The Birth of Western Dharma
Norman Fischer reviews the Fortieth Anniversary editions of two modern classics.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Fortieth Anniversary Edition)
by Shunryu Suzuki | Afterword by David Chadwick
Shambhala Publications, 2010; 176 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
Meditation in Action (Fortieth Anniversary Edition)
by Chögyam Trungpa | Afterword by Samuel Bercholz
Shambhala Publications, 2010; 128 pp., $14 (paper)
many young Buddhist practitioners in the 1970s, I read these books
again and again when they first appeared. Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Chögyam Trungpa’s Meditation in Action were
not like anything I had read before. Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche
were neither literary magicians nor spiritual tricksters. Their
teachings did not sound exotic or exciting. Instead, they spoke
directly, in a no-frills way, about the liberating truths they had
discovered in their own practice—and that we too could discover. Yet the
truths they spoke of seemed essentially elusive. I read the books with
the odd sense that I understood immediately what these great masters
were talking about—yet, at the same time, that I was continually
Though the experience of reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Meditation in Action
may not be the same forty years later as it was then, both books have
remained in print since their original publication. Both have continued
to be read with a sense of discovery, decade after decade. Both are
simple, brief, informal texts that express the first powerful blush of
the transplantation of the Buddhist teachings in the West.
is no accident that neither text was actually written by its author. As
David Chadwick mentions in his excellent Afterword to the new fortieth
anniversary edition of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,
Suzuki Roshi, on seeing the first copies of his book remarked, “Looks
like a good book. But I didn’t write it.” Both books are edited
transcriptions of intimate talks given to committed students. In a very
real sense, they are collaborations between teacher and students.
Although both teachers were already experienced masters of their
respective traditions, they were rediscovering those traditions through
their encounters with Western students, whose innocent preconceptions,
however confused, inspired the masters to new ways of seeing and
expressing what they had long ago digested in another context. It is
also quite significant that both teachers spoke the texts of their books
directly in English. They were literally discovering a new idiom as
When Meditation in Action first appeared in 1969 (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
following in 1970), there was already a small but potent literature on
Buddhism available in English. Alan Watts’ lively Zen books were
bestsellers, and the literary works of Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Allen
Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac made Buddhism culturally current. D.T.
Suzuki’s works of Zen philosophy were enormously influential, and Philip
Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen
established that Westerners could practice Zen. Walter Evans-Wentz and
Lama Govinda wrote of the magical side of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
all these works in one way or another assumed an “exotic wisdom of the
East” stance; none came out of an on-the-ground involvement with Western
students practicing in the West. By 1969-70, both Suzuki Roshi and
Trungpa Rinpoche were deeply engaged in Western practice centers. This
made their books completely different from those that preceded them.
They necessarily presented Buddhism as ordinary daily practice, rather
than idealized doctrine, philosophy, or mysticism. Both teachers knew
enough about their students to teach to their condition, and to want to
puncture their romantic projections. And both presented basic,
nitty-gritty meditation practice as foundational.
Trungpa Rinpoche was born in 1940 in Tibet. Recognized as a reincarnate
teacher when he was thirteen months old, by the time he was a teenager
he was head of a large monastic establishment. With the Chinese
Communist takeover of Tibet in 1959, he fled to India, and from there
went to Oxford, where he mastered English, Westernized, and later
disrobed. An exceptionally brilliant young man catapulted into a jarring
new world, he was quite wild, interested, and ready for anything. He
brought that wide-open improvisational spirit to his teaching and
practice with Western students. The pages of Meditation In Action
bristle with a sense of discovery and youthful daring, as if Trungpa
Rinpoche were taking apart what he’d learned in Tibet and putting it
back together again for and with the students who had come to him.
Roshi was a much older man who’d spent his life as an ordinary Soto Zen
priest in Japan. Born in 1904 into a temple family, he too was steeped
in Buddhism from the beginning. Suzuki’s monastic training at Eihei-ji,
the headquarters temple of the Soto sect, had lasted only a short while
because he needed to return home to tend the family temple. He had
studied at a Buddhist university with leading Soto priests who were
exploring the writings of the sect’s founder, Eihei Dogen, with an
emphasis on how Japanese religion could meet the challenge of the modern
Roshi had studied English early on, and dreamed of a chance to go to
America, where zazen practice as Dogen described it might interest
people. In 1959 he accepted a temporary position at a temple in San
Francisco’s Japantown (not a good career move, from the Japanese point
of view). He remained in America for the rest of his life, eventually
leaving the Japanese-American community to found the San Francisco Zen
Center. Like Trungpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi’s teaching was
improvisational and experimental, though in a far less dramatic way.
Outwardly he was quite conservative. He seems clearly to have been
inspired and amused by his young students.
Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche realized that the transfer of dharma
to the West would require that Buddhism itself transform—and that this
was a good thing. Both had a keen sense of the historical moment. This
feeling is clear in every page of the books. Before Suzuki Roshi and
Trungpa Rinpoche, a few Buddhist teachers had begun Western groups but
nothing had stuck. After them the way was clear for many new and
successful groups. The communities they founded—the San Francisco Zen
Center and its lineage affiliates and the worldwide Shambhala
communities—remain among the largest and most important Buddhist groups
in the West.
two teachers knew and appreciated each other. Trungpa Rinpoche made an
early visit to Tassajara, the Zen monastery Suzuki founded in 1967, and
found in the older man an echo of his own Tibetan teachers. He said it
was a great relief to meet such a wise and mature master who felt that
practicing Buddhism seriously with Westerners was actually possible.
Returning home, Trungpa Rinpoche adapted some of the Zen customs he
learned from Suzuki Roshi, and put the roshi’s picture on the altars at
his practice centers.
his part, Suzuki was deeply sympathetic to the young Tibetan, and
despite the solid, almost monotonous quality of his own practice,
appreciated the exciting flash and brilliance of his young colleague. In
the early 1970s, when I began to practice Zen in San Francisco, just
after Suzuki Roshi’s death, Trungpa Rinpoche often came through town.
Many of us from Zen Center would attend his talks and some traveled to
Boulder to meet him, a few remaining to become his students.
many of the Asian teachers of that time (and today) felt that it would
take many generations for Westerners to understand Buddhism, and so
carefully named Asian successors, it was a key point for both Trungpa
Rinpoche and Suzuki Roshi that their successors be Westerners. Both
chose charismatic and able Western leaders to follow them, and in both
cases the organizations continued successfully for some years, only to
eventually experience painful upheavals that resulted in the dismissal
of both successors. Looking back on this now, with a forty-year
perspective, it seems that these tumultuous transitions were probably
inevitable. How could the subtle transmission of a religion across such a
huge cultural divide not entail troubling complications? And how could
the loss of two such extraordinary men, in these circumstances, not be
traumatic? But both sanghas matured and strengthened as a result of the
tragedies, and are now, perhaps more than other Western sanghas,
naturalized in their cultures.
Many readers of the Sun are probably familiar with Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Its editors, Richard Baker and Trudy Dixon, carefully organized Suzuki
Roshi’s easygoing talks into three main sections (Right Practice, Right
Attitude, Right Understanding), with about a dozen short, titled pieces
in each section. Each piece is preceded by a short quotation lifted from
the body of the piece, as if the title and the quotation were a summary
of it, but this is never really the case. Suzuki Roshi’s words seem to
meander naturally, without topic sentences or consistent argument. The
book does not follow traditional teachings nor comment on traditional
practices. Suzuki Roshi seems to be musing out loud to his students
about life and practice, and yet there is a sense of direction and
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
is almost uncanny in its ability to surprise and delight. Sometimes I
think I know the Zen teaching Suzuki Roshi is referring to; other times I
am stopped in my tracks—What! Where did that come from?
The book’s oddly paradoxical nature (though Suzuki doesn’t make a point
of this, it is always present) flows naturally from his nondual
teaching. There is no goal and no means. Enlightenment and the path to
enlightenment are the same thing: practice is
enlightenment, and practice/enlightenment is life. So practice is not
as much something to do or hold in mind as it is the letting go of
anything to do or hold in mind.
Meditation in Action
seems on the surface to be a much more pointed and organized text. It
is divided into seven chapters with straightforward descriptive Buddhist
titles like Patience, Meditation, Wisdom. Each chapter seems to be
about its intended topic, and more or less is. But like Suzuki Roshi,
Trungpa Rinpoche is always making the point that what you think is
wisdom, or patience, or meditation, isn’t what that thing actually is.
Practice, he is saying, isn’t something that gets you from point A to
point B. Maybe you aren’t at point A to begin with, and the point B you
think you are aiming for probably doesn’t exist anyway.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind you feel the quiet voice of a kind roshi; Meditation in Action’s
voice is that of a sharply intelligent master of the teachings. Oddly,
despite the fact that he often uses picturesque stories from the Tibetan
tradition, Trungpa Rinpoche’s voice doesn’t sound at all Tibetan. It
comes across as the opposite of pious or wise in the conventional sense.
It’s sharp, witty, almost cynical, even as it speaks of compassion and
kindness. There is an almost aggressive anti-sentimentalism.
books in their anniversary editions include new Afterwords by students—
his biographer David Chadwick for Suzuki Roshi, and Samuel Bercholz,
the founder of Shambhala Publications, for Trungpa Rinpoche—who can
speak personally to the histories of these great texts and their
authors. In many ways, the basic foundational understandings of Western
Buddhism were established by the terms and attitudes of these seminal
texts, which is why they are as readable and valuable now as they were
Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer is founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation. He served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000 and has written many books of prose and poetry.
From the January 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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