuki was born in 1904, the son of a Buddhist priest. He decided to become a monk at age 11 and wound up under the tutelage of a stern master who kept a mistress in the temple and drove most of his other disciples away.

One of Suzuki's early influences was Nora [sic: Nona] Ransom, a striking Englishwoman who was living in Japan as a foreign language teacher in 1927 when she crossed paths with the young monk. She was 40, he was 23, and there are numerous hints in Chadwick's book that Ransom taught her student much more than proper grammar and pronunciation. [Gee, really?. This caused some angry letters to be written. I'll have to comment on this more.--DC]

"Shunryu, short among his countrymen, was 4 feet 11. At almost six feet Miss Ransom was lean yet shapely, beautiful and stately, and her bowl-shaped gray hat made her seem even taller. Her nose was long and straight, her eyes round and wide, her eyebrows thick and expressive. They both walked erect, energetically, Shunryu. in his uniform and she in her subdued dresses and heavy overcoat as winter set in. At first the neighbors said she had a new houseboy, but in time people said she had a live-in interpreter."

Chadwick's eye for detail and his sense of where to focus his attention makes "Crooked Cucumber" a delightful read. His biography scatters snippets of Suzuki's teachings, printed in italics, throughout this chronological telling of the Zen master's life, a device that enlivens Suzuki's message and enlightens the reader with easily digestible morsels of Buddhist wisdom.

Before their meeting in 1927, Suzuki knew little about Christianity, and Ransom had only a superficial understanding of Buddhism. It was his ability to convey the subtleties of Zen meditation that inspired him to think about a mission to America.

Just as Chadwick's book starts to drag, the author enters the picture in 1966 and the pace picks up. At an austere meditation retreat at Tassajara, Chadwick then a novice Zen priest [layman--DC], confesses to stealing desserts made for the paying guests. Suzuki responds by reaching under his desk conspiratorially and replying, "Here, have some jelly beans." When Suzuki suggests Chadwick try to be celibate for five years, the novice tells Suzuki he has a girlfriend inside the monastery. "Don't tell me," Suzuki replies.

"Suzuki had great respect for the difficulty of changing one's course, for the tenacity of habit, the addictiveness of thoughts and beliefs, the power of delusion," Chadwick writes. "He was always teaching the importance of developing good habits so as not to become lost and confused, the importance of not wanting too much. ... But still he cautioned not to try too hard."

Chadwick conveys the dry humor of Suzuki, who loved to needle his naive American disciples with backhanded praise. 1 think you're all enlightened," he'd say, "until you open your mouths."

Sometimes Chadwick's love for his Zen master seems to stop him from digging into the low points of Suzuki's life. For example, he gives short shrift to the story of how a crazed monk murdered Suzuki's second I wife in Japan. Its-mentioned almost in passing and seems to have little effect on Suzuki, leaving the reader wondering if that's because of Suzuki's hardness of heart or the author's inability to explore what effect this really had on his subject. One occasionally gets the impression that Chadwick is covering up Suzuki's flaws, or at least putting the best spin on his human frailties.

Likewise, there could be more discussion of the role Richard Baker played in the early years of the San Francisco Zen Center. Baker was the driven and dynamic disciple who became heir to the Suzuki throne, the central figure in a series of scandals and power struggles that - a decade after Suzuki's death - nearly tore the Zen Center apart.

There are hints of that approaching crisis in "Crooked Cucumber," and we can only hope Chadwick is working on a sequel about the midlife crisis of Suzuki's troubled and tenacious Zen child. [Oh god--never. Actually, someone else is writing that book now.--DC]

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