Books in Brief Summer 2003

Joan Duncan Oliver

Though Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, died in 1971, his influence lives on, as books by his students—and his students’ students—continue to roll out. Among the latest: No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen (Harmony Books, March, $18.95, cloth) by Jakusho (Bill) Kwong Roshi, one of Suzuki’s earliest students and one of his two designated heirs (transmission was cut short by the master’s death). This is Kwong Roshi’s first book, illustrated with his calligraphy and based on dharma talks delivered at his Sonoma Zen Center in Santa Rosa, California, and affiliate zendos in Poland and Iceland.
No Beginning is intended to be a companion piece to Suzuki Roshi’s classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The format is similar: short chapters, each headed by a pithy quote, organized into three sections roughly paralleling the process of awakening through Zen practice. Kwong’s teachings, in their intimacy and simplicity, evoke Suzuki’s sensibility.

The voice, however, is Kwong’s own. Alongside traditional Zen teaching tales are personal stories drawing on his forty years of Zen practice, as well as lessons from family and contemporary life. The anecdotes about Suzuki Roshi are fresh and illuminating; as Thich Nhat Hanh points out in his foreword, Kwong’s abiding love for his teacher is evident throughout. No Beginning may not achieve the iconic status of Zen Mind (which has sold over a million copies since its publication in 1970), but it is a pleasing introduction to Zen life, and to a wise and unassuming teacher.

Kwong Roshi’s editor, poet Peter Levitt, brings the perspective of his own longtime Zen practice to the process of making art in Fingerpainting on the Moon: Writing and Creativity as a Path to Freedom (Harmony Books, May, $21.00, cloth). “Creative acts . . . [bring] us face to face with our true nature,” Levitt notes.

Another teacher in Suzuki’s lineage, Zen monk and poet Norman Fischer—co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000—looks at what it means to be mature in Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up (Harper San Francisco, May, $23.95, cloth). Asked to mentor four adolescent boys in the Zen community, Fischer met with them over a two-year period. Together, they explored qualities that define maturity—responsibility, experience, self-acceptance, love, stability, strength—as well as spiritual practices that might help one achieve it, from active listening and forgiveness to meditation and chanting. Like Fischer’s three-year-old Everyday Zen Foundation, the focus here is on bringing the dharma into daily life, for as broad an audience as possible.

Longtime practitioners may wish for a deeper investigation of such a complex subject—or at least more on what the Buddha thought. Fischer identifies maturity—growing into “the fullness of our humanity”—as the fruit of spiritual practice, but offers few specifics for cultivating it: “There is no last word. Maturity must be contemplated by each of us thoughtfully, and through action, as our lives unfold.” This may be the book’s ultimate wisdom: It raises that all-important question “What are we supposed to be doing with this life?” but in true Zen fashion, leaves us to find our own answers. A book, after all, is only a finger pointing at the moon.

Yet another branch of Suzuki’s lineage flows through Greens, the gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco that Zen Center opened in 1979. Executive chef Annie Somerville has followed up her award-winning Field of Greens with Everyday Greens (Scribner, May, $35.00, cloth). Illustrated with woodcuts by longtime Zen Center member Mayumi Oda, the cookbook offers advice on preparing exotic vegetables, pairing wines with greens, and composting, along with recipes.
Food plays an important role in Buddhist community life. For the cook, practice can be rigorous—and humbling. In Buddha’s Kitchen: Cooking, Being Cooked, and Other Adventures in a Meditation Center (Shambhala, May, $18.95, cloth) is Kimberley Snow’s amusing and insightful tell-all memoir of trading a high-powered job as an executive chef for the enlightening chaos of a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center kitchen.

Snow’s challenges, however, pale next to those of Georges B. J. Dreyfus, a Williams College religion professor who spent fifteen years studying in the traditional Tibetan monastic system. Entering Namgyal, the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala, in 1970, Dreyfus became the first Westerner to complete the rigorous Gelug curriculum and earn the geshe designation. Part memoir, part scholarly exposition, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (University of California Press, January, $60.00, cloth; $24.95, paper) gives us a rare, in-depth look at daily life in a Tibetan monastic college and the course of study followed by the monks. The title refers to the method of intellectual debate central to Tibetan Buddhist scholarship, in contrast to the “mystical sound of one hand clapping” that characterizes the more intuitive practice of Zen koan study.

Few Westerners are likely to follow in Dreyfus’s footsteps, but this peek behind the monastic curtain is riveting nonetheless—not least for finally answering the question of how Tibetan monks can memorize and recite hundreds upon hundreds of scrolls of religious text.

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