For students of Buddhism who own a dog-eared copy of "Zen Mind," the arrival of Suzuki's "Branching Streams in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai," edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger (University of California Press, $22.50), is a long-awaited and welcome event. For anyone just discovering him, this sequel, as well as last year's "Crooked Cucumber" (the excellent and intimate biography by David Chadwick), gives an ample view of Suzuki's life and teachings. Though the new book is a marked departure in both tone and style from the less formal, more free-flowing and spacious structure of "Zen Mind," it nevertheless delivers an abundance of Suzuki's familiar razor-sharp insights, clear intimacy, humor, and simple wisdom. The book is a sturdy complement to the earlier classic and an easy reminder of Suzuki's prominence in American Zen.
"Branching Streams" is culled from a series of talks given by Suzuki on a challenging, 22-couplet Chinese poem called the Sandokai, written by the eighth-century Zen master Sekito Kisen (Chinese: Shitou Xiqian). Suzuki presented the talks at Tassajara a year and a half before his death. In fact, many Zen masters have lectured on the poem shortly before their deaths, and Suzuki may have been forecasting his own to his students.
Sekito wrote the poem as an admonishment to two warring Zen factions, the Northern School of Chinese Zen (which thought gradual enlightenment was better) and the Southern School (which believed in sudden enlightenment). Sekito thought both arguments were trivial and way off the mark. As Suzuki explains, with a heated directness familiar from "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind": "In [Sekito's] time, the Zen world was too noisy, so he became very angry. 'Shut up!' is what he said, actually. So I shouldn't talk so long. Maybe it's already been too long. Excuse me."
"Branching Streams" is organized around Suzuki's line-by-line examination of the poem, with each talk dedicated to a particular set of lines. The text-based structure is what lends this volume its more formal tone. Yet within the unfolding commentary, we find Suzuki playfully and spontaneously urging us to drop our habituated thinking and let go into the discipline and freedom of the moment.
Most significantly, Suzuki vigorously demonstrates that the Sandokai is not merely an archaic prescriptive for solving political disputes but is, in its essence, the exposition and ultimately the disintegration of all our notions of duality, which Zen training seeks to explode: self and other, dependent and independent, enlightenment and no enlightenment.
One of the many jewels contained in "Branching Streams" is the question and answer sessions at the end of nearly every chapter. These dialogues between student and teacher give a taste of Suzuki's subtle, humorous, and deceptively simple teaching style while highlighting the many difficulties of modern Zen training--which haven't changed much over the years. Students still have problems with aching knees, with wandering minds, with dragging themselves out of bed at 4:30 in the morning. Suzuki cuts to the heart of the matter, as in the following exchange:
Student: When I am fully awake I have, maybe, a little control over my
desires, but in the morning--
Suzuki Roshi: In the morning you have trouble. I know that. So that is why I say, "Get up!" [Knocks on the table.]
Student: How do you do that?
Suzuki Roshi: Just do it. Or someone will come and hit you! [growls]
Suzuki eventually ran away, too--to America. He came as an oddity--for him a familiar role--and perhaps because of this, he had a boundless compassion for and understanding of the quirky mix that made up his American students. He gave us a new way of looking at things and at ourselves. With "Branching Streams," we are given this gift once again, along with a fundamental Suzuki lesson: Zen is not contained within books and letters but is alive and breathing, transcending even language itself. "Things-as-it-is," Suzuki entreats us, "things-as-it-is."