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absolutely everything, in a nutshell

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This is a story told in the biography of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. It gives an exquisite taste of a master’s wisdom.

One night … I sat among fifty black-robed fellow students … at Zen Mountain Center  … deep in the mountain wilderness. The kerosene lamplight illuminated our breath in the winter air of the unheated room. … Shunryu Suzuki-roshi had concluded a lecture from his seat on the altar platform. “Thank you very much,” he said softly, with a genuine feeling of gratitude. He took a sip of water, cleared his throat, and looked around at his students. “Is there some question?” he asked, just loud enough to be heard above the sound of the creek gushing by in the darkness outside.

cucumberI bowed, hands together, and caught his eye.

“Hai?” he said, meaning yes.

“Suzuki-roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” I said, “and I really love them, and they’re very inspiring, and I know that 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. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. He laughed. What a ludicrous question. I don’t think any of us expected him to answer it. He was not a man you could pin down, and he didn’t like to give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have “some idea” of what Buddhism was.

But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said, “Everything changes.” Then he asked for another question.

source: Chadwick, D. (1999). Crooked cucumber: the life and teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. Broadway Books, p. xi – xvinotes: abbreviations added; roshi means ‘old master’ in Japanese; Suzuki’s best-known book is Zen mind, beginner’s mind (1970, Weatherhill). 


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