Zen: Shunryu Suzuki

suzuki2I have been immersing myself in the teachings of this modern Zen master and have posted some of these already on this blog in the last week or so. Here is some information about Shunryu Suzuki-roshi which I feel will help the readers deepen their appreciation for his teachings. This post today and the short video (4:05) below of Shunryu Suzuki speaking to his students is preparation for a longer post I am working on and hope to publish tomorrow or Sunday. I can confirm that I gain more insights into such teachings when know more about the teacher and also have the opportunity to taste the flavor of their speech to their students. There is a kind of direct transmission that helps to unlock their written words even more. Therefore I warmly recommend that those interested in joining me to explore zen in this way take the time and watch the video below. Thank you!

“For most readers, the book will be an example of how a Zen master talks and teaches. It will be a book of instruction about how to practice Zen, about Zen life, and about the attitudes and understanding that make Zen practice possible. For any reader, the book will be an encouragement to realize his own nature, his own Zen mind.

Suzuki-roshi never talks about his past, but this much I have pieced together. He was the disciple of Gyokujun So-on-daiosho, one of the leading Soto Zen masters of the time. Of course he had other teachers too, one of whom emphasized a deep and careful understanding of the sutras. Suzuki roshi’s father was also a Zen master, and, while still a boy,

Suzuki began his apprenticeship under Gyokujun, a disciple of his father’s. Suzuki was acknowledged a Zen master when he was rather young, I think at about the age of thirty. His responsibility in Japan included many temples and a monastery, and he was responsible for rebuilding several temples.

During the Second World War he was the leader of a pacifist group in Japan. He had been interested in coming to America when he was young, but had long given up the idea when he was asked by a friend to go to San Francisco for one or two years to lead the Japanese Soto Buddhist congregation there. In 1958, when he was fifty-three, he came to America.

After postponing his return several times, he decided to stay in America. He stayed because he found that Americans have a beginner’s mind, that they have few preconceptions about Zen, are quite open to it, and confidently believe that it can help their lives. He found they question Zen in a way that gives Zen life. Shortly after his arrival several people stopped by and asked if they could study Zen with him. He said he did zazen early every morning and they could join him if they liked.”

“The following tribute from Trudy (a close disciple of Suzuki-roshi) to her teacher describes very well the relationship between Zen teacher and Zen student:

‘A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary— buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, serenity, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another’s whole way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness. Because he is just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are with him we feel our own strengths and shortcomings without any sense of praise or criticism from him. In his presence we see our original face, and the extraordinariness we see is only our own true nature. When we learn to let our own nature free, the boundaries between master and student disappear in a deep flow of being and joy in the unfolding of Buddha mind.’”

(excerpts from the Introduction to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by RICHARD BAKER)

“In Shunryu Suzuki’s book the words satori and kensho, its near-equivalent, never appear. When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him why satori didn’t figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and whispered impishly, ‘It’s because he hasn’t had it’; whereupon the Roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to his lips hissed, ‘Shhhh! Don’t tell him!’ When our laughter had subsided, he said simply, ‘It’s not that satori is unimportant, but it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.’ Suzuki-roshi was with us, in America, only twelve years— a single round in the East Asian way of counting years in dozens-—but they were enough. Through the work of this small, quiet man there is now a thriving Soto Zen organization on our continent. His life represented the Soto Way so perfectly that the man and the Way were merged. ‘His non-ego attitude left us no eccentricities to embroider upon. Though he made no waves and left no traces as a personality in the worldly sense, the impress of his footsteps in the invisible world of history lead straight on.’

(excerpt from the Preface to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by HUSTON SMITH, Professor of Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

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