Not long ago I was driving around Berkeley on errands, listening to a radio documentary, when I heard a familiar voice. He was speaking to a live audience about Buddhist practice, doing that typically Buddhist thing: talking about the essential point of practice, the truth we must realize for ourselves. Turns out it was Jack Kornfield quoting from a lecture by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who distilled this truth down to “Not Always So.” The gentle yet compelling teachings of Suzuki Roshi reach deeply into the Western Buddhist world.
Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen is a priceless sequel to Shunryu Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which was published in 1970 and is arguably the best-selling Zen book in history, with more than a million copies in print in a dozen languages. Thirty-two years has been a long wait, but lately there has been a wave of Suzuki Roshi publishing: Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, his lectures on Sandokai, a Chinese Zen classic; David Chadwick’s excellent biography, Crooked Cucumber; Chadwick’s collection of personal Suzuki Roshi stories, To Shine One Corner of the World; and Shoes Outside the Door, journalist Michael Downing’s exploration of the culture and painful history of San Francisco Zen Center, which Suzuki Roshi founded when he came here from Japan.
Not Always So explores the same Zen territory as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and expands on it. The latter offers highly condensed and edited selections that are particularly helpful to new practitioners (although after many years of practice, I still find words of wisdom I had missed in past readings). The thirty-five lectures comprising Not Always So presume an already ongoing practice of zazen or upright meditation.
Thanks to Ed Brown’s skillful editing we can once again hear Suzuki Roshi’s light and limpid voice. Having read many of these lectures in raw form and in other edits, I felt a sense of déjà vu as I turned pages. But Ed Brown has made them come alive by cutting away what was awkward or repetitive in the original talks. We come away with a sense that Suzuki Roshi doesn’t speak about zazen but from zazen, much like the settled place that Zen master Dogen wrote from in the thirteenth century when he brought Soto Zen from China to Japan.
Suzuki Roshi’s true theme is: What is shikantaza? Shikantaza usually translates as “just sitting.” Depending upon time and place, emphasis moves between “just” and “sitting.” Some Zen teachers speak of it as a kind of intense, single-minded and objectless sitting. But Suzuki Roshi understands and practices it as zazen not limited by views, expectations or any particular state of mind. It is a kind of radical openness. Throughout the book, he offers various explanations:
Shikantaza, our zazen, is just to be ourselves. When we do not expect anything, we can be ourselves. That is our way, to live fully in each moment of time. This practice continues forever. . . . When you sit in shikantaza, don’t be disturbed by sounds, don’t operate your thinking mind. This means not to rely on any sense organ or the thinking mind and just receive the letter from the world of emptiness. This is shikantaza. . . . When we “just sit” in meditation, we include everything. There is nothing else, nothing but you. That is shikantaza.
Shikantaza as described by Suzuki Roshi has a tone or flavor quite different from the stern and martial stereotypes of Zen.
If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture, and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. . . . If you are very kind with your breathing, one breath after another, you will have a refreshed, warm feeling in your zazen.
In order to practice in our life and be our true self, we must recognize and face our human problems. In order to find the warmth we must feel the difficulties. Suzuki Roshi’s Zen does not separate them or set one above the other.
Buddha will not give you more problems than you can solve, or more than you need. Whatever the problems are, they are just enough. If these are not enough problems, Buddha is ready to give you more, just so you can appreciate your problems. Buddha is always giving you something. If you have nothing to cope with, your life feels empty.
This is just the smallest taste of Not Always So. Reading it is like eating a big piece of rich chocolate cake. We can read it straight through and get lost in the flavor. Or chew each bite completely and pause before taking the next bite. Or set it aside to savor tomorrow. And then we can continue along the path of being ourselves, as Suzuki Roshi says, not fooled by anything.