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Crooked Cucumber Comes to America

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Mitsu once asked him, “What are you thinking about all the time?” “How to establish Buddhism in America,” he answered.

From an early age Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese monk, dreamed of bringing Buddhism, as he understood it, to the West, the way of his teachers and ancestors. He not only dreamed, he studied hard, prepared, struggled, suffered, and matured. It took so long to come true he almost gave up his dream. He later said it was good he hadn’t gone earlier, for he wasn’t yet ripe. And neither was America.

On May 23, 1959, Suzuki descended from a prop plane in San Francisco and took his first step in the United States. After clearing customs he was met by a group of older Japanese Americans who came to greet their new priest. No mistaking him. He wore Japanese priest’s robes and had a shaved head. He was exceedingly short—less than five feet, soft-spoken, unimposing. A young Japanese priest in a suit drove Suzuki to the temple in Japantown where he would live. It was a distinctive old cavernous wooden building, once a synagogue. A plaque in front read Sokoji, Soto Zen Mission. His bedroom was a small room without windows above his second floor office. He used a bathtub in the basement.

Fifteen blocks and twelve and a half years from that spring day, his Western successor by his side, Suzuki died, and “became American soil,” as he had phrased it. The impact of what he accomplished in that short time still radiates.

With enthusiasm he studied English in school, at home, even tutored it, and used it extensively in college. His father was a Zen priest and young Shunryu grew up in a poor temple. He left home to be a monk at about the age of twelve. His strict master, So-on, called him Crooked Cucumber, a put-down referring to the tiny twisted runt fruit at the curling end of the vine. Even as Suzuki grew up, So-on would say he felt sorry for him because he’d never have any good disciples. He had no Japanese disciples except for two nominal ones—his eldest son and the son of a friend—for purposes of passing on his two temples. During the war, however, lay students who lived and meditated with him continued to meet and honor him for decades. They described his temple as a beacon of light in those dark times. Suzuki’s many responsibilities in neighboring temples included instruction to monks in training. After the war he opened two kindergartens and conducted local meetings for young people. He studied from the early thirties to the fifties with a second teacher, the greatly respected master and scholar Kishizawa Ian, who lived in a sub-temple of Suzuki’s Rinsoin in Yaizu.