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Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki by David Chadwick

1999; 432 pp. $26. Broadway Books.

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi came to San Francisco from Japan in 1959 when he was 55, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Before he got here, Zen was an idea, not a practice. He made it stick. He taught Americans to sit zazen; founded Tassajara, the first Zen monastery where women practiced as (almost) equals; and forever altered our cultural landscape. Just how remains a mystery. In Japan, he was an ordinary country priest, in a dying religious tradition, with an almost moribund temple. He needed his American students as badly as they needed him.

This subtle and generous biography, by a "loose cannon" among Suzuki's early students, helped me understand the forces that shaped Suzuki in Japan, and how, before he died of liver cancer in 1971, he transmitted to Americans something both within and beyond both cultures. The book snuck up on me, much like the Soto Zen tradition, which emphasizes zazen and the awareness of everyday things rather than dramatic breakthroughs. (As Suzuki's successor Richard Baker once said in a ceremony, "Walking with you in Buddha's gentle rain/Our robes are soaked through.") Crooked Cucumber is a deceptively unassuming introduction to Zen tradition and to Suzuki, mostly through his own words, liberally scattered through its pages ("Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink"). It made me want to sit again, to wholeheartedly live my life with all its difficulty, and more than that: to be flexible and kind.

 

ISBN: 0767901053

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