Shunryu Suzuki at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 1966. Image courtesy SFZC.org.
When you do something,
you should burn yourself completely,
like a good bonfire,
leaving no trace of yourself.
When an influential Sōtō Zen teacher traveled from Japan to deliver those words to a group of American students in 1960s California, he may have been flashing back to a favorite childhood New Year’s Eve ritual.
In Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, the first full Western biography of any Zen master when it was published in 1999, author David Chadwick describes the atmosphere of Suzuki’s youth as “rich in ceremony, custom, and lore that defined the rules of life. Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, schools and families preserved and passed on stabilizing rituals that punctuated the year.”
Suzuki, who remained small throughout life (he measured four feet, eleven inches in adulthood), was born in 1904 in Shoganji, a Japanese country temple where his father served as priest. When he became a monk at the age of thirteen, he was nicknamed “Crooked Cucumber” by his master for a tendency toward goofy distraction.
Shunryu, often called Suzuki Roshi, didn’t attract a large following until he arrived in San Francisco in 1959. There he founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (home of the Tassajara Hot Springs in Los Padres National Forest), the Western world’s first Buddhist monastery, and died twelve years later in 1971.
A series of his talks eventually published as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the bestselling classic that introduced vast numbers of Americans to Zen Buddhist practice through profound insights delivered with a light touch, contains the bonfire teaching above.
In his biography, Chadwick -- who began study with Suzuki Roshi in 1966, was ordained by him in 1971, and compiled an oral history of his teacher’s life over more than three decades -- describes the “special delight” young Shunryu took in a particular New Year’s Eve ritual that might be at the root of that teaching. At the ring of a bell, village neighbors would come to his father’s temple to prepare an offering of sweet rice balls known as mochi.
“The children helped in the rite of renewal by collecting old decorations, small shrines, offerings, paper lanterns, and unneeded temple records,” Chadwick writes. “With their parents they took these old things to the neighborhood Shinto shrine on January first; there everything was piled high and mixed with what others had brought from their homes. Then on the night of the fourteenth they went to the shrine for a bonfire -- burning last year’s memories away and baking rice balls near the flames.”
In a talk he delivered on December 29, 1968, Suzuki Roshi recalled that total spiritual and physical cleansing, even of debts, for his American students:
“Moment after moment we should renew our life, we should not stick old ideas of what life is, or what our way of life is. Especially at the end of the year we should completely renew our feelings and completely clean even our cars. If we always stick to old ideas and always repeat the same thing over and over again, then we are confined in our old way of life. Some excitement or some occasion is necessary to encourage us along.” *
For the children of his boyhood village, that excitement was felt in “pounding the mochi in a hollowed tree stump till late at night” and “oil lamps and a wood fire in the kitchen [that] made the air taste smoky,” as Chadwick so vividly describes. For you, it might be in the clink of Champagne glasses, the embrace of a loved one, or the bliss of a solo midnight yoga practice as one year ends, and a new one begins. Whatever your ritual, may it stabilize and sweeten this ephemeral existence, even if just for a moment.
* Chadwick’s slightly edited excerpt of the talk from Crooked Cucumber.