Shunryu Suzuki: Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness

When Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind was published in 1972, it was enthusiastically embraced by Westerners eager for spiritual insight and knowledge of Zen. The book became the most successful treatise on Buddhism in English, selling more than one million copies to date. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness is the first follow-up volume to Suzuki Roshi's important work. Like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, it is a collection of lectures that reveal the insight, humor, and intimacy with Zen that made Suzuki Roshi so influential as a teacher.
The Sandokai--a poem by the eighth-century Zen master Sekito Kisen (Ch. Shitou Xiqian)--is the subject of these lectures. Given in 1970 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the lectures are an example of a Zen teacher in his prime elucidating a venerated, ancient, and difficult work to his Western students. The poem addresses the question of how the oneness of things and the multiplicity of things coexist (or, as Suzuki Roshi expresses it, "things-as-it-is"). Included with the lectures are his students' questions and his direct answers to them, along with a meditation instruction. Suzuki Roshi's teachings are valuable not only for those with a general interest in Buddhism but also for students of Zen practice wanting an example of how a modern master in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition understands this core text today.

This book is billed as a sequel to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki's classic collection of talks on Zen, but it stands on its own considerable merits as an eloquent, humorous series of lectures on the Sandokai, an eighth-century poem central to the Soto Zen tradition. These lectures show Suzuki, head priest of Tassajara monastery in California until his death in 1971, using his line-by-line exposition of the poem to illuminate what it means to practice Zen Buddhism. He stresses the simultaneity of the relative and the absolute, skillfully using words to direct his listeners toward understanding, all the while emphasizing that words are merely fingers pointing at the moon of enlightenment. Suzuki's devaluation of the verbal frees him to embrace humor and paradox as teaching methods; his examples range from ancient Chinese stories to anecdotes about weeding in the Tassajara garden and encountering an earwig. Readers of his previous book will be familiar with his earthy, clear, intense style. This book also conveys the texture of monastery life; it recounts 12 consecutive talks and includes the question-and-answer sessions at the end of each talk. These exchanges offer some of the most fascinating parts of an already excellent book, as they explicate some of the unclear points and illuminate the indirect yet confrontational quality of traditional Japanese Zen teaching.

Suzuki (1904^-1971) came to San Francisco in 1959, established the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the U.S., and wrote the seminal Zen text for Westerners, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1972). Toward the end of his life, Suzuki presented a series of talks based on the Sandokai, an eighth-century poem written by the Chinese Zen master Sekito Kisen. An elegant set of 22 couplets, it addresses a number of dichotomies, such as light and dark and sharp or dull, and it is chanted daily in Zen temples. In his cogent discussions and the question-and-answer sessions that follow--edited for publication by Mel Weitsman of the Berkeley Zen Center and Michael Wenger of the San Francisco Zen Center--Suzuki worked his way through the entire poem, expounding on the meanings of the Sandokai's imagery and its relevance to Buddhist practice and to life. The fact that one text can inspire a book's worth of philosophical thought and practical advice is testimony both to Buddhism's depths and to Suzuki's considerable gifts.