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About Suzuki Roshi    



from David Chadwick

revised on 12/15/99 and 10/11/99
(from original 8/13 version)

This is the letter-like proposal I used to let a few folks on the outside of all this know what I was doing. Earlier versions are what I gave to the people who wrote the letters of support on the Main Cucumber Project Page -  from the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library of UCB, the Graduate Theological Union, and the Institute of Historical Study, our fiscal sponsor through whom tax-deductible contributions can be made.--DC

Shunryu Suzuki and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (1904-1971) is one of the most influential figures in the short history of American Buddhism. In the twelve years he lived in America, Suzuki created the San Francisco Zen Center and founded the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the West, Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara Springs near Carmel Valley, California. He also ordained many among the first generation of American Buddhist teachers, and is widely known as author of Zen Mind, Beginnerís Mind, a record of his lectures that has been read by well over a million people, and is possibly the largest-selling book on Buddhism. ZMBM is also widely used in colleges and has been a source of inspiration to a wide variety of people, including Laurance Rockefeller, Phil Jackson, Amy Tan, and Sam Peckinpah. In the September 1999 issue of the Buddhist magazine Shambala Sun, six out of eight leading writers and religious teachers surveyed selected ZMBM as one of the "ten most important spiritual books of the twentieth century."

Twenty-five years after his death, Suzukiís legacy remains vital. His teachings have filtered into the popular consciousness to become accepted tenets of daily life and work ("Just do it!"). His non-sectarian, non-doctrinaire approach has influenced religious leaders of various faiths, scholars, poets, and students in America and around the world.

Crooked Cucumber

In 1993, while still working on his first book, Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan (Penguin/Arkana, 1994), I, David Chadwick, decided to write a book on Shunryu Suzuki and began to interview people who had known him or studied with him. The resulting biography, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (Broadway Books, 1999), the first thorough biography of any Zen teacher, offered a new perspective on the man, showing that his everyday actions and interactions were at least as much a source of learning as his formal lectures. ("Crooked Cucumber" is the disparaging nickname Suzukiís first master gave him as a young boy.) Huston Smith, widely considered the leading authority on world religions called Crooked Cucumber "a biography that brings Chadwick's wise and lovable teacher to life to an extent I would not have believed the printed word could. Chadwick has produced a remarkable biography of a truly remarkable man." Publisherís Weekly called it "a generous glimpse of the humanity and message of one of the great spiritual teachers of the modern world."

Origins of the Cucumber Project

In the course of doing research on Crooked Cucumber, I traveled to Japan to interview people who had known Suzuki, such as his eldest son and heir to his temple, Hoitsu Suzuki. There, I also recorded the memories of family, friends, students, priests, and neighbors who had known Suzuki before he left Japan in 1959. In America, I interviewed another 150 people: disciples, students, relatives, and others who knew him, such as poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and culled through the archives of the San Francisco Zen Center and the SFZC's publication, Wind Bell, for extant interviews, letters, notes, and articles.

After the book was finished I found that there was more work to do: to organize and edit the interviews and other materials and to leave them in good order so that others could read and study them in the future. I also determined to add to this archive the memories of many others whom I hadn't yet had time to interview.

The Cucumber Project

The Crooked Cucumber Oral History Project (abbreviated to "the Cucumber Project") is the continuation of this work and preserves memories from about 350 people to date. It includes letters and transcripts of interviews that are long, from people who have a lot to say and who tell about their lives before and after meeting Suzuki; others tell of only a single key incident . Altogether they offer a fuller view of Suzuki's legacy and show the wider social and cultural context in which he taught.

There is currently an on-going archiving program at the San Francisco Zen Center to ensure that existing tapes and transcripts of Suzukiís lectures are properly preserved and made available to students and scholars. There is also a need for a systematic presentation of the greater archive, featuring interviews and correspondence with those who studied with Suzuki or knew him in Japan or America. This is the crucial time to look back on that time and to record it before it is forgotten.

I propose to complete the Cucumber Project with the help of others and to interview several hundred more people in America. I also intend to travel to Japan or to have others do so, to do more research on the war years when Suzuki was the chief priest of a large temple with high-school-aged men in residence. Suzuki gently challenged the assumptions of militarism in prewar Japan and did what he could during the war to promote an open discussion that might encourage peace. It's an important story for Japan and America and a couple of weeks of research could help broaden our understanding of what Suzuki and those around him did in those maddening times.

During the course of completing this oral history, I will naturally be working closely with the San Francisco Zen Center in related areas such as locating missing transcripts and tapes of Suzukiís lectures, photos, and other materials. I plan to accept the invitation of Suzuki's only American dharma heir, Richard Baker-roshi, in Colorado, to go through his papers and archives, which surely contain much of importance to the Shunryu Suzuki Archive and the Cucumber Project. There is a need also to transcribe, edit, categorize, translate, and annotate existing and future interviews, and to organize and create a catalog of the tapes, transcripts, notes, and other material. I also wish to review and annotate Suzukiís lectures, especially in the places where he talks about his past.

Through the Cucumber Project, interviews and other materials will be made available to scholars, spiritual seekers, students, and to the general public free of charge. They will also be readily accessible via the World Wide Web as I plan to continue to post the results of my work on <>. This web site also functions as an active internet forum where people share their experiences and ask questions and comment about Suzuki and Zen practice. It contains many sections that need further work such as notes on the book Crooked Cucumber and a photo gallery. Computer storage on the Web or CDs is particularly appropriate for an archive because of the facility with which one can access desired material through searching and hypertext. But the Internet is only to be one site where the archive is housed. For both hard copies and CD copies of the archive, there is need for a physical home such as the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, or the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. For the latter, Professor Lewis Lancaster has offered his full support. Complete copies of this archive would also be available at the San Francisco Zen Center and at other affiliated Zen Centers in Suzuki's lineage.

I feel compelled to bring his work on the Cucumber Project to completion within  a few years. There's a lot of work to be done, but with the help of others and sufficient financial support this deadline can be met.

The Cucumber Project reaches beyond academic interest into the living, breathing legacy of Zen and of the perennial search for truth. Not only will it provide a fluid record of Shunryu Suzukiís life, but it will map a trajectory of his students and the Buddhist community-at-large, providing a lasting record of those who touched him and those he touched, where they came from and where they went, what they gave and received, and what Suzuki learned from them as well as what he taught. Also included will be what people felt was lacking, what they didn't learn, what they feel were Suzuki's, Zen's and the Zen Center's weaknesses, shortcomings, and faults. By giving people the opportunity to revisit the extraordinary moment in history in which Suzukiís presence in America gave birth to the first large Western Buddhist Community in the words of those who were there, the Cucumber Project will provide rich cultural, historical, religious and personal insights to the public. In so doing, it offers a valuable perspective on the past while inspiring the next generation to keep this dialogue and inquiry alive well into the future.

It is not the Bodhisattva's way to try to illuminate the whole universe. We say, "to shine one corner of the world."

                                                           Shunryu Suzuki

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