True Zen Man

Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen  by Shunryu Suzuki.  Edited by Edward Espe Brown.  Harper Collins.  162pp.  $22.95.

I think of Shunryu Suzuki as the quintessential Soto Zen Priest: modest, quiet, never drawing attention to himself, refusing to make great claims for practice or the results of practice, utterly devoted to zazen.  Back in the late fifties, after Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen made Buddhism sound vaguely exotic, the Beat poets and other spiritual types went to the San Francisco Zen Center to find out what Zen was all about.  They were probably expecting a wacky exchange with some weird dude.  What they got instead was, “I sit in the morning at 5:00.  You’re welcome to sit with me.”  It was a way of seeing if they were serious, of course, but also the basis of his teaching.  If you want to learn Zen, you sit zazen.

Suzuki was only in the United States for 12 years, from 1959 until his death in 1971.  He had always wanted to come to this country, and had learned English (at least a little) in the hope of doing so.  But he came to minister to a Japanese congregation who weren’t interested in sitting with him or with anyone else, just wanted a priest to perform weddings and funerals.  Eventually he had enough people sitting to form a group of their own, and when he had the choice of going off with them or staying with the Japanese folks, he went where the energy was.  Out of that came the San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara Mountain Monastery, and Green Gulch Farm.  That period also produced one of the most widely read Zen books of all time, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.

That book is a miracle.  It was edited by a 29 year-old woman named Trudy Dixon who was dying of cancer; she assembled a group of talks that Suzuki had given in his halting English to a Zen group that met in a garage in Los Altos.  Somehow, out of that random assemblage, not intended as a collection of any kind, Trudy Dixon created a book that seems utterly coherent, whose English is not in the least bit halting, and that gets to the heart of Zen as well as anything I’ve ever read.

Some twenty years ago, my first teacher Larry Rosenberg told me that he had talked to Japanese priests who didn’t think Suzuki Roshi was anything special, and who thought Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was rather elementary.  It is.  But in translating the ideas of the great—but hugely difficult—teacher and writer, Eihei Dogen, the 13th century Japanese founder of Soto Zen, Suzuki had to keep it simple because his English was limited, and in doing so created something extraordinary.  The language limitation was an advantage.  When Larry reread the book some years later, he had to admit he thought the Japanese priests were wrong.  The teachings of Eihei Dogen, filtered through the limited English of Shunryu Suzuki, then through the mind of a young student dying of cancer, created a book that expresses not just the essence of Zen, but the essence of Buddhism.

It was Larry who inadvertently introduced me to the book.  I’d been meditating for over a year, taking classes from him at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center whenever he offered them, when I finally got up the nerve to have an interview—what a Zen student would call dokusan—at what seemed to me the ungodly hour of 7:00 AM (Larry had been up for a couple of hours).  I was having a difficult time with my writing and my life, and stumbled through an explanation of what was going on.  “You’re learning from failure what I learned from success,” Larry said (he had begun his practice when his academic career was going well, but he found the whole thing empty.)  He thought I should continue with my practice—he was as much an advocate of sitting as Suzuki—and, since I wanted to learn more, recommended what he considered the best book in his tradition, Heartwood from the Bodhi Tree.  I immediately took the book out of the Center library, but found it, somewhat to my embarrassment, dry as dust.  I’ve always thought I could read anything, but I couldn’t read that.  I returned it guiltily, hoping I didn’t encounter Larry on my way in.

I saw Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sitting on another shelf, and grabbed it on an impulse.  I’d heard the title—which I thought rather weird—before, and didn’t understand the difference between Zen and Theravada Buddhism, but something about the book attracted me.  I hardly understood a word in that first reading, nevertheless found it thrilling.  That simple but mysterious book caught my mind in a way that the dry explanations of Theravada Buddhism never could.

My real introduction to Zen came when I took a cooking workshop at the Center, hosted by the famous author of the Tassajara Bread Book (which my first wife had owned and baked from for years) Edward Espe Brown.  The workshop was one of the most enjoyable weekends of my life: we spent the morning preparing lunch, then ate lunch; spent the afternoon preparing dinner, then ate dinner.  We did that for two days.  I still slice vegetables the way he taught us.  But before Brown began our cooking instruction, we sat for a while, and he told the whole group some Zen stories, mostly anecdotes from Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook (his most accessible work by far).  I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of those stories.  I wanted to know more about that practice.

At the end of the workshop, when we were sitting around talking and Ed learned I’d be returning to Durham, he said that Mo and Frank Ferrell had studied and worked at the San Francisco Zen Center years before and had more recently opened a bakery in Durham.  I told him I knew the place well.  “They also started a Zen group,” he said.  “You ought to look them up when you get down there.”

I eventually did just that after I got back in 1995, and though I continued to sit retreats with Larry, and wrote a couple of books with him, I’ve practiced Zen ever since.  With its essential simplicity, its emphasis on the body, its emphasis on practice rather than any kind of achievement, it has always seemed perfect for me.

I wasn’t through with Ed Brown either.  He’s come to the Chapel Hill Zen Center several times to lead us on sesshins, and the most recent time I had a chance to be his jisha.  He’s a unique teacher, very funny, with a deep understanding of Soto Zen and the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki.  So I was delighted some years ago when he put together a new volume of Suzuki’s teachings entitled Not Always So (the words that for Suzuki Roshi express the most basic truth of Zen).

I’ve probably read Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind ten times, and this book three or four.  Brown didn’t try to be Trudy Dixon; he arranged talks by topic, but didn’t try to create a single coherent volume.  These are best read as individual talks, the kind of reading you do day by day to keep a practice going.  Each talk is a little gem, and expresses the spirit of this humble monk, who came to a new country late in his life and found the perfect historical moment for his teachings.  I’ve read many books on Zen, but always come back to Suzuki Roshi’s with a feeling of relief.  They express the most basic teaching, but also seem new every time I read them.  They change in the same way my practice changes.