As the ancient story goes, when the Buddha first awakened he was reluctant to tell anyone. Because he knew what he’d learned on the path to Awakening was subtle and hard to see, he was hesitant to teach others that they too could wakeup. He thought at first that teaching just might be too difficult and disappointing. The Buddha feared that teaching the Dharma might bring him only heartburn and headache.
“To be personally experienced by the wise.”
Nevertheless, he began to teach. And as he taught he learned there were indeed many people capable of seeing, understanding, and practicing his teaching and many people experienced the same Awakening he did as a result of his teaching. Consequently, the Buddha developed skillful ways of teaching that includes many various colorful and pointed metaphors and analogies to make the point of his teaching as clear and as simple as possible, at least to those who heard him in his time.
Soon he lost his hesitation and described his Dharma like this: “The Dharma is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise.”
Humble, Gentle, Devoted
As many of you know, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was a Japanese Soto Zen priest who was an important Zen teacher in the last century and one of the first Dharma teachers from the East to make America his home. Significantly, his presence in this country changed our spiritual landscape.
By all accounts Suzuki had a humble, gentle, winning personality. He was an accomplished Zen practitioner and teacher who came to America at a time when many people hungered for spiritual awakening and few people before they met him had any direct experience with the Buddha’s teachings.
In addition, and definitely because of the gentleness and strength of his personality and practice, Suzuki Roshi also founded the San Francisco Zen Center. And that institution has become the cornerstone of what many people in American Zen lightheartedly refer to today, with much admiration and a dash of envy, as the San Francisco Zenpire.
Fortunately, even sadness changes.
David Chadwick was one of Suzuki Roshi’s first American students. He is also an accomplished writer whose biography of Suzuki was published in 1999. I started reading Suzuki’s biography early last week. And, much to my surprise, my imagination has been more or less stuck in the book’s first scene since. I can’t get past it because the scene seems so true, and familiar, and, although it ends well, I find it deeply sad because the scene is like a bridge to memories of a time when I was a deeply confused, frustrated and often puzzled Zen student. But fortunately even sadness changes.
Before I go into describing this scene and sharing how it resonates with me, let me say that I have great respect for David Chadwick and Suzuki Roshi. Also, I know that one book scene, a scene that’s less than a page long, is not something to judge anyone’s merit as a teacher or as a student by. I know the scene represents a mere blip of edited and abstracted time.
Furthermore, for years I’ve read and appreciated Suzuki’s books.
Though I have to say that what comes through to me most clearly in his books is his gentleness, patience, humor, simplicity, and steadfast devotion to practice. And, the fact that these qualities come through in his teachings means, for me at least, that Suzuki was a gifted teacher. He was able to communicate the wisdom, compassion, and integrity that emerged in his life through his practice.
Early in my life as a Zen practitioner I fell in love with what I felt was the warmth and directness of Suzuki’s character. On the other hand, I did not much understand the point of his words in his books. At least I did not understand much beyond the thought that he seemed to be encouraging me to take total responsibility for my life. And, at the time in my life when I first read him, this was a useful and necessary thing for me to hear. But no, overall I did not find the Buddha Dharma in Suzuki Roshi’s books directly visible, immediate, or accessible.
Of course I’m sure many other people had and still have a different experience, perhaps a more complete and whole experience.
Today, I continue to read Suzuki’s books and what I understand in them now is, I think, is a result of me connecting what he says to what the Buddha taught in the Pali Canon, the earliest teachings we have from the historical Buddha. For me at least, the teachings of the Buddha illuminate what Suzuki Roshi says in his books. Nevertheless, there’s still quite a bit in them I don’t understand.
Now let’s return the scene I’m stuck on in David’s book.
In the scene, Chadwick asks Suzuki to sum up the Buddha’s teaching “in a nutshell.” He needs a summary explanation because he says, “I’ve been listening to your lectures for years… and I really love them, and they’re very inspiring, and I know what you’re talking about is actually very clear and simple. But I must admit I just don’t understand. I love it, but I feel like I could listen to you for a thousand years and still not get it.” That is, after years, Chadwick is still struggling sincerely to orient himself in Zen’s approach to the practice of Buddhism.
For me, this part of the scene is painfully sad because it takes me back to my first Zen teacher who also gave Dharma talks and teachings that were inspiring and poetic yet often confusing and sometimes incomprehensible because he prized the cryptic style of the Japanese Zen tradition in his talks and teaching.
Students should not have to struggle for years on end to understand the fundamentals of the Buddha’s teachings.
These talks often provided me with much good feeling and inspiration, but little insight into the substantive content of the Buddha’s Dharma or into the many methods of practice he taught. And seeing Chadwick in this position, though it was long ago, is incredibly sad to me because I believe students should not have to struggle for years on end to understand the fundamentals of the Buddha’s teachings, especially today when there are so many wonderful books from teachers in all the traditions available to us.
Adding to what I experience as the depressing atmosphere of the scene, Chadwick reports that when he asked his question there were fifty other students in the room. They all laughed. Suzuki laughed, too. And Chadwick explains that they laughed because his was “a ludicrous question” that no one expected Suzuki to answer.
Dolefully, I recognize this as the laughter of my younger self and as laughter from students I studied with. Our teacher taught that for the most part the Dharma was enigmatic beyond words. And whenever a student asked simply and sincerely for clarity on some point of doctrine, the group response was often laughter at his or her supposed naiveté. What I’m describing is not an environment that encourages trust or supports open exploration and learning.
Why didn’t Suzuki’s students expect an answer? The Buddha’s students in the Canon always expect an answer from him or from a leading disciple. And the Buddha often gave summations of his teachings in a nutshell. Here’s an example of a summation he gave to a student who asked for a nutshell-like summary of his teaching. “There is nothing whatsoever worth clinging to as me, myself or mine.” That pithy saying really gets directly to the heart of the teaching, no?
“Not a man to pin down.”
According to Chadwick, Suzuki “was not a man you could pin down, and he didn’t give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have “some idea” of what Buddhism was.”
My heart aches to say I know this view of the teacher, the ineffable one, teaching us not to have fixed ideas about Buddhism, not to be attached to any definite meaning, and then not clearly teaching us the core of the Dharma. Many students wasted so much time over many years with my first teacher. It’s terribly sad to me. And Chadwick’s scene painfully reawakens this memory in me.
It’s additionally woeful to me because now at least I know that Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism both have well-developed and straightforward approaches to teaching the Dharma and I know their various teaching styles generally esteem clarity, directness, and simplicity.
The Secret of Buddhism. The Secret of Soto Zen
Finally, the bright spot in Chadwick’s scene: to the amazement of all those present, Suzuki did answered the question. He said Buddhism teaches, in a nutshell, “Everything changes.”
Everything changes. This is one way the Buddha himself put it when asked to present his Dharma in brief. “Everything is impermanent.”
Another student from the earliest days of Suzuki’s time in America, Ed Brown, put together a book of Suzuki’s Dharma talks that was published in 2002. There’s a talk in that book where Roshi shows us his humor and humanity while he gives an account of the Buddha’s Dharma in brief. In a nutshell he says,
“The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: “Not always so.” Oops-three words in English. In Japanese, two words. “Not always so.” This is the secret of the teaching.”
So here again we see Suzuki Roshi pointing his students to the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence as a key insight at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. I think, in fact, that Suzuki Roshi did this often. But it was difficult for us to hear.
Today there are many Zen teachers like Jan Chozen Bays, Norman Fischer, John Bailes, Ben Connolly, Joan Halifax, and of course Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a few, who write and teach in a clear, straight forward style. Everything changes and we have much to be thankful for.
If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to the SHZ Blog on our home page. It’s free. sweepingheartzen.org
Please visit a Sweeping Heart Zen event. We’re in historic Gloucester on Boston’s North Shore. Here’s a link to our calendar: sweepingheartzen.org/events/
Have a wonderful week!