Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness
Shunryu Suzuki
University of California Press:
Berkeley, 1999
194 pp. (cloth), $22.50

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Since its publication in 1972, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s one slim volume, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, has provided the cleanest, simplest—and therefore perhaps, also the straightest—path to Zen. Now, more than a quarter century later, comes its welcome companion volume,Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Lectures on the Sandokai. Based on a series of talks Suzuki gave at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the summer of 1970, a year and a half before his death, the book is essentially an exegesis, or line-by-line commentary, of a text—in this case a particularly difficult one, the Sandokai, a poem written by the eighth century Zen master Sekito Kisen (Chin. Shitou Xiqian), which today forms an integral part of the Soto Zen liturgy.

The purpose of the Sandokai was to clear up a specious, if inevitable, doctrinal dispute that arose following the death of Eno, the Sixth Patriarch, over which was better, the Northern (gradual enlightenment) or Southern (sudden enlightenment) Schools of Zen. As Suzuki explains:

In China in Sekito’s time, Zen Buddhism was very polemical. In the background of the teaching there was always some controversy. There were many schools of Zen, and they were often lost in dispute. And because they were involved in ideas of right and wrong teaching, or traditional and heretical teaching, they lost the main point of their practice.

And what was that main point? As always when he is articulating the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, Suzuki is at his straightforward best:

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