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Book Reviews of Crooked Cucumber
San Jose Mercury News 

Sunday, February 21, 1999 Section: Books Page: 6



WHEN people from other states describe something as ''Oh, it's so California,'' I long to ask, ''So, which 'Oh so California' do you mean? The Hollywood California, the Silicon Chip California, San Francisco Chinatown, Modesto farmland, the surfing community, Bakersfield country bars, what?''

Along with our microclimates, California is home to myriad microcultures, each with its own fascinating history, leading characters, language and fashions. Here are some new histories and biographies that trace threads in this crazy-quilt state. [Only the review of Crooked Cucumber is included herein.-DC]

A den of Zen

When you enter the door to Kannon-Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View, you see a stack of books for sale. ''Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,'' a down-to-earth, yet elegant and eloquent collection of Zen talks, is the closest thing the Zen community has to a Bible. Since its publication 25 years ago, the book has sold more than 800,000 copies. Its author, Shunryu Suzuki, founded San Francisco Zen Center, which runs Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Green Gulch Farm. He is generally recognized as the most influential Zen Buddhist teacher in America: Suzuki's students and his students' students can be found across the country.

Zen is a spiritual practice that embraces paradox, so isn't it just ''soZen'' that Suzuki's earliest teachers in Japan admonished him that he was too forgetful and dim-witted to ever become a successful priest?

In the introduction to the biography, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (Broadway, 368 pp., $26), author David Chadwick explains the teacher's delightful nickname.

''From the time he was a new monk at age 13, 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 12 1/2 years here profoundly changed his life and the lives of many others.''

Sonoma County-based Chadwick, a longtime Zen student, knew Suzuki from his early days in America. The first section of the book looks back on the teacher's Japanese upbringing and religious training, then follows him as he arrives in San Francisco. The year was 1959; his assigned temple, Sokoji, was the only Soto Zen temple in the Bay Area and one of a few in the United States. At first, Sokoji's members were all Japanese-Americans. But the next decade brought forth the ''Alan Watts Zen boom,'' and Suzuki was soon ''discovered'' by Westerners: the ''artists, nonconformists and beatniks in the Bay area, where interest in Asian thought was high.''

Thoughtful, vivid and well-paced, this biography is interspersed with previously unpublished gems from Suzuki's lectures and writings, including ''When you can laugh at yourself, there is enlightenment.'' Chadwick demonstrated that capability in his previous book, ''Thank You and OK: An American Zen Failure in Japan,'' a rollicking account of four years abroad.

With Suzuki's life, he takes a more serious and straightforward approach. Writing a biography of one's spiritual teacher is like walking a razor's edge: Too reverential and the biography is a meaningless love letter. Too fault-finding and the reader suspects the author of being a disgruntled disciple. Chadwick's story is both respectful and honest. (He doesn't hold back on Suzuki's shortcomings as father and husband, for example.) It is detailed enough for the Zen student and broad enough for a reader who wants to better understand how a crooked cucumber from the East attracted and inspired several generations of spiritual seekers.

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