In college in 1964, I wrote a paper about alienation and anxiety, got a good grade, and afterward felt just as alienated and anxious as ever. “What good is this scholarly stuff?” I wondered, “I want something relevant to my life.” Shortly after, I received a letter from my brother, attending the Zen Center in San Francisco at the time. Along with personal news were some Zen teaching stories including one in which a brilliant young student tells his mother how well he is doing in school. She responds, “Son, I didn’t raise you to be a walking dictionary. Why don’t you go to the mountains and attain true realization?” Right away I thought, “That’s for me.” I dropped out of school and went to the Zen Center. I started meditating and soon met the center’s Zen master, Suzuki-roshi. When we first bowed to one another, I felt completely received. I could be who I was. His presence was an incredible gift.
Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick’s book about the life and teachings of Zen master Suzuki-roshi, makes clear that countless people were deeply affected by this little man from Japan. Each of us felt that our relationship with him was uniquely special; he was our Suzuki Roshi. So I was particularly pleased to recognize my Suzuki-roshi in Chadwick’s book. He undertook the impossible task of conveying in language the spirit of Suzuki, and he succeeded to a remarkable degree.
Chadwick spent years researching this book, gathering material, traveling to Japan, conducting interviews. We are taken back to Japan in the early twentieth century and introduced to Suzuki’s mother, Yone, and his father, Sogaku (also a Zen teacher), and to a time when Japan was still making its transition from a feudal society to a modern nation. Born in 1904, Suzuki was given the name Shunryu, using the written characters for “excellent” and “emerging.” He is described as being “small yet strong, eager to learn, impatient to do things before he was old enough, sensitive and kind, but prone to quick bursts of anger.” He was also absent-minded.
From the first, we encounter Chadwick’s stylistic device of interspersing the story of Suzuki’s life with excerpts from his lectures. The interplay between the narrative and the reminiscences feels seamless, and it’s fascinating to see how much Suzuki’s life experiences became material for his teaching.
Sometimes you ask for something special. This means that you are refusing to accept the treasures you already have. You are like a pig. When I was young, as my father was very poor, he raised many pigs. I noticed that when I gave the pigs a bucket of food, they would eat it after I went away. As long as I was there, they wouldn’t eat it, expecting me to give them more food. . . . I think that is what you are doing. Just to cause yourself more problems, you seek for something. But there is no need for you to seek for anything. You have plenty, and you have just enough problems.
Even as a boy, Suzuki “determined to be a good priest . . . an unusual priest who could tell people what Buddhism is and what the truth is.” When he was eleven, with his parents’ permission, he left home to study with his father’s disciple, Gyokujun So-on. So-on was gruff and forceful, and often instructed Suzuki by not instructing him at all. So-on had his own pet name for Shunryu:
My master always called me “You crooked cucumber!” I understand pretty well that I am not so sharp. I was the last disciple, but I became the first one, because all the good cucumbers ran away. Maybe they were too smart. Anyway, I was not smart enough to run away, so I was caught.
Gradually, Suzuki’s life unfolds: study at Komazawa University, training at Eiheiji Monastery, temple life, marriage, the war years, the occupation. Throughout, we glimpse the threads of a life leading to America, and the maturation and refinement of character through personal challenges and family tragedy. I found myself appreciating the sparse and understated writing that allows the events to stand out rather than the descriptions of them.
With Suzuki’s arrival in America in 1959, the book shifts its focus away from dates and events more toward people and relationships. We begin to meet and follow the people who were drawn to study Zen with him. Through a well-crafted sequence of stories, we become acquainted with the American Suzuki—warm, aloof, mischievous, practical, thoroughly embedded in his life and the lives of his students. Suzuki “had a way with people that drew them to him, a way with words that made people listen, a genius that seemed to work especially in America and especially in English.” He subtly encouraged people to take responsibility for their own lives. He understood that telling people what to do undermined their capacity to find out for themselves. He also understood that sticking to a particular form of spiritual practice could be just another face of materialism. To try to be selfless is a selfish idea. Once, when Richard Baker asked Suzuki if he should go to Japan to study and practice, Suzuki said, “Dick, there is no place to go. . . . There is nothing to do. You can do anything you want. Just be yourself.”
Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be a greater challenge.