#7: ZEN. One of the books long recognized as one of the very best in English on Zen
is ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND, by Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Soto monk
who ventured to America in the sixties and founded the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara. The format of this blessed little book, a collection of brief talks, has been widely used, but in none that I know of has the voice speaking from the profound center of meditative experience been caught with such humaneness, humor and simplicity. ZEN MIND stood for almost thirty years as Suzuki’s sole book, and when two more books were recently mined from the mass of materials Suzuki left behind, I approached them gingerly, not wanting to be disappointed. I needn’t have feared: both have Suzuki’s voice inimitably in them and are more than worthy successors. BRANCHING STREAMS FLOW IN THE DARKNESS (University of California Press, 1999) is a commentary on the Sandokai, an eighth-century poem; NOT ALWAYS SO (Harper, 2002) is another collection of short talks. They have the airy, crisp clarity which is the special attribute of the great Japanese masters; they also have a luminosity which is Suzuki’s own, and few teachers better repay rereading.
For a charming and readable biography of Suzuki, see CROOKED CUCUMBER, by David Chadwick (Broadway Books). Chadwick has also edited ZEN IS RIGHT HERE (Shambhala, 2001), a little book of short anecdotes and teaching stories. This “Wisdom of…” format is usually a collection of platitudes, but even here Suzuki was incapable of being soppy or conventional. My favorite line: “Hell is not punishment, it’s training.” There are now a number of Suzuki’s talks available on Youtube, and they’re wonderful, not least for the opportunity to hear Suzuki dealing out his famous rough justice to the English language.
There was a mercifully brief period when Buddhism was discussed in the West as
a system of religious discipline with no real moral or ethical element. With the wide
popularity of works by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, I don’t imagine anyone
persists in that error, but two particularly vivid and readable books on Zen ethics are THE
MIND OF CLOVER (North Point Press) and THE PRACTICE OF PERFECTION
(Counterpoint) by Robert Aitken. Aitken is an American who was exposed to Zen by meeting R.H. Blyth in the internee camps during the war, and who later founded the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii; in his hale elder years, he is still producing good work, and most of his books are still in print; see also www.robertaitken.net.
R. H. Blyth was the author of ZEN IN ENGLISH LITERATURE AND ORIENTAL
CLASSICS, an Englishman who moved to Japan and whose books on the haiku are still
among the best on the topic. ZEN IN ENGLISH LITERATURE is a wild man’s book,
leaping about madly and certainly not orthodox in approach; but it’s got great stuff in it that I can’t imagine being written by an Easterner. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy or cheap to get hold of; the original Hokuseido Press edition and the Dutton paperback are both long out of print. Another title some reprint house should get hold of. Robert Aitken in his first published book, A ZEN WAVE: Basho’s Haiku and Zen (Weatherhill, 1978), showed himself very much Blyth’s able student: the book is a collection of Dharma talks based on the work of the greatest master of the haiku form, which manage to leave the poetry intact.
Gary Snyder called it “a superb book on Basho, real life and poetry all at once,” and he was right.
Zen with its ethical element stuffed in a box is the subject of Brian Victoria’s valiant and important book ZEN AT WAR (Weatherhill, 1997). Though Victoria’s specific subject is World War II, he supplies a cogent background as to how Buddhism had been co-opted into nationalist support and emperor-worship during the Meiji Restoration—so that, when Japanese aggression hit full flight in World War II, the Buddhist establishment, Shin and Shingon as well as Zen, went down like a house of cards. The near-absolute authority of the Buddhist teaching figure has always made me itchy and nervous, and I’ve often wondered what modification of that role will take place as Buddhism enters further into the egalitarian and pluralistic culture of America. For the famous scandal at the San Francisco Zen Center, read SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR: Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Dowling (Counterpoint Press, 2001); and, for local color, let us not forget that the Providence Zen Center has had its own ethical meltdowns, all politely forgotten when its head teacher, Seung Sahn, was being eulogized. But that was scandal from the top down, teachers imposing on foolish and vulnerable students; ZEN AT WAR is about knuckling under to (or being gulled by) authority, on an institutional scale. And Victoria casts a long-belated cold eye on the glamorization and rationalization of the Samurai ethos in its Zen connection, even bringing it forward to the latest fashion in misapplication, Corporate Zen. Victoria shows us, step by step, how it happens, and how it keeps on happening—read this book, and supply your own examples.
P.S. 2014: Teaching lineages, so important in Buddhism, sometimes get extended in the most unusual ways. Mitsu Suzuki, widow to Shunryu and such a touching presence in CROOKED CUCUMBER, is a master of the tea ceremony, seems to have acted as den mother to the Tassajara community, and, surprise of all surprises, is an accomplished poet in the haiku tradition. Someone once said of the Irish pennywhistle that it was an instrument that anyone could play but very few could play well; likewise the haiku, the number-one popular chance these days for someone to write bad poetry. Mitsu Suzuki’s first collection in translation, TEMPLE DUSK (Parallax Press, 1991, translated by Gregory Wood) is lovely, with one fine poem after another; her second, A WHITE TEA BOWL, translated by Kate McCandless and published by Rodmell Press in honor of Suzuki’s hundredth birthday on April 23, 2014, is as good a collection as any I’ve read by any contemporary practitioner. Splendid work.