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Simple words for Zen living

by Leza Lowitz

TO SHINE ONE CORNER OF THE WORLD: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki (Stories of a Zen Master Told by His Students), edited by David Chadwick. Broadway Books, 2001, 144 pp., $16.95 (cloth)

Is it possible to impart the wisdom of Zen through words? Or are the lessons of mindful living communicable through action? Perhaps both. Like a temple bell that strikes through air to the heart of sound, the anecdotes and quotes in “To Shine One Corner of the World” offer humor, wisdom, enlightenment and the perfect example of a Zen life: that of Soto Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki, who helped introduce thousands of Americans to Zen.

Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in 1959, and quickly attracted many students throughout the Bay Area. In 1967, “Suzuki Roshi” (Teacher Suzuki) moved to the Zen Mountain Center in Tassajara Springs, Monterey County, the first Buddhist monastery for Westerners and the first mixed-sex facility anywhere. That’s where many of the anonymous encounters of this book, collected and edited by Suzuki student and biographer David Chadwick, took place.

Suzuki founded the City Zen Center in San Francisco, where he served as abbot until he died in 1971. He’s also well known for the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” which introduced thousands of Westerners to Zen meditation in the 1960s. But, as Chadwick states, “Suzuki’s main teaching was silent — the way he picked up a teacup or met someone walking on a path or in a hallway, or how he joined with his students in work, meals and meditations.” But when he spoke, he made a definite impression: Flip through the book at random and you will find one of Suzuki’s gems on every page.

As well as being an instruction manual for living your Zen outside the meditation hall, “To Shine One Corner of the World” also provides a vivid glimpse of the 1960s Bay Area Zen scene. “One morning when we were all sitting zazen, Suzuki Roshi gave an impromptu talk in which he said, ‘Each of you is perfect the way you are . . . and you can use a little improvement.’ “

These quips of Suzuki’s are really traditional Zen koan in contemporary clothing. Perhaps due to language difficulty, he often spoke in a shorthand that cut like a laser beam through the ego, and seemed particularly adept at debunking Western myths about Zen and enlightenment. For example, when an earnest student asks during a private interview, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Suzuki Roshi answered, “It doesn’t matter.” Another student recounts: “Once I asked Suzuki Roshi, ‘What is nirvana?’ He replied: ‘Seeing one thing through to the end.’ “

Suzuki offered no easy path to satori, nor was he a saint. “To Shine One Corner of the World” reveals him to be a kind, entertaining, inspirational man who was more of a button-down grandfather than a brocade sensei. In the end, he was the fallible human soul inside us all.

These brief encounters may not have seemed like life-changing wisdom at the time, but in passing them on, Suzuki’s former students pay homage to their teacher and share how deeply the lessons of his life and teachings live on today. “Now and then Suzuki Roshi would make this point: ‘In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says to light up one corner — not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are.’ ” That Suzuki did, and more.