Review of ‘Not Always So’ by Shunryu Suzuki

Suzuki Roshi

I’m nearly done with my first read through of Not Always So by Shunryu Suzuki. This was a Zen master who worked on the west coast and founded the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which I heard a lot about when I was growing up out there but unfortunately never visited. He is also the author of the more celebrated Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which I read a long time ago and will now seek out again. This one isn’t really a book he wrote; it is a collection of his transcribed lectures (and ‘translated’ a bit with some degree of poetic but presumably faithful latitude, since Suzuki Roshi’s English was quirky to say the least).

I imagine these talks would be quite difficult for someone who is beginning with Zen. One lovely aspect of this teaching is how it works to frustrate the intellectual mind, turning it around on itself, making it pursue its own tail. So the tales and the concepts whirl through paradox after paradox, often appearing contradictory on the surface. What he is really saying in a thousand ways here is: go and sit, expect nothing. Just live this practice, it is where you will return to your essence, but the more you crave “enlightenment” the less likely you will find it. And yet you must be focused! Okay, he says something like that, but in his words. However especially in the West, our minds want answers, we want gain and improvement, and he knows our grasping mind must be fed. It is obvious Suzuki Roshi cared for his students; some teachers react to the bewildered challenges of their students with the legendary gruffness of the Zen master, which may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but this particular master chose to meet those challenges with good humor and flights of remarkable lyric beauty. And he is always human, like someone you would love to know just as a person.

In the introduction editor Edward Espe Brown says, “Quite possibly Suzuki Roshi’s struggle to speak English invigorated his teaching.” Superficially this is an odd statement, but you will appreciate its truth as you encounter Mr. Suzuki’s refreshing and unique turns of phrase. It is almost as if he used his imperfect grasp of this second language to assist in transmitting his enigmatic but pure and true teaching with a new flavor. I think if you naturally are drawn to the Zen style you will love this book.

PS – Someone asked if I could include a sample of his writing to illustrate my points. Actually, I gave the book back to the library. But I had copied a few pages for possible use in a yoga class. It’s not the best example of his odd use of language, but I like this passage, for reasons I will explain afterward:

“This morning when we were bowing in the zendo, we heard a big noise overhead because upstairs in the dining room people were pushing chairs across the tile floor without picking them up. This is not the way to treat chairs, not only because it may disturb the people who are bowing in the zendo underneath, but also because fundamentally this is not a respectful way to treat things.

“To push the chairs across the floor is very convenient, but it will give us a lazy feeling. Of course this kind of laziness is part of our culture, and it eventually causes us to fight with each other. Instead of respecting things, we want to use them for ourselves, and if it is difficult to use them, we want to conquer them. This kind of idea does not accord with the spirit of practice.”

So I like this passage in part because my wife has been chastising me for quite some time because I tend to push the chairs at our dining table around the floor without picking them up. I read the passage to her and pointed out that it’s not the first time that my dry secular-appearing love has been revealed as my spiritual master. She laughed. It is true what he’s saying, though, we need to treat everything in this world with respect, or it will lead to that old lazy feeling, which we cling to but isn’t good for us.

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2 Responses to Review of ‘Not Always So’ by Shunryu Suzuki

  1. m lewis redford says:

    ah, but you missed the best – (paraphrased): there are two words that sum up Zen: not always so!

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