The hands-down best-selling Buddhist book in English is Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Skillfully assembled and edited from talks given in Los Altos, California, during the middle 1960s, this deceptively modest and endlessly deep book has sold more than a million copies in a dozen languages. Just as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was appearing in bookstores during the summer of 1970, down at Tassajara’s Zen Mountain Monastery, Suzuki Roshi was offering his students a series of luminous lectures on the Sandokai (or the Harmony of Difference and Equality), an enigmatic poem composed in China by the eighth-century Zen master Sekito Kisen. Twelve hundred years later this text still speak to us, helping to unlock the wonderful mysteries of one and many, enlightenment and delusion, of “things-as-it-is,” in Suzuki Roshi’s nondual language.
For those of us who had previously read the samizdat transcripts of Suzuki Roshi’s lectures, Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger’s painstaking and at times radical editing of Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness uncovers the essence of Suzuki Roshi’s moment-to-moment style of Zen. It is a great gift. The twelve lectures here (plus one additional talk from the same summer), along with students’ questions and Suzuki Roshi’s answers, walk the tightrope that confronts any editor working from the words of a non-native speaker: presenting a teacher’s unique voice while preserving the subtle intent of his words.
Throughout Branching Streams I was struck by Suzuki Roshi’s way of framing the ethical concerns of the Bodhisattva precepts. This is a tougher-minded teaching and voice than we may remember from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He simultaneously raises the relative and absolute, a way of living that leaves no easy outs.
Maybe you will kill some animal or insect. But when you think, “There are many earwigs here and they are harmful insects, so I have to kill this one,” you understand things only in a dualistic way. Actually earwigs and human beings are one. They are not different. It is impossible to kill an earwig. Even though we think we have killed it, we have not. Even though you squash an earwig, it is still alive. That momentary form may vanish, but as long as the whole world, including us, exists, we cannot kill an earwig. When we come to this understanding, we can keep our precepts completely. But even so, we should not kill anything without a reason, or we should not kill by making up some convenient reason. “Because earwigs eat vegetables I must kill them.” “There is nothing wrong with killing animals, so I am killing earwigs.” To kill an animal, excusing your action through some reasoning, is not our way.
Considering the audience, place and time—young Californians in the darkest period of recent American history—I wonder how much Suzuki Roshi was speaking to the violence that seemed poised to consume us? Certainly it was in the air, and as a priest who had himself resisted the tide of Japanese Imperial Way Zen during World War II, I am sure he was well aware of his students’ and his adopted nation’s tragic choices. But hewing to the path of Zen, his words simply throw us back on our own resources of mind and morality. That may be the greatest gift he could offer.
Thirty years have passed since Suzuki Roshi’s last book, and nearly thirty years since his death. But his teachings on the Sandokai, or what he likes to call “independency,” are still fresh and to the point. There is still a wealth of unedited Suzuki material available and rumors of other books in the works. But for now I am just grateful for Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. Following these streams could be a lifetime practice.