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August 26, 2010

What is Buddhism?

One Phrase

From the Introduction to
Crooked Cucumber,
The Life and Zen Teachings of
Shunryu Suzuki

By David Chadwick

Buddhism defined in two words.

One night in February of 1968, I sat among fifty black-robed fellow students, mostly young Americans, at Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara Springs, ten miles inland from Big Sur, California, deep in the mountain wilderness. The kerosene lamplight illuminated our breath in the winter air of the unheated room.

Before us the founder of the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere, Shunryu Suzuki, had concluded a lecture from his seat on the altar platform. “Thank you very much,” he said softly, with a genuine feeling of gratitude. He took a sip of water, cleared his throat, and looked at his students. “Is there some question?” he asked, just loud enough to be heard above the sound of the creek gushing in the darkness outside.
I bowed, hands together, and caught his eye.
“Hai?” he said, meaning yes.

“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” I said, “and I really love them, and they’re very inspiring, and I know that what you’re talking about is actually very clear and simple. But I must admit I just don’t understand. I love it, but I feel like I could listen to you for a thousand years and still not get it. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. He laughed. What a ludicrous question. I don’t think any of us expected him to answer it. He was not a man you could pin down, and he didn’t like to give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have “some idea” of what Buddhism was.

But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said,

“Everything changes.”

Then he asked for another question.

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