What it is: This book is a transcription of talks on Zen Buddhist practice that Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki delivered to a small sitting group in Los Altos California in 1970. He came down from San Francisco once a week to join the group’s meditation periods, and afterwards gave shorts talks to encouraged the students in their practice of Zen, help them to have a larger perspective on their lives, and to answer their questions concerning Zen, spirituality, meditation, and life. His approach was informal, and he drew his examples from ordinary events and common sense as well as from Zen Buddhist tradition.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was a Soto Zen priest who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. He was born 1904 in rural Japan, arrived in the United States to teach in 1959, and passed away in San Francisco in 1971. Suzuki Roshi’s son, a Zen master in his own right, described him as “soft and warm on the outside, hard as stone [in his self-discipline and Buddhist commitment] on the inside”.
Description: I have read many Buddhist books, and this one, I suppose I would say, is my favorite. In fact, I have read many books (full stop), and this one is my favorite. ZMBM is mystical and otherworldly yet also day-to-day ordinary, it is philosophical and technical yet also beautifully poetic and literary, it is challenging and demands your best yet is also gentle and patient, it is traditional yet also modern, it is serious and sincere yet also light-hearted and easy, it is simple yet also deep, it is Japanese yet also American.
Steven Mitchell included excerpts from ZMBM in his anthological collection of traditional “enlightened” writings called “The Enlightened Mind”, and it’s easy to see why. My perspective is that these words emerge from the still silent heart of genuine spiritual liberation.
Anecdote: Suzuki Roshi was purportedly a small man with a wry and sometimes mischievous sense of humor. There is a story that he was once being transported between Zen temples by a Zen student driver who was known for being a hard line vegetarian. The two of them stopped for lunch, and Suzuki Roshi ordered a burger. Eventually, he took a bite of his own burger and, with a smile, said “I don’t like this. Let’s switch.” He picked up the student’s grilled-cheese sandwich and his and then exchanged them.
Potential Turn-Offs: If you’re into depth, clarity, beauty, and profundity, this is a good book for you. I actually can’t think of any potential turn-offs … perhaps if you have declared jihad on all religions besides your own?
What You Got Out Of It: In the twenty years since I first read it, every time I pick up this book and read a chapter or three, I get something out of it that speaks powerfully and directly to what is going on in my life. The relevant information is usually simultaneously simple, obvious, and everyday-decent, and yet also magical, deep, and paradoxical. I have noticed that my favorite books seem to change, growing deeper as the years go on and as I grew deeper. ZMBM was the first book that I ever noticed changing as I did. I look forward to seeing what as yet undiscovered treasures it will hold for me twenty or thirty years from now.